Sunday, 26 July 2015

Mother and Seán

Min Ryan and Seán McDermott

Mary Josephine ‘Min’ Ryan (my mother) was the fifth of eight sisters who were born on a farm in south Wexford near the Barony of Forth and were educated in the early 1900s in University College Dublin or its predecessor. Five of them became teachers and one a scientist.  After qualifying Min spent two years in Germany teaching in a convent there and four years in London, also teaching.  In London she set up the first branch of Cumann na mBan and was closely associated with other Irish patriots that time.

She returned to Ireland in late 1914 and shortly met Seán McDermott.  He was then occupied by working for the IRB with the intention of supporting a rising and was encouraged by his older colleague Thomas Clarke.  They obviously became very close friends, Clarke having suffered many years in the hands of the British because of his republican record and his bombings on the British mainland.  Without these two men the Rising would have never taken place.

In his letter to his family written just before his execution following the Rising, McDermott stated that he had intended to marry Min Ryan.

Min Ryan paid a visit to his cell early in the morning of his execution and a few weeks later visited America to meet John Devoy to inform him about the circumstances of the Rising.  The British had prevented any of the circumstances of the Rising being announced abroad so that John Devoy and the other prominent nationalist Irish supporters were left with little knowledge of what had happened in 1916.  Min was sent to America about six weeks after the Rising and was able to inform Devoy about the circumstances of the event. Her meeting with him is referred in the second volume of his autobiography (Devoy’s Post Bag, 1871-1928).

The telegram to Min from Major Lennon
Forty five minutes after she and her younger sister Phyllis left Seán McDermott's the cell at three in the morning, he was executed. This blog reports her description of their meeting before he was executed and it was published subsequently in a review entitled:-

“The Irish Rebellion of 1916 and it's Martyrs’’
by Mary Josephine (Min) Ryan

The last time I saw Seán McDermott was in a prison cell at Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, at 3 o'clock on the morning of May 12th. He was shot at 3.45 on the same morning. My sister and I were called from our house at 11 pm on the previous night by an armed messenger who carried a despatch from one Major Lennon, saying the prisoner "John" McDermott desired to see us. A military motor car conveyed us to the prison. It would take the pen of some great Russian realist to picture that awful drive through the night, through the streets of Dublin lined with British sentries with their drawn bayonets. The houses were in darkness and there was a hushed silence in the streets. Save for the whizz of our car and the sharp cry of "Halt!" every few yards, as we approached the sentries there was no sound.

The most awful moment was when the shout of the sentries and the noise of the car ceased and the door was silently opened for us to dismount and we found ourselves in front of a great, dark, treacherous looking building, Kilmainham Jail. The thought that here, in this ill-starred fortress, we were going to say good-bye for ever to one of our dearest friends, stunned us. After various ceremonies we were admitted inside the big iron-studded door, and led to Sean's cell. The cell was small. Black and white, I believe, were the colours. The walls were whitewashed, the floor was also fairly white. The door must have been black. There was a raised board in one corner called a plank bed. There was a small rough table near the light on which was placed a tall brass candlestick with a very yellow candle dripping down over it, and a pen and ink and paper. There was a plain wooden stool in front of the table. On the plank bed were a couple of soiled blankets. That was the furniture of the room in which one of the noblest of men spent the last hours of life.

The one discordant element in the setting was the prisoner. As he came to the door with both hands extended, to welcome us, with a smile on his face that seemed to transcend this brutal place, one felt fortitude and confident in oneself once more and a strong desire to show no surprise at the unusual scene. Some how we all acted as if this was one of these places where we had been accustomed to visit each other. Even the two soldiers who were on guard in the cell during the three hours we were there, seemed nothing unusual though somewhat irritating, as any superfluous company is.

We sat on the plank bed beside Sean. We discussed many of the events of the revolution. He told us of what had happened to them after they had been burnt out of the Post Office, the insults hurled at them by the most "civilised" of armies when they had laid down their arms, the inhuman treatment they had received at Richmond Barracks. But it was not by way of complaint he told us of these things. He merely told them as a narrative of events, and personally seemed most indifferent to all their whips and scourges. I suppose he expected no better at the hands of the British military. He did not wish to dwell on these matters.

He preferred to talk of all sorts of casual matters, asking about different people we knew, referring to various happy events of the past, and enjoying little jokes and jests almost as naturally as if we were in Bewley's or in an ordinary sitting-room in one of our houses. He spoke with much affection of several young men and women he used to meet with us, and the most pathetic scene was where he tried to produce keepsakes for different girl friends of his we mentioned. He sat down at the table and tried to scratch his name and the date on the few coins he had left and on the buttons which he cut from his clothes with a penknife somewhat reluctantly provided by the young officer who stood by.

As one looked at his beautiful head assiduously bent over this work in the dim candlelight, one could scarcely keep one's feelings from surging over at the thought that in another couple of hours that beautiful head would be battered by four bullets and that those deep, clear, thoughtful eyes would look on us no more. It was cruel, impossible! They could not shoot him. Surely something would prevent those eight soldiers from shooting a man of such bravery, nobility and simplicity of soul as he who sat at that table scratching his name on a button for some little girl who begged to be remembered to him. At 3 o'clock, on the arrival of the Prison Chaplain, we bade farewell to Sean and left him to spend his last three-quarters of an hour in prayer and in preparation for a more lovely world.

Sean McDermott had an extremely beautiful head, black hair with deep blue eyes, dark eyebrows and long lashes and perfectly molded nose, mouth and chin. An illness about four years ago left him lame and some-what delicate constitutionally, and he often looked a little tired and frail. But it was not Sean's personal appearance that attracted people so much as his wonderful charm. He was extremely popular in all circles in which he moved. He was well known in Dublin, and there was not a town in Ireland, I believe, where Sean was not known and loved by some group of people, generally the representatives of Sinn Fein opinion in the district. He could enjoy himself in almost any setting and make every one around him feel at home. He possessed that ineffable gift of imagination which made him understand his surroundings, and he never came into a social gathering where he was not a distinct addition. With these high social qualities and attractive personality, he never allowed himself to be lured from the rigid path of duty. His duty was his single-minded devotion to Ireland. Sean was eminently a patriot. He loved his country with a passion that at times I scarcely understood. I think he is one of the few young men whom no personal passion could ever have turned away from the work he had set before himself. Full of energy, courage, hope and perseverance, he worked and planned for the independence of Ireland ever since his boyhood. He had tremendous vitality in spite of his delicacy and executed a wonderful amount of work. For the last year his office was always crowded with callers about business in connection with the Volunteers. People came from all parts of the country to consult him on important matters. He seemed to be a sort ofgeneral secretary of several unnamed societies. Secrecy was his watchword ; he never talked of the business he did with others. I would venture to say that Sean McDermott did more than any other man in the work of preparation for this revolution. Practically all the other leaders had professions or business to attend to, but he did nothing else but work for the one object, and yet he was one of the busiest men I have ever met. Since Xmas I have often known him to attend five or six meetings in the course of an afternoon and evening. I feel certain he has gone to his grave with more of the secrets of how the whole plan was developed than any other leader.

One of Seán's final letters to Min
Sean was not at all a literary man, he was not even well read. But anything in literature that pertained to the love of Ireland, immediately gripped his soul. He could recite a poem of Davis or Rooney with the vigor and fire of an enthusiast; he could speak with exceptional ability on Mitchell's "J...Journal" and Doheny's "Felons' Track," and he could make a speech on the life of Emmet and Tone with such vigor and conviction that he left his audience aghast at their comparative inactivity.

He died as he lived. The last words of his address to his countrymen were: God Save Ireland. His death seemed to come to him as naturally as anything else he had done for Ireland. He never once flinched. At 4 o'clock on that Friday morning when the shooting party had done their work, a gentle rain began to fall. I remember feeling that at last there was some harmony in Nature. These were most assuredly the tears of our Dark Rosaleen over one of her most beloved sons. They seemed as naturally to be the tribute of tears of some gentle mourner as were those of his friends who came asking for a button from his clothes or a coin on which he had scratched his name or a thread from the scarf which he wore round his neck. His beautiful body lies quicklimed and uncoffined in a trench behind Arbor Hill. His spirit lives stronger than ever among his fellow countrymen and his name will go down forever in the pages of our history.

Mary Josephine Ryan.

Dublin, July, 1916

Min subsequently married my father Richard Mulcahy in 1919 when he was chief of staff of the IRA.  He too had taken part in 1916 but, unlike McDermott and others, he was simply interned for nine months after the event and lived to fight another day.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Recollections of the Irish War

Recollections of the Irish War. Darrell Figgis. 
Ernest Benn, London, 1925 pp 309.

This review was written in March 2011

I recently read Recollections of the Irish War by Darrell Figgis. Figgis died in 1925 and the book was published posthumously. He was a Protestant in the Irish Parliamentary tradition, but played an active part in the more radical nationalist and Sinn Féin movement from 1915 to 1922. The book was one of many in my father’s library which I had not read. I have no information about his family background although he may have had some connection with the long-established booksellers Hodges Figgis in Dawson Street.

His book is written with a convoluted and turgid style which makes it difficult to read. Some of his sentences are quite opaque, but the contents are nevertheless of great interest. It is unusual to have a personal account of the lesser-known activists like Figgis who were so prominent during the revolutionary period.

Darrell Figgis
Figgis was closely associated with Roger Casement, The O’Rahilly, and Erskine Childers in connection with the Howth and Kilcoole gun-runnings in 1914. He gives a detailed account of the organisation leading to these successful enterprises. According to him he played a crucial role in the protracted negotiations in London, Munich and Holland leading to the purchase and transport of the arms.

He was a close friend and ardent admirer of Arthur Griffith, claiming, correctly, that Griffith was the mainspring of the independence movement and the inspiration behind the settlement with Britain. His views of Griffith were shared by my father. Griffith was a modest and self-effacing man who insisted on nominating Dev as President of Sinn Féin in October 1917 despite been urged to take the position himself. My father, who was head of the army during the War of Independence, was described by Maryann Valiulis in her biography of him as a forgotten hero. So too was Griffith the forgotten political hero of the revolution. Griffith, Mulcahy, Ferris and the many other activists are no longer heard over the din of Collins and de Valera.

The Asgard, used for the  gun running is now on permanent display.
The British attempted to impose conscription on Ireland in the spring of 1918. Figgis underlines the immediate and disastrous effect this had in uniting all strands of nationalist opinion in favour of Sinn Féin. It led to the formal setting up of the general headquarters staff of the Volunteers and to the first move of the Volunteers to organise a military structure nation-wide and to be prepared for a war footing. He refers to the effect of the trumped German Plot by the British at the same time as the failed conscription attempt. This trumped up charge led to the arrest and detention of many leaders of the nationalist movement, thus adding to their political and patriotic profiles and fervour. He attributes the shift from the political to the military influence of nationalists and republicans to these clumsy moves of the British and subsequently to their repressive policies from 1919 onwards.

Figgis underlines the point that Sinn Féin, representing the 
Members of na Fianna reach out for guns at Howth in 1914
political movement, was overshadowed when the military, (mistakenly described by him as the IRB) took over the initiative of the separatist movement and he refers to the baleful influence the rhetoric of the Republic had on such implacable republicans such as Cathal Brugha which led to the fatal divisions leading to the Civil War.

His view that the IRB was the main group organising the military campaign from 1919 to the Truce of July 1921 is quite wrong and is in direct conflict with the view of Richard Mulcahy who was chief of staff of the Volunteers from March 1918, during the War of Independence (December 1919 to July 1921) and until the Treaty was ratified in January 1922. Figgis’s opinion was shared by many because the military papers of the time up to March 1924 were held by Mulcahy and were not released until the year before his death in 1971. Hence the widespread view that the IRB and Collins were the mainspring of the military campaign. Clearly many of the leaders, including most of Collins’s squad, were IRB members but many were not, and the IRB as such had neither structure nor formal organisation after the 1916 Rising. Mulcahy joined the IRB in 1908 and was perceived by some as an 'IRB man' but  he took no further part in IRB activities after he had joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913 on their foundation The kernel of the military organisation was the GHQ Staff which, apart from having a few members who were or had  been previously associated with the IRB, had no association with any other body and was entirely responsible for military policy.  Collins, as well as his role on the GHQ staff, had a high profile on the political as well as the intelligence side during the war. He and the members of his squad were always associated with the IRB by Brugha, Austin Stack and others who subsequently were to become Collins’s enemies. However the GHQ staff was not perceived to be an IRB cabal by Brugha or his close colleagues, nor did the chief of staff ever think that the IRB had an influence on staff policy. 

Collins and his colleagues in the squad did play a crucial part in matters of intelligence, communication and in the seeking of arms but army policy was entirely a matter for Mulcahy and the political head of the army, Cathal Brugha, with, of course, the advice of Collins and the other members of the staff. Mulcahy’s military role in the War of Independence and the Civil war was, later, eclipsed by the early and unbalanced biography of Collins by Beaslai, by the constant part his family subsequently played in idolising Collins, by the latter’s prominent political role and early death, by his formidable, energetic and strong-willed character, his prominent part in carrying out the policies of GHQ and by Mulcahy’s constant avoidance of publicity and his refusal to release the GHQ and early national army papers until the year before his death in 1971.

It is interesting that Figgis, who was a close observer of the scene during the War of Independence years, should have referred to no other military leader but Collins but it is perhaps understandable given Collins's immense presence in the movement and by the discrete but vital organisational work of the GHQ staff and of its chief. There is little doubt that the increasingly widespread role of the staff, and particularly Mulcahy’s role as chief of staff and his constant close association with Brugha, can be attributed to the low profile my father maintained during the War, a profile which was consistent with his regular delegation of responsibility to others, to his discretion and his characteristic self-effacement as  military head at a time when his arrest and that of other members of the staff would have been a disastrous setback to the military movement.

Figgis, fourth from left. He died tragically in 1925.

Figgis was close to Griffith. Griffith set up his Commission of Enquiry into the resources and industries of Ireland while he was acting as president of Sinn Féin and the Dáil during Dev’s absence in America. He asked Darrell Figgis to act as secretary of the Commission. Figgis provides a detailed account of this very important initiative of Griffith’s. He also gives an insight into the organisation of the Republican courts which were to replace the Crown Courts in most parts of the country, except Dublin, and which were to thrive despite strong attempts of repression by the British authorities. He refers to the Trojan work done by Kevin O’Shiel in furthering the work of the courts and particularly to O’Shiel’s ‘‘outstanding influence in solving difficulties, in sorting the land troubles which were endemic where farmers and others were taking advantage of the disturbed state of the country and the thrust towards independence to take land illegally from the big land owners’’.

Figgis' headstone – rediscovered May 2008. Day of death  incorrect.

Figgis makes no comment about the Treaty and the subsequent divisions but he clearly must have been sadly disillusioned by the compound disaster of the Civil War, as my father so aptly called it.

Friday, 10 July 2015

A man who stuck to his guns.

The Devil’s Deal – the IRA, Nazi  Germany and the double life of Jim O’Donovan. David O’Donoghue. New Ireland 2010. 

This review was written November 30th 2010

O’Donovan was born in Roscommon in 1896 and died in Dublin at the age of 82. A chemistry graduate in UCD, he joined the GHQ of the Irish Volunteers as Director of Chemicals about six months before the Truce. He was passionately opposed to the Treaty and was on hunger strike for some time during the Civil War. Later, after a long period in civil life, he became active in the IRA when he spearheaded the bombing campaign in  Britain in 1939, the  S-Plan.  He became the link between the IRA and Nazi Germany just before the 2nd World War, having made four visits to the country at the time. He spent two years during the war interned in the Curragh with about 200 other dissidents. He remained bitterly opposed to those who supported the Treaty and later to Dev because of the latter’s later entering the Dáil. As is recorded in the biography, I paid him two visits in Dalkey Manor shortly before his death. He had had a turbulent if somewhat episodic life which is best summarised in the introduction of the book by the historian Diarmaid Ferriter:

Jim O’Donovan lived a long, eventful and in many ways difficult life. David O’Donoghue’s vivid exploration of that life has resulted in an absorbing and well-researched account of O’Donovan’s preoccupations and prejudices, his dreams and delusions, and the Ireland that produced him.

--- he became the IRA’s leading explosives expert during the war of independence and was a member of the General HQ staff of the pre-treaty IRA. As David O’Donoghue has observed  he was ‘not someone to standstill for very long’, After enduring periods of imprisonment during the civil war, during which he boasted of outdoing Christ by fasting for forty days, he unsuccessfully attempted to establish a paint manufacturing business, eventually began working for the ESB, published the innovative and radical Ireland To-day magazine, retained his belief in violent Irish republicanism, and under the influence of Seán Russell, drew up the notorious and disastrous  S (Sabotage) Plan, the basis of a bombing campaign in Britain, which originated in ideas he had formulated during his civil war imprisonment.

Never one to shirk confrontation with those in power, he rebutted Episcopal pronouncements, remained preoccupied with the civil war period and those he regarded as treacherous, and eventually became the IRA chief liaison officer with the Nazis, ------.  O’Donovan exaggerated the strength of the IRA and indulged in fanciful projections suggesting that a German victory in World War II would result in Ireland becoming ‘ a virile entity, freely functioning in a noble European federation, instead of the miserable, misshapen land of decadent hopelessness’.

--- (while confined in the Curragh during the World War) suggesting to Gerard Boland, the minister for justice, ‘Your government should with greater justice occupy my position’. As the author notes, in one of the wry observations he makes on O’Donovan’s stance, ‘O’Donovan’s lack of subtlety proved to be his undoing.’

Coventry bombing by IRA in 1939. 5 dead, 70 injured.
This was true of much of his life. As one of his fellow internees commented ‘he just carried on in his own way’. One of the values of this book is that it underlines the human consequences ‘of O’Donovan’s refusal to compromise’ The toll it took on his wife and his children, and the dilemma of being unable to repair ruptured family relationships was clearly evident. In untangling the web of his career with insight and clarity, David O’Donoghue has revealed the picture of an individual who ‘nailed his colours to the mast early on and remained steadfast’, despite the formidable odds against success. When newspaper articles began to appear in the 1960s exposing his links to German military intelligence he was unrepentant: ‘Link in any way with Germany might now seem remote, foolish and in some vague way treacherous --- but in essence it was not a crazy scheme’.

It would be easy, from an early perspective, to discuss him as dangerous and delusional. He could have taken an easier and eminently more respectable post-civil war route, like his brother Dan, who became secretary of the Department of Social Welfare, or his brother Colman, who became a diplomat. What he became instead was a man whose whole life and loyalties were shaped by the Irish war of independence and civil war and the difficulties of dealing with the legacies of these conflicts. In documenting his experiences, in chronicling his voice and thoughts and those of his contemporise, David O’Donoghue has illuminated many aspects of the difficult and often tortuous experiences and attitudes of an important generation of Irish republicans.

We think of O’Donovan as one of those Irish patriots of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were so obsessed by extreme Irish nationalism that they were incapable of compromise and of seeing the harm they caused by their failure to realise the triumph modern politics achieved by compromise and the democratic process. Tom Clarke set the extreme example by his bombing campaign in the 1880s and his pushing for insurrection; Padraig Pearse by his blood sacrifice  and Liam Lynch by leading  and prolonging the civil war which after a few months had degenerated into vandalism, recession and humiliation for our country, and a lasting bitterness among ourselves and with our northern brethren.

He was close to my father, the chief of staff, during the last six months of the War of Independence but they differed widely in every other respect afterwards.  O’Donovan lived to a good age and died in a nursing home in Dalkey. I was informed by one of his family about his illness and poor prognosis. This prompted me to call on him which I did a day or two later. When I entered his room and introduced myself he was overcome by emotion. He wept for several moments as he continued to grip my hand in apparent gratitude.

Friday, 3 July 2015

About time?

The Encyclical which was sent out on June 18th 2015.

Pope Francis, population and Nemesis.

Pope Francis in his encyclical on the ecology has been widely reported recently in our newspapers and elsewhere.  Donal Dorr in the Irish Times (IT 19/6/2015) states that ‘Francis makes it quite clear he accepts the consensus of scientists who maintain human activity is the main cause of our current ecological problems.’

Surely this is the view which is common to all thinking people.  The Pontiff is praised for his insight into the relationship between the effects of human activity on the planet and the deterioration in our natural resources but his views are not surprising. They are widely and clearly apparent to those who for a long-time are aware of the serious and progressive damage we are doing to our environment.  Since he spoke several prominent newspapers, the Irish Times, leading British papers and no doubt others abroad have at last referred to the role of the influence of our expanding human population and its gross neglect of the limited natural resources on which we depend for life.  This association is too obvious among thinking people and to the great majority of scientists. It must now be obvious to the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. He is right that the progressive waste of our limited natural resources are at the basis of the threat to humanity and the cause of poverty and widespread population migration. He must now go further and support Catholics and others to realise that the burdening world population must be curtailed to avoid nemesis.

The Pontiff talks about ‘Our Care for our Common Home’ He proposes means of caring for our natural resources and for the needs for a common balance between humanity and our natural world. I have not read the entire encyclical but I would like to know to what degree the Pontiff is aware of the damage already done to these resources. It is well known to epidemiologists who deal with natural trends that changes take place in nature and natural phenomena which are often more advanced than we appreciate and which require major interventions aimed at reversing these trends. This phenomenon is surely true about the damage which has already been done to the world resources and it is clear that, even with the Pontiff’s welcome incursion into the relationship between Man and Nature, there is little likelihood of stopping or reversing current trends in our abuse of Nature, even in the unlikely event of his advice about the burgeoning human population being adhered to.

The current population of the world is just over 7.25 billion. It has increased by nearly four times during the last one hundred years. It continues to increase at the rate of about 80 million a year. According to recent data from WHO about 150,000 people die every day but close to 350,000 are born, a fact which is consistent with the yearly increase of human population of 80 million. The gradual increase in world population during the last two centuries can be attributed to the control of the epidemic diseases starting in the 18th century with the successful control of small pox. It is added to in more recent years by the improved human longevity as we adopt effective life style changes and as we take advantage of new and successful means of health promotion and medical treatment.

Pope Francis has been lauded, not only in accepting humanity’s destructive intervention in disturbing the natural world – the recent and highly accelerating CO2 levels of our atmosphere, the drying up of river estuaries and lakes, the melting of snow and ice, the progressive destruction of so many of our fauna and flora, the increasing masses of people trying to escape from poverty and the political disturbances of their homes (I call this the Mediterranean phenomenon but it encompasses much more in terms of African and Eastern Asian mass movements, and a trend which may only be at an early stage) and our increasing ability through human technology and nuclear science  to destroy  humanity and other living things.

However, because of the rapid and progressive increase of the human population and the unlikely propensity that we can change our ways we must have little hope of humanity’s willingness to adopt the means of protecting Nature. But if we can rely on this little hope it surely must be a willingness to change our lives drastically in protecting whatever is left of our natural environment; or is it possible to restore our natural world, both above and below soil and water? Most of all we need to correct the imbalance between an excessive and greedy human population and the natural and limited home which was designed by our Maker to house us and to protect the wellbeing of our future children.

Our leaders, who will be meeting later this year in Paris, will talk about means of protecting the environment and will bandy about with the word sustainability based on good but rarely achieved intentions. But bearing in mind the changes which have taken place in our world already it is highly unlikely that their responsibility to society and to humanity will achieve any hope of appropriate change in human behaviour and individual greed. After all, our leaders are elected and are expected to act and speak for an electorate devoted to increasing personal wealth and acquisitions, and I expect that they will be more concerned about the cost of living and the cost of petroleum and the next election than the need to control our expanding human population and to protect our God given natural home.