The trial and execution of Roger Casement

Sir John Lavery’s painting of the treason trial of Sir Roger Casement

After the execution of the two surviving signatories of the 1916 Proclamation (James Connolly and Sean McDermott) on 12 May the Crown had one final score to settle with the leadership of the rising. Sir Roger Casement, career diplomat, humanitarian and British civil servant, had been the first of the leaders of the rising to be arrested. He was the last to be tried and executed. 

The Asquith government had initially decided that he would be quickly court-martialled and shot. But, informed by the strong negative reaction to the executions in Dublin the Government began to be attracted to the idea of civil trial for treason. A form of ‘show trial’ in which ‘justice would be seen to be done’. The attraction was one of rehabilitation. Some of the international criticism drawn down on the heads of the Asquith government for the methods used to deal with the leaders of the rising (a system amounting to virtual drumhead courts martial) could be deflected by a robust and open prosecution of Casement. 

There was, however, an unfortunate corollary embedded in the governmental logic. Their forum for the ex post facto validation of General Sir John Maxwell and the Dublin executions, would also become Casement’s platform for the justification of the rising and the lionization of its leaders. If they had looked back to the trial of Robert Emmet in Dublin in 1803 they could have been forewarned. Just because the result of both was a foregone conclusion did not mean they would not have to share the propaganda value of a public trial process.    


Casement’s defence was organized by George Gavan Duffy. Duffy was a successful London solicitor, the son of the Young Ireland leader, Charles Gavan Duffy. The Casement trial would prompt him to abandon his London legal practice and become a Sinn Fein MP in 1918. Gavan Duffy, with some difficulty, managed to engage the services of Serjeant A.M.Sullivan (the son of the former owner of the Nation newspaper, A.M.Sullivan) to defend Casement. No senior British-based barrister would take the brief.

Sullivan was a Crown law officer in Ireland but had been called to the English Bar and was, therefore, entitled to plead at the Old Bailey. Casement’s desire was to conduct a defence based on an acceptance of the facts of the case. However, he would emphatically deny that he was guilty of treason on foot of those facts. His contention would be that his loyalty was to an Irish republic not to the English Crown.  

Sullivan, however, persuaded, or browbeat, his client into a more reductive line of defence. Casement was to be tried under the same treason statute—of the medieval King Edward III—as Robert Emmet had been. 

This held that the crime of treason had been committed ‘if a man be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm’. Sullivan would contend that Casement, in his dealings with the Germans, had not threatened the King in his own realm. There was a hopeful precedent in the case of Colonel Arthur Lynch. Lynch had been a leader of the Irish Brigade during the Boer War. A similar defence had been entered in his case but he had been convicted and sentenced to death. Lynch, however, had been reprieved. Sullivan was hoping for similar treatment for Casement.  

But there was another reason for acceding to Sullivan’s insistence that his line of defence be adopted. Casement, famously, had recorded many of his homosexual exploits in a series of notebooks. These were in the possession of the prosecution. Adopting Sullivan’s defence strategy, a plea based on a technicality and on legal argument, would not allow the prosecution to introduce the diaries in evidence. Prodigious use was made of the ‘Black Diaries’ covertly, both before and after the trial, but they were not produced in the Old Bailey. However, much like Robert Emmet’s letters to Sarah Curran in 1803 they were allowed to hang in the air above the proceedings. In the case of Emmet the threat was that Sarah Curran would be prosecuted if he challenged the Crown’s evidence against him.   

Casement’s trial opened on 26 June. Leading for the Prosecution was Sir Frederick Smith (formerly F.E. Smith) successor to Sir Edward Carson as Attorney General. 

Witnesses were called who had been prisoners of war in the German camps from which Casement had hoped to recruit his Irish Brigade. All identified him but also acknowledged that they had been told that they would not be fighting for Germany but for Ireland. A number of witnesses identified Casement as having landed on Banna Strand. 

After the prosecution case concluded Sullivan rose to enter a motion to have the indictment quashed. He argued that the allegation of treason was bad in law and that in order to secure a conviction it was essential that Casement should have been in the King’s realm when he attempted to persuade the Irish POWs to change allegiance.

The judges ruled otherwise. They held that a treasonable offence committed by one of His Majesty’s subjects was liable to trial under Common Law wherever that offence was committed. Sullivan’s strategy, unpromising from the outset, was now in tatters. 

Sullivan’s address to the jury, in the light of the failure of his own defence strategy, now pivoted towards the defence originally advocated by his client, i.e. that he owed his loyalty to an Irish Republic and not the British Crown, so that he could not be guilty of treason. 

In his own concluding remarks F.E.Smith reiterated the Crown’s allegation that ‘German gold’ was behind the rebellion [already denied by both Pearse and Casement] and concluded: 

If those facts taken together, his journey to Germany, his speeches when in Germany, the inducements he held out to these soldiers, the freedom which he there enjoyed, the cause which he pursued in Ireland . . . satisfy you of his guilt, you must give expression to that view in your verdict.

The direction by the Lord Chief Justice [Rufus Isaacs, Lord Reading] to the jury left them with little alternative but to convict Casement. The jury took less than an hour to find Casement guilty of treason.

Casement now took advantage of the opportunity that had been denied Pearse, MacDonagh and Connolly and the other leaders of the rebellion, to offer an explanation of the objectives of the leadership of the Easter rising. His peroration was, arguably, the finest republican valedictory since that of Emmet more than a century before. He concluded …

Ireland is treated today among the nations of the world as if she were a convicted criminal. If it be treason to fight against such an unnatural fate as this, then I am proud to be a rebel, and shall cling to my “rebellion” with the last drop of my blood. 

A failed appeal delayed Casement’s execution and allowed a head of steam to build up behind a campaign to have him reprieved. It was during this period that tactical use was made of the Black Diaries in order to influence newspaper coverage against Casement and dampen the enthusiasm of actual and potential supporters (such as John Redmond and George Bernard Shaw)

Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison on 3 August, 1916. As with the other leaders of the Easter rising, his body was buried in quicklime in the prison cemetery. In 1965, a year before the country commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the rising, Casment’s body was repatriated and interred in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin. He was afforded a state funeral that was attended by President Eamon de Valera, the last surviving commandant of Easter Week. 

Trump can’t hack a postal ballot – but, then again, neither can Russia.

To post or not to post?

There’s a moment in the Orson Welles classic film Citizen Kane when the main character, Charles Foster Kane— based on the newspaper and business tycoon William Randolph Hearst—is running for election as governor of New York. The editor of his New York daily has prepared two early editions, one of which will appear the morning after the result of the election is announced. One reads ‘KANE ELECTED’ the other reads ‘FRAUD AT THE POLLS’. With a long face he is forced to go with the latter when Kane loses (so did Hearst, in 1906). 

It appears from his tweet today—the one about the possibility of postponing the November Presidential election, not the 87 other ones—(this was written before midnight so that figure might no longer be accurate!)—that President Donald J. Trump is of a similar mindset. Either he will defeat Joe Biden in November, or he will have been the victim of massive electoral fraud, most of it coming via mail ballots.

So, what does history tell us about a) the postponement of a US Presidential election and b) US electoral fraud.

The first thing to be reiterated is that the President cannot release his inner spider yet again and sign another Executive Order to postpone/cancel/exclude/deport/pardon a Presidential election. He may be able to rename Mars as Planet Trump (I’m not sure if that actually happened but I saw it on Twitter) but according to Article 2 Clause 4 of something called the United States Constitution (apparently we have one too, but the UK hasn’t gotten around to it yet) … 

‘The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.’

Americans seem to have adopted the standardised spelling of ‘choosing’ since the 18th century, so it’s probably only a matter of time before they overcome their loathing of the letter ‘U’ and begin to spell ‘labour’ ‘flavour’ and ‘savour’ properly as well. 

As to the date, the American election has not always taken place on the first Tuesday after the 1 November. That practice began on 7 November 1848  when the USA staged the first national election that was held on the same day in every state. Zachary Taylor became President. (Me neither!) The 1848 election date was based on a snappily titled 1845 law – ‘An act to establish a uniform time for holding elections of electors of President and Vice President in all the states of the Union’ which did exactly what it said on the tin and settled on ‘the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November’. That is the way it was been ever since.  

Any change would require an amendment to that act, approved by both Houses of Congress. To the Democrats, who have a majority in the House of  Representatives, it is an non-runner, dead duck, non-starter, ‘just ain’t gonna happen’ –  and even Republicans in the Senate have no stomach for such a move. Trump Enabler in Chief, Mitch McConnell has described the date as ‘set in stone’[1]

And even if it was postponed when would the USA go for a reset? No election (bar the first in 1788) has failed to take place in the final full year of a presidential term. This is not the Olympic games. Any postponement beyond the end of December would require a constitutional amendment. This would have to be ratified by 38 of 50 states!  If you’ve been watching Mrs. America on the BBC you’ll have some idea how difficult it is to pass a constitutional amendment. (Spoiler Alert – I’ve probably just given away the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment was never enshrined in the US Constitution. Oops! Sorry).  

And it’s not as if American Presidential elections haven’t gone ahead in spite of a few minor difficulties!

In 1812 James Madison and DeWitt Clinton had to face the electorate despite the USA being in the middle of a war with their former colonisers, the British. In 1864 Abraham Lincoln had to fight an election against one of his former Generals, George McClellan even though the Civil War was still raging.

Lincoln and McClellan in more convivial times

According to Michael Burlingame, Professor emeritus of History, Connecticut College:

‘No other democratic nation had ever conducted a national election during times of war. And while there was some talk of postponing the election, it was never given serious consideration, even when Lincoln thought that he would lose.’[2]  Lincoln’s chances weren’t helped by a rebellion in his own party that threw up a charismatic third candidate in John C. Fremont. But the Lincoln Project was ultimately successful (fnarr, fnarr!)

Not to mention the fact that FDR was re-elected, for the seventeenth time, in 1944 during a global conflict. 

Then there is the mail / absentee voting issue.

Is voting by mail more liable to produce a fraudulent result? Well, nearly 1 in 4 voters cast 2016 presidential ballots that way, and Trump won (albeit losing the popular vote by a narrow 3,000,000 margin). Being permitted to post off your ballot in October or November, rather than appearing in person to pull the lever, would make it less likely that electors would be required to die for their country, of Covid-19. It would also be more difficult for Cozy Bears, APT29 or whatever those talented Russian hackers are calling themselves now, to game the system. Not even Vladimir Putin is patient enough to stand over every postal voter and steal their ballot. 

They’ve been voting by mail in Oregon since 1998 and out of over 15 million ballots cast the conservative Heritage Foundation detected fourteen cases of fraud.[3] That’s a rate of .0000009%. A study that was funded by by those celebrated bastions of Marxist/Leninism, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Knight Foundation, found an “infinitesimal” number of fraud cases in elections between 2000 and 2012. They detected a total of 2,068 illicit ballots cast, amounting to one in every 15 million eligible voters.[4] And those were not all mail-in voters, some of the fraud took place at election booths. 

If about 150,000,000 Americans vote on 3 November that’s a potential incidence of around 10 fraudulent ballots nationwide. I’m sure the Democrats would be happy to ease President Trump’s mind by giving him a ten vote start? He can even take them all in Wisconsin or Minnesota if that helps.

BTW – President Trump himself voted by mail during New York City’s mayoral election in 2017. He cast an absentee ballot the following year, and again used a mail ballot in Florida’s primary election in 2020.[5] What’s that old saw about sauce, goose and ganders again? So, unless Democratic members of the House of Representatives are accidentally locked in a broom cupboard before a vote on electoral postponement, the poll will proceed as planned on 3 November. 

Incidentally, the last time a Presidential election was held on 3 November was 1988, when a Republican incumbent (George H.W. Bush) was defeated after serving a single term in the White House. Just sayin’ 

Caveat – all sources cited here are, of course, fake news outlets, like, Reuters and NPR. So, you can safely take it all with a pinch of salt. 






Archbishop John Charles McQuaid agus Mná na hÉireann.

An unidentified Irish Head of State kneels before Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. Proper order!

Abject apologies for missing the 125th birthday of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid yesterday. 

Here was a distinguished clergyman who might have been imported directly from the Spanish Inquisition to administer his particular brand of religious certitude on an Ireland whose abject politicians were only too willing to kiss his ring. (See photo above lest there be any doubt on that score)

McQuaid was a cleric who liked women to know they were welcome in his church, as long as they restricted their activities to making the sangitches and changing the flowers on the altar every week.

Mind you, Ireland has never lacked for misogynistic Archbishops of Dublin. Cardinal Cullen, in the 1870s tried to force the administration to withdraw scholarships and prizes based on examination results from female second level students. He was supported in this by Irish MPs. It was British MPs who ensured that Irish girls would continue to benefit from their hard work in preparing for exams.

His successor, Cardinal MacCabe —an Irish churchman much beloved of Dublin Castle—went through multiple phases of apoplexy at the sight of women attending Land League meetings and, holy horror of horrors, making platform speeches.  In a pastoral letter to his archdiocesan clergy he advised them:

‘Very reverend dear fathers, set your faces against this dishonouring     attempt, and do not tolerate in your sodalities the woman who so far disavows her birthright of modesty as to parade herself before the       public gaze in a character so unworthy of a child of Mary.’

 But, of course, the Daddy of them all when it came to clerical misogyny was the Ayatollah himself, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (sadly he was denied a ‘red hat’ despite his sterling work on behalf of sixteenth century values). We don’t even need to grapple with the celebrated controversy over Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme to bathe Dev’s favourite Archbishop and Constitutional Consultant in the cold light of female repression. Or even his role in the insertion of the infamous Article 41.2.1 in de Valera’s 1937 Constitution. (Just in case you need reminding about that one it went something like this …

‘In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.’ 

That’s all big politics. Let’s focus on the really petty stuff instead.

Take, for example, how he took issue, in 1934, with the notion of girls and women being allowed to compete in athletics. In 1928 women had been admitted to the Olympic Games for the first time but McQuaid came from the same school as the founder of the modern Olympiad, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who believed that ‘women have but one task [in the Olympics] that of the role of crowning the winner with garlands’. 

Not even for 11″ or so were women to be allowed compete in the national championships.

In 1934 the National Athletic and Cycling Association [grandparent of Athletics Ireland] was contemplating adding a women’s 100 yards dash to the national championships. McQuaid, then president of Blackrock College, (apparently this is an all-male rugby playing establishment somewhere in south Dublin) wrote a letter on the subject to the Irish Press newspaper on 24 February 1934 in which he observed that: ‘Mixed athletics and all cognate immodesties are abuses that right-minded people reprobate, wherever and whenever they exist.’

He then proceeded to invoke one of only two superior beings whom he acknowledged, by pointing out that ‘God is not modern; nor is his Law’. Women who sought to compete athletically in the vicinity of men were ‘un-Irish and un-Catholic’, and the entire phenomenon was a ‘social abuse’.  He concluded by quoting from the only other superior being he recognised, the Pope (the one who never gave him a ‘red hat’), who was, apparently, of the opinion that: 

 ‘…in athletic sports and exercises, wherein the Christian modesty of girls must be, in a special way, safeguarded … it is supremely unbecoming that they flaunt themselves and display themselves before the eyes of all.’

So that was pretty conclusive, God, the Pope and John Charles were on the same side. The NACA decided not to include female athletes … even over 100 yards. To their eternal shame the Irish Camogie Association supported McQuaid, although that may have been not unconnected with the fact that its secretary was a man. Sean O’Duffy—who was apparently not related to Ireland’s leading Fascist Eoin O’Duffy—promised that the Camogie Association:

‘…would do all in its power to ensure that no girl would appear on any          sports ground in a costume to which any exception could be taken. If      they remained Irish in the ordinary acception of the word they could not       go wrong.’

Apparently the word ‘acception’ means ‘acceptation’ or ‘received meaning’. No, me neither!

Not until 1956 did Maeve Kyle become Ireland’s first female athletics competitor at the Olympics. It probably helped that she was a Northern Protestant and, consequently, beyond redemption.  

Maeve Kyle – avert your gaze Archbish!

Ten years later, having left Blackrock College, McQuaid was now Archbishop of Dublin with responsibility for all the clergy of the diocese, so, clearly, no longer associated with an institution dominated by testosterone. But he was still obsessed with female modesty, and in 1944 his attention had shifted from athletics to cycling – as in the menstrual cycles of women. In a letter to the parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Local Government and Public Health he shared his anguish about:

‘…the evidence concerning the use of internal sanitary tampons, in       particular, that are called Tampax. On the medical evidence made available,          the bishops very strongly disapprove of the use of these appliances, more particularly in the case of unmarried persons.’

Now, in fairness to the Archbishop, in using the words ‘unmarried persons’ he was obviously expressing concerns in relation to men who used tampons as well as women.  One wonders had his eminence mistaken Tampax for Durex, both, after all, were highly sexualised products with the suspect letter ‘x’ in their names? 

Or was his anxiety based on the fear that the tampon might, in addition to its medicinal / physiological purpose, be used by women in pursuit of sexual stimulation. Sexual pleasure and gratification was after all:  

         a) in the gift of men only.  

         b) an unfortunate (if unlikely) pre-requisite for the production of children. 

         c) never willingly experienced by truly Catholic women.

Staying with sport, the Archbishop was also concerned about the dangers of hockey for women – he feared that the frequent twisting movements would lead to infertility, or what he called ‘hockey parturition’. Female hockey players might conceivably—ok, pun intended—find themselves unable to perform the main function appropriate to their gender, i.e. reproduction. The sport of lacrosse, which he believed, for some baffling reason, to involve less midriff action, was encouraged in Roman Catholic girls’ schools in the Dublin archdiocese. The fact that lacrosse had originated among Native Americans using the heads of defeated opponents did not seem to occur to him as making it in any way unsuitable. 

Lacrosse – far less midriff twisty than hockey, apparently

Belated happy 125th JC! No returns please. 

Lily Mernin – Collins’s ‘Mata Hari’ in Dublin Castle – the espionage work of ‘The Little Gentleman’

Lily Mernin – aka ‘The Little Gentleman’

To accompany tonight’s History Show programme on ‘Women in the War of Independence’ below are contextualised extracts from Lily Mernin’s Bureau of Military History Witness Statement about her espionage activities on behalf of Director of Intelligence, Michael Collins during the War of Independence.


BMH WS #441 

From 1914-1922 Lily Mernin, a cousin of leading IRA propagandist, Piaras Beaslai, was employed as a typist in the Dublin District Garrison Adjutant’s office in the Lower Castle Yard. When Beaslai became aware of the precise nature of her work he spoke to Michael Collins about her. In 1918 Mernin met Collins for the first time. 

Piaras Beaslai brought him to my home and introduced him to me as a Mr. Brennan. I did not know he was Collins at the time. He asked  me would I be willing to pass out to him any information that might be of value which I would come across in my ordinary day’s work. I remembered he produced letters that he had intercepted concerning some of the typists and officers in the Castle, and things that were happening generally. I cannot remember exactly what they were. I promised to give him all the assistance that I possibly could. 

            The garrison adjutant for Ship St. barracks and Dublin District at the time was Major Stratford Burton. The work that he gave me to do was connected with Volunteer activities generally and, in addition, court martial proceedings on Volunteers was also given me to type. These dealt with the strength of the various military posts throughout Dublin district. Each week I prepared a carbon or typed copy, whichever I was able to get. Sometimes I would bring these to the office placed at my disposal at Captain Moynihan’s house, Clonliffe Road. He had a typewriter there and I typed several copies of the strength returns and any other correspondence which I may have brought with me that I thought would be of use. I left them on the machine and they were collected by some person whom I did not know. I had a latch key for the house and nobody knew when I came or went.  It was arranged for me that if I had anything special requiring urgent delivery to the Intelligence staff that I would deliver it at Vaughan’s [Hotel] between certain hours and/or Maire ni Raghallaigh’s bookshop , Dorset St. and Captain Moynihan’s, Clonliffe Road. Another place where I left messages was at Collins’s shop Parnell St, the number I cannot remember.

            I cannot recollect the exact nature of the letters and correspondence that I passed to the Intelligence staff. All I can say is that, in general, they dealt with the movement of troops, provisions for armoured trains or cars, and instructions and circulars to military units from GHQ.

Mernin proved extremely useful to Collins when it came to the identification of the Dublin accommodation of British agents, information that was to prove crucial to the assassinations on Bloody Sunday, 21st November, 1920.

Before the 21st November 1920, it was part of my normal duty to type the names and addresses of British agents who were accommodated at private addresses and living as ordinary citizens in the city. These lists were typed weekly and amended whenever an address was changed. I passed them on each week either to the address at Moynihan’s, Clonliffe Road or to Piaras Beaslai. The typing of the lists ceased after the 21stNovember 1920.

Apart altogether from using her access to written information Mernin, from time to time, was in a position to pass on useful office gossip to Collins.

There was a girl in the office who was the daughter of Superintendent Dunne of Dublin Castle. When he resigned she moved out of Dublin Castle to an address in Mount Street. Stopping at the same address were a number of men. Every morning she would come into the office she would tell us about them, she was puzzled to know who they were. Her brother also resided there with her and, apparently, he used to mix with them, and he discussed their conversation with her. She would report this conversation to us when she would come into the office in the morning. There was one fellow there by the name of McMahon who was very addicted to drink. While under the influence of drink he was, I believe, liable to talk a lot, and, mainly, his conversation concerned raids and arrests of ‘wanted’ IRA men. Whatever tit-bits of information that I could glean from Miss Lil Dunne I immediately passed it on to the Intelligence section. Suspicion was thrown in my direction one morning when Miss Dunne entered the office and excitedly said that her brother had been missing and that she thought he was held by the IRA, that somebody in the office had been giving information to the IRA concerning the conversation we had in the office about McMahon and Peel, British agents, who were lodging in the same house with her in Mount Street. However, I found myself in a predicament, but I remained cool and calm and bluffed my way out of it and said: “Who could be a spy?” and put the blame on her brother for talking too much. Sometime later the position was eased when Miss Dunne took ill and never again returned to Dublin Castle. All this information was, of course, passed on to the IRA Intelligence prior to the 21st November 1920.

            After 21st November 1920, a number of British intelligence officers were drafted into Dublin Castle. A [4] new department was opened up in the Upper Castle Yard. My work did not bring me in contact with this department. I was asked by the IRA Intelligence Squad to get what information I could about the movements of these officers. These were mainly descriptive particulars for the purpose of identification, where they resided, and where they frequented, also the registration numbers of the motor cars used by them.

            These Intelligence officers used come into our office. The three girls of the staff were curious to know who they were. Some of the girls would ask “Who was so-and-so that came in?” In this way, we got to know the names of the various Intelligence officers. Some of the girls in the office were very friendly with them and used to go around with them. General conversation would give a lot of information concerning their whereabouts, things that were said, etc. Any information obtained was immediately passed by me to IRA Intelligence.

            On various occasions I was requested by members of the Intelligence Squad to assist them in the identity of enemy agents. I remember the first occasion on which I took part in this work was with the late Tom Cullen in 1919. Piaras Beaslai asked me to meet a young man who would be waiting at O’Raghallaigh’s bookshop in Dorset St and to accompany him to Lansdowne Road. I met this man, whom I later learned was Tom Cullen, and went with him to a football match at Lansdowne Road. He asked me to point out to him and give him the names of any British military officers who frequented Dublin Castle and GHQ. I was able to point out a few military officers to him whom I knew.

            When I  got to know the Auxiliaries better, I accompanied Frank Saurin (then known as Mr. Stanley) to various cafes where I identified for him some of the Auxiliaries whom I knew.

A footnote. The ‘Lil Dunne’ in question was a great aunt of the novelist Sebastian Barry, she is the main character in his novel On Canaan’s Side. Lily Mernin, who was referred to by Collins only as ‘the little gentleman’ also had social access to Auxiliary policemen based in Dublin Castle, members of the notorious ‘F’ company.

The Auxiliaries organised smoking concerts and whist drives in the Lower Castle Yard. I was encouraged by Frank Saurin, a member of the Intelligence Squad, to give all the assistance I could in the organisation of these whist drives for the sole purpose of getting to know the Auxiliaries and finding out all I possibly could about them. Frank Saurin had arranged with me that should any of the Auxiliaries see myself or any of the girls of the Castle home, he would have members of his squad hanging around Dublin Castle to identify them. However the Auxiliaries never did come past the Castle gate.

            On one occasion I asked Frank for a reliable girl, whom I could trust, who would come along to the whist drives with me, to enable her to get to know these Auxiliaries and so prove a further source of identification. He sent along Miss Sally McCasey, who is now his wife. She did her work very well. She had a very charming manner and struck up a friendship quite freely.


On at least one occasion Mernin brought the kind of intelligence to her relative, Piaras Beaslai, that he did not want to hear.


One day a Sergeant from British Intelligence came into my office, carrying a lot of magazines – as I thought – bound together. I asked him what they were and he told me they were copies of “An tOglach” and would not part with them for five hundred pounds, as they were very valuable to them. I reported this to Piaras Beaslai the same night, not knowing he was the editor of “An tOglach” and wondered why he became so alarmed about it. I got the impression that some member of the IRA had been playing a double game. 

Mernin with her cousin Piaras Beaslaí

The ‘Other’ War of Independence – Land Appropriation during the Anglo-Irish War – Part 3 – Enabling the Black Hand Gang

(The third part of this blog deals with the tensions and violence caused by the ‘eleven month’ system of land tenure and the lead-up to the 1920 murder of IRA Volunteer, Mark Clinton, by members of a gang in north Meath with an apparently unfettered ability to seize good farming land for their own use – one of the stories to be told in Four Killings, to be published by Head of Zeus in 2021).

The north Meath field where IRA Volunteer Mark Clinton was murdered in May 1920 by members of the ‘Cormeen Gang’ in a land dispute.

County Meath certainly had no shortage of productive land. Most of the fields of the county had a rateable valuation from ten shillings – to a pound per acre. The average value was just over eighteen shillings an acre. By way of contrast, no county west of the River Shannon boasted an average of more than ten shillings an acre.[i] Simply owning even a modest farm in Meath almost invariably represented victory in the battle against indigence. First, however, you had to acquire that farm, and therein lay the difficulty.

            For a start there was the problem of the nature of agricultural activity in Meath. It was, by the second decade of the twentieth century, overwhelmingly pastoral. The humble potato or the more aristocratic carrot, by the early twentieth century, were largely absent, grown by ‘the little people’ of the county, the relatively small number of subsistence farmers, cursed with the ‘pastures poor and greedy weeds’ of the Meath poet Francis Ledwidge.[ii] Prosperous Meath farmers didn’t grow vegetables, they fattened livestock. In 1911 the three Irish Poor Law Unions with the greatest proportion of their agricultural land under grass were Dunshaughlin (80.6%), Navan (71.4%)  and Kells (70.4%). A fourth Union, Trim had dropped out of top five in 1901.[iii] In the words of travel writer William Bulfin in his Rambles in Eirinn— a work based on a bicycle ride through the country in 1902/03—Meath was a  ‘fertile desert’ ‘… from which man had banished himself and into which he had sent the beasts to take his place.’[iv]

            Bulfin’s description is echoed in the analysis of the German economist Moritz Bonn—a long-time Irish resident—in his 1906 volume Modern Ireland and her agrarian problem he wrote that: 

‘Many parts of the country, especially in the Counties Kildare, Meath and Dublin, are nothing but grassy deserts … There is scarcely a human being to be seen, for the cattle graze without a herdsman in the hedged-in fields … Hundreds and thousands of ruined cottages are scattered about, dwellings in which human beings formerly dwelt. It is these wide ‘grazing ranches’ which have made Ireland into a land of great silence.’[v]

Meath belonged to the ‘rancher’. There were around one hundred and thirty affluent farmers at the turn of the century who owned thousands of acres of Meath land. They lived in sequestered grandeur. According to local historian, James Gilligan: 

‘The physical isolation of their homes may have reflected their isolation in the community, or in the case of non-resident graziers their absence … They were for many identified with the landlords to whom they were a godsend ….’[vi]  

They were a ‘godsend’ to the early twentieth-century relics of the aristocracy (‘the auld dacency’) because, in many cases, their wealth was based on a willingness to rent land on a short-term basis, rather than enter into extended leasing arrangements with the county’s landlords, men like the Marquis of Headfort, whose own elegant private demesne, hidden behind high stone walls, swept down to the Blackwater River a mile outside the town of Kells. 

            Many of the county’s well-heeled graziers were ‘eleven month’ men, reviled by the hundreds of small farmers anxious to extend their holdings, or by landless labourers eager to acquire modest farms of their own. The ‘eleven month’ system was either a) a convenient mechanism to reduce the cattle dealer’s exposure to unpredictable markets or b) an egregiously injurious tenurial system which was inhibiting the drive to re-allocate unproductive surplus land held under anachronistic structures. Attitudes to the practice generally depended on your social status and/or available cash reserves. 

            The ‘eleven month’ system was, in essence, a convenient arrangement between ‘gombeen’ capitalists and anachronistic ‘feudal’ landlords. Under its aegis many graziers rented land outside their own ‘home farm’ on the ‘eleven month system’. In so doing they obligingly protected the landlord from the malign attentions of the Land Commission and the compulsory purchase clauses built into the remedial legislation introduced by the Irish Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell in 1909.[vii]

            To circumvent this legislation landlords went to auction with a parcel of untenanted land and often got a truer ‘market’ value for the land than what otherwise might have been available. Farms rented via longer leases were not as lucrative and were subject to the  provisions of a raft of inhibiting Land Acts passed since 1881. Under the terms of the auction contract on the ‘eleven month’ system the renter was obliged to vacate after eleven months.   In practice most graziers would vacate and then ‘roll over’ the contract by agreeing to resume tenancy—after an interval of one month—on the same, or enhanced (for the landlord) terms. They were not even, in reality, often obliged to ‘vacate’ as the fallow month would fall outside the normal grazing season, in November or December, when the renting grazier was likely to have disposed of the cattle or sheep being fattened. The system allowed the grazier to vary his land usage depending on the state of the livestock trade. It also allowed professional or business people to dip their toes in the livestock market without the necessity of assuming responsibility for anything as awkward and messy as an actual home farm. They were referred to by one contemporary observer as ‘Irish Kulaks’[viii]. In the absence of a genocidal Irish Stalin, however, their ubiquity went largely unchallenged. 

            For the small farmer, one actually committed to working the soil rather than operating as a cattle ‘jobber’, the ‘eleven month’ system had the effect of shutting him out. He could not compete with the short term rental rates the ‘dealer’ or the dilettante were prepared to pay when parcels of land came up for auction. Neither could he prevail on the property-owner to let the land to him for the customary leasing period of thirty years. The Midland Tribune, situated in the trenches of the Ranch War, in King’s County (Offaly), was scathing when it came to the societal impact of the ‘eleven month’ system. ‘[It] ruined families, decimated homesteads, retarded agricultural progress, filled the emigrant’s ship and populated the workhouses.’[ix]

But the Tribune, in common with most provincial newspapers, made its own unique contribution to the problem. On the page facing the excoriating editorial the newspaper ran three advertisements for the auctioning of grazing lands on ‘eleven month’ terms.[x]

County Meath was hardly exceptional when it came to the erosion of its population after the Great Famine. Between 1841-1851 almost a quarter (23.4%) of the county’s population disappeared, mild by comparison with the worst affected counties. However, that decline was not arrested in the second half of the nineteenth century. Between 1851 and 1901 more than half the population of Meath (52%) was lost to internal migration or emigration.[xi]    Consolidation of farms had begun in the decade immediately after the famine, with more than a thousand evictions taking place between 1851-1861. North Meath MP, Patrick White, reckoned that population density in the county was around one person for every ten acres, and for every human being there were ten bullocks.[xii]  Nationalist MP, John Nugent, addressing a Meath county convention of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, pointed out that the neighbouring county of Louth had a population density of thirty-two per acre—although the presence of two large towns, Drogheda and Dundalk, meant that invidious statistic was somewhat misleading. Nugent, however, reckoned that one fifth of the acreage of Meath was let under the ‘eleven month’ system and what he described, with some hyperbole, as ‘those derelict lands’ would, if given over to tillage, have been capable of supporting almost five thousand families, or around twenty-five thousand people.[xiii]

            Few doubted that it was this consolidation of agricultural holdings that accounted for the flight from the land. This served to exacerbate the hostility towards the county’s graziers, widely seen as catalysts for depopulation.  So, one might have expected that the hierarchy of the Irish nationalist movement, in particular the leadership of the United Irish League and their fellow travellers in the pietistic Ancient Order of Hibernians,  would inveigh against graziers and would support any activities that might lead to their ultimate extirpation.          However, this is where reality—in the form of the almost mandatory conflict of interest, and the rigidity of sagart aroon—intervened to frustrate dissent. James Gilligan convincingly asserts that:

‘The combination of lack of support for the UIL from the national leadership, and the involvement of many members of publicly elected bodies in grazing meant that support for cattle driving was far from unanimous. A further brake on the activities of the more radical elements in the UIL was provided by Catholic priests at local level.’[xiv]

Indeed, in the Archdiocese of Tuam, home to many enthusiastic cattle drivers, the practice became a reserved sin of the Roman Catholic church.[xv]

            The trouble was that many of the graziers had, like the merchants and shopkeepers of the Land League era, assumed leadership positions in the Land League’s infant grandson, the United Irish League. Some had done so with the clear intention of influencing UIL policy towards graziers. A number even established largely bogus UIL branches which would then issue statements condemning the practice of cattle driving.[xvi] Their own ‘anti-social’ economic activities, the renting of large swathes of land for grazing livestock, were trumped by their contributions (personal and financial) to the parent organisation of the Irish Parliamentary party. 

            This was even recognised by the normally relentless contrarian Laurence Ginnell. In a speech in 1907 to the Navan Board of Guardians the ‘King of the Drivers’ told the assembled guardians that ‘11-month men’ were supplying the role once occupied by the landlords ‘… a delicate thing to say, because I know some of those men are excellent nationalists.’[xvii]  

            In fact graziers dominated the local government of County Meath. Two-thirds of the twenty-one member County Council, established in 1899, were substantial farmers or graziers. In the first months of 1920 the impoverished inheritors of the ‘drives’ of the 1900s, whether or not they had consciously taken this lesson on board, would display a similar disregard for the credentials of the ‘excellent nationalists’ of Sinn Fein—at least at a national level—as their predecessors had for the local grandees of the United Irish League. The official position of the governing revolutionaries differed in accordance with the square of the distance from the problem but, as far as the national leadership was concerned:

‘While in principle committing itself to land redistribution in favour of uneconomic smallholders and landless men, central Sinn Fein’s position came to reject any suggestion that land agitation in the circumstances of 1920 might contribute positively to the nationalist revolution.’[xviii]

This was the backdrop to the emergence of localised anarchy in north Meath, an anomaly in the smooth narrative of honour and altruistic self-sacrifice that, purportedly, flourished in the Anglo -Irish War. A cohort of belligerents began operating under their own set of rules. A private army emerged intent on settling old scores, terrorising their neighbours, and enriching themselves in the process. Rural families, many of them often not overly endowed with land themselves, were terrorised by a well-organised and well-armed gang into handing over parcels of property. If they failed to do so expeditiously they were subjected to intimidation or outright violence. It wasn’t long before the ‘Cormeen Gang’ of north-west Meath resorted to murder to achieve their ends, emulating similar groups in other parts of the west and north-midlands of Ireland. After months of coercion and extortion, which included blowing up a property on the land of a farmer who opposed them, they overreached themselves by killing IRA Volunteer, Mark Clinton, who opposed their threat to seize land from his cousins, the Smith family. The brutal murder of one of their own finally prompted the IRA to take action. The measures they chose to take were drastic.

            The middle section, or ‘development’ of the fugue that was the War of Independence was an atonal passage whose dissonance took its audience by surprise. In east Cavan and north Meath the first half of 1920 was the time of the Black Hand Gang. The retaliatory action of the IRA ensured that there was no ‘second half’.   

[i] Jim Gilligan – ‘A lovely wilderness of grass: the graziers of rural Meath before the Great War’ in Arlene Crampsie and Francis Ludlow, Meath: History and Society (Dublin, 2015), 606. Gilligan’s essay offers an excellent account of the changed nature of agricultural practice in the county of Meath prior to the outbreak of the Great War.

[ii] Francis Ledwidge, ‘Lament for Thomas McDonagh’ in Complete Poems, (London 1919), 210.

[iii] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 605.

[iv] William Bulfin, Rambles in Eirinn (Dublin 1907), 89 (in Gilligan, Meath: History and Society, 603).

[v] Moritz Bonn, Modern Ireland and her agrarian problem, (Dublin, 1906), 35-36.

[vi] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 624 &  628. 

[vii] An element of compulsory purchase had been introduced earlier with the Evicted Tenants Act (1907). All told, by 1921, under a variety of purchase schemes forty seven thousand square kilometres of Irish land was transferred from landlords to over three hundred thousand tenants, representing almost sixty percent of the total Irish landmass.

[viii] Kevin O’Shiel, Bureau of Military History Witness Statement #1770, 929.

[ix] Midland Tribune, 25 May 1907 

[x] John Noel McEvoy, ‘A Study of the United Irish League in the Kings’s County 1899-1918’, 60 –  Masters Thesis, NUI Maynooth – accessed online, 1 October 2019 –

[xi] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 603.

[xii] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 618.

[xiii] Coogan, Politics and War in Meath, 23.

[xiv] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 622.

[xv] Tony Varley, ‘A Region of Sturdy Smallholders? Western Nationalists and Agrarian Politics during the First World War’, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol. 55 (2003), 130. The same diocese, in 1879, with the nationalist cleric John MacHale as Archbishop, had hosted the alleged apparition of the Virgin Mary at Knock, in Co. Mayo. UC Berkeley scholar, Robert Tracy has a theory that the Roman Catholic Church’s rapid acceptance of the authenticity of the apparition was a conscious attempt to deflect local attention from agrarian agitation. 

[xvi] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 621.

[xvii] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 618.

[xviii] Tony Varley, ‘Gaining Ground and Losing Ground’, in Fergus Campbell & Tony Varley (eds) Land Questions in Modern Ireland (Manchester, 2013), 31.