The Mulcahy Tapes & Papers

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 2000), Volume 8

For many years I have had an interest in my father’s large collection of papers. After his retirement from politics in 1961, Prof. Kevin B. Nowlan and I assisted him in putting his large collection of War of Independence, truce, civil war and later personal and political papers in order, and having them transferred to the archives of University College Dublin. I also provided him with a secretary and equipment to record his memoirs on tape and to write an important annotation of Piaras Beaslaí’s Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland. (Dublin 1926). All this was done during the last ten years of his life.
The tapes, which number about 150, consist largely of interviews Mulcahy had with my mother and myself, with many of his friends and contemporaries, and with historians and the media. The annotation of Beaslaí’s biography of Collins is a detailed commentary of his views about the content of Beaslaí’s text and about his own close association with Collins. Both tapes and annotation are valuable sources of material which encompass Mulcahy’s views about the leaders and the more important events between 1916 and 1924, while the tapes also deal with some later events in post civil war Ireland, including the decline of the Cumann na nGaedheal party, the Irish language, the organisation of Fine Gael in the early days of his presidency, and the two inter-party governments. The annotation and tapes are also lodged in UCD archives. The index of his papers runs to ninety pages. I have abstracted the tapes and these are now on floppy disc where subjects can be retrieved by checking for key words. The annotation has been fully indexed.

Brief biography

Richard Mulcahy was born in Waterford in 1886 into a Catholic family where religion and Victorian values and standards of behaviour were closely linked. He and his seven siblings were guided by a strong work ethic, by a firm commitment to education, by an unflinching devotion to duty and authority, by a serene spirituality based on their strong faith in Catholicism, and by no overt concern about personal power or acquisitions. One outstanding feature of his political career, and one which was to adversely affect his political profile and his reputation as one of the founders of our democratic state, was his lack of personal ambition and the apparently altruistic motives which guided him during his further career.
His family moved to Thurles, County Tipperary, where he continued his education by the Christian Brothers. At sixteen he joined the Post Office and spent three years in Bantry, County Cork, as a learner and, subsequently, two years in Wexford as a clerk prior his transfer to Dublin in 1907. In Bantry he came under the influence of radical nationalism when he encountered the writings of Arthur Griffith of Dublin, and of Denis McCullough and Bulmer Hobson of Belfast. He also became deeply immersed in Irish language and culture thanks to his proximity to the West Cork Gaeltacht at Ballingeary. In later years he was to describe his sojourns at the house of Siobhan an tSagairt in Ballingeary as his ‘university’. His love of the language and of the indigenous society of the Gaeltacht was to become a major factor in his sense of nationalism.
Shortly after his arrival in Dublin in 1907 Mulcahy joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and played a leading role in the successful Ashbourne action in 1916 led by Thomas Ashe. He was subsequently imprisoned in Knutsford and Frongoch. Released in 1917, he was appointed commandant of the Dublin Brigade and, in March 1918, chief-of-staff of the newly constituted General Headquarters staff of the Irish Volunteers. A member of the first Dáil, he supported the Treaty, and became minister for defence in the post-Treaty Dáil cabinet. While remaining minister for defence, he rejoined the army as chief-of-staff at the start of the civil war in June 1922 and succeeded Collins as commander-in-chief in September 1922. He resigned from the army in May 1923 at the end of the civil war to pursue a full-time career in politics. He remained minister for defence from 1922 to March 1924 when he resigned as a result of the army mutiny.
Mulcahy rejoined the cabinet in 1927 as minister for local government and public health. Succeeding W.T. Cosgrave, he was president of Fine Gael from 1944 to 1959 and served as minister for education in the two inter-party governments, 1948-1951 and 1954-1957. He retired from politics in 1961 and died in 1971.

Forgotten hero?

Maryann Valiulis, in her 1992 biography, described Mulcahy as a ‘forgotten hero’. Between 1918 and 1924, when he led the army, he had the same standing in Ireland as Michael Collins, at least in military terms. His reputation gradually declined after the revolutionary period had passed, despite the fact that his contemporaries and his immediate family and relatives were well aware of his seminal contribution to the revolutionary movement and to the subsequent formation of a stable and democratic state. Military accounts of the war of independence have tended to be imbalanced with an almost exclusive emphasis on the part played by Collins and the fighters in the field, with little reference to the crucial role of GHQ staff. Mulcahy’s reputation was tarnished because of his perceived draconian prosecution of the civil war, and by the political, economic and social problems which bedevilled the fledging Irish Free State. He had particular responsibility for the tricky problem of army demobilisation with the ending of the civil war in 1923, which strained relations with cabinet colleagues. The 1924 army mutiny, which led to his resignation and that of the army council, certainly caused his colleagues to further downgrade his former prominent role in military and political affairs.
There were other reasons why his reputation was overshadowed. His own lack of personal ambition was inconsistent with success in politics, as was his indifference to the attention of the media. His personality was such that he became totally engrossed in his current work and interests. This was well exemplified during the two inter-party governments when he allowed himself to be buried in the Department of Education to such a degree that he seemed detached from the wider political issues arising at cabinet level, despite the fact that he was a regular attender at meetings. Maryann Valiulis refers to his extraordinary capacity, bordering on the obsessional, to become engrossed in the task in hand, an organisational attribute which might have served him well as head of the army and as president of Fine Gael but which was hardly appropriate for a senior politician in a cabinet, few of whose colleagues had served in government before.
There is little doubt that the appointment of Jack Costello as Taoiseach in the two inter-party governments, and his remaining as leader of the opposition in the intervening period was a major factor in diminishing Mulcahy’s reputation in the eyes of the public. I believe the dual leadership of Fine Gael from 1948 to 1959, with a part-time politician leading in the Dáil and the head of the party being effectively in the background, had a long-term adverse effect on the fortunes of the party.

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During his many recordings Mulcahy was frequently asked his opinion and recollections of other leaders, including in particular Griffith, Collins, de Valera and Cathal Brugha.

Arthur Griffith

Griffith was his political mentor. Griffith’s policies, aimed at full self-determination for Ireland, without quibbling about the more academic aspects of our relationship with Britain, appealed to Mulcahy’s own pragmatic outlook about the country’s constitutional status. He was extremely sensitive to any criticism of Griffith and he was particularly distressed that, despite his lifetime work for the cause of Irish freedom, his humility and his lack of personal ambition, Griffith should have been so vilified by the anti-Treaty members of the Dáil during the Treaty debates. He quotes M.J. MacManus’s Éamon de Valera—

Lloyd George proceeded to deliver his hammer blow. The British could concede no more and would debate no further. The Treaty must be signed or else…
Griffith surrendered. ‘I will give the answer of the Irish delegation at 9 o’clock to-night’, he said, ‘but Mr Prime Minister I will personally sign this agreement and recommend it to my countrymen.’
‘Do I understand Mr Griffith that, though everyone else refuses, you will nevertheless agree to sign?’ ‘That is so’, replied Griffith.

—and observes:
The question arises to my mind as to whether these are not the most valiant words ever spoken in the course of Irish history. They were the words of a man who, in an unquenched gaiety of spirit, had suffered poverty and degradation and apparently fruitless labours for years, entirely devoted to the  service of the uplift of the people in terms of spirit, economic well-being, social happiness, political strength.

Mulcahy also refers in his memoirs to Griffith’s continued interest in the social and economic aspects of the new state, an interest which he shared with few other politicians at that time.

Michael Collins

Mulcahy was also a great admirer of Collins and, as chief-of-staff, he encouraged Collins in every possible way, even if Collins’s actions and responsibilities at times appeared to transgress those of the chief and other members of the staff. He admired Collins for his tremendous energy, his organisational and communication skills, his attention to detail and his intolerance of inefficiency, attributes which my father shared with him. He also admired Collins for his courage,

his smiling buoyancy, his capacity for bearing tension, clearness of mind, perfectly controlled calm and a devil-may-carishness completely concealed. His clarity of mind and his whole manner and demeanour, together with his power of concentration on the immediate matter in hand, gave him a very great power over men.

Mulcahy was highly sensitive to criticism of Collins and was infuriated by casual and unsubstantiated charges that Collins had committed improprieties in relation to drink or women. His recollections of Collins run to twenty-nine pages. The insight he had into Collins’s character and activities testifies to the close association between the two during the war of independence.

I opened and kept open for him all the doors and pathways that he wanted to travel—our relations were always harmonious and frank and we didn’t exchange unnecessary information. We each knew what the other was at and particularly in his domain of intelligence—I had no occasion to be questioning him. Over many matters we exercised a constructive and practical Cistercian silence.

He spoke about Collins’s propensity to horse play

in which he had occasion to meet people, very often of a mixed kind, where light banter, indulged in to protect himself against serious conversation, could easily develop into a little rough and tumble. The basis of this is a natural kind of desire not to slow down, continually exercised energy of some kind, mental protection against awkward or inquisitive persons, escapism.

His reminiscences allude to the conflict between Collins and the political leaders, Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack. Mulcahy eventually became enmeshed in this unfortunate affair because of his persistence in protecting Collins from his critics and his concern that the affair might have an adverse effect on the morale and safety of the members of GHQ staff. His involvement in the conflict led to Brugha sacking him twice as chief-of-staff during the truce, an impractical move in the circumstances, and one which did not affect his position, nor his professional relationship with the minister and his other political colleagues.
Mulcahy had extended interviews during the 1960s with Paidín O’Keeffe, who was secretary of Sinn Féin during the War of Independence. O’Keeffe attributed to Collins some of the problems which lead to the Treaty division in the Dáil. Some resented Collins’s high profile and his occasionally abrasive tone but O’Keeffe was insistent that Collins’s dominant role in choosing the nominees for the first Dáil, virtually all military or political leaders with more than its share of radicals, caused considerable resentment, particularly among disappointed hopefuls.

The whole thing about Collins was, he did too much, he was too much to the fore and he had the selection of the bloody first Dáil, which was a bloody curse.

In another comment O’Keeffe said:

Collins was a right eegit because he took on so much that, when Dev came back from America, the only person whom people wanted to contact about affairs was Collins, thus apparently leaving Dev out in the cold.

Eamon de Valera

Twenty two pages of memoirs record Mulcahy’s views about de Valera. These include his criticism of Dev for the part he played in provoking the division in the Dáil and the army, and thus precipitating the civil war. He could never understand nor could he forgive de Valera because of his disastrous response to the signing of the Treaty in London. Maryann Valiulis maintained that he had an obsession about de Valera’s culpability in causing the civil war, and others claimed this obsession clouded his judgement and did not take into account other factors, such as the attitude of some of the army leaders.
His views on this subject merely reflected those of the other pro-Treaty leaders, including the members of the Free State cabinet and virtually all the members of the Cumann na nGaedheal party. It was his opinion that, had Dev supported the Treaty, there would have been much less opposition among members of the Dáil and any military resistance would have been sporadic and ineffective.
Speaking about de Valera’s immediate repudiation of the Treaty by sending a letter to the newspapers rejecting the agreement on behalf of the people, Mulcahy had this to say:

It was really an infamous performance on the part of de Valera, as the leader of the nation that he was appealing to, to issue this letter at this time. For all practical purposes it was tantamount to his meeting Griffith at the boat at Dún Laoghaire and slapping him publicly across the face.

On the question of Dev’s principal objection to the Treaty, the Oath, Mulcahy spoke of Dev’s four meetings with Lloyd George in July 1921. He states that Dev was made aware of the reality of partition and the Northern Ireland government, and that we would be granted the power of a sovereign state, internationally recognised. He was also aware that structures would exist between Britain, the North and the new Irish State to permit conciliation and consultation. He goes on to say:

There is a fourth point that should be added to the three mentioned above as a thing which de Valera knew by the 21st July following his four talks with Lloyd George and that is, that there was not the slightest doubt that as far as Britain itself was concerned, the British negotiators would resist, to the very last, any implied interference with the prestige, the mystique or the picture of the Crown as a linchpin idea in the constitution of Great Britain itself, of the individual dominions existing and its position as a connecting mystique for the commonwealth group as a whole: on two headings he knew that there had to be some acceptance of the Crown, (1) on the aforementioned grounds and (2) on the holding, under any scheme, of any hope of giving a link of unity with the Northern counties.

Cathal Brugha

Mulcahy, in his capacity of chief-of-staff, had very close contacts with Brugha during the war of independence. His recollections of Brugha are included in considerable detail in various parts of his annotation on Beaslai’s life of Collins, and in his tapes. While Brugha remained the political link with the Volunteers from November 1917 as chairman of their executive, and from April 1919 as minister for defence, he played no part in military affairs and was only concerned with general military policy. The link was maintained by weekly visits by the chief-of-staff to Brugha’s office in Ormond Quay or his home in Rathmines. Mulcahy records:

He was naturally blunt and frank and was no more tending to intrigue than he was to diplomacy. I had a couple of experiences of his brusqueness, but in the light of his broad agreement, and his tendency not to interfere in any way in the absence of some intenseness about something on his part, I found it easy to discharge my duty of keeping in touch with him, and there was never any necessity on my part or on the part of the members of the staff to feel that we were not in all matters pursuing a policy entirely approved of by him and by the government.

He gives a detailed description of Brugha’s character, including his courage and intensity, and his passionate commitment to the Republic. And he finishes by saying:

Cathal Brugha, who considered in 1917 that, because a policeman was killed in Cork, somebody was irresponsibly bringing destruction on the people and ruining the country, and who could in March 1921 be sending one of our most brilliant sustainers and leaders of the people generally to do a Japanese act of self-sacrifice in assassinating a British Minister [referring to his attempt to send Seán MacEoin to London to do the deed] was throwing away his own life in O’Connell Street to stain our work in blood.

It is hard to say what Mulcahy’s attitude to Brugha was—perhaps a mixture of resentment and compassion—but he often spoke to me of him with sympathy and respect.

The families

There were eight siblings in my father’s family. Three of his sisters joined the Ursuline teaching order and a fourth joined the  Sisters of Charity. The fifth, Kitty, trained like the others as a teacher and married Jim Monahan of County Longford. His brother Paddy fought in the Great War, later joined the Volunteers and the Free State army, and was chief-of-staff from 1955-1959. His second brother, Sam or Dom Columban, joined the Cistercian Order and as abbot established the first post-reformation Cistercian monastery in Scotland, Sancta Maria Abbey in Mid-Lothian, in 1947 and which, since then, has received warm support from the local Presbyterian community.
My mother, Mary Josephine or Min to her intimates, was a member of the Ryan family from Tomcoole, County Wexford. Her parents were farmers and she had eleven siblings. The Ryans played a prominent part during the revolutionary period and were mostly opposed to the Treaty. Her brother, Jim, was a minister in all the Fianna Fáil administrations from 1932 to 1965. Sean T. O’Kelly, who was also a prominent Fianna Fáil leader and subsequently President of Ireland from 1945-1959, married my mother’s sister, Kate, and later, after Kate’s death, married her youngest sister, Phyllis. Mother’s sister, Agnes, married Denis McCullough who had been president of the IRB before the Rising and was elected a post-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal TD until he retired from politics in 1927.
My parents lived in Lissenfield House, Rathmines, from 1922 to 1966. This old rambling house with its spacious grounds was contiguous to Portobello Barracks as it was then known. It was there that I and my five siblings were reared. In my Richard Mulcahy (1886-1971)—A Family Memoir I have given separate chapters to the three families, the most detailed account being about our lives in Lissenfield during the twenties, thirties and forties. Curiously, as far as I can gather from the comments of readers, the story of our lives in Lissenfield appears to have evoked more interest than the overtly political material. Perhaps more needs to be written about the social history of Ireland between the two great wars.

Risteárd Mulcahy is Emeritus Professor of Preventive Cardiology at University College Dublin.

Further reading:

R. Mulcahy, Richard Mulcahy (1886-1971)—A Family Memoir (Dublin 1999).

P. Beaslaí, Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland (Dublin 1926).

M.G. Valiulis, Partrait of a Revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the Founding of the Irish Free State (Dublin 1992).


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