Liam Mellows - tragic hero of 1916

Week V

On December 7 1922, Pádraic Ó Máille TD and his friend Sean Hales TD of Cork, walked out of a hotel on Ormonde Quay, by Dublin’s river Liffy. They just had lunch, and were on their way back to the Dáil in Leinster House, a short drive away. Ó Máille, Galway city and Connemara’s first TD, had been appointed Leas Ceann Comhairle (deputy speaker ). As they reached their car a gunman stepped forward and opened fire. Both men were hit, but Hales was bleeding profusely. Although seriously injured Ó Máille managed to get Hales into the car and drove to the nearest hospital, where he collapsed, and died.

In the year leading up to the shooting Irish politics and the future of British rule in Ireland was completely turned on its head. A truce was called between Britain and Ireland, bringing to an end two years of bitter skirmishes, ambushes, and assassinations. On December 6 1921 a treaty was signed between representatives of Dáil Eireann and the British government, giving birth to the Irish Free State. Twelve months later, December 6, the day before the Ó Máille and Hales’ shooting, the Irish Free State was formally established by Act of Parliament. The British immediately began to withdraw all its troops.

However, despite this extraordinary achievement, an almost miraculous outcome after centuries of efforts for self determination, there were no cheering crowds, no military parades, no public holidays. The Irish were not at peace with themselves. When The Treaty terms were presented to the Dáil on December 14 the previous year, it was debated for nine days. It was not a perfect document. Ulster had opted out; and there were numerous conditions that rankled, such as Ireland would remain within the British Commonwealth of Nations; all TDs were required to take an oath of fidelity to the king. Many republicans found that unacceptable. Michael Collins argued that The Treaty gave Ireland ‘the freedom to achieve freedom’.

But passions were raw. Liam Mellows TD (East Galway ), who had bravely led the Galway insurrection during Easter Week 1916 (with whom Pádraic Ó Máille had fought ), now believed that the prize did not reflect the bitter war that was waged. Mellows, articulate and passionate who shared a dream for a socialist Ireland with James Connolly, believed, with others, that The Treaty was a betrayal of the 1916 Rising. In his strident and passionate voice he proclaimed in the Dáil: ‘We do not seek to make this country a materially great country at the expense of its honour in any way whatsoever. We would rather have this country poor and indigent, we would rather have the people of Ireland eking out a poor existence on the soil; as long as they possessed their souls, their minds and their honour. This fight has been for something more than the fleshpots of Empire.’

A vote was taken on January 7 1922. The Treaty was accepted by 64 to 57. The debate was thrown open to the public who were invited to show their preference for pro-Treaty or anti-Treaty candidates in the General Election of June 1922. Sinn Féin split between the pro and anti sides; Ó Máille stood in favour of acceptance. The pro Treaty candidates won more than 75 per cent of the seats.

Deadly reprisals

Michael Collins, commander of the Free State army, had hoped for speedy and peaceful reconciliation with the anti Treaty forces, or Republicans. He urged them to accept the people’s verdict. But the anti Treaty deputies refused to return to Leinster House. Spasmodic fighting broke out as the Army confronted armed Republicans. The Four Courts, and other landmark buildings in Dublin, were seized. Despite Collins’ efforts to get them to surrender, he was forced to dislodge them with artillery. Its occupants were all arrested. They included Rory O’Connor, a prominent IRA leader during the War of Independence, and Liam Mellows. Fighting now erupted, particularly in southern counties, with a ferocity and mounting casualty numbers which between October 1922 and May 1923 would become greater than during the War of Independence. It rapidly spiralled into a grotesque Jacobean tragedy; with summary executions, notorious atrocities, anti Protestantism, house burnings, and sheer butchery.

Following Collins’ death, on August 22 1922, the Free State Government, Cumann na nGaedheal, led by WT Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy and Kevin O’Higgins (Minister for Justice ) took the position that the anti-Treaty republicans were conducting an unlawful rebellion against the legitimate Irish Government. They should be treated as criminals rather than combatants. The controversial Public Safety Bill empowered military tribunals to use the death penalty for a variety of offences.

The anti-Treaty forces, led by IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch, regarded the Public Safety Bill as a‘ Murder Bill.’ He ordered his men to kill every TD or judge or journalist who supported it. Both Ó Máille and Hales had voted for the Bill, and were regarded as legitimate targets. But within hours of Hales’ death four Republican leaders captured in the Four Courts back in July, Rory O’Connor, Dick Barrett, Joe McKelvy and Liam Mellows (one from each province in Ireland ), were executed at Mountjoy prison as a reprisal.*

Deeply unhappy

Mellows, born an Englishman, and just 24 years of age in 1916, had dedicated his adult life to Irish freedom. At that time he had a romantic streak about his boyish looks. But he was hardened enough to train and lead about 500 volunteers in abortive attacks on Royal Irish Constabulary stations at Oranmore, and Clarinbridge, Co Galway, following the Rising in Dublin on Easter Monday. Mellows’ efforts were doomed, not from lack of commitment from him or his men, but from a total lack of arms or ammunition.

The Galway Volunteers were jeered and mocked as they were led off to prison. Mellows, however, escaped to America, where after an initial heroic welcome, fell foul of the traditional Fenian movements which had sided with their adopted home, America, to support Britain in World War I.

Refusing to accept such a policy Mellows continued to raise money for arms to send to Ireland. Following an aborted attempt to buy arms from a German agent, he was arrested and thrown into the notorious ‘Tombs’ prison in New York. There seemed to have been no great rush to have him released. When he emerged he was ill, out of a job, and practically starving. He was saved by the arrival of Eamon de Valera in 1919, and accompanied him on a spectacular propaganda and fund-raising tour for 18 months. With Mellows’ help, Dev side-stepped the machinations of the old Fenian societies, in particular John Devoy’s once influential Clan na Gael, and Mellows became a trustee for a massive bond sale, which would eventually raise a staggering $6,000,000. Furthermore, Dev laid the basis for another support society which soon dominated the Irish-American scene.**

For Ireland’s sake

On his return to Ireland, October 1920, Mellows took an active part in the War of Independence. He was elected to the first Dail as a Sinn Féin candidate for both Galway East and for North Meath, but, as I said, matters got out of control when he sided with the anti-Treaty forces, and tragically for him, ended up in Mountjoy jail that fateful moment. His execution was, of course, a travesty of justice. Mellows just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Circumstances added to the tragic hero Mellows had become. Among the national heroes of 1916, Liam Mellows is practically forgotten.

He was only given hours notice that he was to be shot. He wrote to his mother, Sarah, before dawn on December 8 1922… “The time is short and much that I would like to say must go unsaid. But you will understand in such moments heart speaks to heart……Welcome be the will of God, for Ireland is in His keeping…’

And as he was being led out of his cell he pushed a note into the hand of one of the guards: ‘To my dear comrades in Mountjoy, God Bless you boys and may He give you fortitude, courage and wisdom to suffer and endure all for Ireland’s sake….’

NOTES: *In total 77 men were executed in reprisals for attacks on Government, Army, or public figures by the anti Treaty forces. The reprisals were a significant factor in bringing the Civil War to an end. O’Higgins was regarded as the hard man of the Government. Rory O’Connor, who had been shot, was not only a friend, but was the best man at his wedding only months before. Yet he still gave his approval for O’Connor’s execution. Hostilities came to an end when Éamon de Valera led the anti-Treaty TDs into the Dáil under the Fianna Fáil banner. O’Higgins, who had set up the unarmed Garda Siochana to replace the disbanded RIC, was himself assassinated on July 10 1927.

**By April 1921 The American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic, had 700,000 members, dramatically reducing the influence of the old Fenian societies.

Sources include Conor McNamara’s War and Revolution - in the West of Ireland, published 2018, and Eamon de Valera, by Earl of Longford, and TP O’Neill, published 1970.


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