Harry Boland’s Irish revolution

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 12

David Fitzpatrick
(Cork University Press, 335)
ISBN 1859182224

In writing this biography at the request of Harry’s nephew and namesake Annraoi Ó Beolláin, David Fitzpatrick declared his objective to be ‘a balanced and impartial account of an outstanding life’. With unlimited access to the family archive, it undoubtedly presents an unprecedented wealth of detail. An unpublished study of Harry’s father James by the late Kevin Boland, brother of Annraoi, is also cited as a primary source for the Boland family background.

Much of the story of Harry’s involvement in the 1916 Rising and his subsequent imprisonment has previously been told, but Fitzpatrick’s extensive reproduction of his prison correspondence allows the sheer attractiveness of his personality to emerge. The de Valera tour of America in 1919 is particularly well documented, but the later IRB in-fighting between Boland and Clan na Gael’s John Devoy is laden with such detail that the author himself exclaims in exasperation that it would be superfluous to burden the biography with more.

In Harry Boland’s Irish revolution the author seems to adopt the maxim of ‘hating the sin but loving the sinner’. Fitzpatrick has long argued that such a revolution was aberrant, that it was ‘the violence caused by the rebels which led to the shelling of the GPO in the first place’ and that ‘it is no wonder that 1916 led to an escalation of British violence in Ireland’. And he here describes Kevin Boland’s study as ‘an informative if quirky account’, meaning that Boland wore his political bias on his sleeve. But this is more a case of the cauldron calling the kettle black. While his own biography scores 9 out of 10 as to balanced presentation of a voluminous amount of evidence, he fails in his further declared aim of impartiality when it comes to his accompanying commentary.

And so we have the gratuitous sneer at 1916 as ‘the orgasmic moment of insurrection’, Harry described as joining ‘Traynor’s wreckers’, ‘alcoholic memories’ stated to be ‘the very essence of Gaelic culture’, Boland’s mother snidely referred to as a ‘self-styled “bean an tighe” (woman of the house)’, and the acclaimed poet Monsignor Pádraig de Brún derided because he ‘added his voice to the chorus’ of ‘doggerelists’ on Harry’s death in 1922 and did not remain ‘content with celebrating Harry’s requiem Mass’.

When writing of the War of Independence, ‘murder’ and ‘extermination’ are terms freely used by Fitzpatrick himself to describe actions by ‘notorious’ Republicans. As for British actions, one can only find the word ‘murder’ deeply embedded in a quote from Harry himself. ‘Self-determination’ is another term Fitzpatrick insists on placing in quotation marks, while any such qualifying punctuation goes out the window when celebrating as Irish patriots those who, as opposed to Harry, adopted ‘the struggle against German tyranny as Ireland’s war’ and ‘hoped for Anglo-Irish reconciliation through shared sacrifice in a common battle against despotism and oppression’. Fitzpatrick proceeds to go completely over the top when he also writes of ‘John Redmond’s appeal to fight the Axis powers’! ‘Axis’ was in fact a fascist term first coined by the Italian dictator Mussolini in 1936 to describe his alliance with Nazi Germany, although, like the Redmondites, Mussolini himself had previously fought in support of Britain’s war against the Kaiser’s Germany.

When the Axis powers did go on to fight a very different war, the one Irish politician who indirectly became a victim of their fascist tyranny was Bob Briscoe, whose family could individually name 156 of his aunts, uncles and cousins consumed by the Holocaust. But Briscoe’s own 1958 autobiography stands out as a direct refutation of Fitzpatrick’s anti-historical conflation of the First and Second World Wars. The thoroughly anti-Nazi Briscoe still recalled with affection the ‘kindly, hospitable German folk’ he had known in Berlin while happily working for two years in ‘the Kaiser’s paternalistic state’, up to ‘the minute that everything changed on August 4, 1914, when England declared war on Germany’. Further recalling how in December 1914 he had couriered dispatches from Connolly to Larkin in New York that were destined for the German ambassador, Briscoe remained proud of his part in ‘the attempt of Irish patriots to enlist German aid and German arms in Ireland’s fight for liberation’.

Although Briscoe is indeed quoted as evidence of Boland’s peace-making efforts at the outset of the Civil War, Fitzpatrick dismisses the man himself as ‘the Jewish gunrunner from Ranelagh’. He disdains to enlist Briscoe’s support for another argument of his, that ‘in retrospect Harry’s closest comrades rejected the propagandist accusation that Collins and his colleagues had conspired to murder Harry’. While Fitzpatrick has unearthed a 1962 note from de Valera, that view had already been publicly proclaimed by Briscoe four years previously. Fitzpatrick’s own inverted commas accordingly dispute Boland’s inclusion among the ‘martyrs’ of the Republic, and he writes in disapproving tones of how ‘authentic grief was a powerful engine of propaganda’ that the Boland family ‘did not hesitate to deploy’.

But what if he had been murdered? The unarmed Boland had been shot ‘while attempting to escape’ on 31 July 1922, but it took another agonising 44 hours before he finally expired. Fitzpatrick does not seem to agree that the seven hours that elapsed between Harry being shot and finally brought to hospital would itself be sufficient reason to consider a verdict of culpable homicide. And yet Fitzpatrick’s own further research suggests that, far from being a peculiar neurosis of the Boland family, the graver suspicion of murder might now turn out to be even more firmly grounded.

As he lay dying, Harry told his family that he had been shot by a former comrade with whom he had shared imprisonment in Lewes, but refused to name him. As there had been as many as 123 Republican prisoners in Lewes, this fact alone was not necessarily incompatible with the belief of Briscoe and de Valera that the killer might just have been  a nervous and relatively untrained soldier. Fitzpatrick, however, identifies quite a unique Lewes prisoner as having been responsible, one who like Harry himself had initially been sentenced to death in 1916. Apparently conforming to Boland’s dying wish that he should never be named, Fitzpatrick does not do so in either the narrative or chapter notes. But then he proceeds to name the killer in the index for the page on which he has been left anonymous! Far more significant, however, is his revelation that this killer was not only a highly experienced and accomplished intelligence officer, but a district centre of the IRB as well.

It was, therefore, remiss of Fitzpatrick to relegate to a mere footnote the dying Boland’s temporary sojourn in Portobello Barracks. This completely overlooks the fact that these last two hours of his pre-hospitalisation were spent in what, since 12 July, had actually become the living quarters of Michael Collins himself, newly appointed commander-in-chief of the Free State Army, who also remained president of the Supreme Council of the IRB. Dick Mulcahy, chief-of-staff and IRB Supreme Council member, had already moved into Portobello on 1 July, together with Joe McGrath as director of intelligence. Which of the killer’s multi-faceted IRB/Army superiors was roused from bed that dawn to survey the results of his handiwork, express surprise that after so many hours Boland had not yet bled to death, and adjudicate that he might, after all, spend the remaining day and a half of his life dying in a hospital bed? Far from dispelling the ‘murder mystery’ as a figment of Annraoi Ó Beolláin’s imagination, Fitzpatrick’s own detective work in profiling the killer has now given the conspiracy theory far greater substance than ever before.

The author’s prologue opens with the observation that Harry Boland was ‘surely the most versatile of Irish revolutionaries’, and that ‘while others specialised in fighting or speech-making, conspiracy or diplomacy, he tried his hand in every department’. Fitzpatrick’s undoubted capacity for scholarship and painstaking documentary research has produced such a rich volume of evidence that this biography must serve as the most substantial reference work to date for the details of Boland’s life, even if readers come to very different conclusions on the subject-matter than the author’s own evaluation.


Manus O’Riordan


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