Liam Mellows

by C. Desmond Greaves

Capuchin Annual 1972, pp.109 -117

It is doubtful whether any figure in Irish history exercised a greater influence on the Republican youth of the last century than Liam Mellows. Not only was he the embodiment of the revolution which transformed Irish affairs early in its early years. He was the symbol of unyielding determination, and of the place of youth in the movement. There is no such thing as a “born revolutionary”, and many strands, circumstances and experiences go to make one. The story of Liam Mellows raises interesting historical and biographical questions. It is very briefly summarised here and possible solutions to some of the questions are indicated.

Mellows was born on 25 May, 1892, at Ashton-under-Lyne on the outskirts of Manchester. He had no family connections with the area. Like Tom Clarke he was “born in the service”. His father was of Kilkenny stock, but a third generation soldier, born in India during the “mutiny” campaign. His mother was Sarah Jordan of Monalug, near Inch in Co. Wexford. Thus from the start there were two traditions. It may be suggested that the conflict between them was resolved when he became a “soldier of Ireland”.

When in 1895 Sergeant Mellows was transferred to Dublin, and the family settled at Fairview, Liam was sent to live with the Jordans in Co. Wexford. Old Patrick Jordan had been born in 1817. He must have known personally the whole generation who escaped the counter-revolution of 1798-1800. The descendants of the United Irishmen were everywhere. Preparations were afoot for the centenary commemoration and the unveiling of the monument at Gorey. There were also surviving Fenians and Land Leaguers. Mellows drank in their stories. Soon he was devouring Irish histories. From this period comes the first description of him – a pale, shy, studious little boy, dreaming of Ireland and revolted to the core by the long story he had learned, of imperial brutality, greed, incompetence and insensitivity. He had the revolutionary’s intense feeling for human equity.

Like the young Tone he did not immediately disentangle himself from the assumptions of his environment. He could shout “Up Ireland!” in a classroom full of English soldiers’ sons. But when he joined his family after a move to Cork city, he quite unthinkingly fought for the “British” against the “Boers” in schoolboy play. For some time he took it for granted that England was the centre of a fundamentally democratic system which for some unaccountable reason was not extended to Ireland. Gradually realities dawned on him. It was during his early Fianna days, his horizons widened through contact with Hobson, Clarke, Casement and Connolly, in the group around Irish Freedom that he came to regard the British empire as one of the greatest evils the world had ever known. But it required experience in war-time America, a world crisis and a new geographical location, to bring him to a full understanding of the reason.

Sergeant Mellows retired. The family settled permanently in Dublin. Mellows is thought to have attended the garrison school at Portobello. There is a strong tradition that he also attended the Royal Hibernian Military School in Phoenix Park. After 1922 its records were taken to Canterbury and largely destroyed by air raids in the second world war. This institution specialized in preparing army schoolmasters. Sergeant Mellows indeed would have liked commissions for his sons. Mellows took the first great personal decision of his life when he refused a military career and went to work as a clerk in D’Olier Street in 1907.

He did not make physical contact with the national movement until 1911. Irish Freedom had been founded by Bulmer Hobson in the autumn of 1910. Mellows bought a copy which was being sold in the street. He was enthusiastic. Here, written in black and white, boldly asserted and defended, were opinions in which he had imagined himself alone. The Fenians did not need to rise from the grave, they were still alive. After reading the next issue, he went into Tom Clarke’s shop and was advised to join Na Fianna Eireann. He was obviously a most valuable recruit. Apart from his military schooling and knowledge of Ireland’s past he had another qualification. His father had been a bandmaster. The family home was “like an orchestra”. All the children played instruments, and Mellows’s fiddle did good service at social functions.

He rose rapidly in the organization. Already he was showing the revolutionary’s dedication and singleness of purpose without the slightest effort at self-advertisement. Indeed, while Mellows admired Hobson for his intellect, the older man considered him “dull”. In their periodical week-end walks over the Dublin mountains with Patrick O Riain, Hobson would discuss political economy, international relations, even the theosophy in which cultivated Protestants were then fashionably dabbling. Mellows had one topic and one interest. As he noted in his diary many years later, when he could not talk about Irish history he resorted to “fooling”. He drove Hobson distracted with his verbal practical jokes.

His personal hero was Sean MacDiarmada. His closest friend in the Fianna was Eamon Martin, and it was a result of Martin’s initiative that Mellows was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood by Con Colbert on 7 April, 1912. The place was Glencree.

Home Rule was anticipated. Lips were being smacked in expectation of Catholic access to the sweets of social advancement. Officials looked anxiously in the direction of their future masters, whence much Castle blundering and hesitation over the following years. The young men of the I.R.B. were not interested in emoluments. They talked of forming a “patriotic opposition” on the model of 1782. If they did not get Home Rule, then they would fight for a Republic. Mellows made his own act of faith in April 1913 when he went on the road as Fianna organizer. His salary was nominal. He travelled by bicycle and stayed in the houses of sympathizers. He was indifferent towards his personal finances. A man will not risk his neck if he will not risk his purse.

He had called at James Connolly’s in Belfast at the request of Eamon Martin, who was staying there, when the great transport lock-out began. The Fianna supported Larkin. Many of its members were newsboys. They organized first-aid for workers injured by the Royal Irish Constabulary and armed blacklegs. Mellows was still travelling. But he absorbed the general sentiment on visits to Dublin. Martin was already a professed socialist. He became friendly with Connolly’s daughters who were missing no opportunity of visiting Dublin now that their father was there. And he met Connolly himself, who formed a high opinion of him, at Countess Markievicz’s house in Rathmines. It was at her request that he helped to smuggle to England two Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union men who were wanted by the police.

The lock-out was in progress when the excesses of the Ulster Volunteers led to the natural reaction to them in nationalist Ireland. The Irish Volunteers were founded. Mellows was a member of the provisional committee. While still holding membership of the Fianna he was retained in Dublin for training purposes. After a while he was appointed secretary to the committee, in virtual charge of the office, where he and his Fianna friends sat up till 2 a.m. dealing with mountainous correspondence, sending out enquiries, instructions and encouragements. He revealed a capacity for tireless work even when this was of a routine and repetitive character.

The efforts of the Remondites to wrest control of the Volunteers from the I.R.B. are well documented. When the issue was finally joined and the provisional committee had to decide whether to admit twenty-five nominees, or face ruthless political warfare, Mellows cast his vote with Pearse and MacDiarmada. Let them do their worst. But he did not share MacDiarmada’s bitterness towards Hobson, which contained a personal element. He was not one of those who rejected all manoeuvre, as can be seen in later times when, as in the matter of the Westminster Review interview, de Valera occasionally stooped to conquer.

The outbreak of war exposed the Redmondites, and after the notorious Woodenbridge speech, the provisional committee constituted itself, seized the premises by force, and resumed freedom of action. Redmond took nine-tenths of the Volunteers but lost them all. The provisional committee set to work re-building. For this purpose Mellows was despatched to Galway at the end of October, 1914. His headquarters were at Athenry. In this district there was strong support for the provisional committee and Mellows had the duty of reconstructing the movement in south Connacht using south Galway as a base.

His success was remarkable. It must have contributed to the grand strategy of the 1916 Rising, which had already been conditionally agreed upon. The Galway command seems to have had special significance, since Volunteers from Ulster were (somewhat optimistically) directed thither in preference to Co. Louth or Dublin. The conception seems to have been that of a rising beyond the Shannon drawing off forces from Dublin and catching the English between two fires. Mellows was assisted in his work by an energetic and idealistic team, notable among whom were Padraig O Fathaigh, Frank Hynes, Larry Lardner, Neilan, Jordan, Callan, Barrett, and the Flemings.

Twice Mellows was arrested while engaged in his organizing work. He spent several months in Mountjoy jail for refusing to take up residence in England. On the second occasion he was deported. Planted at Holyhead with fiddle and knapsack he made his way to Leek where his father’s family had connections. His secret return to Ireland for the Rising was arranged by James Connolly and executed by his daughter Nora and Mellows’s younger brother. He was back in Galway by the night of Spy Wednesday.

If the shade of Robert Emmet presided over the Dublin insurrection, that of Fintan Lalor must surely have watched over Galway. It was a revolt of small farmers and workers close to the land against a society dominated by landlords, graziers, merchants, peelers and process-servers, a society which appeared more of an anachronism with every slow instalment of land reform. That Mellows was able to lead shrewd countrymen when not yet twenty-four years old is to be explained perhaps by his vision of an Ireland from which these hated institutions had been removed. He knew something of the Wexford country-men it is true. But Wexford is not Galway. In part his attitude to religion helped. He was a daily communicant, but one would never know it from his own lips. There was no outward show of piety and he shamed nobody who imposed less rigorous standards. At the same time he was the more readily accorded political leadership by young priests who were themselves small farmers’ sons. Perhaps most telling was his modesty in his vocation, his immunity to the virus of vanity that can turn a potential genius into a blind cabbage. This quality, remarked by all who knew Mellows as his most outstanding characteristic, did not protect him from the jealousy of those who before his arrival occupied a brighter part of the stage. But it saved him from over-reacting against it, and thus the best men instinctively rallied around him.

The Rising in Galway held the king’s writ in abeyance over six hundred square miles of Irish territory for the best part of a week. When news came that the situation in Dublin was hopeless, Mellows refused to disband his men. He wanted to make the west famous for one more memorable battle. When the sterility of such a course was urged on him, he wanted to stay and fight the English alone. Eventually he was persuaded to go into hiding. After an adventurous journey he found refuge in a disused cattle shed at Balloughtra in Co. Clare. With him were Ailbhe O Monnchain and Frank Hynes. In mid-September Sean MacNamara and Father Crowe (then living at Doora outside Ennis) smuggled him to Cork, whence he made his way to Liverpool and New York.

Small incidents while he was “on his keeping” throw light on Mellows’s temperament. O Monnchain was a Belfast man, highly cultured and intelligent, but with a touch of the puritanism of idealistic youth. He was prepared to shiver all night rather than forage when the turf ran out. By contrast Mellows ravaged the grugans mercilessly, though he repaid the debt by settling up fresh ones by moonlight to the mystification of the owners. Years later when on a dangerous arms’ mission in Birmingham, he berated Sean Russell for blessing himself in a public restaurant. Idealism was allied with common sense. His political theory was Irish history, with its unrivalled richness of issues and wealth of precedent. But in the United States he used to carry round with him constantly the Imitation of Christ. That the honour of Ireland was a part of the glory of God he never had the slightest doubt. There was no division in his own mind. Like Connolly he meant by Ireland her people. Hence while the bishop’s pastoral of 1922 distressed him, there is no evidence that he hesitated one moment before rejecting it, or doubted that his stand would be vindicated.

Mellows had no wish to go to America. He was requested to do so by the provisional supreme council organized by Mrs. Tom Clarke. His assignment was to tell the truth about the Rising and then return. But he could not return. In April 1917, America entered the war. In the autumn he was arrested while attempting to leave the country with false papers. He was released on bail in real estate, the property of one of the American Irish. He could not decently depart. His case was not heard for nearly two years. Then he was asked to stay in order to help President de Valera in his mission.

Much has been written of the disagreements between the de Valera and the Cohalan-Devoy group in Clan na Gael. Doctor MacCartan and Professor Tansill have presented the case from opposing positions. The differences were political and reflect no personal discredit on either side. Cohalan viewed everything from the standpoint of American national interests as he understood them. Hence he supported the war once the United States had entered it. Mellows viewed everything from the standpoint of the Irish revolution. He therefore opposed the war which he described as a “bloody holocaust”. Inevitably he was attracted to those Americans who resisted American involvement and strove to bring the war to an end. Apart from individuals like Jeremiah O’Leary, these were mostly found within the Socialist Party of America, of which James Connolly had been a member, and with which Nora Connolly and many of his other friends were associated. The Irish Progressive League was founded to campaign for Hillquit as mayor of New York. Mellows took a leading part in it, though during the election campaign he was in jail.

Opposition to the war led logically to support for the Russian revolution. After the Declaration of Independence of 21 January 1919, the Irish Progressive League demanded the simultaneous recognition of the Irish and Soviet republics. Immense meetings were held. But Cohalan’s support for the war likewise had its logical sequel – support for the substance of the Treaty of Versailles, if not for Wilson’s conception of the role of America in a world which was to see minimum social change. It was his desire to leave America a freer hand that led Cohalan to hesitate over the recognition of the Irish Republic.

The difference of outlook proved unbridgeable and the split took place at the end of 1918 and widened in the first months of 1919. Mellows was ostracized by the Irish-American leaders, but enjoyed enormous prestige among the exiles. During the last year of his stay in America he made the acquaintance of the Indian leaders in exile, notably Lajpat Rai, later the founder of the Indian Trade Union Congress. He acquired the international outlook that he exhibited in his famous speech against the Anglo-Irish Treaty. De Valera’s dispute with Cohalan was in effect the continuation of that which arose during the war, and of which Mellows bore the brunt. The basis was the conflict between Cohalan’s genuine desire to further the cause of Irish independence and the counter-revolutionary aspects of American foreign policy from which he was unable completely to dissociate himself.

During de Valera’s campaign in America, Mellows acted as his advance agent, travelling throughout the United States ahead of the presidential party, checking on, sometimes initiating, arrangements. When de Valera returned to New York to launch the Dail Eireann bond drive, Mellows took over the south-western part of his tour.

When Mellows returned to Ireland in October 1920 it was not long before he was appointed “Director of Purchases” to the Volunteers or I.R.A. In this dangerous work he travelled Ireland, England and Scotland in disguise. He had agents in a number of countries, and after the truce arranged some notable arms’ landings. He lived at the house of Mrs. Woods in Morehampton Road, where he interviewed visitors at all hours of the night. The grim look which marks the famous photograph taken at Bodenstown derives in part perhaps from sadness and determination; in part also perhaps from living on close on two years on four hours sleep a night.

Some have assumed that he had the cast of a “gunman”. Nothing could be further from the truth. He believed in physical force as a means to establish freedom. But he deplored the cult of violence, and during the civil war cautioned against it. During the black-and-tan terror the normal educational work of the I.R.B. was perforce interrupted. The youngsters who joined thus received no training in the historical principles they were defending. Mellows believed that this circumstance led to many defections to the Free State. They were “absorbed into the movement, not educated into it”.

After the truce of mid-1921, Mellows viewed the “treaty” negotiations with increasing disquiet. He had expressed misgivings to de Valera at the outset. He was not opposed to discussions. To refuse them would put Ireland in the wrong. But he did not believe they could possibly succeed on any basis that was acceptable. He thought that the clear presentation of the Irish case before the world by means of the negotiations would place England in a position where a resumption of hostilities would be politically impossible.

When the articles of agreement were signed, he rejected them totally, and carried his rejection through logically to the end. The “treaty” split and the subsequent civil war were, of course, based on an antinomy. As Mellows saw it, the Irish people had established a republic. Within it ruled the law of Ireland under which all the actions of the English government were illegal and an aggression. That the English recognised only English law in Ireland and regarded the actions of the Republic as rebellion, did not affect him in the slightest. The plenipotentiaries were selected on the grounds of their status in the Republic. By accepting their assignment they accepted the status of their principals. This they had no right to affront by signing a “treaty” in accordance with English law. Since this conflicted with Irish law it was null and void. The tragedy was, of course, that the conflict between English and Irish sovereignties was expressed in hostilities between groups of Irishmen.

It is no use saying in retrospect that Mellows’s life, and the preservation of the revolutionary movement, was of greater long term interest to Ireland than a bloody self-sacrifice however heroic. Mellows believed the cause of Irish freedom was a holy cause. It was enshrined in the Republic of 1919. All the work he had done, all the risks he had taken, were bound up with that Republic and the revolution that created and maintained it. In his speech to the Dail he brushed aside the argument of economic advantage and some saw merely romanticism. The essence of his case was that national sovereignty was the precondition of national progress. National sovereignty was enshrined in the Republic. And if that appears a tenuous thing in 1971, it was by no means tenuous in 1921 when English statesmen vied with each other to denounce and threaten it, and millions of pounds were spend in an unsuccessful attempt to obliterate it by military means.

The split in the army developed progressively during the first six months of 1922. Each attempt at reconciliation was followed by a wider divergence. Two headquarters were established at Beggar’s Bush and the Four Courts. It was the decision of the provisional government to destroy the Republican headquarters at the Four Courts which was the immediate cause of the civil war. Characteristically, Mellows rejected a proposal to evacuate and fight in the country. He also opposed the inevitable surrender to superior forces. Like Brugha, he had no interest in his own life once that which gave it meaning and purpose had disappeared. With difficulty he was persuaded to leave the blazing building. Almost immediately afterwards he rejected an opportunity to escape. Locked up in Mountjoy jail from July to December 1922 he experienced a burst of intellectual energy which arose, he believed, from unaccustomed regular hours and adequate sleep.

His “notes from Mountjoy” were written towards the end of August, long before the furore caused by their capture and publication. They consisted of memoranda sent out to Stack and others. Copies were made which differ in detail according to the responsibilities of the recipient. The captured copy was published in the Irish Independent of 21 September 1922. There is reason to believe that prior to the Army Council meeting of 16 October Lynch was still hoping for an acceptable accommodation with the Free State party. Mellows’s memoranda assumed a policy of war to the end. He advised the establishment of a civilian government which would embody the Republic they were fighting for. He urged that like Dail Eireann in 1919 it should publish a social policy, and suggested one which would express the interests of the workers and small farmers on whom he based his hopes for the future.

The last republican strongpoint, Fermoy, had fallen on 11 August. There was little mass support for the guerrilla war that ensued. The contestants became increasingly embittered and it became ever clearer that reconciliation was impossible. Mellows achieved his first objective when on 28 October the republican government was re-established. He was appointed Minister for Defence and instructed to “hurry out”. But in the meantime, on 27 September, Mulcahy had asked the provisional parliament to sanction draconic measures of repression, on which the bishops’ pastoral of 10 October (condemning resistance to the provisional government) seemed to confer ecclesiastical approval. Military courts were established. There were empowered to sit in camera and could impose sentence of death. Childers, captured at Annamoe on 11 November was tried before such a court on the 17th. He was shot on the 24th. Four days later the republicans announced a policy of reprisals. The Free State came into existence on 6 December 1922. On the 7th the six counties exercised their right under the “treaty” to opt out, though they had never been “in”. The policy of the “treaty” party thus lay in ruins. But on that day Sean Hales and Patrick O’Malley were shot while leaving a hotel on Ormond Quay, and Hales died. It was claimed (on evidence that was given little examination) that the shooting was a republican reprisal. The Free State cabinet met that night and decided as a counter-reprisal to shoot four leading republicans who had been held in Mountjoy for the past five months and could not have had the faintest complicity in the assassination. 

The victims selected were Barrett, McKelvey, Mellows and O’Connor. They were told late at night that they were to be shot at dawn. In his last letters to his mother and to the Hearns in Westfield, Massachusetts, Mellows seems to suggest that the prison chaplain demanded acceptance of the bishops’ pastoral as a condition of administering the sacraments. This was certainly widely believed. But even so it was not the end of the matter. Mellows’s confession was heard by Father Piggot of Wellington Barracks, who had come across at the request of Rory O’Connor.

Mellows’s last message was delivered to Eamon Martin at 9 a.m. It had been written at 7.30 a.m. It ran:

“To my dear comrades in Mountjoy. God bless you boys and give you fortitude, courage and wisdom to suffer and endure all for Ireland’s sake.

An Phoblacht Abu!

Liam O Maoiliosa.”

Such then is the story. Its main outlines are not surprising in the light of Irish history. Mellows rose with the revolution. First were the years of gnawing ancestral grievance – sure evidence of its survival in a modern form. Then came the organization of revolt for which Mellows was only waiting. Next was the revolution itself, the establishment of the Volunteers, the first trial of strength at Easter 1916, the endorsement of the masses in 1918 and the establishment of the dual power. Thus arrived the “four glorious years”. Then the impetus seemed suddenly withdrawn, though the reasons are to be found quite early on. Mellows who had risen with the revolution now fell with it.

But why did he not accept the necessity of a descending phase? Clearly he cannot have believed that one was inevitable. Perhaps the “treaty” settlement did not, so to speak, naturally congeal the relative strengths of the contestants. Perhaps it had as much to do with fear of social change within Ireland as with fear of Lloyd George and Churchill without?

Mellows, like Tone, had espoused the cause of the “men of no property”. For these, social change had no terrors and as long as they thought the revolution would bring it they supported it. This Mellows understood increasingly as counter-revolution gathered way. But his commitment to social change differed from Connolly’s. Connolly was born and bred in the proletariat. Mellows enjoyed a relatively privileged position in the Ireland of the beginning of the last century. His background gave him confidence in military affairs, but not in politics. This he must learn by experience. He had read Connolly’s Labour in Irish History and agreed with it. But he did not pretend to understand Connolly’s Marxism. He wanted radical social change, but he did not proclaim the working class as its vehicle.

Perhaps this detachment from the rough and tumble of working class like explains his disinclination to make policy. Until he was imprisoned in Mountjoy he remained a “solider of Ireland” in all essentials. There he had time to turn over in his mind his experiences, and consider ends and means. Whereas Rory O’Connor sent out military plans, Mellows sent out political tracts. When he was invited to become Minister for Defence he accepted. His last memorandum, preserved by Frank Gallagher, shows he was engaged in far-reaching political analysis.

He was only thirty and at the end of 1922 was venturing on new intellectual ground. The complexity of his character was such that nobody can say where he would have been led. He was struck down on the very edge of maturity and, in the words of his friend Peadar O’Donnell, Ireland lost “one of the brightest intellects our race has produced”.