Ireland’s Wars: The Army Mutiny

The Irish revolutionary period was a time that was dominated by military men and military organisations. Whether it was people like Padraig Pearse who held an idealised view of what a uniform represented, whether it was men like Michael Collins who embraced non-traditional means of waging war, whether it was individuals like Liam Lynch who found that the only way to keep a movement together was to allow the martial to have complete dominance over the civil, it would be naive to imagine that the years between 1916 and 1923 were not formed, shaped and directed by those who were members of the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army, Irish Republican Army, National Army or even the British Army. Even the figures that we associate mostly with the political side of the movement – Eamon de Valera, W.T. Cosgrave, even Kevin O’Higgins – all served with one or more of the previously mentioned organisations.

But then the revolutionary period ended, and the Irish Free State had to decide what kind of country it was going to be. The National Army, owing to its huge size and the access it had to the halls of political power – its commander Richard Mulcahy was also the Minister of Defence after all – wielded enormous influence over policy at multiple levels, much to the chagrin of men like O’Higgins. Fears that a de facto or de jure military dictatorship could arise if the civilian aspect of the Free State pushed too hard against the National Army were acute, and not unreasonable. From the moment the Civil War ended a confrontation on the point was inevitable, and it would come in March of 1924.

It is important at this point to note the make-up of the National Army at the time. Outside of the tens of thousands of enlisted, its officers were to a very significant degree recruited from the British military, and this caused disputes almost from the moment they were first recruited. Those officers who had served in the IRA during the War of Independence sometimes felt resentment at the recruitment of British officers, even if said officers were Irish-born and bred. This feeling only increased with the perception that officers from the British military got better treatment, better position and were more likely to find advancement than those that came from the IRA. Some of these men, led by Liam Tobin, formed the Irish Republican Army Organisation in December 1922 after they had been removed from high ranking positions in favour of men Mulcahy picked, often from the Supreme Council of the IRB. The IRAO claimed to advocate for veterans of the IRA, and wanted a command of the army that was “patriotic” enough. Aside from Tobin, other notable members of the IRAO included Charles Dalton (brother of Emmet) and Frank Thornton, and they gained a critical ally within the government in the form of Joseph McGrath, then Minister of Labour, who also happened to be head of the CID during the Civil War.

The IRAO only grew louder as more distance appeared from the Civil War days, as the Free State seemed more and more of a mind to accept things as they were and to abandon any pretensions of forcing the issue of partition as Michael Collins perhaps would have. Disputes between “Tobin’s crowd” and Mulcahy’s IRB became endemic to the institution, before the crisis of how to properly wind down the National Army came to the fore. The size of the force at the Civil War’s end was enormous, relative to Ireland’s population and the security situation in early 1924. There were too many men in uniform, and not enough productive work for them to do: lax-discipline abounded. Demobilisation was inevitable, and something that the military itself appears to have accepted, it was just the manner in which it was going to be done that was the problem.

Cosgrave had actually met with the IRAO in the run-up to the 1923 election on these kinds of issues, eager to gain their support, or at least their silence, until the vote was done. He wanted the pro-Treaty faction, Cumann na nGaedheal and the National Army, to have a united front for the electorate, and largely got his way. Once the voting was done, Mulcahy had more leeway to act, and starting in October 1923 began the process of demobilising as many as 37’000 men from the National Army. This was not to the liking of the IRAO, who felt increasingly sidelined in their protests.

Things escalated in November, when as many as 60 officers based around the country refused to follow orders as a protest against the scale of the demobilisation that was occurring. Mulcahy acted with speed, dismissing all of them from their posts immediately, essentially showcasing his own willingness to purge the Army of dissidents then and there. This act caused enough of an issue that the Cosgrave government moved to take the issue of demobilisation out of Mulcahy’s hands, with the formation of a compromise committee that would instead oversee the draw down of the army. Consisting of Eoin MacNeill, Ernest Blythe and Joseph McGrath, this committee was granted the authority to oversee all demobilisation issues, including retroactive ones. This was seen subsequently as a means of taking control of the army out of Mulcahy’s hands, and by extension, the hands of the IRB.

The critical confrontation was only delayed, and not prevented. A few months later things came to a head decisively, as demobilisation continued and scores of ex-soldiers found themselves out of work and with little in the way of prospects: a bitter pill to swallow for those who had been in the IRA since the earlier days. Tobin and others in the IRAO remained unsatisfied with the pace and manner of the draw down even with McGrath on the committee. Tobin especially, knowing full well that his own role in the Army was going to be removed, was incensed at the steady stream of soldiers being turned out of the military, his perception that British veterans were being disproportionately favoured and an apparent lack of progress in pursuing republican ideals. On the 6th March, he and Dalton wrote an ultimatum – literally referred to as such – for Cosgrave. In it, they demanded the removal of the current Army leadership and the suspension of demobilisation, promising, if they were refused, to “take such action that will make clear to the Irish people that we are not renegades or traitors to the ideals that induced them to accept the Treaty.”

Cosgrave, naturally, had no time for such demands, and neither did Mulcahy. In the Dail it was framed as little less than a direct challenge to the Free State as a democratic institution. McGrath’s efforts to tell a different story, of civic incompetence leading to such protests, did not win over many TD’s. Tobin and Dalton’s actions were hardly those of men content to make just a protest and nothing more: with the government deaf to their demands, they led a group of 50 soldiers in seizing weapons and abandoning their assigned posts.

Just what Tobin and Dalton actually planned to do at that point is mostly conjecture. Notwithstanding their grandstanding rhetoric, the vast majority of the Army was not with them, and of course it goes without saying that most of the people weren’t either. But that didn’t seem to matter to them. They certainly appear to have been planning some manner of coup attempt, with weapons going missing from barracks in different parts of the country at their order, and attempts made to form some sort of arrangements with the anti-Treaty IRA. These may have included the, by now, old dream of a march into Northern Ireland. The IRA men canvassed were seemingly unimpressed, on the basis that the IRAO leadership were pro-Treaty men who were on the side of those shooting prisoners during the Civil War, whose stand now was based more on personal slight and jealousy than idealism. What the IRAO could have pulled off is anyone’s guess, but in hindsight it appears they had limited options. Of course at the time the threat they posed may have seemed much greater.

At McGrath’s urging the government attempted to defuse the situation by ordering an inquiry into the demobilisation procedures and offering amnesty to the mutineers; McGrath, whose home had been raided on Mulcahy’s orders after the crisis had started, would later resign from the cabinet citing his dissatisfaction with how the affair was being handled. The mutineers, still at liberty, considered the situation for a time, but appear to have not readily been willing to throw in the towel, despite some signs of climbing down. Tobin and Dalton may well have thought they had a degree of leverage to use.

Things escalated again around the middle of March when Michael Costello, the Director of Intelligence in the Army who had been bugging the mutineers’ phones, warned Mulcahy that Tobin and Dalton were preparing extreme plans to assassinate Cosgrave and O’Higgins as part of an overthrow of the government. With the mutineers arranging a larger meeting of their faction, with as many as 50 men attending, in Devlin’s Hotel, Mulcahy took action. He ordered that the hotel be surrounded by loyal men of the National Army, and those inside arrested. A stand-off turned very briefly into an exchange of gunfire, though no-one was hurt: Tobin and Dalton escaped across the rooftops, but were later cajoled into turning themselves in by McGrath, who had unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a stand-down of both sides at Devlin’s.

It was the end of the Army Mutiny as a potential threat to the existence of the Irish Free State, but it was far from the end of the affair. O’Higgins now saw an opportunity to strike at his rival Mulcahy. He was aided by a sudden bout of illness, quite likely diplomatic in nature, that removed Cosgrave from the stage at this critical time: either the President wanted O’Higgins to be a triggerman for Mulcahy while being able to separate himself from the act, or he wanted to give O’Higgins enough rope to hang himself. O’Higgins was happy for the absence though, as it essentially left him in charge of the government. The leadership of the army, including Mulcahy as Minister of Defence, were compelled to resign, with Eoin O’Duffy installed as a new General Officer Commanding. O’Duffy would hold the role for little more than a year before returning to the Guards, but perhaps did enough in that time to instill a needed discipline in what was left of the Army. A subsequent inquiry into the matter was aimed more at investigating alleged mismanagement of the armed forces by Mulcahy and others, and not the mutiny itself. The mutineers would all receive an amnesty for their actions, but were expelled from the Army.

Cosgrave, when he was “well” enough to return, took up the Defence portfolio. McGrath would later assemble a group of nine TD’s that advocated for a number of policy changes, including the reinstatement of Tobin and others to their Army positions, but while Cosgrave was willing to acquiesce to preserve party unity, he found himself distinctly outnumbered on the topic in cabinet. McGrath and the eight would resign their seats and form the “National Party”, but Cumann na nGaedheal would end up winning most of them back in the subsequent by-elections. Mulcahy was in the political wilderness for only a few years, and would be re-instated to the cabinet as the Minister for Local Government in 1927. The National Army continued its process of demobilisation, and by the end of the year would be re-named into its modern day form as Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Irish Defence Forces, though it retained most of the organisation, personnel and orders of the National Army

The Army Mutiny has engendered very different interpretations down the years. Some view it as a ridiculous farce, the insanity of a very small number of officers who had aspirations far beyond their ability to actually achieve. Some have viewed it as just a sideshow to a much more serious political drama, as O’Higgins took his chance to oust Mulcahy and establish himself as the real force in the Free State government. Some see it as nothing less than a serious assault on the Free State’s democratic structures, where Ireland came close to either another bout of Civil War or an all-out military dictatorship.

What do I think? Well, somewhere between all three viewpoints really. The Mutiny was undoubtedly an extremely serious matter, though in retrospect it is hard to credit it as something that had the real capability of taking down the government. It never seemed to gather any kind of momentum, certainly not the kind where it seemed possible that Tobin and others might have been capable of seizing control of the country. But a cadre of officers of that size refusing to follow the orders of a democratically elected government is not something to be taken at all lightly. Mulcahy’s decision to squash it before it could get too far was one that did little for his prospects, but was probably the correct one. In so doing the threat of the IRAO and other like-minded officers was essentially ended forever, and the primacy of the civil administration over the military made clear. That O’Higgins used the matter to force Mulcahy out of the cabinet and sweep away almost all of the existing leadership of the National Army is an almost separate question, but this was important also: in the fight between the IRAO and the IRB elements, neither would end up controlling the destiny of the future Defence Forces.

Some place the end of the Irish revolutionary period with the Army Mutiny, deeming it a sort of appropriate epilogue where the gun was taken out of Irish politics decisively. I would say this is an exaggeration, as the gun would have lots to say over the next few years and beyond, but it is fair to say that the Irish Free State and its successors would probably never come as close to such a challenge ever again. For now we move on: another post-script to the revolutionary period will form the basis of our next entry, as we examine the long-delayed and inevitably controversial efforts to finalise the position of the Irish border.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Army Mutiny

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The IRA After The Civil War | Never Felt Better

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