Nun’s Veil; Liam Mellows ‘on the run’, 1916 Rising

Veil used to Liam Mellows to escape Ireland, 1916 (NMI Collection EW.1108)

The Rising of Easter week 1916 came to an end on Saturday 29th April when Patrick Pearse led the official surrender of the Irish rebels to Brigadier General Lowe. The leaders of the Dublin garrisons each in turn surrendered as the news was brought to them over the next couple of days. The rank and file Volunteers had another option; to disappear back into their communities and continue to fight for independence. They would have had to have laid low, knowing that as they had been drilling (many in uniform) in public since 1914, they could be easily recognized by the authorities as an Irish Volunteer or Irish Citizen Army member. For some going ‘on the run’ was the only option. Liam Mellows, the leader of the Rising in Galway, was one such man.

This piece of black gossamer cloth fashioned into a veil, was worn by him as he escaped to England after some months on the run in Ireland. He was accompanied by Pauline Barry, and both travelled disguised as nuns.  It was donated to the National Museum of Ireland in 1941 by Sr Lelia MacKenna.

Though the 1916 Rising is remembered mostly as a Dublin event, it was intended by its planners to be countrywide. Branches of the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan in towns and cities such as Cork, Enniscorthy, Limerick and Galway planned the insurrection with the Dublin leaders and awaited the arrival of weapons and ammunition into Ireland and for the final commanding orders to proceed with their plans. Those 20,000 weapons, organized by Roger Casement to come from Germany on the SS Aud, failed to reach Ireland when the ship was intercepted by the British Navy on 20th April. This was to be a major factor in the failure of the Rising.

Roger Casement and Crew of U19, Kerry, April 1916

The order to start the rebellion was quickly followed by Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order on Saturday 22nd April. This confusion led to many Volunteers not turning out, or being unsure of what action to take. Outside Dublin, by the time couriers reached them with the news that the Rising had started in the capital the regional police and army had already been alerted, making action impossible. Because of this, armed insurrection took place in only a handful of areas outside Dublin; to the north Louth, Meath and Ashbourne saw fighting, and the Volunteers proceeded with the Rising in Enniscorthy and Galway.

In Galway about 2,000 men had joined the ranks of the Irish Volunteers which had been organized by Liam Mellows since March 1915. It drew much of its membership from the strong IRB movement in the area, led by Tom Kenny, which had its root in the region’s large agrarian community. Mellows had been arrested in Tullamore and deported to Reading Jail in March 1916, and Laurence Lardner was commanding the battalion in his absence. However, he escaped, arriving back in Ireland disguised as a priest on Easter Monday.

Early that morning the Galway Volunteers received news that the rising had been called off, only to be followed later that day with a message from Pearse that the rising had started in Dublin and the Volunteers were to proceed with their plans – to occupy police barracks and send men to Tralee to collect arms; a redundant task considering the arms had not landed. Many of the Volunteers that had gathered now dispersed, lessening their numbers, though others continued, attacking police barracks in Clarenbridge, Oranmore and Gort on Tuesday. On Wednesday a group of Volunteers came face to face with the Royal Irish Constabulary at Carnmore Crossroads. Shots were exchanged, and Patrick Whelan, aged 34, an RIC Constable with 8 and a half years of service, was killed in the confrontation.

The now 500 strong group of Volunteers under Mellows’ command gathered in Athenry, armed with a small number of rifles with about 30 rounds of ammunition each, old shotguns and other weapons. This lack of arms and ammunition ensured no further attacks could happen and they began retreating further to defensive positions. While camped at the abandoned big house at Lime Park rumours of a large oncoming military forces began to circulate, and the Volunteers finally disbanded at Moyode on Saturday.

Liam Mellows Irish Volunteer tunic, given to Pauline Barry as a token of thanks for her help in his escape (NMI Collection)

Most of the rank and file rebels were arrested and deported to English jails and Frongoch the following week. Laurence Lardner went into hiding in Belfast, Tom Kenny travelled to Boston and Mellows, along with two of his officers – Alfie Monaghan and Frank Hynes – decided to try to return to Dublin via Limerick. They were on the run for the next five months, escaping over the mountains of Derrybrian and into the mountains of Co. Clare.

Sean McNamara of Crusheen, Co. Clare described these months for Mellows, Monaghan and Hynes in his witness statement. Michael Maloney discovered the three men on his land in the Knockjames area and, being himself a member of the IRB and Irish Volunteers, brought them to a hut on the land and supplied them with food. He told McNamara as his commanding officer, who began to collect funds to support them, including over £100 from the Daly Family in Limerick. The men spent five months in the Knockjames mountains hut, and McNamara describes this time almost fondly – ‘Liam had his violin , there were visitors, music and songs, often a wrestling bout and always the Rosary in Irish led by Liam’. In October Volunteer Michael Fogarty brought the order from GHQ Dublin that Mellows should go to America. McNamara was to accompany Mellows to the house of Fr Michael Crowe, the parish priest of Kinvara, who had procured two nun’s habits which were to be used by Mellows and Miss Pauline Barry of Gort as a disguise. McNamara leaves them with Fr Crowe, who later reported that the two ‘nuns’ had attended mass at 6.30am the next morning, describing Mellows as ‘the most perfect nun in appearance that I ever saw’.

They then travelled as a group – Fr Crowe, Bluebell Powell dressed as a novice and the two nuns – by car to Cork, calling at hotels and convents along the way, Mellows’ disguise holding throughout the day.

Veil used to Liam Mellows to escape Ireland, 1916 (NMI Collection EW.1108)

Mellows travelled in this disguise from Cork to Liverpool, and made his way to the house of Republican Peter Murphy. Murphy worked for the Liverpool and Mersey District Shipping Federation, an Employers Association, and, along with his assistant, he began making arrangements to get Mellows onto a ship to New York. Mellows stayed in this house in Liverpool for two weeks. Nellie Gifford-Donnelly, one of the founding members of the Irish Citizen Army and a combatant in the College of Surgeons during the Rising, was also on the run there, waiting to get to America on a false passport.

Nellie Gifford-Donnelly

Murphy arranged for Mellows to sail as a coal trimmer under the name of John Atheridge on a tramp steamer. Nellie helped disguise Liam by dying his hair, and he joined a ship which sailed first to Barbados and then New York, arriving after 6 weeks at sea. During that journey Mellows had risen to the position of Leading Stoker before the ship reached New York in about December 1916.

Sketch of Liam Mellows disguised as a ship's stoker, dated 19 December 1916 (NMI Collection)

Mellows began work with John Devoy on the Gaelic American newspaper, but was soon arrested by the US authorities and imprisoned in the Manhattan Detention Complex in New York, charged with aiding the German enemy. He was released in 1918, and continued to tour the US, speaking for the Republican cause, and helped organize Eamon de Valera’s fundraising trip to America in 1919-20. On his return to Ireland he continued activity through the War of Independence and opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. He was one of the 77 men officially executed by the Irish Free State Forces, being shot on the morning of 8 December 1922, aged 30.

Liam Mellows, disguised, c. 1920 (NMI Collection)

It is sometimes difficult to square this strange relic with Liam Mellows. There is no denying that there is an element of humour to this story, which is not normally associated with the Liam Mellows we are presented with. Images of him show a young man with a serious demeanor. It is evident in his face that he is an intelligent and understated man. We know that he was able, determined, dedicated to his beliefs, and clearly very hard working. From a young age he was held in very high regard by Thomas Clarke and James Connolly, and was entrusted with the task of mobilizing the west of Ireland. He earned the trust and respect of the men he led. He would of course have been aware in his months in hiding and during his escape that his capture could very likely lead to his death. But I can’t help but wonder if, when handed this black veil to wear, he raised a smile, or perhaps an eyebrow.

Liam Mellows in disguise with Alfie Monahan on his right, Father Sweetman with Sean Etchingham behind (NMI Collection)

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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.