One of the most endearing mysteries of Irish Labour history, which Emmet O’Connor valiantly attempts to answer here, is why ‘Big’ Jim Larkin was so respected, even beloved, despite being an absolutely terrible human being. “Jim Larkin and his most immediate associates can think of nothing else but Jim Larkin. It is difficult to argue or venture any opinion that does not coincide with his own,” wrote Harry Pollitt, a leading British Communist, before conceding, “and yet the man is undoubtedly a leader.”
Pollitt saw first-hand Larkin’s capacities for leadership during his visit to Ireland in April 1924. In Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, roadmen dissatisfied with both their employment and their nominal union, the ITGWU (Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union), appealed to Larkin to attend their fundraising hurling tournament.
Larkin did not need to be asked twice, given how he had been feuding with the ITGWU ever since his return from the United States to find his former fiefdom not nearly as subservient as he had left it. Having failed to force the resignation of his main rivals and been expelled himself instead, Larkin formed his own counter-union, the Irish Worker League (IWL), and prepared for war.
Larkin arrived in Roscrea to see a mass of streamers welcoming him. Over five hundred IWL members had paid to travel with their hero, resulting in what Pollitt was told was one of the largest meetings ever seen in Roscrea. With good reason was Pollitt convinced that the IWL had a “tremendous chance” if Big Jim managed to take it seriously.
In that regard, Pollitt was missing the point. Larkin had already lost a court case he brought against the ITGWU two months earlier, accusing his former colleagues of illegally using union funds for political purposes. The fact that he was citing the anti-union legislation of the 1913 Trade Union Act did not seem to have embarrassed him.
Acting as his own legal counsel, Larkin proved to be, according to O’Connor, “more than usually disorganised, vituperative, petty and unfair to witnesses.” Not that Larkin had much chance of winning in the first place, which begs the question as to why he bothered at all. The likeliest explanation that O’Connor offers is that he just could not help himself.
In his personal life, Larkin was no more amiable. Estranged from his wife, he was living with his siblings, Delia and Peter, both of whom were also involved in trade unionism. Peter was used as a go-between as the other two were not on speaking terms. When he was away, others would have to step in. “It was a dreadful position for grown-up people to create,” as one unfortunate guest recalled with a shudder, “particularly when to make any political headway friendship and comradely tolerance were an absolute necessity.”
Necessary or not, such virtues were to be in short supply. With his brother’s support, Peter had formed the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI), attracting defections from two-thirds of the ITGWU’s Dublin membership. That set the tone for relations between the two unions which, from June 1924, were locked in a fierce battle for control, with disputes breaking out in places as varied as fish markets, docklands and cinemas as the WUI protested at the employment of ITGWU members.
The Irish Worker, of which Larkin was editor, was unabashed in its naked ambition:
The Transport Union Card is nothing but a pass to a scab. There is only going to be one labourers’ union in Ireland and that will be the Workers’ Union, which has earned its place by right of conquest.
But it was within the WUI that the nadir of this intolerance and venom was reached. From August 1924, the union was in dispute with the Great Southern and Western Railways Works in Inchicore. Leading the strike was Seán McLoughlin, the ‘boy commandant’ of the Easter Rising, now secretary for the WUI branch involved. By September, the Railways Works had offered to take back all strikers save for the hundred or so whose places had already been filled by strike-breakers.
McLoughlin wanted to hold out for a better deal, one with no victimisations, but Larkin took the offer and blamed it all on McLoughlin. The branch secretary won a showdown with Larkin a month later at a meeting held in the Inchicore Picture House, where the WUI executive and about two hundred members were present. The mood in the room turned against the union leadership and Larkin stormed out but McLoughlin knew that his days in the union were numbered and left soon afterwards, upon which Larkin accused him of absconding with branch funds.
All of which makes for fascinating, if grisly, reading, and O’Connor fully exploits the range of sources open to him, from contemporary newspaper reports, private correspondence, Soviet archives and police files from both sides of the Atlantic (Larkin was frequently a ‘person of interest’ to the authorities, wherever he was).
From these, O’Connor deftly weaves a story that would not be amiss for a medieval monarch or a particularly despotic cult leader. Sometimes the seemingly endless succession of bitter feuds and spiteful machinations can grow exhausting to wade through, though mitigated by titbits of bone-dry humour from O’Connor, such as when Larkin implored an audience to “’hold up the hands of Stalin’; perhaps the only analogy ever drawn between Stalin and the Biblical Joshua.”
After 300+ pages of such malice and mayhem, it is surprising that the book ends on a positive note for its subject: “What Larkin did achieve can never be taken from him. He remains the greatest of Irish Labour leaders.”
Was he? Those on the receiving end of his perniciousness might have disagreed but Larkin captured the public imagination in a way that no other Irish Labour leader has since. Anyone who gets a statue to themselves in Dublin’s O’Connell Street must be something special, after all.
Certainly, Jack Carney never lost his faith in the man he served loyally for many years. By the time he was sixteen, Carney had found himself working eighty-four hours a week for a pittance, with nothing better awaiting him:
My dreams were smashed, and I had not a single hope in life…until one Sunday I heard ‘Jim’ Larkin speaking…always to me he will be the big-hearted champion of his class – incorruptible and unpurchaseable. Crucified he will be, nailed to a Cross of a misunderstanding people…but ‘Jim’ has left his mark on his people…they are better men and women because of his coming.
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Whether Larkin was a hero or wrecker – the question posed to us in the book’s subtitle – he was most definitely a force of nature, which are rarely gentle to those caught in their wake.
In keeping with the not-yet-uttered adage by Brendan Behan, the first thing on the victors’ agenda following the North Roscommon election was the split.
The two main sources for the private meetings that saw the partnership between Count Plunkett and Arthur Griffith deteriorate almost as soon as it had begun are Kevin O’Shiel’s and William O’Brien’s written accounts. They differ in details, particularly in regards to chronology, but tell more-or-less the same story.
According to O’Shiel, a meeting was held immediately post-election in Bowles’ Hotel, Boyle. For all his canvassing on Plunkett’s behalf, O’Shiel had not been overly impressed upon first seeing his candidate, who appeared to him as a dazed old man, “bowed down and rendered feeble by sorrow and misfortune.”
Plunkett gradually got into the spirit of his own campaign, speaking well when required, but he remained, in O’Shiel’s eyes, a forlorn, pitiful figure. As his campaign was aiming for the sympathy vote on account of his sons’ and his own misfortunes, this was not necessarily a disadvantage.
But, upon success, quite a change came over the 66-year-old Count. Where before he had been weighed down with age and woe, now he straightened into a proud, almost regal, individual, one who “no longer supplicated; he commanded; and it seemed to all that he had made up his mind that he was going to rule whatever organisation was to take shape from his triumph.”
Whatever organisation, indeed. For while Sinn Fein, the Irish Nation League and their fellow travellers had needed the Plunkett name to win North Roscommon, the Count did not necessarily believe that he depended on them in quite the same way.
His supporters got a taste of the new man that evening in Bowles’. There were perhaps thirty to forty people in the room, many from the disparate groups that had thrown their support behind the candidate. The list of names present reads like an assemblage of those who would be at the forefront of the subsequent revolution:
Father Michael O’Flanagan, Michael Collins, Joe McGrath, Seán Milroy (who would later break out of Lincoln Prison with Éamon de Valera in 1919), the Independent MP Laurence Ginnell, J.J. O’Kelly (the editor of the popular Catholic Bulletin), Michael O’Callaghan (later the mayor of Limerick, murdered by the Black and Tans) and Rory O’Connor. O’Shiel was under the impression that O’Connor was the fiancé of the Count’s daughter; in fact, the two were in romantically involved – which may explain his dedication to her father’s cause – but they never got as far as engagement.
The talk quickly came round to the question of absentionism. Now that their man was a bona fide MP, there could be no more ducking the matter. Those of the Irish Nation League were against it, considering such an absolutist stance to be, at best, premature. The Sinn Fein delegates, while naturally in favour of boycotting Westminster, agreed against taking hasty steps. Better, instead, to wait until a more representative gathering could be called before deciding on anything concrete.
The man of the hour had taken the chair but, after opening the meeting with a short call for suggestions, the Count “lapsed into almost complete silence and aloofness – another change, as he had been the most approachable and communicative before.”
When he finally spoke up again, it was to come down firmly on the side of absentionism. He would not, under any circumstances, take his seat in Parliament. Despite the resulting criticism from the League attendees and the calls for caution by the Sinn Féiners, the Count not only remained unmoved but “made it clear…that he would set about immediately to establish a new organisation of his own based on ‘Liberty Clubs’.”
O’Shiel almost certainly jumped the gun here in his narration, for Plunkett would not make his plans for his Liberty Clubs known until further in the year. O’Shiel admitted in his reminiscences that his memories at this point were hazy, but otherwise his account meshes well with O’Brien’s.
In O’Brien’s version, the divisive meeting did not take place until the 15th February, in the Count’s residence on 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street. Otherwise, the details are very similar to O’Shiel’s, as well as many of the names of those present: Father O’Flanagan, Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor, Laurence Ginnell, J.J. O’Kelly, Michael O’Callaghan and Arthur Griffith.
Here, Plunkett announced his decision early in the session to abstain from his new seat, despite objections from many present, including Griffith, who agreed in principle but did not think his own policy would be popular with the Irish public quite yet. Most of the sunsequent talk revolved around this sticking point, absent the Count, if not in body, then at least in practice: “[he] did not give any particular lead or announce any definite policy himself and on the whole was rather unhelpful as a chairman of a meeting.”
(O’Brien took care to date the event in his memoir but the Count had made his decision on absentionism known before. The news should have come as no surprise to his audience by the time of the 15th. It is more believable that Plunkett was reiterating what he had already said rather than springing anything new on his allies.)
Finally, it was agreed to hold off any further discussion in favour of setting up a committee who would look into the question at a later date. This was merely a stopgap solution but better than nothing. Plunkett and Griffith would each be on this committee to represent their opposing viewpoints, accompanied by J.J. O’Kelly and Seamus O’Doherty (for the Irish Nation League and Sinn Féin respectively) and the trade unionist O’Brien.
O’Brien protested that since he was there in an individual capacity, he could not be called upon to influence the policy of Labour. Given his position as secretary of the Dublin Trades Council, not to mention his importance in general – the noted socialist Peadar O’Donnell described him as the “Lenin of the Labour Movement”– this attempt to abrogate responsibility was not very convincing.
(Privately, O’Brien’s concerns were to keep the Dublin Trades Council aligned with the Labour Party and away from anything overly Nationalist. He was prepared to support the cause of Irish independence as long as it did not mean committing himself or his union.)
The others, however, seemed willing to take O’Brien’s evasion at face value, perhaps content that one neutral party on the committee would at least not act against them.
Ten days later, O’Brien was taking a walk with Collins, Seamus O’Doherty and Michael Staines. O’Brien had met Collins in June 1916 when they had been imprisoned together in Frongoch Camp. Staines had been among those O’Brien had dispatched to North Roscommon to assist the Plunkettite campaign after Kitty O’Doherty, Seamus’ wife, had come to O’Brien, pleading for help (her husband being the election director). O’Brien was thus already on familiar terms with all three.
The Irish Volunteers, they told him, were determined to have any new movement on strictly republican lines, which was not something they felt they could trust Griffith on (Collins presumably kept such opinions to himself when he and Griffith were negotiating the Treaty together in London in late 1921).
A sympathetic listener, O’Brien agreed to help the other men in whatever way he could. So much for neutrality, then.
He also found the time to meet Griffith, who did not mince words: “Griffith said Plunkett knew nothing whatever about present day political circumstances, that it was useless talking to him and that he would be useless as a political leader.”
O’Brien heard him out without interruption. Inured to the quarrels between his fellow trade unionists, he was careful to remain neutral between the warring factions in the new nationalist movement.
The committee met later but failed to agree upon any recommendations on which course their burgeoning movement should take. Griffith pushed an idea of an umbrella council to encompass the number of like-minded groups. Plunkett, on the other hand, insisted on a fresh start with a new organisation altogether. In this, he was backed by Collins and Rory O’Connor.
Such talks ended in stalemates more often than not and only after a good deal of wasted time. One surreal story O’Connor told to a friend was of a woman found dead behind a door, apparently of starvation or cold, at the end of one such meeting, such had been its length.
The committee having fallen short of a solution, there was another meeting on the 2nd March in the Mansion House. Plunkett, Griffith, Father O’Flanagan, Collins, O’Connor and O’Brien were among those present. No one from the Irish Nation League was there, though O’Brien does not say if they had excused themselves or simply not been invited. Once again the agenda was on absentionism, with Griffith adamant that the country was not yet ready for such a step.
It was eventually agreed that the Count would issue a circular. It was to be in his own name, thus leaving him with the responsibility, and addressed to the various public bodies and societies throughout Ireland, inviting them to send delegates to a special conference. There, they would help appoint a national council whose main aim would be securing Ireland’s interests at the Peace Conference that was to be convened in Paris at the end of the War.
As Griffith had been pushing for such a move, this was a victory of sorts for him. In contrast, many in the Irish Volunteers were increasingly dissatisfied, feeling that the initiative they had had since the Rising was slipping back into the hands of political types.
Disclosure and a Concert
For all the gnawing tension behind closed doors (with or without dead women behind them), Plunkett could take grim comfort in how the IPP and its media outlets had clearly designated him as their number one threat. On the 3rd March, the Freeman’s Journal published COUNT PLUNKETT’S AMBITIONS – A DISCLOSURE, with the boast that:
We make public to-day a fact that will be of interest to the supporters of Count Plunkett, and will help to show the Nationalists of the country the characters of some of the men who are now held up to them as patriots of the most exalted and self-sacrificing type.
The promised disclosure was that Plunkett, back in 1914, had applied for the position of Under-Secretary of Ireland upon the retirement of the previous holder. Had the Count succeeded, as the newspaper archly pointed out, “he would have been in duty bound to give orders last April for the suppression of the insurrection.”
If the Count was fazed or embarrassed, he did not show it at a concert in the Mansion House two days later, put on by the Irish-American Alliance. He responded to the enthusiastic welcome from the attendees – many of whom had been forced to wait outside on Dawson Street, such were their numbers – with some fighting talk directed towards the IPP:
People might say what is the moral of the Roscommon election? Well, there are eighty-two constituencies pledged to some form of Home Rule, and the moral of Roscommon is that we are going to take those eighty-two seats.
It was said that in North Roscommon, Plunkett continued, he had had the boys and young men with him, which was something. Also said was how the women had been with him – that too meant a good deal. But he had had the old men with him as well – poor, feeble old men who had crawled across the snow with tears, in their eyes, to whisper in his ear: “I was out in ’67” [the Fenian Rising of 1867].
His only mention of the Freeman’s exposé was an indirect one. He insisted that he did not care to refer, even in the most passing way, to things intended to affect him personally (an encouraging voice called out: “Never mind them”). That such attempts to discredit him were made at all only showed the desperation of his enemies.
With that unpleasant topic out of the way – that he had fallen short of an actual denial was overlooked by an indulgent audience – Plunkett repeated his pledge not to take his seat at Westminster. He ended by asking the audience to pledge themselves, in the name of Ireland, to never rest until the country was cut loose from foreign oppression.
The loud cheers ringing in the Count’s ears as he left showed that once again his public appearance had been a success. The only low-note was when cries of “G-men” broke out, causing a journalist present to be mistaken for a Dublin Castle detective. The unfortunate man was assaulted and thrown out, his notebook torn up and the pieces thrown in the air like confetti.
True to form, the Freeman painted a much more dramatic picture of that evening. According to the newspaper, posters about the city, as well as the notices on sandwich-board-men, had announced ‘Count Plunkett is not a Place-Hunter, Mansion House this (Monday) evening at 8 o’clock’ and ‘Count Plunkett will explain, Mansion House this (Monday) evening at 8 o’clock’.
In addition, handbills were handed out out, saying ‘Count Plunkett applied to be Under-Secretary for Ireland. He must and will tell you tonight the reason why’ and ‘What would be have done during Easter Week?’
Given such publicity, it is unsurprising that such a large crowd was present that evening. At the end of Plunkett’s speech, a young man wearing a press badge was asked his business. He explained he was from the Freeman’s Journal, going as far as to write his name down if they wanted to verify with his office.
This did little to settle the increasingly hostile group that had gathered, demanding to know why he was not seated at the press table with the rest. His explanation that he had seen no other available chair failed to calm the situation any better than before. He was seized by the coat label, with suggestions made to take him outside, search his pockets and/or throw him in the Liffey.
The main demand was for his notebook (indicating that the crowd thought him a spy rather than a journalist from an unfriendly newspaper). When the pressman tried leaving with his notes still in his coat, he was seized, pushed, shaken, punched and even threatened with sticks. As he paused to pick up his fallen hat, he received a couple of kicks and a punch to jaw.
Some others in the hall interceded on his behalf with cries of “Don’t disgrace the movement” and helped to hustle him away. Despite such efforts, the journalist was safe only after he had been led out of the building through a side-door, though not without a final kick as he departed.
An Announcement in Sligo
Still enjoying his political honeymoon, Count Plunkett visited Sligo on the 17th March, St Patrick’s Day, to receive the freedom of the town. He arrived the day before, when a torchlight procession escorted him to his hotel. That he was booed on the way by a crowd of IPP partisans showed that the country was not entirely behind him or the new nationalism he was pioneering but no matter.
On the evening of the holiday, a large crowd waiting outside the town hall greeted their honoured guest to an outburst of cheers as he arrived in an open carriage. After the freedom was bestowed by the mayor, the Count took the opportunity for another of those rousing speeches of his that were going down so well wherever he went.
He repeated his pledge to not accept anything short of complete independence for Ireland. As for Home Rule, there was not much point in flogging that dead horse anymore. He had a plan, of which the public would hear more of soon, about an assembly to be held in Dublin, where a body would be formed to represent the whole of Ireland and push forward its case at the Paris Peace Conference.
First absentionism, now this assembly – whatever he may have thought of them, the Count was proving himself adept at appropriating Griffith’s ideas.
Following this announcement, a circular in Count Plunkett’s name was sent to all councils for counties, boroughs, urban and rural districts, asking them to nominate delegates for an all-Ireland assembly in a month’s time on the 19th April, the chosen venue being the Mansion House (a locale Plunkett was becoming familiar with).
Addressed from the Count’s house at Upper Fitzwilliam Street, the circular laid out the invitation and the national stakes involved:
Would it be possible for you to immediately call a mass meeting of the people of your County with the object of proclaiming:
Ireland’s right to be represented at the Peace Conference.
To protect against the forced settlement on the part of His Majesty’s Government of the Irish Question.
To consider the urgent questions of taxation and food supply.
If you personally cannot undertake this, would you approach the most likely persons in your County and invite them to do so?
It is a vital necessity that Ireland should affirm its intention of rejecting a scheme involving permanent or temporary partition.
The circular was issued on the 17th March, the day the Count had spoken in Sligo, which gave its receivers a month to consider it. Plunkett’s initiative, however, quickly ran into a brick wall. As most public bodies in Ireland still consisted largely of IPP nominees, the majority proceeded to ignore the circular, sometimes making a display of doing so.
The Limerick County Council voted 7 to 5 against sending delegates. One naysayer said that while everyone had to have a certain amount of feeling for Plunkett, given the loss of his son, he had no right or authority to call such a convention. The Count’s past as a museum director was used against him: “Count Plunkett had received a salary as a Government official, and his circular was nothing but an insult to the Irish people and their representatives.”
Similar sentiments were expressed at a special meeting of the Sligo Board of Guardians which also voted to decline the invitation by 17 to 12. Again, there was sympathy for Plunkett’s bereavement but:
The policy which he has adopted is in danger of sowing dissension and disunion throughout the country. We all know the Irish Parliamentary Party, during the past four years, may not have done everything that the people may have wished.
At the same time we cannot deny that the people of Ireland owe their prosperity and their freedom to the exertions of the Irish Party.
It would thus be ungrateful to spurn the IPP after all it had done. The example of Michael Davitt was raised as one who had tried his hand at physical force but ended up returning to constitutional methods. “If Ireland is to be represented at a Peace Conference I think it should be represented by the Irish Party.”
Others expressed their distaste for the circular in stronger terms. In a meeting of the Kilmallock Rural Council, the proposition that the letter be thrown onto the fire was carried by 13 to 11. At the Arklow Urban Council, the question as to whether to read out the invitation was met with “No, don’t, it is only nonsense,” followed by the suggestion to throw it into the wastebasket and move onto the next order of business.
Not all public bodies refused the invitation, however, with some agreeing to send delegates as requested. Even the ones that voted to reject it often did so by small margins. Plunkett was not without his defenders as well as detractors. At the Ballinasloe Guardians, one member addressed the rumour that the Count had applied for the position of Under-Secretary for Ireland some years past.
If so, why hold that against him when MPs, who drew a salary from the state, were just as much government servants? And, in any case, would he not have been a better man to govern his own country than the ones who did?
The ‘Socialist Part of Ireland’?
Plunkett would soon have to contend with another, considerably more dangerous rumour. As if he did not have enough to be concerned about, the Freeman’s Journal and its sister paper, the Evening Telegraph, gleefully published on the 16th April, three days before his conference was due, an “extraordinary document” that had been sent in “by one of the most influential priests in the Dublin Diocese” who had received it in the mail, as had many other clergymen throughout the country.
Purporting to come from the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’, the circular proclaimed its objective to be:
To replace the present chaotic state of society by an organised Commonwealth in Ireland, in which the Land, Railways and all other instruments of production, distribution and exchanges shall be owned and controlled by the whole people.
As standard socialist fare, this was suspect enough in a strongly conservative Ireland but worse was to follow. The document announced that at the forthcoming Plunkett convention, a delegate from the Labour Party would propose a series of resolutions, from the abolition of capitalism and the passing of female suffrage to the transference of schools from clerical management to public control.
As if the last point was not enough to cause the blood of every good Catholic to boil, the document quoted a passage from a 1913 edition of the Irish Worker, a newspaper that every reader would have known was aligned with that epitome of radical politics, James Larkin. The excerpt was especially derogative to the Church, denouncing its clergy as fence-sitters whose attitudes over the past centuries had been “cynical and disgusting to the last degree.”
Straining credulity, the circular ended by calling for Countess Markievicz to represent the women of Ireland, Larkin for the workmen and Count Plunkett for national aspirations, as delegates to the Peace Conference in Paris. The document could not have been better designed to taint Plunkett with the stain of Bolshevism, Larkinism and other heinous forms of social upheaval.
An Apple of Discord
Canon Murphy felt strongly enough to write a letter to the editor of the Freeman that same day, indicating that the editor had been thoughtful enough to show the Canon a copy of the circular prior to publishing. In a response published a page down from the offending document, the Canon urged his fellow priests to be “staunch patriots” who would not be “stampeded by any passing waves of Sinn Fein Larkin lunacy.” After all, they set an example to the rest of the country, being “Ireland’s best political barometer.”
Murphy ended with a pointed question to his colleagues: “How many will support the Plunkett convention?”
Genuine or not, the missive from the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’ was having an effect. James McGlinchey, the Dean of St Columbs College, Derry, declined the invitation despite being “heart and soul with the Policy.” He cited the circular as his reason, writing to the Count: “I do not think you would approve of this doctrine or policy: if this is allowed at your convention it will put a very different and very objectionable phase on it.”
At the same time, the Reverend Edward MacCormac, from Longford, asked the Count by letter on whose authority the circular was issued. If Sinn Féin was responsible, then there must be a renunciation of its principles “in which you are so interested.” While Father MacCormac was open to the possibility that the circular had been “manufactured for political purposes, as an attempt to discredit your meeting,” the Reverend needed confirmation, and asked for Plunkett to “kindly oblige me with a reply as soon as possible.”
Not every man of the cloth was so credulous. The Reverend W.P. Hackett from Crescent Green, Limerick, reassured the Count that he did not believe the “crazy document” to be anything but a “red herring” and “an apple of discord flung amongst your supporters.”
‘A Worthy, Practical Catholic’
The idea of Count Plunkett as the victim of a smear job was taken up even by individuals who did not otherwise see eye to eye with him. One reader of the Irish Independent, J.K. O’Byrne, wrote in to say that:
Though a vast number cannot see how the least practical good for Ireland can result from Count Plunkett’s political action, they feel deeply pained that infamous reflections should be cast upon him. Those who are scholars say he is extremely distinguished for his culture and attainments, and those who know him personally assert that he is a worthy, practical Catholic, and a very amendable gentleman.
“Can so much be said of public men generally?” O’Byrne added wryly. There was a certain irony in how the Count could still draw respect from those in disagreement with his newfound hard-line politics while many who were officially on his side were struggling to take him seriously.
Also demonstrating the prejudices which actual socialism would face in trying to take root in Ireland, O’Byrne finished his defence of Plunkett with: “To refer to him in connection with ‘socialism’ is unjust, because its principles, as usually understood, could not possibly be sanctioned by any true Catholic or patriot.”
Also writing to the IrishIndependent were clergymen, the same class of men that the circular was designed – assuming it was fake, which was increasingly the public consensus – to inflame. Under the telling headline, A BOGUS CIRCULAR, the newspaper quoted a number of priests, one of whom did not know how anyone could take the document seriously. As for the IPP, another cleric gave the Party leaders the benefit of the doubt that they knew nothing about the letter.
A layman quoted in the article was less charitable. Described as a “prominent supporter of the Count,” the unnamed individual blamed the circular as “the work of a well-known Dublin politician.”
A similar line was taken by a priest writing to the Independent as ‘One of the Regular Clergy’. According to him, that the “infamous circular is well-known to everyone in Dublin is quite evident from the remarks one hears on all sides.” Regarding the IPP, this ‘regular clergyman’ spoke more in sorrow than in anger: “This said that the Party, which once had the confidence of the Irish people, and were elected to safeguard their interests and procure self-government should have descended to such employment.”
Count Plunkett had weathered the storm. The identity of the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’ would never be proven, but it had, perhaps fittingly, done the most harm to the Irish Party. That most people would assume it to be the work of the IPP, out to discredit a vexatious rival, showed how low the stock of the former party of Parnell had sunk.
The outcome of Plunkett’s convention – there was no doubt that it was his convention – was yet to be seen. The number of public boards who had appointed delegates remained low but the Plunkett party dismissed this setback.
In a private review of the situation, titled ‘Analysis of Action on Circular by Public Boards’ (either by the Count or one of his allies), it was noted that representatives from organisations such as Sinn Féin, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Cumann na mBan, Irish National Foresters and the National Volunteers, among others, were due to attend.
“On the other hand, what can the Partition Party claim,” the ‘Analysis’ asked scornfully. “The small majority of the Boards, which do not represent the spirit of the country, and they cannot claim a single National Organisation in the country.” The IPP was “defunct and desperate efforts are at present being made to resurrect it.”
How true that was remained to be seen. Also uncertain was what – if the Irish Party was indeed on its last legs – was going to replace it. Some, like Griffith, was sure that that would be Sinn Féin.
Count Plunkett, as it turned out, had other ideas…
Of the voices raised against the Treaty during the Dáil debates in January 1922, few were more strident than that of Séumas Robinson. He came with impeccable credentials, both political and military, being the TD for East Tipperary-Waterford as well as the O/C to the 3rd Tipperary Brigade.
Not that Robinson was above opening his address with a joke:
In my own plain, direct, if not too lucid way, I would like to fire a few shots at the Treaty – metaphorically speaking.
The Republic was at stake, Robinson continued, and if the reputations of certain people would have to be ruined for its sake, then so be it. The people whose reputations he had in mind were doubtlessly the plenipotentiaries who had returned from London with the hated Treaty in hand – two of whom would feel the edge of Robinson’s tongue before he was done.
To Robinson, this despicable compromise was no recent thing. It had had its conception three years ago when the Irish Volunteers had been denied a general convention and thus the chance to have a proper say in matters. The compromise had continued into its embryonic form when the Volunteers had come under the authority of the Dublin GHQ, further neutering them of their independence.
The proto-compromise had passed into its chrysalis form (with Robinson mixing his birthing metaphors here) when GHQ began paying a wage to its soldiers – distasteful enough for the puritanical Robinson – without providing any appreciable military assistance to go with it, an oversight which he was not about to forgive.
The end result of these machinations was the Treaty under discussion. Like all compromises, Robinson concluded, it was like a mule in that it was barren. For all his keenness to portray himself as a bluff, no-nonsense man of action, Robinson could not resist the occasional rhetorical flourish.
In contrast to the gombeen ways of GHQ were the high-minded principles of the Volunteers, men for whom ideals and symbols were worthwhile things in themselves, whatever anyone else thought. As far as Robinson was concerned, they had been refused a voice for too long. So that the assembled deputies would be in no doubt as to where the Volunteers stood on the matter of the Treaty, Robinson read out a letter he had received that day.
It was from a number of IRA officers, first denying the rumours that they were favourable to the Treaty and, secondly, reaffirming their allegiance to the Republic, which in the context of the debate could only mean a stand against the Treaty. The names of the signatories were given, along with – ominously enough – the units within the IRA that they commanded: Liam Lynch of the 1st Southern Division, Ernie O’Malley of the 2nd Southern Division, Oscar Traynor of the Dublin Brigade, and Michael McCormack of the 3rd Southern Division.
If Robinson had been hoping for a stir amongst his audience, he succeeded. Richard Hayes TD retorted that the letter did not speak for his constituency of East Limerick and he doubted that it spoke for the other Divisional Commandants either. Even Éamon de Valera, no proponent for the Treaty, felt obliged to step in to say that it was scarcely right for any officer to be using the name of the army like that.
Somewhat mollified, Robinson admitted that reading out such a letter may have seemed a thoughtless thing to do. But he was not prepared to back down on this point, not even against the Chief:
De Valera: I would ask that the army be allowed to keep its discipline.
Robinson: The army has always been regarded as the army pure and simple. I submit that it is not so. If we had no political outlook we would not be soldiers at all.
De Valera: I know that they are citizen-soldiers. The point is that bringing them up as Brigades is not wise.
Robinson: I think the Volunteers have been very badly treated. The Volunteers demand a veto on the change of our country’s constitution. We are not a national army in the ordinary sense; we are not a machine pure and simple; we have political views as soldiers. For the purpose of this veto I here demand a general convention of the Volunteers.
Robinson’s speech was remembered admiringly for years afterwards by his fellow Anti-Treatyites, even those who did not normally give him the benefit of the doubt. Dan Breen broke his usual policy of never saying anything complimentary about his former O/C when he described how Robinson had “very properly reminded” the Dáil about the right of the IRA to hold political views.
Todd Andrews did not think too much of the famous Soloheadbeg ambush that helped make Robinson’s name, downplaying it as “an operation that just went wrong.” However, one of the few positive impressions he took away from watching the Dáil debates was Robinson’s speech which cheered him and “totally expressed my feeling.”
As if the threat of military subordination was not fiery enough, Robinson laid into the two men he held responsible for the deplorable state of affairs: Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, the mother and the father of the Treaty respectively as Robinson dubbed them. What followed was pithily summed up by the Freeman’s Journal as a “personal attack on Mr. Collins, belittling the latter’s part in the War.”
This was not an ad hominem attack for the sake of it. Robinson quoted an earlier speaker, Patrick MacCartan, on how he had said he could understand support for the Treaty on the basis that “what is good enough for Michael Collins is good enough for me.” Arthur Griffith has gone as far as to describe his fellow plenipotentiary as “the man who had won the war.”
If the Treaty was to be argued for on the basis of one man’s personal qualities, then it was only fair to stand against it on that same basis and, to Robinson, the Collins he had been hearing so much about had nothing in common with the Collins who had signed the Treaty. The former was a fictional construct, the other a weak and unworthy man who had done nothing to warrant the laurels heaped on him.
Kevin O’Higgins felt obliged to speak out: “Are we discussing Michael Collins or the Treaty?”
“Or are we impeaching him?” said another deputy, meaning Collins. Even if the question was meant rhetorically, Robinson was happy to take it up, pointing out that the plenipotentiaries were already in the dock in a manner of speaking. It was a trial in which Robinson was determined to act as prosecutor even if the Speaker of the Dáil, Eoin MacNeill, questioned the relevance: “I think it is as near not discussing the Treaty as possible.”
Undeterred, Robinson delivered what he hoped would be his coup de grâce to the opposing faction: that the plenipotentiaries appeared to be guilty of nothing less than treason. Before pressing on, Robinson assured his listeners that he would confine his arguments to the facts …before proceeding with a speculation on the motives of the opposing signatories to the Treaty: Arthur Griffith and the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.
Both leaders, so Robinson argued, had come to the conclusion that they could not overcome the other in negotiations. So that they could both bring a result of sorts to their respective cabinets, Griffith and Lloyd George agreed between them to give Ireland Dominion status, or Dominion Home Rule as Robinson termed it, the reference to the former, now discredited, attempt at self-rule being no accident.
The talks in London, along with the Prime Minister’s talk of a “terrible and immediate war” if they fell through, were thus all playacting on the part of Griffith and Lloyd George, with Collins as an enabler, for the benefit of the gullible.
Robinson finished his hypothesis with the suggestion that Griffith and Collins were open to the charge of treason: “No doubt,” he said:
They will give a satisfactory explanation of their efforts; and I would be more than delighted to withdraw any imputation that my words may unjustly convey. I think they should thank me for saying openly what is in the minds of many.
That Collins or Griffith would be thanking Robinson was as unlikely as him withdrawing his imputations any time soon, delightedly or otherwise.
His piece done, Robinson sat down and relinquished the floor. It went to the next speaker and then the next, as it would continue to do so for a very long time that day and the following one before the final vote.
Amidst the heated atmosphere of the debates, Robinson’s vitriol was not unique. Cathal Brugha’s own personal attack on Collins was enough, some thought, to lose the anti-Treaty cause key votes. His speech did, however, mark Robinson as one of the hardliners. When the Dáil voted at 64-57 in favour of the Treaty, his name was down unsurprisingly as one of the ‘no’ votes.
Robinson’s opposition to the Treaty was in no small part the complaint of a put-upon groundling against his aloof and feckless superiors. But then, Robinson had already displayed a contentious attitude towards authority.
Sometime after the Truce had come into effect, he had discussed with a number of others the possibility of obtaining weapons from Germany in anticipation of renewed hostilities. During these talks, Robinson had outlined his sense of the military situation facing him: the Crown forces had largely withdrawn to their barracks and while this limited their options, it also made them near untouchable.
Robinson had hoped that the German mission could result in the IRA acquiring the necessary equipment to breach fortifications such as trench mortars. Robinson warned the others not to inform anyone of their plans as they were going over the heads of GHQ. Their superiors in Dublin, Robinson was sure, were not sufficiently active in procuring weapons, particularly for the county divisions such as Robinson’s.
The visit to Germany was to prove a failure and none of the hoped-for armaments were brought over. That Robinson had not trusted his commanders to the point of keeping them in the dark did not bode well for future relations.
Another act of independence, this time against a different sort of authority, had been Robinson’s selection as the Sinn Féin candidate for East Tipperary-Waterford in the 1921 elections. Not that he cared particularly. As he was to make clear in the Dáil, he considered himself a soldier first and foremost. In his later Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement, Robinson made only a passing reference to how “the Volunteers asked me to stand for election.”
Robinson went on to win the seat, although not entirely unopposed. Sinn Féin party headquarters had had another candidate in mind and were only told about the change in plans a few days before the election. Sinn Féin demanded a full explanation but, judging by how the subject did not feature again in the party minutes, never received one.
It was, in any case, a fait accompli. Central authority had been unable, according to historian Michael Laffan, to “influence the decisions of locally dominant Volunteers.” It had been unable to deter Robinson, either.
Robinson had arrived in Dublin on the eve of the Dáil debates in time to meet up with a few other IRA leaders who would go on to join him against the Treaty: Ernie O’Malley, Liam Lynch, Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows.
With GHQ identified as the problem, Robinson and O’Malley agreed with O’Connor’s suggestion of breaking away from their central command as soon as the Dáil debates were over, none of them having much hope in how the talks would go. The more cautious Mellows counselled them to wait and see how the situation developed and it was on that circumspect note that the band broke up for the night.
Of the group, O’Malley knew Robinson the best, having fought alongside him on a couple of occasions during the War of Independence. He was to leave a vivid depiction of Robinson on the night before the debates:
Seamus was dogged. His hair was tousled. He held his clenched fist underneath his underlip. Somehow he had sensed that one day something would go wrong…Seamus had too much of the French kind of inquiring, critical logic.
O’Malley had witnessed a display of Robinson’s ‘French’ logic before, when the latter had objected to the IRA oath pledging allegiance to the Dáil. Robinson had been concerned that the Dáil might in the future settle for something short of a republic, a worry O’Malley had brushed off with a laugh. Somehow, Robinson was to refrain from a ‘told you so’.
The day after the Dáil approved the Treaty as feared, Robinson joined Mellows and some others for a gloomy little gathering. As one of the attendees, Robert Briscoe, later described the scene:
We were as despairing as only ardent young men can be; for the cause which had been the mainspring of our existence seemed forever lost and life had no more meaning. “What next? What next?” we asked each other and ourselves.
As none of them felt like remaining in Ireland to watch their country become re-enslaved, it was suggested they go abroad and find some other place in which to continue the fight against Perfidious Albion.
Robinson proposed India. There, they could pass on their experiences of guerrilla warfare which, when allied with the country’s vast population, would give these aspiring Wild Geese a chance to strike a substitute blow for freedom.
His suggestion provoked an outburst of genuine enthusiasm; so volatile are we Irish that it takes but a spark of courage to rekindle hope. However, it went no further because developments at home took another shape.
Despite Briscoe’s assurances to his reader that the ardour for such a farfetched scheme was sincere, it is unlikely that it was entirely serious or the whole session was anything more than an outlet to vent frustration.
Robinson was to enjoy during this period a camaraderie with several leading figures in Ireland’s left-wing scene, such as Mellows and Roddy Connolly. The son of the Easter Rising martyr, Connolly had been one of those Robinson sent to Germany to procure weapons, as part of which he used his connections with the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) to obtain forged passports.
As a sign of how small the revolutionary social circles could be, Connolly’s sister, Ina, had known Robinson’s brother, Joseph, from their families’ time in Belfast. The family patriarch, James Connolly, would remember Séumas when they met during the Easter Rising, a wounded Connolly cheerfully calling out: “Help, Towney!” to the younger man as a reference to their common association with Belfast and Glasgow. Robinson would describe James with affection as a “man’s man in every fibre of his body and mind.”
It is thus perhaps unsurprising that Robinson and Roddy Connolly bonded but politics as well as shared history connected them. Connolly would refer to Robinson in a 1922 article as someone who “describes himself as a ‘Social Republican.’”
Another association was Frank Robbins, a sergeant in the Irish Citizens’ Army (ICA), who met Robinson as part of a delegation from the Volunteers sometime between the Easter Rising and 1918. The subject of discussion was the possibility of greater cooperation between the ICA and the Volunteers. Although nothing came of these talks, Robbins remembered them as having been open and frank, and he felt he knew Robinson very well by the time of the Treaty.
The Social Republican
Robbins gave no indication as to Robinson’s political orientation and Connolly did not elaborate on the label of ‘Social Republican’. More telling is a conversation Robbins had with Mellows in April 1922 during the latter’s occupation of the Four Courts. The two were discussing the merits of the Treaty – Robbins was for it – when Mellows asked as an aside: “Did you hear of all the soviets Seamus has established down in Tipperary?”
Robbins did not press for details, seeing it as an attempt by Mellows to change the subject. For his part, Mellows was uninformed as there is nothing to suggest that the wave of short-lived co-ops set up over the south of Ireland were anything other than local initiatives. Based as he was in Dublin at this time, Robinson would have been poorly placed to provide any input to these budding soviets even if there had been a central authority behind them. All the same, it was noteworthy that Mellows thought of Robinson as enough of a fellow traveller to be a plausible instigator of a social revolution.
By the time Robinson spoke for himself in his 1957 BMH Statement, he preferred to muse on the inherent superiority of Catholic theology, the self-evident truth that Catholicism is the only infallible guide against the nihilistic horrors of atheism and how religious education was insufficiently taught in schools. Whatever youthful experimentation he had had with radical politics was left unspoken.
Close as he was to Mellows, O’Malley and Connolly, Robinson could not bridge the gap between him and the man whose opinion was to matter most amongst the Anti-Treatyites.
Robinson first met Liam Lynch in October 1920 to discuss the problem of British patrols raiding into Co. Cork from their base in Cahir. As Cahir was in Robinson’s territory, Lynch informed the other O/C that stopping the enemy raids was his responsibility. Robinson replied that the same British unit had been also entering his brigade’s territory until a few months ago, unwisely adding: “They must be finding it less ungenial to raid Cork.”
Robinson was to insist that he had meant it as good-natured banter of the sort that he regularly exchanged with other IRA members. The attempt at humour, however, fell flat with Lynch. It was not an auspicious start to the relationship.
Eight months later, Robinson became frustrated at the occupation of the Four Courts, believing it foolhardy to keep the Anti-Treaty leadership cooped up like so many eggs in a basket. After a blazing row with Mellows and Rory O’Connor, Robinson left the Courts on the night of 27th June and departed from Dublin by train the next morning, just in time to escape the Free State attack that same day.
While sharing a train with Lynch and a number of other officers, Robinson argued intensely against the foolishness, as he saw it, of their policy for each IRA unit to fight on their own territory. As with the Four Courts occupation, this was far too passive for Robinson’s liking. Instead, he wanted the Anti-Treatyites to march in strength on Dublin and cut out the Free State cancer before it spread. The only man with the power to order this, however, was their cautious Chief of Staff, Lynch, who refused to hear of it.
Robinson continued to press his case. He told of how it had felt during the Easter Rising when Dublin stood alone and unaided. As if this was not plaintive enough, Robinson bore the responsibility of having promised the Dublin Brigade that he would return with his Tipperary men as soon he could. Lynch held firm, believing Dublin to be too dangerous.
As a compromise, Robinson suggested sending a hundred forerunners from his own brigade to the city to establish contact with the other IRA units there. If Lynch was shown how easy it could be done, then Robinson hoped the Chief of Staff would change his mind. Lynch agreed to the hundred-strong advance guard, and their success in reaching Dublin and the subsequent fighting there gave Robinson fresh hope. As late as December 1922, Robinson believed, the Anti-Treatyites had a chance at victory if they concentrated on Dublin.
But the lack of further aid from outside demoralised the Dublin IRA who refused to commit themselves to anything risky while they remained unsupported. Seeing the fight in the city become a dead-end, the Tipperary men withdrew. “For the second time in six years,” Robinson wrote mournfully, “Dublin was let down at a critical moment by the rest of the country.”
Whether the Civil War would have been much different had Lynch followed Robinson’s proactive advice is debatable. It is unlikely, though, that it would have gone worse for the Anti-Treatyites. Not for the first time had Robinson failed to persuade when it would have been in the best interests of those involved to be persuaded.
Thomas Ryan, an officer in Robinson’s 3rd Tipperary Brigade, had noted how his O/C, despite his obvious intelligence, lacked the forceful character necessary to maintain authority over the Brigade’s flying columns formed during the War of Independence. Robinson was consequently regarded by the column-men as a purely nominal commander with no real input to offer.
This was to prove detrimental for all concerned. Perhaps, as Ryan was to wonder, if Robinson had been able to assert himself, “we might have had less to lament in the way of lost opportunities.”
The same might have been said by the Anti-Treatyites in regards to the crucial opening months of the Civil War. It is perhaps darkly fitting that a man who had scorned the directives of his superiors for so long be repaid in kind.
The Man of Many Things
Passionately against the Treaty and his GHQ overseers in equal measure, Séumas Robinson gave one of the more forceful speeches in the Dáil debates. It called for the Volunteers to play a role in the unfolding politics to the extent that even a natural ally like Éamon de Valera distanced himself from it. Not content with that, Robinson went on to accuse two signatories of the Treaty, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, of nothing short of treason.
Robinson had already displayed an independent nature. An attempt to purchase weapons was made behind the backs of his commanding officers. In the 1921 elections he replaced one of candidates – whether on his own initiative or on the request of the local Volunteers – with the Sinn Féin central office receiving only a cursory notice. With such a rebellious streak, it is perhaps unsurprising that he bonded with a number of left-wing figures, although it is unclear as to what extent he shared their politics.
To the fore of the Anti-Treatyites in the build-up to the Civil War, Robinson was nonetheless marginalised when the conflict actually happened. His advice for a more aggressive policy was disregarded by Liam Lynch in what may have cost the Anti-Treatyites a chance at victory. Robinson was many things but he was not to be a winner.
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, pp. 288-92. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html
 Breen, Dan (BMH / WS 1763), p. 19
 Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 119, 223
Freeman’s Journal, 07/01/1922
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, 06/01/1921, pp. 288-92
 Hopkinson, Michael. Green against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988), p. 39
 Beaumont, Sean (BMH / WS 709), pp. 5-6
 Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 77
 SCM, Sinn Féin standing committee minutes. Available from the National Library of Ireland, P3269 ; Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 337
 O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Dublin: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-2
 O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 183
 Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd, 1958), p. 141
 Beaumont, Sean (BMH / WS 709), p. 6
 Heron, Ina (BMH / WS 919) p. 75 ; Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1722), p. 7
 Connolly, Roddy. The Republican Struggle in Ireland (London: The Irish Communist Organisation), p. 51
 Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 203, 229
 Ibid, p. 232 ; a distinctly unsympathetic Dan Breen provided a brief first-hand account of the soviets in Tipperary in his BMH Statement (WS 1763), pp. 39-40
 Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 7-17. Of limited use to an historian but it gives a good sense of the man’s style.
 Ibid, pp. 78-80, p. 102
 Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 783), pp. 116-7
Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)
Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd, 1958)
Connolly, Roddy. The Republican Struggle in Ireland (London: The Irish Communist Organisation)
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html
Hopkinson, Michael. Green against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988)
Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Dublin: Mercier Press, 2012)
Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)
Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements
Beaumont, Sean, WS 709
Breen, Dan, WS 1763
Heron, Ina, WS 919
Robinson, Séumas, WS 1722
Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721
Ryan, Thomas, WS 783
Freeman’s Journal, 07/01/1922
SCM, Sinn Féin standing committee minutes. Available from the National Library of Ireland, P3269
When An Post issued a commemorative stamp of Jack White, first commandant of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) on January 2014, eagle-eyed historians were quick to point out that whoever the man on the stamp was, it was not White. That White could not even be assured of getting at least a stamp to himself makes Leo Keohane’s biography an overdue one.
Perhaps White had too diverse a career – first in the British army, then the ICA, followed by the Irish Volunteers, and then back in British military service as an ambulance driver – for Irish history to conveniently sum up. Better, then, to pass him over entirely. There was something of a ‘Peter Pan’ quality to him, the boy who never quite grew up and settled down with one label like the rest of his contemporaries. It was a trait White himself was aware of, as the aptly chosen title of his memoir, Misfit, indicates. Whatever else may be said about the man, he was not devoid of self-awareness.
The subtitle of Keohane’s biography sets White firmly in the context of the ICA, which is what he has been remembered for even though his time in it was a brief one. The son of a celebrated field marshal, White made for an unlikely revolutionary but from his time in the British army and onwards, he was a man determined not to make his time in any sort of system an easy one.
As a case in point, White refused to execute a teenage prisoner during the Boer War, threatening instead to shoot his commanding officer. Such insubordination did not stop him from later receiving the Distinguished Service Order for bravery, just as the award and a promising military career did not stop him from resigning his commission and striking out on his own.
White had by then immersed himself in the writings of Tolstoy and for the next few years sought to immerse himself in Tolsyoyan principles. Although White never did articulate quite what these principles were, this search for some sort of higher truth would drive him for much of his life. He was someone who was “desperately seeking some personal form of fulfilment,” as Keohane puts it, “with an awareness of himself that insists he must have a role to play in the grand scheme of things.”
Such a role was found upon his return to Ireland in 1912. Ireland was by then thick with tension: between Ireland and the rest of the Empire, between Nationalists and Unionists, between workers and their employers. The last conflict came to a boil in the Lockout of 1913, and it was its brutal suppression by the Dublin Metropolitan Police, coupled with the plight of the Dublin poor, that drove White to the twin causes of social justice and the ICA.
It is unclear as to who initiated the idea of the ICA. Keohane cites a number of sources that attribute this to either White or James Connolly. Both were certainly involved in the ICA from its earliest stage, and Keohane skilfully draws character portraits of what attracted either man to such a body. For White, the ICA was a chance to apply his military experience to a worthy cause without compromising his pacifism, given the self-defence role he envisioned for the ICA.
Connolly, in contrast, was prepared to use the ICA more assertively such as when he dispatched a squad with rifles and bayonets to a striking picket line. White, Keohane believes, “would have been aghast at the time if he had foreseen some of the uses that Connolly had in mind for the Citizen Army,” and it is certainly hard to imagine White leading the ICA into open rebellion against the state as it would do on the Easter Week of 1916.
But White’s leadership in the ICA did not last long. Frustrated by the increasingly low turnout of ICA members for events, White defected to the Irish Volunteers “with the suggestion of the tone of an ambitious young man, leaving a small and backward family firm for a large and exciting national company,” as Keohane observes.
White organised and commanded a brigade of 5,000 men in Co Derry. Despite many of them being former soldiers like him, he did not find their discipline to be much better than that of his former ICA charges. In addition, he found his authority increasingly undermined by the sectarian suspicions of those in the Derry Volunteers who doubted that a Protestant like White would ever lead them into a fight against Orangemen. As of before, White found that the reality of the organisation he was responsible for did not match the ideals he nurtured.
The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 gave White the chance, or so thought, to solve the problem of discipline for the Irish Volunteers. A circular letter he wrote to various leading figures proposed the formation of a sort of Irish auxiliary force for the British war effort: the Irish Volunteers would be paid and equipped by the British state but with their leadership remaining within themselves. White went as far as to write to Lord Kitchener with his idea, although to no avail. Intriguingly, another leading figure in the British military, General Ian Hamilton, was sufficiently taken with the notion to take it up to Prime Minister Asquith but likewise received short shrift there.
The idea had not been a million miles away from John Redmond’s call for Irishmen to enlist. White’s version, however, was unlikely to entice many in the British government who would have been providing the resources to an armed body that they would have had little control over. On the other end of the political spectrum, it would have had little attraction to Nationalists who wanted Ireland to have nothing to do with the war. While doomed to ignominious failure, the idea did show White’s willingness to attempt an inclusive solution to a problem rather than remain fixed to a party line.
In keeping with his nature as an eternal renegade, White left the Irish Volunteers shortly after the War began in order to do his part on the Continent. Marrying his pacifist principles with his personal courage, he took up ambulance duties at the battle front. His distance from Ireland meant he was to have no input in the Easter Rising. That did not stop him from attempting to rouse the miners of South Wales into a strike in a futile effort to save James Connolly from execution. The reaction of the miners to this demagogue in their midst was not recorded.
After all that, the rest of White’s life seems almost like an anticlimax. He assisted with the Sinn Féin election campaign in 1918 while finding the time to publish a pamphlet that attempted to explain the Sinn Féin phenomenon and the future of Ireland in socialist terms. That set the tone for the rest of his life: the man who had tried moulding the fate of Ireland through the ICA and then the Irish Volunteers was content for the most part to sit on the sidelines and provide only commentary.
Exceptions to this passivity included his arrest in Belfast in 1931 while on a ‘hunger march’ with a group dedicated to the unemployed. Seemingly singled out from the crowd by the Orange police, White received a beating and a month in prison. Three years later, he was attacked by IRA men while leading a branch of the left-leaning Republican Congress, to Bodenstown for the Wolfe Tone commemoration. Almost as if not to leave anyone out, he was assaulted again at Bodenstown two years later, in 1936, and badly bludgeoned, this time by Blueshirts.
White went to Spain shortly after its Civil War began in 1936, though his actions there are uncertain, and Keohane finds a second-hand account of him as a Spanish Republican training officer “doubtful”. His death in 1946 received scant attention outside his friends and family.
Keohane tells the tale of a complex man who lived in complicated times, and tells it well. It is first and foremost a biography. The great events in Irish history at that time pass on by like so many road signs, leaving readers with only Jack White as he made his way through life as their only companion. Many other people of prominence appear through the pages, from James Larkin and Roger Casement to Lord Kitchener and Edward VII, but this is Jack White’s story, not theirs, and they are dropped from the narrative as soon as they part ways with our hero.
How much readers will remain invested in this book will depend on whether they want to continue reading about Jack White. He was not one of the most important people for his era but he was one of the more interesting, one of the more cerebral, and perhaps one of the most frustrating for he never achieved a fraction of what he perhaps could have had. For all that, he deserves to be better known, and if anything will grant him this, it is this book. And who knows? Maybe Jack White will have the right stamp for himself, after all.