Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2011), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 19

Liam Mellows (right) with pro- and anti-Treaty IRA commanders on 8 May 1922. (George Morrison)

Liam Mellows (right) with pro- and anti-Treaty IRA commanders on 8 May 1922. (George Morrison)

Liam Mellows’s political beliefs have been largely overlooked owing to the paucity of his surviving writings and the fundamentally awkward questions that his life—or, more precisely, his death—presents for both the constitutional and revolutionary political traditions. His unguarded reflections contained in this six-page letter to a possibly uncritical admirer (we don’t have Miss Herbert’s letter) stand in stark contrast to the often formulaic tone of the Bureau of Military History witness statements collected from former Volunteers in the 1950s, which frequently sanitised the experience of ordinary activists. Of the Volunteer recruits he organised, Mellows writes:

‘Many of them are poor—almost all are. Most of them are unheard of, and yet their work for Ireland deserves to be known. It will never be, in our day anyway, in all probability, but it is to them the thanks of future generations of the Irish people will be due. They gave their all in silence, seeking no reward and getting none.’

In this letter, written while he was in the United States on a republican speaking tour, Mellows expresses his abhorrence at having to address public meetings of Irish-Americans and his fears for the health of his brother, whom he believed to be on the verge of death after contracting influenza while in prison. Mellows’s characteristic humility is tempered with pathos throughout, and he writes almost despairingly of his own contribution to the struggle:

‘. . . you place me on too high a pedestal. Someday you may turn iconoclast and then you will find that, like all idols, this one has feet of clay. I say what I believe at these meetings; what I believe I try to act up to, but it is hard. And, after all, talk is cheap. It is the deed that counts, and there I have failed lamentably.’

Despite his diminutive physical stature, Mellows’s force of personality made an immediate impact on ordinary rural recruits drawn largely from the small farmer class. Volunteer Francis Hynes later recalled: ‘I, who had the privilege of being one of his most intimate acquaintances, often wondered how a man whose inner thoughts were so deep and so serious could always show such a careless, I might say, irresponsible front, to his casual acquaintances’. Of the men he commanded during the Easter Rising in the West, Mellows writes:

‘On the night of the second last day of the Rising in Galway, things looked so black that it was felt incumbent I should address the men . . . so that it could not be said they had been led on in ignorance, made dupes of and fooled. Can I ever forget the scene? Several hundred men drawn up in the country yard of a castle residence that was our headquarters, at two o’clock in the morning, a weird light cast on the assemblage by several torches of bog deal . . . There was dead silence for a few moments and then a big powerful countryman, one of those simple honest and, as many I know here would denigrate, uncouth and ignorant fellows, stepped to the front and said, “We came out to fight for an Irish Republic, and now, with the help of God, we are not afraid to die for it”.’

Mellows’s career reflects the fundamental significance of the role of the ‘outsider’ in the republican movement during the War of Independence. Much like Patrick Pearse and Ernie O’Malley, Mellows refused to get involved in the frequent squabbling between comrades, and he remained essentially a loner, never seeking to ingratiate himself with the rural communities he traversed. Always keen to deflect praise onto others, he writes:

‘You, my friend, speak of me as the embodiment of Sinn Féin, but it may be surprising to you to know that there are men and women in Ireland today, compared with whom I am as nothing. . . Simple, honest, knowing nothing of the maze of politics or the ways of the great world outside, nevertheless they treasured in their hearts great ideals and noble inspirations . . . their example will cause others, in Ireland and out of it, to turn their thoughts occasionally to other things beside the material. Dreamers, fanatics, intransigents, fools, yes, but unconquerable and sublime!’

In response to his correspondent’s concerns regarding the role of religion and the struggle for independence, Mellows makes clear his rigid personal convictions:

‘. . . although we live in amity with our countrymen and women who are not co-religionists, and desire the utmost freedom for all creeds in Ireland, nevertheless we cannot so divorce God and Ireland, and God in Ireland can only mean one thing. I have myself experienced so often the help of His protecting and guiding Hand during the last few years, when every step I walked was trod in danger . . . neither will He refuse His protection in the days of trial yet to come.’

Volunteer Francis Hynes may have been correct when he later wrote that Mellows had ‘the intention of giving his life in the fight, no matter how things went’. A central figure in the formation of the anti-Treaty IRA, he was amongst a core leadership including Liam Lynch and Rory O’Connor who were implacably opposed to the Treaty settlement, writing in Notes from Mountjoy Jail, ‘Sinn Féin, while nominally a nationalist party, was, in fact, a bourgeois party’. Singled out for execution in December 1922 in retaliation for an IRA attack that killed pro-Treaty TD Seán Hales, he remained stoical in the face of death, writing to his mother during his final hours, ‘Until the shadow of shame is lifted from our country . . . We die for the truth.’
Mellows’s 1919 correspondence, along with all the manuscripts featured in this series, is available to download on the National Library of Ireland’s flickr website: www.flicke.com/photos/nlireland.  HI

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