On December 7 1922, less than eight months after the Kilmilkin battle, 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. Hales was dead..
In those eight months Irish politics and the future of British rule in Ireland was completely turned on its head. The attack at Kilmilkin took place in April 1921, and by July 11 a truce was called between Britain and Ireland. Negotiations took place in London between representatives of Dáil Eireann, and the British government. On December 6 a Treaty was signed, giving birth to the Irish Free State. Twelve months later, December 6 1922, 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, and was imprisoned for his stand, now believed that the prize did not reflect the bitter war that was waged.
Mellows and others felt that the Treaty was a betrayal of that fight. In his strident and passionate voice he proclaimed: ‘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 over 75 per cent of the seats.
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 downwards 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 a legitimate target. But within hours of Hales’ death four Republican leaders captured in the Four Courts back in July, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Dick Barrett and Joe McKelvy (one from each province in Ireland ), were executed at Mountjoy prison as a reprisal.*
Pádraic Ó Máille was appalled. He wrote to the Mellows family and received a reply from Mrs Sarah Mellows and Barney Mellows, mother and brother of the executed man. ‘ We know full well that you had neither hand nor part in planning or being a party to the executions, if so they may be called, of December 8 1922. We wish that once and for all, idle and slanderous tongues may be stopped and to assure you we feel very sorry that you should have suffered so much.’**
When he recovered from his wounds (a bullet remained lodged close to his spine ), Ó Máille came home to Kilmilkin, and rebuilt Muintir Eoin (it still proudly stands! ). He took up the family farming tradition. He refused to have anything more to do with Cumann na nGaedheal. He attempted to start his own party, and when that did not work out, he joined Fianna Fáil for a while. He was never re-elected to the Dáil after 1923. He married Eileen, daughter of Martin Acton, a farmer from Clifden. They had two sons and three daughters. Ó Máille became a senator in 1934. He was reappointed as a nominee of An Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, and elected its Leas Cathaoirleach; a position he retained until his death on January 19 1946.
Next week: That famous wedding photograph of Pádraic Ó Máille and Eileen Acton.
NOTES: * In total 77 men were executed in reprisals for attacks on Government, Army or public figures by the anti Treaty forces, before the Civil War came to an end. The reprisals were a significant factor in bringing the war to an end. O’Higgins was regarded as the hard man of the Government. Rory O’Connor had been 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. Taunted by Republicans in 1925 over the Civil War’s 77 executions, he replied: ‘I stand by the 77 executions and 777 more if necessary.’
The Free State Government forces had the equipment, including artillery, the recruits, and the machinery of State to prevail in the field. 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.
** Taken from Beyond the Twelve Pins - A History of Clifden and District 1860 - 1923, by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill.