Ouroboros Eating Its Tail: The Irish Party against Sinn Féin in a New Ireland, 1917

Memories of Mountjoy

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‘The prisoner’

Seán Milroy, governor of Mountoy Prison, was surprised at the sight of the latest inmate – a stout, elderly man – brought before him in his office. “Something very bad was wrong with him evidently,” Milroy noted. “He was extremely restless, moving his arms about in a jerky, spasmodic fashion, and rolling his eyes in an awful way.”

The prisoner’s name, when Milroy asked the warden in attendance, was John Redmond, who had been proving to be a bother, pacing up and down his cell while shouting slogans like: “Poor little Belgium! Charters of liberty! The Allies! The Empire. The Huns!”

As if to demonstrate, Redmond grew even more agitated in front of Milroy, yelling out: “Disgruntled cranks! Factionists! German gold!” and words to that effect.

This behaviour worsened as the warden tried calming him, and Milroy rang the bell on his desk for assistance. It was then that the ‘governor’ woke up from his daydream, his role-reversing fantasy of himself in the position of authority, with his political opponents humbled before him, and not, as he really was, a prisoner in Mountjoy.[1]

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Seán Milroy

At least Milroy – a “well-known Sinn Feiner”, according to a contemporary newspaper report – could take solace in that he was nearing the end of his three-month sentence, from June to September 1915, for “having used language likely to discourage recruiting for His Majesty’s Army” in a public speech. He did not record his time behind bars, spent in the company of like-minded prisoners such as Seán Mac Diarmada and Liam Mellows, until two years later, in 1917, by which time the country was in a very different state, indeed.[2]

Nationalist Ireland had turned on itself, like Ouroboros with its tail in its mouth, one end consuming the other. It was now no longer necessary to imagine the degradation of Redmond, on whose shoulders the hopes of Irish self-rule had once rested. The mere sight of him as he left Trinity College, Dublin, in mid-1917, incited boos from the small crowd outside the front gate.

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Ouroboros

The jeers grew louder, as the hecklers followed Redmond up Westmoreland Street, prompting some civic-minded passers-by to form a protective ring around the beleaguered politician. Even so, it was only after he hurried inside the first building to hand for refuge that the danger could be said to have passed.

“I am quite sure that if any of the mob had offered physical violence to Redmond,” remembered one witness, “I would have joined in.” To sixteen-year-old Todd Andrews and many others in Sinn Féin, Redmond was “the epitome of politicians in general, and all politicians were regarded as low, dirty and treacherous.”[3]

Divine Law

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T.P. O’Connor

It was not for want of trying on Redmond’s part. On the 7th March 1917, he and rest of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) tried to break the impasse over Home Rule, its long-cherished project, when T.P. O’Connor, as Member of Parliament (MP) for Liverpool Scotland, introduced a motion in the House of Commons, calling on that august assembly “without further delay to confer upon Ireland the free institutions long promised.”[4]

David Lloyd George declined. Or rather, the Prime Minister declared that Home Rule was there for the parts of Ireland which wanted it. But, in regards to the remainder, those who were Irishmen in name while being, as he put it, “as alien in blood, in religious faith, in traditions, in outlook from the rest of Ireland as the inhabitants of Fife and Aberdeen” – no, Home Rule was not something he would force on them.

These ‘alien’ exceptions were the Unionists, who had shifted from opposing Home Rule in its entirety to demanding that various counties be given the option of remaining outside the jurisdiction of any new Dublin parliament, answerable only to the one at Westminster, just as before. As these Unionists were concentrated largely in Ulster, such allowances would amount in practice to the exclusion of those six counties in the north-east corner of the island.

Perfect from the Ulster Unionists’ point of view but political suicide for Redmond should this Partition happen on his watch. Unfortunately for the Irish Party, such passions were beyond the ability of Englishmen to relate to.

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Ulster Unionist postcard

“We often cut up counties in England without engaging in civil war,” Harold Spender, a pro-Home Rule journalist, wrote to Redmond on the 29th March 1917. “There is no divine law against moving a county landmark.”[5]

Divine law or not, that even a sympathetic individual like Spender could be so obtuse did not bode well for the IPP’s chances of rallying enough support to halt Partition. Yet all its MPs could do was try their best.

(Not) Answering the Irish Question

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David Lloyd George

When T.P. O’Connor dined with Lloyd George on the 22nd January 1917, his lobbying made little headway. To O’Connor’s dismay, the Prime Minister appeared to have spared Home Rule little thought beforehand, being content with Partition as the only credible solution. He was more interested in the possibility of conscription for Ireland in order to solve the need for manpower on the Western Front, a policy which O’Connor was keen to stress as a debacle in the making.

While Lloyd George continuously reassured O’Connor, over the course of their meal together, of his desire to remain on tight terms with his Irish allies, his actions were to fall short of his words, especially if they risked offending the Ulster Unionist presence in Parliament.[6]

Not that Redmond could afford to give up. “I hope you will read this as it is from a friend,” wrote his brother, William, to the Prime Minister, on the 4th March 1917, three days before their showdown in Westminster. The MP for East Clare began with an attempt to rekindle warm memories: “When you entered the House I was then an old member. We fought many battles on the same side.”

As the letter went on, a slight edge of pleading crept in:

I do not want anything from you but this – to settle the Irish question – you are strong enough. Give the Ulster men proportional and full representation and they cannot complain.

William Redmond ended with a stark warning: “If there is no settlement there will be nothing but disaster all round for all.”[7]

“There is nothing I would like better to be the instrument for settling the Irish question,” Lloyd George wrote back two days later, on the 6th March. After all, as he pointed out: “I was elected to the House purely as a Home Rule candidate…and I have voted steadily for Home Rule ever since.”

154Which was true enough. But he clearly did not feel the same urgency as William Redmond, nor thought the matter as simple to solve as the other man seemed to: “But you know just as well as I do what the difficulty is in settling the Irish question, and if any man can show me a way out of that I should indeed be happy.”[8]

In other words: my hands are tied, so too bad.

Miracles and the Lack of

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William Redmond

Appropriately enough, after his efforts in private had been exhausted, it was William Redmond who publicly made the case before Parliament for immediate and unconditional Home Rule. He looked every bit his fifty-five years, much of which had been spent in the service of his country.

“Major Redmond’s hair is white now, and he has lost much of his boyish air,” wrote one observer. “The war has deeply lined his face, and his eyes are more deeply set than in his political swashbuckling days.”[9]

Dressed in khaki, as befitting his rank of major in the British Army, he had stood to second T.P. O’Connor’s motion on the 7th March. To Stephen Gwynn, the MP for Galway City, “that debate will always be remembered by those who heard it for one speech” and that was William Redmond’s.[10]

At a length of half an hour, his piece was a relatively short one by the standards of the chamber. In place of the quantity of words, however, William Redmond made up for in quality. Dark and bitter mistakes had been made in the past, and not all on one side, he conceded, but there was no point in brooding on the past.

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Edward Carson

Instead, he appealed directly to Edward Carson to meet with his Nationalist opposites – for the sake of the future and for the Irishmen who were, even now, fighting and dying together in the same trenches – so they could come to some arrangement on the basis of self-government for their shared island.

If safeguards were what the Ulster Unionists wanted, then Redmond promised to go to any lengths necessary to reassure them, even if that included – he suggested tantalisingly – the acceptance of a Prime Minister from Ulster to head the first Irish Government.[11]

While there were other speeches that day, William Redmond’s was the one that counted as far as many were concerned. O’Connor could hear the heavy breathing of his fellow MPs seated around him, while others who watched from the gallery – so he was told afterwards – were so overcome with emotion that they wept and sobbed unabashedly.[12]

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Stephen Gwynn

Gwynn was similarly awed. “It was a speech, in short, that made one believe in impossibilities,” as he put it, “but in Parliament no miracles happen.”[13]

When it was clear to the chamber that Lloyd George was no closer than before in supporting an all-Ireland settlement, with Ulster included, John Redmond rose to deliver the piece de resistance of the day. The Prime Minister, he declared, had brought Ireland face to face with revolution. From now on, the country would have to be governed with an unsheathed sword and, as such, it was pointless to continue the debate.

And, with that, reported the Irish Times:

The Nationalists cheered to the echo as their leader left his seat and stalked majestically down the gangway, and along the floor of the House. They followed him, shouting and jeering as they went, while members looked on with serious faces.[14]

If nothing else, the Irish Party still knew how to make an exit. Not that it made any real difference.

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Joe Devlin

When O’Connor and Joe Devlin, the MP for West Belfast, met Lloyd George later in the month, on the 28th March, time had done nothing to change the Prime Minister’s mind. “LG says that the Orangemen still insist on the 6 counties and was hopeless of getting them to move from that position,” O’Connor reported to John Redmond. “We told him he ought to deny them; he says he could not.”[15]

Despite the uphill struggle they faced, O’Connor still kept the faith. “If [Lloyd George] persists in his whole 6-county proposal,” he told Redmond on the 1st April 1917, “he will fail ignominiously for we can tear such a proposal to tatters in the House of Commons.”[16]

Perhaps, but Ireland was no longer waiting to give its representatives that chance.

‘A More Reasonable Outlook’

William Redmond’s celebrated performance in Parliament turned out to be his swansong. “We deeply regret to learn that Major William H.K. Redmond, MP, of the Royal Irish Regiment,” reported the Irish Times on the 11th June 1917, three months later, “was killed in action on the 7th inst. in the brilliant and successful attack on the Ridge of Messines.”[17]

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Aftermath of the Battle of Messines

The uniform William Redmond had worn while in the House of Commons had been no pose. Nor was his plea for reconciliation between Nationalist and Unionist Ireland anything less than sincere. That Irish soldiers from the two traditions could fight together in the same trenches was proof enough, to him, that a better, happier future was possible together.

True, differences remained – William Redmond was not so naïve as to think otherwise. “The soldier in France who was a home ruler at home probably remains so,” he admitted, writing publicly in May 1917. “The Ulster soldier who disapproved of home rule probably does so still”:

But the meeting of men of diverse opinions in the field has undoubtedly created an atmosphere of friendliness which must make it easier to adjust differences and which should induce a more reasonable outlook upon things at home.[18]

When William Redmond returned to his regiment in France, in time for the push towards a German strongpoint near Messines, his main fear was that he would be held back from the Front on account of his age.

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British soldiers in the trenches

“He felt absolutely miserable at the prospect of being kept behind,” remembered an army chaplain for the Royal Irish Fusiliers. “He had used every influence with General [William Bernard] Hickie to get over the top with the men”:

He spoke in the most feeling manner of what awaited the poor fellows, and longed to share their sufferings and their fate.

In that regard, he was to have his wish. When permission was given for him to join the firing-line, he informed a fellow Irish officer “with real delight and boyishness in his voice”, to the other man’s wonder: “I have never seen anyone so pleased as he was.”[19]

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William Redmond’s grave in Locre, Belgium

‘Tired Out’

For his older brother, it was a particularly wounding blow. “The loss of him meant to John Redmond a loss of personal efficiency,” wrote Gwynn. “Sorrow gave a strong grip to depression on a brooding mind which had always a proneness to melancholy.” For William had been more than a sibling to John, but a counsellor too, and perhaps the sole one:

He had who temperamentally shared his own point of view. Willie Redmond was the only man who could break through his brother’s constitutional reserve and could force him into discussion. In the months that were to come such a man was badly needed.[20]

John Redmond’s melancholia-prone mind had already been brooding for quite some time. “Redmond is very depressed,” wrote T.P. O’Connor to John Dillon, on the 18th May 1916. “He seems to be tired out and sick of the whole position and has again and again referred to the possibility of his retiring from politics.”[21]

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William Redmond (left), John Redmond (right) and the latter’s son, William (right)

Dillon, for his part, did not bother so much with sympathy. “It is touch and go whether we can save the movement and keep the Party in existence,” the MP for East Mayo admitted to O’Connor on the 19th August 1916. “A great deal depends on the extent to which the Chairman realises the position and on what his intentions as to the future are.” That “on these points I am to a large extent in the dark” did not bode well for saving their life’s work.[22]

A month later, on the 26th September 1916, Dillon was even more frank to O’Connor: “Enthusiasm and trust in Redmond and the Party is dead [underlined in original text] so far as the mass of the people is concerned.”

A speech Redmond made in Waterford, in October 1916, promising a tougher line in the future, gave the Constitutional cause fresh drive, as even the habitually glum Dillon agreed. To him, the speech was “all that could be desired, and it will do an incalculable amount of good. It has already had an immense effect on the country.”

There would no further negotiations with the British Government, Redmond had declared, only a demand for the release of those interned since the Easter Rising, a call for General Maxwell – his work long done in suppressing sedition – to be withdrawn from the country, and a firm resistance to any possibility of conscription in Ireland.

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John Redmond delivering a speech

After months of political deadlock, with their elected representatives appearing no more than hostages to fate, this bold new stance, in Dillon’s opinion, “took the country by surprise, and produced a great wave of reaction in favour of his leadership and of the Party. If that attitude is resolutely adhered to the country will come all right.”[23]

Dead Cat Bounce

If, if, if…

The great wave of reaction had receded by the start of 1917, leaving the Party as stranded as a beached whale. A by-election drubbing in North Roscommon in February – the first of the wins to Sinn Féin that year – was enough to plunge Redmond into a crisis of faith.

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Cartoon upon the IPP defeat in North Roscommon, from the ‘Roscommon Herald’, 10th February 1917

In a letter intended for the Party followers, Redmond acknowledged the fork on the road to which they had come. If North Roscommon was an abnormality, “a freak election, due to…momentary passion” over how the winner, Count Plunkett, had had a son executed after the Rising, then that was all well and good. But, on the other hand, should the result represent “a change of principle of policy on the part of a considerable mass of the Irish people,” then the entire future of the Constitutional cause, the raison d’être of the Irish Parliamentary Party, had just been questioned…and found wanting.

If so, then Redmond was prepared to give way graciously: “Let the Irish people replace us, by all means, by other and, I hope, better men if they so choose.”[24]

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Another mocking cartoon from the ‘Roscommon Herald’, 10th February 1917

Thankfully for his colleagues, whose careers were hanging in the balance, Redmond was persuaded against publishing the letter. But not even a close confidant like William Redmond was immune to defeatism, as he privately urged his brother that they and all their MPs step down to make room for younger men.

Having recovered from his earlier bout of weakness, John Redmond held firm but, shortly afterwards, there was the second by-election rout of the year, this time for South Longford in May 1917. It had been a hard-fought contest, and a razor-thin difference in votes at the end, but a loss was a loss, and one sorely felt.

It was, in Gwynn’s view, “a notice of dismissal to the Parliamentary Party” on the part of the Irish people. This was not merely hindsight speaking, for shortly after South Longford, a second suggestion was made that the Party MPs resign their seats en masse and allow the country to decide on the choice before it: the constitutional way or…the other way.

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Cartoon depiction of John Redmond, ‘Roscommon Herald’, 21st May 1917

Again, Redmond was adamantly against such a step down, as Gwynn described: “He said that it would be a lack of courage: that one or two defeats should not turn us from our course.”[25]

That is, if their course could still be taken. No outlet had argued harder for the IPP candidate than the Longford Leader. In the wake of bitter rejection, however, the newspaper could predict only one end for its political patrons:

It cannot be doubted that in a few years Ireland will have recovered from the present fitful fever, and see the error of its present course, but in the meantime the Irish National Party and programme will be probably a thing of the past, and the people will have only the empty husks of Sinn Féin left.[26]

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John Dillon

That such a probability had come about at all was a source of shocked wonder to the Longford Leader, but it did not pretend to see any other. Neither did the IPP itself, not even at its top. “[John Redmond] does not seem to me to realise the situation any more than he did in the winter of 1915-1916,” Dillon wrote cuttingly to T.P O’Connor in November 1917. Come a general election, he predicted, and then “there will be nothing left in Ireland except Republican separatists and Ulster loyalists,” with the IPP confined to history.[27]

He got that right.

Return to Ireland

For some, the day that the IPP was a thing of the past could not come soon enough. When John Redmond warned Westminster that revolution was a-stir in Ireland, he had not been indulging in hyperbole, the proof of which was on full display in Dublin on the Monday morning of the 18th June 1917.

“It was apparent to most citizens when they came within the heart of the city for their day’s business that there was something unusual astir,” wrote the Irish Times, adding sniffily: “The main streets were occupied by people who were not usually abroad at 10 a.m.”

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Crowds watching in Wesmoreland Row as the prisoners march through Dublin

Marching from Westmoreland Station and up Great Brunswick Street came a procession of young men and women, who made their Sinn Féin sympathies clear with the tricoloured flags they waved, the songs they sung, and the group of men in their midst: the one hundred and twenty or so rebel POWs taken during the Easter Rising, newly released from English captivity by a general amnesty.

Onwards over O’Connell Bridge, they crossed into Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, the place in which it had all began, and where the sight of the still-ruined General Post Office and other bullet-scarred buildings was enough to inspire a fresh burst of enthusiasm in the crowd. A squad of policemen shadowed the parade, carefully keeping their distance, but no incident occurred as the freed men continued on to Gardiner’s Row, inside Fleming’s Hotel for breakfast and a long-anticipated rest.

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Seán O’Mahony

As they ate, one of their number, Seán O’Mahony, stepped out to address the adoring young acolytes waiting on the street. This, he told them, was far from the end of what had begun on the Easter Week of 1916, over a year ago but still fresh in Irish memories. He affirmed they were still fighting for the same tricoloured flag under which they had done so already in the Rising, for they believed in actions, not words, and would soon resume the great work that had already begun.

After their rest, the released men resumed their march to the offices in Exchequer Street of the National Aid Association, set up to help alleviate their financial needs, and then to the Mansion House, followed all the way by the multitudes. Such was the press of bodies and the heat that one of the former prisoners fainted.

The day’s display complete, the men went their separate ways, at least for now. Some hurried to catch the evening trains back to their homes in the country, while others continued to be the centres of attention as the celebrations continued in Dublin. “Whenever a released Sinn Feiner, or anyone remotely suspected of being one, was observed, cheers were often raised,” reported the Irish Times.

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Group photograph of some of the released prisoners

With their close-cropped hair and conservatively-trimmed beards, it was hard to tell who was who among the freed men. Eoin MacNeill was known to be present, as was W.T. Cosgrave, along with Count Plunkett and Joe McGuinness, the two MPs elected earlier that year on behalf of Sinn Féin for North Roscommon and South Longford respectively.

Worthy names, all, but the most notable one was Éamon de Valera, he who had been in command at Boland’s Mill and now continued to be so over his comrades, as demonstrated earlier that day at Kingstown [now Dun Laoghaire] Pier, when they had first lined up on the boat-deck before crossing the gangway in formation, two by two, on de Valera’s order.

His authority continued to be felt throughout the day. “There appeared to be an arrangement amongst the prisoners not to express their opinions publicly in regard to their treatment in prison,” noted the Irish Times. When asked about that, the men merely said that any official statement was to come from de Valera.[28]

Choices and Omens

It was a name that would soon be on everyone’s lips, for the parliamentary seat of East Clare now lay open with William Redmond’s death, and Sinn Féin was determined to capitalise on its previous two electoral wins by adding a third. The lesson of South Longford was that Joe McGuinness had succeeded, not despite his penal status, but because of it, for Easter Week conferred nobility on a man like nothing else in the eyes of the Irish public.

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Sinn Féin poster for Longford, 1917, depicting Joe McGuinness as a prisoner

The choice of another prisoner to contest East Clare was thus essential. Arthur Griffith had been making the case to the Central Election Committee for Eoin MacNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers. But, in that, the President of Sinn Féin stood alone. MacNeill’s fateful attempt to cancel the Rising before it could begin, with his countermanding order on Easter Sunday, was too well remembered.[29]

“I want you to see to it that our people know of his treachery to us,” Tom Clarke had instructed his wife, Kathleen, during their final time together in Kilmainhaim Jail while awaiting his execution. “He must never be allowed back into the National life of the country.”[30]

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The countermanding order on Easter Sunday, 1916, as issued by Eoin MacNeill

Not all shared this unforgiving view, but none of the Election Committee besides Griffith were about to risk such a controversial choice. De Valera seemed a far safer bet, being already regarded as the leader of the Irish POWs while they were held in Lewes Prison. But, as he and the others had not yet been released, it was unknown if he would accept the nomination if offered. The decision was thus deferred to a later date, and the Sinn Féin activists already sent to East Clare would just have to work without a name in the meantime.[31]

Not that this presented too much of a problem for Dan MacCarthy, the mastermind behind the previous electoral win. If South Longford had been a battlefield in more than the political sense, with riots, stone-throwing and beatings throughout the campaign, then the next constituency was a pleasant surprise to MacCarthy: “I found the people generally more sympathetic than in Longford and I felt that this was a good omen for our cause.”

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Éamon de Valera

The speech he gave at Berefield Church, after the priest introduced him from the altar to the congregation, allowed him to gauge the public mood, which appeared to be a positive one. As for the identity of the man on whose behalf MacCarthy was in Clare: “Various rumours went round as far as we were concerned. One time we heard it was Peadar Clancy [another 1916 participant], and the next Eoin MacNeill, and finally it transpired to be de Valera.”[32]

Roads to Take or Not to Take

The decision was not an easy one to make, not least because de Valera had been wrestling with it himself even as he took his first step back on Irish soil. Politics was a field utterly new to him, and one he regarded with some trepidation. When news had reached the Lewes inmates in April 1917 that one of their number, Joe McGuinness, was being nominated to run in the South Longford contest, de Valera was among those against any such forays in the electoral sphere.

Instead, the “safest course for us and in the long run the wisest is to continue as soldiers,” he wrote to a friend on the outside. “The Irish Volunteers…must be kept a permanent force at the country’s back…and we must allow nothing to make us forget it.”[33]

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Irish Volunteers

Victory in South Longford made de Valera and many of the others in Lewes revaluate their standoffishness where non-military methods were concerned. After all, the main issue for de Valera, as he explained in a letter to a friend, was not that politics was wrong, but that it was a gamble. “I for one would have to be almost certain of success before I would risk such a stake,” he wrote [underlined in original text].[34]

Success seemed much more likely now, with two by-election wins under Sinn Féin’s belt, but de Valera was still weighing the options by the time of the general release. Patrick McCartan, a long-time Republican activist, found him in a pensive mood on board the ship taking the former prisoners to Dublin.

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Patrick McCartan

“Mr de Valera had already been selected to contest County Clare in the Republican interest. He said he knew nothing about politics and did not like them,” McCartan wrote later. “He believed he could do the best work for Ireland by confining his attention to the organisation of the Irish Volunteers.” Having canvassed in South Longford, McCartan had a more contemporary view of the public mood in Ireland and counselled de Valera to wait and see it for himself before committing.[35]

The enthusiastic reception in Dublin was evidently enough for de Valera, and he decided without further ado to stand for East Clare. There were still finishing touches to be done: as de Valera was not actually a member of the party he was to represent, a session of the O’Rahilly Cumann was quickly convened in Pembroke, Dublin, to wave him in.[36]

Even with that settled, another problem reared its head: the MacNeill one. While some wanted him kept away from East Clare, if not drummed out of the movement altogether, de Valera made it clear that the other man’s presence on the campaign was a condition of his own running. In the teeth of opposition, de Valera had his way, and not for the last time, in what was to be an extraordinary career.[37]

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Countess Markievicz

Still, resentments simmered. De Valera and MacNeill were seated together on the train to Ennis, along with a number of other Sinn Féin activists, when Countess Markievicz entered. Sighting MacNeill, she gave him a piece of her mind, prompting the harried man to take his leave for another carriage. He was brought back by de Valera, who was having none of such unseemly displays.

“There must be no recriminations,” he told the others sternly. That brought a measure of calm to the journey, if not quite peace, for the MacNeill controversy, and what it meant for Sinn Féin as a whole, would linger on for the better part of the year.[38]

Kathleen Clarke’s War

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Kathleen Clarke

For Kathleen Clarke, these gestures of solidary towards a man she considered the worst sort of blackguard was one more reason to be troubled by the direction the revolutionary movement, for which her husband had laid down his life, was taking. “When I heard that de Valera had insisted on MacNeill accompanying him to Clare, it confirmed my fears” about what she considered “the demoralising influence of elections.”[39]

Participating in the British parliamentary system was a contentious practice in Ireland. First Charles Parnell, followed by John Redmond, had made it the centre-piece of their drive for Irish self-rule, but true-blue Republicans like Kathleen and Tom Clarke regarded playing the enemy’s game with suspicion, even hostility.

“I would rather lose an election than resort to tricks to win it,” Tom Clarke had told Seán Mac Diarmada nine years earlier, in 1908. After acting as campaign organiser for Sinn Féin’s unsuccessful foray in the North Leitrim by-election, Mac Diarmada had returned to Dublin to merrily recount the cut and thrust of the contest to his friend.

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Tom Clarke

Tom had listened to him in sombre silence before bringing the other man back down to earth. “Our cause is too sacred to be sullied with electioneering tricks,” he had scolded. A chastened Mac Diarmada promised to never again besmirch their cause like so.[40]

Eleven years later, and Sinn Féin was trying again, except with far grander ambitions than a single seat, and packing the clout to succeed this time, much to Kathleen Clarke’s dismay. To her, the only way forward was with the gun. All else was a distraction in her mind, but it appeared that now, with efforts now diverted into electioneering, “we might say goodbye to any more fighting.”[41]

And that simply would not do.

She made an exception for South Longford in May 1917 – Joe McGuinness was an Easter Rising alumni, after all – and after rallying some of the other women bereaved by the Rising, such as Áine Ceannt and Margaret Pearse, Clarke threw herself into this new battle. And a battle it could be in a literal sense. While driving back into Longford town after a rally, her car and those of the others in the group were met with a hail of missiles from IPP partisans.

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The Count and Countess Plunkett, seated in a car during the South Longford election of 1917

Being at the head of the convoy, along with the Count and Countess Plunkett, Clarke’s vehicle bore the brunt of the deluge. The Countess suffered a bloody nose from a thrown bottle, while Clarke just about escaped worse, thanks to the hard hat she was wearing, when a rock struck her head. “The only injury done was to my feelings,” she recalled. “I was mad enough to want to throw stones back at them.”

This was not an isolated incident. The lane the Sinn Féiners had to take to the hotel that served as their headquarters was dubbed ‘the Dardanelles’ because, as Clarke put it, “every time we passed it stones and bottles came flying out at us.”[42]

Laying the Cards on the Table

Despite the success at South Longford, Clarke remained dissatisfied, one of the many reasons being her antipathy towards those who were reaping most of the gains, however undeservedly. “After the Rising the press, alluding to it, called it a Sinn Féin Rising. This was not correct; the organisation then called Sinn Féin was not a revolutionary one, and it had been very nearly defunct.”[43]

Such misnaming conveyed instant benefits to some: “The fact that the Rising was now being called a Sinn Féin rising gave Arthur Griffith his chance, one he was quick to seize.” This despite how “the Sinn Féin which grew out of the Rising was a totally different one from that which had been in existence before the Rising.”[44]

Traveler Digital CameraIf Griffith was suspect, then MacNeill was contemptible. Assuming de Valera had simply not been informed of his responsibility for the countermand, Clarke decided to enlighten him with an invitation to her house in Dundrum, Dublin, for both him and MacNeill, on the 28th July 1917. When they arrived, Clarke was ready with her case for the prosecution:

I told him of the instructions I had received from Tom in Kilmainhaim Jail, that MacNeill must not be permitted to come back into the National life of the country again, for if he was he would in a crisis again act treacherously. I had promised to carry out these instructions if I could.

The sole reason she was hesitating to do just that, she explained, was because of his arrest following the Rising, which bestowed on him a credibility she could not touch. Having said that, she continued:

Circumstances might still tie my hands, and I might not be able to carry out my promise to my husband, but the story of his treachery would not die with me, that I would write it and leave it as documentary proof against him.

And, with that, the interview mercifully drew to an end, Clarke having laid down the gauntlet to MacNeill. De Valera had listened attentively throughout while keeping – the consummate politician already – his thoughts to himself.[45]

Sacred Principle?

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Eoin MacNeill

Clarke would have been even less thrilled if she knew how close her béte noire had become with the rising star of Sinn Féin. Since their release from Lewes Prison, the two men had been conversing a good deal, and MacNeilll was pleased to learn that the other’s worldview was broadly in line with his own. For the likes of Clarke, it was the Republic or nothing, while MacNeill had only scorn for those “obsessed with the notion that some sort of sacred principle underlay the Republican ideal.”[46]

MacNeill took a more libertarian view. For him, “real freedom consisted in the power to do your own things in your own way and not in any paper definition or a constitutional formula.”[47]

He was careful not to appear too broad-minded, however. When asked for his opinion on which independence policy to pursue, he was as happy as anyone to declare in favour of a Republic, though more out of pragmatism than any deep-seated commitment, as he put it:

It was a matter of comparative indifference for the time what form this independence ought to take so far as I knew there was no practical prospect of setting up an Irish monarchy, and the alternative was an Irish Republic.

In private discussions with de Valera, shortly before the pair set off for East Clare, MacNeill came to believe that the other man “was no more than I was myself, a doctrinaire republican.” Nonetheless, de Valera could appreciate the emotional value of a bold approach, and “urged on me…that the demand for an Irish Republic would present a stronger appeal to the electorate and the public than anything else less definite.”[48]

And so, on that agreed basis, “we fought the Clare Election as Republicans without any qualifications” and won by a steep majority.[49]

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Éamon de Valera (in uniform), speaking before Ennis Courthouse during the East Clare election, 1917

Winning the Argument

That by-election, and the subsequent one for Kilkenny City a month later, in August 1917, put MacNeill in the front-line for the struggle for Ireland’s soul. He was assisted in this by Dan MacCarthy, the Sinn Féin Director of Elections, who, having honed his craft in South Longford and East Clare, knew how to run a tight ship. “His method was very thorough and efficient,” MacNeill noted approvingly:

All of us who were understood to be engaged in the work were supplied, each one, with his own programme for the day, handed to him that morning or the evening before. He was told who was to accompany him, to what places he was to go, and what particular person he was to interview.

Under MacCarthy’s direction, MacNeill was dispatched to court “the hard chaws, old unionists and stiff supporters of the Parliamentary Party”, perhaps because, as a former college professor, he would present a reassuringly respectable emissary, as well as one who could handle himself in a debate. When a local worthy in Kilkenny posed to him if it was honourable for one who had already sworn an oath of allegiance to the British monarch to support an Irish Republic, MacNeill asked if he had MPs or army officers in mind.

Both, was the reply.

Thinking quickly on his feet, MacNeill took each point in turn. With regard to the first, he drew on the case of the 1689 rebellion, when James II had been overthrown in favour of the current line of succession, so what worth was an oath there? As for the second, he simply, but effectively, pointed to the example of George Washington.

“I had the best of the argument but,” MacNeill conceded, “I do not think I got the vote.”[50]

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W.T. Cosgrave addressing a crowd in Kilkenny, 1917

Not that it mattered too much, as Sinn Féin won the seat by another landslide. That made four straight defeats for the once-almighty IPP. Flushed with success and warmed by the camaraderie of the campaign-trail, Sinn Féin enjoyed its halcyon days, which were to make for some bittersweet memories when MacNeill looked back on them.

“The spirit of good order and good humour that animated the whole body of adherents of Sinn Féin at that time,” he wrote, “offers a strange contrast to what was experienced after 1921.”[51]

Conflict…

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Arthur Griffith

Schism almost came early. If Clarke and MacNeill each represented the principled and the pragmatic wings in Sinn Féin, then it was a tenuous balance, one which threatened to tip over from disagreements behind closed doors to an open split. This had almost occurred earlier in the year, in April 1917, at the Mansion House, Dublin, during the ‘Plunkett Convention’, when Griffith and Count George Plunkett shared the stage – to almost ruinous effect.

The latter, who had had one son executed after the Rising and with another two in prison, “was impatient of temperate men or means.” If Plunkett blew hot, then Griffith, in contrast:

Sat there like a sphinx, square and solid, like a man of granite, lacking charm – physically or mentality. Griffith had a mind of ice that could freeze Irish histrionic champagne solid. He was the one cold fact in a sea of fantasy.

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Count Plunkett

Which earned him few friends, particularly among the Irish Volunteers, many of whom “disliked and scorned him.” Proof of such feelings soon manifested on the platform in the form of Plunkett’s undisguised anger at the other man, and only a disruption in the audience – when Volunteers on standby manhandled journalists scribbling away in their notebooks, thinking them to be police detectives – gave enough of a break in the proceedings for a truce between Griffith and Plunkett for the rest of the event.[52]

But it seemed only a matter of time before another confrontation and maybe not one that could be so easily dispelled. If the ideal of the Republic was what held the movement together, it could also, conversely, tear it asunder, and Griffith was reluctant to move in too dramatic a direction, lest the ‘middle ground’ of Irish opinion be alienated just when Sinn Féin was poised to win it over.[53]

With that in mind, Sinn Féin activists in the East Clare election were warned to avoid mentioning the Republic to prospective voters…that is, until their candidate publicly declared for such a goal. The listeners roared their approval at de Valera’s words to the extent that “it was a considerable time before he could resume his speech,” recalled one witness, who was aware of what certain others in the party really thought:

The Sinn Féin members of the election committee were very annoyed, but they were not prepared to come to grips with de Valera, and, if his action was commented upon at a committee which followed the public were not aware of any disagreement.[54]

Another insider present in East Clare, the trade unionist William O’Brien, noted how:

In the course of the election campaign, there was a very sharp division between the speakers. De Valera proclaimed his objective to be the Republic, stating that personally that was the only objective he could stand for. Griffith, Milroy and others took the point of view of the old Sinn Féin organisation.[55]

And yet, despite such differences, de Valera and Griffith seemed to get along on a personal level, far better, in any case, than the latter did with the likes of Count Plunkett or Kathleen Clarke. De Valera, Griffith confided to friends during the course of the Clare election, was to be the future leader of Sinn Féin. As well as being younger, Griffith said in another talk, de Valera was a soldier – no small virtue in the current times – and had, in his opinion, all the makings of a statesman.[56]

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The best of friends? Arthur (left) and Éamon de Valera (right)

Which gave some hope for an amiable resolution that would allow Sinn Féin to move forward – that is, if nothing too disastrous struck in the meantime.

That something almost occurred over Kilkenny, with MacNeill as the trigger, when a by-election was announced upon the death of its MP, Pat O’Brien, in July 1917. Despite the lingering controversy over his countermanding order, MacNeill enjoyed a measure of support in Sinn Féin’s grassroots, such as in the Kilkenny Club which wrote to the Dublin headquarters in favour of nominating him to run.

When the Central Executive replied that it would prefer W.T. Cosgrave, whose CV as a Rising combatant and former prisoner made him a more comfortable choice, “we received an indignant reply that they were not to be dictated to by Dublin and they were sending a deputation to Mr MacNeill asking him to stand.”

…And Resolution

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Tommy Dillon

So remembered Tommy Dillon. As son-in-law to Count Plunkett, Dillon was able to sit in on Executive meetings and so understood the strength of feeling to be found there. While he had nothing personal against MacNeill, certainly not to the extent that Clarke did, he was aware of how “the leaders of the anti-MacNeill group were…influential and the possibility of factions arising could not be ignored” should the question be pushed too far.

It was with this danger in mind that Dillon hurriedly cycled to Jury’s Hotel in Dublin, shortly after the last testy message from Kilkenny, to head off the threatened deputation. Upon reaching the hotel, he was told that the Kilkenny visitors had already left and so he rode on to where he guessed they had gone: the house in Rathfarnham where MacNeill was residing:

When I arrived at the house, a taxi stood in the front grounds.  I asked for [MacNeill] and was told that he was engaged. James [MacNeill’s brother], however, brought him out to me and when I told him the object of my visit he said that the Kilkenny deputation was with him, that he understood the situation and that he was about to refuse their invitation.

MacNeill made no mention in his memoirs of this deputation or of Dillon’s last minute intervention. It is possible to suspect, if one were to be cynical, that MacNeill may not have been ‘about to refuse’ like he said, which Dillon did him the favour of believing. Sinn Féin was able to proceed smoothly in Kilkenny, with Cosgrave on its ticket, to score another unambiguous win.[57]

264But it could not be ‘touch and go’ for the movement indefinitely, and the upcoming Sinn Féin Árd Fheis, set for October 1917 at the Mansion House, Dublin, seemed the best opportunity to finally bury the hatchet over who ordered what for Easter Week. Which was what some dreaded. A few days beforehand, Countess Markievicz visited Kathleen Clarke’s house in Dundrum to ask her to oppose MacNeill should he be nominated for the new Executive.

Having been ‘advised’ – as she put it – by some against such an act, Clarke declined, while warning the Countess that if she was to lead the anti-MacNeill charge herself, she would do so alone. Never one to be deterred by the odds, Markievicz waited for the Árd Fheis to open and then “stood up and attacked [MacNeill] on the question of the secret countermanding orders.”

To Clarke’s dismay:

Her attack got such a bitterly hostile reception that despite my decision not to support her, I got up and did so. It seemed to me that the meeting was so hostile to her for attacking MacNeill that if there had been rotten eggs or anything else handy they would have been flung at her.[58]

The moderates had their way, and MacNeill was duly voted to the Executive. Sinn Féin had come a long way since its conception in 1905, to the extent that one of the delegates, Áine Ceannt – widow of the 1916 martyr – wondered out loud if the proceedings should be classed as the first Árd Fehis of a totally new organisation. All the same, it was decided to stick with it being the sixth such event for a continuous Sinn Féin – why bring in unnecessary complications, after all?[59]

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The Mansion House, Dublin, the venue for the Sinn Féin Árd Fheis of October 1917

Unconvention

For things were complicated enough as they were. The Sinn Féin delegate for South Mayo, Patrick Moylett, had attended a secret meeting of the Irish Volunteers on the evening before the Árd Fheis. Handed to him was a list of names who were to have his vote when proposed for election to the Sinn Féin Executive.

An indignant Moylett replied:

…that if I were to act on his instruction I would be defranchising [sic] the people who sent me and not doing my duty to them. I objected to the fact that in a democratic institution I should be told how I was to vote.[60]

Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers were two groups normally in lockstep but, even so, not without moments of disjunction. When the time came the next day for the Executive election at the Árd Fheis, a number of delegates interrupted to announce how they had been canvassed beforehand with such lists, their disapproval of this chicanery made publicly clear.

“I wish to associate myself strongly with what has just been said by the previous speakers,” de Valera said, simultaneously supportive while keen to avoid fingers being pointed at a time of supposed unity. “Those who are responsible had probably the very best motives in view, but when we are beginning – as we are – a new Ireland, it will not be necessary to resort to such methods in future.”

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Éamon de Valera

“The sense of the convention is strongly condemnatory of any attempt to run tickets,” added Griffith as president. “If that system were allowed to go on, it would destroy the movement in a few years.”[61]

With that said, the election went ahead, resulting in the appointment of the twenty-four members of the new Executive, along with  a change of presidency in the form of de Valera, by unanimous consent when the two other contenders, Griffith and Count Plunkett, as per a prior agreement between them, had the good grace – and political nous – to step back.

In doing so, “a split between the extremists and the moderate section was narrowly averted,” wrote the police report for October. Which was one more worry for the Inspector-General, Joseph Bryce, to give to his employers in Dublin Castle:

The state of political unrest…continued without abatement during the Month, and a marked advance in organization was made by the seditious Sinn Fein movement.

If the Sinn Féin of old under Griffith had been of the moderate persuasion, then now “the majority of Sinn Fein leaders owe their present prominence to active participation in the late rising” with the same zealotry carried over. De Valera was a case in point: from being an obscure teacher, he was now instructing an audience in Co. Clare, with the air of a general marshalling his troops, to ready themselves for an opportune moment to strike again.

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Irish Volunteers

Other speeches from Sinn Féin figures were of a similar calibre and, in light of such blatant calls to sedition, Bryce warned:

It is obvious that several are prepared to plunge the country into another rebellion should a favourable opportunity occur, and that the whole movement must be regarded as a serious menace to the state.

And yet, at the same time, “the majority of the adherents of Sinn Fein are believed to be averse to physical force.” For all the talk of war and rebellion repeated, “it will be noticed that drilling activity [of the Irish Volunteers] is so far confined to the S.W. area.”[62]

Alpha to Omega, Omega to Alpha

This ambiguity over violence was reflected in the Árd Fheis when Father O’Meehan, as one of the delegates, proposed an amendment to the Sinn Féin constitution: that the words “means available”, in regards to obtaining Irish freedom, were to be followed by “deemed legitimate and effective.”

By ‘legitimate’ I mean not according to British rule in Ireland, but according to well-established etheral [?] and Christian principles. Our enemies would, for instance, be glad to say that assassination comes under this, and it is in order to prevent them saying that that I move this addendum.

In case such talk smacked too much of Redmondite ways, “I did not use the word ‘Constitutional’ because that has a bad flavour,” the priest added, earning himself a round of applause.

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Sinn Féin postcard

The proposed change was ultimately withdrawn. Opposing it had been Cathal Brugha, one of the more militant Republicans in the hall. Nothing in their constitution as it stood would lend itself to the interpretation that so concerned Father O’Meehan, Brugha insisted. In any case, the point was moot, as “we do not intend to meet English rule by assassination,” he said firmly.[63]

As for a second Rising, that possibility, when raised, was met with laughter.[64]

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Éamon de Valera (left) with Cathal Brugha (right), 1922

If constitutional flavours left a sour taste, and with the other end of the spectrum still too strong to stomach, how then was Sinn Féin to proceed? Father Gaynor hoped to answer this when he next rose to speak. “I have come here as a delegate with the sympathy of the men from Clare to move that we do not set up a political organisation,” he said, “and we have come here in the hope that we will find something better to do.”

Instead of following in the footsteps of the Irish Parliamentary Party with another political machine, Gaynor urged, the convention must establish nothing less than a ruling body with a mandate for the whole country. In doing so:

We should make the position straight by showing that we do not want a Sinn Féin party versus the Irish Party, but a Provisional Government versus Dublin Castle and the British Government.

Which was rather putting the cart before the horse, as many of the other attendees in the hall pointed out. For all the lofty proclamations of nationhood and the Republic, there still remained the gritty task of earning the right to speak for Ireland.

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Sinn Féin postcard

“This organisation is a national organisation in the broadest sense of the term but, all the same, it cannot be regarded as a constituent assembly,” de Valera pointed out. “Surely we have got beyond the stage where politics should be regarded as roguery and politicians as rogues.”

Others would have disagreed. But, while the likes of young Todd Andrews, as he watched John Redmond being hounded in the streets, may have dismissed politicians as a low and dirty breed, Sinn Féin was nonetheless nearing the point where, in beating the system, you become the system.[65]

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Sinn Féin postcard

References

[1] Milroy, Seán. Memories of Mountjoy (Dublin: Maunsel & Co. Ltd., 1917), pp. 88-9

[2] Irish Times, 23/05/1915, 26/06/1915

[3] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 104-6

[4] Gwynn, Stephen. John Redmond’s Last Years (London: Edward Arnold, 1919), p. 249

[5] Meleady, Dermot (ed.) John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 272

[6] Ibid, pp. 270-1

[7] Ibid, p. 271

[8] Ibid, pp. 271-2

[9] Denman, Terence. A Lonely Grave: The Life and Death of William Redmond (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1995), p. 112

[10] Gwynn, p. 249

[11] Irish Times, 08/03/1917

[12] Denman, p. 111

[13] Gwynn, p. 255

[14] Irish Times, 08/03/1917

[15] Meleady, pp. 272-3

[16] Ibid, p. 273

[17] Ibid, 11/07/1917

[18] Denman, p. 114

[19] Ibid, p. 118

[20] Gwynn, p. 266

[21] Meleady, p. 240

[22] Ibid, p. 267

[23] Ibid, p. 268

[24] Meleady, pp. 275-6

[25] Gwynn, pp. 259-60

[26] Longford Leader, 12/05/1917

[27] Lyons, F.S.L. John Dillon: A Biography (Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1968), pp. 425-6

[28] Irish Times, 19/06/1917

[29] O’Brien, William (BMH / WS 1766), p. 134

[30] Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008), p. 137

[31] O’Brien, p. 134

[32] MacCarthy, Dan (BMH / WS 722), p. 16

[33] McCullagh, David. De Valera, Volume 1: Rise, 1882-1932 (Dublin: Gill Books, 2017), p. 112

[34] Ibid, p. 113

[35] McCartan, Patrick. With De Valera in America (Dublin: Fitzpatrick Ltd., 1932), p. 9

[36] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS 907), p. 106

[37] Dore, Eamon T. (BHM / WS 392), p. 10

[38] Nugent, p. 106

[39] Clarke, p. 188

[40] Ibid, p. 55

[41] Ibid, p. 188

[42] Ibid, pp. 186-7

[43] Ibid, p. 178

[44] Ibid, p. 193

[45] Ibid, pp. 190-1

[46] MacNeill, Eoin (ed. by Hughes, Brian) Eoin MacNeill: Memoir of a Revolutionary Scholar (2016: Irish Manuscripts Commission, Dublin), p. 90

[47] Ibid, p. 97

[48] Ibid, p. 90

[49] Ibid, p. 91

[50] Ibid, pp. 91-2

[51] Ibid, p. 91

[52] Good, Joe. Enchanted by Dreams: The Journal of a Revolutionary (Dingle, Co. Kerry: Brandon Books Publishers, 1996), pp. 107-8

[53] O’Brien, pp. 99-100

[54] Nugent, p. 107

[55] O’Brien, pp. 135-6

[56] De Róiste, Liam (BMH / WS 1698), Part II, p. 171 ; MacCarthy, p. 20

[57] Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967, pp. 396-7

[58] Clarke, pp. 193-4

[59] Ceannt, Áine (BMH / WS 264), p. 54

[60] Moylett, Patrick (BMH / WS 767), pp. 13-4

[61] Report of the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Convention held in the Round Room Mansion House, Dublin on Thursday and Friday 25th and 26th October 1917, Arthur Warren Samuels Collection, Trinity College Library, Dublin, https://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php?DRIS_ID=SamuelsBox1_027 (Accessed 14/08/2019), pp. 29-30

[62] Police reports from Dublin Castle records, National Library of Ireland, POS 8544

[63] Report of the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Convention, pp. 18-9

[64] O’Hegarty, P.S. A History of Ireland Under the Union (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1952), p. 719

[65] Report of the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Convention, pp. 22-3

Bibliography

Books

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

Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008)

Denman, Terence. A Lonely Grave: The Life and Death of William Redmond (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1995)

Good, Joe. Enchanted by Dreams: The Journal of a Revolutionary (Dingle, Co. Kerry: Brandon Books Publishers, 1996)

Gwynn, Stephen. John Redmond’s Last Years (London: Edward Arnold, 1919)

Lyons, F.S.L. John Dillon: A Biography (Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1968)

MacNeill, Eoin (ed. by Hughes, Brian) Eoin MacNeill: Memoir of a Revolutionary Scholar (2016: Irish Manuscripts Commission, Dublin)

McCartan, Patrick. With De Valera in America (Dublin: Fitzpatrick Limited, 1932)

McCullagh, David. De Valera, Volume 1: Rise, 1882-1932 (Dublin: Gill Books, 2017)

Meleady, Dermot (ed.) John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

Milroy, Seán. Memories of Mountjoy (Dublin: Maunsel & Co. Ltd., 1917)

O’Hegarty, P.S. A History of Ireland Under the Union (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1952)

Newspapers

Irish Times

Longford Leader

Bureau of Military History Statements

Ceannt, Áine, WS 264

De Róiste, Liam, WS 1698

Dore, Eamon T., WS 392

MacCarthy, Dan, WS 722

Moylett, Patrick, WS 767

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Brien, William, WS 1766

Article

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

Trinity College Dublin Collection

Report of the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Convention held in the Round Room Mansion House, Dublin on Thursday and Friday 25th and 26th October 1917, Arthur Warren Samuels Collection, https://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php?DRIS_ID=SamuelsBox1_027 (Accessed 14/08/2019)

National Library of Ireland Collection

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

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

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

The Rift

There was a pause in the hall as Arthur Griffith conferred with Count Plunkett on stage. Griffith then stepped forward to announce a troubling development.

Plunkett, he said, had denied him permission to speak. He had wanted to explain his reasons for seconding Seán Milroy’s proposal – which had called for a loose alliance between the various separatist groups, as opposed to the Count’s demand for a new, centralised organisation – but that was not going to happen now.

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Arthur Griffith

“I have nothing further to say than this,” Griffith told his audience, and proceeded to speak further. “Sinn Féin, for which we all stood when many of the men here today were our opponents, still stands. Sinn Féin will not give up its policy nor its constitution. Sinn Féin will work with every section in Ireland that works to destroy the corruption of Ireland.”

He finished on a note of J’accuse: “I am finished. Count Plunkett refused me permission to speak.”

To a mixed chorus of cheers and boos, Griffith told his audience of how for eighteen years he had been fighting for the cause of Irish freedom. If he lived for eighteen more, he would still be fighting. He warned that if they decided today not to hold an alliance against John Redmond and his Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), then Redmond would win as surely as he, Griffith, was standing before them.

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Count Plunkett

Adopting an air of being above it all, Count Plunkett said he had no intention of commenting on these accusations. He had never misrepresented Griffith, and he had heard no misrepresentations of him. Why Griffith felt the need to defend himself against nothing was rather puzzling, Plunkett added primly.

Pulling back somewhat from his previous hard-line stance, Plunkett said that there was no reason why, in the coming elections, men who did not see eye to eye on everything could not unite to pull down the common foe in the IPP. The nation was above personal quarrels and petty disputes.

It was a magnanimous line, one worthy of the statesman Plunkett clearly believed himself to be. Dissenting calls of “why did you refuse to hear Arthur Griffith” and “a good many of us here are not in favour of that at all” showed that for some, however, the Count’s munificence was not convincing.

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The Mansion House, site of the Plunkett Convention

A Way Out?

This turn of events, as reported in the Freeman’s Journal:

…led to much excitement, and those on the platform rose to their feet and conversed – in some cases very heatedly – in small groups, while murmurs of protest throughout the room testified that opinion was divided on the action taken.[1]

Attempting to gain some ground in the tug-of-war being played out, Milroy moved that his proposal be put to the convention, insisting that it did not clash with Count Plunkett’s own. It is questionable as to whether Milroy actually believed this. Count Plunkett certainly did not. He replied that, au contraire, Milroy’s resolution *did* clash with his.

At best, a stalemate seemed inevitable at this point; at worst, open hostilities and a split.[2]

William O’Brien, the Labour delegate from the Dublin Trades Council, was seated by the podium, having little input in the proceedings after delivering his speech (he had only attended in the first place to be polite, he later said). He belatedly realised there was a commotion between Plunkett and Griffith happening before him, though he was unclear as to its cause, and watched as Father Michael O’Flanagan moved across the platform to sit next to a “flushed and evidently upset” Griffith.[3]

The enmity between the two leaders had been festering for quite some time. According to Laurence Nugent, a close friend of Rory O’Connor – who Nugent accredited with most of the Convention’s organising – the Count had refused to send admission tickets to Griffith and Milroy, forcing Father O’Flanagan to take two spare tickets from the mantelpiece of Plunkett’s house.[4]

Plunkett’s daughter, Geraldine Dillon, told a different version. Her father had indeed invited Griffith who refused until Tommy Dillon, her husband and the Count’s son-in-law, persuaded him otherwise. Even then, Griffith had not endeavoured to make things easy, sitting sulkily at the back of the hall. When he made to leave after locking horns with the Count, it took the entreaties of O’Flanagan and another priest, Father William Ferris from Kerry, to convince him to stay.[5]

Coming to Heel

As a way out of the impasse, Father Ferris suggested that these questions be left in the hands of Father O’Flanagan and Griffith. This at least was met with general approval. If Plunkett felt to the contrary, he kept his opinion private for a change. He did, after all, owe a lot to O’Flanagan. “The old man came to heel,” sneered Kevin O’Shiel, as he remembered it.[6]

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Father Michael O’Flanagan

O’Flanagan announced that, after discussing with Griffith, it was agreed that an organising committee be formed. Those national groups pledged to Irish independence should get in touch with this committee and apply to be recognised. Likewise, all the new branches of these various groups that formed as a result of this convention should contact the committee.

The members of this committee were to be – besides the Count, Griffith and the ubiquitous Father O’Flanagan – Milroy, Dillon, Tom Kelly and Stephen O’Mara. O’Mara had already enjoyed a lengthy political career as the mayor of Limerick and a Parnellite MP in Co. Laois. Along with the rest of the Irish Nation League, of which he had been a founding member, he had disagreed with Plunkett’s decision to abstain from his Roscommon parliamentary seat.

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Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly was one of the founders of ‘old’, pre-1916 Sinn Féin and had worked in a number of public positions, from an alderman in Dublin Corporation to campaigning in the 1880/90s on behalf of imprisoned Fenians. O’Mara, Kelly and Milroy could be expected to back Griffith, with Dillon and O’Flanagan more inclined towards the Count.[7]

According to O’Brien, O’Flanagan read out the names before asking Griffith to second them. Griffith said that while he had no objections, surely Labour should have a voice as well? For this, he slyly suggested O’Brien as another member, clearly considering him to be an ally.

Thinking quickly, the priest replied that he had no problem with O’Brien, whom he did not know but was sure to be a decent sort. But if Labour was to be included, then so should the women of Ireland. For this, he proposed Countess Plunkett, sitting by the stage near her husband.

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Having stopped the tensions from escalating, Father O’Flanagan was taking no chances with the Committee numbers being stacked in Griffith’s favour. More than anyone, he had been responsible for bringing the new movement together, and he was determined to keep it that way.

O’Brien, for his part, was to plead ignorance of the manoeuvrings unfolding before him:

For a portion of the meeting I had no idea what was going on and a great many people couldn’t know and I thought the whole business was the nearest thing you could imagine to a break-up.[8]

There seems to have been some confusion in the sources over the exact composition of the committee. O’Brien neglected to mention Tom Kelly but included Cathal Brugha, as did Geraldine Dillon in her memoirs. On the other hand, the Freeman’s Journal – a contemporary and the most comprehensive account of the Convention – made no mention of Brugha.[9]

However, New Ireland, the organ of the Irish Nation League, named him as being on the committee in its 28th April edition, so it seemed that Brugha had made his way in at some point. A militant Republican and a combatant in the Rising, during which he had been seriously wounded, his inclusion was a boon to Plunkett, and he would come to take a leading role in the factional negotiations that were to come.[10]

(Another version was from Dillon’s account. Here, Helena Molony, the feminist and socialist, objected to the absence of a woman on the committee. Father O’Flanagan obliged by adding her and Countess Plunkett. No one else mentions Molony at this point, not even Molony herself, so this seems to be incorrect on Dillon’s part. Molony was later co-opted, along with three other women, onto the Sinn Féin Executive Committee in October 1917, which could explain Dillon’s confusion.[11])

The Plunkett Convention had been a lengthy, and for some gruelling, event, having taken most of the day. Much had been agreed upon, but the Plunkett-Griffith enmity was to be the most remembered aspect. One attendee was to describe it in suitably dramatic terms:

Almost from the moment that the meeting opened, antagonism to Griffith was shown by Count Plunkett…Such as Count Plunkett’s apparent anger that a serious disturbance arose on the platform. I think everyone at the meeting expected that those on the platform would be utterly divided…Griffith was regarded as a pacifist at that time, and Count Plunkett was obviously out of patience with him from the moment he saw him on the same platform.[12]

Which was not entirely correct – the Convention had managed for some time before the said disturbance arose. Still, there could be no hiding the unpalatable fact that the new movement was already poised to be at war with itself.

Somehow, the day managed to end on a cordial note when Count Plunkett announced the closing of the proceedings, with the reminder that they would be called again if needed. History was on the march, and there was no certainty as to where it would lead.[13]

Surveying the Aftermath

In the days afterwards, the Mansion House hosted a gift sale that was to raise funds for the families of those in the Rising. The choice of items on display, and the swiftness in which they sold, showed that the presence of 1916 was as keenly felt as ever:

  • An ancient Irish costume, worn on one occasion before Pope Pius X by Éamonn Ceannt.
  • A gold-mounted fountain pen, presented by Ceannt’s widow.
  • A pair of gloves worn by James Connolly.
  • An Irish pike-head which had belonged to Michael Joseph ‘The O’Rahilly’, slain during the fighting in Dublin.
  • A pocket flask belonging to Éamon de Valera, presented by his wife.
  • A first edition of poems by W.B. Yeats, with an autograph by Joseph Plunkett.
  • The sword which had fatally wounded Lord Edward FitzGerald in 1803, formerly owned by Patrick Pearse.
  • A handbill of the ‘Proclamation of the Irish Republic’.[14]

As someone who prided himself on keeping his ears close to the ground, Monsignor Michael Curran lingered around the Mansion House. From the talk he picked up on, reactions to the Convention had definitely been positive, as he later described:

While Plunkett was not regarded as a suitable leader or director, it was felt that the new organisation would bring the groups together and that the general body of public opinion would follow Arthur Griffith and that Griffith’s policy of working with the less advanced Nationalist sections was correct.[15]

The situation, however, was a good deal more complicated than that, as not everyone believed that Griffith’s approach was the right one.

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Liam de Róiste

Another attendee, Liam de Róiste, had come as a delegate for the Cork Sinn Féin Executive. He found that while Count Plunkett lacked general support, Griffith’s policy of passive resistance to British rule was not sufficiently exciting for the more impatient types in the audience. That Griffith was rumoured to have been opposed to the Rising at the time, for all his subsequent reaping of the benefits, also counted as a black mark against him.[16]

Count Plunkett had succeeded in getting his motion passed for a new, centralised organisation. He had also managed to shut Griffith up, at least for a while. But, outside the convention, this did not mean very much. At the end of the day, neither man had scored a definite victory over the other. Their feud, and its potential for damage, remained unabated.

To Griffith, Count Plunkett was a hot-headed upstart who was trying to both usurp and wreck the Sinn Féin party to which he had dedicated his life. To Plunkett, and the hard-liners who backed him, Griffith was a has-been who blew neither hot nor cold but unacceptably lukewarm.

Committee Politics

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William O’Brien

The forming of the Mansion House Committee, as timely as it had been in preventing an irreversible rupture, could be little more than a stopgap. Much to his displeasure, O’Brien was to find himself on the frontlines of the feud. In keeping with his reluctance to become embroiled in Nationalist politics at the possible expense of Labour, he tried talking himself out his new duties. Even a lengthy chat with Griffith, who pleaded with him to remain, was not enough to change his mind.

When O’Brien was asked by Milroy to attend the first meeting of the new committee at the Gresham Hotel on the 3rd May, O’Brien declined. When Milroy pressed O’Brien to come and explain his reasons in person, at least as a courtesy to Griffith, the trade unionist reluctantly submitted.

And so O’Brien arrived at the Gresham with Milroy, finding the rest of the committee already present. As they went upstairs, Griffith gave O’Brien a nudge.

Griffith: We want you to preside at this meeting.

O’Brien: Oh, that is quite impossible. I can’t act on the committee.

Griffith: Oh. You ought to act for the present anyhow. There is no way out. Stephen O’Mara will propose you.

When they were in the allocated room, O’Flangan said: “Now, we want a chairman.”

Plunkett appeared taken aback by this. Before anyone else could speak, O’Mara proposed O’Brien, right on cue, and O’Brien found himself as the chair. Even if Griffith had no interest in power for himself, he was still determined to deny it to his bitter rival.[17]

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Gresham Hotel, Dublin, modern

The Liberty Clubs

Count Plunkett had called for a new organisation, one that would be primed to advance the cause of Irish freedom – on his own terms, that is. Others would answer that call throughout the country, with Co. Cork providing a microcosm of the new political enterprise and its budding grassroots.

On the 11th May, Hugh Thornton wrote from Bandon, Co. Cork, about the interest he had received from like-minded individuals. He had formerly been of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’ at the Rising that had been under the command of the Count’s son, George. Thornton explained that he had only been in Bandon for a fortnight but had nonetheless impressed the “right men” of the importance of forming a branch of the Liberty Clubs, which was what Plunkett’s brainchild would become known as.plunkett

Thornton had attended the conference the month before and knew the main objectives. Nonetheless, he pressed upon the Count the importance of receiving the necessary paperwork to put before the respective recruits before he could convene a first meeting.[18]

Six days later, on the 21st May, Thornton wrote back to confirm that he had received the copies of the rules and constitution of the Liberty Clubs as requested. A Club had been formed accordingly in Bandon, encompassing fifteen members and with more expected.[19]

Thornton had spoken truly, for by the 26th, he felt it necessary to write again, asking for fifty more membership cards and a hundred copies of the constitution. The success of the Club in Bandon had stimulated interest in nearby Castlelake, where there were plans to start one of its own.[20]

Later, a letter from the committee of the new Liberty Club in Castlelake was received on the 4th June, asking for thirty membership cards. It was addressed to Count Plunkett as president, with a question mark at the end of the title, suggesting an uncertainty as to how the organisation was structured.[21]

The Clubs Take Root

Thornton wrote to ask Plunkett if they could have a talk when the latter visited Cork on the 19th June, specifically so he could report on the local conditions. He also asked more mundane questions such as whether duplicate membership cards should go to Plunkett or if the Club secretaries (which Thornton was for his own group) should hold onto them. It was the sort of nuts-and-bolts decisions that make up the growth of every fledgling movement.[22]

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Count Plunkett at work

Others expressed similar interest. Cornelius O’Mahony wrote from Ahio Hill, Co. Cork, to say that while there were no clubs around due to the isolated nature of the area, he was optimistic that any organisers sent out there would have an impact, if only because the sight of a stranger was a novelty in itself.[23]

John Linehan from Tullybase, Co. Cork, told Plunkett that he would be all too happy to render assistance. He shrewdly suggested that if the parish priest was also to help, then the Club would be a success. Tullybase was fertile ground, Linehan assured the Count, as “the great majority of the people here are all Sinn Feiners, and followers of the Irish Party were always few.”[24]

0209Linehan clearly did not think that a Liberty Club would be incompatible with Sinn Féin. Others were not so sure. P. Casey felt the need to ask the Count if there was any difference between the two organisations. He added that he was in a “splendid position for collecting names of the right-type of men” due to his position as a barber in Cork City.[25]

Elsewhere in the country, the existence of Sinn Féin was a stumbling block for the Clubs. Timothy Flanagan told of how there was no Liberty Club in Killinaboy, Co. Clare, as everyone there was already part of the older organisation.[26]

Likewise, James Connaughton believed that since Sinn Féin was already established in Limerick, attempts to form a Club would risk a clash. However, Connaughton had not given up hope that a Club could be set up and suggested that the process might be eased if some joint plan of action was arranged between the two separatist groups.[27]

Others were not so optimistic. The Cork Sinn Féin Executive delivered a warning on the 22nd May that “if our forces are split up into possible rival organisations it will have a disastrous effect upon the whole movement.” In order to prevent this fracturing, the Executive claimed the right to direct matters in its city without outside interference.[28]

Teething Troubles

Hugh Thornton would never get a chance to talk with Plunkett, for the latter was to cancel his planned visit to Cork. In a letter to the Cork Examiner, the Count explained that his reasons for doing so were because the situation was not yet right:

The purpose of the gathering was not for a mere personal compliment, but to thoroughly organise the city and county of Cork – to move Munster and bring it to the front in Ireland’s struggle for complete independence.

I defer meeting the people of Cork for the present, because the workers at the head of the advanced movement are at this moment considering the means of welding the strong national bodies into one organisation, with one administration. Irish opinion cannot become the power it should be until its combined forces are wielded as one instrument to a common end.

I am certain that the formation of Liberty Clubs and other clubs differing in name, but working equally for the advanced cause, will be actively promoted at once, so that Cork may take its share in our united effort to open the road to freedom.[29]

The Cork Examiner took a less sanguine view, reporting that:

It is now admitted but there is a split in the Sinn Fein camp between those who favour Count Plunkett and those whose allegiance goes to Mr Griffiths resenting Count Plunkett’s visit to Cork put pressure on headquarters, and Count Plunkett has now cancelled his visit.[30]

The newspaper was far from an unbiased source, being a supporter of the IPP and thus hostile to its patron’s rivals. But Laurence Nugent, by now a full time organiser for Sinn Féin, suspected that Plunkett’s refusal to attend Cork was due to the Sinn Féin people there being of the old, pro-Griffith adherents who did not want him.

Nugent would remember an exasperated Father O’Flanagan complaining privately to him about how the Mansion House Committee could never agree on anything. At least the general public took it for granted that progress was being made, even if uncomfortable rumours were circulating within Sinn Féin circles of how just hollow the public façade of unity really was.[31]sinn_fc3a9in_newspaper

William O’Brien

The situation was such that, on the 5th June, O’Brien was called on by a delegation from the Cork Volunteers. They explained to him that there was dissatisfaction back home regarding the confused situation with the Liberty Clubs and where they stood with Sinn Féin. In an attempt to clarify matters, they had been dispatched to Dublin to interview a number of individuals, who had suggested that they talk to O’Brien.

He had by then resigned from the Mansion House Committee, whose membership he had never wanted in the first place. Still, as an avowed Republican, he was seen as a sympathetic ear by the Volunteers. O’Brien was friendly with both Plunkett and Griffith, but told the Corkonians that, in his opinion, neither man counted for much.

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Irish Volunteers

The Irish Volunteers, O’Brien told his guests, were the only body in the country which could see the ideals of the Easter Rising realised. If they wished to accomplish this, then they should make their views known to both the Count and Griffith. O’Brien added that if the two men refused to come around to their point of view, then the Volunteers should simply brush both aside and act on their own.

Efforts towards public unity had been made in May, when the by-election in South Longford provided the chance for Plunkettites, Volunteers and Sinn Féiners to campaign together on behalf of their candidate, Joseph McGuinness, against the IPP selection. However much they distrusted each other, they could at least agree to dislike the Irish Party even more.

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Longford election poster for Joseph McGuinness, May 1917

McGuinness’ success on an absentionist ticket – the second such win that year after Plunkett’s in North Roscommon – was satisfying but did nothing to assuage the tensions. Shortly afterwards, the election committee met to consider whether it should be established as a permanent organisation under the title of ‘The Irish Freedom Election Committee’.

Although Griffith did not say so openly, it seemed clear to O’Brien – who still attended such meetings despite his resignation – that Griffith was opposed to this proposition, stealing as it would the attention away from Sinn Féin. However, he departed early, allowing the others in his absence to agree to this latest development – not the best way, perhaps, for an already fragile group to make decisions.

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Arthur Griffith

A further meeting of the election committee was held on 30th May at which Griffith again questioned its necessity. Another lengthy discussion followed, punctuated by a sharp exchange between him and Count Plunkett.

Meanwhile, a public rally at Beresford Place, Dublin, was set for the 10th June to protest at the conditions in which the Rising prisoners were held in English jails. When the authorities proscribed the meeting, its organisers agreed for it to be postponed.

Agreed by all, but one. O’Brien was very much surprised upon learning that Plunkett was going ahead with the meeting, regardless of what the others had decided.[32]

Trouble at Beresford Place

Perhaps Plunkett’s contrariness was motivated by the reports of the treatment of his sons, George and Jack, in prison, from the scanty amounts of poor quality food to homosexual rape, which their sister Geraldine “knew afterwards from Jack’s nightmares, did happen.”[33]

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Jack Plunkett, mugshot

Or maybe it was out of desire to buck both the British authorities and his ‘colleagues’. Either way, people in the streets of Dublin on the morning of the 10th June were handed leaflets on their way from church by a number of young men and women. Headed ‘Strike in Lewes Jail’, the handbills notified their readers of the time and place of the meeting: 7:30 pm at Beresford Place.

Such brazen publicity also alerted the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) were also alerted, a squad of which was being present at Beresford Place by the advertised time. Meanwhile, a 200-strong crowd made its way across Butt Bridge from the south side of the Liffey River. At the back of the procession was a hackney car with Plunkett and Brugha inside.

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Crowd gathered at Beresford Place to hear Count Plunkett and Cathal Brugha

When the crowd reached Beresford Place, the car pulled up in front of Liberty Hall. Inspector John Mills pushed his way at the head of a police party through the press of bodies and ordered Brugha to get down from the top of the car on which he was addressing the crowd. When Brugha persisted in speaking, Mills pulled him down while, on the other side of the car, Plunkett was likewise arrested.

The mood of the onlookers turned ugly at the sight of their heroes being manhandled, and the policemen found themselves being followed as they led their prisoners away. The DMP sergeant with Plunkett advised him to hurry along for fear of trouble. Seeing the milling, agitated people all around, with the potential for violence heavy in the air, the Count agreed by quickening his pace.

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Arrested

As the police passed underneath the railway arch at Beresford Place, a young man stepped forward. Without warning, he struck Inspector Mills on the back of the head with what witnesses described as a hurling stick.

Constable John Dooley grabbed the assailant by the collar as the latter turned to escape. The crowd closed in on them and Dooley received a blow to the head in turn, driving him to his knees as he doggedly held on. The culprit finally wriggled free and ran down Lower Abbey Street, turning at one point to brandish a revolver at Dooley, before disappearing out of sight.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Brennan was leading another police party in pushing the unruly mob back by Eden Quay. When he heard a shout of “The Inspector is killed”, he ran to find Mills on the ground, blood oozing from his left ear.

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Inspector Mills being moved to a stretcher after being struck on the head

After casting some stones, the crowd dispersed, its energies spent. In addition to Plunkett and Brugha, three more had been arrested: the cabdriver who had brought them, a youth for drawing a dagger and a stone-throwing man. The prisoners were taken to Sloane Street Station, before transferred to Arbour Hill the following night.

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John Mills

Mills had been driven to Jervis Street Hospital, where he died of shock and haemorrhaging from what the doctor described as the worst injury he had seen in his professional career. The 51-year-old native of Co. Westmeath left behind a widow and three children. According to Geraldine Plunkett, her father had said upon seeing Mills collapse: “Oh, the poor man! I hope he’s not hurt.”

It says much about the relative obscurity of Brugha at the time that he was “a man named Burgess” and “a man who gave his name as Cathal Burgess” when the Irish Times reported him alongside the far better known Count Plunkett.[34]

Despite talk of those arrested being tried for the murder of Inspector Mills, they were released from Arbour Hill on the 18th June as part of the general amnesty for political prisoners. This include the remaining inmates from the Rising, and the Count’s two sons were discharged accordingly, finally returning home after almost a year of imprisonment.[35]

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George Oliver Plunkett (front right) and his brother Jack (front left), with some other prisoners, upon their release in June 1917

‘Hot and Strong’

The British authorities were not the only ones attempting a diplomatic solution. It was clear that the divide between Sinn Féin and the Liberty Clubs, rapidly deepening into a split, could not continue.

So far, the upper hand was held by Sinn Féin. The Liberty Clubs were hampered by the lack of public association with the Rising which Sinn Féin possessed, however undeservedly, and the absence of a central office to which to send the all-important affiliation fees – another advantage Griffith enjoyed. Instead, correspondence for the Liberty Clubs were sent to and from the Count’s residence at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, creating a slightly ramshackle feel, as if the man who was one of the country’s best-known political figures could manage no better.banc-sf-1917-1024x824

Despite these drawbacks, Dillon could observe how the Liberty Clubs were:

…making progress and stories began to reach us of Sinn Féin Clubs and Liberty Clubs in the same parish. They were by no means on friendly terms with one another. The Royal Irish Constabulary [RIC] were quick to take advantage of the reputation of Sinn Féin to stir up trouble. ‘So ye’re afraid to call yourselves Sinn Foeners’, they would say to members of Liberty Clubs.[36]

Trouble was astir, indeed. The monthly report of the RIC Inspector General in May speculated on how the movement:

…may divide into two sections, a revolutionary party under the leadership of Count Plunkett, and another and perhaps more numerous party, who realising the futility of armed insurrection, will try to achieve their aim by more passive measures.[37]

Before matters could get to that point, an attempt at resolution was held in Brugha’s house in Upper Rathmines Road, a courtesy made on account of his still-healing leg wound from the Rising. Despite his slightly debilitated state, Brugha would take up the role of advocate for hard-line Republicanism, proving in the process to be a far more forceful character than Count Plunkett.

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Cathal Brugha

Dillon could not remember precisely who was in Brugha’s house that evening, though the conclave included his father-in-law, Griffith, Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor, as well as some other members of the Mansion House Committee. Nor could Dillon recall the resulting conversation exactly – it was not until 1967 that he put his account to paper – other than it had been “hot and strong, without being too acrimonious.”

Griffith was asked, or rather told, to hand over control of Sinn Féin to the Irish Volunteers. He held his ground, insisting that Sinn Féin would not surrender the name he had spent years toiling to build. Furthermore, he added, he had been elected president by a Sinn Féin convention and so could only hand over the role to someone elected at another such convention.

Walking the Plank

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Tommy Dillon

As it was getting late and the last trams home were due, Dillon summed up their options: to found a new organisation – as had been proposed at his father-in-law’s convention – or to reform Sinn Féin on conditions to which Griffith and the Plunkettites would find acceptable. Dillon added that the second was the simplest.

Sensing the support for this in the room, Griffith changed tact. He agreed to put before the Sinn Fein National Council the proposal that half of them would retire to make room for six representatives of the Liberty Clubs and the Mansion House Committee. Dillon would be joint honorary secretary along with the current one, with the president and his paid officials remaining unchanged until the next party Ard Fheis, set for October. Soon after, Dillon received a note to say that the National Council had agreed to these terms.[38]

It was a gracious retreat on Griffith’s part, though perhaps he had had little choice.

O’Brien learnt from Brugha, with whom he had grown close, of the compromise arrangements decided upon in the latter’s house. When O’Brien was told that the new constitution for Sinn Féin would include the recognition of the Republic as proclaimed in the Rising, O’Brien was surprised. He did not think Griffith – a cautious man by nature – would go so far on such a charged point.

“Do you mean that Griffith has accepted the Republic?” O’Brien asked.

“He had to or walk the plank,” answered Brugha grimly.[39]

Hard Truths

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Seán T. O’Kelly

Even Griffith’s allies had accepted that a surrender on his part was inevitable. From listening to the Sinn Féin branch meetings, Seán T. O’Kelly came to the conclusion that the ‘military’ men in the movement – those who had taken part in the Rising – would never accept Griffith as their leader. But Griffith still had his friends and admirers, even among said ‘military’ men, who disliked the idea of deposing a man who had done such sterling work for the country over the past twenty years.

With this conundrum in mind, O’Kelly was one of several men who went to Alderman Walter Cole’s home in 3 Mountjoy Square on the 24th October, the night before the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis was due. Cole told them that he had taken the liberty of asking Griffith to come along as well.

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3 Mountjoy Square Dublin

By the time Griffith arrived, the others had arrived at an unhappy but inescapable conclusion: should he run again as Sinn Féin president, he would be defeated. It would thus be best to retire gracefully. It fell to Cole to inform Griffith of this collective opinion.

Griffith took it in good stead. After talking it out with the others for half an hour with what O’Kelly considered to be admirable dispassion, Griffith told them that he would give their advice serious consideration. His decision would be announced the next day. It was the most Griffith was prepared to concede at that point, and his friends did not press it.

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Inside 3 Mountjoy Square

Such talks and manoeuvrings had been largely kept hidden from the majority of delegates who lined up outside the Mansion House to have their passes checked by the Irish Volunteers posted on the doors. It was soon apparent that the Ard Fheis would be a packed one. Half an hour before the opening and the Round Room inside was already crowded, with more guests continuing to stream in at a steady pace.

It was stated by party officials that 1,700 delegates, representing 1,009 Sinn Féin clubs throughout the country, were present. But in the opinion of the Freeman’s Journal – no friend of radical politics otherwise – the actual numbers far exceeded this estimate.[40]

‘A Soldier and a Statesman’

Count Plunkett and his wife were among the early arrivals. As the proceedings began, Éamon de Valera and W.T. Cosgrave, the Members of Parliament (MPs) for East Clare and Kilkenny City respectively, stepped on the platform, followed by Griffith. Beneath the applause that greeted each man, the excitement and anxiety were acutely felt by all.

The Plunkett Convention six months ago, held in that very same hall, had showed that even in the heart of the movement’s power and display, a split was not impossible. Given the simmering tensions since then, it was not even implausible.

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The Round Room, Mansion House

This time, the risk centred on the three candidates for the presidency. In the opinion of Kevin O’Shiel, Griffith was the obvious choice. He was, after all, one of the founders of Sinn Féin as well as the current office holder. But his openness to an Ireland continuing under the British Crown as part of some dual monarchy idea of his, and his initial opposition to the Rising, made him anathema to many.

As for Count Plunkett, he was more distinguished by his sons than his own qualities. That had not stopped him from attempting to take central stage in the movement. Despite having canvassed for the Count in the momentous by-election earlier in the year, O’Shiel soon resented the sense of entitlement:

Since his big victory in [North] Roscommon, he and his supporters had come to regard him as the predestined leader of the Irish people on whom “the mantle of Elijah” had fallen, charged with the definite leadership of the country in the new struggle.

Whatever the doubts of O’Shiel, Griffith and others, Plunkett could rely on the Republican elements for support. But the Liberty Clubs, intended to be his powerbase, had not been able to replace Sinn Féin as Plunkett had hoped, largely due to their failure to overtake Sinn Féin in the public mind as the originator of the Rising. It was on this critical factor that politics in the post-1916 Ireland would rise or crumble.

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Éamon de Valera, in the uniform of an Irish Volunteer

The third contender, de Valera, was the dark horse in the race. Despite the lack of fame as enjoyed by the other two, he did possess certain advantages. His record as a Rising participant, and a senior officer in the Irish Volunteers at that, bestowed credibility of the sort Griffith could never attain. At the same time, de Valera made it clear that he had arrived at his Republican position by his belief that that was what the Irish public wanted, an open-mindedness which reassured moderates that here was someone they could work with.

When the subject of the presidency came up, a hush fell over the room. Everyone tensed to see what would unfold. A minute ticked by, feeling like an hour. Then Griffith rose and, to the surprise of many, announced that he was not putting himself forward. He thereupon withdrew his nomination, declaring instead for de Valera, in whom, Griffith informed his audience, “we have a soldier and a statesman.”

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Arthur Griffith and Éamon de Valera

The resulting applause went on for some minutes, due in no small part to the relief that a split had just been avoided. Obviously following the same script, Count Plunkett also withdrew, ensuring that de Valera’s election as the new President of Sinn Féin was a unanimous, not to mention mercifully uneventful, one.[41]

The New Leadership

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Helena Molony

Not that this had been entirely unexpected. The night before, de Valera had come to talk to Kathleen Lynn and Helena Molony, both as Labour representatives. After informing them he was being put forward as a compromise between Plunkett and Griffith, he asked if that would be acceptable. The two women agreed, and Molony was much satisfied with the arrangement. They had kept out Griffith, whom she despised for his moderation. While she had supported Plunkett, that had been for the sake of his martyred son, Joseph, and not so much for him. In terms of leadership quality, she found de Valera to be by far the better choice.[42]

The new Sinn Féin Executive that emerged from the Ard Fheis bore little resemblance to the ones of the past ten years. Those few ‘old’ party hands who remained on the twenty-four-strong body did so because they, like the rest, had some connection to the Rising. From then on, the course of the party would be guided by its militants.[43]

Seeing where the wind was blowing, both the Liberty Clubs and the Irish Nation League folded and amalgamated into Sinn Féin, ensuring that the party would be a ‘broad church’, reflecting both hard-line and moderate opinions. In truth, it was not now dissimilar to the IPP in the past, which had had room for constitutionalists like Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond, as well as former Fenians such as Michael Davitt and James J. O’Kelly, the late MP for North Roscommon who Count Plunkett had succeeded.

With Sinn Féin set to defeat IPP come the next election, the new had replaced the old in more ways than one, though few in the reformed Sinn Féin were inclined to appreciate the historical repetition. A line had been drawn in the sand, and a break made with the past. The days of compromise were over, or so those in the Ard Fheis told themselves.

President Arthur Griffith
Count Plunkett (front row, far left), Father Michael O’Flanagan (back row, far left), Éamon de Valera (front row, centre) and Arthur Griffith (besides O’Flanagan)

The End

Both Griffith ad Plunkett were consoled for their self-denial of the presidency with the elections of the former as one of the dual Vice-Presidents (Father O’Flanagan being the other) and the latter to the twenty-four-strong Executive Council. This may have been the point in which the Count actually joined Sinn Féin. He had been content to have it campaign on his behalf in North Roscommon but at his April convention he had been markedly hostile, determined to have the party replaced with one more to his liking.

Not that this had stopped him from being a contender for the Sinn Féin presidency. It says much about the confusion and fluidity of the times that one action did not necessarily negate a contradictory other.

Many had gone into the Ard Fheis fearing a split between Griffith and Plunkett. Instead, Sinn Féin had been able to retain both men. Whether by accident or design, the top echelons of the party upheld a balance between the two opposing viewpoints in the movement – the constitutional and the militant – a difference which would be, if not conciliated, then at least pacified…for long enough, at least.

the-delegation-july-1921
(From left to right) Arthur Griffith, Robert Barton, Éamon de Valera, Count Plunkett and Laurence O’Neill

Not that the two men would ever completely bury the hatchet. Five years, in May 1922, Griffith was speaking to the Dáil when Count Plunkett made, according to the Irish Times, “an observation which was imperfectly heard.”

Whatever was said, Griffith did not assume it to be favourable towards him. He responded by saying that he had been campaigning for the rights of Ireland at a time when Plunkett was receiving the King of England and hanging out flags (which were presumably Union Jacks).

“I did not pull down the Irish flag,” said Plunkett, who seems to have misheard somewhat.

Griffith did not let up, insisting that the other man had received the King in Cork – a reference to the 1903 Exhibition, which Plunkett had helped supervise – when he had sworn allegiance to the visiting Edward VII.

“I never swore allegiance,” Plunkett protested.

“Maintain the dignity of the Dáil,” said Brugha, intervening in defence of his friend.

“Keep this man from interrupting,” Griffith retorted. “I will not be interrupted by a humbug.”

There were cries of ‘shame’ at this insult, forcing Griffith to withdraw it.[44]

00057f1b-1024
Members of the first Dáil, 1919, with Count Plunkett in the front row, fourth from the left, with an umbrella-carrying Cathal Brugha besides him

Not that it mattered anyway. Their feud was already old news. So was Count Plunkett’s career as leader of the new national movement. Like his Liberty Clubs, his ascendancy would be a short-lived phenomenon, one swiftly forgotten.

The Plunkett Convention, followed by the Clubs, had marked the peak of his influence. He would remain on the political scene, such as when he led in the very first elected Teachtaí Dálas (TDs) at the opening of Dáil Éireann on the 21st January 1919, while looking “very distinguished” as Geraldine remembered. There, he was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, and later the Minister for Fine Arts at the second Dáil in August 1921, the latter post being well suited for the distinguished art scholar that was Count Plunkett.[45]

But never again would he enjoy such success as he had had, when his had been the name on the lips of friend and foe alike, and the future looked his to mould and command.

 

References

[1] Freeman’s Journal, 20/04/1917

[2] Ibid

[3] O’Brien, William. Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), p. 148

[4] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS), pp. 91-2

[5] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006), p. 258

[6] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770), Part V, p. 133

[7] O’Shiel, p. 32 ; O’Kelly, Seán T. (BMH / WS 1765), Part I, p. 63

[8] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 148

[9] FJ, 20/04/1917

[10] Dillon Plunkett, p. 258 ; FJ, 20/04/1917 ; New Ireland, 28/04/1917

[11] Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967, p. 394 ; Ceannt, Áine (BMH / WS 264), p. 53 ; Molony, Helena (BMH / WS 391)

[12] Good, Joseph (BMH / WS 388), pp. 30-1

[13] FJ, 20/04/1917

[14] IT, 28/04/1917

[15] Curran, M. (BMH / WS 687), p. 220

[16] De Róiste, Liam (BMH / WS 1698) Part II, p. 168

[17] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, pp. 112-4

[18] Count Plunkett Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 11,383/6/12

[19] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/13

[20] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/14,16

[21] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/17

[22] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/16

[23] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/10

[24] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/07

[25] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/8

[26] Ibid, MS 11,383/3/15

[27] Ibid, MS 11,383/11/5

[28] Ibid, MS 11,383/6/26

[29] Cork Examiner, 15/06/1917

[30] Ibid, 06/06/1917

[31] Nugent, pp. 93, 95

[32] O’Brien, pp. 130-133

[33] Plunkett Dillon, p. 260

[34] Ibid ; Irish Times, 11/06/1917, 12/06/1917, 17/11/1917

[35] Irish Times, 19/06/1917

[36] Dillon, p. 395

[37] Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8544

[38] Dillon, pp. 395-6

[39] O’Brien, pp. 136-7

[40] Freeman’s Journal, 26/10/1917

[41] O’Shiel, pp. 85-8 ; O’Brien, p. 102

[42] Molony, pp. 50-1

[43] Dillon, p. 399

[44] Irish Times, 03/03/1922

[45] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 268, 308

 

Bibliography

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Times

New Ireland

Books

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

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

Bureau of Military Statements

Ceannt, Áine, WS 264

Curran, M., WS 687

De Róiste, Liam, WS 1698

Good, Joseph, WS 388

Molony, Helena, WS 391

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Kelly, Seán T., WS 1765

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

National Library of Ireland Collections

Count Plunkett Papers

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

Article

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