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 – https://eprints.maynoothuniversity.ie/5209/1/Johm_Noel_McEvoy_20140711125056.pdf

[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.

The ‘Other’ War of Independence. Land Appropriation during the Anglo-Irish War. Part 2 – ‘Back to the Land’ and cattle driving – two sides of the New Land War.

Contemporary cartoon depicting some of the allegations heard by the Times/Parnell Commission

The Special Commission on Parnellism and Crime was, in its avowed aims, a spurious exercise. Its proceedings being described by one enforced observer, the reporter John MacDonald of the London Daily News, as ‘a dismal monotone of cruelty and crime … the viva voce history of a people, one of the dreariest, saddest histories in the world.’[i] It was principally intended to establish the authenticity of the Times facsimile letter of 18 April 1887 (and a variety of related correspondence) which linked Parnell directly to the activities of the lethal Invincibles. 

            It amounted, constructively, to a self-serving indictment by the Tory government of the Irish Parliamentary Party and was designed to establish links between the Parnellites and some of the most shocking agrarian ‘outrages’ (the mot du jour) of the early 1880’s. It dismally and spectacularly failed in the former objective but was somewhat more successful in the latter. For most of its proceedings the Times (as de facto prosecutors) offered a doleful parade of the alleged victims of abuse and mistreatment in rural Ireland, who had, by their own accounts, fallen foul of Ribbon-Fenianism, ‘moonlighters’, vindictive Land League ‘court’ decisions, or sectional feuds. Some of the avowed victims were clearly charlatans tempted by the inducements of the Times to tell the Commissioners what the newspaper wanted them to hear. Some, however, were credible and compelling, and helped to convey the picture of an Ireland in which there was precious little of those much-touted mythical qualities of empathy, fraternity and collaboration in evidence. While Irish peasant society was never quite as Dante-esque and oppressive as the Times attested, it certainly qualified for entry into, at the very least, the Fourth or Fifth Circle of Hell (Greed and Wrath).

             Late Victorian Irish rural society fell far short of the idyllic. Its vices were as numerous as its virtues, despite the prevailing mythos of a noble and beleaguered Irish peasantry, more ‘sinned against than sinning’, whose occasional forays into violent behaviour—aimed solely at the forces of reaction, of course—were entirely justified on the basis of the iniquitous tenurial system against which they struggled. 

            A generation later circumstances had not changed all that markedly. The fissures that existed in the late nineteenth century were still in evidence three decades later. In some respects they had widened. In the intervening period the economics and practice of Irish agriculture had altered considerably. Some of the changes were derived from the continued fallout of the utilitarian post-Famine abandonment of the practice of subdividing farms, and the tacit acceptance of the more pragmatic system of inter-generational land transfer based on primogeniture. While this had positive elements—unbroken holdings could remain economically viable—it also had negative ramifications in the continued drain of post-Famine emigration. In the case of the Clinton family of Cloggagh, Co. Meath (cousins of my great-grandmother) this is starkly illustrated by the migration of almost an entire generation of Clintons (male and female) to the USA around the turn of the nineteenth century.      

            But, in addition, the fundamentals of Irish agricultural practice were also changing. There had been a distinct movement from tillage to pasture / livestock farming. An inevitable prerequisite for this development was an increase in the size of farms. One of the consequences was the reduced need for farm labourers. Both phenomena served to fuel an increased land hunger amongst the members of the lower socio-economic agricultural class to whom few benefits had accrued from the advance of ‘peasant proprietorship’. Driven mostly by Tory governments intent on ‘killing Home rule with kindness’ this trend had begun with the establishment of the ameliorative Congested Districts Board in the 1890s, expanded in scope with the Land Act of 1903—introduced by the Tory Chief Secretary George Wyndham—and  culminated in (the Liberal Chief Secretary) Augustine Birrell’s 1909 refinement of Wyndham’s template for tenant land purchase. The latter, for the first time, envisaged the compulsory purchase of estates and the re-distribution of land to tenant farmers on attractive terms via the Estates Commission or the Congested Districts Board.

            The popular expression of this land hunger was exemplified by ad hoc committees bent on acquiring and redistributing land[ii]. These were often led by local Sinn Fein activists. The illegal seizure of land would often be reinforced by the erection of flags staking a claim and bearing the legend ‘Occupied by order of the Irish Republic’ whether or not the annexation had any official sanction. In one instance sheep driven from the fields of an Anglo-Irish landowner were daubed in the green, white and gold of the tricolour.[iii]

            In parts of the country where the local Sinn Fein leadership attempted to dampen the enthusiasm of the appropriators, groups like the Back to the Land movement were ready to step in and lead. This organisation sought to purchase estates, divide the land into modest but viable parcels, and distribute farms to landless labourers or other aspiring agriculturalists. Back to the Land was supported, in theory at least, by bodies like the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the United Irish League—umbrella organisation of the Irish Parliamentary Party—and elements of the Trade Union movement. Indeed, at times, branches of the movement found it difficult to resist absorption into the UIL, as the Irish Party’s organisational behemoth practised what the late David Fitzpatrick has referred to as ‘the techniques of the party vampire’ in his magisterial study of County Clare in Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921[iv].  

            Back to the Land, whose emblem was that of a farmer behind his plough—rather than one driving someone else’s cattle at the dead of night[v]—had the resources to purchase or make offers, independent of the official Estates/Land Commissioners[vi] or the Congested Districts Board, on entire estates or large farms.[vii]  It appears that enterprising (or prudent) bank managers were willing to fund such transactions.[viii] Whether the offers always represented fair market value was a moot point, but if the alternative was a period of prolonged agitation—spiced with occasional violent interludes[ix]—the option of selling up was often preferable for the landowner. After all, many Irish nationalists had a philosophical objection to compensating landlords for estates deemed to have been illicitly appropriated centuries before. Nationalist opposition to the 1903 Wyndham Act had been based on the generous settlement terms afforded departing landowners.  When it came to the expropriation of land, Irish memories were elephantine. The Meath Chronicle caught something of the wistful ambiguity of an organisation advancing money to the reliquaries of the landlord class in a report of a Back to the Land executive meeting in April 1922.

‘They had made it plain that they were not out for confiscation and were prepared to give full value for any land they got, even though they might believe that it had come unjustly into the hands of the present owners.’[x]

The Back to the Land movement achieved considerable traction—albeit sometimes occasioned by the implicit threat of apres moi le deluge—in realising the ambitions of would-be farmers and landless labourers. Around the town of Oldcastle, Co. Meath alone, by the end of 1919, more than three thousand acres of ‘estate’ land had been divided among one hundred and seventy families by the local organisers of the movement. In March 1921, in its most significant coup, the fourteen hundred acre McRory Estate, also in County Meath, was purchased and divided among eighty families. The sale of the Fitzherbert family Proudstown Estate, part of which was to be used for the creation of Navan Racecourse, was not allowed to proceed until four hundred acres of the estate had first been purchased by Back to the Land.[xi] The owners were in no doubt about the ability of the organisation to prevent the sale going through. In 1917 Back to the Land had sought, unsuccessfully, to acquire the entire estate. In late September of that year, with North Meath MP Patrick White in attendance, an auction had proceeded for the sale of Proudstown at which, mirabile dictu, there was not a single bid.[xii]

            On the far murkier side of lawlessness was the practice of ‘cattle driving’. This was a refinement of the interventionist policies of the Land League in the 1880s, although it lacked the legitimacy of the nineteenth century ‘boycott’—a practice that continued into twentieth century Ireland. Cattle driving was an explicit and illicit response to the proliferation in certain parts of the country of ‘ranches’. These were large, consolidated (or occasionally scattered) holdings devoted entirely to pasture and to the rearing of livestock, some of sheep but mostly of cattle. The landless—or land deficient—class was losing out on two fronts to this relatively new development in Irish agriculture. With minimal requirement for the agricultural labour previously employed in tillage, the opportunities for the rural poor to make a living were reduced considerably. The ability of the increasingly prosperous ‘graziers’ to acquire additional land by purchase or rental, also shut out smaller farmers, and even the leadership of the Back to the Land movement,[xiii] from capitalising on the erosion of the landlord class and the disintegration of large estates. 

            Cattle ‘driving’— a reaction to large scale livestock grazing—was an activity associated with a period of renewed agrarian activism (1906-09) known as the Ranch War, but it was by no means confined to that period and continued, as a tactic, for many years after the passage of the Birrell Land Act of 1909. This was remedial legislation designed to put an end to the anti-grazier campaign. As the name suggests, cattle driving involved the enforced (and usually nocturnal) removal of a grazier’s mobile assets (his livestock) to a place of detriment far removed from his farm. It was slightly more humane than the ‘cattle houghing’ of the Land War in which livestock were deliberately maimed, although that barbarous practice continued as well. 

            Another legacy of the Land War and the Plan of Campaign was the use of the boycott as a weapon against graziers, or landlords, reluctant to divest themselves of their property. In December 1908, in the village of Cormeen, a few miles from the Clinton farm at Cloggagh, the Meath Chronicle reported that an ‘eleven month’ letting (a short-term lease and a device often used to circumvent decades of tenant right legislation) that was due to take place had mysteriously fallen through. The auctioneer, who had arrived by train from distant Enfield in the deep south of the county to bring down the gavel on the transaction, was informed that he was not welcome. He took both the information to heart, and the next train back to Enfield, from the nearby village of Kilmainhamwood. No auction or sale took place.[xiv] It was, on occasions, only the intervention of the Royal Irish Constabulary, in considerable force, which ensured that auctions went ahead.[xv]

Laurence Ginnell, Westmeath MP and TD

            Leading and exemplifying the ‘cattle driving’ movement was that scourge of the grazier, the maverick nationalist MP Laurence Ginnell from Westmeath. Elected as an Irish Parliamentary Party MP in 1906 Ginnell had never quite settled into subservience. He had first come to the attention of the House of Commons with a series of questions on the 1907 theft of the Irish ‘Crown Jewels’ from Dublin Castle. The tone of his queries suggested that he might have some inkling as to the identity of the thieves himself, and that they were to be found nestling in the arms of the British establishment.[xvi] His advocacy of cattle driving as an antidote to the social implications of increasing pastoralism set him at odds with the Irish party leadership. Their ways parted in 1909 when he sought, and was denied, access to the party accounts. He sat as an Independent nationalist until 1918 when he made the logical leap to Sinn Fein and became a TD after the Republican landslide in the December election.   

            The ‘battle cry’ adopted by the cattle drivers, and often articulated by Ginnell, ‘the land for the people, and the bullock for the road’, was a subversive variation of the famous slogan of the Land League, ‘The Land for the People’. One of the responses of the graziers to the threat of having their cattle forcibly re-located was the recruitment of vigilante ‘Emergency men’ to guard their bovine gold.[xvii]  Activists of the Ranch War prospered in Ginnell’s bailiwick of County Westmeath. As one of his allies was the MP for South Meath, David Sheehy, the same applied to the neighbouring county. Sheehy—father in law of Thomas Kettle and Francis Sheehy Skeffington—was a septuagenarian, largely absentee, public representative by the time of the onset of the Great War. But his credibility, when it came to land agitation, was non pareilcourtesy of a period of eighteen months incarceration ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’ during the Plan of Campaign of the late 1880s.  

(Tomorrow, in the final blog in this series, how the New Land War came to County Meath – with violent and tragic consequences)


[i] John MacDonald, Daily News Diary of the Parnell Commission (London, 1890),19 & 27.

[ii] See 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), 127-150 and Fergus Cambell, ‘The Last Land War? Kevin O’Shiel’s Memoir of the Irish Revolution (1916-21)’, Archivium Hibernicum, Vol. 57 (2003), 155-200

[iii] Maurice Walsh, Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World, (New York-London, 2015), 179.

[iv] David Fitzpatrick, Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921: Provincial Experience of War and Revolution (Cork, 1999), 101.

[v] Ultan Courtney, Mapping the Revolution: Maps, Mayhem and Murder in Co. Meath, 1916-1921 (Dublin, 2019), 13.

[vi] The Estates Commission was ‘a body created within the Land Commission to administer the new legislation’ (i.e. the 1903 Wyndham Act). Varley in ‘Gaining Ground, Losing Ground’, Campbell & Varley (eds), Land Questions, 29. 

[vii] Meath Chronicle, 28 February 1920 reported ‘Back to the Land – Castletown branch

‘The above association have [sic] recently purchased the late Dyas farm of 132 acres from Mr. J.H.Thompson which is now in course of division among landless men and uneconomic holders …’. 20 March 1920 – negotiations underway for the purchase of the Liscarton estate.  

[viii] Maurice Walsh, Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World, (New York-London, 2015), 177.

[ix] Kevin O’Shiel, ‘No contempt of court’, Irish Times 21 November 1966.

[x] Meath Chronicle, 8 April 1922.

[xi] Oliver Coogan, Politics and War in Meath 1913-23, (Meath, 1983), 292.

[xii] Coogan, Politics and War in Meath, 25.

[xiii] Meath Chronicle, 17 April 1920 ‘Martry Back to the Land offer of £22,000 not accepted’.

[xiv] Meath Chronicle, 26 December 1908.

[xv] Courtney, The Blinding Light, 59.

[xvi] Myles Dungan, The Theft of the Irish Crown Jewels, (Dublin 2003), Chapter Five, ‘Star Chamber’  

[xvii] Patrick O’Reilly, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement #1650, 4.

The ‘Other’ War of Independence – Land Appropriation during the Anglo-Irish War – Part 1

Captain Charles Boycott – well-known agrarian neologism

(This is the first of three pieces on the often ignored parallel conflict being waged at the same time as the War of Independence – an extension of the 1906-09 Range War, it involved the opportunistic appropriation of land by small farmers and landless labourers in rural Ireland)

Land Wars – the context                      

 ‘Changes in the use to which the land of a country is put affect its whole social organisation, and of no change can this be said with more truth than of the transfer of land from tillage to pasture.’[i]

Irish Agricultural Statistics Report, 1901.

It is a struggle known to posterity as a ‘war’. It is even assigned a specific start date, it concluded with a ‘treaty’, had its own generals, NCOs and ‘grunts’, and ample scope for ‘collateral damage’. But whether there were enough violent fatalities during the Land War (1879-82) to justify the hyperbolic assignation ‘war’ is highly debatable. However, the more pedantic alternative, ‘The Lengthy Late Victorian Interlude of Irish Agrarian Civil Strife’ probably lacks a certain pithiness.  

            The presumptive opening of the conflict was 20 April 1879, the date of an angry and well-attended rent protest meeting in Irishtown, Co. Mayo. The three year struggle was deemed to have concluded in early May 1882 with the covert and deniable ‘Kilmainham Treaty’, a climbdown on both sides brokered by a charlatan (the preening Captain William O’Shea, husband of Parnell’s ‘mistress’, Katharine). The armistice was, or so the received wisdom goes, all neatly tied up in green ribbon just in time for the Phoenix Park murders on 6 May 1882.   

            Except, of course, that it wasn’t. Agrarian civil strife did not peter out just in time for the slashing intervention of the Invincibles. It merely lay fallow until the onset of the Plan of Campaign in 1886, when, on a somewhat diminished scale, the whole mêlée kicked off again. When that more ‘managerial’ engagement finally died down there was a brief hiatus until the improvisational ‘Ranch War’ of the early twentieth century (1906-09). 

Punch magazine’s take on the Phoenix Park murders

            Whatever you might choose to call it, the pivotal Land War of 1879-82, offers some of the more beguiling myths of nineteenth century Irish history. The mythology—born of that noble imagined past dreamed up in the pages of An Claidheamh Soluis and the meeting rooms of the National Literary Society—took it as axiomatic that a dogged and unified tenantry opposed an oppressive and seigneurial landholding élite and, courtesy of inspired leadership and peasant cohesion, routed the forces of feudalism a mere century after the French had adopted the more convenient shortcut of the guillotine to achieve a similar purpose. 

            While there is a significant seam of truth in the motherlode of myth, the reality is rather less fuzzy and heartening than the holy writ. Leadership there certainly was. The likes of Charles Stewart Parnell—so conspicuous a political ‘chief’ that he is invariably allotted his middle name by historians—Michael Davitt, and William O’Brien, were prepared to take personal and political risks in the cause of agrarian reform. There was also undoubted co-operation and solidarity among the rank and file membership of the Land League. Without collaboration, voluntary or enforced, the political and economic strategy that became known as ‘boycotting’—so-called, apparently, because a Mayo priest realised that his congregation could not get their tongues around  the word ‘ostracisation’ and named the practice after its most celebrated victim—would have been nullified.

            But the proposition that a resolute, united Irish peasantry marched in lockstep to vanquish the cloistered and privileged occupants of the ‘big house’, is as erroneous as it is alluring. One eminent Irish historian has warned against ‘the warm glow of old assumptions about this being a highlight of the ever-onward march of human liberty and progress…’[ii] Supporters of the Land League were prone to just as much insubordination, backbiting, intimidation, disloyalty, insularity, victimisation and intra-organisational anarchy as the membership of any radical socio-political movement before or since. Furthermore, the Land League was not an organisation in which, in any real sense, an empowered peasantry took control of its own destiny. The leadership of the organisation came, predominantly, from a rural merchant caste with a vested interest in targeting the country’s landlords, and a bloc of relatively comfortable farmers with a vested interest in protecting their own comforts.[iii] As the historian R. V. Comerford has put it succinctly, ‘there were many hundreds on horseback at the Irishtown meeting’.[iv] The Land League campaign, according to Joseph Lee, simply ‘crowned the strong farmer as the cock of the country walk.’[v]

            While the Irish peasantry may have provided the shock troops, when it came to the leadership cadre the Land War pitted rancher and retailer against rentier. It was the ‘ ‘strong farmer’ tenants’[vi] who, along with their temporary allies—the millers and milliners—were the real winners of an agrarian conflict that began long before 1879 and, like the Hundred Years War, renewed itself from time to time when the protagonists recovered from their exhaustion or encountered terrain that looked strategically advantageous. However, by the early twentieth century it was the erstwhile partners of the 1880s who were at each other’s throats. The graziers and the small farmers, temporary allies in the tussle for proprietorship, found they had little to unite them any longer. 

            The unlikely coalition had originally been a function of mutually declining fortunes.   

            Resources were squeezed during the worldwide economic depression that followed on from one of those periodic ‘panics’ in the US economy. This one was the ‘Panic of ‘73’, scion of the ‘Panic of ’57, parent of the ‘Panic of ’93. The Irish tenant farmer, who, by the 1880s, had come to rely on credit advanced by the shopkeepers of the market towns of rural Ireland, was faced with a stark choice. He could use his dwindling resources to pay the rent owed on his landholding. Alternatively he could repay his debts to the shopkeepers who provided him with groceries, seeds, hardware, and the occasional luxury, ‘on tick’. 

            By taking control of an organisation which validated (and even elevated) the practice of declining to remit bi-annual rent payments, the shopkeepers who assumed leadership positions in the Land League were simply protecting their own interests. The message, though understated, left no room for ambiguity, The Merchant of Ennis whispered, ‘if you can’t pay your rent and your domestic debts, then refuse to pay rent to Lord [here insert name of local aristocrat] until you get an abatement.’ 

            This classic ‘revolution of rising expectations’—the phrase had originated with that most welcome of 19th century tourists, Alexis de Tocqueville—was no free-for-all blitz on property, merely a highly targetted mugging of the landholding aristocracy, in which ‘one class of Irish capitalists waged economic war against another class of Irish capitalists.’[vii] Debts owed to banks, merchants or the local ‘gombeen man’ (moneylender) were entirely exempt from this assault. The country’s landlords, previously secure behind their demesne walls—unless their own debts  became excessive—discovered the truth of the axiom, ‘there is no honour among thieves’.

            The relative flexibility of the system of mercantile debt (which implied the continued extension of credit even when only a percentage of the debt was repaid), in tandem with the need to make future purchases from shopkeepers in a growing ‘cash’ economy, ultimately triumphed over the absolute inflexibility of the tenurial system. In the latter instance a large wad of cash was paid over, in full, twice a year–or else![viii] The Land League held out the prospect of pulling the teeth of the ‘or else’. It offered the tenant farmer a place of sanctuary—though the roof often leaked—and the prospect of continuing to have his cake, albeit on account, while eating it. 

            But the abiding myth bequeathed by the agrarian ferment of the 1880s was the notion that a revolutionary spirit of equality and fraternity motivated and united the Irish peasantry throughout the Land War. This was a convenient ex post facto construct fashioned by the twentieth century propagandists of Irish separatism and exceptionalism. It lionised the efficacy and ‘nobility’ of the Irish tenant, and encouraged a profoundly overoptimistic belief in his capacity for sustained agrarian radicalism and esprit de corps.

            The truth was rather more prosaic and predictable. An alternative view of the ‘Land War’ (1879-82 not the1886-91, 1906-09, 1917-18, or 1920 variants) is of a period of pervasive anomie, of a civil conflict that often pitched the impoverished against the merely impecunious, bent the highly stratified social structures of rural Ireland beyond breaking point, facilitated the rise of petty tyrants, and unleashed a fratricidal violence the scars of which had not still healed a generation later when the struggle was no longer against the so-called ‘eyes and ears of Dublin Castle’, but against the Castle itself. 

            While the Land War did prove fatal for a small number of Irish landlords (Lord Mountmorres and Lord Leitrim being the most prominent murder victims), most of those who died in the defence of what Michael Davitt memorably described as ‘feudalism’[ix] were much lower down the food chain. They were agents, bailiffs, policemen and agricultural labourers. People like the Huddys (Joseph Huddy, a bailiff,  and his nephew, John)  murdered on the Mayo/Galway border in January 1882, whose bodies were concealed (until recovered by the RIC) in the depths of Lough Mask.[x] Or John Henry Blake, agent to the repulsive Lord Clanricarde, who, although he had unsuccessfully urged his voracious employer to reduce rents on his Galway estates, was nonetheless murdered, along with his driver, in June 1882.[xi]

               But it was neither landlords, agents, bailiffs nor indeed members of the Royal Irish Constabulary who were the main victims of the dark passions unleashed by the Land War. It was the Irish peasantry itself. It somehow seems fitting that a recent work on the history of the agricultural co-operative movement is entitled Civilising Rural Ireland.[xii] In the 1880s, and in the decades thereafter, the Irish countryside could be a savage environment. 

            Take just a few examples. Galwayman Peter Dempsey was shot dead in May 1881 in full view of his two young daughters. His ‘crime’ was to have taken over the farm of one Martin Bermingham who had been evicted for non-payment of rent. Local petty ‘warlords’, many of whom held positions of authority in the Land League, and who exercised moral and physical hegemony over the most ‘disturbed’ parts of rural Ireland, adjudged that Dempsey had forfeited his life by dint of his transgressive behaviour.[xiii]

            Or John Doloughty, a 60 year old agricultural labourer with seven children, murdered in Clare on 9 July 1881. Doloughty’s ‘crime’ did not even loosely measure up to iniquities of Dempsey. He had no land of his own. He was merely a herder working for a Clare farmer, James Lynch. It was Lynch who had taken a farm from which a family named Hynes had been evicted. Doloughty had remained loyal to Lynch despite threats of boycotting and a nocturnal visit the previous October by three armed and masked men. During this ‘moonlighting’ escapade his life had been threatened and shots fired at him. His loyalty to the ‘land grabber’ Lynch was to cost him his life.[xiv]

            Or another herder, John Lyden from Letterfrack, Co. Galway, taken from his home and murdered by his neighbours in April 1881 for the offence of continuing to work for a ‘land grabber’ named Graham. After the mob shot Leyden dead they came back for his son who was dragged to where his father’s body lay and was himself shot. He died a month later.[xv]  

            Or the tragic Joyce family of Maamtrasna, Co. Galway, five of whom were brutally murdered by their neighbours in August 1882 for who knows precisely what ‘crime’. The adult male members of the family were shot, the females, unworthy of a bullet, were merely bludgeoned to death. Even by the vicious standards of late nineteenth century agrarian ‘outrages’ the Maamtrasna murders merits the Blue Riband.  

            Some of these killings then led in turn to almost inevitable miscarriages of justice when cases came to trial. The Crown sought to bring killers to book as expeditiously as possible and Her Majesty’s representatives were often less than discriminating in the manner and conduct of their investigations. Francis Hynes was tried and convicted for the murder of John Doloughty by a packed jury most of whose members had ‘escaped’ the attentions of their minders the night before reaching their decision. Their bibulous evening had ended in a series of drunken skirmishes in the corridors of the Imperial Hotel on Sackville Street, witnessed by United Ireland editor William O’Brien.[xvi] The most blatantly tainted verdict was, of course, the death sentence handed down on Maolra Seoighe (Myles Joyce), wrongfully accused of the murder of his cousins in Maamtrasna, and fully exonerated in statements made by the two men who went with him to the gallows and who admitted their part in the Joyce family murders.[xvii]

            The two preferred weapons of the Land War, the ‘boycott’ and the handgun, were often used to intimidate, maim or murder at the behest of local petty tyrants. These parochial warlords had burrowed their way into leadership roles in the agrarian movement and pursued agendas that often had little or nothing to do with the aims and objectives of the Land League. Questionable and vindictive decisions arrived at by the League’s informal ‘courts’ or local executive meetings could be used as a fig leaf to conceal self-serving objectives. Long-standing vendettas were pursued and vacant land was channelled towards favoured candidates under cover of edicts promulgated by ‘muscular’ elements who had assumed de facto control of the organisation at local level.[xviii]


[i] Irish Agricultural Statistics Report (1901)

[ii] R.V.Comerford, The Fenians in Context: Irish Politics and Society, 1848-82, (Dublin, 1998), 223.

[iii] Paul Bew, Land and the National Question in Ireland, 1858-1882, Chapters 6-8. 

[iv] Comerford, The Fenians in Context, 231.

[v] Joseph Lee, ‘The Land War’, Liam de Paor (ed.) Milestones in Irish History (Cork, 1986)

[vi] Tony Varley, ‘Gaining Ground and Losing Ground’, in Fergus Campbell & Tony Varley (eds) Land Questions in Modern Ireland (Manchester, 2013), 26.

[vii] Comerford, The Fenians in Context, 234.

[viii] This phenomenon is discussed by historians Samuel Clark in The Social Origins of the Land War and James S. Donnelly in The Land and People of 19th Century Cork, from which the phrase ‘a revolution of rising expectations’ comes.

[ix] In The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland (1904).

[x] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 554.

[xi] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 645-649. According to the evidence of his wife ‘he gave a graphic description of the then state of the country, and laid it before his Lordship.’

[xii] Patrick Doyle, Civilising Rural Ireland: the cop-operative movement, development and the nation-state 1889-1939,  (Manchester., 2019)

[xiii] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 465. The farm had originally been taken by Murty Hynes, who gave it up under Land League pressure.

[xiv] Myles Dungan, The Captain and the King: William O’Shea, Parnell and late Victorian Ireland (Dublin, 2009)  147

[xv] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 597.

[xvi] Dungan, The Captain and the King, – Hansard, VOL 278 – 15 August, 1882.

[xvii] Myles Dungan, Conspiracy: Irish Political Trials (Dublin, 2009)  (Page ref for Maamtrasna chapter) 

[xviii] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Evidence of Michael Hoarty, Vol.2, 62-69. Evidence of John Cullotty, Vol.2, 173-182. Evidence of Mrs. Mary Hickey, Vol.2, 206-210.

The ‘Other’ War of Independence – Land Appropriation during the Anglo-Irish War

Part 1 – Land Wars – the context                            

 ‘Changes in the use to which the land of a country is put affect its whole social organisation, and of no change can this be said with more truth than of the transfer of land from tillage to pasture.’[i]

Irish Agricultural Statistics Report, 1901.

It is a struggle known to posterity as a ‘war’. It is even assigned a specific start date, it concluded with a ‘treaty’, had its own generals, NCOs and ‘grunts’, and ample scope for ‘collateral damage’. But whether there were enough violent fatalities during the Land War (1879-82) to justify the hyperbolic assignation ‘war’ is highly debatable. However, the more pedantic alternative, ‘The Lengthy Late Victorian Interlude of Irish Agrarian Civil Strife’ probably lacks a certain pithiness.  

            The presumptive opening of the conflict was 20 April 1879, the date of an angry and well-attended rent protest meeting in Irishtown, Co. Mayo. The three year struggle was deemed to have concluded in early May 1882 with the covert and deniable ‘Kilmainham Treaty’, a climbdown on both sides brokered by a charlatan (the preening Captain William O’Shea, husband of Parnell’s ‘mistress’, Katharine). The armistice was, or so the received wisdom goes, all neatly tied up in green ribbon just in time for the Phoenix Park murders on 6 May 1882.   

            Except, of course, that it wasn’t. Agrarian civil strife did not peter out just in time for the slashing intervention of the Invincibles. It merely lay fallow until the onset of the Plan of Campaign in 1886, when, on a somewhat diminished scale, the whole mêlée kicked off again. When that more ‘managerial’ engagement finally died down there was a brief hiatus until the improvisational ‘Ranch War’ of the early twentieth century (1906-09). 

            Whatever you might choose to call it, the pivotal Land War of 1879-82, offers some of the more beguiling myths of nineteenth century Irish history. The mythology—born of that noble imagined past dreamed up in the pages of An Claidheamh Soluis and the meeting rooms of the National Literary Society—took it as axiomatic that a dogged and unified tenantry opposed an oppressive and seigneurial landholding élite and, courtesy of inspired leadership and peasant cohesion, routed the forces of feudalism a mere century after the French had adopted the more convenient shortcut of the guillotine to achieve a similar purpose. 

            While there is a significant seam of truth in the motherlode of myth, the reality is rather less fuzzy and heartening than the holy writ. Leadership there certainly was. The likes of Charles Stewart Parnell—so conspicuous a political ‘chief’ that he is invariably allotted his middle name by historians—Michael Davitt, and William O’Brien, were prepared to take personal and political risks in the cause of agrarian reform. There was also undoubted co-operation and solidarity among the rank and file membership of the Land League. Without collaboration, voluntary or enforced, the political and economic strategy that became known as ‘boycotting’—so-called, apparently, because a Mayo priest realised that his congregation could not get their tongues around  the word ‘ostracisation’ and named the practice after its most celebrated victim—would have been nullified.

            But the proposition that a resolute, united Irish peasantry marched in lockstep to vanquish the cloistered and privileged occupants of the ‘big house’, is as erroneous as it is alluring. One eminent Irish historian has warned against ‘the warm glow of old assumptions about this being a highlight of the ever-onward march of human liberty and progress…’[ii] Supporters of the Land League were prone to just as much insubordination, backbiting, intimidation, disloyalty, insularity, victimisation and intra-organisational anarchy as the membership of any radical socio-political movement before or since. Furthermore, the Land League was not an organisation in which, in any real sense, an empowered peasantry took control of its own destiny. The leadership of the organisation came, predominantly, from a rural merchant caste with a vested interest in targeting the country’s landlords, and a bloc of relatively comfortable farmers with a vested interest in protecting their own comforts.[iii] As the historian R. V. Comerford has put it succinctly, ‘there were many hundreds on horseback at the Irishtown meeting’.[iv] The Land League campaign, according to Joseph Lee, simply ‘crowned the strong farmer as the cock of the country walk.’[v]

            While the Irish peasantry may have provided the shock troops, when it came to the leadership cadre the Land War pitted rancher and retailer against rentier. It was the ‘ ‘strong farmer’ tenants’[vi] who, along with their temporary allies—the millers and milliners—were the real winners of an agrarian conflict that began long before 1879 and, like the Hundred Years War, renewed itself from time to time when the protagonists recovered from their exhaustion or encountered terrain that looked strategically advantageous. However, by the early twentieth century it was the erstwhile partners of the 1880s who were at each other’s throats. The graziers and the small farmers, temporary allies in the tussle for proprietorship, found they had little to unite them any longer. 

            The unlikely coalition had originally been a function of mutually declining fortunes.   

            Resources were squeezed during the worldwide economic depression that followed on from one of those periodic ‘panics’ in the US economy. This one was the ‘Panic of ‘73’, scion of the ‘Panic of ’57, parent of the ‘Panic of ’93. The Irish tenant farmer, who, by the 1880s, had come to rely on credit advanced by the shopkeepers of the market towns of rural Ireland, was faced with a stark choice. He could use his dwindling resources to pay the rent owed on his landholding. Alternatively he could repay his debts to the shopkeepers who provided him with groceries, seeds, hardware, and the occasional luxury, ‘on tick’. 

            By taking control of an organisation which validated (and even elevated) the practice of declining to remit bi-annual rent payments, the shopkeepers who assumed leadership positions in the Land League were simply protecting their own interests. The message, though understated, left no room for ambiguity, The Merchant of Ennis whispered, ‘if you can’t pay your rent and your domestic debts, then refuse to pay rent to Lord [here insert name of local aristocrat] until you get an abatement.’ 

            This classic ‘revolution of rising expectations’—the phrase had originated with that most welcome of 19th century tourists, Alexis de Tocqueville—was no free-for-all blitz on property, merely a highly targetted mugging of the landholding aristocracy, in which ‘one class of Irish capitalists waged economic war against another class of Irish capitalists.’[vii] Debts owed to banks, merchants or the local ‘gombeen man’ (moneylender) were entirely exempt from this assault. The country’s landlords, previously secure behind their demesne walls—unless their own debts  became excessive—discovered the truth of the axiom, ‘there is no honour among thieves’.

            The relative flexibility of the system of mercantile debt (which implied the continued extension of credit even when only a percentage of the debt was repaid), in tandem with the need to make future purchases from shopkeepers in a growing ‘cash’ economy, ultimately triumphed over the absolute inflexibility of the tenurial system. In the latter instance a large wad of cash was paid over, in full, twice a year–or else![viii] The Land League held out the prospect of pulling the teeth of the ‘or else’. It offered the tenant farmer a place of sanctuary—though the roof often leaked—and the prospect of continuing to have his cake, albeit on account, while eating it. 

            But the abiding myth bequeathed by the agrarian ferment of the 1880s was the notion that a revolutionary spirit of equality and fraternity motivated and united the Irish peasantry throughout the Land War. This was a convenient ex post facto construct fashioned by the twentieth century propagandists of Irish separatism and exceptionalism. It lionised the efficacy and ‘nobility’ of the Irish tenant, and encouraged a profoundly overoptimistic belief in his capacity for sustained agrarian radicalism and esprit de corps.

            The truth was rather more prosaic and predictable. An alternative view of the ‘Land War’ (1879-82 not the1886-91, 1906-09, 1917-18, or 1920 variants) is of a period of pervasive anomie, of a civil conflict that often pitched the impoverished against the merely impecunious, bent the highly stratified social structures of rural Ireland beyond breaking point, facilitated the rise of petty tyrants, and unleashed a fratricidal violence the scars of which had not still healed a generation later when the struggle was no longer against the so-called ‘eyes and ears of Dublin Castle’, but against the Castle itself. 

            While the Land War did prove fatal for a small number of Irish landlords (Lord Mountmorres and Lord Leitrim being the most prominent murder victims), most of those who died in the defence of what Michael Davitt memorably described as ‘feudalism’[ix] were much lower down the food chain. They were agents, bailiffs, policemen and agricultural labourers. People like the Huddys (Joseph Huddy, a bailiff,  and his nephew, John)  murdered on the Mayo/Galway border in January 1882, whose bodies were concealed (until recovered by the RIC) in the depths of Lough Mask.[x] Or John Henry Blake, agent to the repulsive Lord Clanricarde, who, although he had unsuccessfully urged his voracious employer to reduce rents on his Galway estates, was nonetheless murdered, along with his driver, in June 1882.[xi]

               But it was neither landlords, agents, bailiffs nor indeed members of the Royal Irish Constabulary who were the main victims of the dark passions unleashed by the Land War. It was the Irish peasantry itself. It somehow seems fitting that a recent work on the history of the agricultural co-operative movement is entitled Civilising Rural Ireland.[xii] In the 1880s, and in the decades thereafter, the Irish countryside could be a savage environment. 

            Take just a few examples. Galwayman Peter Dempsey was shot dead in May 1881 in full view of his two young daughters. His ‘crime’ was to have taken over the farm of one Martin Bermingham who had been evicted for non-payment of rent. Local petty ‘warlords’, many of whom held positions of authority in the Land League, and who exercised moral and physical hegemony over the most ‘disturbed’ parts of rural Ireland, adjudged that Dempsey had forfeited his life by dint of his transgressive behaviour.[xiii]

            Or John Doloughty, a 60 year old agricultural labourer with seven children, murdered in Clare on 9 July 1881. Doloughty’s ‘crime’ did not even loosely measure up to iniquities of Dempsey. He had no land of his own. He was merely a herder working for a Clare farmer, James Lynch. It was Lynch who had taken a farm from which a family named Hynes had been evicted. Doloughty had remained loyal to Lynch despite threats of boycotting and a nocturnal visit the previous October by three armed and masked men. During this ‘moonlighting’ escapade his life had been threatened and shots fired at him. His loyalty to the ‘land grabber’ Lynch was to cost him his life.[xiv]

            Or another herder, John Lyden from Letterfrack, Co. Galway, taken from his home and murdered by his neighbours in April 1881 for the offence of continuing to work for a ‘land grabber’ named Graham. After the mob shot Leyden dead they came back for his son who was dragged to where his father’s body lay and was himself shot. He died a month later.[xv]  

            Or the tragic Joyce family of Maamtrasna, Co. Galway, five of whom were brutally murdered by their neighbours in August 1882 for who knows precisely what ‘crime’. The adult male members of the family were shot, the females, unworthy of a bullet, were merely bludgeoned to death. Even by the vicious standards of late nineteenth century agrarian ‘outrages’ the Maamtrasna murders merits the Blue Riband.  

            Some of these killings then led in turn to almost inevitable miscarriages of justice when cases came to trial. The Crown sought to bring killers to book as expeditiously as possible and Her Majesty’s representatives were often less than discriminating in the manner and conduct of their investigations. Francis Hynes was tried and convicted for the murder of John Doloughty by a packed jury most of whose members had ‘escaped’ the attentions of their minders the night before reaching their decision. Their bibulous evening had ended in a series of drunken skirmishes in the corridors of the Imperial Hotel on Sackville Street, witnessed by United Ireland editor William O’Brien.[xvi] The most blatantly tainted verdict was, of course, the death sentence handed down on Maolra Seoighe (Myles Joyce), wrongfully accused of the murder of his cousins in Maamtrasna, and fully exonerated in statements made by the two men who went with him to the gallows and who admitted their part in the Joyce family murders.[xvii]

            The two preferred weapons of the Land War, the ‘boycott’ and the handgun, were often used to intimidate, maim or murder at the behest of local petty tyrants. These parochial warlords had burrowed their way into leadership roles in the agrarian movement and pursued agendas that often had little or nothing to do with the aims and objectives of the Land League. Questionable and vindictive decisions arrived at by the League’s informal ‘courts’ or local executive meetings could be used as a fig leaf to conceal self-serving objectives. Long-standing vendettas were pursued and vacant land was channelled towards favoured candidates under cover of edicts promulgated by ‘muscular’ elements who had assumed de facto control of the organisation at local level.[xviii]


[i] Irish Agricultural Statistics Report (1901)

[ii] R.V.Comerford, The Fenians in Context: Irish Politics and Society, 1848-82, (Dublin, 1998), 223.

[iii] Paul Bew, Land and the National Question in Ireland, 1858-1882, Chapters 6-8. 

[iv] Comerford, The Fenians in Context, 231.

[v] Joseph Lee, ‘The Land War’, Liam de Paor (ed.) Milestones in Irish History (Cork, 1986)

[vi] Tony Varley, ‘Gaining Ground and Losing Ground’, in Fergus Campbell & Tony Varley (eds) Land Questions in Modern Ireland (Manchester, 2013), 26.

[vii] Comerford, The Fenians in Context, 234.

[viii] This phenomenon is discussed by historians Samuel Clark in The Social Origins of the Land War and James S. Donnelly in The Land and People of 19th Century Cork, from which the phrase ‘a revolution of rising expectations’ comes.

[ix] In The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland (1904).

[x] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 554.

[xi] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 645-649. According to the evidence of his wife ‘he gave a graphic description of the then state of the country, and laid it before his Lordship.’

[xii] Patrick Doyle, Civilising Rural Ireland: the cop-operative movement, development and the nation-state 1889-1939,  (Manchester., 2019)

[xiii] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 465. The farm had originally been taken by Murty Hynes, who gave it up under Land League pressure.

[xiv] Myles Dungan, The Captain and the King: William O’Shea, Parnell and late Victorian Ireland (Dublin, 2009)  147

[xv] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 597.

[xvi] Dungan, The Captain and the King, – Hansard, VOL 278 – 15 August, 1882.

[xvii] Myles Dungan, Conspiracy: Irish Political Trials (Dublin, 2009)  (Page ref for Maamtrasna chapter) 

[xviii] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Evidence of Michael Hoarty, Vol.2, 62-69. Evidence of John Cullotty, Vol.2, 173-182. Evidence of Mrs. Mary Hickey, Vol.2, 206-210.

Who commanded the original Squad – the IRA’s professional killers of the War of Independence? WTF knows?

From L to R: Mick McDonnell, Tom Keogh, Vinnie Byrne, Paddy O’Daly and Jim Slattery – five of the Twelve Apostles.

It was an élite unit established with a single intention, to kill. 

Known colloquially as ‘The Twelve Apostles’, and by its own members, as ‘The Squad’ it was established with the sole purpose of carrying out the ‘executions’ of spies, informers, British agents, and Dublin policemen identified by the IRA’s own spies, informers and agents in GHQ Intelligence under the tutelage of Michael Collins and Liam Tobin.  

Among its major sanguinary coups were the murders of DMP District Inspector William Redmond (21 January 1920), Resident Magistrate Alan Bell (26 March 1920) , the British spy John Charles Byrne(s) aka ‘John Jameson’ (March, 1920). Along with elements of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA the Squad also participated in the devastating ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings (21 November 1920). In that notorious operation between six and twelve imported British agents (the number of actual agents v collateral damage is disputed – but that’s an argument for another day) were assassinated on the morning of the bloodiest single twenty-four hour period in the history of the Anglo-Irish conflict.  

One of the Squad’s principal antagonists, Dublin Castle spymaster Ormonde Winter (he wore a monocle that made him look more spymastery) imported fifty bloodhounds from England in an attempt to track down some of Collins’s professional (£4.10s a week) killers. That’s actual, not metaphorical bloodhounds. A convenient and well-advertised postal address in London, to which confidential information could be sent about the Squad’s membership–and anything else you might happen to know about the IRA—was ‘punked’ by Sinn Féin supporters who flooded it with letters pointing to leading Irish loyalists as republican terror suspects. Well what did they expect?

But who was the original leader of this carefully chosen elite unit? 

You would think that an examination of the testimony of members of the Squad given to the Bureau of Military History in the late 1940s and 1950s would provide a straight answer to that question. In fact any such examination simply muddies the waters and leaves the reader scratching his head. 

There are two candidates for the position, Mick McDonnell and Paddy O’Daly. Both have claimed the title, and in the case of O’Daly – who did lead the unit at one point—he even went so far as to deny that his rival claimant was ever a member of the Squad!  Received wisdom has it that the leadership sequence went as follows, Mick McDonnell (late-1919 until mid-1920 when he emigrated to California), Patrick O’Daly (aka Paddy Daly) from the time of the departure of McDonnell to the USA until his own arrest in late November 1920, Jim Slattery as third Captain until the Custom House operation in May 1921 (in which he was wounded) effectively brought the days of the Squad to an end. However, there is also a variant of this received wisdom which has Slattery taking over from McDonnell and being succeeded by O’Daly. But surely the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements can sort out all anomalies? You’d think!

It is clear that both McDonnell and Daly were leading figures in the creation of the original group which—in an egregious example of Irish black humour—became known as the ‘Twelve Apostles’ because, although membership was never static, the ‘settled’ unit numbered a dozen young acolytes (with Collins as Redeemer) who were prepared to work well outside the remit of the ‘rules of engagement’.  

It’s even difficult to establish a consensus when it comes to the precise origins—never mind the original hierarchical structure—of the Squad. As the ‘Apostles’ were not altar boys they weren’t exactly expected to be religious in their record-keeping. Successful ‘hits’ were not entered into a daily duty ledger. Most of the original members were sought out and interviewed, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, by the researchers of the Bureau of Military History, three decades and more after the life-changing events (life-ending for many of their targets) in which they had participated. Memories were on the wane, a lot of vinegar had passed under the bridge, egos had been inflated by years of official adulation, and reputations had to be protected for posterity.

So, when you read those statements there is very little agreement, more than thirty years after the event, about even the most basic questions, such as the ’where’, the ‘when’ and the ‘who’. Was the nascent Squad established in Parnell Square or Georges Street? Was it set up in May or September 1919? Were Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy and Dick McGee present at the initiation? Was the killer with the choir boy looks, Vinnie Byrne, at the inaugural meeting (wherever and whenever it took place) or was he recruited shortly afterwards? 

If such basic facts cannot be ascertained, where does that leave us with the more fundamental question about who was the man originally put in charge by Collins?

Mick McDonnell was certainly in no doubt about who was the first O/C of the Squad. In his BMH-WS (#225, p2) he talks about being appointed Captain / Quartermaster of the 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Volunteers shortly after his release from Frongoch prison camp in North Wales. He then adds, ‘I remained with the 2nd Battalion until I took over the Squad early in 1919.’ He insists the unit was established on 1 May 1919, but did not become a full-time, wage-earning team until 1920, probably just prior to his departure from Ireland.

 He is also unambiguous about being in command of the operation which, had it been successful, would have constituted the biggest single Squad coup of the Anglo-Irish War. This was the 19 December 1919 attempt on the life of the Lord Lieutenant, Lord French, near Ashtown railway station, adjacent to Phoenix Park. McDonnell laid claim to the execution of that operation (a claim supported by others). ‘I was in charge of that ambush’ he insisted in his 1949 statement. He talks about issuing instructions to Paddy O’Daly – ‘I put Paddy Daly [sic] and four others inside the hedge with hand grenades … telling them to concentrate on the second car …’

Paddy O’Daly – not beloved in Kerry – in the uniform of the Civil War National Army

Equally emphatic, however, was Paddy O’Daly (who often appears in witness statements as plain ‘Daly’ but who signed his April 1949 statement as ‘O’Daly’). O’Daly had a distinguished career in the Anglo-Irish War and a controversial one in the fratricidal Civil War that followed. At the outset of the Civil War, Daly was the officer who refused to stop firing on the Four Courts in order to allow the Dublin Fire Brigade access to douse the flames that threatened the famous Gandon-designed landmark. He is supposed to have responded to the Chief Fire Officer, who made the request for a temporary ceasefire to help preserve the fabric of the building, that, ‘Ireland is more important than the fire at the Four Courts’.

As commander of the National Army forces in Kerry in 1923 he gained a reputation for ruthlessness. Soldiers under his command were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of that atrocious conflict. O’Daly is reputed to have said, ‘No one told me to bring any kid gloves, so I didn’t bring any.’ That he certainly didn’t. One of his ‘iron fist’ tactics was to force Republican prisoners to clear roads that were suspected of having been mined. National Army troops under his command were responsible for the horrific murders of eight Republican prisoners, blasted and machine-gunned to death at Ballyseedy in north Kerry. 

O’Daly, in his second BMH-WS (#387 p 11) claims that the Squad was formed on 19 September, 1919 with Michael Collins and Richard Mulachy in attendance. A number of carefully selected Volunteers had been summoned to 46 Parnell Square (then known as Rutland Square) by 2nd battalion commandant Dick McKee. According to O’Daly’s account these were himself, Joe Leonard, Ben Barrett, Seán Doyle, Tom Keogh, Jim Slattery, Vinny Byrne and Mick McDonnell. However, according to Daly, ‘Michael Collins picked only four of us for the Squad that night, Joe Leonard, Seán Doyle, Ben Barrett and myself in charge.’  

There were twelve ‘Apostles’ for most of the Squad’s operational phase (probably eight at the outset and an indeterminate number before the unit was rolled into the Dublin Guard after the Custom House debacle) – but there could only be one St. Peter. So, was it O’Daly or McDonnell? They can’t both have been telling the truth, the whole truth, etc. 

Or can they? In the early days of the conflict, were there two squads? 

While recollections after thirty years can be faulty or suspect the two contradictory statements smack of special pleading. McDonnell makes almost no reference to Daly other than in entirely subaltern role in the attempt on French’s life. O’Daly, however, appears to set out to discredit McDonnell and devalue his contribution to the Squad narrative. He even claims (see below) that McDonnell was never even a member of the Squad!

So, what do the witness statements of others involved in the operations of the Squad tell us about the chain of command? Do they clarify the status of McDonnell or O’Daly? Not really – they often merely add to the confusion. 

Among the more prominent members of the Squad to have left witness statements, when approached to record their memories in the late 1940s and early 1950s, were Mick McDonnell, Paddy O’Daly, Jim Slattery, Joe Leonard, Vinnie Byrne, Charlie Dalton (mostly an ex officio member) and Bill Stapleton (who was only recruited after Bloody Sunday and who testified that ‘I believe a principal mover in the original Squad was Mick McDonald [sic]’- (BMH-WS #822, p.31).Of the others whose names often feature in the Squad’s foundation mythology, Seán Doyle was killed in the attack on the Custom House on 25 May 1921, Tom Keogh died in the Civil War, Ben Barrett, whose mental health broke down because of his involvement with the Squad (a personal tragedy he shared with Charlie Dalton) died in 1946, before the BMH could tap into his memory. However, Barrett applied for a Military Pension in  1924 citing O’Daly, not McDonnell, as the O/C of what he described as the ‘Special Squad (the original ASU)’ (W24SP138)   

In his statement, BMH-WS #547, Joe Leonard confirms O’Daly’s version of events. He persists in calling McDonnell, ‘McDonald’ (he would have been given an opportunity to correct any errors in transcription of his testimony), acknowledges that the 2nd Battalion quartermaster was one of those at the top table of the inaugural meeting of the Squad [which he puts in ‘September’ in ‘44 Parnell Square’] and insists that O‘Daly was given command of the unit. He claims that McDonnell, Tom Keogh, Jim Slattery, and Vincent Byrne ‘wanted to join us but would not be allowed on that occasion as they were required elsewhere on their own work.’ He further claims that on the occasion of the attempted assassination of French, that McDonnell, Keogh, Slattery and Byrne were mere additions to the Squad’s retinue and not core members, (as was also the case with the Tipperary ‘Big Four’, Treacy, Breen, Robinson and Hogan, ‘on the run’ in Dublin at the time, who also took part – Breen was wounded) and that O’Daly was in charge of the operation.  

It is the statement of Charlie Dalton, who was occasionally associated with the Squad before moving to the Intelligence Staff, that offers some clarification on the hierarchy within the unit. While Mick McDonnell did not live to make a promised second statement to the BMH, he had already made a prior statement to Dalton in 1948. On a visit from California that year he spent an evening with Dalton, who told the BMH in his own statement, that they passed some time ‘discussing matters about which he [McDonnell] said he would like me to have the correct facts.’ (BMH-WS #434, p40) That conversation completely revises the foundation myth of the Squad. McDonnell referred to a meeting of ‘selected Volunteers’ (as many as twenty) that took place at 42 North Great George’s Street. Those assembled were asked would they be willing to shoot members of ‘G’ division. ‘Most of those present refused to give an affirmative answer’ McDonnell told Dalton. However, he, Slattery, Keogh (McDonnell’s half-brother) and ‘probably, Vincent Byrne’ ‘stepped out of the ranks’ and expressed their willingness to become assassins. 

Dalton told the BMH that in the course of his own association with the Squad he took his orders from McDonnell, but added that ‘I learned that in the initial stages a few jobs were carried out independently by Paddy Daly [sic], Joe Leonard and Ben Barrett … this would suggest that two squads operated in the early stages.’

Vinnie Byrne—who also took his orders from McDonnell in 1919-20, and definitely saw him as the leader of the Squad— adds a few wrinkles of his own by suggesting that he was not at the Parnell Square September meeting O’Daly described, or McDonnell’s alternative gathering in North Great George’s Street, but that his induction came at the end of November 1919 (probably 28 November) in McDonnell’s own house. There, while sitting at the fire with Jim Slattery and Tom Keogh, Byrne attested that he was asked directly by McDonnell ‘Would you shoot a man, Byrne?’ When the name of G-man, Detective John Barton was mentioned Byrne, who had ‘previous’ with Barton, rapidly shed any scruples he might have had about close-up assassination. That was how Byrne found himself involved in the first of many IRA ‘hits’ the following day.

Byrne’s testimony, however, (backed up in some details by that of Joe Leonard – BMH-WS #547, p.4)) does confirm why both O’Daly and McDonnell might have seen themselves as the major domo of the Squad, and, indeed, why, for a short period at least, both would have been entitled to view themselves thus. This is because, on the day he was murdered, Detective Johnny Barton was being dogged by two IRA hit squads, one led by McDonnell, the other by O’Daly. Often the Squad would divide itself in two, half acting as ‘shooters’ and the other half as ‘scouts’. But this was different. Each unit was unaware of the presence of the other until both had spotted and were following Barton. Neither Byrne nor Leonard specifies who fired the fatal shot that killed Barton as he approached DMP ‘G’ Division Headquarters in Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street Garda Station). 

Byrne is far more specific when he discusses the chain of command in Ashtown on 19 December 1919. As far as Byrne was concerned McDonnell was in command of the attempt on the life of Lord French.

Jim Slattery’s statement (#445, p.2) probably reflects his personal attachment to McDonnell as much as Leonard’s indicates his own close relationship with O’Daly. Slattery was at McDonnell’s meeting in North Great George’s Street (No.35) where McDonnell and Dick McKee were calling the shots. There is no mention of Collins or Mulcahy being present. When the question was put by McKee and McDonnell about the potential assassination of DMP ‘political’ detectives, among those who did not demur, according to Slattery, were the witness himself, Tom Ennis (the first mention of Ennis as an original member of the Squad), Tom Keogh, O’Daly and Leonard. 

Slattery also made reference to the sub-division of the early Squad. He answered to McDonnell—‘I looked upon him as the officer in charge of the section to which I was attached’—but acknowledged the existence of a separate unit under Daly. He recalled how McDonnell’s unit was ordered to kill the bothersome Detective Sergeant Patrick ‘The Dog’ Smith (Smyth)—this was done, not very expeditiously, on 30 July 1919, near his Drumcondra home. Smith survived being hit by a number of .38 bullets and died some days later, causing the balle de fusil du jour to become the .45 from then on. A .45 bullet could stop a horse, the .38 barely despatched the ‘Dog’, whose son watched his father being mown down near their house. (I mention that detail lest we get too sentimental about what Collins et al were asking the Squad to do)  

Meanwhile, O’Daly’s platoon was sent after DMP Detective Daniel Hoey. Ironically it was Mick McDonnell who ended up murdering Hoey rather than O’Daly’s section. O’Daly acknowledged this in his witness statement (#387, p.11) before adding gratuitously that:

‘ Mick McDonnell was one of the best men in Dublin but he had one fault. He was always butting in, and on account of that he often did damage because he was too    eager. He was not a member of the Squad.’ 

Which is patent nonsense and detracts, perhaps fatally, from the credibility of this element of O’Daly’s statement at least. When O’Daly made his two statements to the Bureau of Military History (#220 and #387) he had begun to mythologise his own role in the War of Independence.  O’Daly’s claim is in stark contrast to the account left by Jim Slattery where Slattery avers that, ‘I took over control of the Squad after Mick McDonnell left’, which suggests that the actual sequence in which command of the Squad was assumed went – McDonnell, Slattery, O’Daly. 

Please try and keep up down the back.

None of which really helps us much with the basic question, who was the St. Peter, the capo, the primus inter pares, of the original Squad when it undertook complex operations like the assassinations of DI Redmond and RM Alan Bell. Was it Mick McDonnell or Paddy O’Daly? The BMH-WS evidence, such as it is, either ignores the question entirely or reflects the personal affiliation to the two men of their subordinates. While each of the two potential ‘captains’ may have been in charge of a distinct section in the early days of the Squad, which of the two platoon commanders assumed the overall leadership when Collins decided it was time for his hit men to abandon their jobs and go full-time? It appears that you have to pay your money and take your choice. There is nothing definitive in the BMH witness statements of Squad veterans and, given the nature of the beast, there is little contemporary documentation covering the activities of what was a highly secretive and covert assassination squad. The members of the Squad did not walk the streets of Dublin carrying battle orders or regimental diaries in their jacket pockets which were later painstakingly archived. Most of the ‘archive’ was located between the prominent ears of Michael Collins. Some of the participants did write memoirs. Good luck with those. They were intended to be read in their own lifetimes. At least the BMH witness statements were not going to see the light of day until well after they were all dead.

If it was McDonnell who assumed overall command—and that is my own gut feeling—his leadership role was short-lived. By the autumn of 1920, well before the defining coup of the Anglo-Irish War—the Dublin assassinations of 21 November 1920—McDonnell was living in California. 

Over the years there has been much speculation about the reason for McDonnell’s abrupt departure from Ireland in 1920. Was he sent on a secret mission to the USA by Collins? Was he exiled because of stress brought on by the death of Volunteer Martin Savage in the abortive attempt on the life of French, and because he was having an extra-marital affair, as alleged in his book on the Squad by Tim Pat Coogan. Coogan goes on to claim that Tom Keogh and Vinnie Byrne set out to kill McDonnell’s inamorata, or ‘that Jezebel’ as they referred to her.

McDonnell himself offers no explanation in his witness statement as to why he emigrated to the USA, where he ended up on the west coast. Coogan refers to his work for the McEnery family, and specifically for John P. McEnery, Superintendent of the United States Mint in San Francisco.

John McEnery’s son Tom, twice mayor of San Jose, is in no doubt whatever as to why McDonnell abandoned Ireland and travelled to California. It was to arrest the spread of a debilitating case of tuberculosis. Had McDonnell remained in Ireland in 1920 he might have been mown down, not by triumphant Auxiliaries or G-man, but by consumption. 

At some point during the (War of Independence/Civil War) McDonnell must have felt that he had sufficiently recovered to return to the fray and wrote accordingly to Collins. The McEnery family still retain the response of Collins in their archive. McDonnell was told to stay where he was and look after his health. ‘Stay there with the fruit and sunshine and get healthy,’ wrote Collins with obvious affection for his former lieutenant, ‘I’ll let you know if I need you.’ In his missive Collins also made reference to Keogh and Leonard and told their erstwhile captain that both men were doing well. 

Tom McEnery has also told me that a drink problem, developed to help cope with what we would now call post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), contributed to McDonnell’s death in Los Gatos in 1950. He has made a detailed study of McDonnell’s life, is currently writing a play on McDonnell’s participation in the 1919 IRA plot to murder members of the British cabinet, and is convinced that, as he put it, ‘O’Daly tried to improve himself at Mick’s expense.’   

So, to conclude. The original Captain of the Squad might have been Michael McDonnell, Mick McDonald, Patrick O’Daly or Paddy Daly. There might have been two Squads, neither of which, initially, was aware of the existence of the other. There might have been two Squads that regularly collaborated. There might only have been one Squad of eight, twelve, or more members. It was established in May, July and September 1919 in North Great George’s Street and Parnell Square. 

I’m glad to have cleared all that up satisfactorily.   

JEREMIAH MEE AND LT. COL GERALD BRYCE FERGUSON SMYTH – LISTOWEL RIC STATION 19 JUNE 1920

Royal Irish Constabulary Constable Jeremiah Mee

One hundred years ago today the unofficial but very real reprisal policy of the British government was articulated—in Listowel, Co. Kerry RIC Station—by one of its functionaries in what he presumed to be a sympathetic environment. Unfortunately for Smyth, and for an embarrassed British administration, many of the members of his audience were far from sympathetic and one in particular, the interventionist constable Jeremiah Mee, took action based on the highly disturbing message Smyth conveyed that day. 

World War 1 veteran, Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth, had recently been appointed to the divisional command of the Munster Royal Irish Constabulary, migrating from the military to the police. His nemesis, Jeremiah Mee, joined  the RIC at the age of  19 in 1911. He served nine years in different parts of Co.Sligo. While in Grange, where he spent some of his time pursuing poitín makers with offshore still, he became active in moves to form a union of RIC constables. This did not go down well with his superiors and he was  transferred, in 1919, to Listowel Co. Kerry. 

In May 1920, as the War of Independece began to ramp up in Kerry, a military force was stationed in nearby Ballinruddery under the command of a Captain Chadwick. In June the Listowel RIC men were informed they were to vacate their barracks and make way for the Army.

In his Bureau of Military History Witness Statement #379 – (http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0379.pdf) –  Mee takes up the story.

‘We held a meeting in the dining room. The men were all excited. Some were disappointed over the transfers; some were disappointed over various things. After a lot of discussion I personally addressed the men in the day-room. I pointed out that a war had been declared on the Irish people and that, looking at the case from the most selfish point of view, we had to consider our position. We were asked evidently to take part with the military in beating our own people. I might find myself shooting the mother of one of my comrades, while he would be shooting my mother in Galway. I pointed out that in a war one of two things must happen. We had either to win or lose. I assumed that we would win the war with the assistance of the British military. When we had defeated our own people, the British military would return to their own country and we would remain with our own people whom we had, with the assistance of the British government, crushed and defeated. That would be the best side of our case. If we lost the war the position would be still worse. I suggested that, instead of going on transfer, we would hold the barracks and refuse to hand over to the British military. We had bombs, rifles and revolvers, and any amount of ammunition; and there was no reason why we could not hold the barracks at least for a few days. To this I got a rousing cheer from each and every man. They immediately agreed that they would refuse to hand over the barracks.  There was not one dissentient voice in it. The men were all there, including the Sergeant but not the District inspector or the Head Constable. It was then decided that I would represent the men who were about to be transferred from the barracks, and Constable Lillis would represent the four men who were to remain in the barracks … 

            At ten o’clock on the night of the 18th June a phone message came from the County Inspector to the District Inspector instructing him to have the men ready for parade with side arms (belt and sword) to meet Colonel Smyth* at ten o’clock next morning, 19th June. No details were given. 

            Colonel Smyth had been appointed Divisional Commissioner for Munster on 3rd June, just two weeks earlier. His appointment was direct from the British Cabinet and he was given complete charge of the military and police for the whole of Munster. Beyond the fact that he was appointed Commissioner, we knew nothing whatever about him, and neither did our District Inspector.’

RIC top brass began to arrive at 10.30 on the morning of 19 June. Accompanying Colonel Smyth was the RIC Inspector General, General Tudor, and a military and police escort of around fifty men.

‘This display of force was no doubt intended to terrorise and overawe our little garrison within, and I will admit that I never felt less cheerful in my life. Nevertheless, our men stood the test splendidly and, though there may have been nervous tension, there was no evidence whatever of fear.

            After sometime the officers, both military and police, numbering ten or twelve, came into the dayroom where we were assembled. They lined up in front of us with their backs to the fireplace and facing us. Up to this moment we had not the least idea as to what was going to happen. Colonel Smyth, who had only one arm, having lost his other arm in the 1914-18 war, went straight to the point and processed to address us without making any reference to our previous insubordination and refusal to co-operate with the military. Immediately he commenced to speak I stepped out, saluted him, and told him that we understood that this conference was to be between the police and their authorities and that we objected to the presence of the military officers. Strange though it may seem, Colonel Smyth made no comment whatever on my action, while the military officers smiled at each other and quietly walked out of the room. Colonel Smyth then commenced his speech again and continued:- 

“Well men, I have something of interest to tell you, something that I am sure you would not wish your wives to hear. I am going to lay all my cards on the table, but I must reserve one card for myself. Now men, Sinn Fein has had all the sport up to this; we are going to have the sport now. The police have done splendid work, considering the odds against them. They are not sufficiently strong to do anything but hold their barracks. This is not enough, for as long as we remain on the defensive so long will Sinn Fein have the whip hand. We must take the offensive and beat Sinn Fein with their own tactics. Martial Law, applying to all Ireland, is coming into operation shortly, and our scheme of amalgamation must be complete by 21st June. I am promised as many troops as I require from England; thousands are coming daily. I am getting 7,000 police from England. 

            Now men, what I wish to explain to you is that you are to strengthen your comrades in the outstations. The military are to take possession of the large centres where they will have control of the railways and lines of communication, and be able to move rapidly from place to place. Unlike police who can act as individuals on their own initiative, military must act in large numbers under a good officer; he must be a good officer or I shall have him removed. If a police barracks is burned, or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown out in the gutter. Let him die there, the more the merrier. You must go out six nights a week at least and get out of the barracks by the back door or skylight so that you will not be seen.  Police patrols in uniform will go out the front door as a decoy. Police and military will patrol the country roads at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across the country, lie in ambush, take cover behind fences, near the roads, and when civilians are seen approaching shout “hands up”. Should the order not be immediately obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets or are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but this cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right persons sometimes. The more you shoot the better I will like you, and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man. In the past policemen have got into trouble for giving evidence at coroner’s inquests. As a matter of fact, inquests are to be made illegal so that in future no policeman will be asked to give evidence at inquests. Hunger strikers will be allowed to die in jail, the more the merrier. Some of them have died already and a damn bad job they were not all allowed to die. As a matter of fact, some of them have been dealt with in a manner that their friends will never hear about.  A ship will be leaving an Irish port in the near future with lots of Sinn Feiners on board; I assure you men, it will never land. 

            That now is nearly all I have to say to you. We want your assistance in carrying out this scheme and wiping out Sinn Fein. Any man who is not prepared to do so is a hindrance rather than a help and he had better leave the job at once.”

Colonel Smyth then, pointing to the first man in the ranks, said, “Are you prepared to co-operate?’ The man, who happened to be an Englishman named Chuter, replied, “Constable Mee speaks for us”. Smyth pointed to each man in turn, asking the same question and getting the same reply, until he reached myself. I was about the seventh man he addressed, and by the time he reached me I was so horrified by his speech that all our plans of the previous night had completely evaporated and, in any case, would have been useless for a contingency that now confronted us. In desperation, I stepped forward and said, “By your accent, I take it you are an Englishman. You forget you are addressing Irishmen.” He checked me there and said he was a north of Ireland man from Banbridge in the County Down. I said, “I am an Irishman and very proud of it.” Taking off my uniform cap, I laid it on the table in front of Colonel Smyth and said, “This too is English; you may have it as a present from me”. Having done this I completely lost my temper and, taking off my belt and sword, clapped them down on the table, saying, “These too are English and you may have them. To Hell with you, you are a murderer.” At this, Colonel Smyth quietly said to District Inspector Flanagan, “Place that man under arrest”. District Inspector Flanagan and Head Constable Plover came forward and linked me out of the room down to the kitchen which was at the far end of the corridor, and remained there with me for a few minutes. In less than four or five minutes after going into the kitchen with the Head Constable and the District Inspector, I heard a wild stampede down the corridor and in rushed the whole crowd of my comrades whom I had left in the day-room. They were highly excited and half dragged and half pushed me back into the dayroom. When we got to the dayroom, which I had left five minutes earlier, the room was empty. Divisional Inspector Smyth, General Tudor and the other police officers were in the District Inspector’s office with the door closed. Colonel Smyth’s uniform cap was still on the dayroom table. District Inspector Flanagan and Head Constable Plover went into the District Inspector’s office and joined the other officers. In the dayroom then men were in an angry mood and all was excitement, some going so far as suggesting that Smyth deserved to be shot.’

Mee transcribed Smyth’s speech from memory and sent it to what he calls ‘Republican headquarters’. 6 July Mee and four other Listowel policemen, as he puts it himself, ‘left the force without either resigning or being dismissed’. They took revolvers and ammunition with them. 

‘On 10th July the Smyth speech was published, fully, in the Freeman’s Journal, a daily newspaper published in Dublin. On the following day John Donovan and myself went to Dublin where we made contacts with members of the Dáil Cabinet, Michael Collins, Erskine Childers, Madame Markievicz, Alex McCabe T.D., as well as Thomas Johnson and William O’Brien of the Labour party and Martin Fitzgerald of the Freeman’s Journal in the offices of the Irish Labour Party. The object of the meeting was to get from us the full facts of the Listowel episode. It should be mentioned that the publication of the Smyth speech was one of the reasons for the breaking up of the Freeman’s Journal by the British forces and the subsequent arrest of the owner and editor, Messrs. Fitzgerald and Hooper. 

            During this interview it was plain to us that Michael Collins did not think that the British government was dastardly enough to conceive a scheme of the kind outlined by Colonel Smyth to the police at Listowel. Childers on the other hand, seemed to have no doubt whatever that the British government were capable of conceiving and carrying out the scheme; and for that reason justified his having published the case in the Irish Bulletin from which paper the Freeman’s Journal had published it.

            Thomas Johnson and William O’Brien of the Labour Party went to London to attend an international Labour conference. They raised the question of Smyth’s speech and handed copies of the Freeman’s Journalcontaining Smyth’s speech to each delegate attending the conference.  This caused uproar at the conference and the Irish delegates got the full backing of British Labour in demanding an investigation into Colonel Smyth’s speech. A Labour delegation later visited Ireland and reported fully on the Black and Tan atrocities. 

            On Wednesday 14th July, T. P. O’Connor raised the question in the British House of Commons. He asked and was refused leave to move the adjournment of the house to discuss the incident and the remarks attributed to Divisional Commissioner Smyth as calculated to produce serious bloodshed in Ireland. Sir Hamar Greenwood’s reply on that date is very interesting. He said that Divisional Commissioner Smyth had informed him that “the instructions given to the police in Listowel were those mentioned in a debate in this House on 22nd May last by the Attorney General for Ireland, and he did not exceed those instructions.” For once, Hamar Greenwood spoke the truth for, as I shall prove later, Smyth was the spokesman of the British Cabinet and the instructions given to us were the exact instructions sanctioned by the British Cabinet on 22nd May, 1920. 

            Colonel Smyth’s address to the police at Listowel got the widest publicity, both in Great Britain and America, and caused quite a sensation as it was taken that Smyth was acting as spokesman of the British government; and there was a general outcry and demand for a full investigation. Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, finding himself in a tight corner, gave a promise of a full investigation but said that, before doing so, he would call Smyth to London to get the full details from Colonel Smyth personally

            With things in this mess, Colonel Smyth was called to London to see the Prime Minister, Lloyd George. Smyth did not, or could not, deny having incited the police to commit open murder, since those were his instructions from the Prime Minister himself. The fact that Colonel Smyth had lost an arm in the war and had at least a dozen medals for bravery in the field counted for little now that the British Cabinet had to be saved. After two days in London, Lloyd George sent him back to Cork, ostensibly to regulate police duty for the assizes but with full knowledge of the fact that this brave officer was going to his doom.    Once Colonel Smyth’s instruction to “shoot at sight” was published, it must have been clear even to Lloyd George that Smyth was a marked man. Yet when he was shot dead in the Cork County Club a few days later, he had no bodyguard and not even a private soldier or policeman in the vicinity of the Club. This was a sad end to a great soldier betrayed by the treachery of the politician, Lloyd George. When Smyth’s wife heard the news of her husband’s death, she said, “My husband was a great soldier. It is a pity that he died in such a rotten cause.  No doubt her natural womanly instinct told her of the great betrayal. It might be mentioned in this connection that, after the death of Smyth, his  brother, Captain Smyth, who had an appointment in the War Office, volunteered for service in Ireland to avenge his brother’s death. He was shot dead while raiding Professor Carolan’s house in Drumcondra on the occasion when Dan Breen and Sean Treacy escaped. 

            When Colonel Smyth was dead, Lloyd George was then able to say, “I can’t now have an inquiry into the Listowel affair as our principal witness has been murdered.” In this way he shuffled shamelessly out of the inquiry which he never had the least intention of holding.

            General Tudor, with other high-ranking officers, was present when Colonel Smyth delivered his infamous ultimatum to the RIC at Listowel. Why was General Tudor not summoned to London to give evidence of Smyth’s speech? The reason is that the British Cabinet were already committed to a policy of outrage and murder in Ireland. Investigation or inquiry was the last thing that the British Cabinet then desired. Colonel Smyth had been indiscreet enough to put their secret policy for bloodshed to the RIC at Listowel and for this he had to pay the extreme penalty. His death gave Lloyd George the breathing time he so much needed while he was being forced for an explanation and enquiry by an outraged public opinion even in Britain. It was only a chance that Listowel had been the scene of this explosion. Similar instructions had been issued to the officers of all other counties about. The police co-operated with the military but Listowel was the only barracks which had refused to co-operate. Hence Smyth’s visit and the display of force that accompanied it.

            Immediately after Smyth was shot in Cork, I wrote to the daily press expressing regret at the death of Colonel Smyth and accusing the British government of connivance thereat. My letter was never published.’

Smyth’s speech had made him an obvious IRA target and on 17 July 1920 he was shot and killed in the smoking room of the Cork and County Club by a six-man IRA hit squad led by Dan O’Donovan. He was buried in Banbridge, Co. Down from where his mother’s family hailed. The funeral prompted a riot in which another man was killed. 

Smyth’s brother, Osbert, also a World War 1 veteran, subsequently enlisted in the British struggle against the IRA and was himself killed in a shoot-out in Drumcondra during a failed attempt to capture or kill Dan Breen and Sean Treacy. 

Jeremiah Mee himself became actively involved in organising resignations of RIC members under the aegis of the Labour department of Countess Markievicz. He later became an organiser of the boycott of goods coming from Belfast after the anti-nationalist pogroms in that city.   

Listen to a re-enactment of the BMH-WS testimony of Jeremiah Mee (including details of his career after 6 July 1920 on https://soundcloud.com/military-archives – this is part of a collaborative project between the Military Archives and the History Show on RTE Radio 1