Monday, April 20, 2009

The not-so-good and not-so-great, number 14

Cathal Brugha

Malcolm had no intention of including this one in the catalogue. That's for two good reasons: Malcolm sees Bugha as a tragic and honourable figure; and, to do him justice in a small space, it needed thought. However, he was challenged to do so by a comment from Dewi Harries. So: here goes (on the assumption that what follows is open to subsequent expansion and correction).

The basic facts of Brugha's life are well-established and well-known. He was born into a large family: Thomas Burgess, who was English by birth, and Marianne, née Flynn, produce
d a brood of fourteen. It was a cultured background: the father was an art-dealer. When the father's business failed, the young Charles Burgess left Belvedere College and went into trade. He was already well into the nationalist movement, becoming a member of the Gaelic League by 1899, and adopted the Hibernicised version of his name. His ecclesiastical candle-manufactory, Lalors, prospered: pictures of Brugha (as right), in or out of uniform, suggest the successful, dapper executive.

He took the IRB oath, and by 1913 was a lieutenant in the Volunteers: one of his early actions was at the Howth gun-running. He was out at Easter 1916, Eamonn Ceannt's second-in-command at the South Dublin Union. He suffered multiple wounds (perhaps as many as sixteen gunshots and a granade blast), and was not expected to survive. His recovery was much speedier once the internment order on him was revoked in August 1916: go figure. Then we have the first clue of something really significant: Brugha's immediate effort was to re-form a core leadership for the Volunteers.

Inevitably, at this moment, there was considerable repositioning going on inside the nationalist movement.
Executions and internment meant that, throughout much of 1916-17, the nationalist movement lacked direction. Nor was there any agreed Sinn Féin policy. Factions set republicans against twin-monarchists. Ironically, the British demonising of Sinn Féin was as much the unifying force as anything else. Count Plunkett (father of the executed Joseph, and himself victor in the North Roscommon by-election, but, in Diarmaid Ferriter's brusque dismissal, "contrary and egotistical") was a key and divisive figurehead, to whom Brugha attached himself.

The immediate target for the Volunteers was to displace the Redmondities: further by-election victories in South Longford and East Clare were completed by the anti-conscription campaign of spring 1918. Into this policy vacuum stepped Brugha, the executive, as a pivotal figure. He appears, for example, alongside Plunkett at anti-conscription rallies and meetings, notably that at Beresford Place (10 June 1917, when he was arrested) demanding the release of the republican prisoners in English gaols.

What then ensued was a notable parting of the ways, which reverberates down to the present day. De Valera, Ashe and Brugha were set on moulding the Volunteers into a national political movement. Meanwhile, the likes of the rising Michael Collins were looking to the application of "physical force", derived from the IRB network and its traditions.

Take time out to consider a key passage in Tim Pat Coogan's seminal hagiography. Collins was:
incurring the wrath of Cathal Brugha. Given the differences in their attitudes to almost everything that mattered Collins would inevitably have had to clash with the formulaic, rule-book approach of the older man. Brugha was a 'static warfare' man. He still though of fighting in GPO terms. It's doubtful if he ever seriously believed they could win the war. For him, carrying on the fight was the important thing, keeping faith with the men who had raised the standard in other generations. He opposed Collins over ambushing.
Curious, then, that Brugha spent a fair bit of 1921 in London researching ways to murder the whole British Cabinet. However, what that boils down to is this (and the story has moved on a while):
Collins wanted to strike a spectacular blow like that of the Indian revolutionaries who had bombed and wounded the Viceroy Lord Hardinge in 1912 as he ceremonially entered New Delhi on an elephane, Among the plans Collins considered was assassinating French on the review stand during an Armistice Day march-past on 11 November 1919. The day before, McKee [Collins's number two] told Mick McDonnell that the gunman, firing from an office opposite the Bank of Ireland, would not escape alive. He then asked McDonnell to do the shooting! After a minute's hesitation McDonnell agreed, but he did not sleep that night. Next morning he was both surprised and relieved when McKee said Cathal Brugha had vetoed the operation because it endangered civilian bystanders.
Something of profound importance had happened in the command structure. It goes back to that aching divide between the aims of the political
Sinn Féin and of the physical-force IRB. It can be precisely traced and dated; and it explains the cleavage between Brugha and Collins.

The IRB had aligned with
Sinn Féin on the assumption that it was just another nationalist grouping that might be employed to IRB ends. At the Sinn Féin Feis of October 1917, the IRB had gone along with Sinn Féin's intention of securing international recognition of an independent Irish republic, but the Hungarian "twin monarchy"model still had supporters. The October 1917 pledge was hedged by the condition that the Irish people could then:
by Referendum freely chose their own form of Government.
The Party was republican from the 1916 Declaration: now it had to recognise what being democratic involved. The reformed Volunteers, effectively commanded by IRB men like Collins and Richard Mulcahy, might affirm:
The Irish Volunteers are the Army of the Irish Republic
but they had a separate agenda. As Tim Pat Coogan notes
The Volunteers had their own executive and constitution, and though there was some overlapping of membership between individual volunteers and other national organisations they had a largely autonomous existence from Sinn Féin and the Dáil. The first shooting of policemen, for instance, was not sanctioned by the Dáil.
Which brings us to 21st January 1919.

In Dublin, at 3.30 p.m., the First Dáil convened in Dublin's Mansion House. Since de Valera (the President of
Sinn Féin) and Arthur Griffith were both "Féghlas ag Gallaibh", in English gaols, so Cathal Brugha was installed as Príomh Aire pro tempore.

That same day, at Soloheadbeg, a quarry outside of Tipperary a small group of Volunteers, led by Dan Breen and Sean Tracy, ambushed a cart of gelignite, killing the two armed police guards. This is commonly regarded as the start of the "War of Independence".

Soloheadbeg was an independent action by the Tipperary Brigade: they had not consulted or informed Dublin; but one aim of the ambush was to embarrass the new Dáil into aggressive action.

Collins was the crucial figure here. He was now simultaneously president of the IRB, the Dáil's minister of finance, and the Volunteers' director of intelligence and adjutant-general. He personally condoned the Tipperary Brigade's action; but was under orders from the seven-man Military Council to condemn it. Richard Mulcahy (Commandant of the Dublin Brigade,and about to be Chief of Staff of the IRA) was incensed by Solobheadbeg: he had wanted the Dáil to take power peacefully, without sideshows or distractions, to mark a benign transition to democracy. Collins's ambiguous behaviour was seen as:
a formal reprimand with one hand and a pat on the back with the other.
When de Valera (who escaped from Lincoln gaol on 3rd February
, and was at liberty after the freeing of the republican prisoners on 6th March) was installed as head of the Ministry, Cathal Brugha became the Minister of Defence. This set the scene for a confrontation.

It now became essential to establish the command structure. Dorothy Macardle, in 1937 and re-writing history in de Valera's graven image, explained things thus:
There was some opposition to the control exercised by the IRB. Cathal Brugha, who had belonged for some time to the Brotherhood, became antagonistic to it. De Valéra's membership had never been more than nominal and he had avoided being used by the Brotherhood in any other way than as an officer of the Volunteers. He determined, now, to cease all connection with the secret society and tried to persuade his close associates, Harry Boland and Austin Stack, to withdraw from it. He and Brugha maintained that the movement ought henceforth to be an open one and that no one who accepted responsibility as an elected representative ought to be subject to secret control.
That is belied by de Valera's own actions. On 10th April he declared that the:
Minister for Defence is of course in close association with the Voluntary military forces which are the foundation of the National Army.
It was left to Brugha to enforce the line. On 2oth August, with de Valera in America, he proposed to the Dáil that TDs and Volunteers should take an oath:
"to support and defend the Irish Republic, which is Dáil Éireann, against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same".
With Arthur Griffith presiding, and supporting the oath, it was agreed. Even so, the commanders of the separate brigades of the Volunteers were left to apply and enforce it.

De Valera did not come round to the issue until March, 1921. Then, and only then, did he decree that the Volunteers:
are under the Civil Control of elected representatives, and that their officers hold their commissions from these representatives. The Government therefore is responsible for the actions of this army.
When the Treaty negotiations began (11 October 1921), it was essential for the Volunteers to accept discipline. On 21 November 1921 Brugha brought to Cabinet and won the resolution that
the supreme body directing the Army is the Cabinet.
Thus, at critical moments it had been Cathal Brugha who set the pace, and called the tune. In a revolutionary situation he determined to establish democratic and orderly civilian control. So doing, he anticipated that Ireland should become and should remain a democratic nation.

If only for this, Cathal Brugha transcends most of his contemporaries and the confines of this sequence of also-rans.

The rest of Brugha's abbreviated life is easy to relate. He concurred with de Valera, on seeing the Treaty agreement on 3rd December, that "external association" be re-affirmed. So, in the Cabinet of 6th December he was in the minority (four to three) opposing the Treaty. In the Dáil Treaty vote (64-57) of 7 January 1922 he was again in the minority.

In that debate he delivered his virulent speech against Collins. His provocation was an editorial in the Freeman's Journal of 5 January, which had urged a vote for the treaty and for Collins. The paper characterised Collins as the man with a £10,000 bounty on his head who had won the war. Brugha cast doubt, correctly, on both counts. Brugha was motivated by a belief that Dublin Castle was exploiting the charisma of Collins to promote support for the Treaty. When the documents eventually became available, they showed Brugha's judgment was again correct: an official at Dublin Castle, Andy Cope, had been in cahoots with the editor of the Freeman's Journal, Martin Fitzgerald.

Even then Brugha looked for conciliation. He supported the 20th May pact between de Valera and Collins, which was subverted by Lloyd George who induced Collins to renounce his agreement. That, in turn, led to the June 1922 election, won by the Free Staters but with Brugha re-elected to the

He rejoined the Republican forces only when the Free Staters fired on the Four Courts (28th June). He was wounded in "suicidal" action at the Granville Hotel, and died in the Mater Hospital on 7th July.

Malcolm started this piece by expressing admiration of Brugha.

Of the "new" democracies established after 1918, only Finland and Ireland made the distance (Czechoslovakia, of course, was snuffed out by other means).

It could have been a near-run thing. In 1932, in the run-up to the election which brought de Valera to power, Eoin O'Duffy had been pressing for an army putsch. According to one legend, when the newly-appointed Fianna F
áil Minister came visiting, a senior army officer openly wondered: "Do we salute him or shoot him?" It was Brugha's previous efforts which delivered the correct response in both cases..

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Dewi Harries said...

Thanks Malcolm - excellent.

Dewi Harries said...

And btw really looking forward to "C" for Collins.

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