The Irrelevance of Discourse: Liam Lynch and the Tightening of the Civil War, 1922-3 (Part VI)

A continuation of: The Treachery of Peace: Liam Lynch, Ernie O’Malley and the Politics of the Civil War, 1922 (Part V)

False Hope

It did not appear inevitable – even when the first of the 18-pound shells struck the embattled Four Courts – for the hostilities in Dublin to run over into a country-wide war. True, the capital remained a battleground, with the Irish Times telling of how its streets, a week after the hostilities had begun, “are still swept by sniper’s bullets and machine-gun fire, and the centre of the city is the scene of a heavy battle.”

Still, the newspaper did not think all this would amount to anything beyond a brief, limited affair. After all, the National Army could claim control of Mullingar, Athlone, Longford and Trim. The expected hotspots of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary remained demur, while the anti-Treaty posts in Drogheda and Donegal had fallen. As far as the Irish Times was concerned, the Free State had already won:

The moral effect of its success in Dublin will be incalculable, while the prestige and experience which has been gained by the Army will be valuable assets to the national cause. With remarkably few military causalities, the back of the stubborn rebellion has been broken, Ireland’s youthful Army has won its spurs.

Which is not to say the opposing side was entirely done. There were remnants of it yet in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street and the odd marksmen aiming down from the tops of buildings. Meanwhile, reports were had of more ‘Irregulars’ mustering southwards towards Blessington, Co. Wicklow. But what could these desperadoes really hope to achieve?

While these men may be able to embarrass the Government for a while by raids from the Dublin Mountains, they are not likely to constitute anything in the nature of a serious menace to the State. If there have been an attempt to bring about a general rising throughout the country, it has failed.

The Irregulars hold a few isolated positions, but the Government’s writ is running in every one of the twenty-six counties to-day.[1]

Dublin’s slow return to normality gave some credence to this upbeat forecast. Shops were reopening, food deliveries had resumed and workers could be seen returning to their offices. But, as it happened, the ‘rebellion’ had not been broken, its partisans remained as stubborn as before, and a fumbling National Army would struggle to keep a grip on the spurs it had only just earned.

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The ruined Four Courts

A Bloody Phoenix

By August, it was not clear if any writ by the Government was in effect even in its capital city. The Four Courts had fallen, with much of its garrison led off into captivity, but the conflict showed no signs of diminishing, merely shifting into a less tangible presence.

No longer would the Irish Republican Army (IRA) occupy buildings and provide big, convenient targets to be battered into submission by artillery. When the Anti-Treatyites fought back, it was with slower, more gradual methods, the sort that had served so well in the war against the British. For the past two and a half years, from the start of 1919 to the Truce of July 1921, the IRA had used the techniques of the guerrilla to fight Crown forces to a standstill. There no reason to believe they would be any less effective against the new, indigenous foe.

Such recovered elusiveness was displayed on the 1st August 1922, when several shots were fired at National Army men on duty outside the Four Courts Hotel at 10 pm. Almost an hour later, further shots were aimed at soldiers standing in Brunswick Street. None were injured but, despite vigorous searches, no one was arrested either. This method of surprise assaults, sprung almost simultaneously in separate parts of the city, was to be repeated over the subsequent weeks, to the point of becoming an IRA hallmark.[2]

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The Four Courts Hotel, Dublin

The night of the 1st September was only one such occasion, when attacks were launched on several different National Army patrols, between 10 and 12 pm. Soldiers stationed in the Technical School on Lower Kevin Street found themselves sniped at from nearby streets. The Four Courts Hotel was again raked with bullets from a machine-gun on the other side of the Liffey. One Pro-Treatyite was wounded, with another narrowly avoiding worse when his cap was struck off his head. At the same time, shots were made against the soldiers by City Hall.

In another part of the county that night, a small National Army guard in the schoolhouse at Rathfarnham managed to drive off an attack that lasted twenty minutes. The assailants paused in their retreat to set fire to the local police barracks. It was the second time the building had been so mistreated, the previous occasion being as part of the war against Britain. Other than that, the only causality in Rathfarnham was a wounded Pro-Treatyite unlucky enough to have been shot and wounded in the abdomen just before the assault began.

“Sniping occurred in other localities, and the shooting was continued until after 1 o’clock in the morning, when only spasmodic outbursts were heard,” reported the Irish Times. “The troops were very active in the streets, stopping and questioning those who were moving about late at night.”[3]

Explosions in the City

Active or not, such ex post facto searches were inadequate in preventing subsequent incidents. On the 13th September, at 3 pm, a bomb was thrown in the path of a lorry carrying National Army men as it drove along Eden Quay. Two of the Pro-Treatyites were reported to be slightly wounded in the blast, along with some unfortunate bystanders.

Later that day, a little after 6 pm, three more military lorries were passing by St Stephen’s Green West when some men who had been loitering behind the park railings pulled out pistols and opened fire. The mass of civilians fled for the shelter of nearby shops and laneways, the noise of the gunshots being briefly drowned out by the detonation of bombs cast into the fray.

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St Stephen’s Green West and North

It was later estimated that three such explosives were used altogether, one thrown by the group in St Stephen’s Green, the other two from a twin ambush party next to the College of Surgeons. Unscathed, the Free Staters leapt off their vehicles and gave chase through the greenery of the park, pursuing some if their fleeing assailants into Dawson Street and others to Lower Leeson Street. One ambusher was overtaken and arrested, the only other causality besides three civilians wounded in the mayhem.[4]

‘The Most Nerve-Racking Cork Has Experienced’

A similar picture was unfolding in Cork. Initially, Major-General Emmet Dalton had been pleasantly surprised at the lack of resistance when he led pro-Treaty forces into the city on the 10th August 1922. He felt confident enough to crow to his superiors that the enemy had been “crowded into positions of a barren nature and without a base for supplies.”[5]

Soon enough, however, Dalton, like countless conquerors before and since, was to find out that taking a place is quite different to holding it.

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Emmet Dalton

On the night of the 14th August, a number of bridges to the north and west of Cork City were destroyed under the cover of darkness. The IRA had been imitating a similar move on the 5th August by their Dublin comrades, although whereas the Dubliners had badly botched their operation, suffering heavy losses, the Corkonians had been far more successful.[6]

Twelve days later, the evening of the 26th was to be described by the Cork Examiner as “one of the most nerve-racking that Cork has experienced for quite a long time.” The sounds of revolvers and machine-guns reverberated through the streets, convincing many in the suburbs that a major battle was taking place in the urban centre. When morning came and the stock was taken of the situation, it was shown that the IRA, true to form, had been active at different points.

First attacked had been the old police barracks on College Road, the only such building not razed during the flight of the Anti-Treatyites from the city. Bombs had shattered the unprotected top-storey windows, the lower ones only surviving due to their steel shutters. But the besiegers had not had everything their own way, with four of their number captured when the garrison emerged in a surprise counter-attack.

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National Army soldiers by a barbed wire fence in Cork

No Speedy End

The next assault was on the train station at Albert Quay shortly after midnight. This was not the first time it had been shot at, having been the target of snipers before, but this was the most determined enfilade so far, as gunmen positioned in the ruins of City Hall and the Carnegie Library opened fire, to be returned by Pro-Treatyites from across the river.  The guerrillas pulled back but, as the Cork Examiner described:

…their retreat did not mean the end of the firing. Volley after volley rang out in various parts of the city later in the night, and it was assumed that small parties of irregulars and patrols of the National troops came into contact at many places during the early hours of the morning.[7]

Meanwhile, Cork’s most famous son, Michael Collins, was lying in state in Dublin, slain while driving out of his home county. There had been hopes among his colleagues, as Ernest Blythe described, “that the Civil War would speedily end as major resistance was broken.” Instead, the conflict began to resemble a lingering disease, one that the country could not quite shake off.[8]

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Michael Collins lying in state

The Free Staters achieved some success in Cork on the 2nd September, when a secret munitions factory was uncovered in a house on the corner of South Mall and Queen (now Father Matthew) Street. Bombs, ammunition and, most critically, the machinery with which to churn out more such munitions were found. While a blow had been struck against the insurgency, the very fact that the IRA had been able to set up such a factory in the heart of the city was an uncomfortable reminder of just how tenuous the Free State’s grip really was.[9]

Such a loss did little to hinder the Corkonian guerrillas as far as could be ascertained. On the 18th September, Moore’s Hotel was raked with machine-gun bullets from across the river. The Pro-Treatyites on duty returned shots with a heavy firearm of their own, the exchange lasting for five minutes, during which an elderly woman was struck eight times while sitting by a window. As she recovered in hospital, the wounds were judged to be superficial but the woman remained in critical condition, suffering from – unsurprisingly – shock.[10]

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Moore’s Hotel, Cork

‘No Zeal – No Dash’

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Richard Mulcahy

By early November 1922, Dalton was reporting to the Minister of Defence, General Richard, Mulcahy, that he was “beginning to lose hope…there is no zeal – no dash – no organisation or determination.”

Public support had waned to the point that Dalton believed there were more republicans in Cork than there had been during the June election. He blamed the lack of boots he had on the ground, citing how one could travel seventy or eighty miles through the county without coming across a single National Army man.

His warning to Mulcahy was stark: “In Cork, we are going to be beaten unless we wake up and at once.”

Dalton was suffering from morale problems of his own. He had left for Dublin in late September to be wed, returning to his command with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. November saw him abruptly handing in his resignation, leaving the top brass uncertain with whom to replace him. Two applicants were rejected in turn by the Cork officers, suspicious as they were of outsiders, with a third refusing the offer.[11]

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Caricature of Seán Ó Muirthile

The Quartermaster-General, Seán Ó Muirthile, finally agreed to take over in January 1923, albeit on a temporary basis. His reticence was understandable in light of how he had only narrowly avoided death the month before, when a grenade was thrown at his car in Dublin, hitting him on the head but rolling out of harm’s way before it could explode.[12]

Deadlocked

The war appeared to be at a stalemate, the Free State unable to deliver the killing wound, while the IRA lacked the strength and numbers to do more than chip at the new government. The impasse was threatening to drag both armies down into a morass of lethargy.

When Father Dominic O’Leary, a priest with republican sympathies, wrote to Ernie O’Malley in Dublin on the 12th September 1922, he told with some amazement about the large number of men he saw outside the recruitment office for the National Army on Brunswick Street. When asked, they had told the padre that since the war was as good as over in their view, they might as well sign up for pay at minimal risk.

Father O’Leary suggested to O’Malley that a few bullets be fired over their head to disabuse them of such blithe notions. If that failed, then some more shots, and not as a warning, were called for. “Why not fire, if we are in earnest?” the priest asked bitterly.[13]

Meanwhile, O’Leary said:

I am mixing with the people, our own people who are daily asking what is being done, with the enemy who are gloating that Dublin is finished and the rest of the country will soon be the same, with the members of the IRA who are ‘fed up’ with enforced idleness, with their dependants who make no complaint except that the boys are being arrested and are doing nothing, that the enemy and his spies are being allowed such latitude.[14]

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Ernie O’Malley

It was unlikely that O’Malley needed any backseat generals to point out how ‘fed up’ everyone was. He had been pushing for more aggressive tactics for some time but to no avail, stymied by his more cautious Chief of Staff, Liam Lynch, who preferred his warfare on the conservative side. “I believe more effectual activities can be carried out on the lines of the old guerrilla tactics,” Lynch wrote in reply to O’Malley’s impatience.[15]

O’Malley might have taken solace with how the other side was not faring much better. The promised wages that had tempted many into the National Army were frequently tardy. Much needed equipment also had the habit of not materialising.

One colonel admitted that the quarter-mastering “was simply diabolical…I had two enemies, one was the Irregulars and the other was the QMG [Quartermaster-General].” Soldiers resorted to dyeing their civilian clothes green for want of proper uniforms, or purchasing khaki cloth with which to make improvised uniforms.[16]

Radical Changes

This deadlock was recognised as such by the special correspondent for the Irish Times. Writing on the 20th September, he described how “ever since the radical change in strategy made by the irregulars in August it has been increasingly difficult for the national Army to strike any blow of immediate effect.”

The reverting by the IRA to guerrilla warfare – the change of strategy noted by the journalist – denied the Free State military the chance to bring its superior numbers and firepower to bear. Instead, its upper echelons had tried to adjust accordingly:

Faced by this change, the commanders of the National Army determined to adopt a plan of campaign which should have been suitable. Towns were garrisoned with posts of varying size to keep the irregulars from supplies, mobile columns organised to pursue the enemy in their fastness and “sweeps” organised to clear areas where the irregulars were dispersed in small bodies.

‘Should’ was the operative word here. Problems facing this bold innovation included the poor training and inexperience of many junior officers, compounded by insufficient transport for these proposed sweeps.[17]

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National Army soldiers -looking notably youthful – are offered cigarettes by helpful civilians

Fatigue increasingly plagued the pro-Treaty forces as well as the country as a whole. “We were losing the support of the people, our men were war weary and the going was too heavy for us,” remembered Padraig O’Connor, later the Director of Operations to the National Army. It was not until February 1923 that some semblance of order took shape but, until then, “our men had no grub, no uniforms and no pay.”[18]

Taking advantage of such disarray, anti-Treaty guerrillas were able to inflict a series of stinging defeats on their lumbering foes, culminating in the seizure of three barracks in rapid succession in Co. Kilkenny in December 1922. However satisfactory, such gains were nothing more than transient and did little to improve the IRA’s lot.

Todd Andrews had these small victories in mind in later years as he tried to make sense of where his side had gone so badly wrong. He could not help wondering if things would have been different if his fellow Anti-Treatyites had mustered several large commando teams with which to deliver a knock-out punch. True, “our morale was very low, but if we had the wit to realize it, the morale of the Free Staters, put to the test, was no better.” The rapid collapse of the National Army in Kilkenny was surely proof of that.[19]

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Free State soldiers on guard duty in Cork

But inertia was as much a danger as bullets and prison. Even areas where the Anti-Treatyites were strongest – namely Cork, Kerry and Tipperary – could not escape the creeping sense of helplessness as more and more high-ranking officers were lost to enemy raids. Though their vacant positions were filled readily enough, the hard-won knowledge these men had provided could not be so easily replaced.[20]

For a while, in the latter months of 1922 and early 1923, it seemed likely that the war would be decided by whichever side fell apart first.

Breaking Ranks

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Ernest Blythe

Such frustrations fed into the burgeoning hopes among both armies that they could escape the quagmire they were in via the much less painful method of negotiation. But, as far as many in the Free State Government was concerned, however, such consideration was at best wishful thinking, at worst defeatism. Blythe recalled how:

Individual Commanders in various areas, instead of pursing the war with full vigour as they ought to have done, were inclined to try to make contact with their opposite numbers and enter upon discussion. This seems to have extended, with the exception of a few higher officers, right through the top ranks of the Army.

It got to the point that the Cabinet had to hold a meeting to rule out even the thought of negotiations. There would be no further dialogue with the Anti-Treatyites save when it came to accepting their surrender. The National Army from now on would throw its energy towards final victory – at least, in theory.

At a subsequent Cabinet session, the Minister of Defence, Mulcahy, tried to open with an awkward joke: “Let everyone put his gun on the table.”

Perhaps such an attempt at humour was a disguise for nerves. As Ernest Blythe sat at the opposite end of the table, waiting for the last of his colleagues to straggle in late, he was curious as to what Mulcahy had to say that was so important to call this urgent meeting.

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Free State Provisional Government Cabinet meeting, 1922 – W.T. Cosgrave at the head of the table, with Ernest Blythe to the right, and Michael Collins leaning over the table

Mulcahy proceeded to inform them that he had made arrangements some time ago to meet de Valera. This had been before the Cabinet decided against any further tête-à-têtes with the enemy. Mulcahy had been present when the choice was made. He had apparently agreed in full, only to go straight out of the Government building and into his car, to the rendezvous with Éamon de Valera as originally intended.

Mulcahy gave an outline of the forbidden talk, though most of the room was too shocked to pay much attention. When Mulcahy finished, there was only an uncomfortable silence. “All of us realised that the only thing that it was proper to say was that General Mulcahy must hand in his resignation,” as Blythe remembered.

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W.T. Cosgrave

But given that the Government was on a war footing, with none of them besides Mulcahy knowing much about military matters, nobody felt confident in taking such a step. Mercifully, President W.T. Cosgrave broke the oppressive silence with a curt “That’s all” and left the room, followed by the rest of his Cabinet.

Nothing else was said. Mulcahy never entirely recovered his standing in the Cabinet, at least not where Blythe was concerned. “Personally, I may say that the whole incident affected my mind very deeply in regard to General Mulcahy, and I never had full confidence in him afterwards.”[21]

Striking a Bargain

Within the upper echelons of the other side, there were similar thoughts and fancies towards sidestepping the need for further violence. On the 28th September, Con Moloney, the Adjutant General to the IRA Executive, took the daring step of posing to his colleagues a pair of questions that many of them must surely have pondered already, if not quite so openly: “Will or can the enemy beat us? Can we beat the enemy?”

The answers to both, in Moloney’s estimate, was an emphatic ‘no’.

What then, he asked, was the alternative? For now, the IRA had to maintain a steady course until the Free Staters were willing to talk. At which point, Moloney wrote: “We will be able to strike a hard bargain.”

Anticipating the outcries, Moloney took a suitably no-nonsense tone: “There is no use blinding ourselves to the past. Negotiations are bound to come sooner or later.” For Moloney’s part, he would be in favour of ending the war under the following guarantees:

  • Any future Ministers of Defence to be nominees of the reunited Army.
  • The Chief of Staff to be elected by a convention, where attendance would be restricted to IRA members from before the 1921 Truce.
  • The Army to be controlled by an Executive and an Army Council, both bodies also to be elected at conventions.
  • The Executive to have the right to declare war and peace. The Government could also exercise these same powers but subject to approval of the Executive.[22]

All the talk of conventions was a throwback to the months preceding the Civil War, when the anti-Treaty IRA had displayed their independence in the holding of three such gatherings, where issues had been debated without outside interference or supervision. What Moloney equated to a ‘hard bargain’ would be in effect a surrender by the other side. After all, the Free State was not waging a war in order to submit itself to the dictates of its own military.

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Liam Lynch

In contrast, Liam Lynch made plain his preference for the simpler, might-makes-right approach. “At present it is a waste of time to be thinking too much about policy,” he told Liam Deasy, one of his closest confidants, in early September. “We should strike our hardest for some time, and this would make the question of policy easier to settle.”[23]

Unlike Moloney, Lynch had little faith in the prospect of talks. Much had already been suggested by one party or another and none had amounted to anything. When Éamon de Valera was making his way to see Deasy in Co. Cork in late August 1922, Lynch sent a dispatch ahead to warn Deasy not to encourage the other man in any of his schemes on how best to end the war, ideas that Lynch clearly had not the faintest interest in.[24]

Lynch had not always thought that way. Even after the assault on the Four Courts, Lynch had nurtured the hope that the Pro-Treatyites could be made to see reason. Only after the ceasefire in Limerick he had helped sign was thrown on the scrapheap by the Free State was he convinced that this would be a fight to the finish. It was a course he would remain on unswervingly, taking with him the rest of his army for as long as he drew breath.[25] 

Still, he did nothing to reprimand Moloney. Neither did he discourage the possibility of negotiations – for now.

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IRA man poses in the hills with his Tommy machine gun

Meeting the Enemy

Colonel Tom Ennis and Captain Charles Russell, both senior officers in the National Army, had already cut striking figures in the conflict. The latter had flown a Bristol fighter plane over the town of Buttevant, Co. Cork, while using a machine-gun to strafe an enemy-occupied house, swooping low enough for the return bullets to pierce his airplane.[26]

As for Ennis, he had led the first of the National Army soldiers into Cork City on the August 1922, brushing aside the few IRA defenders on the way. Ennis proved as chivalrous as he was formidable, as his subsequent refusal to have any prisoners executed, in defiance of Free State policy, ensured that Cork would remain unsullied by this grim measure.[27]

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Tom Ennis (left), posing with another National Army officer

Ennis was thus a fitting choice to play peacemaker. He had tried before, while assisting his then-commanding officer, Emmet Dalton, shortly after their capture of Cork. But this initiative had fallen through due to the insistence by the Free Staters on an unconditional surrender. When Deasy reported this to his Chief of Staff, Lynch did not doubt that the two men had been acting on their Government’s orders but was baffled as to why they did not contact him directly, the idea that anything could be accomplished outside the proper chain of command being anathema to him.[28]

By the time of another outreach attempt on the 13th October 1922, Ennis was feeling more broadminded. After being given safe passages, Deasy and Tom Barry drove to a neutral house near Crookstown, Co. Cork, to meet Ennis and Russell (there was no mention of any involvement by Dalton this time). An IRA intelligence officer, Seán Hyde, accompanied the other two Anti-Treatyites. Later appointed the O/C of the Western Command, Hyde would furnish Lynch with the sort of overly optimistic reports that Deasy blamed for feeding Lynch’s misplaced determination to fight on.[29]

As well as the four military men, Father Tom Duggan was present at the talks. Liked and trusted by both sides in the Treaty divide, the priest would continue to play a prominent – and, for Lynch, largely unwelcome – role in subsequent peace attempts. Such talks would become a taboo subject with Lynch, who did his utmost to stamp them out, convinced that they were a detriment to morale. For the moment, however, he was content to grant the authorisation to give them a chance.

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Father Tom Duggan

The meeting did not enjoy the most amiable of starts. Deasy began by telling the Free State pair that tempers were running hot on his side due to the legislation being put through the Dáil, establishing military courts with the power of execution for unauthorised possession of arms, a move clearly aimed at POWs. Such was the mood of the Anti-Treatyites, Deasy warned, that they had decided on reprisals against those held responsible.

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Execution by firing squad (staged) by the National Army

Despite this sobering opening, the rest of the talks were conducted in a friendly manner. When it was time to depart, the opposing sides did so in good spirits, Russell taking the time afterwards to drive the two enemy envoys through the Free State sentries.[30]

A Role for Politics?

Another question to consider was where Éamon de Valera fitted in. Joseph O’Connor had already conferred on the matter with the former President of Dáil Éireann at the outbreak of the war in the former’s York Street headquarters. While the battle enfolded in the city centre, O’Connor, an officer in the Dublin IRA as well as part of the IRA Executive, tried persuading de Valera of the political and propaganda benefits if:

They could set up a Republican Committee to take the benefit of the Army successes and force them on the attention of the ordinary people. This, I was sure, would be good for the Nation and the fighting men.

De Valera was not so sure. He understood enough about the Executive to know that the IRA officers making it up would resent an interloper like him. He eventually agreed to give O’Connor’s notion a try, or at least bring it to the attention of the other anti-Treaty leaders who were holed up in the Hammam Hotel on Sackville Street. O’Connor gave him a guide to help him through the Free State cordon to the Hammam.

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Wreckage of the Hamman Hotel, Sackville Street

“I never heard what happened to the proposal, nor how it was received,” O’Connor later wrote. He was not too concerned, sure as he was that all the IRA had to do was press on and the Pro-Treatyites would come to their senses. When that did not happen, it was decided that the Dubliners should abandon their posts and revert to the old methods of insurgency. “What a pity it was that we lost those few first days in Dublin!” O’Connor later complained.

At first, it was hoped that they could keep the Free Staters confined to the city. When that too did not come to pass, and the IRA elsewhere in the country went on the defensive, O’Connor feared that the Republic would be lost without a means to rally the masses to its cause.

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Éamon de Valera

He saw a chance when he received word that Lynch had called for a session of the Executive, set to take place in Tipperary town in October 1922. O’Connor had been pressing de Valera to take up the political reins as they had discussed before. For hours at a house in Stillorgan, he entreated de Valera to find some kind of formula they could use, but to little avail. Pulling on his overcoat as he prepared to leave, O’Connor implored the other man to give the question some further thought.

Over the Galtees

They met again in Upper Mount Street, just before O’Connor set off for Tipperary, and de Valera handed him some proposals:

These followed the original lines – the political party accepting responsibility for all matters outside the actual direction of the fighting forces in the field; the Army Authorities to work in conjunction with the elected republican representatives and to give them the full co-operation in maintaining the freedom of our whole country.

Pleased, O’Connor promised he would deliver these to the Executive. Travelling by train to Limerick Junction, he walked the rest of the three miles to Tipperary town. Arriving at the safe-house prepared in advance, he learnt that the meeting had been postponed due to the presence of the enemy who were housed in the town’s barracks, a stone’s throw away from where O’Connor was staying. The Anti-Treatyites were having to survive while cheek-by-jowl to those who would capture or kill them on sight.

He whiled away the time, staring idly into the barrack square, until being picked up that night by two others who were to guide him to the new meeting place in the Glen of Aherlow. As they crossed the Galtee Mountains, a sudden fog forced them to wait until it cleared. When it did, “we got a beautiful view of the Golden Vale. It was surely a land worth fighting for.”[31]

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The Galtee Mountains

O’Connor arrived to find a number of his colleagues already there. That he was wearing a hard hat in the mountains struck them as hilariously incongruous. When Lynch appeared, the others noticed that their Chief of Staff had lost weight, his normally thin face bonier than ever.[32]

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P.J. Ruttledge

Lynch had come by pony and trap, accompanied by P.J. Ruttledge, the Vice O/C for the IRA Western Command. They also encountered the thick mist on the way. “We couldn’t see the road over the mountains,” Ruttledge wrote. “Sometimes we were on it, other times not. We half walked, half wandered.”

En route, the two men had passed through Carlow. When the senior IRA officer there asked what they would do if stopped by a Free State patrol, Lynch had pulled out a gun in response. “I’ll know what I’ll say,” he said.[33]

The Executive Meets

That display of bravado seemed to set the tone for the subsequent gathering. Spread out over the course of two days, the 16th and 17th October 1922, the sessions of the IRA Executive were notable in the steely determination on display. Indeed, to an onlooker, it might have appeared that the Civil War had already been won and all that was left was the settling of affairs, with a confident eye to the future.

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Eoin O’Duffy

First on the agenda was the defence of Lynch’s good name, an issue on which Lynch seemed incapable of moving past. Acting as chairman, he explained to the others how he had been brought before Eoin O’Duffy immediately after the attack on the Four Courts, a little under four months ago.

This interview with the enemy general had been used to cast him “in a very dishonourable light by Free State propaganda”, which alleged that Lynch had talked himself out of imprisonment by promising to remain neutral. When the war was over, Lynch assured his audience, he would insist on the event being properly examined.

That he would be in a position to demand anything was taken for granted. In any case, the topic moved on to one more useful: the results of the talk Deasy and Barry had had with the two National Army representatives. There, Captain Russell had proposed:

  1. The disbandment of both armies.
  2. A formation of a Volunteer Army under an agreed Independent Executive, whose officers would be pledged to force the Government to delete the more objectionable elements from the Free State Constitution within a stated time.
  3. The new Army to be servants of the Government only in so far as the better governing of the country was concerned, e.g. law and order.
  4. No further Minister of Defence.
  5. In place of the aforementioned Minister, a staff commander would liaison with the Government when necessary.
  6. A police force to be modelled on the Canadian system, as in one man appointed in each town who could call on the civil population for assistance if need’s be.

(The last point was something of an oddity. It may have been influenced by memories of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and perhaps by a desire not to follow in the footsteps of the Free State in its attempt at a centralised police force of its own.)

Russell had told Barry and Deasy that, upon his return to Dublin, he would present these proposals to Mulcahy as the Minister of Defence. If this failed, he promised to agitate for defections among like-minded souls in the National Army.

Notably, this last part of Russell’s – “to leave the Free State Army” – was crossed out by Lynch in the Executive minutes and replaced with “to force the issue with M/D [Minister of Defence]”. Lynch had striven to keep the IRA intact in the months before the Civil War, and it seems that he remained true to this principle even now. Any new army would come as a whole, not fractured, one.[34] 

The hope that the Free State would simply cave in on itself was nurtured among its opponents, particularly when victory by any other means had become distinctly unlikely. Even the Eeyore-ish Liam Deasy, looking on gloomily as the war effort collapsed around him, had dared to believe that “the separatist element in the Free State Army…would see the futility of reimposing English domination, what many of them had fought to break.”[35]

Pledging Support

Following points discussed by the Executive in reference to Russell’s proposals were:

  1. The Army to be reorganised to how it had been prior to the signing of the Treaty in December 1921.
  2. A Provisional Executive, pending the appointment of an Executive at the annual convention.
  3. The Constitution must be formed so as to definitely exclude Ireland from the British Empire [in other words, the negation of the Treaty].
  4. The Army was to be the servant of the Government only in so far as the better governing of the country was concerned.
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Tom Derrig

The second day was spent mostly on fine-tuning what had already been laid down. An Army Council was formed, headed by Lynch (as Chief of Staff) and made up of Ernie O’Malley (Acting Assistant Chief of Staff), Liam Deasy (Deputy Chief of Staff), Tom Derrig (Assistant Adjutant General) and Frank Aiken, the only one of them not present that day. This body was empowered by the rest of the Executive to discuss terms of peace in so much that would not bring Ireland back into the British Empire.

What to do with the instruments of the Free State was also discussed. As for the fledgling police force in the form of the Civic Guard, it was decided to postpone any definite decision until more was known about it. The same went for the magistrates and civil administration, which could still be of some use. The newly found, if outlandish, interest in the Canadian way of policing was put on the backburner – for good, as it turned out, as it was never raised again.

Another proposal from Moloney – though presumably O’Connor had talked to him about it beforehand – urged, on behalf of the Executive, for the absent de Valera to form a government, one which would preserve the continuity of the Republic:

We pledge this Government our whole-hearted support and allegiance while it functions as the Government of the Republic, and we empower it to make an arrangement with the Free State Government, or with the British Government provided such arrangement does not bring the country in to the British Empire.

In case anyone was unclear as to who would be calling the shots: “Final decision on this question to be submitted for ratification to the Executive.”

De Valera’s response to receiving this warning – thinly masked as a conditional promise that his army partners would follow any new government of his for as long as he did what he was told – could only be imagined.

At least he would be free to choose his cabinet, which would be little more than a government-in-exile for as long as the current circumstances persisted. It was also window-dressing, a façade of constitutional respectability over the hard truth that power in the anti-Treaty camp rested in its military which, for all its talk of acting as the servant, had no intention of being anything other than the master.

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IRA soldiers in Grafton Street, Dublin, 1922

Custodians of the Republic

A proclamation was next issued, blaming the current disorder on those public representatives who had, last December, voted for the Treaty and, in doing so, “violated their pledge and their oaths.” Under such circumstances, there was only one thing to be done:

WE, on behalf of the soldiers of the Republic in concert with such faithful members of DÁIL ÉIREANN, as are at liberty, acting in the spirit of our Oath as the final custodians of the Republic, have called upon the former President, Éamon de Valera, to resume the Presidency, and to form a Government which shall preserve inviolate the sacred trust of National Sovereignty and Independence.[36]

The words ‘junta’ or ‘military dictatorship’ were never uttered. Quite likely, such terms never occurred to the men present. As far as they were concerned, they were merely custodians. Any power they had invested in themselves was for the purpose of righting a wrong, of forcing a wayward civil government back on the only true path it could take.

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Liam Lynch

Yet a junta or a dictatorship was exactly what would have happened had Lynch had had his way.

Even before the outbreak of the civil war, when it seemed likely that the two opposing IRA factions would be reunite under a GHQ consisting men from both sides – an arrangement very similar to what had been proposed at the Executive meeting – Lynch had shown hints of a budding autocrat. According to Ruttledge, Lynch had:

…thought that whatever job he was offered on the composite staff, that if he got it, he would be able to control the army. He was very persistent in his belief.[37]

As for the proposals put forward by Ennis and Russell, there is no evidence that they were ever read, let alone considered, by anyone in the Free State and certainly not by anyone of importance. That such a conciliatory attempt ever happened remains nothing more than a historical curiosity, a tease for the battered Anti-Treatyites that victory and salvation might just be around the corner.

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National Army soldiers

Ernie O’Malley

For all the self-congratulation, at least two Executive members left the meeting distinctly unimpressed.

To O’Malley, all the talking had done was expose the lack of any coherent strategy besides waiting for success to fall into their laps. In practical terms, O’Malley knew, this would amount to being worn down and picked off piecemeal.

Not that he had much better to contribute. His suggestion for the Munster men to form motorised columns – much like he had done in the first week of the war – with which to attack enemy posts was clearly fantastical, given the paucity of even basic resources for the Anti-Treatyites. Resigned, O’Malley returned to a Dublin that was becoming increasingly fraught with enemy raids and searches.[38]

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Ernie O’Malley

Despite his disappointment, O’Malley remained as committed to the war as before. He and Lynch may have differed on many points, but not that key one. If nothing else, he had found the Executive get-together useful as a talking shop.

“You may remember that you promised to forward me particulars with regard to the manufacture of Smoke Grenades when I was at the Executive meeting,” O’Malley wrote to Deasy on the 26th October. O’Malley also wanted information from Deasy on incendiary grenades. “I think there should be a regular exchange of ideas on this subject,” he said.[39]

Liam Deasy

Deasy, on the other hand, had already drawn the conclusion that the war was as good as lost. As he studied the performance of Munster units he oversaw as O/C of the First Southern Division, mulling over the mess they were in:

It appeared to me then that no real resistance was being offered to the Free State Army, apart from the Second Kerry and Fifth Cork Brigades and that we could never achieve anything we hoped for. Despite all this, Lynch was entirely unmoved in his steady determination to continue the fight.

Lynch, in Deasy’s opinion, put far too much stock in the reports he received, many of which told him only what he wanted to believe. If only Lynch had seen more of the areas he was reading about, Deasy thought, and met the officers on the ground, he might have developed a more realistic view of what was possible – and what was not.

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IRA members

But this still might not have been enough, Deasy concluded: “[Lynch] was however, so set on victory that I doubt even this would have changed his thinking.” Deasy could not help but admire him all the same. His commander was “to the very end an idealist with the highest principles as his guide and it was not in his nature to surrender or to compromise. He ultimately gave his life for those principles.”[40]

Whatever his growing doubts about the war, Deasy had none in regards to Lynch’s leadership, being content at least to follow him as ardently as ever. Lynch had reciprocated such fealty when he made Deasy his Deputy Chief of Staff. It was a trust that was to be severely shaken.[41]

Tipperary

Deasy
Liam Deasy

After leaving the Executive meeting, Deasy took command of his new post, near Tincurry, Co. Tipperary. In addition to his duties as Deputy Chief of Staff, Deasy was also to take charge of a newly-formed division, the First Western, encompassing all of Munster, along with Kilkenny, Wexford, Offaly and Laois. He was keen to make contact with the units of the last two counties as he knew very little about them.[42]

With this in mind, he set off towards North Tipperary. The sunshine that day was unusually bright for November, not that he had time to appreciate it, being forced to avoid the main roads and even the secondary ones, going cross-country instead, such were the frequency of Free State patrols.

He made it to Boherlahan at dusk, just when two enemy lorries were passing through, forcing him to vault over a wall. Reaching Kilcommon, Deasy, who had been on the move for the past fortnight, covering in his estimate a hundred and forty miles on foot, finally had the chance to sleep soundly in the safe-house for the night.

Executions

He was also able to make contact with Paddy Lacken, the O/C of the North Tipperary Brigade. Lacken was the rare case of an officer for that area still at liberty, most of the others being in jail, leaving North Tipperary essentially dormant. The territory from Nenagh to the Offaly border was in Free State hands, as was East and Mid-Limerick.

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National Army soldiers

It was a depressing, if not wholly unexpected, picture, one that did not improve when Lacken took Deasy in a pony trap to Toomevara for a rendezvous with some officers from Offaly and Laois who, after two days of waiting, never appeared.

Deasy could only conclude that they had been captured. He stoically accepted this likelihood before withdrawing from the plains of Toomevara for the relative safety of the Tipperary hills, developing a chest complaint on the way. Lacken took charge, leading Deasy to the home of a friend of his on the southern slopes of Slieve Felin, arriving there safely despite the thick fog which would at least deter hostile search parties.

Deasy was recovering at this house when Lacken arrived, during a break in the mist, with a copy of that day’s newspaper. To his horror, Deasy read how two Dáil deputies, Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille, had been ambushed in Dublin on the 7th December, with the former slain and the other wounded in a hail of bullets.

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Seán Hales in a photograph taken shortly before he was shot

The following day, in retaliation, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett were taken from their cells in Mountjoy Prison, where they had been held since the fall of the Four Courts. They were then executed by firing squad.

Deasy had known all the victims, being particularly close to Hales and Barrett. His already fragile health crumbling further, he slipped into a black despair, spending a sleepless night trying to figure out where everything had gone so horribly wrong.[43]

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(left to right) Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barrett

The Republican Itch

The week crawled by with excruciating slowness. By the 14th December, Deasy, believing he was well enough to leave his sickbed, arranged with Lacken to depart the next morning. He was undressing for bed when he saw the first symptoms of scabies on his thighs. His condition had worsened by the morning, with his skin opening all over, blood and pus oozing out of the cracks.

The faithful Lacken helped him to a nearby doctor who bandaged the affected flesh, allowing him at least to travel, albeit gingerly, in a pony and trap. Crossing the Galtees, Deasy spent the next three weeks in bed, the scabies having spread throughout his whole body. His misery was alleviated somewhat by a female member of the family he was staying with. A trained nurse, she helped to apply the necessary bandages.

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Scabies-infected skin

Visitors from the Tipperary IRA such as Con Moloney, Dan Breen and Bill Quirke kept him abreast of news, not that there was much to report. By early January, Deasy had recovered to again set forth, assisted this time by Quirke, to south Kilkenny.[44]

Passing through the area, Deasy and Quirke could not help but notice how many of the Anti-Treatyites there had been captured, forcing the pair to rely less on local guides and more on their own wits. They neared the house at Cloggan where they were due to meet Seán Lehane, the commander of the Wexford IRA, and almost walked into a trap.

End of the Road

Lehane and his staff had been arrested in a raid on their Wexford headquarters a few days earlier. Found on them were dispatches about the upcoming get-together at Cloggan. National Army soldiers were lying in wait when one of the few IRA officers still at large, Ted Moore, was able to warn Deasy and Quirke in time.

As they doubled back, Moore mapped out a route for the two others to take. On a bright moonlight night, the duo said their goodbyes to Moore before a boatman ferried them over the Suir River. After spending a night with one of Quirke’s friends in the area, they continued on to the Nire Valley in west Waterford. Free State patrols were by now a common threat and, while Quirke was hopeful that Moore would continue to do his bit, Deasy inwardly wrote off Kilkenny and Waterford.[45]

They had reached the last stage of the return journey to Tincurry. Acutely aware of the dangers of discovery by one of the enemy search parties, Deasy and Quirke agreed to separate. Deasy retreated to a friendly house on a hillside of the Galtees and, worn out from the week of punishing cross-country travel, slept soundly.

Later, he would at least have the consolation that Quirke had managed to escape.

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National Army patrol

He was awoken by the owner of the house, who informed him that the building was surrounded by Free Staters, some of whom were already inside. It took a few seconds for this to sink in and then Deasy was aware of a green-coated figure at the foot of his bed with a revolver.

Ernie O’Malley had faced a similar choice when cornered in Dublin two months ago. Unlike O’Malley, Deasy decided against a shootout that could only end one way.

More soldiers entered. After giving their captive time to dress, they searched the room. A resigned Deasy looked on as they found the loaded revolver under his pillow and the spare rounds of ammunition inside his trousers’ pocket. Not a word was said or needed to be, as all of them, Deasy included, knew what this meant. At least he was allowed a cup of tea and slice of bread before being marched off to Cahir.[46]

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The Cahir House Hotel, next to where Deasy was imprisoned

The subsequent court-martial on the 25th January passed by in a blur. Deasy remained mute as the charge of possessing an unlicensed firearm was read out by the prosecuting officer, who finished by asking for the maximum penalty. The court agreed, and the sentence of death was pronounced, to be carried out the following morning.[47]

To be continued in: The Weakness of Conviction: The End of Liam Lynch in the Civil War, 1923 (Part VII)

References

[1] Irish Times, 05/07/1922

[2] Ibid, 16/08/1922

[3] Ibid, 02/09/1922

[4] Ibid, 14/09/1922

[5] Hopkinson, Michael. Green Against Green: A History of the Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988), p. 201

[6] Cork Examiner, 16/08/1922

[7] Ibid, 28/08/1922

[8] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), p. 181

[9] Cork Examiner, 02/09/1922

[10] Ibid, 19/09/1922

[11] Hopkinson, pp. 201-3

[12] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 279

[13] Ibid, p. 176

[14] Ibid, pp. 177-8

[15] Ibid, p. 82

[16] Hopkinson, p. 137

[17] Irish Times, 20/09/1922

[18] O’Connor, Diarmuid and Connolly, Frank. Sleep Soldier Sleep: The Life and Times of Padraig O’Connor ([Kildare]: Miseab Publications, 2011), p. 131

[19] Andrews, C.S., Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 273

[20] Breen, Dan (BMH / WS 1763), p. 141

[21] Blythe, pp. 181-3

[22] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 235

[23] Hopkinson, p. 134

[24] Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 76

[25] Ibid, p. 74

[26] Irish Times, 15/08/1922

[27] Hopkinson, p. 202

[28] Deasy, p. 83

[29] Ibid, pp. 75, 83

[30] Ibid, pp. 83-4 ; Irish Independent, 17/06/1935

[31] O’Connor, Joseph (BMH / WS 544), pp. 14-9

[32] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 216-7

[33] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Keane, Vincent) The Men Will Talk to Me: Mayo Interviews (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014), p. 273

[34] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 494-5

[35] Irish Times, 09/02/1923

[36] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 495-6

[37] O’Malley, The Men Will Talk to Me, p. 272

[38] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 217, 220-1

[39] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 297

[40] Deasy, pp. 73, 96-7

[41] Ibid, p. 85

[42] Ibid, pp. 84-5

[43] Ibid, pp. 88-93, 95

[44] Ibid, pp. 97-9

[45] Ibid, pp. 100, 103-6

[46] Ibid, p. 108

[47] Ibid, pp. 110-1

Bibliography

Books

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

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

Hopkinson, Michael. Green Against Green: A History of the Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988)

O’Connor, Diarmuid and Connolly, Frank. Sleep Soldier Sleep: The Life and Times of Padraig O’Connor ([Kildare]: Miseab Publications, 2011)

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 (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Keane, Vincent) The Men Will Talk to Me: Mayo Interviews (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014)

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

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Irish Times

 Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Breen, Dan, WS 1763

O’Connor, Joseph, WS 544

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A Prominent Republican Leader: The Trials and Tribulations of Seán McGarry, 1913-1919 (Part I)

Who?

The Robert Emmet Commemoration Concert was announced for the 4th March 1919, to be held in the Mansion House, Dublin. Posters advertised the event with the promise of a special – but unnamed – star attraction:

AN ADDRESS WILL BE GIVEN BY

A PROMINENT REPUBLICAN LEADER.

WHO?

The concert organisers played their cards close to their chests, letting only a select few know the identity of the mystery guest. After the first part of the performance, it was announced by Diarmuid O’Hegarty that the promised oration was about to commence in the Round Room, to be presided over by Seán Ó Muirthile.

That both O’Hegarty and Ó Muirthile were high-ranking members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the secret society dedicated to freedom for Ireland, was no coincidence. This was to be more than a celebration of a long-dead patriot but a defiant clenching of the fist by living ones.

Even if unaware of all this, the guests could not have failed to note the presence of the Irish Volunteers, acting as stewards for the event. Some of them had been ordered to carry revolvers, although presumably not openly, this being an event to enjoy, after all.

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Round Room, Mansion House, 1975

As the advertised ‘prominent Republican leader’ prepared to make his entrance, Volunteers took up duty by the doors. One of them, Michael Lynch, remembered the anticipation:

One could feel the air of expectancy in the vast audience. From the supper-room, at the rere [sic] of the round room, came the sound of a pipers’ band tuning up. After a few minutes, the doors of the supper-room were thrown open and the pipers’ band came in, making a most infernal noise.[1]

In the middle of the band, dressed in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers, was Seán McGarry. As soon as he was recognised, the crowd broke out into a rapturous outburst of cheers, clapping and whistling loud enough to drown out the ‘infernal noise’ of the band. For who could fail to appreciate the pluck and daring of the man who had, along with others, broken out of an English jail a mere month and a day ago?

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Seán McGarry, police mugshot

Ability, Tact and Discretion

McGarry walked on stage “rather shyly,” according to Lynch, understandably so, given the attention being heaped on him. Sharing the platform was Ó Muirthile and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Laurence O’Neill, bedecked in his chain of office. There the three of them stood for many minutes until the cheering had died down enough for Ó Muirthile to begin.

He introduced McGarry – rather unnecessarily by this point – and said that if the true story of his escape was told, it would shatter all the ones they had been reading in the newspapers.

“At any rate,” Ó Muirthile continued, “he is here, and he has not been brought here by any of the methods that have been described in the Press for the past few days. He is here, owing in the ability, tact, and discretion of the men who are leading the Irish Republican Army.”

Then it was the turn of the Lord Mayor. He stood before them, he said, in the full adornment of his office to honour this latest fugitive from British injustice. He was there because a solemn and imperative duty demanded him to be there, first to tender a hearty welcome to his colleague, Councillor Seán McGarry, to the Mansion House.

And he was there to show his utter contempt, a contempt which was shared in every liberty-loving man and woman the whole world over, for a Government which detained in English jails so many of his fellow countrymen without any trial, without any charge, at the expense of the fundamental principles of liberty, justice and fair play.

(O’Neill was far less amenable when he wrote about the event several years later. He had worn his chain of office in honour of Robert Emmet, not McGarry whose appearance had been sprung on him at the last second. A consummate professional, O’Neill had nonetheless carried on with the show.)

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Laurence O’Neill (centre) between Éamon de Valera (left) and Michael Collins (right)

Homecoming

Now it was finally time for McGarry to deliver his much hyped oration. What it was, Lynch could not recall, not that it mattered much. It was enough for McGarry to have appeared in public and give lie to the claims of the British Government that not one of its former prisoners had made it back to Ireland.

Whatever McGarry said, it was received with “great enthusiasm,” according to the Irish Times. The Irish Independent said even less, reporting in detail on Ó Muirthile’s and O’Neill’s words but nothing about McGarry speaking at all. For all the stir he caused, McGarry emerged from his own performance as little more than a prop for a piece of theatre.

But then, perhaps as Lynch suggested, it did not matter all that much in the end.

The Volunteers on the doors were ordered to bar everyone from leaving or using the phones while the speeches were going on. Trust was evidently a limited commodity. The Lord Mayor was among those blocked but made light of the inconvenience, quipping that he could not move in his own house.

As soon as McGarry was done, he was whisked out of the building by an escort of Volunteers and taken to Molesworth Street where a car was waiting, not to mention a large force of policemen and detectives, no doubt alerted by the gathering nearby. Nonetheless, perhaps deterred by the bodyguards, the police did not interfere as McGarry was taken to the car and driven away. The Volunteers returned to the concert which, by all accounts, continued to be a great success.[2]  

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Mansion House, 1921

The Men Behind the Man

Seán McGarry was no newcomer to Irish Republicanism. Born in 1886, in Dundrum, Co. Dublin, the son of a letter carrier, he worked as an electrician while a key operative in the planning of the Howth gunrunning and then later the Easter Rising.

Unfortunately, he wrote no memoir and gave little about himself in his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement (leaving it to others to tease out some details on his activities), preferring instead to focus on his mentor within the IRB, Tom Clarke.

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Tom Clarke

McGarry first met the veteran Fenian in 1907 shortly after the latter’s return to Ireland. He was to provide no details on the circumstances – as if the years spent in the shadows and silences of a secret society had sapped his ability to be too forthcoming – only that he had been expecting a venerable elder, aged by many years in prison but finding instead one with the demeanour and enthusiasm of someone much younger. McGarry quickly became one of Clarke’s staunchest followers, a “right-hand man” in the words of another IRB member.[3]

Another IRB organiser to whom McGarry was close was Seán Mac Diarmada. They had known each other since 1906-7 when they had belonged to the Dungannon Club in Belfast, one of the few times McGarry ventured out of the Dublin orbit.[4]

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Seán Mac Diarmada

In general, McGarry served as a go-between and emissary. The future Chief Justice of Ireland, Tim Sullivan, received a visit from McGarry in 1915 while the former was working as a barrister. McGarry had been sent by Mac Diarmada on behalf of a Volunteer arrested for illegal possession of arms and explosives.

As instructed, McGarry offered Sullivan a hundred guineas on his brief. Sullivan stared hard at his visitor, saying: “In my opinion, you boys are Fenians.”

True to his membership of a secret society, McGarry said nothing. Correctly taking the silence as an assent, Sullivan then agreed to take on the case, waiving aside his usual fee (the defendant was later acquitted).[5]

A Day Out in Howth

On the 25th July 1914, a message was sent to several IRB initiates (who doubled as Irish Volunteers) to meet McGarry that day at Nelson’s Pillar. None of the four men who came knew what was to be expected of them but waited all the same until McGarry arrived. When the others inquired further, he politely told them to mind their own business.

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Nelson’s Column

The group drove to Amiens Street Station where McGarry purchased five tickets for Howth. They arrived in the harbour at 4 pm, where McGarry told them to go to the end of the East Pier while he waited by the station. The four others did so, and McGarry later rejoined then at the Pier, accompanied by a middle-aged fisherman in a blue jersey and a peaked cap.

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Howth Harbour

The hoary sea dog bluntly told them that their request to do a spot of fishing was impossible given the rough weather. After some arguing on the matter, McGarry walked away with the fisherman, still arguing, but it seems to have been resolved when McGarry returned to the others after a short while. If he could get a boat, he asked them, would they be willing to venture out on it – a reasonable question as it was raining hard with high winds and rough waters.

Undeterred, the men voiced their assent. McGarry finally told them what was going on – they were to go out and make contact with a boat laden with weapons. This came as no huge surprise as the men had been hearing rumours about the importation of guns for some months now.

‘A Beautiful Sight’

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Darrell Figgis

McGarry then left again after telling them to stay put until further instructions. Two hours later, the men were surprised to see Darrell Figgis, the writer (and, unknown to them, one of the chief organisers of the gunrunning), coming down the pier with the same fisherman as before, the pair of them walking up and down the boards in a fresh argument.

McGarry arrived back on the scene, accompanied by Clarke, in time to join in the argument with Figgis and the stubborn fisherman. Finally, McGarry told the waiting team to remain where they were on the pier while he attempted to make alternative arrangements for a boat, possibly from Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) on the other side of the bay. The fisherman was apparently not to be moved.

The four men remained by the sea, depressed at the seemingly wasted day. A messenger came on a bicycle at 9 pm, five hours after they had arrived, only to tell them to keep waiting. The last tram and train had left Howth for the night by the time a second cyclist arrived to inform them they could return to the city but to stick together. Soaked to the skin from the rain, the men trudged back inland.[6]

McGarry drove with Figgis to Kingstown, hoping to catch the yacht, Asgard, loaded with the promised armaments from there. They sighted the vessel over the water but, lacking anyone like they had in Howth, the pair had no choice but to finally retire, weary and disheartened, to the Marine Hotel at 4 am for a few hours of sleep.

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Asgard

Returning to Howth on the first train that morning, McGarry and Figgis met a second team from Bray, which were posted at the base of the north pier. By 9:30 am the Asgard could be seen on the far side of Lambay Island but, as it approached the pier, there was no sign of any other Volunteers to assist. It was only when the yacht drew next to the pier-head that Figgis heard McGarry beside him say: “Here they are; look at them, aren’t they a beautiful sight.”

A column of Volunteers were marching towards them, including the four who had been with McGarry in Howth the day before. All were ready and eager to assist in the unloading of the arms in what would become known to history as the Howth gunrunning. It had been touch-and-go, but the efforts of McGarry, Clarke, Figgis and the Irish Volunteers had finally paid off.[7]

howth-gun-running
Irish Volunteers at the Howth gunruning, 26th July 1914

Meeting Connolly

McGarry was among those assembled in the library of the Gaelic League headquarters in Parnell Square in September 1914 when Clarke and MacDermott announced their intentions of starting an armed uprising at an opportune time. Also present were James Connolly, Arthur Griffith, Seán T. O’Kelly, Patrick Pearse, Thomas Mac Donagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, many of whom would help spearhead the Rising. Given how close McGarry was to both Clarke and Mac Diarmada, the news could hardly have come as a surprise to him.[8]

james-connolly-3
James Connolly

Sometimes afterwards, McGarry called on Liberty Hall, the ostensible reason to ask Connolly for an article on the Irish Citizen Army (presumably for the Irish Freedom, the IRB organ that he and Mac Diarmada worked on). The two had been on friendly terms for a number of years, McGarry having given Connolly a weekly article during the Dublin Lockout of 1913 in a gesture of solidary.

As McGarry was editor of the Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa funeral souvenir booklet (in addition to the other hats he wore in service to the cause), the topic of conversation turned to that of the deceased Fenian.

“What’s the good of talking about Rossa?” Connolly asked, according to McGarry’s recollections in his BHM Statement. “Rossa wanted to fight England when England was at peace. You fellows want to fight when she is at war.”

When McGarry finally departed from Liberty Hall, it was with a promise from Connolly that the latter would provide the sought-after article. In return, McGarry would talk with him further. After McGarry had passed onto Clarke what he and Connolly had talked about, Clarke paid Liberty Hall a visit of his own. Shortly afterwards Connolly became the newest member of their budding cell. Although McGarry did not say no explicitly in his BMH Statement, it is clear that he was used to ‘feel out’ Connolly, who was at that point an outsider to the planning and an unknown factor needing to be brought into the fold.[9]

McGarry would later publicly describe Connolly as “the man who…taught me to be a Republican.” Republicanism from a different angle, perhaps, but Republicanism all the same. In private, however, he remembered Connolly as a man of great courage and intelligence but also one who was headstrong, naïve and easily manipulated by the far wilier Clarke. For all his extravagant praise of the socialist, it was the Fenian who truly taught McGarry how to be a Republican.[10]

irish_citizen_army_group_liberty_hall_dublin_1914
Liberty Hall

Bumps on the Road

Preparations for an uprising continued, although not always smoothly. “It’s all right, Tom, it’s not loaded,” McGarry told Clarke as he playfully pointed a pistol at him, near the end of January 1916.

Both men were given an impromptu lesson in firearms safety when the supposedly safe gun went off and hit Clarke in the elbow. The bullet was surreptitiously removed, along with stray bone fragments, at the Mater Hospital the next morning. Clarke never recovered full use of his wounded right arm, forcing him to learn how to use a revolver with his left hand in time for the Rising in April, though he was magnanimous enough not to hold it against McGarry.[11]

On a more positive note, Mac Diarmada visited McGarry in a jolly mood on the 19th April, five days before the start, telling him that Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers and reluctant ally to the IRB, had “agreed to everything” in regards to the planned uprising.[12]

MacNeill, however, would turn out to be not as agreeable as believed.

making-sense-of-easter-1916-5
Eoin MacNeill

McGarry was making his way back home from Mass on the morning of the 23rd, having stayed the night with Clarke, when he read in the press MacNeill’s orders to cancel the planned rising. McGarry walked home in a daze to find Michael Collins, having come over for breakfast. The two ate in dumbstruck silence after McGarry showed Collins the newspaper, and then they left for Liberty Hall where the IRB Military Council was struggling to comprehend the new development.

McGarry found Clarke who, for the first time since he had known him, appeared tired and crestfallen. The two walked in silence to Clarke’s home where the older man was recovered enough to lambaste MacNeill’s actions as the vilest of treacheries. When it came to addressing the subject for his BMH Statement, McGarry preferred to adopt a tone of dignified, if somewhat disdainful silence:

I do not propose to go into the pros and cons of the matter. Reams of paper have been covered with mostly ill-informed statements and speculations and other reams are I am told written for later publications. And so I leave it.[13]

Such pros and cons, statements and speculations, were to be merely academic. Countermanding orders or no, the Rising was going ahead. Clarke was sure on that, and McGarry would be at his side for it as always.

Easter Monday

James Rowan, a 15-year old telegraph messenger, was idling away time in the delivery room of the General Post Office (GPO) on the morning of the 24th April when the policeman on duty came in, wanting to use the phones there to contact his superiors, having just been disarmed by Irish Volunteers.

The phones were found to be out of order. Looking out of the rear window of the delivery room, Rowan and the other staff saw the rest of their colleagues and some British soldiers, also disarmed, being marshalled out into the yard. The delivery room occupants stayed where they were but when they heard a rousing cheer, the Inspector in charge risked opening the door for a peek outside.

“Quick, look at what these fellows are doing,” the Inspector called to the rest. Rowan joined him to see a cab had pulled up outside in Princes Street North, next to the GPO. Volunteers were hard at work, either smashing the windows of buildings with the butts of their rifles or lifting boxes of ammunition from the cab to hand to their comrades through the broken windows.

A stern voice demanded that the Inspector hand over his keys. The speaker emerged from the blind side of the door, holding a revolver, and Rowan saw a glimpse of a face with horn-rimmed glasses before he retreated back inside:

That face was photographed in my mind…The demander of the keys I recognised after the Rebellion from photographs in the papers giving particulars of those who had been arrested and identified as being prominently associated with the movement. He was Sean McGarry, who may be able to confirm the account of this incident.

The Inspector wisely complied and threw his keys onto the footpath. The door was slammed shut, locking the occupants in before they were released by the Volunteers later that afternoon.[14]

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General Post Office (GPO)

Culmination

McGarry left the GPO on Monday evening to take command of the Radio Transmitting Station in Lower Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. He returned in time to lead a hunt for supplies on a jewellery store at the corner of Abbey Street (three pairs of binoculars and some watches were found and taken).[15]

For the most part, however, McGarry remained in the post office with Clarke. He was to provide his BMH Statement with little about his activities during the fighting, pleading poor memory:

I have little to say about Easter Week. I have a very clear recollection of all that happened within my observation but after Tuesday I cannot for the life of me separate the days.[16]

Nonetheless, he remembered enough to take the time in his BMH Statement to correct a passage in Frank O’Connor’s biography, The Big Fellow, about Clarke losing his cool under pressure. McGarry insisted that Clarke had remained resolute and determined (evidently a well-read man, McGarry also took the Breton writer Louis le Roux to task for some unflattering remarks in the latter’s book on Clarke).[17]

easter
Fighting during the Easter Rising, 1916

On Thursday, the 27th, McGarry was part of a team sent over to the offices of the Freeman’s Journal on the other side of Princes Street North from the GPO. While crossing the street, the party came under fire, with McGarry narrowly avoiding becoming a casualty. Having arrived unscathed, the men broke through the walls of the office to the neighbouring building. The need for an escape route was rapidly becoming an acute one but when the GPO was evacuated the next day, it was in the opposite direction, to Moore Street.[18]

McGarry was one of the last to leave the post office, ensuring that the building was clear as per Clarke’s orders. He had already eaten a last meal of mutton chops with Clarke, Mac Diarmada and several others. The mood was a resolutely jolly one, McGarry jokingly asking if he would go to Hell for eating meat on this particular Friday.

After the withdrawal, it took a while for McGarry to find Clarke again in Moore Street. Clarke and MacDermott were discussing the possibility of surrender, the former dolefully quiet, the latter close to tears.

McGarry felt too drained to contribute a word to the discussion. Only recently he had been weighing up the odds with a wounded and bedridden Connolly for a successful counterattack on British-held barricades, and now it had come to this. While the negotiations to surrender were on, Clarke, seconded by Mac Diarmada, gave permission for the rest to escape. Though McGarry passed this on to others, he remained where he was, committed to the cause and the event he had helped set in motion.[19]

rebellion-car-getty
Aftermath of the Rising

After the Rising

After the surrender, McGarry was led away by British soldiers to Richmond Barracks along with Clarke and others. En route, Clarke was able to pass on a hastily scribbled note to his wife, via an obliging British soldier. The letter expressed his pride in the Rising and the men who had helped him carry it out: “Sean [Mac Diarmada] is with me and McG [McGarry] – They are all heroes.”[20]

Upon reaching the barracks, McGarry was observed being picked out by police officers along with the other leaders such as Clarke, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Mac Diarmada in a backhanded tribute to his importance.[21]

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Richmond Barracks

As Prisoner #28, McGarry was court-martialled in a batch of four that included Willie Pearse. All but Pearse pleaded not guilty. McGarry’s defence that he had known nothing about anything until the occupation of the GPO, after which he had been only a messenger with no position or rank of any kind, belied his true role behind the scenes.

His defence must have been convincing. Though all four prisoners were found ‘Guilty. Death’, McGarry was singled out for a recommendation of mercy on the grounds that he had been “misled by the leaders” of the Rising. He was sentenced instead to eight years of penal servitude.[22]

So quickly had the court-martial been held that prisoners were still arriving in Richmond Barracks. There was some astonishment at the extent of the sentence, although it was a far lighter sentence than Clarke’s, who McGarry saw for the last time on the day before his mentor’s execution.[23] 

Continued by: Twenty Years a Republican: The Trials and Tribulations of Seán McGarry, 1919-1922 (Part II)

Sources

[1] Lynch, Michael (BMH / WS 511), p. 94

[2] Lynch, pp. 94-5 ; Kelly, Patrick J. (BMH / WS 781), pp. 49-50 ; Irish Times, Irish Independent 05/03/1919 ; Morrissey., Thomas J. Lord Mayor of Dublin (1917–1924), Patriot and Man of Peace (Dublin: Dublin City Council, 2014), p. 144

[3] McGarry, Seán (BMH / WS 368), p. 26 ;  biographical details from White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958) Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James) ; Gleeson, Joseph (BMH / WS 367), p. 8

[4] Braniff, Daniel (BMH / WS 222), p. 2

[5] Sullivan, Mrs. T.M. (BMH / WS 653), p. 3

[6] Daly, Seamus (BMH / WS 360), pp. 8-10

[7] Figgis, Darrell. Recollections of the Irish War (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., [1927?]), pp. 45-7

[8] Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976), p. 156

[9] McGarry, p. 21

[10] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, p. 211. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html ; McGarry, pp. 21-2

[11] Litton, Helen. 16 Lives: Thomas Clarke (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2014), p. 150

[12] McGarry, p. 23

[13] Ibid, p. 24

[14] Rowan, James (BMH / WS 871), pp. 2-3

[15] O’Reilly, Michael William (BMH / WS 886), p. 7 ; Daly, William D. (BMH / WS 291), p. 18

[16] McGarry, p. 24

[17] Ibid, pp. 5-6, 25

[18] Gleeson, p. 10

[19] Ibid, pp. 25-6 ; Dore, Eamon T. (BMH / WS 392), pp. 18-19

[20] Barton, Brian, The Secret Court Martial Records of the Easter Rising (Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2010), p. 155

[21] Henderson, Frank (ed. by Hopkinson, Michael) Frank Henderson’s Easter Rising: Recollections of a Dublin Volunteer (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998), p. 69

[22] Barton, pp. 180-1 ; Irish Times, 10/12/1958

[23] Cosgrave, Liam T. (BMH / WS 268), p. 8 ; McGarry, p. 26

 

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History Statements

Braniff, Daniel, WS 222

Cosgrave, Liam T., 268

Daly, Seamus, WS 360

Daly, William D., WS 291

Dore, Eamon T., WS 392

Gleeson, Joseph, WS 367

Henderson, Frank, 821

Kelly, Patrick J., WS 781

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McGarry, Seán, WS 368

O’Reilly, Michael William, WS 886

Rowan, James, 871

Sullivan, Mrs. T.M., WS 653

 

Books

Barton, Brian. The Secret Court Martial Records of the Easter Rising (Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2010)

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

De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F., Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922)

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

Henderson, Frank (ed. by Hopkinson, Michael) Frank Henderson’s Easter Rising: Recollections of a Dublin Volunteer (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998)

Litton, Helen. 16 Lives: Thomas Clarke (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2014)

Morrissey, Thomas J. Lord Mayor of Dublin (1917–1924), Patriot and Man of Peace (Dublin: Dublin City Council, 2014)

Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976)

White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958) Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James)

 

Newspapers

Irish Independent

Irish Times

An Unclean Scab: The Public Feud between Tom Barry and Frank Aiken, 1935

‘Up the Republic!’

aiken
Frank Aiken

The annual ceilidhe organised in Dundalk by the local Fianna Fáil cumann branch, on the 13th May 1935, was a prominent enough event to merit the attendance of two of the party’s heavyweights: Vivion de Valera, son of the Taoiseach, and the Minister of Defence, Frank Aiken. When the latter prepared to speak, he was interrupted by a group of young men with cries of “Up the Republic!”, “Release the prisoners!”, and others of a distinctly Republican nature.

The Gardaí in attendance moved to eject the hecklers. Aiken, not one to back down from a fight, interceded with the police to “leave the boys alone” and let him have a word with them. With the attention back on him, the Minister addressed the youths and the hall in general.

Fianna Fáil, he said, had been elected by 99.9% of Republicans to lead the national fight and, with the help of God, they would do so. Quite how Aiken had come to that precise percentage was unclear but, in any case, no one in the hall queried him.

The party, Aiken continued, aimed to govern the country with the least possible force but they were nonetheless obliged to protect the public from those who were obstructing the elected government.

‘Up Tom Barry!’

A voice called out: “We must fight!” Aiken replied that every member of the current Cabinet had been fighting for the Republic all their lives. Those now talking about fighting were those who only did so when there was no war on. Unconvinced, the young men resumed their heckling with “Remember the seventy-seven executions!” and “Up Tom Barry!”

If they were trying to impress or intimidate the Minister with a reference to his former comrade in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), then they had misjudged their man. Aiken initially tried to brush off the reminder by saying he did not wish to talk about Barry but, with the slogan being repeated, he had enough, retorting that those who were now shouting must not know anything about their idol. When the IRA was fighting and its members being executed, Aiken continued, Barry had been running around the country, trying to make peace.

With this somewhat cryptic putdown, the tide in the hall turned in the favour of the Minister. Counter-cries of “Up Dev!” were heard, prompting cheers from the audience. Beaten, but with their point already made, the hecklers departed from the hall, where the ceilidhe finally proceeded.[1]

Tom Barry on Trial

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Tom Barry

It took Barry several weeks to respond. He had, after all, the pressing concern of a trial, accused as he was of breaking into a house in Co. Cork with several others to assault a member of the local Blueshirts, John E. Barry (presumably no relation), and his wife in the November of the previous year.

The only one of the defendants at the hearing who was prepared to act as his own counsel, Barry showed that he had lost none of the pugnaciousness that had marked him out during his days as a guerrilla commander. The testimony of Mr. and Mrs. Barry, the two main witnesses against him, he declared, were contradictory and, in any case, they were the “heads of the Imperialist Party in the district.”

The hearing done, Barry was returned for trial. As he left the court for Cork Jail under police and military escort, he was cheered by a waiting crowd and then again as he was recognised passing through the area. It had been over a decade since the War of Independence but his renown as one of its most successful IRA leaders remained undimmed.[2]

duggan
Father Duggan

In the meantime, Father Thomas F. Duggan had intervened on Barry’s behalf. He had been closely acquainted with Barry, having attended his wedding, along with Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera in friendlier times. His letter to the newspapers was more in sorry than in anger. It had been unnecessary for Aiken to stir up past controversies, Duggan wrote, particularly in regard to a man of such soldierly achievement, whatever one happened to think of his present course of action (an indication that Duggan did not think too much of it).[3]

‘Of the Meanest Kind’

When Barry did find the time to write to the papers – three of which, Irish Press, Irish Independent and Cork Examiner, would publish the correspondence of the unfolding feud – it was in a very different tone to Duggan’s. Barry denounced the “vicious and lying attack on me….This statement of Mr. Aiken is of the meanest kind, as he merely suggests to the audience, without definitely stating so, that I was guilty of some dishonourable conduct.”

It was the vagueness of Aiken’s public statements that particularly infuriated Barry. Going where Aiken had not, Barry proceeded to put meat on the bones of the accusations he believed the other man had alluded to:

  • That he had not fought in the Civil War.
  • That he had been running about the country attempting to make peace instead of aiding his comrades while they were facing death in battle or by execution.
  • That his conduct during the Civil War had, in general, been dishonourable and cowardly.

Having set up the points against himself, Barry went on to tick them off:

  • He would leave the question as to whether or not he had fought in the Civil War to those Volunteers who had accompanied him on active service.
  • At no point had he attempted to make peace.

Barry did not deign to address his own third point, presumably leaving his record to speak for itself. As for the second, he conceded that he had been involved in a couple of attempts but only in passing: the ‘Archbishop Harty Proposals’ and the ‘Cease Fire and Dump Arms Policy’.

The first effort had involved Father Duggan – the same man who would come to Barry’s defence – acting as a courier in February 1923 with copies of proposals addressed to individual members of the IRA Executive, including Barry. These proposals were unanimously rejected.

In March, Duggan again forwarded proposals, this time backed by Archbishop Harty of Cashel. Barry agreed to circulate them among the Executive and, once more, the proposals were uniformly turned down. As for the second peace effort, the ‘Cease Fire and Dump Arms Policy’ of May 1923 had been unanimously adopted by the IRA Executive, including both Barry and Aiken.

CW
Free State soldiers, Irish Civil War

At no point had Barry acted with any other motive than the saving of Republican lives in the face of the Free State’s overwhelming superiority. Laying the onus on Aiken to explain his remarks in Dundalk or else publicly withdraw them, Barry ended his letter with some pointed innuendo of his own:

Mr Aiken’s attack now – 12 years afterwards – does not arise out of the Civil War period, but out of present day circumstances.[4]

‘His New Campaign of Vilification’

Irish Press readers were not given the last sentence of Barry’s letter, which was left in by the Irish Independent and Cork Examiner:

And I tell Mr Aiken that his new campaign of vilification against Republicans will fail to stop the Republican advance just as surely as his coercion campaign has already failed.[5]

There was a reason for the Irish Press editors to be so coy. After all, Fianna Fáil, whose party line the Irish Press was there to follow, was conscious of its own Republican heritage. An article on the 4th June stressed the contribution of ‘Old’ IRA men – those who had been members during the revolutionary years but not necessarily afterwards – to the campaign of the Fianna Fáil candidate in a Galway by-election (by contrast, the Opposition-leaning Cork Examiner focused more on the voter apathy during the same election).[6]

Accusations of turning on one’s own were perhaps best left unread.

frankaiken
Frank Aiken

Nonetheless, Aiken felt obliged to respond to Barry’s letter with one of his own. His tone was one of embarrassment, perhaps by the unseemliness of the whole affair, but he was also unapologetic. He pointed out that he had had no intention of mentioning Barry in Dundalk, and that only after provocation had Barry’s name been drawn from him. But after all that, what Aiken had said was true and he would not be taking it back.

As for Barry’s insistence that he had sought to make peace during the Civil War, Aiken retorted that the former’s activities had not been quite as innocent as he was making out. Indeed, Barry’s extracurricular activities had been a source of great concern to the then IRA Chief of Staff, Liam Lynch.

‘Doing His Worst’

A letter of Lynch’s from the 19th February 1923 was quoted: “I have already done my utmost to keep you informed of peace moves here. You have also facts in the Press re Father Duggan. Barry is doing about his worst here.” Barry had apparently done his ‘worst’ earlier in the month, having made a personal offer through the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Free State Cork Command, according to Aiken.

tombarry
Tom Barry

Barry maintained his independent streak to the end of the Civil War. While he assented to the ‘Cease Fire and Dump Arms Policy’, he remained dissatisfied due to the arms in question not being put beyond use. On the 8th June, Barry wrote a memorandum urging the liquidation of the weapons, and followed that up on the 20th with a threat to restart the Civil War if the arms remained usable.

Unintentionally confirming Barry’s argument that Aiken’s attacks emanated from contemporary circumstances as much as past ones, Aiken pointed to the inconsistency of Barry now urging a course of action that could only lead to another civil war. While some might find this incomprehensible, those “who know Mr. Barry’s irresponsibility, however, are not surprised”:

Courage is not the only quality needed in a solder. A sense of discipline is also necessary, but Mr. Barry does not appreciate the fact.[7]

It was because of this indiscipline, according to Aiken, that he forced Barry to resign from the IRA Executive on the 11th July. Aiken archly posed a question to the same young hecklers in Dundalk: if they regarded Barry as a responsible leader, why did he postpone the resumption of military activities – an oblique reference to Barry’s re-entry to the IRA in 1932 – until Fianna Fáil went into government?[8]

Peace-ish Talks

Aiken sounded more aggrieved at any Republican violence happening on his party’s watch than with the violence per se. He was on firmer ground when talking about Lynch’s displeasure with Barry’s attempts at peace. The two had fallen out over the issue and badly so but Lynch had initially been open to the idea of a peaceful solution.

Liam-Deasy
Liam Deasy

Sometime in mid-1922, Barry and Liam Deasy, a fellow Corkonian and the anti-Treatyite O/C of the First Southern Division, had met two officers in the Free State Army to iron out a possible peace proposal. Among the suggestions was that both sides would disband and be reformed under a fresh executive that would ensure the Government would reject the undesirable elements in the Treaty.

The men involved were sufficiently enthused about their proposal to consider taking it directly to General Richard Mulcahy. The results of the parley were included in the minutes of an IRA Executive meeting on the 16th-17th October 1920, showing that not only was Lynch aware of these peace efforts but that he made no move to stop them. The arrogance of the IRA Executive shined through in their presumption that any peace deals would be made largely on its terms, with compromises to be made primarily by the opposition, but the topic of peace had not yet become a poisonous one. [9]

By the start of 1923, it had.

Barry continued to pursue the possibility of peace through the efforts of Father Duggan. Well-liked and trusted by both sides, Duggan had been working ceaselessly to find a way to end the Civil War since its start. Intransigent in his belief that victory was still possible, Liam Lynch made it clear to Duggan that he was not about to compromise in the slightest.

To make sure Barry also understood, Lynch wrote him a “strongly worded letter,” in the words of the latter’s young aide Todd Andrews, ordering his subordinate to break off any further peace efforts.[10]

Pax Barry

Liam-Lynch
Liam Lynch

Lynch perhaps assumed that that would be the end of it, until he and Andrews were abruptly awoken one night by someone kicking in their bedroom door. Holding a candle in one hand and waving a sheet of paper in the other, Barry demanded of Lynch whether he had written the letter.

When Lynch calmly affirmed, Barry ranted that he had fought more in a week than the Chief of Staff had done in his life. Andrews could not help but laugh after Barry had stormed off: “Barry’s dramatic entrance holding the candlestick with the lighted candle struck me as having something of a character of an Abbey Theatre farce.”[11]

To Father Duggan, Barry’s impeachable record as a guerrilla fighter had allowed him to say what others did not dare. Those same credentials, however, had also gone to his head.[12]

Lynch had stoically waited out Barry’s tirade but relations between the two had deteriorated past the point of repair. If Lynch was an inflexible militant, then Barry had become a militant peacenik, one willing to use whatever tool at his disposal to end the fratricidal conflict.

In May 1923, Barry tried the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). With the help of a go-between, he proposed unsuccessfully to Seán Ó Muirthile, a senior figure in both the IRB and the Free State Army, for the secret society to exert its influence in reuniting the two warring sides. As Barry made the offer in his own name, it is unlikely that Lynch or anyone else had authorised or even knew of it.[13]

Venom

The subsequent meeting between Barry and his commanding officer fared no better. Lynch had arranged to rendezvous with him and the equally tenacious Father Duggan in Ballingeary, Co. Cork. Although the date is uncertain, it occurred shortly after the Ballyseedy Massacre of the 6th March 1923.

Lynch and Andrews arrived in Ballingeary to find the other two already present and waiting with a group of several others on the opposite side of the street. To Andrews, the surreal scene resembled one from a Western film where rival posses would ride into town for a shootout.[14]

Carlow-IRA
IRA/Irish Volunteers

While no six-shooters were drawn, the talks ended as fruitlessly as before. Frustration turned to loathing; according to historian Meda Ryan in her 1982 book on Barry (not repeated in her 2003 edition), his friends “would say that Barry had venom in his voice when speaking” of Lynch.[15]

It is perhaps unsurprising then that it was Barry who proposed Aiken as the new Chief of Staff after Lynch’s death. Anyone would have to be more amenable than his predecessor. Barry would soon learn how wrong he was.[16]

Meet the New Boss…

On the 11th July 1923, Barry stepped down from the IRA Executive. In his resignation letter, he insisted that any suggestion of his had made had been entirely dependent on the majority of the leadership agreeing to it. Furthermore:

I also want to state that the rumours propagated in some cases by Republicans as to my negotiations for peace with the Free State, are absolutely false. Lies, suspicion and distrust are broadcasted, and I have no option but to remove myself from a position wherein I can be suspected of compromising the position. I have never entered into negotiations for peace by compromise with the Free State.[17]

Barry admitted to a technical breach of discipline in the sending of a signed communication with three other senior IRA men. In this, he had been motivated by a desire to save the lives of their men and did not regret anything. Despite the ignominious circumstances of his exit, he affirmed his willingness to take up arms again for an independent Ireland when called upon.[18]

FA
Frank Aiken

Tension had been hinted at in the minutes of earlier Executive meetings, although not, on the surface at least, irreconcilably so. Aiken was elected the Chief of Staff on the 26th April 1923 after being put forward by Barry and seconded by Seán MacSwiney. A resolution, proposed by Aiken and again seconded by MacSwiney, empowered the Executive to make peace with the Free State on the basis of certain conditions.

That they felt the need to include quotation marks around the word ‘Government’ in regards to the Free State indicates that the twelve men present were finding even this mild climb-down a bitter pill to swallow.

It was at least a break with the late Lynch’s intractability but not enough of one for Barry. He proposed an amendment, seconded by Tom Crofts, that all armed resistance to the Free State be called off. With only Barry and Crofts voting for the amendment, one abstaining and the other nine against, the motion was defeated.

The vote for another motion – the recommendation to carry on fighting should the Free State reject peace overtures – was more evenly divided, with six for, including Aiken, and six against, including Barry and Crofts. Once again Barry had found himself to be the ‘moderate’ opposition against a hardliner Chief of Staff.[19]

‘Statement Prejudicial’

Barry was not one to do nothing when something was an option, and took the time until the next meeting on the 11th July to try and break the deadlock. However well-intentioned, he had finally gone too far.

When the Executive met again, Aiken read out a document he had received that had been signed by Barry and three other senior officers, two of whom – Crofts and Liam Pilkington – were present. The signatories had threatened in their circular to take unauthorised action. Though the nature of this threat was not included in the minutes, it was probably to restart the fighting if the IRA arms were not decommissioned.

With Barry running late, it was agreed to postpone further debate until he arrived. When he did, Aiken repeated what he had said before. The document contained a threat, Aiken said, and must be withdrawn. Cowed, Crofts and Pilkington agreed and withdrew their offending statement.

Barry was not so easily daunted. Aiken pressed him to withdraw as the others had done or else he would request his resignation. When Barry chose the second option, Aiken, perhaps taken aback, asked him to reconsider. Having decided he had already made his bed, Barry stuck to his decision and left the meeting. Seeing which way the wind was turning, Pilkington proposed that his former ally’s resignation be accepted. And so it was.[20]

Although he had made some effort to keep Barry on board, Aiken found the whole episode so distasteful that, in a letter on the 19th July 1923, he threatened the suspension and court-martial of anyone who attempted to “seduce Volunteers from their allegiance, or by doing any act or making any statement prejudicial to the maintenance of discipline.”[21]

irish-volunteers2
IRA/Irish Volunteers

Tom Barry’s Second Reply

Barry opened his follow-up letter on the 7th June 1935 with a complaint that the respective newspapers involved had not published his previous one in full. Due to the considerable publicity the matter had received, Barry asked that this message be published unabridged.

He did, after all, have a lot to say.

The only satisfactory way Barry could see of resolving the controversy would be the setting up of a committee of enquiry. This panel would investigate all the allegations, receive any evidence and then publish their findings. Barry did not think it would be hard to find three or five impartial men to serve on this proposed committee.[22]

For Barry, there could be no purer or more reliable methodology than that of a committee. When approached by the Bureau of Military History (BMH) in 1958, Barry not only refused to give a statement – anything of importance he had already said in his memoir – but questioned the BMH’s practice of receiving any and all statements without prior verification. Better instead, in his opinion, for a committee to go through every submitted statement and reject accordingly for absolute historical accuracy.[23]

‘From a Republican Point of View’

Obviously deciding that the best way of fighting fire was to pour on the gasoline and strike a match of his own, Barry drew up a list of his accusations against Aiken for the latter’s Civil War conduct:

  1. Aiken, despite his professions of being opposed to the Treaty, joined the Free State Army in 1922.
  2. He remained in the Army even when the Four Courts were attacked, after which he came to Dublin to draw his pay as a Free State officer before returning to Dundalk.
  3. He became neutral on his return to Dundalk, only throwing his lot in with the Anti-Treaty side after his arrest by the Free State and subsequent escape.
  4. Aiken avoided all fighting, except in Dundalk on one occasion.
  5. That he came unarmed to the IRA Executive meetings demoralised those who expected such a leader to be armed.
  6. Aiken was mainly responsible for the defeat in the Civil War due to his initial alliance with the Free State, his wobbling attitudes and his refusal to fight.

After these six points – which were actually five since the sixth was just a summary of the previous ones – Barry went on to discuss his ‘Leinster House Proposal’. He had made a passing reference to it in his previous letter with no details other than a claim that it could have turned defeat into victory.

Lest this ‘Leinster House Proposal’ be misconstrued as political in nature (clearly a dirty word in Barry’s dictionary), he explained that after the ‘Cease Fire and Dump Arms’ orders, he proposed leading a commando squad into Leinster House to catch the Free State Government inside.

Both Aiken and De Valera queried the feasibility of such a daring plan, with the former ultimately nixing what could have brought the War, in Barry’s view, to a “successful conclusion from a Republican point of view.”[24]

CW2
Anti-Treatyite IRA, College Street (Dublin)

‘Coercion Campaign’

Aiken had lambasted the other man for the hypocrisy of urging peace before and a militant view now. Paying evil unto evil, Barry pointed out that he, unlike Aiken, had not issued orders during the Civil War forbidding IRA members to recognise Free State institutes and courts, and then, once in government, jailing Republicans for refusing to acknowledge these same institutions.[25]

Barry was not the only one with the belief that Fianna Fáil was giving its fellow ideological travellers a raw deal. In Co. Kerry, Listowel Urban Council passed a motion protesting against the suppression of An Phoblacht newspaper and the closing of Republican offices. Members of the Council called on the Taoiseach to end the coercion of the IRA since it had put him into office in the first place, something which the electorate might have been surprised to hear.

But the Council was not speaking idly on its other points. In Longford, Gardaí seized the latest issue of An Phoblacht as it was being printed. All copies were taken away, with detectives remaining on the premises. In Dublin, women from Cumann na mBan marched through Dublin to protest against the forced closure of their offices.[26]

Even the victor of Kilmichael was not untouchable. Accompanied by his wife and large numbers of friends, Barry left Cork for the Curragh Camp. For the past fortnight he had been out on parole but with that ended, he was to complete a sentence of six months, courtesy of the Military Tribunal, for seditious utterance and unlawful associations.[27]

CurraghCampAerial1934

Frank Aiken’s Second Reply

Aiken dug in his heels in his subsequent letter to Barry a day later, the rapidity of each other’s replies revealing in itself how heated the exchange was. Aiken reiterated his accusations in a list of his own:

  • Barry had carried out unauthorised peace negotiations with the Free State in the spring of 1923.
  • Liam Lynch had been deeply worried about these activities.
  • Barry had urged the destruction of weapons at the end of the Civil War.
  • His resignation had been forced by Aiken due to insubordination.

These facts were true and beyond a shadow of doubt, according to Aiken. Indeed, Barry had not really tried to deny them. Aiken added that he would have no further dealings with his former comrade. After all, if those in Fianna Fáil replied to every false accusation thrown their way, they would never get anything done. It was only to prevent impressionable youths from being misled that Aiken continued to respond.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Barry had wounded him on a personal level as he denied that Barry had ever suggested anything like an attack on the Free State Government:

Even if Mr. Barry, to cover his confusion, were to prove that the I.R.A., after Liam Lynch was killed, had elected as their Chief of Staff the greatest coward in the world, and even if it were true (and it is not) that he proposed a stunt attack in Dublin in May, 1923, after hostilities had ceased…[28]

Aiken continued to goad at the inconsistency of Barry’s attitude at the end of the Civil War, in particular his adamance that the IRA arms be destroyed, with his more militant one in the present which only restarted when Fianna Fáil entered government.

Frank Aiken’s War

The rest of his letter was an explanation of actions during the Civil War prior to joining the anti-Treaty side, as well as a defence against Barry’s accusations. The only point of Barry’s he ignored was the one about demoralising the IRA Executive by turning up unarmed to meetings but that was a nonsensical one anyway.

Aiken explained that he had never made any secret of his horror at the thought of civil war and had done his best to prevent it. To head off the impending crisis, he had brought together Arthur Griffith, Éamon de Valera, Michael Collins, Lynch and others on both sides of the growing divide. From this meeting came the Collins-de Valera Pact of May 1922. While short-lived, the Pact had at least brought an end to the sporadic violence from before.

When the Four Courts were attacked in June 1922, Aiken made his way to Dublin and urged General Richard Mulcahy to call a truce. When that failed, Aiken travelled to Limerick in the hope of contacting Liam Lynch, the implication being he had been an Anti-Treatyite earlier than he had officially declared.

FAS
Frank Aiken (centre) with Irish soldiers, 1940

‘Wise, Loyal and Disciplined’

Having failed again, he returned to Dundalk where he was imprisoned by the Free State. Following his escape, “calculating and seeing clearly the cost, I deliberately took the decision to fight my best to resist the overthrow of the Republic by a coup d’etát,” by which he described the formation of the Free State.

Barry had tried to paint the other man as mercenary and insincere. Aiken had responded with a self-image of a man true to his principles even when sorely tested by circumstances beyond his control.

In case anyone continued to doubt his Republican credentials, Aiken told of how he had done his best to abolish the hated Oath of Allegiance since entering government. Having adopted the political path, Aiken remained determined to “oppose internecine strife and to do my utmost to unite all wise, loyal and disciplined citizens to secure a Republic.”[29]

‘Wise’, ‘loyal’ and ‘disciplined’ – these three adjectives were clearly synonymous in Aiken’s worldview, with the last in particular a favoured watchword.

An earlier letter to the press in 1933 allowed Aiken to expound on the dual subjects of discipline and the young. Sounding as much as a moral reformer as a politician on a soapbox, Aiken wrote of how: “The success of this generation in the achievement of national freedom…will be governed in no small measure by the extent to which the principle of national discipline is accepted…by the young men of to-day.”[30]

Frank Aiken cover crop
Frank Aiken

Letters of Aid

Barry’s return to jail seemed to have given him pause, for he did not reply at once. In the meantime, four of his comrades from the past stepped in and lent a helping hand. Three of them – James Donovan, Seán Goughlan and Seán MacSwiney – put their names to a letter on the 12th June, saying that Barry had been attached to their 1st Cork Brigade in the IRA since his return from abroad in 1927, as part of which he had carried out all his assigned duties (however, historian Brian Hanley says that Barry did not rejoin the IRA until 1932).[31]

This letter was in refutation to Aiken’s claim that Barry had resumed his IRA activities until the advent of the Fianna Fáil Government in 1932. Considering how Barry was imprisoned partly as a result of these activities, it probably was not the most helpful of letters, however well meant.

Another Cork IRA member, Tom Crofts, wrote a second letter to the newspapers on the same day in regards to the controversy. As he had often been the only other member of the IRA Executive during the Civil War to side with Barry, it was only fitting that he should come in as support now.

Introducing himself as the O/C of the 1st Southern Division and a member of the IRA Executive during the Civil War, and thus in a position to know, Crofts addressed the claim by Aiken that Barry had made a personal peace offer on the 19th February 1923 to the GOC of the Free State Cork Command. That offer had actually been made by Father Duggan, who assured Crofts that he had not been authorised by Barry or any other IRA officer to act on their behalf.[32]

Charles F. Russell

Letters to the press seemed solidly behind Barry. The only dissenting pen was from a retired colonel in the Free State Army, Charles F. Russell. In response to Barry’s claim that he had never entered into negotiations with the enemy, Russell told of how he had met Barry and Liam Deasy in Cork for the purposes of a peace conference. The only detail Russell gives is that it was held in Father Duggan’s house but says nothing about what was discussed. Afterwards, Russell drove the two Anti-Treatyites past the Free State sentries.[33]

armcar-sligo-fs
Free State soldiers

Russell dated the parley to 1923 but, as historian Meda Ryan points out, Deasy had been in jail since January, making his presence an implausible one.[34] Nonetheless, the meeting is mentioned in the minutes of the IRA Executive for October 1922, the same one in which Barry and Deasy had discussed with their counterparts the possibility of both armies disbanding and coming together in a fresh start.

Russell added that he had made a full report to GHQ afterwards, though it is doubtful that he included everything. The civilian Government, after all, would have been firmly under the thumb of the military under these new arrangements. The men at the meeting had been sufficiently enthused about their proposal to consider taking it directly to General Richard Mulcahy in Dublin but, failing that, they would appeal directly to officers in the Free State Army to defect.[35]

Russell emphasised in his letter how he had been acting under orders (however unlikely Mulcahy would have approved of all that was said). The same could be said of Barry. After all, Lynch had known of these negotiations and permitted them. But in the years afterwards, that was not what people wanted to hear. There was room only for black and white, for heroes of incorruptible purity or vile traitors, and none for the shades of grey.

Tom Barry’s Third Reply

Barry
Tom Barry

Imprisonment may have slowed Barry but it had not stopped him. His second letter, dated the 13th June, began by noting Aiken’s refusal of the offer of an impartial committee to mediate on the matter. Which was not entirely correct. Aiken had not so much refused the offer as refused to acknowledge it. As for Aiken’s dismissal of any further dealings with Barry, Barry assured his readers that Aiken “will have further dealings with me or else withdraw his charges.”

For those readers failing to keep track, Barry reiterated the said charges: that he had made a personal offer of peace through the GOC of the Free State Cork Command on the 19th February 1923. As part of this, Aiken had quoted a dispatch, also dated the 19th February 1923, from Liam Lynch about Barry’s and Father Duggan’s activities appearing in the press.

Sounding very different to the man who had screamed at his superior about the deficiencies in the other’s fighting record, Barry denounced the use of Lynch’s “honoured name” as a new low. It was also factually wrong. According to Barry, the late general could not have written such a thing on the 19th as Father Duggan’s name had not appeared in the media in regards to the ‘Archbishop Harty proposals’ until the 9th of March.

As for the personal peace offer to the GOC, Barry flatly repudiated such a thing. Showing his willingness to press a point, Barry challenged Aiken to request Colonel David Reynolds, the GOC in Cork at the time, to state whether or not he had ever received such a proposal through him.

As to what Aiken had said about Barry’s disciplinarian problems, Barry fell back on his earlier stance; that by March 1923, the Anti-Treatyites had been militarily defeated. Barry had thus focused on saving as many Republican lives as he could, and he would do the same today if under similar circumstances.

‘Very, Very Serious Charges’

Disappointingly, Barry did not raise again the subject of his ‘Leinster House’ proposal which Aiken had denied ever being put forward. Indeed, Barry’s defence of his lack of martial spirit on pragmatic and humanitarian grounds is sharply at odds with his claim that he offered to decapitate the enemy government in a last throw-of-the-dice blitz.

free-state-troops-fire-on-the-four-courts3
The start of the Civil War outside the Four Courts in Dublin, June 1922

Also lacking was the same zeal to attack Aiken’s Civil War conduct as before, saying merely that he had “made very, very serious charges against Mr. Aiken…which he has not denied.” Aiken had more defended than denied Barry’s charges but that distinction seemed lost on the other man.

Aiken, he continued, had “evaded and confused the issue” – something that could be said of both men. Barry wrapped up his third letter by once again challenging Aiken to either prove his charges or publicly withdraw them.[36]

Conclusion

Aiken was true to his word in refusing to have any further dealings with Barry. He sent no further replies and the debate petered out, leaving Barry with the satisfaction at least of having the last word.

tom_barry_in_1949
Tom Barry

Later, on the 21st June, Barry could claim another victory: he and the other four defendants were acquitted of the charges of assault against John E. Barry and his wife in a courtroom that had attracted so many onlookers that many could not be admitted for lack of space. It was a small respite as Barry was led away back to Cork Goal and then returned to the Curragh Camp to finish the sentence imposed by the Military Tribunal.[37]

This had not been the first time Aiken had had to publicly defend his past record in a testy exchange of letters with former comrades. Two years ago in 1933, it had been him against Seán MacBride, the point of contention being his conduct during the IRA Convention of 1925 when, as Chief of Staff, he had opposed the Republican policy of abstentionism.

MacBride had mocked Aiken’s attempts to show his conduct as “logical and consistent…to reconcile his past with his present acts,” not something Aiken would have disagreed with, minus the sneer.[38] For him, his actions had been logical and consistent. But then, Barry could have argued the same. Both had done what they thought had been right at the time.

Barry was a loose cannon and Aiken a turncoat as far as the other man was concerned but, in their determination and willingness to bend, if not defy, the accepted norms of their contemporaries, the two had more in common than they cared to acknowledge. Perhaps they were simply too similar to be anything other than adversaries.

Both had been flexible enough to challenge the rigidity of their peers and to see alternative options to fruitless conflict: for Barry, the need for compromise regardless of what his superiors thought, and with Aiken, the possibility that politics might achieve what brute strength could not. But, however much they were capable of defying Republican orthodoxy, both men were believers enough to be embarrassed when others pointed out their heresies.

Historian Matthew Lewis describes the Aiken-Barry exchange as a “brief, if uneventful, public spat.”[39] More perceptively, Evan Bryce notes how the “republican ‘big men’ were still scrapping over ownership of the glorious past.”[40] But the dispute had been less about the glory and more about the ignominy, and the past not so much a treasured prize as an unclean scab that some could not help but pick at.

 

References

[1] Irish Independent 14/05/1935

[2] Irish Press, 09/05/1935

[3] Ibid, 15/05/1935 ; Parsons, Michael (27/06/2015) ‘Cork priest who served in two World Wars but was staunch nationalist’, The Irish Times (Last accessed on 06/04/2016)

[4] Irish Press, 03/06/1935 ; Irish Independent, 04/06/1935 ; Cork Examiner, 03/06/1935

[5] Irish Independent, 04/06/1935

[6] Irish Press, 04/06/1935 ; Cork Examiner, 03/06/1935, 15/06/1935

[7] Irish Press, 06/06/1935 ; Irish Independent, 06/06/1935 ; Cork Examiner, 06/06/1935

[8] Ibid

[9] Ernie O’Malley Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 10,973/15/4

[10] Andrews, Todd. Dublin Made Me (Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press, 1979), p. 279

[11] Ibid, p. 280

[12] Irish Press, 15/05/1935

[13] Richard Mulcahy Papers, University College Dublin, P7a/209

[14] Andrews, pp. 280-1

[15] Ryan, Meda. The Tom Barry Story (Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press, 1982), p. 124

[16] Frank Aiken Papers, University College Dublin, P104/1263

[17] Ernie O’Malley Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 10,973/15/20

[18] Ibid

[19] Frank Aiken Papers, University College Dublin, P104/1263

[20] Ibid, P104/1264

[21] Ernie O’Malley Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 10,973/15/21

[22] Irish Press, 07/06/1935 ; Irish Independent, 07/06/1935 ; Cork Examiner, 07/06/1935

[23] Barry, Tom (BHM / WS 1743), p. 3

[24] Irish Press, 07/06/1935 ; Irish Independent, 07/06/1935 ; Cork Examiner, 07/06/1935

[25] Ibid

[26] Irish Press, 06/06/1935, 07/06/1935

[27] Irish Press, 06/06/1935 ; Irish Independent, 07/06/1935 ; Ryan, Meda. Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Douglas Village, Co. Cork: Mercier Press, 2005), p. 288

[28] Irish Press, 08/06/1935 ; Irish Independent, 08/06/1935 ; Cork Examiner, 08/06/1935

[29] Ibid

[30] Irish Press, 29/11/1933

[31] Hanley, Brian. The IRA: 1926-1936 (Dublin: The Four Courts, 2002), p. 191

[32] Irish Press, 12/06/1935 ; Irish Independent, 12/06/1935 ; Cork Examiner, 12/06/1935

[33] Irish Independent, 17/06/1935

[34] Ryan (2005), p. 457

[35] Ernie O’Malley Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 10,973/15/4

[36] Irish Press, 15/06/1935 ; Irish Independent, 14/06/1935 ; Cork Examiner, 14/06/1935

[37] Cork Examiner, 22/06/1935

[38] Irish Press, 16,22,23,29/11/1933

[39] Lewis, Matthew. Frank Aiken’s War: The Irish Revolution, 1916-1923 (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2014), p. 196

[40] Evans, Bryce. ‘Frank Aiken: Nationalist’, Frank Aiken: Nationalist and Internationalist (eds. Evans, Bryce and Kelly, Stephen) (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2014), p. 12

 

Bibliography

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Irish Independent

Irish Press

 

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statement

Barry, Tom, WS 1743

 

Books

Andrews, Todd. Dublin Made Me (Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press, 1979)

Evans, Bryce and Kelly, Stephen (eds.). Frank Aiken: Nationalist and Internationalist (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2014)

Hanley, Brian. The IRA: 1926-1936 (Dublin: The Four Courts, 2002)

Lewis, Matthew. Frank Aiken’s War: The Irish Revolution, 1916-1923 (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2014)

Ryan, Meda. Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Douglas Village, Co. Cork: Mercier Press, 2005)

Ryan, Meda. The Tom Barry Story (Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press, 1982)

 

Online Article

Parsons, Michael (27/06/2015) ‘Cork priest who served in two World Wars but was staunch nationalist’, The Irish Times (Last accessed on 06/04/2016)

 

Document Collections

Ernie O’Malley Papers, National Library of Ireland

Frank Aiken Papers, University College Dublin

Richard Mulcahy Papers, University College Dublin

Career Conspirators: The (Mis)Adventures of Seán Ó Muirthile and the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the Free State Army, 1923-4

Future Plans

Sean_OMuirthile_caricature
Seán Ó Muirthile caricature

By January 1923, with the Irish Civil War still ongoing, Seán Ó Muirthile was a busy man as Quartermaster General of the Free State Army. Not too busy, however, to turn his thoughts towards an issue that he believed needed serious consideration: the state of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).

Some prominent army officers had been wondering amongst themselves about the future of the Brotherhood to which they had previously belonged. In theory they still did, but the Supreme Council of the IRB had not met since the January of the previous year, and neither had there been meetings of the local branches throughout Ireland. The policy had been to await events and then set about re-uniting the Organisation, as insiders were supposed to refer to it. If the time for this was not now, then when?

It was entirely natural that these officers would bring such concerns to Ó Muirthile. He was, after all, one of the few remaining members of the Supreme Council still around, not to mention a former confidant of the late, great Michael Collins.

Commander_Michael_Collins
Michael Collins

Commander-in-Chief of the Army as well as President of the IRB, Collins had exemplified the dual role of soldier and operative that many in the Army were eager to emulate. Certainly, Ó Muirthile had little doubt that Collins, had he lived, would have continued using the Organisation in the pursuit of achieving further freedom for Ireland.[1]

First Steps

With these questions in mind, Ó Muirthile consulted the other Supreme Council members who were also serving in the Army. The basic points that were agreed upon in their January meeting were that:

  • The proud tradition of the IRB should be preserved and passed onto those loyal to the Free State government.
  • This effort would fall upon the previous members of the Supreme Council.
  • The Free State government must not be prejudiced or subverted in any way even if any members of its Executive Council were also in the IRB.

The seriousness of this last point is an open question. The past record of the IRB did not indicate an unwillingness to wield its underground influence on the other bodies it had infiltrated, whether they were the Irish Volunteers, the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin or others. Whether the Free State Army would be the exception, however, would remain to be seen, as there was still plenty of work to be done on the first two points.

This was begun in earnest a few weeks later. The matter of a revived IRB was put to a number of army officers stationed in Dublin who had also been IRB Centres, or junior officers (each Centre being in charge of a Circle, the basic unit of the IRB, consisting of no more than 10 members). The feedback was positive, with the consensus of opinion being that these proposals could be put into effect.

The only caveat was that a new constitution should be written to accommodate IRB men serving in the Army. After an existence on the outskirts of power, the fraternity would have to adjust to being on the inside.[2]

A New Constitution

A copy of such a constitution gives an idea as to how this accommodation could have been managed. Titled ‘I.R.B. Constitution – 1923 (Provisional?)’, it can be found in the papers of Florence O’Donoghue. Once a prominent IRB/IRA officer, he had dropped out of both, disillusioned by the fratricide of the Civil War.

The document had been sent to O’Donoghue by a “D. Lynch”, possibly Diarmuid Lynch, another former IRB man. Whoever the sender, he had noted at the top of the document: “This copy was made by me of the new official draft (which I was not supposed to have seen).”

Richard-Mulcahy-1
Richard Mulcahy

Another annotation in the margins identified Ó Muirthile and General Richard Mulcahy as the ones who had presented this proposed constitution to the Army. Truly, this revived IRB was moving in elevated circles.

The successor to Michael Collins as the Commander-in-Chief, Mulcahy had also sat on the IRB Supreme Council with Ó Muirthile before the Civil War. It was a sign that the new IRB would be continuing with the old leadership.

Much of the document is a rehash of material from past IRB constitutions. This is unsurprising, given that it was supposed to be building on an already established society, but there are some noteworthy, not to say disturbing, innovations.

One such is the Clause 13(b): in addition to the Divisions for different Irish counties (15 and a 16th for Great Britain) as before, there were to be eleven parallel Divisions for the Army, each based on a different command post. The 1st Division encompassed G.H.Q., the second was for the Dublin Command, the third for the Curragh Command, and so on.

To no other institution in the Free State did the Constitution pay such particular attention; as far as the new IRB was concerned, the Army was very much its territory, to be managed accordingly.

While the groupings of the rest of the Organisation consisted of ‘Circles’, those within the Army would be ‘Clubs’ but otherwise would follow the same arrangements, with the Clubs not exceeding ten members unless authorised by the Supreme Council, and each to be headed by a Centre who would report up the IRB chain of command. The new additions were intended to work seamlessly with the old, an exception being that a Club member could not also be in a civilian Circle.

Every Power and Movement in the Nation

The Supreme Council was to be expanded accordingly. There would be twenty-eight members, as opposed to the fifteen in the 1920 Constitution: one from each of the sixteen Divisions covering the country, and eight out of the eleven Army Divisions. The remaining four would be co-opted by the remainder.

Thus constituted, the Supreme Council would be ready to pursue its stated aims:

Objects 1. The objects of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (hereinafter sometimes called “The Organisation”) shall be: – To establish and maintain a free and independent Republican Government in Ireland.

Policy 2(a) Whereas National Sovereignty is inherent and inalienable and, while acknowledging that political authority is exercised through instruments legitimately expressed, the Irish Republican Brotherhood pledges itself the custodies of the Republican Ideal – the traditional expression of National Independence.

(b) The policy of the IRB shall be to utilise every power and movement in the Nation, it shall influence them in their activities so as to secure that the maximum organised strength of the Nation – armed, economic, political, social and otherwise shall be at all times available for the achievement of its objects.[3]

It is hard to say how much of a finished product this document was intended to be: a rough draft or the final instructions. But it is not the proclamation of an organisation that was planning on going away anytime soon.

Instead, it showed a leadership that was thinking in the long term. It was prepared to be innovative, with its expanded Supreme Council and the formation of ‘Clubs’ to fulfil the role of Circles’. But in its assurance of itself as the only true keeper of the Republican flame and the willingness to use others in the pursuit of that self-appointed mission, it had revealed itself as very much the IRB of old.

Tom Barry’s Plea

ohegarty1
Seán O’Hegarty

Ó Muirthile and his Army colleagues were not the only ones considering what a resuscitated IRB could bring. Four months after agreeing to revive the Organisation, Ó Muirthile had an appointment in his office with Seán O’Hegarty in May 1923.

The former O/C of the Cork 1st Brigade, O’Hegarty had remained neutral during the Civil War, though he remained in close contact with many of his former comrades. It was on behalf of one of these compatriots, Tom Barry, the famed leader of the West Cork Flying Column, that O’Hegarty had asked for the meeting.

O’Hegarty delivered to Ó Muirthile a letter written by Barry. Announcing himself as “an officer in the Organisation in County Cork”, Barry appealed to the pro-Treaty IRB to use its influence towards stopping the manhunt of the embattled Anti-Treatyites, many of whom, like Barry, considered themselves as much a part of the Brotherhood as their Free State counterparts. The Brotherhood, Barry argued, should come together again as one body in order to not lose sight of its ideals, particularly as there was still work to be done for the Republic.

Beneath the stirring rhetoric, Barry was counting on the IRB to facilitate an honourable climb-down for both sides. As far as Ó Muirthile was concerned, that horse had well and truly left the stable. Another prominent Anti-Treatyite, Liam Deasy, had already signed a public document while imprisoned, urging his partisans to surrender themselves and their arms to the Free State. Ó Muirthile curtly declined to pass on Barry’s message to the rest of the Army Council and told O’Hegarty that if the Anti-Treatyites had any interest in stopping the fight, they should consider Deasy’s example.

tombarry
Tom Barry

For Ó Muirthile, the only value of the meeting was how it revealed the depths of the despair among the Anti-Treatyites. If a fighter like Barry was close to breaking point, then there was little hope for the rest. Contrary to what he told O’Hegarty, he did discuss the matter with Mulcahy and the rest of the Army Council. They likewise were indifferent, and nothing was passed onto the government.

Barry’s hopes for the Brotherhood as a bridge between the two sides had been mired in sentimentality and wishful thinking. Ó Muirthile’s dismissal was pitiless but clear-headed. From then on, any new incarnation of the IRB would be formed on the Army’s terms.[4]

Roads Not Taken

While a failure, Barry’s letter did provide a convenient excuse when the re-emergence of the IRB became public knowledge in the wake of the Army Mutiny of 1924. Speaking to the Dáil on the 26th June 1924, Richard Mulcahy quoted a note he had made shortly after learning of the offer from Ó Muirthile, with the following points:

1. The Anti-Treatyites had tried to form their own IRB to strengthen their grip on their members.
2. That Barry’s letter was addressed to the Supreme Council showed his recognition of its authority.
3. That the letter came from Barry was particularly important given his reputation as a fighter.
4. The IRB might be utilised as a body for which the Anti-Treatyites could acquiesce in terms of them disbanding without humiliation.
5. That there was no group other than the IRB in such a position made the situation a delicate one.[5]

FSAThe first point is a peculiar one as there had been nothing in Barry’s letter about attempts among the Anti-Treatyites at forming a counter-IRB. It is possible that Mulcahy had heard about the musings of Liam Lynch, the IRA Chief of Staff, about reforming the IRB Supreme Council, and the Brotherhood in general, along Anti-Treatyite lines.[6]

Although nothing came of such plans, they showed that the IRB was still indeed considered a valid institution by many on the Anti-Treaty side, and that Mulcahy’s hopes were not entirely without substance.

Mulcahy made a second note a few days later, expanding on his original thoughts:

1. The Anti-Treatyite IRA was at a dead end as a body and should disband, with only the IRB able to provide a pivotal point to arrange this.
2. The IRB was fully controlled by the Army Council. It was possible that within a couple of years, the IRB could evolve into an open political society, much like the Irish Volunteers had done.
3. While the Government might not want to associate with a secret society like the IRB, it was essential that the state control the moulding of the Organisation, both as a constructive entity and as a means for penitent Anti-Treatyites to withdraw from the Civil War with honour.[7]

The problem with these noble-sounding, if wistful, ambitions is that there is no evidence of any attempts to put them into practice. Ó Muirthile’s later account made it clear that the reaction of the Army Council, including Mulcahy, towards the letter was an imperious, if not contemptuous, one – hardly the best basis for an IRB outreach programme.

Whether the IRB could become an open society and not a secret one, using the Irish Volunteers as its template, is a question that would never be answered. However, there is nothing in the 1923 Constitution to suggest any such leanings. If anything, the old oath to keep the secrets of the Brotherhood and the right of the Supreme Council to punish any errant members remained on paper.

As for the notion of the state being allowed to guide the IRB, that would again be in contrast to the list of goals in the 1923 Constitution which made it plain that the new role of the Organisation was to be the other way around. Far from being given the keys to the Brotherhood, state ministers were kept in the dark for long as they could be.

Suspicious of rumours he was hearing about Army officers being summoned from all over the country to sit in secret sessions, the Minister of Justice, Kevin O’Higgins, confronted Mulcahy in February 1923. With no small amount of chutzpah, the general blandly denied that there was anything behind such reports.

Mucahy’s statements to the Dáil must thus be seen as excuses and rationalisations after the fact, for all the evidence points to the IRB being for the IRB first and foremost.

Kevin O’Higgins Concerns

This revived IRB was to be very much an elitist affair. The informal meetings that Ó Muirthile had characterised the IRB revival had been between those with previous experience in the administrative roles for the Organisation. Ó Muirthile took care to consult former Supreme Council members and IRB officers but made no effort to reach out to ordinary initiates.

FSA2This was more than mere thoughtless but part of a glass-ceiling policy. As he described later in his memoirs, Ó Muirthile did not think it wise to be indiscriminate in the shaping of the new Brotherhood. This cartel within a cabal soon led to resentment among those on the outside, a simmering discontent that would have ruinous consequences for all concerned.[8]

But before that, Ó Muirthile had more immediate worries. Shortly after seeing O’Hegarty, Ó Muirthile heard that Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister for Justice, had found out about the efforts within the Army to revive the IRB. Wishing to head off any future problems, Ó Muirthile discussed the matter with Mulcahy, and they agreed to invite O’Higgins to a meeting where they could soothe his fears.

As O’Higgins later recalled, Mulcahy came to him “in a purely personal way” which the minister found distasteful. Another bit of overfamiliarity was how the general referred to Seán Ó Muirthile by name rather than by his rank of Lieutenant-General. O’Higgins made his displeasure plain at the subject of the IRB. He may also have been a member in the pre-Truce days but now, secret societies could only be detrimental to the state of the Army, not to mention the country. Mulcahy accepted this but asked O’Higgins to come along to the meeting all the same.[9]

It was on this unpromising start that the meeting was held on the 10th July in the office of President W.T. Cosgrave. Cosgrave was present along with O’Higgins and the Minister for Education, Eoin MacNeill. Representing the IRB were Ó Muirthile and Mulcahy. Ó Muirthile began by bringing up the subject of Tom Barry’s letter, which was discussed in a general way by those present but resulted in nothing definite.

The talk then turned to the IRB. Ó Muirthile was happy to outline to his audience the activities of the society before and after the Treaty. He was to leave the meeting confident that the ministers had understood his position and accepted the IRB as part of the new state of affairs.

On that score, however, Ó Muirthile was to be very, very much so mistaken.[10]

A Conspiracy against the Conspiracy

Liam-Tobin1
Liam Tobin

Another erroneous assumption on Ó Muirthile’s part was that the junior IRB members who found themselves disenfranchised would passively acquiesce. A rival faction was formed out of these frustrations: the IRA Organisation (IRAO), also called the Old IRA or the Tobin Gang after Liam Tobin, one of its ringleaders and a former gunman in Michael Collins’ Squad.

Tobin added the foreword to The Truth about the Army Crisis, the document disseminated by the IRAO to explain its motives and grievances. The impact The Truth had on a wider audience is doubtful, and there no evidence that it rallied any segment of the Irish public to its cause, but it does reveal much about the conflict between the IRAO and the IRB, how they differed and, more importantly, where the groups overlapped.

The main difference between The Truth’s and Ó Muirthile’s version of events is which group came first: the IRB or the IRAO. According to the former, the IRB had never gone away to begin with, and was keen to stress the continuity between the ideals of the IRB of old and the aspirations of the new:

The big majority of the (IRB) members…accepted the Treaty as a means towards complete independence, and felt, when they joined the Free State Army, that they were acting in accordance with the spirit and tradition of the Brotherhood, and, of course, they all had the continuity of the Organisation in mind.[11]

The appearance of the IRAO seems almost incidental in Ó Muirthile’s account. He went so far as to deny that the two factions were rivals.[12] This seems highly disingenuous in light of the IRAO’s insistence that their insubordination against the Army Council was fuelled by the hostility of the IRB, which they clearly equated with the Council.

In The Truth, the new IRB was not created until after the IRAO had already been set up. Alarmed by the banding together of those soldiers who were dissatisfied with the direction the Army was taking, the Army Council set up what it called the IRB in order to counteract the IRAO’s counteractions. These efforts culminated in an ultimatum from one of the Army Council to the new group: “Drop your organisation and we will drop ours.”[13]

FSA3

The Truth drips with contempt at the idea that the new so-called Irish Republican Brotherhood could ever call itself as such. If it was truly the IRB of old, the reader is asked, why were the IRAO members not advised on its re-organisation, considering how they had been IRB members from before. Clearly, the disgruntled soldiers saw nothing wrong with the reappearance of the IRB, just that they had not been invited to the party.

Also revealing is the language in The Truth. With its talk of the “national ideal” and what should be done for “the Nation”, not to mention the liberal invoking of Michael Collins’ name, the self-righteous, self-assured tone of the IRAO were more than a little reminiscent of that used in the 1923 IRB Constitution. Whatever their differences, the two societies were reading from the same hymn sheet.[14]

A Continuity IRB?

While neither is unpartisan in their accounts, Ó Muirthile’s and the IRAO’s are in agreement in how both groups discussed a merger as a way of resolving the conflict. According to Ó Muirthile, this never got beyond the talking stage due to the same prejudice the IRB showed towards any prospective members who had not held a senior role from before.[15]

The Truth was more detailed about the series of talks and meetings which the IRAO came to believe were merely stalling tactics on the part of the IRB. Mulcahy at one point promised the IRAO places on the IRB Supreme Council. This was not kept. Another meeting between the IRAO and the IRB, the former in the persons of Mulcahy and Ó Muirthile, saw the same promise of representation on the Supreme Council made. When pressed, however, Ó Muirthile admitted that this would only amount to one placement. Once again, even this meagre promise fell through.[16]

It was not until the IRAO saw that the IRB had no intention of releasing even a finger of its grip on Army policy that it concluded that further negotiations were futile and took steps towards what would become the Army Mutiny of 1924. In this, The Truth is almost certainly reliable. For all its self-aggrandising, the IRAO would most likely have been content with a relaxation of the monopoly held by the IRB on the upper echelons of the Army.

This would not have meant the end of the monopoly, however, merely more stakeholders in it. Neither the IRB nor the IRAO disagreed with the issue of control, just who should have the rights to it.

In the resulting inquiry into the Mutiny and the discussions in the Dáil, the IRB was characterised as having been revived or re-organised as if this IRB was a new incarnation of the old. However, there are grounds to believe that this IRB was in fact a continuation of the same. That men like Ó Muirthile and Mulcahy, who had sat on the Supreme Council during the Treaty talks, remained on as senior members of the IRB within the Army to the point of writing the new constitution, suggests that nothing had intended to change.

While there is no reason to disbelieve Ó Muirthile when he said that there had been no meetings of the IRB between January 1922 and the start of 1923, this is more likely due to a lack of opportunity and the confusion brought about the split from the Civil War than the death of the old IRB. That the IRAO mutineers had been IRB members from before the Treaty and had expected the new IRB to continue treating them as insiders suggests that while the pecking order had changed, the mindset of Organisation members had not.

The End

The results of the Mutiny were the ending of the military careers of both the mutineers and the Army Council. Mulcahy was to endure the lambasting of the man he had attempted to deceive, Kevin O’Higgins, who was quick to levy blame on the Army heads who had tried playing at secret societies.

Kevin-O-Higgins
Kevin O’Higgins

O’Higgins was to describe to the Dáil a very different interpretation to Ó Muirthile’s of the meeting in President Cosgrave’s office on the 10th July 1923. Ó Muirthile was to insist that he had left the meeting confident that everyone was on board with the IRB. But according to O’Higgins, both Ó Muirthile and Mulcahy had at no point specified the IRB as actually in existence. They had instead opaquely described it only as an option. O’Higgins had used the meeting to denounce any revived IRB, option or not, likening it to a Tammany Hall that would make puppets of all in the Dáil.[17]

Or so O’Higgins told the Dáil. It is possible that, like any good public speaker, O’Higgins was tailoring his message to the audience. However, the revived IRB seems to have made no effort to reconnect with its members in the Dáil, being content to keep itself a military franchise. Perhaps Ó Muirthile had been sincere after all when he said that the intention when reviving the IRB was not to subvert the government.

Whether out of myopia or principle, this attitude would cost the Brotherhood dear. Having entwined itself so tightly with the Army, the IRB was unable to survive when expelled from it. There would be no further efforts to resuscitate the Organisation after 1924. Whatever dreams or ambitions it had had for itself, in the new Ireland they would wither on the vine.

Post Brotherhood

Whichever was the more accurate account of that meeting in the President’s office, O’Higgins was to have the last word. Ó Muirthile lost his rank as Quartermaster General. A business venture in Dublin failed, and he returned to his home village in Leap, Work Cork. There, he resumed his previous job as an Irish language teacher, and set to work writing a book. Part memoir, part history and part apologia, it was never published and remains largely forgotten in UCD Archives other than the occasional appearance in a footnote of a more successful book.[18]

Mulcahy was also to lose his position as Commander-in-Chief. He continued in politics but, as late as 1932, the embarrassment of his past associations was used against him. Mulcahy attempted to make additions to the Army Pensions Bill by Fianna Fáil that would have debarred members of certain illegal organisations. By this, Mulcahy meant the IRA, which was then in an informal alliance with the new ruling party. Frank Aiken as Minister for Defence retorted by reminding Mulcahy of the time he had helped to facilitate another certain illegal organisation. Mulcahy’s motion was lost by 65 to 45.[19]

 

Originally posted on The Irish Story (29/06/2015)

 

See also:

To Not Fade Away: The Irish Republican Brotherhood, Post-1916

‘This Splendid Historic Organisation’: The Irish Republican Brotherhood among the Anti-Treatyites, 1921-4

 

References

[1] P7a/209, University College Dublin – Richard Mulcahy Papers, p. 177

[2] Ibid, p. 299

[3] National Library of Ireland – Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,236 ; the 1920 Constitution at MS 31,233

[4] P7a/209, pp. 220-223

[5] Dáil Report, Volume 7, Columns 3121-3122 (23 June 1924)

[6] National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 31,240

[7] Dáil Report, Volume 7, Columns 3123-3124 (23 June 1924)

[8] P7a/209, p.253

[9] Dáil Report, Volume 7, Columns 3157-3158 (23 June 1924)

[10] P7a/209, p.229

[11] Ibid, p.177

[12] Ibid, p.253

[13] The Truth About the Army Crisis (Official), with a foreword by Major-General Liam Tobin (Dublin, issued by the Irish Republican Army Organisation [1924]), p. 4

[14] Ibid, p.6

[15] P7a/209, p.275

[16] The Truth About the Army Crisis, p. 6

[17] Dáil Report, Volume 7, Columns 3158-3159

[18] Southern Star, 15/11/1997

[19] Irish Independent, 28/10/1932

 

Bibliography

University College Dublin – Richard Mulcahy Papers

P7a/209

National Library of Ireland – Florence O’Donoghue Papers

MS 31,233

MS 31,236

MS 31,240

Publications

The Truth About the Army Crisis (Official), with a foreword by Major-General Liam Tobin (Dublin, issued by the Irish Republican Army Organisation [1924])

Dáil Report

Volume 7, 26 June 1924

Newspapers

Irish Independent, 28/10/1932

Southern Star, 15/11/1997

‘This Splendid Historic Organisation’: The Irish Republican Brotherhood among the Anti-Treatyites, 1921-4

Liam Lynch

Liamlynchira
Liam Lynch

By November 1922, five months into the Irish Civil War, Liam Lynch was a busy man as Chief of Staff to the Anti-Treatyite IRA. Not too busy, however, to turn his thoughts towards an issue that he believed needed serious consideration: the state of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). With that in mind, he wrote to one of his most trusted lieutenants, Liam Deasy. Displaying a sentimental streak, he asked Deasy for advice on how best to “save the honour of this splendid historic organisation.”

As a member of the IRB’s Supreme Council, Lynch had watched with dismay the direction the Brotherhood’s leadership had taken. With the death of Harry Boland, and the imprisonment of Joe McKelvey and Charlie Daly who had both also taken the anti-Treaty line, he was now the sole remaining Council member opposed to the Treaty who was alive and at liberty.

Determined not to let opportunities pass by, Lynch outlined to Deasy his idea that the IRB Division Council call on its secretary to reopen an adjourned meeting from before. Represented at this meeting would be the Supreme Council and a number of IRB middle-tier officers. If necessary, signatures would be taken of as many officers could be had, as most of them had been against the Treaty at the last session. Lynch was clearly aiming to go into such a showdown with the numbers loaded in his favour.

At this hypothetical congress, each member of the Supreme Council would be held to account for their sanctioning of the hated Treaty and their waging of war against fellow Republicans. The guilty individuals – and Lynch clearly had certain people in mind – would be removed, leaving the Supreme Council free to be reformed on appropriately anti-Treaty lines. If such individuals were to refuse such a meeting, the Supreme Council could be reorganised without the guilty members who would be dropped altogether.

Florence_odonoghoe
Florence O’Donoghue

Lynch asked Deasy to show his letter to other IRB members, including Seán O’Hegarty and Florence O’Donoghue. Although both men had taken a neutral stance for the Civil War, Lynch believed they would support him in bringing the IRB “back to the old idea.” All three of them, after all, had formed close bonds from serving together in the Cork IRA during War of Independence and remained his confidants even as they had backed away from either side in the succeeding conflict.[1]

Playing Possum

The IRB – also known as the Organisation to insiders – provides a challenge to researchers in that the sources do not necessarily provide a clear narrative. Being a secret society, it was not in its nature to advertise itself or leave convenient records for historians. Nonetheless, some paperwork was essential to maintain communications between the various groups and individuals making up of the IRB, and enough has survived to make sense of the society as it went through one of the most turbulent times in modern Irish history.

This article does not aspire to explain the IRB at this period in its entirety at this period. Instead, it will attempt to shed some light on the thoughts of the men within the Brotherhood and what they hoped to achieve with it.

Part of the problem of studying the IRB in the later stages of the War of Independence and afterwards is that even contemporaries were not sure if this secretive fraternity was still around in any meaningful sense. It was the viewpoint of James Hogan, “on the eve of the Truce the IRB was semi-moribund beneath, and alive only on top or in its upper levels.”[2]

As Hogan was Director of Intelligence in the Free State army, this was a substantial opinion, and one supported by others. Two of the leading figures in the Athlone IRA Brigade characterised the Organisation as falling into disuse during the later stages of the War of Independence as British efforts intensified and communications became difficult. But they also described the IRB as being revived during the breathing space provided by the Truce.[3]

This spoke of one of the Brotherhood’s great strengths: the ability to lie dormant until the pressure had slackened, allowing it to pick itself up again. It survived the Easter Rising which had seen its senior leaders executed and their replacements forced to start anew. As Liam Lynch saw it, there was no reason why the Organisation could not be recovered again, this time from its split over the Treaty.

The IRB would be condemned by critics as the instigator behind the acceptance of the fateful Treaty. Éamon de Valera cursed the machinations of “secret societies” within the Dáil as the Treaty was debated. When the Dáil ended up carrying the Treaty by a small majority, Seán T. O’Kelly held the IRB to blame, and rhetorically asked how such a crowd could be held as honest men.[4]

So there is then a certain poignancy in how Lynch, who would similarly be censured by many for leading the Anti-Treaty side into a doomed fight, did not lose his faith in the Brotherhood and what it could accomplish.

Dissent in the Ranks

Given the policy of the IRB to focus its recruitment among the IRA on officers and others with influence, it is perhaps not surprising that onlookers like James Hogan saw the Brotherhood as essentially an elitist society, one with a head but not necessarily much of a body.

It was a view that Florence O’Donoghue was keen to challenge in his later writings. To him, the IRB had been a living, active group. If there had been anything moribund about it, it was its upper tiers who had forsaken the Republic when they had accepted the Treaty. The rank and file of the Organisation, O’Donoghue stressed, “believed with passionate intensity in the de facto existence of the Republic, and they hotly resented that any group of men, even chosen leaders, should attempt to assume the power of destroying what they had sworn to uphold.”[5]

As an example of this intensity to the point of disobedience, O’Donoghue cited a meeting of all the officers in the County Board officers and District Centres of the IRB on the 21st of January 1922. There, they protested to the Supreme Council against the latter’s support of the Treaty. “Only a high sense of duty could have driven a group of disciplined officers into such open conflict with their superiors,” was how O’Donoghue explained it, with pride and no small sense of wonder.[6]

A Democratic Conspiracy

It would be worthwhile at this point to assess how the IRB was structured. A detailed description is found in the nine-page IRB Constitution from 1920. It was marked as “revised to date”, making it the most current version that would have been available to Lynch and O’Donoghue.

The basic unit of the society was its Circles, which were divided into sections of not more than ten men each, and which elected an officer, or Centre, for the Circle.

Each county in Ireland was divided into two or more Districts. Centres in each District formed a board which elected a committee for itself. Cities were enough to be considered Districts in themselves.

Further up the hierarchy were the County Centres, elected by the local Centres in each county. District Centres and County Circles were grouped into the eleven Divisions encompassing the IRB’s sphere of influence: eight Divisions for Ireland, two for the south and north halves of England, and one for Scotland.

At the apex of this pyramid was the Supreme Council. District Centres and County Circles in each Division elected by ballot a five-strong committee which in turn elected someone to represent the Division on the Supreme Council. These eleven men, one for each Division, would co-opt four additional members, leading to a total membership of fifteen for the Council.

As its name would suggest, the Supreme Council demanded, and for the most part, commanded the respect of the rest of the IRB: “The authority of the Supreme Council shall be unquestioned.” It claimed the authority to inflict punishments on errant members such as suspensions, dismissals or, in the cases of those termed treasonous, the death penalty.

But at the same time the IRB Constitution was at pains to ensure its leadership was a representative one, and that the middle and lower tiers had some say in the make-up of the ones above. It was that democratic tradition that Liam Lynch was hoping to tap into when he made his proposals to reform the Supreme Council.[7]

Florence O’Donoghue

There would be few people better qualified to critique Lynch’s views on IRB reform than O’Donoghue, having risen through the fraternity’s ranks in the months before the Truce, allowing him opportunity to observe its inner workings.

He had been an early member of the Cork IRB in the opening salves of the War of Independence, and had remained with it even while troubled by the issues of a dual command within the IRA that a secret society would bring. O’Donoghue’s decision to stay with the IRB seems to have been largely based on the realisation that the Brotherhood would continue to be a deciding force behind the scenes. Which is lucky for historians, as it is in no small part due to him and his meticulous note-taking that as much is known about the IRB for this time.[8]

Sean_OMuirthile_caricature
Seán Ó Muirthile caricature

O’Donoghue was promoted to responsibility over the Circles in Cork City and the county in March 1921. A letter from Seán Ó Muirthile, a member of the Supreme Council, explained to him that Liam Lynch and he had been recommended in a high-level IRB meeting in Dublin that had included himself, Michael Collins and Liam Deasy. Although Ó Muirthile did not say, Deasy was most likely the one who pushed his fellow Corkmen forward.

As Ó Muirthile described it, O’Donoghue’s elevation to acting County Centre was a temporary one until the proper elections could be held. It was also an overdue one, as the Cork IRB was in limbo due to the loss of two of its leading lights.

Tom Hales, who had represented South Munster for the IRB as a Divisional Commander, had been arrested in July 1920 by British soldiers. His replacement, Paddy Cahill, had been unable to come from Tralee to take over, so Lynch had been asked to instead.

O’Donoghue’s role would be to replace Domhnall O’Callaghan as County Centre, as the latter had left without telling anyone, leaving the local IRB floundering. O’Callaghan’s subsequent court-martial for his dereliction of duty would be just one of the many ongoing concerns O’Donoghue would be obliged to deal with.

In addition to updating the new acting County Centre, Ó Muirthile sent O’Donoghue eight copies of general orders from the Supreme Council to distribute. Ó Muirthile comes across in his correspondence as eager to please, almost cheery, and it is sobering to think that in a little over a year’s time, the two men would be on opposing sides in the Treaty split.

General Orders

Addressed “To All County Centres” and composed on behalf of the Supreme Council, the general order that Ó Muirthile told O’Donoghue to pass on provides for historians the direction the IRB leadership was planning on taking its membership. Dated to March 1921, the document opens by stressing the importance of maintaining the Organisation in a “virile and effective position throughout the country.”

In what would have made critics like Éamon de Valera and Cathal Brugha grind their teeth, the Supreme Council took unreserved credit for making possible the current fight against the British. Continued coordination with the IRA was called for, as “the military functions of both bodies are similar to each other, the success or failing of one is the success or failure of both.”

The IRB had spent a lot of time infiltrating the IRA, and could boast of a large amount of the latter’s officers as its own. It clearly looked forward to the persistence of such an advantageous relationship. The document ended by reminding its readers that only “physical force methods” would have a chance of winning them anything.

irish-volunteers-cork
Irish Volunteers

Such passages show that the Supreme Council was preparing its members for the possible continuation of the War. Also, that the IRB had no intention of stepping out of the shadows. It planned on remaining as it was before: an army within an army.

Another issue that the document addressed was that of elections throughout the levels in the IRB. The Circle elections were planned for the 15 of June 1921, the County elections on the 15th of August, and the Divisional Elections on the 15th of October. In a separate document, the County elections would be called for the 4th of November, indicating they had been pushed back. The last round of elections for the IRB had been two years ago, and the Supreme Council admitted that a lot of work would have to be made up for.

Interestingly, there seems to have been no dates set for re-electing the Supreme Council, suggesting that the democracy within the Organisation may only have been intended to go so far at this delicate stage.[9]

Treaty Reactions

O’Donoghue’s files do not indicate how these general orders were received by the Organisation audience. These files do, however, allow us insight into how some within the lower and middle ranks responded to the Treaty. By this time, O’Donoghue had gone from acting County Centre to the Divisional Secretary of South Munster, granting him supervision over the Circles in Cork, Kerry and Waterford.

The letters O’Donoghue received, or at least the ones he kept in his papers, were overwhelmingly against the Treaty. A letter from the 1st of January 1922 from a County Centre spoke of the Organisation suffering due to the uncertainty over the Treaty and an impatience for the Supreme Council to issue instructions. What was clear in this letter was that the Cork IRB was generally against the Treaty, with three District Boards forwarding resolutions to that effect.

Michael-Collins-1
Michael Collins

A letter to O’Donoghue on the 10th of January from Liam Lynch, by then a recent addition to the Supreme Council, bemoaned the general lack of trust within the Council, and blamed it on the likes of Ó Muirthile and Michael Collins. The disquiet was evidently as much a feature of the upper tiers as it was of the rest of the Brotherhood.

The New Political Situation

The Supreme Council released what was for many an overdue announcement. The title, ‘The Organisation and the New Political Situation in Ireland’, showed an awareness that it was treading into uncharted waters. The document was signed for the 12th of December 1921, and issued to the rest of the Brotherhood, according to O’Donoghue, on the 12th of January.

It began with a cautious, but telling, statement about how it had always been IRB policy to make use of all instruments, “political or otherwise”, towards the ultimate pursuit of the Republic. In case readers were in doubt as to what this talk of political instruments could mean, the announcement went on to state how the Supreme Council had decided that the “present peace Treaty between Ireland and Great Britain should be ratified.” The uncompromising stance from ten months back, when physical force methods were touted as the only way forward, must have seemed a long time ago.

The Supreme Council, however, appeared hesitant to push the point too far, as it allowed for IRB members doubling as TDs to vote as they saw fit on the matter. Perhaps the Council feared that to appear too domineering would push its followers into a split. Nonetheless, that was exactly what it got.[10]

Cracks Widen

Another letter from a District Centre in Cork was about a meeting held on the 18th of February 1922, where a resolution was passed expressing approval of County and Division Boards withdrawing their support from the Supreme Council over the Treaty, and calling for re-elections of the Supreme Council at the earliest date.

volunteers
Irish Volunteers/IRA

All of this would support O’Donoghue’s claim in his later writings that the South Munster IRB had overwhelmingly rejected the Treaty to the point of defying their leadership. This did not mean that the rebellious rank-and-file saw themselves as in opposition to the IRB as an organisation, just its Supreme Council. After all, the same resolution by the County and Division Boards condemned the Treaty in that it was contrary to the spirit of the IRB Constitution. Little wonder, then, that Liam Lynch assumed that he would have the numbers on his side when retaking control of the Supreme Council.

This attitude was not limited to the Cork IRB. A report from Co. Kerry at the same period proudly told of how the Supreme Council’s orders had practically no effect on its Circles there, where the pro-Treaty members were very much a minority. Otherwise, the Kerry IRB was doing well and holding regular meetings. Similarly, a report from the Waterford IRB from the 13th of January 1922 enthused about how its membership had in the past month increased considerably in size to the point of having to subdivide some Circles and create new ones.

Whatever the divisions were in the ranks and at the top, the Organisation was far from moribund. Instead, it was thriving. Little wonder, then, that Liam Lynch saw that the IRB, if properly reformed under anti-Treaty lines like many of its membership already wanted, could continue to be a great asset.[11]

The Replies

Deasy did as his Chief of Staff asked and forwarded the latter’s letter to the two neutrals, Seán O’Hegarty and Florence O’Donoghue. Deasy’s covering letter to the pair was cautiously optimistic about Lynch’s proposals, though he said he was keen to have their opinions before taking any steps.

ohegarty1
Seán O’Hegarty

O’Hegarty’s reply to Deasy was brief and unmoved. He had no idea at present on the subject of the IRB, and that in any case it seemed a waste to bother reorganising it while the war continued.

O’Donoghue’s first reply on the 2nd of December went beyond dismissive to insulting. Lynch’s idea was absurd, which surprised O’Donoghue as he thought Lynch had more sense. The IRB as it stood was too sundered to be worth much. If the current Anti-Treatyite offensive was successful, then there might be a chance to such a reorganisation, but in which case the victorious party would have no need for an IRB of any kind anyway.

A second reply from O’Donoghue almost a month later, on the 29th of December, saw him in a more reflective and agreeable mood. He apologised for his curt tone from before, blaming it on his poor health at the time. Now he agreed with Lynch’s original points: that the IRB should be maintained to continue the fight for the Republic, and that in order for this to happen, the rotten and disloyal elements would have to be purged. In addition, the influence of the IRB would have to be extended to include the “young virile Separatist and Republican elements” as opposed to the “fogey” members that O’Donoghue held responsible for the disarray.

O’Donoghue was less sure about Lynch’s proposal to call a meeting for the Supreme Council. He feared that the pro-Treaty members already formed a majority who would stonewall any further arguments against the Treaty. It was, after all, as O’Donoghue admitted, the traditional IRB policy to use any concession by Britain as stepping-stone towards eventual Irish independence, and O’Donoghue was honest enough to doubt that his side had any good counter-arguments.

A more promising alternative would be to make a demand at a Supreme Council meeting – and this demand could be used as an excuse for getting the meeting agreed in the first place – for a reassembling of the complete society, with elections for a new Supreme Council by the Circles that made up the grassroots of the IRB.

O’Donoghue did not think the current Council could refuse such a demand and even if it did, the Anti-Treatyite faction would be justified in going ahead with such elections anyway, elections that O’Donoghue had no doubt would result in a Supreme Council more to their liking.

This was a more ambitious overhaul than Lynch’s, which was concerned only with the Supreme Council. O’Donoghue’s vision encompassed the whole of the IRB, a vision entirely in keeping with its Constitution, which was at pains to ensure that the leadership was a representative one.

As a side issue, such an election could also serve a secondary function as a way of ascertaining which of the Circles on paper actually existed. Keeping a society in the dark could be as much of a nuisance to those inside as it was to its opponents.[12]

Liam Deasy

Liam-Deasy
Liam Deasy

O’Donoghue admitted the difficulty in implementing such a grand scheme in the present war conditions, and was at a loss for a solution unless the opportunity of another truce presented itself. Nonetheless, Deasy was taken with O’Donoghue ideas without being put off by the latter’s doubts. Reporting back to Lynch, Deasy doubted the adjourned meeting could be reconvened, as Lynch as suggested, repeating O’Donoghue’s anticipation that the Supreme Council would just block it.

But the call for the meeting should be made all the same, with the County Centres made aware of it. If the Supreme Council were to stymie it as expected, the County Centres could act as a temporary Council in its place until the IRB was sufficiently reoriented to hold elections for a fresh leadership. Deasy’s concern was for when, not if, this could be carried out.

Deasy ended his discussion on the topic in his letter with a request for Lynch for the names of the IRB officers in the southern area outside of South Munster – parts Deasy was evidently foggy on – in order to pass these ideas onto them.[13]

The End

There was to be no further correspondence relating to the ideas by Lynch, Deasy and O’Donoghue to take back the IRB, or, at least, none that has survived. Not that it would have made much difference in the end, as Free State forces simply steamrolled the opposition into submission. Lynch was killed on April 1923, five months after he had first aired his intention to re-establish the honour of the IRB as he saw it.

O’Donoghue had made the point in his first reply that if the Anti-Treatyites were to win, reforming the IRB would become an unnecessary endeavour. The Free State was to prove the truth of that initial assessment, though not in the way he had intended.

The new IRA Executive after Lynch was to be of a very different mindset to Lynch in regards to his “splendid historic organisation.” There was a meeting of eleven County Centres held on the 2nd of November 1924, eighteen months after the Civil War had officially ended. Of the eleven Centres who had been summoned, four were absent; in one case, because the man had recently died.

The Brigadier-General read out the decision of the IRA Executive for the remaining IRB Circles within the IRA to disband. From then on, the IRA alone would be sufficient, and the use for a secret society had ceased. When it came to fulfilling the role of an underground army for a republican Ireland, the post-Civil War IRA would need or brook no distractions.

There was no amendment or counter-proposal, but each of the seven Centres was anxious to state his personal view. Three agreed that the IRB had outlived itself. One also agreed that the Organisation should be disbanded but with the caveat of it being re-established at a future time if necessary.

Three disagreed with the Executive’s decision. The IRB should instead be reformed – in an unknowing echo of the late Liam Lynch – and if properly controlled, it could still uphold the “National Tradition,” as one man put it. These views revealed the emotional attachment some of the members still had for their Brotherhood even after the trials of two wars. Another dissenter argued in favour of retaining the Brotherhood on the grounds of tradition, as it had represented the ‘physical force movement’ since the time of Wolfe Tone and even at the present, it had not ceased.

But it had. The Brigadier-General recommended that the County Centres present meet with the Circle Centres under their sphere of influence to inform them of the disbandment orders. The Circle Centres would in turn pass the message on the members of their Circles. The minutes of the meeting would be sent in circulars to the Circles who had not been represented at the meeting, including those in Britain and the United States.

The IRB had been designed under its constitution to be a compromise between a top-down and down-top structure: the leadership would decide on policy but the leadership would be chosen in part by the middle and lower tiers, ensuring a mixture of discipline and representation. Now the new command was having the final say, and the membership acquiesced. Although not, it was noted, without protest.[14]

Conclusion

The Irish Republican Brotherhood in its later years is a complex picture to put together but not an impossible one. Sources such as the correspondence between Liam Lynch, Liam Deasy and Florence O’Donoghue allow historians to see how senior and long-term members who opposed the Treaty struggled to regain control of the Organisation.

The initial plan by Lynch was to reopen an adjourned meeting and use it to remove the pro-Treaty members of the Supreme Council. O’Donoghue’s extension of this idea was to call for elections that would rehaul the IRB from top to bottom. Both proposals were in keeping with the IRB Constitution that strove to create a leadership that was representative of its membership.

Files from O’Donoghue’s time as a middle-tier organiser within the IRB reveal many grassroots members as being vehemently against the Treaty, giving weight to Lynch’s and O’Donoghue’s ideas on reforming the Supreme Council. They also show the IRB stagnating in the months before the Truce before thriving afterwards in confidence and numbers. Even when the IRB Circles in the anti-Treaty IRA were disbanded in 1924, there were still members who felt a strong affinity for Ireland’s longest-running republican society.

 

Originally posted on The Irish Story (27/04/2015)

 

See also:

To Not Fade Away: The Irish Republican Brotherhood, Post-1916

Career Conspirators: The (Mis)Adventures of Seán Ó Muirthile and the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the Free State Army, 1923-4

 

References

[1] National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 31,240

[2] Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary Underground: The Story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1976), p. 192

[3] O’Brien, Henry, (BMH / WS 1308), p.23-4 ; O’Meara, Seumas, (BMH / WS 1504), p. 53

[4] Ó Broin, pp. 198-9

[5] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin, Irish Press [1954]), p. 194

[6] Ibid, p. 194-5

[7] NLI, MS 31,233

[8] O’Donoghue, Florence (ed. Borgonovo, John) Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006) pp. 58-60

[9] NLI, MS 31,237(1)

[10] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law, pp. 193-4 ; NLI, MS 31,244

[11] NLI, MS 31,237(2)

[12] NLI, MS 31,233

[13] Ibid

[14] NLI, MS MS 31,240

 

Bibliography

National Library of Ireland – Florence O’Donoghue Papers

MS 31,233

MS 31,237(1)

MS 31,237(2)

MS 31,240

MS 31,244

Books

Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary Underground: The Story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1976)

O’Donoghue, Florence (ed. Borgonovo, John) Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006)

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

Bureau of Military History Statements

O’Brien, Henry, W.S. 1308

O’Meara, Seumas, W.S. 1504

To Not Fade Away: The Irish Republican Brotherhood, Post-1916

Every Dog Has its Day

Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood…patiently perfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment…

(The Proclamation of the Republic, 1916)

Proclamation-of-Indepdence

The Easter Rising of 1916 was a triumphant debut for the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), whose creed of physical force republicanism had at last been vindicated. For years the group had toiled in the shadows to set such a scene, forced into a state of subterfuge by the attentions of a hostile state, and now its name was read out alongside the other participants whose combined efforts were set to create a new and free Ireland.

That these efforts collapsed after a week of fighting did not mean the end of the dream. The physical force methods that the IRB – or ‘the Organisation’ as insiders preferred – had pioneered were set to continue on through the rejuvenated Irish Volunteers, an electorally dominant Sinn Féin and the memories of the executed leaders of the Rising, almost all of whom had been the IRB’s own. That many members of these groups doubled as IRB men must have made continued Brotherhood dominance over the wider nationalist movement seem certain.

And yet even after a war that ended with the recognition of a separate Irish government, if not a wholly independent one, the group that had initiated the violent rejection of British rule in Ireland remained unloved and unappreciated. For the IRB there was to be no recognition from their fellow revolutionaries, no love from the masses who now lived in the state the IRB had helped to create, and in this new state, no place.

The Revolution Will Not Be Polled

The main fault-line between the IRB and many of its fellow revolutionaries was to be the Treaty, but the Organisation had been controversial even before that. A secret society had been all very well before the Rising, it was argued, but now that physical force republicanism had been taken up by the public bodies of the Irish Volunteers and Sinn Féin, there was little need for its original advocates.

Eamon O’Dwyer, a prominent organiser for the nationalist cause in South Tipperary, summed these thoughts up when recalling the discussions he had had in prison with a number of other notable republicans in 1918:

It was generally our opinion that the need for the I.R.B. had practically ceased to exist, owing to the fact that the Irish Volunteers were now doing the I.R.B. work, that when an Irish Parliament was set up the Volunteers would come under its control. They, the Volunteers, would then be titled the army of Ireland and the continuation of the I.R.B. would not, therefore, be necessary.[1]

These sentiments had an impact, in an exodus of members who resigned or refused to re-join the Organisation. For O’Dwyer, it was a simple matter of continuing the same work as before, except now for the Tipperary Volunteers instead for the IRB. As far as he was concerned, there was little the IRB could do that not already being done by the Volunteers.

Somewhat mischievously, O’Dwyer recounted a story of the IRB Supreme Council sending someone to Tipperary to ask him to reconsider his leaving, only to be imprisoned in a barn by local Volunteers who mistook him for a British spy due to his furtive manner – useful for a secret society, not always for outside of one. Only of the intervention of a doubtlessly amused O’Dwyer saw his release.[2]

Eamon-de-Valera
Éamon de Valera

Two of the most prominent individuals to shake the dust off their feet from the Brotherhood were Éamon de Valera and Cathal Brugha, both being alumni of the Easter Rising. De Valera’s resignation was unsurprising, as he had joined only weeks before the Rising upon discovering, to his horror, that his IRB-connected subordinates in the Volunteers knew more about the plans than he did – a testament to the influence the IRB had had in the Rising.[3]

Brugha was a different matter, going from a veteran member of the Organisation to one of its most outspoken opponents. One of his stated reasons for this volte-face was that the IRB had not turned out for the Rising, leaving the Volunteers to do the work.[4]

Brugha’s accusation of shirking prompted a census for numbers of the IRB members who participated in the Rising as opposed to those from the Dublin Volunteers. Apparently, the census found overwhelmingly in favour of an IRB turn-out compared to that from the Volunteers – for example, supposedly seventy-five IRB men turned out on Easter Monday compared to a mere twenty-five Volunteers. Whether or not one trusts the results of an in-house investigation, the IRB had clearly become a lightning-rod for controversy.[5]

cathal.291122218_std
Cathal Brugha

Significantly, another reason was Brugha’s reluctance to be part of a group that he considered under the sway of Michael Collins, even at that early date.[6] This was a suspicion not entirely without foundation, for Collins was considered by IRB insiders to be the main reason for the re-establishment of the IRB Supreme Council after the Rising, and held the position of secretary before becoming its president.[7]

The tension between Collins and Brugha was to mark much of the IRA GHQ throughout the War of Independence. Supporting Collins was his fellow IRB associate and IRA Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy, with De Valera helping Brugha to form an anti-IRB counter-balance.

Whether personal issues played as much as a factor as that of secret societies is debatable. But in many ways GHQ was to be a microcosm of the tensions the IRB could provoke in the wider revolutionary movement.

Down but Not Out

Despite these post-Rising resignations, the IRB remained an active body. How active is a matter of debate. Séumas Robinson of the Third Tipperary Brigade asserted that the authority of the IRB at this time was “moribund where not already dead.”[8]

He left the IRB but not before attending a meeting in Dublin intended to revive the influence of the IRB within the Volunteers, an account that is both comical and scathing:

I saw young fellows with notebooks rushing round and about the ground floor (there were about 150 present) button-holing individuals with anxious whispers – “We must make sure that no one will be elected an officer of the Volunteers who is not a member of the ‘Organisation’” – as if that were something new or something we would be allowed to forget, and without adverting to the fact that that sort of thing would undermine the authority and efficiency of the whole Volunteer movement. Without waiting for the meeting to start officially I walked out in disgust thinking of Tammany Hall.[9]

Seumas-Robinson-1
Séumas Robinson

Robinson gave the address for the meeting at 44 Parnell Square but, unfortunately, not the date or names of any other attendees, making it hard to corroborate. One wonders if Michael Collins was one of these ‘young fellows with notebooks’.

For all of Robinson’s extravagant scorn and American comparisons, an alternative interpretation of this event could be that the IRB still had enough members with the energy and desire to continue its mission as prime mover towards Irish independence, even if it had to unashamedly infiltrate larger bodies like the Volunteers to do so.

The IRB desire for new recruits continued throughout the later years. Liam Deasy recalled a council of the South Munster IRB at Easter 1921, presided over by Michael Collins, where it was agreed to extend membership to Volunteers of proven worth.[10]

As late as November-December 1921, a similar decision was made at a conference in Limerick for the IRB branches – or ‘Circles’ in the IRB vocabulary – present to renew their drive for fresh initiates (as observed by the disgusted Ernie O’Malley, who had not been invited but gate-crashed the meeting anyway). Whatever the likes of O’Dwyer, Robinson or O’Malley may have thought or wanted, the IRB was there to stay.[11]

It was not always a case of the IRB members entering the Volunteers, for the reverse did also happen. Frank Henderson of the Dublin Volunteers decided to join the IRB around 1918-1919 on the grounds that since he saw that war was on the horizon and the Volunteers had been joined by post-Rising recruits of uncertainty worth, “membership would bind those in the organisation in the event of defections or attempts to compromise.”[12] This was after Henderson had already twice refused invitations to join, being sympathetic to Brugha’s concern, who told him in a conversation, that such a secret society would produce “conspirators but not soldiers.”[13]

As with De Valera before the Rising, Henderson’s reasons for IRB membership were pragmatic rather than passionate. Even with his doubts about the Brotherhood, he could recognise its value as backup.

Revolutionary Entrepreneurs

The IRB’s role in the War of Independence has been neglected by historians, to the point of the Organisation being dismissed as “in an advanced state of decay” by that time.[14] As the above examples have shown, the Organisation was in a state of anything but decay. This academic neglect is possibly due to how, for practical purposes, the IRB’s policy of armed resistance to British rule had become indistinguishable to that of the Volunteers/IRA in general, making it hard to tell where one began and the other ended.

That was the line Michael Collins took when responding to a letter of complaint in April 1920 from the Sligo Brigade complaining about IRB members participating in an unauthorised (by him) bank robbery, and demanding from Collins a clarification between the IRB and the Volunteers:

Arising out of your letter of the 4th inst. re attitude of Irish Volunteers and another organisation, you will notice that there is no difference between the aims and methods of the Irish Volunteer Organisation and the other one you mention.[15]

Michael-Collins-1
Michael Collins

Collins did not even mention the IRB by name in his reply, either out of habitual secrecy or to annoy the Sligo commandant, who could hardly have been reassured to have received such a cursory response. Whether Collins wanted to admit it or not, the IRB continued to be a factor in the years between the Rising and the Truce, though less than a case of its members acting on behalf of a countrywide society and more as another complication in already complicated local scenes.

Tom Hales had been an IRB member before the Rising. In the increasingly militant atmosphere afterwards he took to swearing into his IRB Circle the Volunteers he trusted, making the IRB and himself central to the revolutionary scene in West Cork. When, in 1919, the original Cork Brigade was divided into three, he was a natural choice of leader for the Third Cork Brigade.[16] Hales was later to brag that he had ‘made’ the Third Cork Brigade with the men he had personally sworn in.[17]

new_Tom Hales
Tom Hales

Hales could be seen as something of a revolutionary entrepreneur, using a franchise to establish a local monopoly for himself rather than as an drone-like operative acting on behalf of the larger group. This was not unusual. The IRB provided the perfect outlet for individuals with ambition, energy and an enterprising zeal. Whether an IRB Circle was successful in a certain area could depend on finding the right person to promote it. In return, a successful IRB Circle could give such members like Tom Hales a good deal of local clout.

Seán Mac Eoin is another case in point. He had joined the IRB in 1914, but did not see any particular advantage from it until 1917, when Circles were properly established in Longford and he was elected to a senior position over them. The election of William Redmond in the Waterford 1918 by-election for the opposing Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) gave him his first chance to exercise his new-found authority. In response to the planned IPP victory celebrations, Mac Eoin, in his own words: “acting under the authority vested in me as Centre of the I.R.B, I proclaimed the celebrations and enforced the decision with the aid of the Volunteers.”[18]

While Mac Eoin was also in the Volunteers, and used that body to forcibly impose his decision, he felt entitled to decide in the first place from his IRB status. Also, he was not dependent on orders or instructions from above, acting as he was on his own initiative. Having suffered through his family being the targets of a Land League boycott, Mac Eoin must have relished the chance to play the local big man for once.[19]

Sean-MacEoin
Seán Mac Eoin

Conversely, an IRB Circle could suffer if it depended too heavily on a particular member. The success of the IRB in South Tipperary was largely because of the efforts of Eamon O’Dwyer. When he passed over the Organisation in favour of the Volunteers, the former’s influence there withered and died, and there was little the IRB Supreme Council, for all the grandiosity of its name, could do about it.

Feuds and Factions

Hales’ success brought him into conflict with his official superiors in the Volunteers, Terence MacSwiney and Tomás MacCurtain, especially the latter, who struggled to rein in unauthorised actions from within the Volunteers that he was technically in charge of.[20] It is possible that the premature deaths of both MacSwiney and MacCurtain, the former on hunger strike, the other murdered by ‘persons unknown’ (almost uncertainly off-duty RIC officers), prevented the tensions from worsening.

Not so for the Limerick City Battalion, which remained split post-1916 between IRB stalwarts headed by Donnachadh O’Hannigan and those under Liam Manahan, who wished to remain free from IRB influence.[21] In both of the cases in Cork and Limerick, there were other factors at play: Manahan, MacSwiney and MacCurtain had been blamed by their detractors for bloodlessly surrendering Volunteer armouries in the aftermath of the Rising’s failure, and there were class dimension between the white-collar workers under O’Hannigan and the more working-class men under Manahan.[22]

One could ask whether these divisions would have still happened if there had been no IRB at all. It did not seem to be a case of IRB members acting on orders from above. If anything, the IRB comes across as a decentralised organisation, one with a central leadership and a consistent ideology, but not necessarily with much control over or input into its Circles throughout the country.

But in Cork and Limerick that did not have to matter. The IRB may have been perhaps more a “badge of militancy than a well-defined organization”, but it could be potent enough badge to rally behind all the same.[23]

The Cork IRA was to continue on as an IRB bastion, with many of its leading alumni – Liam Lynch, Liam Deasy and Florence O’Donoghue, among others – being of the Organisation throughout the War of Independence. In not every county was the IRB so divisive for the local Volunteers/IRA. Even in the ones where it was, it may not have been the most divisive of local issues. Either way, the IRB throughout the War of Independence was to remain a significant factor, up to the time of the Treaty, if only as one to fall out over.

Suspicious Minds

And there was much to fall out over. As far as many contemporaries were concerned, the IRB’s defining role after the Rising had been that of the Treaty. For many who opposed the Treaty, it was an article of faith that the IRB had worked behind the scenes to force through its pro-Treaty agenda. That one of the Treaty signatories was Michael Collins, by then President of the IRB Supreme Council, gave this view a certain credence.

Ernie OMalley passport photo 1925.jpeg
Ernie O’Malley

Ernie O’Malley, writing years afterwards, castigated Collins and the IRB for the Treaty, and unfavourably compared them to the executed heroes of 1916 who, he was sure, would never have done such a thing (the number of IRB men among said heroes being lost on him). For the most part, however, such criticisms tended to focus on the IRB in general at the exclusion of Collins, who remained a heroic figure to many.[24]

Frank Gallagher of the Dublin Volunteers was to mention the IRB a mere two times in his memoir The Four Glorious Years (under the penname of David Hogan), once to darkly inform his readers that the IRB “plainly had plans of its own that which were not those of an elected Government. The I.R.B. regarded as the primary authority in Ireland the Supreme Council of their own Secret Society. There were the seeds of calamity in that kind of attitude.”[25]

While the book did not venture beyond 1921 to cover the Civil War, a hint is enough for Gallagher to lay the blame: “What was to prove a tragedy later for the Volunteers, and for Ireland, was that a section of the I.R.B. continued its secret existence, and its struggle for control both of the Dail and of the Army.”[26]

The same penchant for secrecy that had allowed the Brotherhood to operate under the noses of Dublin Castle had left it open to suspicions of conspiracy and self-centredness. To Séumas Robinson, a leading Anti-Treatyite, the Brotherhood was a “sinister cabal” while somewhat contradictory dismissing it as having only a “nuisance value” from 1919 onwards.[27]

Arguments against the IRB could often be on the tenuous side. Ernie O’Malley bemoaned that “the IRB had driven Sinn Fein underground” by the time of the Civil War due to the party putting its energies into electioneering as opposed to, say, economics, without much explanation as to why the IRB should be held responsible. Was O’Malley truly surprised at a political party in a democracy taking part in the democratic process? Either way, no act was too villainous like that of electioneering to hang on the IRB’s door.[28]

Equally myopic on the issue was Seamus McKenna of the Belfast IRA who was of the opinion that many of the IRB men who supported the “ill-fated” Treaty did so on the Organisation’s instructions. He based this on his own experience of being advised to do so by an IRB Supreme Council member; a man who, in McKenna’s strong opinion, had “already compromised, and led others along the same path.”[29]

This same man – McKenna was uncertain as to his name – went against the Treaty several months later, raising the question of whether he had originally advocated for the Treaty on the IRB’s instructions or his own opinion, which later changed as opinions are wont to do.

Another of McKenna’s gripes was that the IRB promoted its own within the IRA regardless of incompetence (himself presumably not included), his case in point being Joe McKelvey of the Third Northern Division.[30] McKelvey was later executed by the Free State for fighting against the Treaty, suggesting that the situation was more complex than McKenna was willing to give it credit for. But McKenna was an embittered man, and the IRB provided the perfect villain for his narrative, as it did for the Anti-Treatyite one. As with Brugha and Robinson, the IRB’s sternest critics were often its former Brothers.

Herding Cats

The long-held charge that the Brotherhood had forced the Treaty through rests on the premise that the IRB could exercise enough control to do just that. Given how widespread it was through its Circles and how highly placed certain members like Michael Collins were in the wider revolutionary movement, it would seem at first glance that this could indeed have been so. This was certainly Ernie O’Malley’s view when he wrote of the IRB conference in November-December 1921 that he intruded upon, intending to shock his readers with his depiction of an insidiously spreading conspiracy covertly gathering fresh members.

But the expectation of the IRB leadership at this same meeting was that it would be the grassroots who would be doing the work in recruiting. There was no indication of any penalties if Circles neglected to do so or that the IRB had the means to impose any in the first place.

On closer inspection, the Organisation reveals itself to have been too decentralised, too dependent on its grassroots, and with branches too self-sufficient for it to be a convincing character in a conspiracy theory. The Supreme Council could only have dreamed of exercising the control that its enemies accused it of. Ultimately, it could only ‘control’ its members who were willing to go along with it anyway.

Back in the Limelight

Joseph M. Curran, in assessing the IRB at the time of the Treaty, dismissed the Brotherhood by then as obsolete and constituting “no real threat to either the British or Republican government.”[31] Another obituary is from Michael Hopkinson, in that far from being a controlling power over the Treaty, the IRB disintegrated over the issue and ceased to be of importance.[32]

Whether or not it was obsolete, as its critics had long argued since after the Rising, and the Treaty split had certainly left it in a diminished capacity, the IRB was far from gone or over. Instead, it had taken root, away from the sight of the casual observer. When the Organisation was to surface again, it was in the most ignominious of ways: as a defence strategy in the investigation into a mutiny.

Liam-Tobin1
Liam Tobin

In March 1924, several Free State army officers issued an ultimatum to President Cosgrave, styling themselves the Irish Republican Army Organisation (IRAO) and protesting against the incoming demobilization. These malcontents included Liam Tobin and Charles Dalton, formerly of Michael Collins’ famous Intelligence Squad, and other veterans who had grown dissatisfied with having been repeatedly passed over for promotion in favour of those who may have been more qualified or better suited but who had not, as the mutineers saw it, paid their dues in the War of Independence. That demobilization would almost certainly include their jobs was enough of a casus belli against state policy.

As Commander-in-Chief, General Richard Mulcahy responded by dismissing the mutineers from their army posts, only to find himself as much on trial as the mutineers in the subsequent government investigation in April 1924. The IRAO based their defence on the claim that by forming their military faction they had merely been responding to the one already present: the IRB.

Richard-Mulcahy-1
Richard Mulcahy

What appeared to be a flimsy excuse was given unexpected credence by the admission from the Army Council that not only was there indeed an IRB within the army, but that they were a part of it.

Coke vs. Pepsi

The ‘IRB card’ was not to be played by the mutineers until late in the day – the IRAO ultimatum to Cosgrave did not even mention the IRB, calling only for the “removal of the Army Council” and the “immediate suspension of army demobilisation and reorganisation.” It was the The Truth About the Army Crisis, a 16-page booklet published on behalf of the IRAO, that set the mutiny within the context of the IRAO-IRB dispute.[33]

The booklet claimed that this IRB was a counterfeit, and had only been set up by the Army Council as a counter-block to the demands of the IRAO, to the point of an anonymous IRB officer telling the IRAO to “drop your organisation and we will drop ours.” Many of the IRAO had been in the Brotherhood from before, and a point of contention was that they had not been invited to re-join it.[34]

However, the booklet did admit that the reason for the irreconcilable breakdown in talks between the IRAO and the Army Council had been the latter reneging on a promise to include the former on the IRB Supreme Council. The mutineers objected to the IRB less from its existence and more because of their exclusion from it. Up to these talks breaking down for good, the mutineers had seen reconciliation with the IRB and a place for themselves within it as both likely and desirable.[35]

The mutiny should perhaps be seen not as a feud between two separate groups, one worthy and the other not, as the mutineers claimed, but as one between members of the same body: an entrenched elite against a disenfranchised grassroots.

Under the Microscope

Understandably jittery from the last time a portion of its armed forces had displayed a mind of their own and gone rogue, the government clamped down on both the mutineers of the IRAO and the Army Council. The accusations of IRB dominance of the Army Council were in part confirmed in the resulting inquiry that was spearheaded by Minister Kevin O’Higgins. Through the inquiry, the exact role of the IRB became a matter of heated debate.

Sean_OMuirthile_caricature
Seán Ó Muirthile caricature

As Quartermaster-General of the Army Council, Seán Ó Muirthile was to bear the brunt of the inquiry committee’s questioning. A long-time Brother, he had been the chair of the IRB conference in Limerick that Ernie O’Malley had intruded upon in November-December 1921. His defence for his part in reorganising the IRB within the army was that it had been done to stop the Anti-Treatyites from taking up the IRB mantle for themselves. As prominent Anti-Treatyites Liam Lynch and Harry Boland had both been members of the IRB Supreme Council, this was not an unrealistic concern, and it shows that the IRB name still had enough potency to fear it.[36]

Lynch had gone as far as to propose – in November 1922, four months into the Civil War – writing to the IRB Supreme Council in the hope of reconvening an adjourned meeting from the previous April. There had been an anti-Treaty majority then, and Lynch had hoped to use that to re-establish the Brotherhood in his own anti-Treaty image. From there Lynch would have had a new resource from which to draw upon.[37]

Liam-Lynch
Liam Lynch

As this plan was never attempted, its odds of success are debatable. But both sides of the Treaty-sundered IRB gave it the credibility of consideration: the Antis in proposing it, the Pros in countering it. As with the IRAO, the Anti-Treatyites could appreciate the value of being in the IRB as opposed to out of it.

Same Message, Different Times

Not knowing when to keep his mouth shut, Ó Muirthile went on to suggest that the IRB should continue on to guide “the social and political atmosphere with the programme of any government working towards the National and economic advancement of the Irish people without regard to parties or party influence.”[38]

This was more than just a spirited defence on Ó Muirthile’s part. Mulcahy had previously expressed the similar hope that the IRB would in time evolve into a more open society, and take the lead in implementing nationalist ideals for the rest of the country.[39]

In that regards, Ó Muirthile’s and Mulcahy’s hopes for the IRB’s role in the new Ireland were not dissimilar from that of the IRAO for itself, who publicly exhorted that “there is the unity of Ireland and full independence still to be achieved,” with themselves best placed to achieve this, of course.[40]

The sense of unfulfilled aspirations from the War of Independence and the unresolved grievances that were the Treaty’s aftertaste gave groups like the IRAO and the IRB the chance to position themselves as the true heirs of a national mission – not unlike the language in The Proclamation of the Republic which had kick-started everything off, for that matter. Given the IRB’s starring role in The Proclamation, as shown at the start of this article, one has to grant the Brotherhood a certain consistency after eight years.

In later years, Mulcahy was to find the IRB connection in the affair, and his own, a trifle embarrassing, preferring to characterise the Brotherhood less as a significant body at that stage and more, in vague and woolly terms, as a “pure Volunteer spirit that was just serving…in the traditional spirit.”[41]

One wonders, however, if the eventual result of either the IRB or IRAO continuing on would have been an Ireland in a situation akin to Turkey’s, with an ideology-led army prepared to intervene in politics to the point of ‘stepping in’ if it felt a civilian government needed amending.

And That Was That

If Ó Muirthile and Mulcahy honestly thought that the Free State would be happy for a Fenian throwback to be hovering over its shoulder like some praetorian guard, they were grossly mistaken. Likewise, the mutineers had badly misjudged the mood of the Free State government if they thought it would prefer their military faction over the other.

A plague was wished on both their houses. The inquiry committee concluded that “the reorganisation of the IRB…was a disastrous error in judgement,” and much of the blame was levelled by O’Higgins at the Army Council, Mulcahy especially as its most senior officer.[42] The Army Council – Mulcahy, Ó Muirthile, Adjutant General Gearoid O’Sullivan and Chief of Staff Sean MacMahon – were forced to resign in a ‘house cleaning’ of IRB influence from the upper military echelons.

As for the IRAO, had the mutineers been reinstated to their posts as they wished, then their faction may have continued on and even prospered in the absence of its rival. But they were not, and the fledgling IRAO died with their military careers.

From then on, the IRB ceased to be a factor in Irish politics or society. While the IRB had weathered worse storms than its loss of four senior members from the army, it never recovered from this one. Nor was there much to mark its loss. Fittingly for a society that had lived in the shadows, it passed away unseen. Even the historian Leon Ó Broin, usually an authoritative source on the Brotherhood, was uncertain as to “whether any formal decision was ever taken to wind ‘the Organisation’ up: the Supreme Council may have just stopped meeting.”[43]

An example of how deeply rooted the IRB had been, to be the point of being hard to tell where it began and ended, was how the government’s choice of replacement for Mulcahy, Eoin O’Duffy, had to resign as Treasurer for IRB funds in order to take up his new post as Commander-in-Chief.[44]

Wolfe-Tone-statue1
Wolfe Tone statue, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Despite this glaring oversight on the government’s part, there is no suggestion that O’Duffy used this position to continue the IRB in any form. As late as 1964, these same funds lay in a bank in the names of trustees, the first being Seán Ó Muirthile. Finally they were transferred towards the cost of the Wolfe Tone statue now on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin.[45]

Whatever the exact point the IRB could be pronounced dead, it was well and truly gone by that stage. The wheel had turned since the glory days of Brotherhood influence, such as when it had engineered at the Gaelic League ard-fheis of 1915 the election of one of their own as director of appointments despite Tom Clarke not knowing a word of Irish.[46] Or keeping an impetuous James Connolly from acting too soon with his Irish Citizen Army in 1916, thus allowing for the IRB’s own plans to go ahead for Easter Monday as synchronized. By 1924, the IRB had stepped on too many toes and made too many enemies, and few tears were shed at its loss.[47]

Fittingly, the man who more than anyone had delivered the coup de grâce to the IRB in the form of the Army Crisis investigation, Kevin O’Higgins, was a former Brother. There was to be little room for sentimentality in the new Ireland, and the sow had devoured its farrow.

kevin
Kevin O’Higgins

Conclusion

While in many ways a successful organisation, the IRB was not a popular one. Its strategy of armed revolution against British rule in Ireland was vindicated by the adoption of this same policy by other nationalist bodies such as the Irish Volunteers. Yet the IRB was to be distrusted by many if its fellow revolutionaries for its secrecy and insularity, or dismissed as an irrelevance.

Despite this hostility, the IRB continued to thrive as it retained the enthusiasm of its members and recruited new ones throughout the War of Independence, even if its presence within IRA brigades led to tensions. Much has been said of its supposed role in pushing the Treaty through, but that is to misunderstand the structure of the IRB, which was too decentralised for its leadership to force anything on unwilling members.

While diminished from the Treaty split, the IRB nonetheless seemed set to continue on in an influential role within the Free State army, with its leaders within the Army Council nurturing ambitions for the Organisation as a shepherd of national ideals. This was until a mutiny and the subsequent government investigation in 1924 brought this influence to light and derailed these ambitions.

With its leading members forced to resign from the army, the IRB died an undignified death, fading away from a country and state built on its efforts that saw no further use for it.

 

Originally posted on The Irish Story (11/11/2013)

 

See also:

‘This Splendid Historic Organisation’: The Irish Republican Brotherhood among the Anti-Treatyites, 1921-4

Career Conspirators: The (Mis)Adventures of Seán Ó Muirthile and the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the Free State Army, 1923-4

References

[1] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), p. 39
[2] Ibid, pp.52-3
[3] Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary Underground: The story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1976), p. 163
[4] Lynch, Diarmuid (BMH / WS 4), p. 9
[5] Lyons, George (BMH / WS 104), p. 6
[6] Ibid
[7] Lynch, Diarmuid (BMH / WS 4), p. 9
[8] Robinson, Séamus (BMH / WS 1721), p. 18
[9] Ibid
[10] Deasy, Liam. Towards Ireland Free (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1973), pp. 258-9
[11] O’Malley, pp. 36-7
[12] Henderson, Frank (BMH / WS 821), p. 18-9
[13] Ibid, p. 18
[14] Bell, J. Bowyer. The Secret Army: The IRA (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2008), p. 46
[15] Valiulis, Maryann Gialanella. Portrait of a Revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the Founding of the Irish Free State (Kill Lane: Irish Academic Press Ltd, 1992), p. 48
[16] Deasy, p. 57 ; Hart, Peter. The I.R.A. and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork 1916-1923 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), pp. 192-3
[17] Hart, p. 193
[18] MacEoin, Seán (BMH / WS 1716), pp. 9-10
[19] Ibid, pp. 4-5
[20] Ibid, pp. 193, 241
[21] Hopkinson, Michael. The Irish War of Indepenence (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2002), p. 118
[22] Ibid
[23] Hart, p. 242
[24] O’Malley, pp. 285-6
[25] Hogan, David. The Four Glorious Years (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1971), p.246
[26] Ibid, pp. 246-7
[27] Robinson, Séamus (BMH / WS 1721), p. 18
[28] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1978), p. 286
[29] McKenna, Seamus(Bureau of Military History / Witness Statement, BMH /WS 1016), p. 45
[30] McKenna, Seamus (BMH /WS 1016), p. 45
[31] Curran, Joseph M. The Birth of the Irish Free State 1921-1923 (Alabama: The University of Alabama, 1980), p. 146
[32] Hopkinson, Michael. Green Against the Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988),  p. 45
[33] The Truth About the Army Crisis (Official), with a foreword by Major-General Liam Tobin, issued by the Irish Republican Army Organisation (Dublin: 78A Summerhill) Available from the UCD Library – Special Collections, 1.X.2/7, p. 12
[34] Ibid, p. 6
[35] Ibid
[36] Ó Broin, p. 213
[37] Regan, John M. Michael Collins, General Commanding-in-Chief, as a Historiographical Problem, p. 334 (Accessed on 05/10/2013)
[38] Valiulis, p. 229
[39] Ibid
[40] The Truth, p. 11
[41] Valiulis, p. 168
[42] Ibid, p. 230
[43] Ó Broin, p. 221
[44] Bell, p. 67
[45] Ó Broin, p. 222
[46] Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (London: Penguin Books, 1989), pp. 475-6
[47] Lynch, Diarmuid (BMH / WS 4), p. 9

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Henderson, Frank, WS 821

Lynch, Diarmuid, WS 4

Lyons, George, WS 104

Mac Eoin, Seán (BMH / WS 1716)

McKenna, Séumas, WS 1016

O’Dwyer, Eamon, WS 1474

Robinson, Séamus, WS 1721

Books

Bell, J. Bowyer. The Secret Army: The IRA (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2008)

Curran, Joseph M. The Birth of the Irish Free State 1921-1923 (Alabama: The University of Alabama, 1980)

Deasy, Liam. Towards Ireland Free (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1973)

Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (London: Penguin Books, 1989)

Hart, Peter. The I.R.A. and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork 1916-1923 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999)

Hogan, David. The Four Glorious Years (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1971)

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

Hopkinson, Michael. The Irish War of Indepenence (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2002)

Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary Underground: The story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1976)

O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1978)

The Truth About the Army Crisis (Official), with a foreword by Major-General Liam Tobin, issued by the Irish Republican Army Organisation (Dublin: 78A Summerhill). Available from the UCD Library – Special Collections, 1.X.2/7

Valiulis, Maryann Gialanella. Portrait of a Revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the Founding of the Irish Free State (Kill Lane: Irish Academic Press Ltd, 1992)

Online Material

Regan, John M. Michael Collins, General Commanding-in-Chief, as a Historiographical Problem (Accessed on 05/10/2013)