LONG READ: Recently released records provide insight into life during the Irish revolution

President Higgins’ family illustrates just how divisive the Civil War was, as siblings nationwide chose to fight on opposite sides, writes Niall Murray
LONG READ: Recently released records provide insight into life during the Irish revolution

President Michael D Higgins’ family show just how divisive the Civil War was, as his father and uncle went different ways over the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty, while their two siblings appear to have remained neutral.

The details emerge in files released today in relation to their applications for pensions in respect of their military service during the Irish revolution.

The four Higgins siblings’ files are among those of 882 people whose actions in the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, or the Civil War — and in some cases all three — have been scanned for the Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC) since last June. Their public availability through the website of the Military Archives mean that MSPC files so far uploaded cover applications for pensions, allowances and medals of nearly 4,800 individuals — with further releases planned in the coming months and years.

As a boy, President Higgins, who was born in 1941, was cared for by his uncle and aunt in Co Clare.

His father, John Higgins, had moved from Co Clare to north Cork in the early stages of the 1919-1921 War of Independence. But while he fought with the anti-Treaty IRA in the 1922-1923 Civil War, his brother Peter joined the Free State Army to oppose the side that John had taken.

John Higgins initially served with the Ballycar company (D company) in the 1st Battalion of the Irish Volunteers/IRA East Clare Brigade from around 1918. He later transferred to the Charleville company in Cork No 2 Brigade (north Cork) 4th Battalion, where he served as a company lieutenant from March 1920 and was involved in an attack on Freemount Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks.

He also claimed to have blocked roads when the IRA attacked barracks in Ballylanders and Kilmallock, both just inside the Co Limerick border, cutting roads on the Buttevant road on one occasion. For John, like hundreds of IRA volunteers and officers in that period, other duties included raiding mails, cutting telegraph wires to disrupt Crown Forces communications, and moving arms around the local countryside.

Extracts from the transcript of the 1936 interview of John Higgins, father of President Michael D Higgins, in relation to his military service pension application. Pic: Military Archives, Military Service Pensions Collection
Extracts from the transcript of the 1936 interview of John Higgins, father of President Michael D Higgins, in relation to his military service pension application. Pic: Military Archives, Military Service Pensions Collection

In the months leading up to the July 1921 truce in the War of Independence, as the military campaign by both sides intensified, so too did the activities of John and his fellow IRA members.

Some incidents in which he was involved were a May 1921 raid for mail at Charleville Post Office, when he carried a revolver, and burning a house of Lord Kenmare and another used by the British Legion, both of which were said were to be about to be occupied by British forces, only weeks out from the truce.

During the same period, two local men suspected of giving information on the IRA to Crown Forces were sentenced to death and executed in June.

According to his 1951 petition relating to a previously refused application, John Higgins was battalion intelligence officer in that part of north Cork from September 1921.

During the Civil War, he was with an IRA Flying Column involved in two ambushes on Free State soldiers. He told an advisory committee assessing pension applications in 1936 that he also spent time organising men in local companies to gather information on the Free State army.

John spent most of 1923 in custody, having been arrested in January and interned until December in Limerick and in the Curragh camp where anti-Treaty IRA members were held.

He outlined in a 1935 addendum to his application how hard it was to get work after being interned. His work had suited him to intelligence work, having been employed as a grocer’s assistant in Charleville on a good salary of €130 a year, plus €50 for travel.

However, after his release a local deputation had to approach Owen Binchy and Sons to take him back on.

“He refused to do so, with the result that I was idle until the 1st of August 1924 when I got a position as a junior assistant from Michael Nolan, Eyre St, Newbridge, at a salary of €50 per year,” he wrote in support of his claim. “At the time very few people would employ an ex-internee.”

John was awarded a pension for four and 3/8 years of military service at Grade E level, but only after appealing the earlier refusal of his claim.

Part of his 1951 miltary service pension application, signed by John Higgins, father of President Michael D Higgins. Pic: Military Archives, Military Service Pensions Collection
Part of his 1951 miltary service pension application, signed by John Higgins, father of President Michael D Higgins. Pic: Military Archives, Military Service Pensions Collection

Peter Higgins, meanwhile, was a lieutenant in the Ballycar company in east Clare, and was a member of the Brigade Flying Column during the War of Independence. During the Civil War, he enlisted in the Free State Army and served as sergeant in the headquarters company of 4 Infantry Battalion in the 1st Western Division.

“When the split came, he stood loyal and joined the army on its formation. Again I found him to be one of the most reliable men I had in Galway and would trust him to any extent,” wrote an Army colonel in a 1925 reference.

Peter received a pension for a period of seven years’ service under the 1924 Army Pensions Act.

Michael Higgins, also serving with the Ballycar company, was involved in work on Éamon de Valera’s hugely significant East Clare by-election campaign as Sinn Féin candidate soon after joining the Irish Volunteers in May 1917. So too did Kitty Higgins, in her role as a recent recruit to the local Cumann na mBan branch.

But despite an extensive list of activities throughout the War of Independence, including scouting, carrying despatches, supplying tools, and blocking roads, Michael had to wait more than four years after seeking a pension in late 1935 to be told his service did not qualify him for payment. Under the relevant pensions acts at the time, the interpretation of active service did not cover such work.

There was a similarly unsuccessful outcome to Kitty’s pension claim at the same time, in which she had outlined a long list of activities, supported by references from local IRA officers. Like many Cumann na mBan members in rural Ireland, she fed and housed volunteers on the run from British forces, carried IRA despatches, and brought food to men sleeping in the countryside.

Handwritten details of his IRA activities by John Higgins, father of President Michael D Higgins, from his 1935 application for a service certificate under the 1934 Military Service Pensions Act. Pic: Military Archives, Military Service Pensions Collection
Handwritten details of his IRA activities by John Higgins, father of President Michael D Higgins, from his 1935 application for a service certificate under the 1934 Military Service Pensions Act. Pic: Military Archives, Military Service Pensions Collection

Asked in an interview by the pensions advisory committee in June 1940 if she took any part in the Civil War, she explained her predicament, one felt in hundreds of homes around the country.

“No, because I had one brother went one way and another went the other way,” she replied.

Letters throw light on Childers’ last days

by Niall Murray

Free State army correspondence relating to the execution of Erskine Childers will add intrigue to one of the most controversial deaths in the Civil War.

He was shot dead on November 24, 1922, having spent the early phases of the fighting over the Anglo-Irish Treaty issuing publicity and propaganda for the anti-Treaty IRA out of the Coolea district in west Cork.

A fortnight before his own death in west Cork, Michael Collins, as commander-in-chief of the Free State Army, wrote to his director of intelligence in relation to information that Childers was believed to be in Liverpool, trying to escape to the US. Childers had served as secretary to the Irish delegation that negotiated the treaty signed in London the previous December, but he had opposed the outcome that was backed by Collins.

“The idea that would be most suitable would be that he should be arrested as a stow away,” Collins wrote shortly before midnight on August 7, 1922, in a document being seen publicly for the first time today.

Childers was arrested in Glendalough, Co Wicklow, on November 10, and later charged with being in possession of a revolver, which had become a capital offence in late September. Ironically, the gun described in the charge is said to have been a gift from Collins.

One newly released file casts light on the circumstances of and during his detention, including allegations — denied by officers in Portobello Barracks — that he was beaten while in custody.

A captain on behalf of the Army’s director of intelligence wrote to the Adjutant General on the same day as Childers’ arrest: “I am instructed by the [director of intelligence] to enclose you File and Papers in connection with Erskine Childers, and to state from him, that in his opinion, neither the File nor the Papers supply anything which would form the basis of a charge.”

Childers was behind the Howth gun-running that helped arm the Irish Volunteers in 1914 and he was key in the international publicity campaign for Irish independence before the Treaty. The execution of the author of spy novel The Riddle of the Sands sparked global headlines.

Correspondence in his files includes telegrams from various organisations warning against the intended killing, including one received by army chief of staff Richard Mulcahy days before the execution.

“We delegates to American Convention of American Association [for the] Recognition of the Irish Republic for State of California would look upon the killing of Erskine Childers or any other Republican prisoner of war as murder and hold your Free State junta responsible,” telegrammed its secretary.

The files also reveal the outcome of an Army investigation into the handling of Childers’ possessions, some of which were never returned to his widow.

Among the missing items were a gold watch inscribed with his initials, cuff links, cigarette case, a pocket book, and a leather bag with spare clothes.

Wallace sisters ‘deserve immortality’ for information role for IRA operations in Cork

Source: Irish Examiner Archive
Source: Irish Examiner Archive

The Wallace sisters, Sheila and Nora, had a massive impact on IRA operations in Cork, along with a number of other women, according to newly released files, writes Niall Murray

The key roles of women in the day-to-day organisation and command of local IRA units emerges from the latest files of dozens who sought medals or pensions in recognition of service during the Irish revolution.

While most were members of Cumann na mBan, the testimony of IRA officers and others makes clear that women were often far more than just carriers of despatches or guns, the traditional profile attributed to them during the turbulent period.

Among those whose significant impact on IRA operations is beginning to filter into the public domain in recent years are the Wallace sisters, Sheila and Nora, from Cork City.

The death in 1970 of Nora Wallace was marked by a story in the Cork Examiner under the headline: ‘Her little paper shop was IRA rendezvous.’

But the brief article barely touched the surface of the extent to which she and sister Sheila were central to the underground army’s activities in Cork City.

As stated in one of their just-released pension files by former IRA Cork No 1 brigade commander Sean O’Hegarty, their city-centre backstreet shop between Grand Parade and South Main St was at the heart of the IRA communications and organisational network.

“Miss Nora Wallace was in actual fact a member of the IRA from 1916 onwards,” Hegarty wrote to the Military Service Registration Board in 1934. “She did her first work of dispatch carrying on Easter Sunday 1916, continued without intermission to do any similar work assigned to her.

“The shop in Augustine Street became the centre for the receipt and issue of despatches, the point of touch for verbal messages, and, you might say, the Brigade headquarters for operations in the city area. All this applies equally to her sister Sheila.”

Cork No 1 Brigade intelligence officer Florence O’Donoghue, later a key historian of the revolutionary years in the city and county, has described the Wallace sisters as deserving immortality for their work.

The kitchen behind their shop was the location of meetings of senior IRA officers most nights during the War of Independence until the premises was closed by military order in May 1920. Like many other female applicants, the negative effects of the stress of being raided by the RIC and British military during the period are laid out in the Wallace sisters’ files.

Nora’s doctor certified she suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and had been treated for pneumothorax.

“She contracted the disease by living in almost impossible conditions owing to her activities during the Black and Tan, and Civil Wars,” Hegarty wrote in 1933. “The disease is now quiescent but she must be in a position to give continuous and extra-ordinary care to her health.”

Sheila Wallace died in 1944, but her £55 annual pension received for the few years before her death was for her role as an IRA Brigade officer, rather than a member of Cumann na mBan.

This reflects an emerging theme in many of the 106 women whose files are online from this morning. Among them are many whose work was for key roles in the IRA command structure, particularly for intelligence duties carried out during the War of Independence and Civil War.

Madge Barnes, (at the time Madge Coughlan), managed to secure highly important information for anti-Treaty forces when she moved from Cork to Dublin during the Civil War.

“As a matter of fact there were times when I even thought she was working for the [Free State] Intelligence Department... she became suspect and was actually going to be shot, but she managed to allay their suspicions and actually resumed her intelligence work,” wrote Cumann na mBan ex-honorary secretary Sighle Humphreys in a 1945 letter on Barnes’s file.

The intelligence activities of Lily Mernin from 1919, vouched for by senior IRA figure Piaras Béaslaí, made the most of her work as a shorthand typist for the British army’s district command at Dublin Castle.

The duties assigned her by Michael Collins included the supply of addresses, descriptions, habits and other information on British officials, intelligence officers, as well as civilians working in the Castle, and to copy any documents she could.

“I set to work at once, and it was largely through my assistance that Collins was able to ascertain that the typed ‘death notices’ on Dáil Éireann notepaper sent out to prominent Republicans were typed in Dublin Castle, and even to find out the room in which they were done and the typewriter used,” she testified.

Women paid the ultimate price for freedom

While many women avoided detection and eventually qualified for pensions under the later acts for military service, others suffered the ultimate price for their work.

Although it was not proven that it was directly attributable to her work for the Republican cause, young 1916 participant Agnes McNamee died a few years later aged just 22.

While controversy and intrigue enveloped the country over the decision of Dáil Éireann a few days earlier to approve the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Agnes McNamee watched her shop assistant daughter die at their home in Dublin’s inner-city Emerald Square on January 12, 1922. The death certificate records the cause of death as phthisis, a former term for tuberculosis of the lungs.

Having joined Cumann na mBan in 1915, she was with the organisation in the Jameson Distillery in Marrowbone Lane during the Easter Rising. The nature of her involvement is not set out, but her branch vice-commandant Rose McNamara vouched for her service, and she spent a week in Kilmainham Gaol after the rebellion was quashed.

A superior officer in Cumann na mBan testified to the Military Service Registration Board in 1954 that Agnes McNamee was a very active member during the War of Independence, carrying despatches, minding firearms, looking after Volunteers on the run, posting up bills, and making collections.

These activities were said to have entailed wettings and irregular meals, and it was suggested in her file that she was slow to recover from cold suffered while in jail for a week in May 1919.

Nationalist newspaper Fáinne an Lae outlined the circumstances of her detention: “On Friday last Una Nic Chonamidhe, Emerald Square, Ath Cliath, was arrested and lodged in Mountjoy Prison to undergo a sentence of seven days’ imprisonment, having refused to pay the fine inflicted on her for the ‘crime’ of collecting money for the Irish Language Fund without a ‘permit’ from the British government. The fine imposed in her case was double

that imposed in other cases, evidently because her name appeared in the charge sheet in Irish.”

When she got a haemorrhage while on a route march in May 1920, she spent two weeks in hospital and was later treated in a sanitorium. However, she reported back to her Cumann na mBan branch in September 1920 and kept up her duties in support of the IRA until her death.

Her mother received posthumous medals for her service in the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. However, her claim for an allowance in respect of her daughter’s death did not succeed, the relevant act requiring that her tuberculosis had to be proven to be contracted while on military service.

Files online

Military Service Pensions Collection files have also gone online in relation to the following:

The O’Rahilly: The successful application by the son of ‘The O’Rahilly’ was one of the last received under the various pensions acts when it arrived in the 1980s. Michael O’Rahilly died from wounds received in Moore Lane during the rebels’ retreat from the GPO on April 28 1916.

Dick McKee: The officer in command of the Dublin Brigade served in Jacob’s biscuit factory in 1916 and was one of three IRA prisoners shot dead while allegedly trying to escape from Dublin Castle following the Bloody Sunday IRA killings of British intelligence officials in November 1920.

Patrick Carroll: A practically unknown postman in Ballineen, Co Cork, he claimed that intelligence he provided during the War of Independence led to the execution of nine informers, and 12 more leaving the country in an area where IRA shootings of Protestants as alleged spies has generated heated historical debate.

George O’Shea, James Walsh, Patrick Buckley: Claims of dependants of three more victims of the Civil War killing of nine IRA prisoners at Ballyseedy, Co Kerry by the Free State Army reveal further evidence of the details and the likely reasons for the incident.

Dan Breen: The file of the government minister and author of My Fight for Irish Freedom mostly relates to his application and receipt of a pension in respect of his wounds.

Todd Andrews, Edward J Aylward, Neil Blaney, Vincent Calleary: Founders of Irish political dynasties. Andrews was father of former Fianna Fáil minister David Andrews and TD Niall Andrews, and grandfather of former FF TD and Sinn Féin councillor Chris Andrews, former FF TD and minister Barry Andrews, comedian David McSavage, and RTÉ’s Ryan Tubridy.

More in this section

Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up