Tá Rebel Breeze fíor-bhuíoch do Kerron Ó Luain as cead foillsithe a óráid ag comóradh scaoileadh marfach an tSaor Stát le Chathal Brugha a thabhairt dúinn. Rebel Breeze is most grateful to Kerron Ó Luain for permission to publish his oration on the occasion of the fatal shooting by the Free State of Cathal Brugha.
(Reading time: 11 mins.)
Óráid a tugadh ag Comóradh Chathail Uí Bhrugha, 7ú Iúil 2022, Baile Átha Cliath
Oration given at a Commemoration for Cathal Brugha, 7 July 2022, Dublin
Buíochas leis an gcoiste as an gcuireadh a thabhairt dom labhairt ag an ócáid stairiúil seo. Tá tábhacht ar leith go líonfar an bhearna maidir le stair an Chogaidh Chathartha, óir tá an stát tar éis na maidí a ligeadh le sruth.
Ba mhaith liom an chaint ghairid seo a thabhairt in ómós do Mhícheál Ó Doibhilin, an staraí a bhásaigh an tseachtain seo.
Le linn 2016, agus comóradh céad bhliain ar Éirí Amach 1916 faoi lán seoil tháinig sé chuig mo bhaile dúchais, Ráth Cúil, áit ar thug sé caint ar Josie McGowan, a bhí mar bhall de Chumann na mBan, agus a mharaigh na póilíní in 1918.
Thanks to the committee for the invitation to give this short talk. It’s important to mark events such as these to do with the Civil War since the State has not seen fit to do so.
I’d like to dedicate this talk to Mícheál Ó Doibhlin, the historian who died just this week.
Mícheál carried out a great deal of work on the likes of Anne Devlin and he published numerous works through Kilmainham Tales which provided an insight into lesser known aspects of republican history.
During 2016, with the hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Rising in full swing, he came to my hometown of Rathcoole, where he have a talk on Josie McGowan, who was the first member of Cumann na mBan to be martyred when she was killed by police in 1918.
I’d like to speak about Cathal Brugha first and then the impact of the Civil War/Counter-Revolution.
CATHAL BRUGHA – EARLY YEARS
In terms of the historical sources, it is not easy to find a wealth of material on Cathal Brugha online. Unlike Michael Collins, for example, there is not an abundance of accessible sources online pertaining to Brugha.
He is referred to in the Bureau of Military History sources such as the Witness Statements, and these have been digitised, but his private papers, held in UCD, await digitisation.
The recently published biography of Brugha by Daithí Ó Corráin and Gerard Hanley, entitled Cathal Brugha: “An Indomitable Spirit”, will hopefully go some way to popularising a fuller and more nuanced account of his life and politics.
Cathal Brugha was born as Charles Burgess in Dublin in 1874. He was born into a middle-class family, his father a cabinet maker. Brugha was born into a large family, which was not unusual at the time. Perhaps less common, was that he came from a mixed Protestant and Catholic marriage.
There is a good chance his father was a Protestant Fenian during the 1860s and 70s.
The crucial politicising force of this mid-twenties was Conradh na Gaeilge. He joined Craobh an Chéitinnigh in Dublin in 1899. And it was through the Conradh he met his wife Kathleen Kingston whom he married in 1909.
It was in this Gaelic revivalist and republican milieu that he met the likes of Seán Mac Diarmada, Tom Clarke and Piaras Béaslaí, and this influenced his move towards militant republicanism.
It is worth noting, at this point, that six of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation were members of Conradh na Gaeilge, as were fourteen of the sixteen men executed in the wake of the Rising.
PREPARATION FOR RISING, PREPARATION FOR WAR — AND FURTHER
In 1908, Brugha joined the IRB. He was employed as a travelling salesman with a candlestick company during those years and so, like many within Fenianism before him, was able to disguise his organising and recruitment under the cloak of his business activities.
Brugha was later instrumental in the setting up of the Irish Volunteers and then the Howth Gun Running. He was second in command to Éamon Ceannt at the South Dublin Union (now James’s Street Hospital) during the 1916 Rising.
He held a detachment of the British Army at bay singlehandedly with his ‘Peter the Painter’ revolver and nearly died from the wounds, including a lacerated nerve, he sustained in the feat. For the remainder of his life he walked with a limp and had to have a special boot made so that he could walk.
In the wake of the 1916 Rising Brugha was central to the re-organisation of the Irish Volunteers, which during these years, along with the Irish Citizen Army, began to coalesce into the Irish Republican Army.
In terms of his rejection of the Treaty in 1921 and death during 1922, we get a snapshot of the trajectory of his politics in 1917.
He was central to the debates over the formation of the Sinn Féin constitution in 1917, and he clashed with the dual-monarchist Arthur Griffith over the insertion of the word “Republic” into the document, which Brugha ardently supported.
Later, at the outbreak of the Black and Tan War in 1918 another indication of his politics can be seen. Brugha, as President of the Dáil, and later as Minister of Defence, was anxious that the IRA would do nothing that might effect Ireland’s case at the Peace Conference underway in Paris.
These were not the actions of a militarist fanatic, as state and revisionist historians have often portrayed him, but the strategic calculations of a principled political republican.
His dedication to the cultural and linguistic revolution is a feature of his activities during 1919 — particularly during the reading of the 1919 Democratic Programme.
Rinneadh gach rud trí Ghaeilge an lá sin agus ba é Brugha a bhí chun cinn.
During that day all the business was conducted through Irish and Brugha was very forthright about that. He understood not only the political importance of announcing the advent of the Dáil at an international level, but in doing so through Irish.
Another indication of his desire to advance the Irish language was that his plan for Conradh na Gaeilge be given sanction by the newly emergent state. “It was essential”, he said “that the authority of Dáil Éireann should be placed behind the Gaelic League”.
LESSONS OF HISTORY
It is our duty as historians and as republicans who want to learn from the mistakes of the past to analyse things as they were and not gloss over them.
Brugha was less advanced when it came to other social questions, such as that of the land.
When a loan scheme was set up by the Dáil in 1919-1920 Brugha viewed it as “a scheme that would be a perfectly sound business proposition, and offer a good field to Irishmen who desire to invest their money”.
This speaks to the class composition of much of that era’s Irish Republicanism – with over-representation from the lower-middle and middle classes and under-representation from the urban and rural working-class.
There was a consequent lack of a radical social programme that might have attracted the masses, particularly during 1922.
Liam Mellows, according to a recent publication by Conor McNamara, only really came towards socialism late in the day whilst imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail.
In a similar vein, the great socialist-republican Peadar O’Donnell, remarked that during the occupation of the Four Courts in July 1922 there existed a gulf between the republicans inside and the workers outside.
We can also point to a lack of militancy within the leadership of the labour movement, as we can to a lack of socialism within the republican movement.
However, and despite a climate of soviets springing up, land agitation and general strikes over the course of several years, socialism and republicanism failed to fully synthesise into an organised and militant socialist and anti-imperialist movement.
Nevertheless, this is not to take away from Brugha, Mellows or any of his comrades. The picture that emerges of Brugha is one of a dedicated and political Irish Republican. A man of principle, honour and integrity.
It isn’t the picture of a mindless militarist, or “a fanatic”, as a recent review of the above-mentioned book Indomitable Spirit in the Irish Independent characterised Brugha. Likewise, some historians have derided Brugha essentially as a man of “no politics”.
However, as JJ O’Kelly, better known as Sceilg, said of Brugha, he was “showered with intellectual gifts of a high order, coupled with an exquisite literary taste; was a good linguist, a powerful writer, a fluent and convincing speaker, a pleasing singer and exquisitely fond of good music”.
Previously, during a potential split in Craobh an Chéitinnigh in 1908 Brugha was seen as a force for reconciliation, rather than as an apolitical “splitter”.
At its core, the realisation that the Treaty represented a half-way house between Empire and Republic that was doomed to failure informed Brugha’s actions during 1921 and 1922.
The mainstream historical narrative is that the “militarists” couldn’t see sense and get behind the so-called “empty formulas” of the oath. But, harking back to his dispute with Griffith in 1917, I think Brugha knew the importance of the term “Republic”.
Brugha understood that the wording and principles laid down in such documents would influence the character of any Irish state which might emerge. Thuig sé, creidim, go gcuireadh na prionsabail a leagfaí síos ag an bpointe criticiúil cruth ar an stát a bhí le tíocht.
Brugha had also pushed for an Oath to the Republic to be adopted by the IRA in 1919. The context for him doing so was the long tradition of oaths stretching back through Fenianism and other oathbound secret societies.
Oathbound secret societies were common throughout Europe in opposition to feudal and absolutist monarchies from the Enlightenment era onwards.
But in Ireland such secret societies, whether agrarian, nationalist or republican, or an admixture of each, represented an opposition to colonialism and their oaths were a necessary offering of allegiance to the community and the Irish body politic rather than to the invader.
Brugha’s dedication to the Republic and rejection of imperialism was shown again during the Treaty debates of 1921 when he spoke thusly:
“if …. instead of being so strong, our last cartridge had been fired our last thinking had been spent and our last man was lying on the ground and his enemies howling around him and their bayonets raised, ready to plunge them into his body, that man should say – true to the traditions handed down – if they said ‘will you come into the Empire?’ he should say and he would say : ‘No, I will not!’
That is the spirit which has lasted the centuries and you people in favour of the Treaty know that the British Government and the British Empire will have gone down before that spirit dies in Ireland”.
CIVIL WAR/ COUNTERREVOLUTION
Civil War eventually began in 1922 with the shelling of the Four Courts with British guns by Free State forces. Again, busting the myth that he was only out for war, Brugha had actually been reluctant to enter the Republican garrison with Mellows, Rory O’Connor, and Joe McKelvey.
Likewise, Oscar Traynor; he and Brugha occupied Hamman Hotel and Buildings on Upper O’Connell street as a secondary garrison. As the Battle of Dublin raged the buildings occupied by Brugha went ablaze.
Free State soldiers shouted at him to surrender, to which he replied “níl aon chuimhneamh agam ar a leithéid a dhéanamh” (I have no notion of doing so). After asking his own garrison to surrender Brugha approached the Free State soldiers and was shot dead.
The Civil War has often been over-simplified into a cartoonish clash of “brother against brother” and “the Big Fellow” (Collins) versus “the Long Fellow” (De Valera). This negates the aspects of it which were clearly counter-revolutionary in nature, and it can just as easily be labelled the Counter-Revolution of 1922-23.
The results of the Counter-Revolution in which Brugha died and which deepened in the years after, especially during the 1920s, speak for themselves.
Sided with Empire over Republic. The acceptance of the Treaty meant the acceptance of White Dominion status along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
In doing so the counter-revolutionaries severed the nascent anti-colonial links with the Third World which had existed throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
This move, according to Bill Rollston and Robbie McVeigh in their recent publication Anois ar Theacht an tSamhraidh: Ireland, Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution, informs the nature and perseverance of Irish racism today.
It sided with Rich over Poor. The infamous quote from the good Catholic and Christian W.T. Cosgrave about “people being reared in work houses taking it in their minds to emigrate”, resonates here.
This is the mentality which laid the blueprint for how the State facilitated and turned a blind eye to the horrors of the industrial schools and laundries – horrors which were inflicted against women and children mainly from the urban and rural working class.
It sided with Partition over Unity. The nationalists of the North were abandoned to the mercy of the Orange state, despite knowledge among the emergent conservative republican elite like Cosgrave and Kevin O’Higgins of the pogroms which had been going on in Belfast between 1920-22.
The lame duck Border Commission of 1925 was never going to challenge the economic or political viability of the Six Counties
It sided with Anglophone Ireland over what was left of Irish speaking Ireland. There was over half a million, or 543,511 to be precise, native Irish speakers in the state in 1926. Today there are less than 10% of that, roughly 20,000.
The Free State in the 1920s implemented a symbolic cultural programme – state departments used the cúpla focail, schools were superficially Gaelicized, post boxes were painted green.
This was also a means of shoring up support for the State against republicans and other “subversives” in the 1920s and 30s by capturing and channelling one ideological aspect of the revolutionary years. But no radical social programme was devised.
Rather than re-distribute wealth and local power to the West, a symbolic and centralised pseudo-revival was implemented, while Conradh na Gaeilge, which Brugha had been so loyal to, went into rapid decline naively thinking that the conservative state would somehow act as a genuine custodian of the language revival.
Tá go leor leor samplaí den leanúnachas seo leis an impiriúlachas le fáil.
Other examples of a continuity and no real break with imperialism abound. In law, the Free State remained wedded to British common law over a potential new system.
Brehon Law had been mooted as having communal benefits different from the individualist and property focussed British law by cultural nationalists and by Marxists such as James Connolly. But this mode of thought was not considered.
In administration, according to historian J.J. Lee, 98% of civil servants from the old British colonial administration were kept on during the years of the early Free State.
In finance, Ernest Blyth’s conservative fiscal policies were carbon copies of Westminster’s and the punt was shackled to the sterling.
Even down to seemingly innocuous cultural traits such as dress – W.T. Cosgrave and his ilk adopted the top hat and coat-tails of the British once in office – there were continuities.
While this last point may seem minor, it was a signifier of the whole ideology and culture of the state – Conservative, Catholic, Anglophone, with only a veneer of Gaelic symbology.
Little wonder then that the State lurched from dependence on one empire from the 1920s into dependence on others in the 1960s and 70s in the form of the US empire and the emergent EU empire — via the policies of Foreign Direct Investment and the Common Agricultural Policy.
The legacy then of the counter-revolution still weighs heavily on our people.
It is our duty to analyse the different forces – be they political, class or cultural – which defeated the Republic in 1922-23 and to work towards defeating them and breaking fully with Empire, as Cathal Brugha sought to do.
An Phoblacht Abú!
Kerron Ó Luain, staraí, Ráth Cúil, Co. Átha Cliath.