Liam Ó Briain, professor of romance languages UCG, was arrested by the Black and Tans on November 21 1920. He was taken to the RIC barracks, at that time in Dominick Street, and then up to the army barracks at Earls island, where he was identified. Other men arrested stood in line. They were watched by ‘pompous young officers’ who, with ‘a hand on their guns’ ‘sniggered’ at the standing prisoners. They went up and down pulling hands out of their pockets. Ó Briain, in his recently published essays on his experiences,* did not sound too concerned. He was well known to the police authorities. Because of the murder and mayhem during the week of his arrest, he must have been expecting to be picked up.
During the Rising in 1916, as a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, he had fought for six days, under Michael Mallon, at the Royal College of Surgeons, until the surrender. He was imprisoned in England for six months before being released and returned to Ireland before Christmas that year. During his time at Frongoch camp, north Wales, he became friends with Michael Collins.
He continued to work for the resistance. For his attempts to recruit support for the cause in Belfast, he was arrested and again imprisoned. On his release he was appointed a judge in the republican courts in Galway, and, interestingly, was sent to Italy by Collins to arrange arms shipments. He returned in the autumn, to a town and country ablaze with hatred and murder.
On the day before Ó Briain was arrested, Collins’ men shot dead 14 British agents in Dublin. As a reprisal British forces opened fire on the crowds at Croke Park killing 11 and wounding 60. In Galway Micheál Breathnach, a publican in Quay Street, was shot dead in October. A school teacher in Barna, Patrick Joyce, was kidnapped and shot by the IRA, for allegedly spying on local IRA activities. A week before Ó Briain’s arrest Fr Michael Griffin was taken from his home and killed. The people of Galway were shocked and deeply disturbed by what was happening.
The Italian job
Ó Briain’s trip to Italy is interesting in as much that it shows the empathy Ireland’s struggle for independence had in some quarters. Some officers in the Italian army had approached an Irishman Denis Hales, whose brothers were friends of Michael Collins, with an offer of weapons for sale. It was only two years after World War I, and Italy was ‘full at the time of surrendered Austrian war material. Much of it was being sold for scrap’.
The officers, while possibly not being all that altruistic, had an eye on the money. They proposed that there would be no difficulty in ‘handing over as many machine guns, rifles and rounds of ammunition provided the money was forthcoming.’ The missing weapons would be entered into the account books of the Italian War Department under ‘sold as scrap.’ Furthermore they would send the war material down the Tiber on barges, and out to sea. The Irish must take it from there. Collins asked Ó Briain to go to Genoa, and check Hales out, and if satisfied, to say yes to the deal.
Hales turned out to be a charming man. He had married an Italian, spoke the language fluently, and ‘was doing useful propaganda work for us in the Italian press.’ A man of some foresight, Hales described himself as ‘Agente Consolare della Reppublica Irlandese’ …and this was only 1920! But despite all the correspondence, and Ó Briain’s visit, nothing came of this deal.**
Earls Island, and the old gaol were not far. Ó Briain, two days before Fr Griffin’s funeral, was marched over, relieved to be out of sight of the Tans and the ‘pompous young officers’. He felt that freedom had been restored to him. He looked forward to having ‘gentle, civilised Irish people’ for company. It had only been nine months since his release from Belfast prison, and he was comparing the two prisons in his mind as he was escorted from the gate to the office. Inside a clerk was taking down names, while over in the corner some regular prisoners were brushing and cleaning the floor.
One of them stepped towards Ó Briain smiling broadly, with his hand outstreached: “Muishe, is it yourself that’s in it Mister O’Brien? A hundred thousand welcomes to you!” Ó Briain, delighted, shook his hand vigorously. “How are you Shinner”? he asked. Shinner was an old pal from Belfast prison. The wardens were amazed. Finally one of them said: “Silence among the prisoners.”
Next week: The Town Hall prison and Captain H (I know. I am a week behind ).
NOTES: . * Essays By An Irish Rebel, originally published 1934-1968, translated from the Irish by Eoin Ó Dochartaigh, on sale €18.
** I am taking this from Ó Briain’s testament to the Bureau of Military History. References to the Italian proposal are also found in Ernie O’Malley’s On Another Man’s Wound, and in Tom Barry’s Guerrilla Days in Ireland.