How could it possibly be that a book which starts with a brutal murder in Arizona in 1915, before settling into an account of three more killings that took place during the War of Independence, is really about my relationship with my grandmother? 

            Mary Theresa O’Reilly (née May McKenna), was a delightful soul, prim and delicately nurtured but curious, loquacious and engaging. She was a great storyteller and loved to regale her favourite grandchild (that was me, by the way – this is MY story!) with tales of being rousted out of her family home by the Black and Tans during the violent years of the Anglo-Irish war. She also told me stories of her brother, Justin McKenna, a Meath solicitor who died a few years before I was born. He was fé glas ag Gallaibh (a guest of His Majesty, King George V and his coalition government) in the Curragh military prison when he was run by Sinn Féin in the Louth/Meath constituency and was elected as a TD in the 1920 general election. So, he got to vote for the Anglo-Irish treaty in January 1921. She also had a great story about what happened to him just before he registered his vote, but you’ll have to read the book for that. 

            However, she never told me about her American stepmother, or the romantic tale of how her widowed father married the widow of his first cousin (concentrate please – I’ll be asking questions at the end!). Neither did she tell me anything about her other three McKenna brothers, or her five Clinton cousins, all of whom were in the IRA or Cumann na mBan, and three of whom took part in the book’s fourth killing. 

            Why not? I would have been gob-smackingly fascinated, in the way that all ten year old boys positively luxuriate in tales of derring-do and mindless violence.  Why had she kept to herself the fact that three of her brothers and three more of her cousins would tool up after dark and risk their lives in an attempt to reduce the number of Tans or Auxies populating or polluting the fields and lanes around the Cavan/Meath border. After months of scratching my head I’ve had to conclude that she was a bit too embarrassed about the activities of her siblings to mention it.  Well I did say she was prim and delicately nurtured – you had to know my grandmother to understand why she would stay shtum rather than regale me with that particular chapter of her War of Independence autobiography, Lloyd George, my part in his downfall. So I will never know how much she knew about what I’ve been discovering since the night I read my granduncle T.P.McKenna’s Military Service Pensions Collection file and encountered the jaw-dropping entry ‘executed informer in Carlanstown.’ I wish she was still around so that I could regale her for a change. 

            By the way, when it comes to process, historians have it easy these days. Thanks to the wonders of digitisation and the online accessibility of thousands of archive documents I was able to write about the murder of my cousin John Clinton in 1915 in Arizona in my study in Kells, Co. Meath, not far from where he was born but 8000 kilometres from where he died. The rest of the book, six chapters all set in the Cavan/Meath border area, was written in the Doe Library in the University of California, Berkeley! Go figure. 


FOUR KILLINGS  – A synopsis

In 1891 Sarah Clinton, of Mullagh Hill House in Co. Cavan, married merchant and farmer T. P. McKenna of the town of Mullagh. They set about having children straight away. They stopped after ten, only because Sarah died at the age of thirty-six a few weeks after the birth of their last child, Una. T. P McKenna, for many years a fanatical supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party, joined Sinn Féin after the 1916 Rising. In 1917 he made numerous stump speeches on behalf of Arthur Griffith’s candidacy in the East Cavan by-election. Griffith at the time was ‘fé glas ag Gallaibh’ (a political prisoner). 

            Three of T.P. Senior’s sons, John, Raphael and T.P. Junior, were IRA Volunteers during the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21), while a fourth, Justin, was elected in 1921 as a TD for the Louth-Meath constituency. Incarcerated in the Curragh military camp at the time of his election, he was released from internment. He would cast his Dáil vote in favour of the Treaty in January 1922. Raphael was a local Intelligence Officer in the North Meath / East Cavan region. John was an ordinary IRA volunteer, but T. P. Junior’s revolutionary career was by far the most interesting.

            T. P. McKenna, born in 1903, who joined the Irish Volunteers as a fifteen-year-old, began studying medicine at UCD in 1920, alongside eighteen-year-old Kevin Barry. Shortly after the execution of Barry in November 1920, T.P. was dispatched to County Meath to assist in the reorganisation of the Cavan/Meath IRA and to help establish a local Active Service Unit (Flying Column). He was responsible for training this unit on Mullagh Hill, under the noses of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries based in nearby Kells. 

            The young would-be doctor was also called upon to assist in the execution of an informer. The luckless spy is not named in his 1924 pension application, housed  in the archives of the Military Service Pension Collection. However, the victim was nineteen-year-old Patrick Keelan, lifted by the IRA for associating with the Tans, instructed not to repeat the offence, and then released. Keelan, rather than heeding the warning returned with a column of Tans and assisted in the burning of the house where the IRA had detained him. He was later kidnapped for a second time and shot dead. Chronologically this is ‘Killing Number 4’. Also involved in the shooting of Keelan were TP’s brother John (a member of the firing squad) and their cousin Peter Clinton. 

            Nieces and nephews of Sarah Clinton were also active in the IRA and Cumann na mBan. Patrick Clinton was close to the IRA commander in Meath, the legendary Sean Boylan (father of the equally legendary herbalist and Meath football manager of the same name) and acted as Intelligence Officer for the county and later the 1st Eastern Division. Pat’s sister Rose was an enthusiastic member of Cumann na mBan and is mentioned frequently in Bureau of Military History witness statements as running the safest and most comfortable of ‘safe houses’ for IRA men on the run. Their young brother, Mark Clinton, born in 1897, was also a Meath IRA volunteer who worked his father’s farm in Cluggagh, near Cormeen, Co. Meath, a few miles from the Cavan border.

            Here we need to backtrack a few years. An uncle of the Clinton siblings, John Clinton, had emigrated to the USA in the ‘hungry’ 1880s. In 1895 he, and a number of other Irishmen purchased federal land in southern Arizona, near the Mexican border, around the town of Hereford, AZ. They immediately began to ‘enclose’ their holdings. This did not sit well with the wealthy ranchers of the huge Boquillas Cattle Company, accustomed to grazing their herds, gratis, over 20,000 acres of federal land. A dispute developed and the relatively well-educated John Clinton became tacit leader of, and spokesman for, the Irish homesteaders. In 1915 he was summoned to the door of his home when a stranger called. He was shot dead on his front doorstep. Killing No.1

            Back to North Meath where, in 1920, taking advantage of the chaos of the War of Independence, a gang of men, variously known as ‘The Cormeen Gang’ or the ’Black Hand Gang’ began a campaign of land expropriation. They were an odd mix of British Army veterans and some serving IRA members. They sought to intimidate local farmers off their farms, in some instances citing historic Parnellite-era ‘land-grabbing’ as their justification. In one instance they dynamited the farmhouse of a man who was courageous or stubborn enough to oppose them. 

            One of the farms they targetted was that of Phil Smith of Cormeen. Locally there would not have been much sympathy for Smith. He was the son of the infamous ‘Poragon’ Smith, a late 19th century land agent notorious for seizing the lands of evicted tenants. The ‘Cormeen Gang’ ordered Smith off a parcel of land near the village of Cormeen. Smith approached his cousins, the Clintons of Cluggagh, who farmed nearby, and sought their support. Blood being thicker than water the Clintons agreed to help him. When this became clear to the agrarian gang the Clintons were sent a warning that, if they persisted in their support of Smith, they would suffer the same fate as John Clinton in Arizona. On 9 May 1920 there was an altercation between both parties in which shots were fired.

            The following day Mark Clinton took two plough horses into one of the disputed fields in a clear gesture of defiance From a tree-lined hill a hundred yards away three shots rang out from a sniper’s rifle. All three found their targets. The horses died immediately, Mark Clinton lingered. His cries for help, and for water, were ignored by a family, the McMahons, whose house was well within earshot. Before he died, Mark Clinton was able to give his distraught father the names of five of those who had participated in the shooting. Killing No.2.

            Sean Boylan, took the murder of Mark Clinton personally. The Cormeen Gang had finally overreached itself. Boylan ordered an immediate investigation, in parallel with a lacklustre inquiry by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Ten local men were identified as members of the gang, the prime mover being a farmer named ‘Bloomer’ Rogers (a Boer war veteran) rumoured to have paid a former RAF serviceman, William Gordon, the princely sum of £2 to murder Mark Clinton. 

            In short order the nine men who had not pulled the trigger were rounded up by Boylan, incarcerated in the vacant house of the late Henry Dyas in Kilskyre (a racehorse trainer whose most famous horse, Manifesto, had won the Aintree Grand National twice), tried, and sentenced to terms of exile ranging from five to thirty years. They were then brought to Dublin Port, put on a boat to Liverpool and warned not to return to Ireland until their ‘sentences’ had elapsed.

            Gordon, after being acquitted of possession of a weapon before Navan magistrates in July 1920 was ‘lifted’ by Boylan in an elaborate operation, described in detail in his Bureau of Military History witness statement. He was the taken to Boylan’s own Dunboyne redoubt and tried for murder by a Sinn Fein court. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Boylan, determined to demonstrate that justice had been done, went to Michael Collins and asked for permission to carry out the verdict. Gordon was unique in the context of the War of Independence. He was not an informer, but a convicted criminal, and could not simply be shot out of hand. Collins brought the matter to the Sinn Fein Cabinet where, among others, Countess Markievicz and Ernest Blythe, demurred. Gordon was tried again. Once again he was found guilty. Second time around the Cabinet gave leave for his execution. Gordon was duly shot and his body concealed in a quarry in Dunboyne. Killing No.4.

Four Killings explores the divisive issue of land hunger in rural Ireland, a phenomenon that did not suddenly disappear during the Anglo-Irish War. It also touches on the corrosive effect of violence on feuding families, and the responsibilities and pressures placed on the shoulders of young men and women in the turbulent creation of the new Irish state that emerged in the 1920s. 

Some of the long term psychological effects of Bloody Sunday – 21 November 1920

As we, fittingly, commemorate the centenary of the tragic and violent events of Bloody Sunday in Dublin (21 November 1920) it is worth bearing in mind some of the long term effects of that traumatic day.

A caveat before you begin to read this blog. It deals only with the psychological impact of the killings of alleged British agents in Dublin, on the morning of 21 November 1920, on two of those who took part in those events – one of the killers themselves and a young intelligence officer who accompanied them. It does not attempt to measure the long-term trauma that was undoubtedly experienced by the wives and children of some of the victims who witnessed the violent deaths of their husbands and fathers. Neither does it deal with the trauma that must have been experienced by many hundreds of the survivors of the vicious Crown forces retaliation in Croke Park on the afternoon of 21 November.

The witness statements, autobiographies and media interviews of members of the IRA intelligence cadre around Collins often convey an impression of dedicated, ruthless and even callous spies and assassins (just read Vincent Byrne’s Witness Statement for corroboration). But there was an inevitable cost involved in the intelligence war. For many IRA Volunteers and British agents it was their lives. But for the men and women working under Michael Collins, many of whom were still in their teens, there was often a hidden and belated psychological cost. 


Charlie Dalton joined the Volunteers in December 1917. In February 1920 – at only seventeen years of age – he was assigned to the GHQ Intelligence unit, reporting for duty to Liam Tobin, IRA Deputy Director of Intelligence in Crow Street. One of Dalton’s jobs was to liaise with some of the spies of Collins within the Dublin Metropolitian Police. Charlie Dalton’s Bureau of Military History witness statement was taken in 1950. It is cogent, clear and betrays no frailities of any kind. However, a decade before, in a disability pension application, submitted in May 1940 by his wife, Theresa, we see a very different Charlie Dalton, one whose War of Independence experience has left him psychologically scarred. It is clear from, for example, a letter from the Medical Superintendent of St. Patricks Hospital dated 3 April 1941, that Dalton is dangerously paranoid. He has been an inmate of St. Patrick’s since November, 1938. The letter informs the referees in his case that Dalton is ‘undergoing treatment for a serious form of mental breakdown. Although he has improved somewhat since admission, the outlook in his case is very grave. From the beginning he has been in a constant state of fear – afraid of being shot, and that he is wanted by the authorities for various crimes. He is acutely hallucinated – hearing voices which accuse him of murder. In my opinion the nature of Mr. Dalton’s delusions and hallucinations clearly point to his experiences in the Irish War as the cause of his mental breakdown.’ Also included in his file is a letter from another mental health professional, Dr. Harry Lee Parker, who has obviously been assigned by the pension referees to examine Dalton on their behalf. 


‘On 7 July I personally examined Charles F. Dalton. I had seen him professionally on numerous occasions during the preceding three years and consequently I am very familiar with his case. I have also studied carefully the file provided me covering all his history.

            Charles F. Dalton is at present completely and permanently insane. He has delusions of being shot, executed and that all around him are conspiring to kill him. He hears voices urging his destruction and his whole delusional state is definitely linked up with his previous military experiences.

            In my opinion such experiences this man has had during military service and particularly his own active part have preyed on his mind and conscience so that in the following years he has gradually lost his reason. I must therefore unequivocally attribute his present state to his military service and I consider him totally and permanently disabled.’

The next document in Dalton’s file is an extraordinary letter from future Taoiseach Sean Lemass. In 1941 he was Minister for Supplies, a crucial role during World War 2. He found time to write a five-page letter on behalf of Dalton’s wife which offers some clues as to the genesis of the former IRA Intelligence officer’s psychological difficulties. Bear in mind that in 1920 Dalton was only seventeen years old. Lemass, at the time, was all of twenty-one years of age.

‘I was associated with your husband during the latter part of 1920. At that5 time he, I and some others were lodging  together at the dispensary building, South William Street. All those lodging there were on active service but not with the same unit. Your husband, Charles Dalton, was, I understand, engaged in intelligence work. He was of highly string disposition and on more than one occasion I came to the conclusion that the strain of his work was telling on his nerves. I first became seriously concerned about him, however, on the evening of Sunday November 21st 1920 (since called Bloody Sunday). On the morning of that day a number of British government agents in Dublin were shot. It was your husband’s to accompany a party of IRA to one house occupied by four of those agents, all of whom were shot. He returned subsequently to the billet at South William Street and I realised that he had become unnerved by his experiences of the morning. So obvious was his condition that I and one of the others took him out for a walk although it was an undesirable and risky thing to do and might have drawn attention to the billet. It did not improve his condition and during that night he was, on occasions, inclined to be hysterical. I recollect that a tap in the dispensary was leaking and making a gurgling noise. This noise apparently reminded your husband of a similar noise he had heard when the four men were shot. He shouted to us several times to stop the noise of the tap and it was with difficulty that he was quietened.

            At this period your husband was very young and his experiences could not but have left a permanent mark on him. I recollect speaking to some of his senior officers subsequently and urging that he should get a rest or a transfer to another area.’

Lemass’s letter is followed by a statement from Dalton’s intelligence colleague Frank Saurin, who played a similar role on Bloody Sunday. 

‘He endured a certain amount of physical hardship being, ‘on the run’ from the British for some three years, but the real hardship must have been mental. You must remember that he was a mere school-boy when he commenced his career as a ‘gun-man’. The continual strain of being sought after and raided for, taking into consideration his youth, must have had a terribly adverse effect on his mental balance; the culminating effect of which, I believe, is responsible for his present condition – I know of no other reason.

            A couple of years ago when he first commenced to show symptoms of his complaint I was present at a pitiable incident which occurred at his home. He became obsessed with the idea that his house was surrounded by men out to “get him”. He bolted and locked all his doors and went as far as to climb the stairs on his hands and knees, thereby avoiding throwing his shadow on a drawn blind to that he would not present a target to his imaginary potential; executioners. When he subsequently was placed in a Nursing Home, a friend, with the undersigned, was obliged to stand outside armed, in his view (he had to be shown the guns) for the purpose of dealing with the same imaginary enemies.’

In March 1942 Charles Dalton, now a resident of Grangegorman Mental Hospital, became a ward of court and his wife, Theresa, was given disposition of the disability pension. Happily in 1944 he was sufficiently recovered to be discharged from wardship and could assume control of his own pension. His Bureau of Military History statement was taken in 1950. He died in 1974 in St. Patrick’s Hospital. 


Mick McDonnell (far left) and some of the original members of The Squad. Vincent Byrne is standing, in the middle of the group. McDonnell had already departed for the USA before Bloody Sunday and Paddy O’Daly (second from right) had taken command of the Twelve Apostles.


Included in the massive Military Service Pension Collection at the Military Archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines is the disability application of James Paul Norton who was involved in the Bloody Sunday shootings of a British Army officer named McLean, and his Irish landlord, Thomas Smith at 117 Morehampton Road.

James Paul Norton was twenty years of age when he took part in the Morehampton Road shootings. Norton was later jailed for his IRA activities and was mistreated in prison. The effects of his IRA service led to a rapid decline in his mental health. An unsigned statement in his application for a disability pension outlines the psychological impact of his activities. Norton spent much of his adult life in mental institutions and died in Grangegorman in 1974.

‘As a result of his experiences on active service, culminating in the events of Bloody Sunday 21st November 1920, in which [the] applicant was personally responsible as one of the firing party for the shooting of three British Intelligence officers, two of whom were killed and one seriously wounded in the presence  of their screaming wives and children, the applicant’s mental condition showed gradual deterioration during the months following, until complete mental breakdown was reached by July 1921 when [the] applicant single handed, and without orders, got in the middle of a roadway at the Custom House, armed with a revolver [and] attempted to capture a tender of British troops, armed and carrying full war equipment. [The] applicant was then taken prisoner and subsequently sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment but was released at the general amnesty in January 1922 a complete mental wreck as a result of the harsh treatment he received in Dartmoor prison.’

A dubious guide to US election terminology


With just two weeks to go until US election day this might be a useful guide to some of the phrases you will be hearing a lot over the next fourteen days. Americans don’t do things the way we do in ‘Yurp’. The most obvious case in point is that merely winning a clear majority of the popular vote doesn’t mean you are entitled to be President. That’s because they didn’t actually abandon the notion of ‘states’ rights’ after the Civil War. In the USA they have something called the Electoral College. In Ireland this would be a fee paying second level school designed to give your child an edge in the Leaving Certificate. In America it’s designed to give an edge to Presidential candidates who lose the popular vote – of which there have been two, both Republican, in the last twenty years.

For example, a vote in Wyoming or Montana is not just any ordinary vote. In those two states around a million voters get to decide the destination of six electoral college votes. California has a population of 40 million people. So, you might expect that it would have 240 Electoral College votes, right? As in 6 X 40 = 240. But it doesn’t work like that. California has 55 Electoral College votes based on its 53 members of the House of Representatives and 2 Senators. So, a Presidential vote in Montana or Wyoming is worth quite a bit more than in California when it comes to influencing the outcome. 

Anyway – you probably know all that already. Below, in alphabetical order, are some other concepts to get your head around. 

Blue’ States and ‘Red’ States: In Europe blue tends to be a colour associated with a ‘conservative’ political outlook while ‘red’ usually indicates a progressive or left of centre philosophy. In the United States, as with so many things, those colours are reversed. The more conservative Republican party has long since appropriated the colour red, and the Democrats own the colour blue. This will make things far more confusing for a European audience. 

Blue shift: The opposite of ‘Red Mirage’ (see below). This is where postal ballots are counted and alter the ‘in person’ vote tally. Historically more Democrats than Republicans opt for postal ballots, a phenomenon likely to be accentuated because of the pandemic and because they don’t want to destroy the US Postal Service. Blue shift is where these Democratic postal ballots impact upon (but do not necessarily alter the result of) the election. For example, in the swing state (see below) of Pennsylvania in the past four Presidential elections there has been a ‘blue shift’ of 20,000 votes after the postal ballots have been counted. This could be considerably higher in 2020 with far more postal ballots being cast in the state, and could be enough to counter-balance a ‘red mirage’ whereby President Trump finished ahead of Joe Biden in the ‘in person’ vote. 

A data firm called Hawkfish (associated with the Democratic party) has predicted that the Election Night results (some of which will include postal ballots where they have been counted before 3 November) will show Trump in the lead and on course for a phenomenal 408 Electoral College (see below) votes. By 7 November, with 75% of ‘mail-in’ votes (see below) counted Biden will take the lead in the Electoral College with 280 votes. When all the votes are counted (sometime in 2034) Biden will have 334 Electoral College votes. What Hawkfish haven’t predicted is what the Republicans will do between 3-7 November to ensure that as few ‘mail-in’ votes are counted as possible.  

The Electoral College: Here you need to get out of your heads any idea of young people in their teens or early twenties staging drinking parties, using words like ‘sophomore’ and ‘varsity’ and shouting ‘Go Trojans’ through funnel-like megaphones. The Electoral College is a mechanism whereby the people of the USA do not directly elect their own President and ensures that smaller (generally more rural and more Republican) states are not overwhelmed by the much larger voting populations of the bigger states. Quite the contrary, as a matter of fact, thanks to the system installed by the ever wise and sagacious Founding Fathers (the ones who concluded that a slave was ‘three-fifths of a person’ ) smaller states have a voice in the Electoral College out of all proportion to their size. Part of the problem (if you’re a Democrat) is that all but two states operate a ‘winner take all’ system, so that if you win the state by a single vote you get all that state’s Electoral College votes. (Does it remind anyone of the equally democratic UK ‘first past the post’ system?)

Mail-in ballots:   These, according to President Trump, are the spawn of the devil, except when they are absentee ballots, in which case they are just fine because he uses them himself. The precise difference is so hard to explain that it’s hardly worth the effort. An absentee ballot tends to be something you apply for because, for some valid reason, you are unable to vote in person on election day. Except that it’s not. Thirty-six of the fifty states offer ‘no excuse’ absentee ballots for which you can apply without offering a reason why you’re really sorry but you won’t be able to show up at an actual polling station. You can merely be washing your hair that day and they’ll give you one. You then fill it out and post it off and it has the same status as the absentee ballots of which President Trump approves. What really pisses him off though are the states (Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah) that operate a universal ‘mail in’ voting system in elections and which automatically send a ballot out to each registered voter. Then it’s up to you whether or not to use it to vote or to make a paper aeroplane.   

Poll Watchers: You should be able to recognise them on election day because they are likely to be wearing MAGA baseball caps, QAnon tee-shirts and toting automatic weapons as they valiantly attempt to hold back the wave of fraudulent Democratic voters casting ballots on behalf of people who died in the 19th century and who last voted for Grover Cleveland. 

Red Mirage: The opposite of ‘blue shift’ (see above). This is the phenomenon where President Trump (and other Republican candidates) win a plurality of ‘in person’ votes and appear to have won a state on the night of the election. However, in some states where postal ballots are not counted until after ‘in person’ votes are tallied, the postal ballots are expected to show a significant Democratic party majority (far more registered Democrats (69%) have indicated that they will vote by mail than is the case with registered Republicans (19%) ). Hence the notion that the Republican ‘in person’ plurality is a temporary phenomenon only and is therefore a ‘red mirage’. In Florida in the 2018 mid-term elections, for example, the significant leads of many Republican candidates proved illusory as ‘mail in’ vote was counted, and Florida is a state that actually permits ‘mail in’ votes to be counted before election night. 

Safe harbo(u)r: 

Q: Does this refers to …

a) where we hope to be from Inauguration day 2021 to, at least, Inauguration Day 2025 (when we could end up with President Tucker Carlson or President Tom Cotton)  

b)  the final date by which states must have completed their counts and certified the winner of the Presidential poll in their jurisdiction. 

c) Canada

d) Secession

A:  b) – though the other three options are more attractive.

SCOTUS: The acronym for Supreme Court of the United States. Where the result of the entire Presidential election, like the 2000 Florida contest, is likely to end up and where most of the Justices have been appointed by Republican presidents who did not manage to secure a majority of the votes of the American electorate and have been confirmed by Republican-majority Senates where 70% of the membership represent 30% of the electorate. The almost inevitable appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett next week will have a pivotal impact. The eight-person SCOTUS recently split evenly on a lower court ruling that allowed the State of Pennsylvania three days leeway on the acceptance of ‘mail-in’ ballots. The even divide meant the lower court decision stood. The introduction of President Trump’s third SCOTUS nominee in three years will ensure, at the very least, that there will be no more split decisions. Is a Republican SCOTUS nominee more likely to make a ruling favourable to a Republican President? Is the Pop …? … just watch this space.

Swing states:  This has nothing whatever to do with intra-marital sex. The idiosyncratic Presidential election system in the USA has put two of the last three Presidents (both Republican) in the White House despite their losing the popular vote, though George W.Bush was re-elected in 2004 with a popular majority. The Electoral College system almost guarantees that a small number of states (around half a dozen) where Presidential races are traditionally tight, have a disproportionate influence on the result of the contest and, therefore, attract a disproportionate amount of the candidates’ campaigning time and advertising revenue. These states include Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Carolina. In times past Ohio and Iowa might also have been included. Current polls show Joe Biden ahead in most ‘swing’ states, although in the case of Florida and North Carolina, his lead is well within the margin for error.    

Voter suppression:  This take many forms and, traditionally, is a parlour game in which Republicans try to ensure that as few people of colour as possible are allowed to vote because it is assumed that they are too smart to vote against their economic interests (i.e. Republican). Obstacles put in the way of potential voters are the necessity to produce picture-ID at polling stations (widespread), the withdrawal of the franchise from convicted felons (Florida), the menacing presence of white men with armbands hanging around polling stations calling themselves the National Ballot Security Task Force (New Jersey Gubernatorial election, 1981), and Russian Facebook ads designed to discourage people of colour from voting because their candidate secretly hates them (The Internet). Added to the above list in 2020 will be the disqualification of absentee ballots because they have not been properly perfumed before despatch and don’t bear the legend ‘SWALK’. 

How the Electoral College votes are distributed – (this bit may actually be useful on the night!)



Does history suggest that the US President has the moral right to appoint a new Supreme Court Justice in an election year?

First off, let’s not kid ourselves by using the word ‘moral’ in the same sentence as ‘US President’, especially not in 2020. Appointing a Supreme Court justice has always been a plum to be plucked from the eponymous fruit tree by any incumbent of the Oval Office. With a third appointment looming, President Trump is hoping to have enough fruit for a jar of plum jam before the end of this year.    

The answer to the question posed above seems to depend on whether a) the President in question is a Republican or a Democrat b) which party controls the Senate, and c) just how much cynicism and utter shamelessness Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) can muster. Given that he didn’t even bother to wait until rigor mortis had set in before announcing that the Senate was ready to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Sunday brunch, his lack of self-reflection runs even deeper than any previous diagnosis indicated.    

The Notorious RBG

Back in 2016, according to Senator McConnell, it appears to have been morally repugnant to appoint a Democratic nominee, Merrick Garland, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS – they do love their acronyms!) in March of a Presidential election year – i.e a full eight months before the 8 November polling date. But, in 2020 it seems to be just dandy to start the same process less than eight weeksbefore another Presidential election. 

Of course the two situations are entirely different. The truth can be found in the Chinese Zodiac.

Chinese papercut art in for the year of the monkey 2016.

2016 was the Year of the Monkey while 2020 is, with a certain poetic inevitability, the Year of the Rat. Everyone knows that in a Year of the Monkey (1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016) it is not permitted, under an obscure amendment to the US Constitution of which only the senior Senator from Kentucky seems to have had sight, for the incumbent President (provided he is a Democrat) to appoint a new Associate Justice to a Supreme Court vacancy. These rules change completely, however, during any given Year of the Rat (1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020). The Founding Fathers knew exactly what they were doing (as with the right to bear arms against pre-school children and the fabulously democratic Electoral College) when they favoured a rodent over a primate in framing this ‘lost’ amendment to the Constitution. It appears to have been re-discovered by the Senate Majority leader hidden underneath the original document in the National Archives where it had been carelessly placed by an absent-minded Alexander Hamilton who was late for a production meeting with Lin Manuel Miranda. Chapeau Senator!  

If Mitch has the brass neck to try and push through Trump’s nominee (probably female and due next week) it will mean the 45th President will have manged three picks in a single term. That would be a good strike rate, but not overly impressive if we look at the history of Supreme Court appointments.  

Some Presidents got to nominate a hell of a lot of justices. Obviously George Washington is the Olympic gold medallist in this particular discipline because he appointed all the members of the very first Supreme Court (there were six back then). He has a personal best of eleven appointees over eight years. Franklin Roosevelt comes next, largely because he was in office for most of the 20th century. His PB was nine, over almost a dozen years in the White House. He tried really hard to beat Washington’s total though (see below). William Hoard Taft holds the record for a one-term President with six appointees, before becoming Chief Justice himself (he wasn’t one of his own nominees by the way – he was appointed by half-term President Warren Harding in 1921). 

If Trump succeeds in appointing a replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg and, in the process, changes the political complexion of the Court for a generation, would a newly elected Joe Biden have any possible comeback? Indeed he would. There have been nine SCOTUS justices on the Supreme Court bench since the passing of the Judiciary Act of 1869 – before that the number varied between six and ten. The total is determined, not by the President, the Court itself, or the Constitution, but by Congress. So, nothing like a time-consuming and unwinnable constitutional amendment (requiring the ratification of 38 states) is needed to change the status quo.

In 1937 Franklin D. Roosevelt, frustrated at having many of his New Deal reforms stymied by adverse Supreme Court decisions against the constitutionality of many of his measures proposed to, in effect, ‘pack’ the Supreme court with a majority of his own nominees. He sought to introduce legislation which might have had the effect of increasing the number of justices to fifteen. He wanted the power to appoint a new justice for every incumbent who opted not to retire at the age of seventy. In this particular political sleight of hand he was thwarted by members of his own party and the exclusive (male) club remained nine strong. It has done so to this day.


However, given the ’tradition’ that Senator McConnell established in 2016 and will conveniently ignore in 2020 (I won’t insult your intelligence by mentioning the Jesuitical reasoning by which he has informed his conscience, so that it allows him to flout his own ‘rules’) it should be in order for President Biden and a Democratic Congress to restore some political balance to the SCOTUS by adding one, or even two new, credible, and suitably qualified posteriors to the bench. That would make up for the SCOTUS pick denied President Obama in 2016, and newly elected President Biden (God that sounds soooo good) in 2020. 

And in case you are worried about having an even number on the court if he stops at one new appointee, fear not. In the event of a tied decision all cases go into overtime as the concept of a draw is not recognised in any truly American sport. Actually that’s not true, in the event of a tied vote the decision of the lower court being challenged in the high court, is duly confirmed. 

So, even if the handful of Republican Senators who have voiced opposition to a promotion to the SCOTUS during an election year are cajoled, bullied or intimidated into resiling from  the position held to so fervently by their own Majority leader in 2016, there are historical precedents for the Supreme Court bench to number more than nine Justices and there is no impediment to Congress adopting that course of action in 2021, the Year of the Ox.    

BRITTANIA WAIVES THE RULES: Due process or Kangaroo Courts? The 1916 Courts Martial and executions.

With the UK government currently in the throes of contravening international law it might be instructive to look at a previous occasion on which Brittania ‘waived the rules’ and how this affected Ireland. 

While there is a world of difference between the attempt by Boris and Dom to renege on the Brexit deal that helped get Johnson elected in December, and the Dublin executions in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, both illustrate a predilection for British ‘improvisation’ when it comes to rules and procedures.  While the Dublin firing squads of May 1916 might be seen as an understandable British political reaction to a perceived ‘stab in the back’ from the ‘Bolshie Paddies’ they were established with precious little legal cover or legitimacy.

159 men and one woman, adjudged by the British military authorities to have taken a lead in the Easter Rising, were tried by court martial in May 1916. Ninety-three were sentenced to death, fifteen were executed. 

What has finally emerged, only within the last two decades, are the actual records of the courts martial. They are, in the main, flimsy documents but in that respect are probably reflective of the cursory nature of the tribunals themselves. They do not always tally with the memories, memoirs and statements of those who took part in the process – including those taken by the Bureau of Military History in the 1940s and 50s – but their release in 2001 added a crucial element to the, often contradictory, narrative of one of the most momentous weeks in the history of Ireland under the Union. They also helped to underscore the lack of legitimacy—on numerous levels—of the tribunals that preceded the firing squads. They offer confirmatory evidence of what had long been surmised, that legal ‘due process’ was not observed by the military authorities in May 1916.

On 25 April the British Cabinet had declared martial law throughout Ireland. The following day a Military Governor, General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell was appointed. He was given ‘full authority to restore order, put down the rebellion and punish its participants’.  He took his political masters at their word.

Maxwell first toyed with the idea of trying the ‘ringleaders’ of the Rising under martial law itself. But, in essence, once a military emergency has passed martial law ‘withers’ and the military, in theory at any rate, cannot simply execute prisoners merely because of their involvement in the civil strife which had led to the invocation of martial law in the first place. At least not without a trial. [Not that such niceties had saved the lives of around fifty South African rebels during the Boer War]

In the Bureau of Military History statement of a former admiralty lawyer, 2nd Lt. Alfred Bucknill – later Mr. Justice Bucknill –  who had been sent to Ireland as a young man to assist Maxwell, he makes it clear that Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had instructed Maxwell that…  

At all costs whatever was done would have to be done legally, there would have to be a complete answer to possible criticism in the House of Commons. 

Bucknill was charged with ensuring that Maxwell did what he was told and observed due process. Instead, as the foremost authority on the subject Judge Sean Enright, author of Easter Rising 1916: The Trials, has observed, ‘Unfettered by either law or lawyers, Maxwell was guided by pragmatism’.

In essence Maxwell made up the rules as he went along and was guided in his choices by an affiliation to the military culture of maintaining discipline through the court martial process, even where that contravened natural justice. One of Maxwell’s priorities was the prevention of a recrudescence of rebellion by eliminating the leadership cadre of the rebels. He was there to ‘restore order’, as per his instructions, by culling rather than cuddling. 

He quickly decided that his best option was to court-martial the leaders of the insurrection, not under martial law but under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act. DORA had been passed in September 1914 and augmented on many subsequent occasions by executive order and/or by amending Act of Parliament. It began as an enabling paragraph of legislation and ended with more than 650 pages of regulations.

RICHMOND BARRACKS – site of the courts martial in 1916

Bear in mind that while martial law does confer extraordinary powers of arrest and detention on a military government it does not, per se, suspend the normal legal process of trial in open court for the commission of a felony, including the crime of treason-felony. While you might get away with exemplary and illegal punishments in India or South Africa there would be far more scrutiny of the aftermath of a rebellion on Britain’s own doorstep. Maxwell would also have been aware that his actions under martial law would be ‘justiciable’ – in other words he, and others, could be held criminally liable for any extra-legal actions for which they were judged responsible.

It is important to distinguish between a trial in the aftermath or even in the course of a martial law regime, and a court martial under emergency legislation like the Defence of the Realm Act. 

An early provision in the DORA legislation provided for trial of civilians by General Court Martial rather than through the regular courts system. This facility was availed of infrequently.

DORA, based on the rules of the General Court Martial (GCM), called for the creation of 

  1. a court with up to thirteen members (and a minimum of five) 
  2. a professional judge  
  3. a legal advocate,
  4. trials to be conducted openly. 

In the case of a court marital of a civilian under DORA the death penalty was not applicable except in the extreme case of ‘assisting the enemy’.  

However, the procedure adopted by Maxwell in Dublin in 1916 was closer to that of a ‘drumhead’ court martial of the type normally seen at the battlefront – these were officially known as Field General Courts Martial (FGCM) and they were permitted where a General Court Martial was deemed  ‘not practicable’. 

But even a more ‘improvisational’ Field General Court Martial, convened at the front in time of war—and primarily conducted in the interests of discipline rather than strict justice— still had procedures of its own laid down in the military rulebook. Even those rather basic rules were not followed by Maxwell in 1916.  

The Volunteer leaders were tried by three-judge military courts. This was permissible under FGCM rules, but there were no defence representatives present and all trials were held in camera. This was not permitted even under military law and were certainly not envisioned in DORA legislation.

Furthermore, in the case of verdicts handed down by FGCM’s the office of the Judge Advocate General, based in London, well away from the exigencies of the front, had a right of oversight and could countermand or afford clemency on sight of the court martial transcripts. This did not occur in the case of the 1916 trials. During the later War of Independence (1919-21) the JAG’s office would zealously ensure that it retained its oversight capacity when it came to the sentencing of IRA prisoners.

In addition, there was no mechanism for the judicial appeal of a court martial verdict. The only recourse was to Maxwell himself, who was obliged to confirm or commute the sentences. The military administration had unilaterally seized itself of Lord Lieutenant Wimborne’s powers of clemency in capital cases. Correspondence between Wimborne and Maxwell suggests that the former would only have countenanced the executions of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation and disapproved of the much wider and more controversial blood-letting. As it happens there was no provision under DORA for the removal of the Royal prerogative power of the Lord Lieutenant when it came to clemency exercised on behalf of the monarch. During the War of Independence it was re-asserted, despite the imposition of martial law. 

Maxwell’s template might well have seemed appropriate given the circumstances of the rebellion but it still amounted to arbitrary procedure and, in essence, led to summary execution. Even the British Adjutant General, Sir Neville Macready, conceded, for example, that ‘There is no legal justification for a Court Martial to be held in camera, either in the Army Act, or in any regulation under the Defence of the Realm Act.’

Coincidentally, and significantly, four British soldiers were tried for murders committed during the Rising. They were tried by General Court Martial [not FGCM] – that procedure was deemed ‘practicable’ in their cases – and the four were allowed legal representation. 

The Easter Rising courts martial took place in Richmond Barracks over a nine-day period, with two trials generally taking place simultaneously. One of the prosecutors was thirty-five-year old 2nd Lieutenant William Evelyn Wylie, a Dublin barrister. Wylie left a record of his participation in the form of a memoir written for his daughter. This was subsequently edited and published by historian Leon O’Broin. It’s an account of Wylie’s increasing disillusionment with the courts martial process. He objected to the trials being conducted in camera and often did his best to mitigate the absence of defence counsel.


‘Prisoner No.1’ Pearse was court-martialled on the afternoon of 2 May. The President of the Court, as was to be the case with most of the prominent leaders of the Rising, was Brigadier General Charles Blackader, a forty-six-year old career soldier who would, shortly thereafter, lead the 38th (Welsh) Division through the horrors of the Somme. Wylie was prosecuting attorney. 

Blackader’s involvement was, to say the least, also of dubious legality. Even under the more permissive Field General Court Martial process the rules of procedure specifically excluded presiding officers who had a potential conflict of interest – as commander of 176 Brigade, which included the Sherwood Foresters and which had incurred most of the 1916 British military casualties, Blackader should have stood down. The same was true of the president of the parallel court martial, Colonel Ernest Maconchy – a native of Longford – who was the CO of the Sherwood Foresters. Both men had egregious conflicts of interest and should not have been permitted to participate in the courts martial process. 

A veneer of legality was retained in this respect by the fact that the members of the court ritually identified themselves to each of the prisoners prior to their court martial. The prisoners had the right to object to any of the officers presiding over their cases. But, at least as far as is revealed in the transcripts, at no point was the significance of this right explained to the prisoners. 

Pearse, pleaded not guilty to the charge that he  ‘ … did take part in an armed rebellion and in the waging of war against His Majesty the King such act being of such a nature as to be calculated to be prejudicial to the Defence of the Realm and being done with the intention and for the purpose of assisting the enemy’.

The latter element of the charge was crucial – as civilians, none of those being court-martialled could legitimately be executed without proof that they had consorted with Germany. The charge of colluding with the enemy was, in the circumstances, not as easy to establish as it sounds. It required direct and convincing testimony or clear documentary evidence. In reality, however, these were in camera tribunals where the military authorities could, in effect, do whatever they wanted, however dubious the evidence. Maxwell had seen to that.

The transcript of Pearse’s court martial reveals, however, that he admitted collusion – he referred to having opened negotiations with Germany. Included in Pearse’s file is a letter written to his mother written from prison after the collapse of the Rising. It runs to four pages. Included at the top of Page 1 is a post-script which reads ‘

P.S. I understand that the German Expedition which I was counting on actually set sail but was defeated by the British’

It was an admission that legally entitled the court martial to sentence Pearse to death. However, it appears to have been equally significant for others similarly charged.


At no point in any of the other transcripts, or the individual files associated with those court-martialled, is any reference made to ‘assisting the enemy’, other than the reading out of the original charge. There is no indication in the transcripts that the presiding officers indicated to the prisoners the importance of that particular element of the charge. In fact, it is clear from the transcripts that the only evidence taken by the courts martial was designed to satisfy the presiding officers that the prisoner had, indeed, taken part in the rising. All the prosecution testimony recorded is identification evidence. 

In fact, in a number of instances, prisoners specifically refer to the charge of collusion and, in unsworn statements [they were not allowed to give sworn evidence on their own behalf] denied any such involvement. Ned Daly told his court martial that ‘The reason I pleaded “not guilty” was because I had no dealings with any outside forces …’

It is clear from John MacBride’s own statement, as well as corroborating sworn defence witness evidence, that he joined the rebellion at the last minute, was not a member of the Volunteers and, therefore, could not have conspired to collude with Germany. That did not prevent him being found guilty and executed.

However, it appears that the courts martial took the view that the Pearse postscript – which, it is often argued, he may well have been appended to guarantee his own execution – was used, without any overt reference to that fact, in all subsequent cases and became a convenient fig leaf which allowed the presiding officers to hand down death sentences on 93 prisoners.  

Significantly Blackader appears in the case of the second court martial, that of Thomas MacDonagh, to be looking for an alternative to the Pearse postscript, in order to sentence the prisoner to death by establishing collusion with Germany.

After MacDonagh had been arraigned Blackader had asked Wylie to produce a copy of the 1916 Proclamation. This would, Blackader blithely assumed, establish beyond doubts the prisoner’s collaboration with the enemy because of the controversial reference in the text to ‘our gallant allies in Europe’. 

Wylie, however, pointed out that the provenance of the document (of which he actually had a copy) could not be established and, therefore, it was not admissible in evidence. The proclamation was a printed document. It would be necessary to locate the original and confirm the signatures before it could be presented as evidence. Wylie advised that the presiding officers expunge it from their minds when considering their verdicts and sentencing. 

After the court martial of MacDonagh, Wylie began a practice of consulting with prisoners about to face trial while the court was considering its verdict in a previous case. This was with a view to discovering whether they wished to call defence witnesses. Pearse, MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke had been given no opportunity to produce any such mitigating evidence. 

Partly as a result of Wylie’s intervention, Eamon Ceannt’s court martial continued into a second day when he called three defence witnesses. Ceannt argued that in his case ‘there is reasonable doubt’ about the fact of his participation in the rebellion, ‘and the benefit of the doubt should be given to the accused.’  He was certainly not convicted on the basis of the quality of the evidence presented against him. For example, the only prosecution witness who testified at Ceannt’s court martial seemed convinced that Ceannt had been in command at the Jacob’s Biscuit factory. In fact, he had led the South Dublin Union Volunteers, whose surrender had taken place at Jacobs. Ceannt was able to cross-examine that witness, Major Armstrong of the Inniskilling Fusiliers, and call witnesses of his own to refute the suggestion that he had served in Jacob’s factory – these included John MacBride, who openly admitted to being (albeit belatedly) part of the Jacobs factory command structure. Ceannt also, cleverly, called Thomas MacDonagh as a witness. He must have known MacDonagh had already been executed, but by requesting that MacDonagh speak up on his behalf Ceannt was throwing the untimely speed of the executions into perspective. Arguably, the authorities had a legal obligation to postpone carrying out sentences of execution on the convicted rebel leaders until the courts martial were completed and they were no longer required as potential witnesses. This was candidly accepted by the Home Office official, Edward Troup, in a conversation with Herbert Asquith in 1917 when they discussed (and long fingered) the issue of publishing the court martial transcripts.

Ceannt also explicitly denied ‘assisting the enemy’ and pointed out in his unsworn statement that ‘the Crown did not even tender evidence in this regard’. A reading of Ceannt’s court martial transcript suggests that, in an open criminal court with the customary level of evidential testing, the Crown might well have failed to establish a bona fide case against him.


This suspicion is reinforced by an opinion offered by the Adjutant General, Sir Neville Macready, on the issue of whether or not the accounts of the courts martial should be released. Publication had been promised by Asquith to the House of Commons in October 1916. Having consulted with Maxwell, General Macready wrote: 

Publication is in my opinion a complete admission that there was no justification for trial in camera … [and] I have reason to believe that in certain cases the evidence was not too strong 

He was referring to the flawed testimony in Ceannt’s case. Subsequently, in 1917, Ceannt’s widow, Frances Ceannt, sought a transcript of the court marital and was refused access to the document on the grounds of ‘privilege from production of these proceedings for reasons of public policy.’  Ned Daly’s mother made a similar request. This too was denied, on the basis of ‘public interest’.

The court martial process was a mass of anomalies, contradictions and unsafe procedures and verdicts. Both the transcripts, as well as subsequent memoirs and testimonies, underline the relative paucity of information available to the Crown forces that would have enabled them to identify readily those chiefly responsible for the rebellion. Men of little consequence, like Willie Pearse (a glorifed aide de camp to his brother) were executed, while the timing of his court martial [8 May] and the political row over the murder of Francis Sheehy Skeffington—according to the BMH witness statement of Alfred Bucknill—ensured that one of the most successful commandants of the Rising, Eamon de Valera, was spared. It is a well-squashed myth that Dev’s survival had anything to do with his being born in the USA. He was fortunate to have been held at first in the RDS after the Volunteer surrender, thus delaying his court-martial. 

The arrival of Prime Minister Asquith in Dublin on 12 May might also have contributed to the failure to execute Eamon de Valera. Wylie records that Maxwell consulted him on the importance of de Valera, a commandant, [3rd Battalion] and therefore of similar rank to many of the executed leaders, and of higher rank than others who were shot. Maxwell asked Wylie “I wonder would he be likely to make trouble in the future?” To which Wylie responded “I wouldn’t think so, sir, I don’t think he is important enough. From all I can hear he is not one of the leaders.” Apart from the ex post facto comic element of the conversation, it’s an interesting insight into Maxwell’s thinking, and into his motivation for approving so many of the death sentences imposed by the courts martial – i.e., the eradication of future potential trouble makers. 

Asquith, while defending Maxwell in the House of Commons, must have been belatedly aware that due process played little or no part in the field general courts martial process. Force majeure, the inclination towards retribution, and a desire to geld the nascent physical force movement by killing off its leadership corps, were far more in evidence in May 1916.

On the other hand … there is little doubt that the unwonted savagery of the British reaction to the rebellion was one of the factors (along with the attempt to introduce conscription in 1918 and the toll of Irish war dead between 1914-18) that led to the 1918 Sinn Féin landslide, the War of Independence, and, ultimately, legislative freedom for twenty-six Irish counties. A freedom which means that, unlike the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland, a bad case of revanchist English nationalism, will not ensure our forced exit from the European Union on 1 January 2021.  

Kilmainham Gaol – location of the executions