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Irish Civil War War of Independence

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. 

Categories
Irish Civil War Irish Women War of Independence

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.