Mulcahy and Collins—a conjunction of opposites

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2008), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 16

Richard Mulcahy—‘sacrificed by his colleagues on the altar of political expediency and neglected by historians because of his modesty’.

Richard Mulcahy—‘sacrificed by his colleagues on the altar of political expediency and neglected by historians because of his modesty’.

Some claims made about Michael Collins’s role in the events of 1918–22 are not supported by the facts. To ignore the important role of the general headquarters (GHQ) is to ignore the true history of the revolutionary period. The part played by GHQ has been clearly described by Maryann Valiulis in Portrait of a revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the founding of the Irish Free State (Kentucky, 1992). Mulcahy and GHQ now remain darkly in the shadow of Collins.
The military structure of the army can be divided into four different strands:
1. GHQ staff;
2. Collins, intelligence and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB);
3. the Dublin Brigade;
4. the fighting men, located mainly in West Cork, Limerick, Clare, Tipperary, Longford and Dublin.

Both Collins and Mulcahy were committed to the army, its formal structures, ethical standards and military efficiency; both were committed to its subservience to the Dáil and the people of Ireland. Mulcahy was more conservative in his commitment to the war, being aware that many nationalists favoured peaceful non-cooperation with Westminster and controlling local government, a view he shared with Cathal Brugha. War was forced on GHQ at the end of 1919 because of the constant harassment of Sinn Féin deputies, speakers and supporters by the RIC, the suppression of the Dáil and mounting pressure from provincial volunteers.
Richard Mulcahy (1886–1971) held the following military posts:

l Joined the IRB in 1908 and the Irish Volunteers in 1913; with Ashe’s Fingal Brigade during the 1916 Rising.
l Commandant, Dublin Brigade, Irish Volunteers, August 1917–March 1918.
l Director of training, resident executive, October 1917–March 1918.
l Chief-of-staff, GHQ, March 1918–January 1922; 27 June–23 August 1922.
l Commander-in-chief, August 1922–May 1923.
l Minister for defence, January–April 1919; January 1922–March 1924.

Michael Collins (1890–1922) held the following positions:

l Joined the IRB in 1908 and the Irish Volunteers in 1914; in the GPO during the 1916 Rising.
l Director of organisation, resident executive, October 1917–March 1918.
l Director of organisation and adjutant general, GHQ, March 1918–January 1920.
l Director of intelligence, GHQ, January 1920–July 1921.
l Commander-in-chief, 13 July–22 August 1922.

The monument in Mulcahy Town Park, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary.

The monument in Mulcahy Town Park, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary.

Mulcahy admired Collins for his many attributes, as is evident from my father’s extensive memoirs, recorded after his retirement and reported extensively in my Richard Mulcahy—a family memoir (1999). Collins’s soaring reputation never caused him any resentment. Indeed, Collins’s remarkable attributes were a great source of satisfaction and admiration to Mulcahy, as much because of as despite Collins’s intrusion into areas outside his own remit. Others, such as Liam Mellows, were less tolerant of Collins’s transgressions. Mulcahy provided Collins with protection from his critics on the political side; his dogged defence of Collins led eventually to a serious conflict between himself and Cathal Brugha.
Collins died at the right time for his reputation (although not for Ireland). He is remembered for his seminal political and military roles. His reputation might have suffered had he survived to face the rigours of post-Treaty Ireland. After 1924, Mulcahy’s reputation began to yield to the influence of the commonplace. Because of his tendency to self-effacement and his lack of political mystique and personal ambition, he was unlikely to evoke an image of heroism.
Collins has left no record of his opinion of his chief. This is not surprising, however, as he appears to have left little information about any of his colleagues. Mulcahy, in his tape recordings with Páidín O’Keeffe, discusses the influence Collins had in provoking resistance to the Treaty and the subsequent split in the army. O’Keeffe was the full-time secretary of Sinn Féin from 1917 and had a fund of knowledge about the leaders. O’Keeffe maintained that the vote against the Treaty was partly an anti-Collins vote, arising from the antagonism Collins, Harry Boland and Diarmuid O’Hegarty—three prominent IRB men—aroused by their choice of candidates for the 1918 election. This was resented by those who had aspirations to enter the Dáil but who failed to be nominated. O’Keeffe’s robust frankness about the human side of Collins helps to capture the true picture of the man.
O’Keeffe, an ardent admirer of Collins, refers to his propensity to offend. The antagonism that developed between Brugha and Stack on the one hand and Collins on the other was a disaster and clearly contributed to the divisions that developed in the cabinet after the Treaty signing in London. Collins’s leadership of the IRB was detrimental because of the antipathy towards the Brotherhood among others in Sinn Féin, especially de Valera, Brugha and Stack.
The early Beaslai biography was a significant factor in distorting the history of the War of Independence. His was an entirely unbalanced picture of the war. His account is strictly a history of Collins, yet it is perceived as a wider account of the war. Many of his mistakes and omissions are repeated by later authors. Beaslai had little contact with GHQ, and he confirmed this remoteness when I met him in 1968 to question some of his statements. It is confirmed in Seán Ó Muirthile’s memoirs and applied to others in Collins’s group. Beaslai writes virtually nothing about the Volunteer Executive or GHQ, and little about the membership of these two bodies. ‘GHQ’ is not even listed in the index of the book, and is only mentioned in a casual way in the text. He confuses the roles of Mulcahy and of Cathal Brugha, and also the roles of others. The Collins family insisted that his early biography should be written, despite opposition from the cabinet and from Collins’s closest colleagues, who thought Beaslai was unsuitable as Collins’s biographer.
Since Tim Pat Coogan’s biography (1990) and Neil Jordan’s film (1996), the cult of Collins has gathered strength. The profusion of books, articles, and radio and television programmes is extraordinary. It is leading to a lack of balance in interpreting our history and to the commercialisation of the Collins story, to confusion rather than enlightenment. Albert Reynolds, speaking at the 75th commemoration of the Truce, had this to say: ‘Collins and Cathal Brugha, the chief-of-staff, led the War of Independence . . .’. The army in its brochure celebrating the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising describes Collins as ‘our great chief-of-staff’. There is no mention of Mulcahy. The description ‘first commander-in-chief’ is widely and misleadingly used to suggest that Collins was the army’s founder and father.
Collins is mentioned seven times in the ‘Soldiers and Chiefs: the Irish at war at home and abroad from 1550’ exhibition at the National Museum, Collins Barracks, but there is no mention of Mulcahy. It is also stated (correctly) that Collins signed the Treaty but there is no mention of Arthur Griffith, who was the leader of the plenipotentiaries and who was the first to sign and to bring the others with him, albeit reluctantly. A recent RTÉ documentary about Frongoch makes several references to Collins and his leadership role in the camp. It also deals with his subsequent career, yet he is mentioned only once in Brennan Whitmore’s 1917 book on Frongoch. Lord Putman, in a recent homily on Collins, compared his stature to that of Gandhi and Mandela.
Mulcahy’s biography by Maryann Valiulis confirms the contribution that GHQ and the chief-of-staff made to the building up of an effective army under the difficult circumstances of mounting aggression and harassment by British forces. While much of the insurgent action was instigated at a local level in response to enemy activity, it is clear that GHQ as the central authority played an important and increasing role in guiding and organising the struggle. The more formal structure of the army achieved by the time of the Truce made it possible for Mulcahy and O’Duffy to organise a professional army during the frenetic few months between the Treaty ratification and the commencement of the Civil War, an army which would later deal effectively with the irregular forces.
Mulcahy played a seminal role in building a successful insurgency army as the servant of the Dáil and a guarantor of democracy, and was committed to the ethical standards governed by the rules of international warfare. It was he at the time of the Army Mutiny and during the first difficult ten years of the Irish Free State who did all in his power to prevent the government being destabilised by internal as well as external forces.
Mulcahy’s image was tarnished by the reaction to militarism during and after the Civil War. He was sacrificed by his colleagues on the altar of political expediency and neglected by historians because of his modesty, his refusal to defend himself against critics during the post-Civil War period, and the delay in releasing his extensive collection of papers until the year before his death. He lacked personal ambition and political radicalism, and, like his other colleagues in the Cumann na nGaedheal cabinet, he was opposed to political patronage. Despite the army mutiny and his resignation as minister for defence, he remained loyal to his party and to the Treaty.

Risteárd Mulcahy, son of Richard Mulcahy, is a retired cardiologist.

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