Carved Chessman, Liam Mellows’ Execution, December 1922

The last post on the blog looked at Arthur’s Griffith’s note announcing the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 and the subsequent civil war between Pro and Anti-Treaty forces in Ireland, which lasted from June 1922 until May 1923. During this conflict the Irish Free State government forces, or Pro-Treaty side, officially executed 77 members of the Anti-Treaty Republican forces. The most well known of these was the execution of Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey, Robert Barrett and Rory O’Connor on 8 December 1922.

This wooden chess piece was carved by Liam Mellows in Mountjoy Jail where he was interned after his capture after the fall of the Four Courts at the end of June. It found its way into the possession of a Mr John Finerty of New York, who returned it to Eamon de Valera during one of his terms as Taoiseach between the early 1930s and the end of the 1950s. De Valera in turn presented it to the National Museum of Ireland.

 

 Liam Mellows was born in Manchester to Sarah Jordan of County Wexford, and British Army officer William Mellows. He grew up in Wexford, and became a nationalist and socialist at an early age, joining both Fianna Éireann and the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  In November 1913, at the age of 21, he was one of the founding members of the Irish Volunteers. During the 1916 Rising, he led the garrison in Galway in a series of attacks on Royal Irish Constabulary barracks, after which he escaped to America where he was arrested and interned in New York. He was released in 1918 and returned to Ireland, where he was elected for Sinn Fein to the First Dáil in the 1918 General Election, representing Galway East and North Meath. He also became the IRA’s Director of Supplies during the War of Independence.

 

Mellows was a vocal opponent of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, believing that it undermined the principle of the Republic which had been fought for. On 14 April 1922 an Anti-Treaty Republican garrison, led by Rory O’Connor and including Mellows, Dick (Richard) Barrett and Joe McKelvey, took the Four Courts.  The siege lasted over two months, ending when Free State Forces bombarded the building, forcing a surrender on 30 June. Some escaped and continued the fight on the city streets, but Mellows, McKelvey, Barrett and O’Connor were taken captive and interned in Mountjoy as prisoners of war. 

However, after the killing of Michael Collins in August 1922, the new leaders of government introduced a policy of execution on the basis that, as the Treaty had been ratified by the people in the June elections, the opposing forces were rebelling against the legitimate government of Ireland.  The majority of the official executions began to take place in November. As a reaction to this, on 7 December Sean Hales, the pro-Treaty Sinn Féin TD for Cork, was shot and killed by Anti-Treaty republicans as he left the Dáil.

At 3.30am on 8 December, Mellows, McKelvey, Barrett and O’Connor received the following message, signed on behalf of the Army Council by General Richard Mulcahy.

You are hereby notified that, being a person taken in arms against 
the Government, you will be executed at 8 a.m. on Friday 8th December as a reprisal for the assassination of Brigadier Sean Hales T.D., in Dublin, on the 7th December, on his way to a meeting of Dáil Éireann and as a solemn warning to those associated [with] you who are engaged in a conspiracy of assassination against the representatives of the Irish People.

At 8am that morning, the four men were led into the yard of Mountjoy Jail and shot.

 

Mellows’ chess piece is one of the many emotive objects in the National Museum’s Historical collections. When it arrived in the museum it was in a box labeled by the donor ‘Chessman – first of set started by Liam Mellowes in Mountjoy – completion of which was interrupted by his execution’. The piece is small, just over an inch high, but every groove and scratch Liam carved can be clearly seen. It’s almost impossible to hold this object without wondering what he was thinking and feeling when he was making it.  The executions of 8 December were not the first so he must have known his death was a possibility. However, he had been in prison since July and had not yet been tried in a court for his part in the siege of the Four Courts. This chessman should have been the first of a set of 32 pieces, and I wonder if he thought he would have the time to make the full set. His choice to carve a pawn may have some meaning, though it may also be completely coincidental.

 

 

The decision to execute Mellows, McKelvey, Barratt and O’Connor as a reprisal for the killing of Sean Hales on 7 December was sudden, and the men were told they were to die less than five hours before the event.  Mellows took this time to write a number of last messages to loved ones. At 5am he wrote to his mother Sarah Mellows, starting with the lines ‘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’. His letter goes on to reinforce his belief in the pre-Treaty vision of the Irish Republic, and his wish that his fellow Irishmen will once again be united in this vision. 

 

 

1916 Letters Project

Trinity College Dublin are currently running a project titled ‘Letters of 1916: Creating History’, with the aim of creating a digital archive of letters written from Ireland between 1 November 1915 to 31 October 1916. This will include letters held in public collections as well as those held privately. If you wish to contribute to this project by providing a digital image of a letter you own, or by transcribing a letter, click here – http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/

 

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‘The End of the Conflict of Centuries is at Hand’ – The Signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1921

This note, hastily written by Arthur Griffith, was the statement which told the world of his belief that the war between Ireland and Britain was at an end. It was the first message to the public on the outcome of the negotiations which led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Written for issue to the World Press immediately after signing the Treaty on 6 December, it reads

I have signed a Treaty of peace between Ireland and Great Britain. I believe that treaty will lay foundations of peace and friendship between the two Nations. What I have signed I shall stand by in the belief that the end of the conflict of centuries is at hand”. 

 

Arthur Griffith, born in Dublin in 1871, was a journalist and politician. He had been involved in nationalist movements from an early stage; he was a member of the Gaelic League and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, co-founded Cumann na nGaedheal in 1900, and founded the political movement  Sinn Féin in 1905. Having worked as a printer, he established a series of nationalist newspapers, including United IrishmanSinn FéinÉire and Nationality.  He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913, but did not take part in the 1916 Rising. Despite this his connection with Sinn Féin, whom the British authorities believed were responsible for the rising, led to his arrest and internment in Reading Jail until 1917. After his release he became Vice-President of Sinn Féin under Éamon de Valera, and was elected as MP for East Cavan. Instead of taking their seats in the House of Commons, the Sinn Féin MPs established Dáil Éireann as the government of the Irish Republic on 21 January 1919 with de Valera as President. Griffth became Acting President during the War of Independence, and was again imprisoned from December 1920 until July 1921.

 

The War of Independence is generally recognised as having started on 21 January 1919 in Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary, when seven members of the IRA shot and killed two RIC constables. A series of actions in the form of raids and reprisals followed over the next year. In 1920 the RIC received reinforcements in the form of the British recruited Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries; a division made up of ex-British Army Officers, and the conflict intensified. In December that year, after the events of Bloody Sunday, Ireland was placed under Martial law. From this point the violence and death toll escalated, and when British Prime Minister Davd Lloyd George suggested a conference between the two governments Sinn Féin agreed, and a Truce was called in July 1921.

A series of meetings were held and in October an official delegation, headed by Arthur Griffith and including Michael Collins, was formed to carry out the negotiations with the British government. After two months an agreement was reached, officially known as The Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland. The Treaty would see the withdrawal of British troops from the majority of the country, but gave dominion status to Ireland rather than that of an independent Republic, retained the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown, and provided for the establishment of a Boundary Commission to create a border between the Irish Free State and the Northern counties which opted to remain under British rule. The Irish negotiators; Griffith, Collins, Robert Barton, Eamonn Duggan and George Gavan Duffy, though not happy with the terms, were told by Lloyd George that non-acceptance would lead to a resumption of the war which, at the point the Truce was called, was being lost by the IRA. The delegation eventually recommended the Treaty to Dáil Éireann, and it was signed on the 6 December.

 

 The Treaty was rejected by de Valera and split Republican opinion. Though it was narrowly ratified in the Dáil, this split eventually led to civil war, which started with the occupation of the Four Courts by Anti-Treaty Republicans in April 1922 and its bombardment by Pro-Treaty Republicans, now the Free State Forces, on 28 June. 

  

 

By its close in May 1923 many leaders in the Irish Republican movement were dead, with 77 official executions of Anti-Treaty Republicans during the war. Arthur Griffith died of heart failure on 12 August 1922, and Michael Collins was killed in an ambush and gun battle at Béal na Bláth, Co. Cork, ten days later. While this conflict lasted only 10 months, it was to effect Irish politics for the next decade, and lived long in the memory of the Irish people. The Irish Free State of 26 counties officially became the Republic of Ireland in 1949.

 

A copy of the Articles of Agreement bearing the signatures of the Irish and British delegates, including Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Eamonn Duggan, George Gavan Duffy, Lord Birkenhead, David Lloyd George, and Austin Chamberlain, is on display in the Understanding 1916 exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks.

 

 The National Museum of Ireland is pleased to announce that it has received funding from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht which is being used to digitise important documents in the NMI’s collections. Historically significant items, such as Griffith’s statement, the last letters of the 1916 Rising leaders, original political documents, and prison autograph books will be digitised and made available to the public online.   

  

Harry Boland’s Boots; smuggling seditious documents, 1919

A couple of previous posts have focused on the publishing of Republican material by Fergus O’Connor in Dublin, such as the Easter and St. Patrick’s Day greetings cards. While such cards saw no real obstacle to their movement, other publications by O’Connor were actively suppressed, making their distribution, particularly outside the country, much more difficult. These boots belonged to Harry Boland, envoy to the United States of America from 1919 to 1921, and were used to smuggle the document proclaiming Ireland’s Claim to Independence hidden in the soles. They were donated to the National Museum in 1935.

 The Boland family had a long history of involvement in nationalist organisations and activities. Their paternal grandfather, a Fenian, had been part of the attack on the prison van transporting Irish Republican Brotherhood members Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy in Manchester in 1867. Later their father, James Boland, and mother had fled to America after the Phoenix Park murders of Lord Frederick Cavandish and Thomas Henry Burke in 1882, due to his supposed connections with The Invincibles, who carried out the murders. James was also friendly with well-known figures such as O’Donovan Rossa and P.W. Nally.  After his death, the family continued to be brought up in the nationalist traditions.

The three brothers, Gerald, Harry and Edmund, joined the Irish Volunteers at its inception at the Rotunda in late 1913 and took part in the Rising; Gerald in Jacob’s Factory and Harry and Edmund in the GPO.  After the surrender, Harry was arrested and sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to five years penal servitude and he was sent first to Dartmoor and then to Lewes Prison.

On his release in 1917, he opened a tailoring and outfitting business at 64 Middle Abbey Street, which became an important centre for dispatching information around the country. He was elected for South Roscommon in the 1918 General Election, and took his seat in the First Dáil in January 1919, where he was assigned as special envoy to the United States by Eamon de Valera. He spent the next three years campaigning for recognition of the Irish State, and also raising finances to help the effort at home.

In her statement to the Bureau of Military History, Kathleen Boland described her brother Harry’s secret journey. In mid May Harry went to Manchester to make preparations to go to America. He managed to get a job as a stoker on a steam ship, and arrived in New York on the 8th June, where he was met and brought safely through Customs by Jim McGee and Jim Gleeson, who were regularly engaged in the smuggling of weapons from America to Ireland. He was carrying a document, ‘Ireland’s Address to the Free Nations of the World’, otherwise known as Ireland’s Claim to Independence, which had been proclaimed at the First Dáil and published by Fergus O’Connor.  Due to its nature it had been suppressed by the British Government, and so had to be well concealed on the journey.  

 

 

Harry had had a pair of stoker’s boot specially made with a hidden compartment in the soles in which he hid the document. When he reached New York he went directly to the home of Diarmuid (Dermot) Lynch, a member of Dáil Eireann for Cork South East, and National Secretary of The Friends of Irish Freedom, an organization dedicated to promoting Ireland’s cause in the United States. He ripped open the soles and delivered the document to Lynch, from where it was distributed to the Irish-American community. Lynch kept the boots and later donated them to the Museum. For more on Boland’s time in America, and the activities of Clan na Gael and The Friends of Irish Freedom, see the Further Reading section. 

Harry Boland returned to Ireland in 1921, and, despite his close friendship with Michael Collins (which had survived even through their rivalry over Kitty Kiernan), took the side of the Anti-Treaty forces.  On 31 July 1922, one month into the Civil War, he was shot during an attempt by Free State troops to arrest him, and died two days later in hospital. When Kathleen asked him who had fired the shot he refused to tell her, saying ‘The only thing I’ll say is that it was a friend of my own that was in prison with me, I’ll never tell the name and don’t try to find out. I forgive him and I want no reprisals’.  

An old museum exhibition label for these boots talks about how they illustrate the difficulties in getting communications out between Ireland and America during this time. This is certainly true, but, like so many objects in the collection, they also represent the personal belief individuals had in Ireland’s right to independence, the risks they faced and the personal sacrifices they made to play a part in achieving it. 

Bridie O’Mullane, Cumann na mBan, 1918

Cumann na mBan was famously founded in Wynn’s Hotel on Lower Abbey Street, Dublin, in 1914, just months after the formation of the Irish Volunteers.  Its members took part in the 1916 Rising alongside the Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, and continued its involvement in the nationalist cause throughout the War of Independence, the Civil War and beyond.

Many women dedicated their lives to the cause. One such woman is Bridie O’Mullane, pictured here at about age 25 or 26.

This photograph shows Bridie in full Cumann na mBan uniform, including a small brooch based on the Tara brooch. She was a member of the Executive Committee, an official organizer during the War of Independence and the Director of Publicity and Propaganda during the Civil War. The photograph was donated to the museum by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington in 1937.

Sinead McCoole, in her book No Ordinary Women, gives a good account of Bridie’s activities during the period.  O’Mullane joined Cumann na mBan in 1918 after meeting Countess Plunkett, who persuaded her to establish a branch in her home town of Sligo. She was made Secretary, and was soon requested by the Cumann na mBan headquarters to set up more branches around the county.  By the end of the year she had been elected onto the Executive Committee, and made an official organizer.

Despite serving a prison sentence in 1919, she continued her recruitment activities and went on to establish branches throughout the country, often with her life in great danger.

She opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, and was appointed Director of Propaganda for Republican Sinn Fein in Dublin in early 1922.  She founded the Cumann na mBan journal, and probably came to know Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington in this context, as she regularly contributed to the paper. She acted as a courier during the Civil War, and in July she was charged with the role of setting up a publicity department.  Bridie, Maire McKee and Nellie Hoyne established an office in Clare Street, publishing a weekly paper called The War Bulletin. In November 1922 she was arrested by Free State Troops and imprisoned. In Kilmainham Jail she continued her political life, and became a member of the Prisoners’ Council and Commanding Officer of A Wing. She was released in late 1923, but arrested again in 1926 while campaigning against the treatment of prisoners in Maryborough Jail.  She resigned her place on the Cumann na mBan Executive in 1927, later dedicating herself to compiling the history of the organization, assisting others in their applications for military pensions, the Women’s Prisoner’s Defence League, and was a founding member of the Irish Red Cross.  She died at the age of 74, and is buried in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Bridie made two witness statements to the Bureau of Military History, which can be read here and here.

For more stories on the role women such as Bridie played in the fight for Irish independence, see the further reading section on this site for a few of the titles available.  There are also a number of biographies available which are well worth reading.

Limerick tax roll, Four Courts Explosion, 1922

 

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Though the Four Courts on Dublin’s Inns Quay was one of the main buildings occupied by the Irish Volunteers in 1916, it escaped the destruction that devastated the city centre. It wasn’t so lucky six years later, when it was occupied by Republican Forces opposed to the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and destroyed on 30 June 1922 in a massive explosion that rocked the city and saw the start of a bloody civil war.  It was also home to the Public Record Office, and this burned fragment of a 1737 tax roll from Askeaton, Co. Limerick, was presumably picked up on the streets afterwards, and donated to the museum in 1937.

 

 

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On 6 December 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, bringing an end to the War of Independence and establishing the Irish Free State, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. Opinion within Sinn Fein was immediately split, with the pro-treaty members believing this to be a step towards a fully independent state in a situation where continuing the war with England would lead to complete defeat, and anti-treaty members viewing the terms, which included retaining the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown and the separation of Northern Ireland from the south, as unacceptable.  Tensions grew, and on 16 April 1922 about 200 men under the command of Rory O’Connor occupied the Four Courts in the hopes of creating a situation which would make the Treaty unviable and restart the fight for an all-Ireland Republic. From there high profile assassinations and kidnappings were carried out, including the murder of Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson on 22 June.

The pro-treaty candidates won the majority vote in the 1922 general election, and formed a Provisional Government led by Michael Collins.  Under increasing pressure from Britain to crush the rebels, the Free State forces received two 18 pounder artillery guns and other weapons and set up a cordon around the Four Courts area. At 4.07 in the morning of Wednesday 28 June the shelling of the building began from across the Liffey, now officially seen as the beginning of the Civil War. Dan Breen, a member of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade and author of ‘My Fight for Irish Freedom’ wrote that the headlines in the British newspapers the following morning read ‘Collins shells the rebels; Collins makes good’.

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Two days into the fighting there was a large explosion in the western end of the complex, destroying it and the large central dome of the Courts.  The western block housed the Public Record Office, and was used by the Republican forces to store munitions. This explosion led to the eventual evacuation and surrender of the garrison.

Patrick Kelly, a Lieutenant in the anti-treaty I.R.A. describes the moment of the explosion from his position around the Capel Street area in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History. ‘At this point there was a terrific explosion and a column of smoke and flame shot several hundred feet in the air. The Four Courts had blown up. The explosion shattered windows all around us and debris of all sorts fell into the street’.

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Cumann na mBan had also splintered over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, when it adopted a new constitution taking an anti-treaty stance in 1922. Officer Annie O’Brien remained with the anti-treaty faction, and was staying with friends in Kildare when news of the fighting in Dublin reached her. She made her way back, determined to take up her position at a First Aid post. She describes coming down Winetavern Street and watching a Free State soldier loading a shell into an 18 pounder gun, who then ordered them out of the danger zone. ‘We went down along the south quays as far as the Metal Bridge, but it was manned also. Just then the shell was fired at the Four Courts and we saw the dome collapse and our hearts nearly collapsed too when we thought of all our friends there. We saw a shower of papers rising from the building. We thought none of the garrison could have survived. The shop where we were standing shook from the terrific blast’.

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Geraldine O’Donell, the proprietress of O’Donell’s Nursing Home on Eccles Street was inside the Four Courts caring for the wounded when the explosion occurred. She reported that from quite early in the fight the garrison were tunnelling an escape route, fearing they would be trapped, and that just as the tunnel was practically finished the explosion took place that destroyed the dome. She speculated that it was caused by a shell that touched off the ammunition stored there.

 

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It is unclear what actually caused the explosion. Reports vary from the building’s fires reaching the store of explosives, a Free State shell hitting the store, and the rumour that the Republican forces deliberately mined the area. We will probably never know the exact cause, but we know that nearly a thousand years of irreplaceable Irish archives were lost on this day as they burned and scattered across the city. 18th and 19th century census records, court records, military, parish and legal records which would have been such an important resource for historians, researchers and other members of the public will now never be studied.  Ernie O’Malley, in his book ‘The Singing Flame’, describes seeing ‘leaves of white paper; they looked like hovering white birds’.  This fragment of a tax roll from Askeaton was one of those leaves of white paper, and its partial remains give us a hint of what was lost in the mere seconds of the explosion that destroyed the Four Courts that day.

 

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