7th July today marks the 101st anniversary of the death of Cathal Brugha, one of the most important and celebrated republican figures of the early 20th century Irish revolutionary period. Brugha has been the subject of two engrossing and enlightening biographies the last few years, Cathal Brugha (Life and Times Series) by Fergus O’Farrell (UCD Press, 2017) and Cathal Brugha: ‘An Indomitable Spirit’ by Daithí Ó’Corráin and Gerard Hanley (Four Courts Press, 2022). Last year, ahead of the centenary of his death, I was greatly honoured to be asked by the National Graves Association to be the main speaker at a ceremony to take place on 9th July, 2022 by Brugha’s graveside within the Republican Plot at Glasnevin cemetery. Sadly, I contracted covid-19 several days before and was unable to do it. Appropriately, today I present the text I had written for the oration I would have given on the day of the Cathal Brugha commemoration:
My thanks to the National Graves Association for inviting me to speak today. I would also like to welcome you all here today, and mostly especially to the family of Cathal Brugha, who are so rightly proud of their relative. Not long after his death on 7 July 1922, Cathal’s devoted wife Caitlín, found a handwritten note in his pocket. It was an extract from one of her late husband’s contributions to the Treaty debates in January of that year. It reads as follows:
‘… if our last man was lying wounded on the ground, and his English enemies howling round him with their bayonets raised ready to plunge them into his body… if they asked him, ‘Now you will come into our Empire?’ – true to that tradition that has been handed down to him, his answer would be, ‘No I would not.’’
As somewhat of a final, written testament, it does much to sum up Brugha’s republicanism and his own attitude on his death to both the emerging Irish Free State and British rule in Ireland. Whether through the means of the Gaelic League, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers (later the IRA), or Dáil Éireann, Cathal Brugha spent much of his adult life devoted to the national cause and it is important that such a contribution is recognised. For too long, Cathal Brugha has been denigrated and presented as a one-dimensional militant and fanatic, and the surviving historical record, in addition to reminisces of those who knew him, reveal a much more impressive and interesting figure in his devotion to the cause of Irish freedom and the overthrow of colonial British rule in Ireland. Recent, brilliantly researched biographies too have done much to correct this negative portrayal of Brugha, with one of these biographers, Fergus O’Farrell, arguing that Brugha was someone who recognised the importance of the fusion of both political activity and physical force actions in achieving an independent Irish Republic – an approach central to the revolutionary activities of his time.
Brugha was born Charles Burgess on 18 July 1874 at 13 Richmond Avenue, Fairview, Dublin. He was the tenth among fourteen children (four sons and ten daughters), to his parents Thomas and Maryanne. The Burgess home was one strongly nationalist, his father Thomas an admirer of Parnell and may have been connected to the Fenian movement. From an early age, Charles, not yet going by Cathal, was a devoted Catholic, and would retain a strong religious faith for his entire life. By 1890, he had begun working as a clerk in a church supplies firm, becoming a travelling salesman.
It was in 1899 that Charles Burgess would make a fateful decision in joining the Gaelic League, the great organisation that advocated use of the Irish language and became an important cultural and social hub for many who would later take part in revolutionary activities. He was later inspired to take the Irish version of his name, and Charles Burgess became ‘Cathal Brugha’ and for the rest of his life, he was a devotee to the restoration of the native language. As a member of the Gaelic League, Brugha travelled up and down the country, making important connections that would serve him well in later years.
It was in 1908 Brugha joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which had begun an important revival under Thomas Clarke, Seán MacDiarmada and Bulmer Hobson. As ever, this secret society under Clarke and his allies remained devoted to the end of British rule in Ireland with the establishment of an independent Irish Republic. In the same year, Brugha became President of the important Keating branch of the Gaelic League, a position he would hold until 1922. The Keating branch would become associated with militant republicanism and would contain an array of notable figures involved in the subsequent revolutionary years.
The year 1909 also marked two important developments in Cathal’s life outside his republican activities. At a Gaelic League meeting in Birr, Co. Offaly, he met and fell in love with Caitlín Kingston, marrying her in 1912. Over the subsequent decade, the couple had six children: Nollaig, Nóinín, Brenda, Ruairí, Fidelma and Nessa.
In the same year, along with Anthony and Vincent Lalor, he founded a candlemaking firm called Lalor Ltd, whose offices would be based at 14 Lower Ormond Quay here in the city. Brugha was a director and travelling salesman for the company. His association with Lalor Ltd would become an important cover for Brugha’s clandestine activities within the IRB and later Irish Volunteers as he travelled up and down the country, with the offices in Lower Ormond Quay becoming an important hub for Brugha during the Tan War period of 1919-21.
On the founding of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913, Brugha was elected first lieutenant in C company, 4th Battalion of the Dublin Brigade, later becoming battalion adjutant by spring 1914. On 26 July 1914, during the landing of 1500 Mauser rifles. by the Asgard at Howth, Brugha led an advance column of Volunteers to Howth and impressed the republican leadership for his coolness and capability under pressure. One observed of Brugha during the operation: ‘No-one would could look at Brugha without perceiving his consuming, terrific, relentless courage. He was a born fighter… a sword… that would be shattered before it would bend.’
The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, and the IRB’s wish to take advantage of British’s engagement in this conflict, began an unstoppable momentum to the events of the Easter Rising of 1916. Though not a member of the IRB’s Military Council, Brugha was taken into their confidence of the Rising leadership by way of his superior officer Eamonn Ceannt, and was key to the planning of the insurrection. In the days leading up to the Rising, Brugha continually moved arms and ammunition through the city.
At the outset of the Rising on 24 April 1916, as a member of the Dublin Brigade’s 4thBattalion. Brugha was second-in-command to Eamonn Ceannt. Ceannt of course sat on the IRB’s Military Council and was a signatory of the Proclamation. The 4th Battalion took control of the South Dublin Union, and over the next week, took a precarious and brave stand against the British forces that attacked the rebel garrison. Brugha was critical to raising the fighting spirits of the men under his command.
It was on the Thursday of Easter Week that Brugha was involved in what became one of the most famous examples of physical courage during Easter Week. Brugha was feared lost what he got caught up in an explosion caused by a British grenade in the Nurse’s home. As the escaping Volunteers regrouped in another part of the building, they were shocked that despite Brugha’s considerable injuries, they could hear his voice goading to British to come out and face him: ‘Come on you cowards, till I get one shot before I die. I am only a wounded man. Eamon, Eamon, come here and sing ‘God Save Ireland’ before I die.’ Ceannt quickly led a rescue mission to retrieve Brugha, and there his group found Brugha sitting in the yard, his back resting against the outer wall, his ‘Peter the Painter’ revolver to his shoulder and waiting for the first move of the British to enter the building.
Brugha was carried into a back room, where between the continuing fighting nearby and the intensity of his injuries, his wounded were not properly dressed for several hours. He suffered twenty-five wounds in all. It was reported to Ceannt of Brugha’s wounds they were ‘5 dangerous, 9 serious and 11 slight’ – his left foot, hip and leg one mess of wounds. Having lost a huge amount of blood, he was escorted to hospital in Dublin Castle by a British escort. Before he was executed along with the rest of the rebel leadership, Eamonn Ceannt, in his final letter, wrote ‘I leave for the guidance of the other revolutionaries who may tread the path which I have tread this advice: never to treat with the enemy, never to surrender to his mercy but to fight to a finish.’ It is likely such words were an importance influence on Ceannt’s second-in-command and close friend, Cathal Brugha.
While Brugha was saved, he would carry these life altering injuries for the remainder of his life. He walked with a limp and carried British shrapnel inside his body. Yet, bearing such physical scars did not to diminish his enthusiasm and dedication to the cause of Irish freedom.
Brugha was also heavily involved in rebuilding of the movement in the critical years of 1917-18. One comrade who met Brugha in this period, recalled of Brugha at this time he was in ‘very good spirits and full of enthusiasm for the work in hand; he never hinted at the discomfort and suffering which he had endured… ’ Brugha was central to the creation of a new republican constitution for Sinn Féin in 1917, and also became a member of the new Executive of the Volunteers. It was in the later capacity Brugha was central to a proposed scheme to assassinate the British cabinet during the anti-conscription crisis in 1918. Often presented as some sort of scheme solely engineered by Brugha, it was in fact approved by the Volunteer leadership. Brugha himself travelled with the Volunteers involved in the operation, even personally surveying the Westminister parliament. While the plan was ultimately abandoned, it was yet another example of Brugha’s courage and dedication to the cause.
In the crucial December 1918 general election, Brugha, was elected for constituency of County Waterford. He was one of 73 Sinn Féin TDs who took their seats in the new parliament of the Irish Republic, Dáil Éireann. In what was surely one of the proudest moments of his life, on 21 January 1919, Brugha, chaired the first public session of Dáil Éireann in the Mansion House as the first Ceann Comhairle. At this session, entirely conducted in Irish, the gathered TDs, before the national and world press, read several important documents into the record, including the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil.
Following the reading of the Declaration of Independence, Brugha spoke the following in Irish to those gathered: ‘Deputies, you will understand from what has been stated here that we are now separated from England. Let the world know, and let people know … Whatever comes out of what is said here … the era of talk in Ireland is over … Two years have passed since the establishment of the Irish Republic this Easter. All we have to do now is stand together, praise and thank God. Let us unite and let no one divide us, and let us not fear.’
Until Eamon de Valera’s escape from prison in April 1919, Brugha functioned as the head of the state in the role of Priomh Aire. Following this, Brugha became the new Minister for Defence in De Valera’s restructured cabinet – thereby making him responsible, along with IRA GHQ, for the military conflict now gripping the country. In a very telling gesture befitting his selfless character, Brugha refused a ministerial salary.
Following 1916, Brugha had felt the IRB had outlived its usefulness and left the organisation, feeling the republican ideal was best achieved through open political organisations such as Sinn Féin and Volunteers. In keeping with his distrust for the IRB, Brugha was determined that Dáil Éireann, as the de facto parliament of the Irish Republic would he both answerable for the actions of the IRA and for this revolutionary army to be placed under civilian control.
For this reason, in late 1919, he insisted on the introduction of an oath of allegiance of the Irish Republic, to be taken by all Dáil deputies and IRA volunteers, to (quote) ‘support and defend the Irish Republic and Government of the Irish Republic, which is Dáil Éireann, against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’
While his contemporary Michael Collins is often celebrated for his elusiveness during the Tan War, it is often to my surprise that Brugha, in his ministerial capacity, is not regularly noted for having similarly evading capture by the British authorities for the conflict. Brugha was still the owner of Lalor Ltd, which would function as the offices of the Ministry of Defence. He would often use the premises as a hideout for Volunteers posing as employees during the conflict.
Brugha, of course, during this time made sure to burn all his ministerial and private correspondence and would only give oral reports on his Ministry during the secret meetings of the Dáil cabinet. While all historians, including myself, would argue this is of unfortunate detriment to being able to create a more detailed historical portrait of Brugha – it does I think demonstrates his shrewdness and his capability as a revolutionary operating within the underground Dáil administration.
Following the Truce in July 1921 that ended the Tan War, Brugha would propose a dramatic reorganisation of the structures of the IRA much to the ire of the then-IRA Chief-of-Staff Richard Mulcahy. Yet, this in keeping with Brugha’s view of the importance of civilian control over the revolutionary army. Of course, this ambitious scheme, ultimately advocated by Mulcahy and IRA GHQ by November, was shelved with the signing of the Treaty on 6 December 1921 between the British cabinet and the Sinn Féin delegation headed by Collins and Griffith. Cathal Brugha, being true to his republican beliefs opposed to the settlement, he knew that a 26-country British dominion was not the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916. He knew too that British-imposed partition was no substitute for the aspirations of the majority of the Irish people in both the 1918 and 1921 general elections. He would have agreed with his comrade Liam Mellows’ assessment on public support for the Treaty settlement as ‘not the will of the people, but the fear of the people’ – given the British threat of an ‘immediate and terrible war’ should the Treaty not be signed.
Brugha, in his capacity of Minister for Defence, was a key speaker during the Treaty debates that followed from late December into early January. In a private Dáil session on 16 December, Brugha disputed the notion he was ever opposed to negotiations with Britain, ‘I said this conference should be held in a neutral country. I realised before ever they [the signatories] went there the terrible influence that would be brought to bear upon them. We have got the proof of that.’ In a private session on 17 December, Brugha answered the question as to whether the IRA could continue the war with Britain should it be resumed. Brugha stated, ‘We are in a much better position militarily then we were when the Truce started … We are in an indefinitely better position from the military point of view.’
Much focus is often placed on Brugha’s remarks and exchange with Michael Collins on 7 January, somewhat unfairly in my view, yet little of his comment at the end of the same session, after the Treaty vote, in which he stated, ‘So far as I am concerned I will see, at any rate, that discipline is kept in the army’ – sentiments he previously said at earlier Dáil sessions. Again, reiterating he was firmly opposed to the Treaty, Brugha insisted in a later Dáil session that the assembly must respect the people’s mandate of the general election of 1918, ‘we are going to carry out the mandate given us by the electorate … Let us go ahead and run the Republic.’
While losing his position as Minister for Defence, Brugha was involved in several pivotal conferences through early 1922 to repair the split in the revolutionary movement. He still remained firmly dedicated to his republican ideals, and wrote in one editorial that the Sinn Féin constitution of 1917 was ‘broken when the Treaty was signed … Easter Week, and the work and sacrifices since, all went for what? To make us British subjects? To turn our country into a British dominion or two British dominions?’
But make no mistake, civil war was not a conflict that Cathal Brugha wanted, nor was it one he wanted to die in. Yet, with the Republic again under threat with the bombardment of the Four Courts by British-acquired guns, Brugha felt his obligation as a soldier and again joined the ranks of the Irish Republican Army. As Brugha bid a final farewell to his wife and children on 29 June, he said to them in Irish, ‘I turned out in 1916, my heart throbbing with delight at the prospect of striking at the enemy we all knew; I go forth now scarcely knowing where to I go.’
Brugha rejoined the IRA’s Dublin Brigade and became part of the garrison on O’Connell Street known as ‘the block’ based in a serious of buildings along the east-side of O’Connell Street, including the Hammam Hotel. As the Four Courts fell, and the battle of Dublin continued, this garrison on O’Connell Street came under sustained attack by Free State shelling and gunfire. Eventually, by 5 July, there were seventeen IRA volunteers and three Cumann na mBan under Brugha’s command in the Hammam hotel, with evacuations and escapes from ‘the block’ continuing. One Volunteer observed of Brugha in these final days that there was ‘nothing frantic, frenzied or worried about Cathal Brugha … He was by no means an emotional type. He was very, very determined.’ Brugha made clear to his comrades he had no intention of surrendering, and he admitted to Cumann na mBan member, Linda Kearns, ‘Civil War is so serious that my death may bring home its seriousness to the Irish people. I feel that if I put a stop to the Civil War, it would be a death worthwhile.’
Brugha and his remaining small contingent retreated to a yard behind this area. Shortly thereafter, Brugha, with two revolvers in hand, stepped out into a laneway containing firemenand Free State soldiers. Various accounts attest to what happened. Linda Kearns, for instance, mentions how Brugha walked towards the Free State soldiers shouting, ‘No surrender’. One Red Cross volunteer observing the scene, later said, ‘a volley of shots rang out, and Mr. Brugha fell, blood spurting from his wound and his weapons falling from his grasp.’
One bullet from a Free State soldier had hit his left thigh and ruptured his femoral artery. It would of course prove to be fatal. What multiple wounds from British soldiers could not do in 1916, one mortal wound inflicted by a fellow Irishman in 1922 would bring an end to Brugha, this true soldier of the Irish Republic. Taken to the nearby Mater hospital, he wastended to by his wife Caitlin in his final hours, both occasionally conversing in Irish together.
Before he died it was reported Cathal was ‘perfectly conscious, happy and determined, but entertained no bitterness.’ At 10.45am, on 7 July, this great soldier of the Irish Republic passed.
His death left an enormous impact on his comrades still fighting for the republican cause. Harry Boland remarked of him that Brugha was ‘easily the greatest man of his day; what a wonderful fight he made … May God rest his soul and give his comrades the courage of Cathal to fight until the day is won.’ Several weeks later, Harry himself would meet his end, dying on 1 August as a result of being shot during an attempted arrest by Free State soldiers. Harry’s dying request to his sister Kathleen was, ‘I am going to Cathal Brugha … I want to be buried in the grave with Cathal Brugha.’ Where, of course, just beside him here, Harry lies buried today.
Liam Lynch, the IRA Chief-of-Staff, wrote to Caitlin Brugha: ‘Cathal has given great undying service to the cause of the Republic for which he has sacrificed all … Ireland is prouder than ever of him now. He was the bravest and most fearless of soldiers, and future generations will ever bless his honoured name.’ When Liam Lynch himself would die for the Republic just under nine months later, it was Caitlin who would write comforting words to Liam’s mother, Mary: ‘Your greatest consolation is as mine when Cathal made the supreme sacrifice that your son died fighting for our country’s freedom.’
As well as noting the death of this great patriot, Cathal Brugha, we must acknowledge the devastating loss this was for his widow, Caitlin, now having to raise their six children on her own. In 1924, she was the founded of Kingston Ltd, a drapery business, becoming an accomplished businesswoman. Caitlin remained active in republican politics, standing as an abstentionist Sinn Féin TD in more than one election and was active in prisoner campaigns. She remained, for the rest of her life, dedicated to the proud memory of her late husband.
The story of the Irish Civil War is one that sadly we gathered here know all too well. Of how many of Cathal Brugha’s comrades, remaining true to the ideals of the Irish Republic died in battle, or by the firing squad, or shot by the roadside. The Irish people today continue to take inspiration from the memory of Cathal Brugha and his fallen republican comrades, who we will remember on many tragic centenaries in the months ahead. As a people we should be rightly proud and always celebrate that he and others of his generation took such a powerful stand for Irish freedom during a time in which our country and the wider world was impacted by social and economic upheaval, military conflict instigated by imperialistic superpowers and a devastating pandemic.
In the words of the 1916 Proclamation, that great document Brugha ensured was ratified at the first sitting of Dáil Éireann: ‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign andindefeasible.’ These great ideals inspired Cathal Brugha, this extraordinary Irish patriot, for much of his life in his tireless work in ensuring the establishment of an Irish Republic, from his early years as a committed Gaelic League activist to his final stand outside the Hamman Hotel as an IRA volunteer. Today, let us pay tribute to Cathal Brugha’s memory and sacrifice in the fight for Irish freedom and that in doing so, hope that we too can be similarly inspired by the great ideal of the Irish Republic. Thank you.