History is not kind to Liam Mellows

Week V

Liam Mellows at 24 years of age, led about 200 volunteers out on Easter week in answer to Padraic Pearse’s call to arms. Despite his young age Mellows had won the trust and confidence of his band of men and women. The Galway Rebellion, however, was doomed once the Aud failed to land her cargo of rifles and ammunition off the Kerry coast.* Yet with what weapons they had they attacked RIC stations at Oranmore and Clarinbrdge, and for a time occupied Athenry. One RIC constable, Patrick Whelan, was shot dead at Carnmore.

The response of the authorities was swift and direct. Hundreds of soldiers were sent into the area, arriving by train and by ship. The naval vessel The Laburnum began bombarding the countryside at Maree and Oranmore from the bay. Rumours of the collapse of the Rising in Dublin began to spread, and the situation in Co Galway was becoming chaotic. Mellows was bitterly disappointed. Volunteer Frank Hynes recalled the end: ‘I wouldn’t like to witness again the scene that was created by the disbandment. I saw six-footers weeping. There was terrible confusion…’

The Galway rising ended in the early hours of Saturday morning despite Mellows’ pleas to stay out. In the days that followed most of them were rounded up, and brought into Galway as prisoners. Local people threw mud and insults and spat as they passed.

‘Low spirits’

Mellows sought refuge in the Slieve Aughty mountains, before eventually finding his way to America. He arrived in New York and was welcomed by John Devoy, and the Fenian organisations, and initially feted as a hero.

I have tried to show in the past few weeks that welcome did not last. There was a bitter falling out between Mellows and the old Fenians, and other Easter Rising combatants such as de Valera who soon followed.

During his first few months in America Mellows, in lectures and articles, described the Galway rising in heroic terms. But he was growing despondent, and depressed, fearing that he had let his men down. His friend Patrick McCartan** recorded that when he asked Mellows why he was ‘in such low spirits’, Mellows replied that if he had known as much in Easter week that he knew today, he would never have fired a shot. He blamed the Revolutionary Military Council under Pearse who had usurped the authority of Eóin MacNeill, and set themselves up as a military junta and ignored everyone else. The consequences was defeat, and hardship for the volunteers. Many of them were bread-winners for their families, and when they were imprisoned their families suffered. There was no help from neighbours, who, in the main, disapproved of what they were doing.

Public safety

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that even if the weapons from the Aud had arrived as planned, and that Mellows was successful, they would have had a serious up-hill struggle to hold on to victory. There were serious divisions in the social life of the town and county, between the rural poor and the land owning class; and the sectarian rift between the small Protestant community and the Catholic majority. There also had to be a fierce protective loyalty to the army, where many Galway husbands, brothers and boyfriends were away fighting a relentless war in France.

Galway was also a garrison town, where barracks must have brought big business to its traders. Understandably the politics of the elite mercantile community would have generally favoured the Irish Parliamentary Party’s slow map to Home Rule rather than the younger Sinn Féin’s grab for power.

Following almost immediately the Mellows rising, a Committee for Public Safety was formed in Galway town to liaise with the crown forces. Citizens were urged to offer themselves as ’special constables’ under the command of the regular RIC. The Galway Express thanked 47 men whom it claimed ‘did much to relieve the police and to give the latter a well-deserved and much needed few hours rest.’


Even two years after the Rising, when public opinion was beginning to side with the rebels, a PS McDonnell told a public meeting in April 1918 that despite all the drama of recent times Galway ‘had maintained its sanity’, and had ‘no desire to chase rainbows.’

Noting the ‘swollen heads of young Sinn Féiners’ at a meeting in July, the meeting was warned to be conscious of the ‘traitorism of educated men like Eóin McNeill and others who tried to filch away the temperaments of young uneducated countrymen…the heart of the country will soon ring deep with sorrow and her indignation would turn on these fellows for their treachery.’

Historian Martin Dolan interviewed many veterans of Easter Week for the 50th anniversary of the Rebellion for the Connacht Tribune. He concluded: ‘The Galway rebellion differed from that in Dublin in one important respect. It was not a ‘rising’ of intellectuals, of teachers, of poets, of scholars. In it there was only one teacher, there was only one priest, there was a rate collector, and a shopkeeper’s son. The rest of the rebels were farmers and sons of labourers, and tradesmen of all descriptions. It was a rising common men who had learned their patriotism from their parents, from patriotic teachers, and from those who were steeped in the traditions of secret societies that had always existed….’

If the men and women who came out with Liam Mellows in 1916 were indeed the ‘common people’ of the countryside, then equally the young men and women who rallied to the call of the Committee of Public Safety, who cheered the navy and the RIC, and who gathered to throw mud at republican prisoners were for the most part ‘common’ working people also. History is not kind to the remarkable Liam Mellows.

Next week: Two readers offer another look at the ‘Empty Frame’ at St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church.

NOTES: * The Norwegian vessel the Aud sent from Germany contained some 20,000 rifles, 10 machine guns, explosives and ammunition to be distributed throughout Ireland in preparation for the Easter Rising. It was intercepted by the British navy off the Kerry coast and scuttled on her way into Cork harbour under escort. All the weapons were lost. Eóin McNeill, commander- in - chief of the Irish Volunteers tried to cancel the Rising. Pariaic Pearse, Connolly and others decided to go ahead anyway.

** Patrick McCartan, a medical doctor and involved in politics all his life, was in New York on behalf of the new Dáil. He was arrested with Mellows trying to buy arms from Germany was imprisoned in The Tombs. He helped de Valera on his American fundraising tour, and later went to Russia seeking help for Ireland. He became a great friend of WB Yeats, helping him to raise funds in the US for the Irish Academy of Letters. He later raised money to bring Yeats home for burial from the South of France in 1948.

This week I am leaning on War and Revolution - In the West of Ireland, by Conor McNamara, Irish Academic Press, on sale €17.


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