To accompany tonight’s History Show programme on ‘Women in the War of Independence’ below are contextualised extracts from Lily Mernin’s Bureau of Military History Witness Statement about her espionage activities on behalf of Director of Intelligence, Michael Collins during the War of Independence.
LILY MERNIN – INTELLIGENCE AGENT, DUBLIN CASTLE
BMH WS #441
From 1914-1922 Lily Mernin, a cousin of leading IRA propagandist, Piaras Beaslai, was employed as a typist in the Dublin District Garrison Adjutant’s office in the Lower Castle Yard. When Beaslai became aware of the precise nature of her work he spoke to Michael Collins about her. In 1918 Mernin met Collins for the first time.
Piaras Beaslai brought him to my home and introduced him to me as a Mr. Brennan. I did not know he was Collins at the time. He asked me would I be willing to pass out to him any information that might be of value which I would come across in my ordinary day’s work. I remembered he produced letters that he had intercepted concerning some of the typists and officers in the Castle, and things that were happening generally. I cannot remember exactly what they were. I promised to give him all the assistance that I possibly could.
The garrison adjutant for Ship St. barracks and Dublin District at the time was Major Stratford Burton. The work that he gave me to do was connected with Volunteer activities generally and, in addition, court martial proceedings on Volunteers was also given me to type. These dealt with the strength of the various military posts throughout Dublin district. Each week I prepared a carbon or typed copy, whichever I was able to get. Sometimes I would bring these to the office placed at my disposal at Captain Moynihan’s house, Clonliffe Road. He had a typewriter there and I typed several copies of the strength returns and any other correspondence which I may have brought with me that I thought would be of use. I left them on the machine and they were collected by some person whom I did not know. I had a latch key for the house and nobody knew when I came or went. It was arranged for me that if I had anything special requiring urgent delivery to the Intelligence staff that I would deliver it at Vaughan’s [Hotel] between certain hours and/or Maire ni Raghallaigh’s bookshop , Dorset St. and Captain Moynihan’s, Clonliffe Road. Another place where I left messages was at Collins’s shop Parnell St, the number I cannot remember.
I cannot recollect the exact nature of the letters and correspondence that I passed to the Intelligence staff. All I can say is that, in general, they dealt with the movement of troops, provisions for armoured trains or cars, and instructions and circulars to military units from GHQ.
Mernin proved extremely useful to Collins when it came to the identification of the Dublin accommodation of British agents, information that was to prove crucial to the assassinations on Bloody Sunday, 21st November, 1920.
Before the 21st November 1920, it was part of my normal duty to type the names and addresses of British agents who were accommodated at private addresses and living as ordinary citizens in the city. These lists were typed weekly and amended whenever an address was changed. I passed them on each week either to the address at Moynihan’s, Clonliffe Road or to Piaras Beaslai. The typing of the lists ceased after the 21stNovember 1920.
Apart altogether from using her access to written information Mernin, from time to time, was in a position to pass on useful office gossip to Collins.
There was a girl in the office who was the daughter of Superintendent Dunne of Dublin Castle. When he resigned she moved out of Dublin Castle to an address in Mount Street. Stopping at the same address were a number of men. Every morning she would come into the office she would tell us about them, she was puzzled to know who they were. Her brother also resided there with her and, apparently, he used to mix with them, and he discussed their conversation with her. She would report this conversation to us when she would come into the office in the morning. There was one fellow there by the name of McMahon who was very addicted to drink. While under the influence of drink he was, I believe, liable to talk a lot, and, mainly, his conversation concerned raids and arrests of ‘wanted’ IRA men. Whatever tit-bits of information that I could glean from Miss Lil Dunne I immediately passed it on to the Intelligence section. Suspicion was thrown in my direction one morning when Miss Dunne entered the office and excitedly said that her brother had been missing and that she thought he was held by the IRA, that somebody in the office had been giving information to the IRA concerning the conversation we had in the office about McMahon and Peel, British agents, who were lodging in the same house with her in Mount Street. However, I found myself in a predicament, but I remained cool and calm and bluffed my way out of it and said: “Who could be a spy?” and put the blame on her brother for talking too much. Sometime later the position was eased when Miss Dunne took ill and never again returned to Dublin Castle.All this information was, of course, passed on to the IRA Intelligence prior to the 21st November 1920.
After 21st November 1920, a number of British intelligence officers were drafted into Dublin Castle. A  new department was opened up in the Upper Castle Yard. My work did not bring me in contact with this department. I was asked by the IRA Intelligence Squad to get what information I could about the movements of these officers. These were mainly descriptive particulars for the purpose of identification, where they resided, and where they frequented, also the registration numbers of the motor cars used by them.
These Intelligence officers used come into our office. The three girls of the staff were curious to know who they were. Some of the girls would ask “Who was so-and-so that came in?” In this way, we got to know the names of the various Intelligence officers. Some of the girls in the office were very friendly with them and used to go around with them. General conversation would give a lot of information concerning their whereabouts, things that were said, etc. Any information obtained was immediately passed by me to IRA Intelligence.
On various occasions I was requested by members of the Intelligence Squad to assist them in the identity of enemy agents. I remember the first occasion on which I took part in this work was with the late Tom Cullen in 1919. Piaras Beaslai asked me to meet a young man who would be waiting at O’Raghallaigh’s bookshop in Dorset St and to accompany him to Lansdowne Road. I met this man, whom I later learned was Tom Cullen, and went with him to a football match at Lansdowne Road. He asked me to point out to him and give him the names of any British military officers who frequented Dublin Castle and GHQ. I was able to point out a few military officers to him whom I knew.
When I got to know the Auxiliaries better, I accompanied Frank Saurin (then known as Mr. Stanley) to various cafes where I identified for him some of the Auxiliaries whom I knew.
A footnote. The ‘Lil Dunne’ in question was a great aunt of the novelist Sebastian Barry, she is the main character in his novel On Canaan’s Side. Lily Mernin, who was referred to by Collins only as ‘the little gentleman’ also had social access to Auxiliary policemen based in Dublin Castle, members of the notorious ‘F’ company.
The Auxiliaries organised smoking concerts and whist drives in the Lower Castle Yard. I was encouraged by Frank Saurin, a member of the Intelligence Squad, to give all the assistance I could in the organisation of these whist drives for the sole purpose of getting to know the Auxiliaries and finding out all I possibly could about them. Frank Saurin had arranged with me that should any of the Auxiliaries see myself or any of the girls of the Castle home, he would have members of his squad hanging around Dublin Castle to identify them. However the Auxiliaries never did come past the Castle gate.
On one occasion I asked Frank for a reliable girl, whom I could trust, who would come along to the whist drives with me, to enable her to get to know these Auxiliaries and so prove a further source of identification. He sent along Miss Sally McCasey, who is now his wife. She did her work very well. She had a very charming manner and struck up a friendship quite freely.
On at least one occasion Mernin brought the kind of intelligence to her relative, Piaras Beaslai, that he did not want to hear.
One day a Sergeant from British Intelligence came into my office, carrying a lot of magazines – as I thought – bound together. I asked him what they were and he told me they were copies of “An tOglach” and would not part with them for five hundred pounds, as they were very valuable to them. I reported this to Piaras Beaslai the same night, not knowing he was the editor of “An tOglach” and wondered why he became so alarmed about it. I got the impression that some member of the IRA had been playing a double game.
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 …’
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.
There were nine names on the piece of paper. One of the men who appended his signature observed that ‘I may have signed my political death warrant’. Another responded lugubriously, ‘I may have signed my actual death warrant.’ It turned out he was right.
In Ireland we don’t have an ‘Independence Day’ as such. Easter Monday, the day on which the 1916 Proclamation was read by Patrick Pearse, outside the GPO, changes date every year. The actual date, 24 April, hardly even merits a mention, so pervasive is the Easter Week mythology.
But if we had an actual Independence Day, like 4 July in the USA or 14 July, Bastille Day, in France, then it might well be today, the 6 December. Because on this day, in 1921, five Irishmen, Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Robert Barton, Eamon Duggan and George Gavan Duffy, signed the Treaty that ended the Anglo-Irish war and led, a few weeks later, to an independent Irish Free State. It may not have been independent enough for some, but it was recognised as such by the colonial power that had legislatively encompassed Ireland since 1801.
None of the five Irishmen who added their signatures to those of Lloyd George, Austen Chamberlain, F.E.Smith and Winston Churchill, were exactly overjoyed at what they had just done. The ‘death warrant’ remark had been made by Smith, by then trading as Lord Birkenhead. The prescient response was, famously, made by Michael Collins, who would indeed be dead within eight months.
Conspicuous by its absence was the signature of one Eamon de Valera. The President of the fledgling Irish Republic had travelled to London in July 1921 to negotiate a truce with the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, but had given responsibility for negotiating the Treaty itself to Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. The move has been debated for the better part of a century, and we still have no definitive answer to the question, ‘why did de Valera stay in Dublin?’. Was it because he knew, after his talks with the wily Welsh Prime Minister, that the negotiation of a Republic was off the table?
Would he, as head of the delegation, have compromised himself on the issue of partition, as did Arthur Griffith, when he privately agreed to a Boundary Commission? Would he have caved in to Lloyd George’s threat of total war, as did Michael Collins, a man better placed than most to evaluate the capacity of the IRA to continue the struggle against even greater odds than before?
It’s the question for which the phrase ‘what if …?’ might have been invented.
But what, precisely, did the Irish delegation agree to? As far as doctrinaire republicans, like Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack, were concerned, they had settled for a deal that was barely a whisker removed from the Home Rule solution emphatically rejected by the Irish electorate in December 1918.
But if you wanted to be Jesuitical about it, and you were a Gaeilgóir, you could argue the opposite. While, in the English language, the Treaty brought into being the Irish Free State, rather than the Irish Republic, sufficiently cherished by many of the members of Sinn Fein and the old IRA to go back to war in 1922, in Irish it brought Saorstát na hÉireann into existence. In Dáil proceedings during the War of Independence the word ‘saorstát’ had been used to mean ‘republic’.
Then there was the issue of the infamous ‘oath of allegiance’ to the King. This was repugnant to many of those who believed they had fought the British Empire to a standstill in pursuit of the ideal of complete separation from the English Crown. Now they would have to swear an oath to the King.
Or would they?
Treaties are all about semantics, and while one may dismiss the ‘republic’ and ‘saorstát’ issue as special pleading (and certainly it was not advanced as a triumphant coup by the plenipotentiaries) Collins secured a concession that he possibly believed would appeal to Dev’s inner Jesuit.
What exactly were Irish public representatives required to swear? Well, the wording was as follows … ‘I do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established and that I will be faithful to H.M. King George V, his heirs and successors by law …’ If you decided you didn’t want to go to war with your brother over a form of words then, perhaps, you might stretch a point and accept that you were being required to demonstrate mere fidelity to the British monarch rather than to swear allegiance.
In the January debate on the Treaty sixty-four Sinn Fein TDs decided they were prepared to accept that form of words, fifty-seven were not. But, technically, the plenipotentiaries had ensured that future TDs would swear ‘allegiance’ to the Irish Free State and would pledge to be faithful to the British Crown. It was a nice point, but it wasn’t enough to avoid a Civil War.
It gave us satellite TV, laptops, carbon monoxide detectors, the Black and Decker Dustbuster, Teflon, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins—not the one who was left cooling his heels while the real action was taking place a few hundred miles away, that was Eamon de Valera.
I’m talking about the space race of the 1960s between the USA and something called the Soviet Union. It culminated fifty years ago this week in the landing of two Americans on the surface of the moon. Or did it? Was the whole enterprise an elaborate fake? For years dedicated fake scientists have argued that the entire Apollo programme was one gigantic hoax.
Exhibit A for the conspiracy theorists is the planting of the American flag by Buzz Aldrin. Like many expensive Dublin restaurants, the moon has no atmosphere worth speaking about. But when Aldrin stuck the Stars and Stripes in the lunar surface it appeared to move. This, the Apollo Eleven deniers conclude, indicated the presence of wind. As anyone who did Junior Cert science can tell you, there is no such thing as a breezy vacuum. Not only that, the flag managed to stay aloft throughout the lengthy extra-vehicular activity of Armstrong and Aldrin.
Therefore, Dr. Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick filmed the whole thing in the Hollywood Hills for NASA. Why? because the USA was miles behind the Russians in the space race, and if they lost that they would lose the Cold War, six-love, six-love. They also wanted to distract American citizens from the ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ War with some good news about the billions being spent on their behalf to land a dozen astronauts on a dust-covered rock. Furthermore, Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chafee were murdered by the American aeronautic ‘deep state’ when Apollo 1 went on fire before take-off in 1967. They were executed because they were going to spill the beans about this massive conspiracy and cause huge embarrassment to the Johnson administration. NASA’s spurious insistence that the movement of the flag was caused by the very act of planting it in the moon dust, has been dismissed out of hand by all right-thinking conspiracy theorists. They also reject the proffered explanation for the continued erect state of the flag. The best NASA could come up with, was that it had been equipped with a traversal pole along the top in order to prevent it from hanging loose. Phooey!
The whole flag episode was dusted off for different reasons in 2018 when ultra-patriotic Americans, always on the lookout for cheese-eating surrender monkey slurs—men like the Florida Republican Senator, Marco Rubio—went out of their way to be outraged that the planting of the flag was ignored in the film First Man. This was the biopic of Neil Armstrong, starring Ryan Gosling. So now we know why. The director, the highly suspect French-American, Damian Chazelle, just wanted to avoid a lunar Twitterspat. If he depicted the planting of the flag, he was damned if there was no breeze, and he was damned if there was.
But that’s just Exhibit A. There’s much much more. Some of it is really exciting. Where are the stars, for example? All that dark lunar sky and not a single star to be seen. You can safely ignore the astronomical fabrication which claims that the reflection of the sun’s light on the lunar surface would have been intense enough to eliminate all traces of starlight. Then there’s the rock with the letter ‘C’ painted on it. This was clearly left lying around by a set dresser or a ‘best boy’ – whatever they are. It features in one of the photographs released by NASA. Pay no attention whatever to their desperate explanation that it’s merely an imperfection on the photographic negative. Baloney.
Finally, there’s the unmistakable appearance in the top right-hand corner of another photograph of Brian O’Driscoll in hiking boots. OK, I just made that one up.
Apparently, it would have required up to 400,000 people to maintain silence for any or all of these conspiracy theories to be true – and what’s so incredible about that? There must have been at least that many people working in the Irish banking sector in 2008
So, were all the Apollo moon landings grotesque, but artistically successful fakes, directed by Stanley Kubrick and perpetrated by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration? Oh, for God’s sake, grow up!
‘This is the West sir, when the legend becomes fact print the legend’ (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)
The history of the American far West has been romanticised and mythologised in popular culture to a point where it is difficult to disentangle truth from fiction. Its icons (usually heavily armed) tend to be male, Caucasian, charismatic and violent. There is little room in the classic Western narrative for women, immigrants and persons of colour. Indigenous peoples, while included, usually get short shrift and fill the role of perennial and unsuccessful antagonist.
The actual narrative of the trans-Mississippi region in the late 19th century is far more complex and multi-faceted than the mythology propogated by Hollywood and the dime novel. It has been aptly described as ‘a past that never was and always will be’. It is an integral part of the U.S. foundation myth and of America’s sense of itself as a rugged, independent, self-reliant, free-thinking nation.
‘The American West, 1820-1920’ while acknowledging and addressing the romance and myth, aims to de-glamourise the ‘Frontier’ era and challenge some of the received wisdom that has gone largely unchecked in the popular imagination. While icons like Billy the Kid, George Armstrong Custer, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Wyatt Earp, Jim Bridger, Lol Montez, Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley will all feature so too will Thomas Fitzpatrick, Nellie Cashman, William Mulholland and Jasper O’Farrell from Ireland, the Boo How Doy of San Francisco’s Chinatown, John Sutter from Baden in Germany and Londoner John Tunstall.
There are many mansions in this particular house and quite a few surprises behind the doors of those mansions. There will also be a multitude of locations (including the Little Bighorn, Deadwood, Dodge City, South Pass, Donner Pass, Chilkoot Pass), forms of transport (horse, wagon, buggy, Shank’s mare, railroad), armaments (the longbow, Colt 45, Winchester 73, the Gatling gun, the Bowie knife) and occupations (preacher, prostitute, lawman, cattleman, miner, labourer, teamster, assassin, schoolteacher, farmer).
Where appropriate the course will point to the significance of Irish emigrants in the far West. The ‘two-boat’ Irish exerted a far greater influence on the work, politics, law, military affairs and cultural life of the region than is generally acknowledged.
Among the topics for discussion will be the era of the fur trapper, the emigrant trails, the building of the transcontinental railroad, the rise of the city of San Francisco, the Gold Rush and mining for precious metals, bringing water across the deserts, violence and gun law, the frontier Army, the wars with Native America and the Hollywood treatment of all the above.
‘There’s no law west of Dodge and no God west of the Pecos’ (Chisum)
MYLES DUNGAN: Holds a PhD from Trinity College, Dublin and is the author of a number of books, including How the Irish Won the West (New Island, 2006). He also compiled and presented the RTE radio series True West in 2003.