August 02, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

By August 1922, North Cork was at the centre of hostilities as the better equipped and organised National Army advanced southwards from Limerick. The retreating Republicans had blown up or burnt hundreds of bridges, houses, police and military barracks. Most notable among these were the spectacular railway viaduct in Mallow, the huge military barracks in Fermoy and Mitchelstown Castle, the biggest house in Ireland.

In early August, after a rapid advance from Charleville and Buttevant, a detachment of the National Army, consisting of the Dublin Volunteers under Commandant Tom Flood, took control of Mallow. The National Army, augmented by local Free State supporters, endured sporadic sniper fire, occasional grenade attacks and a barrage of verbal abuse. By mid-August, the ‘Green and Tans,’ as their Republican opponents dubbed them, had taken control of the area.

Many IRA supporters were taken prisoner during house raids that were carried out in the belief that de Valera was in hiding in the locality. During one raid, Dick Bolster and Jack Willis, senior officers in the North Cork IRA, were captured, and held at a room in the Royal Hotel. There, they were beaten by an officer, later identified as Major James FitzMaurice, whose reconnaissance plane had crash landed a few days earlier at Mallow.

Several Free State soldiers protested at the treatment of the prisoners and threatened mutiny if it did not stop. Commandant Flood claimed he was unaware of what had happened. He agreed to remove FitzMaurice from Mallow within 24 hours, otherwise, one of the Free Staters would be allowed to carry out his threat to shoot FitzMaurice.

Imagine then, what might have happened had it been discovered that Eamon de Valera was in Mallow, visiting William O’Brien at his home in Bellevue?

On 12th August 1922, Arthur Griffith, leader of the Treaty negotiations in London and president of the new Free State Government, died suddenly in Dublin. On that same day also, two towering figures in Irish history met in Mallow. As Eamon de Valera drove in the short avenue to ‘Bellevue’ he knew he was about to meet a man who, at the height of his political career in the 1880s and 1890s, was second only to Charles Stewart Parnell.

In the drawing room, de Valera, who had grown a beard as a disguise so that he would not be recognised by his enemies, was in the presence of one of the most respected political leaders of his time.

William O’Brien’s fame was firmly established during the Land War when he rose to prominence as Parnell’s principal lieutenant. But O’Brien was how six weeks short of his 70th birthday and retired from politics. Although his illustrious career as a Nationalist Politician was over, his name still commanded enormous respect.

Such had been the friendship between O’Brien and Parnell that ‘The Uncrowned King of Ireland’ had stood as best man for O’Brien at his wedding to Sophie Raffalovich in 1890. It was attended by every member of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

However, the O’Brien wedding was the last time that the Irish Nationalist Parliamentarians met in harmony before the scandal of the O’Shea divorce case. On 6 December 1890, Justin McCarthy walked out of an Irish Party meeting with 44 members, leaving Parnell with only 27 followers.

It was a measure of O’Brien’s standing in the party that Parnell went to see him in France. O’Brien endeavoured to put forward a peace formula which would restore the unity of the Irish Party. Parnell agreed to the proposals on condition that O’Brien succeed him as leader.

This O’Brien refused to do and proposed instead that John Dillon should head the party. Parnell strongly opposed this and the peace effort proved to be a disaster, mainly because of the latent antagonism between Parnell and Dillon.

Throughout his political career, O’Brien emphasised ‘conference and conciliation’  between Unionists, Nationalists, landlords and tenants as the means to resolve Ireland’s problems.

Irish Home Rule was at the top of his political agenda throughout his career, but he was not prepared to pay just any price for it. O’Brien vehemently opposed any form of partition of Ireland. Consequently, because of his concerns on this issue, he voted against the Home Rule Bill, which was passed into law on 18 September 1914. Only the outbreak of war with Germany prevented its implementation.

O’Brien believed, like John Redmond and others, that Ireland could win greater concessions from Britain if the Irish parliamentarians encouraged recruiting into the British army. However, O’Brien’s support for recruitment at public meetings in 1914 and 1915, cost him dearly in terms of popular support. After the Easter Rising in 1916, he realised that the mood of the country had moved towards Sinn Féin. He resigned from politics in June 1916. In retirement, he continued to follow all that was going on with a tense sympathy for the young revolutionaries who were taking up the Irish cause.

William and Sophie were in Paris when the Truce came in June 1921, and they closely followed the Treaty negotations which followed in London. At the end of November, he received a telegraph in Mallow from Tim Healy. ‘Strongly urge you to visit 22 Hans Place, London. Am going myself. Immediate outlook deplorable unless intervention improves prospects. - Healy.’ 22 Hans Place was the headquarters of the Irish delegation in London. O’Brien replied: ‘Would willingly go if invited. But have received no hint whatever my intervention desired. Rather to the contrary.’

In his unpublished account of the foundation of the Free State, O’Brien elaborated on the events behind these two telegrams. He said that;

"As a matter of fact, in reply to an enquiry whether I could be of any use with Mr Lloyd George, during a visit of mine to London a couple of months previously, Arthur Griffith had in the friendliest terms intimated that for the present any communication with Downing Street except through strictly official channels might lead to an impression that Sinn Féin was weakening. The [telegram from Healy] was the first I heard of an active participation on Mr Healy’s part in the negotiations which were going on in Downing Street and which, at the date of his telegram, had reached a stage when, so far as the delegates of Sinn Féin were concerned, their communications with the British Cabinet were all but formally broken off."

Sophie’s mother became seriously ill in Paris, so they travelled there via London. Whilst in London, Tim Healy called to see O’Brien. ‘It was news of extraordinary gravity,’ said O’Brien. He added that: "Healy announced that negotiations between Downing Street and the Sinn Féiners had been broken off, but that he himself had been urgently pressed (by whom he did not specify) to re-establish communications between them and had to a great extent succeeded. He entreated me to exercise my influence with the Delegates at Hans Place to smooth matters over. He described the poor fellows as in a state of pitiable helplessness, surrounded with busybodies of all sorts, addling them with polyglot advice. I was obliged to reply that nothing but further confusion could come of any interference of mine during the few hours I had to spend in London.... Healy said that they were substantially offered Canadian Home Rule and that the crux was about the Oath of Allegiance, the veto of the governor-general and so forth. I said difficulties like those seemed to me trivialities in so mighty a matter, but what was the proposal concerning what in my judgment surpassed all other considerations from the standpoint of Irish nationality, viz the partition of the country? His reply was obscure and not altogether reassuring. The Articles of Agreement would give the six northern counties the option of secession, but in the beginning they would remain under the jurisdiction of the Dublin Parliament. He intimated that the Sinn Féin Delegates would not seem to be so intransigent on that point as upon the Oath of Allegiance and the veto, mentioning that they had at first lost a good deal of time discussing the transfer of this or that county or barony from one side of the border to the other. I said he must know that for me at least the integrity of our nation is the only conceivable basis of a permanent settlement: he and I had battled for it before Sinn Féin was of any consequence. Nothing could induce me to make myself a party to an agreement which apparently was to be a revision of the Partition bargain the Irish Party had consented to in 1916."

Healy told O’Brien of Lloyd George’s and Winston Churchill’s plan to put down opposition in the north. This alarmed O’Brien. He held it as an unwise policy. He felt that the north could not be coerced to join the rest of Ireland.

The O’Briens were in Paris when the Treaty was signed. The French newspapers were full of the news. His first reaction was to send a letter to de Valera to congratulate him on the outcome. But he was unhappy about partition and decided not to send it. He chose, instead, to send a letter to the Independent to encourage Irishmen to remain united. Of course, they didn’t!

During the Civil War, he did what he could to bring Irishmen together. It was for such reasons that he remained in contact with Eamon de Valera. It was this which brought the political leader of the Republicans to Bellevue in August 1922.

The Mallow railway viaduct had been blown up by the IRA. De Valera remarked: ‘if this kind of warfare goes on, we will be the most hated party in Ireland.’ He said that he was only a soldier in the fight. It was the military chiefs who gave the word of command. O’Brien could never understand why de Valera had not led the Treaty negotiations. Sophie remarked that ‘My husband’s idea was that a leader must lead. If his followers did not accept the decision, let them take another leader.’

In his unpublished book, O’Brien gave a somewhat pragmatic view of the new leaders of Ireland. He said that:

"The insolence of the young autocrats in Dublin was sometimes almost past bearing. They produced no man of eloquence or fascination, or gifted with the higher imagination....  It is often commonplace men who give stability to a State, although it must take more dangerous men of genius to bring it into existence. The juvenile dictators and the body of hide bound officials they inherited from the old regime conducted the every day business of the country with respectability. The Conservative Forces of an almost bigoted Conservative nation were with them of necessity, if not from any more altruistic motive. An elderly electorate, male and female, thanked the higher powers for the leniency of being able once more to sleep in their beds in peace, without fussing to inquire whose was the guilt of breaking the peace, or by what red-handed means it had been re-established."

Meanwhile, he had refused a Cumann na nGaedheal offer of a seat in the Seanad. He also rejected an invitation from de Valera to run for Fianna Fáil in the 1927 general election. He did, however, join Fianna Fáil, largely because he admired its youthful dynamism and especially because of de Valera’s adherence to the principal of a 32 county Ireland.

On 20th August 1922, eight days after the de Valera-O’Brien meeting, Michael Collins stopped off in Mallow on his journey south to Cork. Unlike de Valera, he did not go to visit O’Brien although there is no evidence to suggest that he was invited to do so. He reviewed his troops and met with a delegation of the town’s leading clerics, including Bishop Roche and Archdeacon Corbett, who obtained a promise from his that the railway viaduct would be rebuilt as soon as possible.

John O’Connell, a porter at Mallow Hospital, went with him as a guide to take him through the hazardous countryside to Cork. Two days later, at Beal na mBláth, the course of Irish history changed with one bullet.

The O’Brien/ de Valera meeting was a fleeting moment of possibilities and impossibilities. Could O’Brien have brokered some kind of peace between Collins and de Valera? He certainly had the desire to see reconciliation between the two men and the ideals they personified. Geographically, he lived almost but not quite halfway between Collin’s native place and de Valera’s home in Bruree. Mentally he possessed their mutual dreams and had a lifetime’s experience of trying to achieve the impossible. But a meeting between Collins and O’Brien was not to be and any serious efforts at peace involving the three men was never attempted.

Sophie O’Brien wrote that "I often grieved that Michael Collins and William O'Brien never met. Somehow I fancy they would have understood one another."


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