Discussions of the 1916 uprising in Ireland tend to focus on a select group of figures. The names of Patrick Pearse (1897-1916) and James Connolly (1868-1916) are legend in Irish history and their actions part of the narrative of the Republican fight for a united Ireland. In December, 1921, the British Government and Republican forces reached an agreement that officially partitioned Ireland into Unionist north and Republican south. The southern part was established as the Free Irish State, to be led by Michael Collins (1890-1922)who became Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State. Collins is well-known in Irish history for his unwavering support of the Republican cause. However, there was another figure who not only worked closely with Collins, but someone whose own story and actions are typically left out of the official narrative. Pictured to the left General Richard Mulcahy (1886-1971), one of the founding members of the Irish Free State and staunch supporter of Irish independence. When I saw this book for sale, I knew immediately that I had to read it and understand who the intriguing character on the cover of the book really was.
Dr. Maryann Gialanella Valiulis, is a Fellow Emeritus, Fellows Emeritii of Trinity College in Dublin, and has written several books regarding Irish history. In this informative and beautifully written narrative, she explores the life of Richard Mulcahy and his role in the formation of what is known today as the Republic of Ireland. Admittedly, before reading this book, I had very little of him and do not recall any detailed mention of his life or actions in the other material that I have read. As a result, I had no idea of who he was and what he stood for. That has now changed and I am confident that after you have read this book, you will also feel the same way about him. I am also confident that if you have decided to read this book, it is because you are already familiar with Mulcahy or have deep interest in the subject matter. With that being said, this book is deep and Valiulis takes us back in time as the battle for Irish independence is heating up.
As one would expect, the nexus of the book is formed by the treaty with Britain, the Irish Civil War and the founding of the Irish Free State. Mulcahy’s role as Chief of Staff and later Minister of Defence of the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) placed him firmly at the center of all three events as the future of Ireland was molded in ways some could have never imagined. Incredibly, in spite of his importance, there is much about Mulcahy that has remained unsaid in discussions about the what became known as the “The Troubles”. He comes off initially as a figure that remained hidden in the shadows. But here, Maryann Valiulis makes him the focus, telling the story of his early life and his later role in the military and Irish politics. She also gives him a platform to tell his own story, by including snippets of Mulcahy’s own words nearly 100 years ago as he spoke to the men and women of Ireland in favor of unification. And as the book progresses, Mulcahy is transformed from a captivating figure on the cover to one of the most important figures in the movement for Irish independence.
The book is filled with a ton of factual information and exhaustively researched. As a result, the complete picture is formed regarding the treaty with Britiain and the resulting Irish Civil War. Following the assassination of Michael Collins in August, 1922, Mulcahy found himself in control as the battle between Republican forces became deadly. The author details the tensions that brewed between pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces, who had been encouraged by the words of Éamon de Valera (1882-1975), the founder of Fianna Fáil and had become disillusioned with the IRA in the wake of the agreement. The Civil War is without question the darkest period in the book and the assassinations and murders that took place, cast a dark cloud over both sides of a conflict that nearly evaporated the support of even the most pro-independence Irish public. Mulcahy is firmly entrenched in all that happens and through the author’s words, we can see how his decision and actions, for better or worse, affected the future of Ireland. At times while reading, I found myself in shock at the actions between Republican forces as one side remained committed to the treay with Britian and the other committed to a free Ireland by any means necessary, regardless of the body count. Sadly, in some ways, the Irish Civil War was premonition for the conlict that erupted in 1969.
By 1924, the Civil War war had died down and eventually ceased as anti-treaty forces slowly realized that they could not keep going against the army. Interestingly, no formal agreement to end the war was ever signed. The army emerged from the confict as the victor but for Mulcahy the battle was far from over. In fact, his troubles were just beginning and the work for the formal creation of the Irish Free State lay ahead and brought with it advancement and regression. Quite frankly, his life was never the same again. Although the Civil War had ended, bad blood still remained within Republican forces and there were those who were determined to see his removal. Like a jigsaw puzzle, multiple entities play a role, including the Irish Republican Army, Old Irish Republican Army (“Old IRA”) and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (“IRB”). Ego, animosty and old jealousies rose to the surface as Mulcahy fougth to retain his place in the army he believed in and served with unwavering loyalty. The story is explained clearly here, forming an easily readable narrative of how and why Mulcahy found himself an outsider looking in after many years on the front lines. His rise and fall is a perfect example of the precarious nature that came with being a member of the Republican movement. Friends became enemies and enemies became allies and rivals switche sides and in some cases, resorted to violence when all else failed. The suspense is gripping the author sets each stage perfectly, with a writing style that will keep readers glued to the book.
The only drawback about the book is that I had hoped to learn more about Mulcahy’s personal life. We do learn that he married and fathered six children. However, there is much about his private life that is left out. I surmise that because the book is focused on the Irish Free State, that it is not a biography in the traditional sense but an examination of Mulcahy’s role in the events that transpired. And the book does succeed in explaining who Mulcahy was in relation to the cause and his beliefs about his own actions and the future of Ireland. Additionally, his relationship with Michael Collins is also explored and we come to learn how the two soliders became acquaintances and began to execute their plan to create an Irish Republic.
In the decades that followed Collins’ death and Mulcahy’s departure from the front lines, tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland continued to increase and when “The Troubles” commenced, a wave of violence was unleashed, wreaking havoc across Nothern Ireland as the death toll continued to climb. The history of the conflcit runs deep, but not discussion of it can take place without mention of the Irish Free State and one its prinicpal founders, General Richard Mulcahy. For those who are looking for a great read on the Republic of Ireland and one of its unsung heroes, this is the place to start. Highly recommended.
“A nation cannot be fully free and which even a small section of its people have not freedom. A nation cannot be said to live in spirit, or materially, while there is denied to any section of its people a share of the wealth and the riches that God bestowed around them.” – Richard Mulcahy (1886-1971), January 21, 1919