Soldier of the Irish Republic

Book Review by Elizabeth McKenzie

Conor McNamara: Liam Mellows: Soldier of the Irish Republic, Irish Academic Press, Dubin, 2019

ISBN: 9781788550789

RRP: €18.95

I had a distinct sense of déjà vu when I first perused Liam Mellows: Soldier of the Irish Republic. The style of the narrative, the names of the personnel, even the outcome, were all familiar. I felt I already knew the story. I thought there was little to add to the plethora of material and knowledge that had surfaced in the lead up to and during the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising. 

So I was not surprised as I settled into Chapter 1 to have my initial expectations met. Here indeed was the story of a young, idealistic, committed patriot to the cause of Irish freedom. Although his parents were Irish, Mellows’ father and grandfather both served in the British Army. Mellows himself was born in a British army barracks in Lancashire and educated in British military schools in Cork and Dublin – Wellington Barracks, Cork; Portobello Barracks, Dublin and Royal Hibernian Military School, Dublin. It was an unlikely cv for a budding careerist in the Irish Republican movement. 

When he was 18, Mellows made it clear to his disappointed parents that he would not be following his father into the British Army and got a job as a bookkeeper in Dublin.  A string of family tragedies bonded William and his brother Herbert and they reinvented themselves as Liam and Barney, republican revolutionaries, and joined the Fianna Éireann boy scouts and subsequently the Irish Republican Brotherhood. By all accounts, their parents were quite accepting of their sons’ political conversion. According to a fellow republican, Robert Brennan, the Mellows home was always welcoming, 

a place of warmth, we often stayed at the Mellows home in Dublin and, I must say, if there was ever a happy family, it was the Mellows in those days. 

It was not long before Mellows came under the influence of Tom Clarke, whom he subsequently idolised. Clarke in turn recognised Mellows’ education, talents and military expertise and he was soon put to work in the establishing of the republican boy scouts, Na Fianna Éireann, and in founding the publication of the IRB newspaper Irish Freedom. As Clarke had discovered, Mellows proved to have excellent rhetorical skills, both written and verbal. Although not an imposing man – he was small and slight – he could mesmerise his audience. He was also admired and much loved by his peers and the many young men of the Fianna who were influenced by him. His association with the ‘founding fathers’ of the more militant revolutionary movement for Irish freedom catapulted him into the hallowed company of Clarke, Pearse, MacDiarmada et al. He was constantly on the move, organising Na Fianna meetings and events and becoming active as a regional organiser for the Irish Volunteers. 

But his path was soon to diverge from that of his heroes. He actively participated in the 1916 Rebellion, commanding the Galway contingent of the uprising but with no access to arms, ammunition and indeed any long term realistic planning was hopelessly defeated. He was deported to England (for the second time that year) but managed to escape and return to Ireland. His long and somewhat romanticised apologia for the abject failure of the Galway contingent’s contribution to the insurrection demonstrates two of the strongest attributes of Liam Mellows – his riveting and highly successful rhetorical style, both written and verbal, and his passionate loyalty to the Republic of Ireland which was never to waver. 

But it was his organisational skills, honed and polished in his leadership role with Na Fianna, that determined his next move. However it effectively removed him from the centre of the activities of the War of Independence in Ireland. He was sent by the Republican government to the USA on a quest to procure arms, ammunition and money for the newly fledged Irish Republican Army – the successor to the Irish Volunteers. He was singularly unsuccessful – there were other high profile revolutionaries also tasked with raising arms and money in America for the Revolutionary cause but it would seem that Mellows was not even mentioned in dispatches. The truth was that post the 1916 insurrection the Irish American subculture in the USA were embroiled in their own power struggles and had lost interest in the ongoing, seemingly hopeless situation in Ireland. 

The years spent in his hopeless task in the US drained Mellows’ energy. He became embroiled in the rancorous split between the various Irish American groups, Cumann na mBan and Clann na Gael among others. He spent several months in prison on a trumped-up charge. He became very ill and spent several months recuperating at the Carmelite Priory in New York but was soon caught up with Éamon de Valera’s extensive tour of the USA which raised much-needed cash for the nascent Dáil Éireann but which challenged and called on Mellows’ considerable organizational skills once again.

Eventually, after four unhappy years in the US, Mellows found his way back to Dublin where he was soon given his ‘old’ job back, tasked with the procurement of these arms and ammunitions for the War of Independence. But it is unclear how successful he was in this role. The job kept him deskbound when all he wanted was to be in the front line of the revolution as a member of the ‘flying columns’. To add to his frustrations he quite often clashed with his superiors, even with Collins himself, as well as the executive of the IRB. And while these dissatisfactions were work-related, it was not long before they became more politically focussed as an unbridgeable gap opened up in the Dáil between ‘Free Staters’ and ‘true blue’ Republicans. 

Although he was also an elected member of Dáil Éireann for Galway and Meath, he spent little time actually attending the Dáil. However, in an impassioned speech to the Dáil on  17 December 1921 he made it clear that there was no way he could accept the terms of the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty with Great Britain which had been signed eight days earlier by Collins, Griffith et al. His case against the Treaty was not a complex one and obviously represented the beliefs and sentiments of the Republican camp led by De Valera and Cathal Brugha. To Mellows it was clear that

… the authority for Government in Ireland has been derived from the Irish people. But if this Treaty goes through we are going to have authority in Ireland derived from the British Government under the authority of the British King.

Even clearer in his own mind and in his speeches and writings leading up to the Civil War was the belief that negotiating a Treaty with the British Government was surplus to requirements.

There is a question of maintaining the existing Republic of Ireland or going back on it, throwing it out and accepting something in substitution for it with a view to getting back again to the Irish Republic. Let us face facts as we did so often during the last few years. We are not afraid of facts. The Facts are that the Irish Republic exists. 

As far as Mellows was concerned, Pearse had proclaimed the Irish Republic at the 1916 Rebellion in the GPO in Dublin. There was no need to go cap-in-hand to the British Government to establish a ‘Free State’ as a stepping stone to the establishment of an ‘Irish Republic’ in the future! 

This adamantly passionate belief in the pre-existing Republic was, of course, the basis for the Civil War in Ireland in 1922/23. Mellows’ commitment to the Republic was unshakeable and he embraced the Republican cause with all the vigour and enthusiasm which were the hallmarks of his character. He was heavily involved in the defence of the Four Courts but paid the ultimate price for his part in the siege by facing a court-martial and a firing squad in October 1924. He was buried with his mother’s people in Co Wexford. 

This is a handsomely produced book. McCormack, the narrator/author is obviously a sympathetic observer of his subject’s life and times. The book’s title, Soldier of the Irish Republic, accurately reflects Mellows’ life journey as a soldier of the nascent republic, particularly his passionate commitment to the ideals and principles of its leaders. The events of his life are presented clearly and chronologically by the narrator in the introductions of each chapter while Mellows’ writings and speeches are themselves accessible and enthralling. (The first chapter is a kind of potted biography, which in some ways is surplus to requirements as the information is retold in the aforementioned chapter introductions.) 

Mellows’ writing style is lucid and rhetorical. He does not favour longwindedness and obscurity but is logical and focused on the demands of the occasion. Perhaps the best assessment of the man himself can be seen in his letters which reveal a loving and caring son, brother, friend and colleague. He was devout in his religious beliefs and practices but was increasingly drawn to socialism and found kindred spirits in James Connolly and his daughter Nora who remained a valued friend. But Mellows was first and foremost focussed on the survival and ultimate victory of the Irish Republic over the hated and pernicious British as McCormack so demonstrably and eloquently indicates in this book.  Mellows, surely a hero and ‘founding father’ of the Republic of Ireland, deserves a wider audience and a more comprehensive appreciation of his vital role in the establishment of the Irish Republic. 

Elizabeth McKenzie

Liz is a longstanding member of the Tinteán collective.