Liam Mellows - ‘I have failed lamentably’

 Liam Mellows: Bitterly resented the chaos of the Dublin command during the 1916 Rising.

Liam Mellows: Bitterly resented the chaos of the Dublin command during the 1916 Rising.

Unlike the men executed after the 1916 Rising, there was little of the same idealisation given to the hundreds of men and women who died in the War of Independence, or, more emphatically, those executed during the regretable Civil War.

Liam Mellows, an Englishman by birth, an Irishman by choice, led the Galway Volunteers out during Easter Week, one of the few places outside Dublin to do so. It was a hopelessly lost cause. On April 24th, four days before the planned rebellion, the Aud, carrying the arms, explosives and ammunition, essential if the Rising had any chance to succeed, was captured and scuttled by the British navy. Its organiser, Sir Roger Casement was arrested as he stepped on to the Kerry shore. The rebellion was officially cancelled, but in the chaos that ensued, Dublin was seized by the rebels, and instead of a nation wide insurrection, small numbers appeared, poorly armed, if at all, in Fingal and counties Wexford and Galway.

For almost five days Mellows led a small army of about 500 men and 50 Cumann na mBan, through the east Galway countryside. They attacked RIC stations at Clarinbridge, Oranmore and Carnmore, killing one policeman, Constable Patrick Whelan, and taking several others prisoner. British authorities responded with a gunship firing from the bay directly into the east Galway countryside; and deploying a large number of soldiers, who were descending rapidly on the insurgents.

It ended miserably at Moyode Castle, where the ‘army’, cold, wet and hungry, voted to disperse and return to their homes. A bitterly disappointed Mellows, who had argued with them to fight to the end, saw them question his leadership, and finally to walk away despite his pleadings. In the weeks that followed he heard how his men were jeered and mocked as they were led off to prison.

Described as a ‘compulsive worker’, with a fondness for practical jokes and singing rebel songs, Mellows was an inspirational leader, who despite his extreme youth (24 years old at the time of the Rising ), his small stature and frail demeanour, was ‘immune to cold and hardship’ and was utterly committed to the cause. His dream with James Connolly was a socialist Ireland of the future.

He never lived to see what happened to his dream. Six years after he led out the Galway Volunteers he was imprisoned following the destruction of the Four Courts where he and other leaders of the Anti Treaty forces held out for a time. On December 8 1922 he was executed by the Free State as a reprisal for the shooting dead of Cork TD Sean Hales. He was notified of his execution only hours before it was carried out. During the years leading up to the end of of his short life, however, he hid his despair behind a mask of frivolity, and his letters reveal a ‘haunted soul, racked with self-doubt’.

‘Profound anguish’

Undoubtedly Mellows would have been executed with the other 1916 leaders had he been arrested following the Galway rebellion. He managed to slip away, first to Liverpool and then to New York where he was welcomed and embraced by Irish Americans who had been following the Rising with hope in their hearts. Mellows was hailed as the leader of the ‘1916 Exiles’, and initially treated royally.

The biggest and most influential Irish organisation was Clan Na Gael, led by the legendary old Fenian John Devoy, who announced that Mellows was ‘the most capable man who had so far arrived in America.’ Mellows was dined and feted, and spoke heroically, if romantically, about the Rising, and the role Galway played.

But privately, Mellows ‘felt profound anguish’, and anger at the catastrophic mess made by the leadership in Dublin in the days leading up to the Rising. He told his friend Patrick McCartin, “If I had known as much in Easter Week as I know today, I would never have fired a shot”.

He became ill, probably some kind of breakdown, where, McCartin describes, in his delirium Mellows was back in Galway leading his troops ‘….he went over again and again some fight he had fought, firing from behind a barricade ….Shouting orders, he would try to rise, only to fall helplessly back, gasping for breath…’ Later he was to write to a friend in New York: ‘talk is cheap. It is the deed that counts, and there I have failed lamentably.’

‘Midsummer madness’

The challenge to his leadership in Moyode Castle had to be a bitter blow. But morale among the Galway Volunteers was steadily declining as the ‘army’ moved through the countryside in April weather. Despite Mellows pleading that they fight on, one veteran later described the mood as a ‘grim’ experience. Provisions were totally inadequate. ‘Only about one in four had an overcoat, and during the cold April night, they suffered severely from the cold.’

After the event, which the Tuam Herald described as an ‘exhibition of midsummer madness’, many of the volunteers who were bread-winners for their families, were imprisoned and their families suffered. The neighbours at that time were not as sympathetic as they became as the fight progressed in later months. At the time there were no funds for the families whose men were in prison.

For whatever reason, however, Mellows felt he was unable to describe the true story behind the Galway rebellion, and his feelings for the Dublin leadership. Instead, when Devoy invited him to write the ‘real story’ of the magnificent part played by the Galway volunteers in his newspaper the Gaelic American, what Mellows wrote was such a romantic tale of bravery, forbearance, and adventure that it might easily have appeared in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.

Next week: Mellows ‘reinvention’ of the Galway rebellion.

NOTES: I am leaning heavily on Liam Mellows - Selected Writings, by Conor McNamara, recently published by Irish Academic Press 2019, on sale €18.95. Dr McNamara has done a great service in lifting the veil from the largely hidden life and times of Liam Mellows, notably in his War and Revolution in the West of Ireland, published last year.

Letters from last Week’s Diary

‘My father, Bill Looney (Liam Ó Luanaigh ) was among the LDF people who guarded it. He sometimes recalled the incident, and left the following brief note regarding it:- ‘A big American plane of the type known as the” Flying Fortress” ran out of fuel, and came down on a field near the Agricultural College at Athenry. It was coming from North Africa and there is little I remember about it now [this was written in the 1980s] other than the very long belts of ammunition attached to the guns and the large calibre of the bullets’.

He also left this poignant account of another incident of the time:- ‘A British plane fell into the sea about Mutton Island and it was thought that some of them had bailed out before the crash. We [the LDF] made a search of all country between Barna-Lough Inch and Galway, but did not find anybody. A body was washed up on the shore and I saw him in the Hospital Mortuary [Daddy was Accountant at the Hospital] -a young man with black hair and a small black moustache, dressed in a blue uniform, and wearing socks, but no shoes. His toes were out through one of his socks. His name was Edwards, from, I think, Limavady. He was not pale at all;on the contrary,he was unusually ruddy.’ (With best wishes Dónall. )

Mary Silke, Furbo, wrote: It reminded me of two incidents from Ballyconneely, one of my favourite places and where Sean (RIP ) and I built Murlough B&B in the 1990s. One is the grave of a Canadian radio officer Ian P Smithson, buried in the old Ballyconneely graveyard. His headstone bears the Canadian Airforce crest and under this is his name and date is 11th March, 1944, and description of ‘plane radio officer and airgunner’. May he and all others lost during wars, rest in peace.

Another loss in this area, off Slyne Head, was the Spanish trawler, Maria Luisa Corral, from La Coruna. It went down in very bad storms in June 1986, with a crew of 15 sailors. I was staying at Ailebrack at the time and a search plane was out trying to help in rescue. There were no survivors and I don’t know if any bodies were found, and if so, where were they buried. This was reported in the Irish Times of 16/6/1986. (I wrote a poem at the time in their memory RIP ).

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