My mother was born in 1897 and my father in 1893. They were teenagers together in the small village of Caltra in East Galway in the West of Ireland – she was nineteen and he twenty-three when Dublin erupted with the Easter Rebellion and Ireland began its War of Independence.
My Irish generation is the last one to have experienced that period of revolution and civil war not as history but through memory. I don’t mean that we can remember the period because that would be impossible, but we experienced it through the memories of our parents and the stories they told us as children.
As young nationalists my mother and father joined Sinn Féin and the Gaelic League in their village under the guidance of the local priest. Sinn Féin was a radical independence movement linked to the IRA, while the Gaelic League promoted Irish culture and the revival of the Irish language. In 1917 a unit of the IRA was formed in the area and my father became its commanding officer. At the same time my mother joined Cumann na mBan, the women’s ancillary group of the IRA, members of which gave backup help to the armed volunteers.
Both were involved in the violent campaign that followed. My father was the leader in an attack upon a convoy of the Royal Irish Constabulary, the Crown police force, in July 1920, in which two police officers were seriously injured. There followed a period of further attacks and reprisals in the area by British forces and its notorious assault units known as the Black and Tans.
In one such assault on the village of Caltra, my mother’s family pub was invaded by the Black and Tans. The family story told how her own mother, my grandmother, stood her ground in black widow’s weeds and silver grey hair behind the counter while the drunken military shot the bottles on the shelves over her head. The stern old lady I remember from my childhood would have been well capable of such defiance.
When martial law was declared in the Caltra area in November 1920, my father was rounded up in the general sweep of the countryside and was placed in different detention centres in County Galway. In early May 1921 he and five others were tried before a military court for the shooting of two policemen. The prosecution relied upon the evidence of an IRA man who had changed sides and gave evidence against his old comrades. In later years, my father expressed compassion for this man who, he said, had been tortured to the point of mental breakdown. He also said later that the British military officers of the court were both ‘fair and efficient’. He and his comrades were convicted and sentenced to penal servitude for life.
The odd thing is that, later that same month, he and my mother were married in the old pro-cathedral of Galway city. Was he allowed out of prison to be married? Certainly, after the wedding he was back in Galway Jail again and wasn’t released until January 1922 as part of the general amnesty that followed the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty between the British and the leaders of the newly formed Irish Free State Government.
While my father was still in prison another incident took place that nearly caused his death. Although the treaty between the British and the Irish had already been signed, he was still a prisoner when, in November 1921, six months after his wedding, he was one of the ring-leaders in a violent attempt to burn down Galway Jail from the inside. Why did they do it? Surely the prisoners must have known that they would soon be released under the treaty? Perhaps it was a last display of defiance against the British authorities. According to my father the fire was a protest against the maltreatment of a fellow prisoner named Crowley who was not given the medical attention he needed. Crowley was a barrister and a judge in the underground judicial system devised by Sinn Féin – as such he would have been a prime target of the British.
Six revolvers were smuggled into the prison and warders were overpowered as they attempted to open the cells during the daily routine. Five wings of the prison were set ablaze. The military forces, regular units and both Black and Tans and Auxiliaries moved in to surround the prison. Inside, the prisoners sang rebel songs and a battle for control of the prison followed.
The local newspaper, the Connacht Tribune, carried an exciting report of the incident: ‘Dramatic Protest. Political prisoners set fire to Galway Jail. How a captured warder gave the alarm. Ten prisoners and some police injured.’
My father was named in the newspaper as among the injured and was listed as ‘Thomas Kilroy, camp commandant’. In the press account he was given bravura treatment, like a character out of a play by John Millington Synge.
Kilroy, who is suffering a life sentence on a charge arising out of the Caltra ambush got two severe baton blows on the head, and is alleged to have been kicked in the stomach. He was almost unconscious when taken to the hospital but after his wounds had been attended to, he rose up in the bed and declared, ‘We got beaten to save the life of Diarmuid Crowley, but we would have suffered death had it been necessary to release him.’
Years later, my father collapsed on a street in Callan in County Kilkenny, where he served as a policeman. He was rushed to surgery for a strangulated hernia. He always claimed that this was a legacy of the beating that he got in Galway Jail.
Reading through the complete Galway newspaper of the day conveys the surreal atmosphere of the revolutionary period and the lack of clear lines in the narrative, the kind of confusion that attends revolution everywhere.
In the newspaper, reports of relentless ambushes and killings of police and military throughout the countryside are placed side by side with the results of games from the local golf links. Masked men drag out victims from their homes on a nightly basis and shoot them while the well-named local theatres, the Empire and the Victoria, continue to do brisk business in comedies and farces. A ‘buy Irish’ campaign sits uneasily on the page near reports of the more lethal activity of Irish nationalism. Most unnervingly of all, perhaps, Éamon de Valera, the republican leader, is received at the local university in Galway as the new chancellor of the National University of Ireland in the very same week as the jail fire. At the same time as his formal reception by the university, his own rebel soldiers were struggling for their lives in a prison yards away, across the road from the campus.
This was the confused and highly personalized version of the foundation of the Irish state that we grew up with as children. My mother spoke less about it than my father, even though, despite his record as a gunman, she was always the more radical republican of the two.
Nearly thirty years later, in 1948, I had my first sight of de Valera, then the Prime Minister or Taoiseach of the Irish state. I was thirteen years old and it was during that year’s general election campaign, a winter with some of the most severe weather of my childhood, that de Valera came to speak in Callan. The story in Callan was that he was met outside the town on the Kilkenny Road and put on a white horse with a green cloak around his shoulders. In this imitation of the triumphal parade of an ancient Gaelic chieftain, de Valera made his entrance to the meeting place in the town centre. A stone staircase ran up the outside wall to a doorway high above (as it still does today), and it was from this doorway that de Valera addressed the crowd below him on Green Street.
I was in that crowd. I believe my father ensured that some of us children were brought out that night so that we might experience that speech, his way of educating his children in politics. Like many people of their generation, our parents loved oratory and, particularly after a drink or two, my father would quote extracts to us children from some of the great speeches he had heard.
What was the appeal of de Valera to the Irish? A thin, gawky, gaunt figure, he had little obvious appeal in his person. More than that, his voice was a deadly monotone, with a high pitch. There was little ornamentation, or even, elevation, in his use of language. Yet I can still remember the tension in that crowd on that miserably cold night. Not for the last time in my life I was made to wonder at the power of performance and the way in which it can sometimes create effects that seem beyond nature itself. A performance begins and what was a nondescript figure suddenly becomes transformed in electrifying fashion before our eyes. This was de Valera in action.
Back home, after the meeting, there was a family row. For me, the most memorable description of how Irish politics disrupts the domestic scene is Joyce’s Christmas dinner in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man – in this scene, based on Joyce’s own childhood, Christmas dinner becomes dominated by a huge argument about the toxic mix of religion, sexuality, politics and the fate of Charles Stewart Parnell, the great nationalist leader of the Irish people in the nineteenth century, who had become involved with a married woman. We had a version of the same fight in our kitchen, on a much smaller scale and without the sex. My father was in one corner and my mother, white-faced and barely controlled, in another. He poured scorn on de Valera, his lip curling in derision. In spite of bringing us to hear Dev speak at the meeting, he now called him the great destroyer of peace in Ireland, the man responsible, above all others, for the Civil War. Didn’t he stay at home and send others to London to negotiate the treaty? And then he rejected the agreement that was made, turning the Irish against one another in mortal combat!
Mother chanted a different story. Mr de Valera stood up to the English! Mr de Valera wouldn’t give in! He wouldn’t settle for less than the republic! Mr de Valera wouldn’t accept the partition of the country then and he doesn’t accept it now, either! Didn’t Mr de Valera give Churchill his answer on the wireless after the war? Wasn’t the whole world lost in admiration of Mr de Valera and it was only his own who rejected him?
I don’t remember how the argument ended but de Valera lost the general election. The argument has remained with me as an early experience of my mother’s republicanism.
Down the years the Irish nationalist cause became notorious because of its splits. Each attempted settlement with the British was calculated to cause a split on the Irish side, hiving off a minority determined to continue the fight for a purer, more idealistic goal. The same is true today with the splinter, dissident IRA groups, refusing to compromise and still fighting for the cause.
The story of my parents was the story of the new state struggling to exist after the trauma of civil war. My father supported the treaty side in the Irish Civil War under the influence of Michael Collins and his young Minister for Justice, Kevin O’Higgins. All the evidence is that my mother’s sympathies were with the other, extreme republican side.
After father’s release from Galway Jail in 1922, he was approached personally by the two men, Michael Staines and Joe Ring, whom Collins had picked to help establish and lead the new, unarmed Irish police force. They asked him to join and to use his influence to bring old comrades from the IRA with him into the new force. He said that at first he laughed at the idea, as someone who had recently been sentenced to life imprisonment for shooting at the police. But he was persuaded and left for Dublin with twenty others from the Galway area.
That night they were given their first test of allegiance in a Dublin hotel. Members of the IRA who were against the treaty came to their rooms. In a mixture of threats and persuasion their old comrades tried to get them to go home. However, they stayed and were some of the first, new police recruits.
When he was moved with the first couple of thousand recruits to the old British military barracks in Kildare, my mother joined him. I don’t know what she felt about the new political situation but I do remember her telling us as children about the beautiful married quarters in the camp that were lavishly laid out for their former occupants, British army officers. Coming from the village of Caltra and the small cramped houses there, this would have been her first introduction to something like luxury.
The big issue in the new police force, apart from the fact that the country was moving rapidly towards civil war, was the question of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Members of the old RIC were being drafted into the new police force. Some of these RIC men had shown sympathy for the Irish nationalist cause during the War of Independence and, accordingly, were acceptable to the new recruits from the IRA. But others were offered by the British to help train the new force and set up its structures. It is clear that Collins welcomed this offer of professional help, as he accepted artillery from the British later on to fight the civil war. But this imposition of old enemies, often at senior rank, was deeply resented by former IRA men who a short time before were engaged in an armed struggle against them and, in my father’s case, had actually shot them.
One of the first things he did in the new garda camp in Kildare, hardly in keeping with his recent oath of allegiance to the state, was to join a secret committee of former IRA men to monitor proceedings in the interest of the IRA. This secret committee became an important influence on the so-called Kildare Mutiny which followed. A rebellion took place among the former IRA volunteers against the promotion of ex-RIC men to senior positions in the new force.
So serious was this mutiny that it almost led to the first shots being fired in the civil war. My father was in the group of former IRA men who took guns from the camp armory one night. Armed, they approached the RIC officers who were involved and threatened to shoot them if they didn’t leave the camp at once. They left, along with other senior officers. It looked at one point as if the main body of recruits would now join the growing rebellion against the treaty and the new government. This did not happen – the mutiny failed. The senior officers were restored to office and the rebels were obliged to accept in their ranks the presence of at least some of the RIC men. This deal was achieved largely through the power and persuasion of Michael Collins and Kevin O’Higgins. Their persuasion had an immense effect upon my father.
The situation in Kildare had become so dangerous that Collins missed an important meeting in London and came down from Dublin to address the rebellious police recruits in the camp. His speech to them, like the later speech of O’Higgins, was about police duty, the rule of law and the fundamentals of democracy. Its impact upon my father marked his final passage from young gunman to unarmed police officer. They would be the first Irish policemen, Collins told them, who would enjoy the support of the people.
You will start off with the good will of the people . . . You will be their guardians, not their oppressors, your authority will be derived from the people, not from their enemies.
These words of Collins were recited by my father in our kitchen in Callan to us children while my mother made the odd sceptical remark on the sidelines. I think what really impressed my father was how Collins went from being a ruthless gunman to a constitutional politician in a remarkably short period of time.
The other speech he liked to recite was by Kevin O’Higgins. As Minister for Justice in the new government, O’Higgins was responsible for the board of inquiry set up to investigate the Kildare Mutiny. My father gave evidence before it. He told the members of the board, including O’Higgins, that he found it difficult to accept even those RIC men who had shown allegiance to the nationalist cause. In his words, being under the command of ex-RIC men was ‘very hard on ordinary men to understand’.
The speech of O’Higgins, which he remembered so vividly, came later, in 1927. The Irish Civil War was over by then but the new state still had immense difficulties and found itself unable to pay its police force. My father was chosen as a delegate from County Kilkenny to attend a meeting in Dublin to protest against the pay cuts. O’Higgins, still Minister for Justice, spoke at the meeting to persuade the men of the importance of putting allegiance to the state and the rule of law above personal considerations:
You must realize that party will follow party in the ebb and flow of the political tide. You must serve with the same imperturbable discipline any Executive that may from time to time be in power.
Within a matter of months from his speech, Collins was assassinated in an ambush in County Cork and O’Higgins was shot dead on a Dublin street as he walked to church. Both of these killings increased my father’s belief in the law and this, in turn, influenced his children: two of my brothers became lawyers. I am not sure, however, that my mother shared the same beliefs, and while I have always been fascinated by law and authority, I think I derive my rebelliousness from her.
As a young married couple without children my mother and father arrived to his first police posting in County Kilkenny in late October 1922. In the ten months of that year Ireland passed through enough history to fill decades. It had signed a treaty with London, ending the rebellion against the British Crown Forces and bringing to an end the British control of Southern Ireland. It had succeeded in having an election which ratified these arrangements. It had a new provisional government that eventually became secure. There was some success in setting up governing structures in a country that was also moving rapidly towards civil war. A new national army came into being, built around those IRA volunteers who remained loyal to the new state and, of course, there was the establishment of the new police force. The IRA had split on the issue of the treaty. When my father arrived at his new station, with eight or nine fellow officers, the civil war was at its height between anti-treaty and pro-treaty forces.
He described Callan at the time as like a frontier town of the Wild West. Within ten days of the arrival of the new policemen in the town, the police station was attacked by masked men and an attempt was made to burn it down. Perhaps my father’s sense of being on the frontier was increased by the fact that, as sergeant, he was issued with a long-barrelled Webley revolver and twelve rounds of ammunition. This was, technically, for the shooting of wild dogs, but there is little doubt that it also reflected the dangerous times.
Callan was frontier territory in another sense. It was near the border of counties Kilkenny and Tipperary and the lively competition over hurling matches I observed later in my life was of a more lethal kind during the civil war. The Callan area itself was of mixed allegiance with both pro- and anti-treaty families prominent in the community, but Tipperary was one of the principal centres of armed resistance to the treaty. The leader of the anti-treaty forces, Liam Lynch, was to make his last stand there in the Knockmealdown Mountains, not far from Callan.
In November 1922, the first garda was shot dead in the history of the new state. Harry Phelan was a young man from my father’s barracks in Callan. Phelan and two other guards had asked for permission to go to the nearby Tipperary village of Mullinahone to buy a hurling ball. My father agreed, provided that they did not wear their garda uniforms. The three were in a pub after their mission when three anti-treaty IRA men rushed in, one pointing a gun. My father always claimed that the gun was faulty and that it went off accidentally, killing Phelan. The killer, a local man called Coady, was smuggled out of the country and killed shortly afterwards in a New York traffic accident.
The civil war had by now reverted to guerilla attacks by anti-treaty units of the IRA under Liam Lynch, the so-called Irregulars. They were led by individuals who had become extremely skillful guerilla fighters during their campaign against the British, and were attacking representatives of the new state, especially its police. While there was a command structure in place under Lynch, in practice the Irregulars operated as independent, local units – everything depended upon the ingenuity of the local commanders. The two most famous of these in Tipperary were Dan Breen and Dinny Lacey.
A month after the killing of the policeman, Callan was taken by the combined units of Breen and Lacy. The daring attack involved three Kilkenny towns in all – in each town the local garrison of the National Army surrendered without a fight and many of the soldiers changed sides, joining the men from Tipperary. It was so serious a set-back for the Irish Government that it caused disquiet in London and reached the pages of The Times.
My father gave two accounts of what happened in Callan, one written and one in the form of his repeated stories to us children, and anyone else who would listen, in our family home. I am following the oral version, partly because of its dramatic flair and partly because it reflects the frontier atmosphere and gives the story a High Noon moment.
Lacey and Breen entered the town from the Clonmel Road and the direction of Mullinahone, where the young policeman had been shot. The two guerilla leaders were contrasting types. Lacey was thin, ascetic, cold, intellectual-looking and had an extraordinary reputation as a ruthless fighter. Breen was heavy, jocular, swarthy with bushy black hair and a quick grin. Both of them wore officer uniforms of the IRA.
The Free State troops occupied the old workhouse at the edge of the town, and with the arrival of the Irregulars the commanding officers immediately surrendered. Those who didn’t change sides on the spot were disarmed and marched down the main street of the town and lined up at the cross. By now the townspeople had crept out of their houses and formed an audience for this demonstration of power and humiliation. Outposts in the town manned by other Free State troops were also taken over and the captured men were given the same treatment. Then it was the turn of the gardai – they were also lined up on the street before the watching townspeople.
My father was at home with my mother, reading the newspaper, when armed men banged on the door. He was taken to the cross and lined up with his fellow police officers. Lacey addressed them, telling them that the anti-treaty forces had taken over much of the country and that the Irish Free State was finished. He said they could now join the republican fight or face the consequences. Then he walked from policeman to policeman and asked the same question of each of them: ‘Name and rank?’ For some reason the question was immediately understood and decoded by each man who answered by giving his name and his rank in the IRA in the late War of Independence against the British. Fortunately, each one had such a record. Lacey said, simply, ‘Dismiss, men!’ The policemen walked away, free.
If there had been any hesitation, if someone had been in the RIC, for instance, my father was convinced that Lacey would have shot him. He also told how Breen took him, personally, to one side and spent some time trying to persuade him to take off the police uniform and rejoin his comrades in the fight for the republic. He declined and talked about his oath of allegiance to serve the people in an unarmed, non-sectarian police force, echoing the speech of Collins and anticipating that of O’Higgins.
I don’t know where my mother was during all of this but I can imagine her accosting the Irregulars, pouring out her respectable record of republicanism to them and demanding the immediate release of her husband. I can also imagine her terror.
Lacey was shot dead early the following year in his native Tipperary in an ambush by Free State troops. His death was one of the events that helped to bring the Civil War to an end. Breen was captured alive, lived on, becoming a constitutional politician and writing a well-known book with the indicative title, My Fight for Irish Freedom. It was said he could never pass through a metal detector because of the bullets still in his body. Back on that day in Callan, Lacey was thirty-two years old, Breen twenty-eight and my father was twenty-nine. Like most wars, this was a war of the young.
Photograph © Eric Gilliland