‘In the steady spirit of service of Pearse and Tom Clarke and Seán MacDermott?’ Richard Mulcahy and the National Army during the Civil War of 1922-23

Created: May 7, 2019

Richard Mulcahy in the uniform of the National Army, circa 1922. Source.

One individual to the fore on the victorious side of the Irish Civil War of 1922-23 was Richard Mulcahy. Mulcahy was initially the chief-of-staff, and later, commander-in-chief of the National Army of the Irish Free State. This army was formed in the early months of 1922 before the outbreak of the civil war on 28 June 1922 and had to immediately contend with the anti-Treaty IRA forces opposed to the new state.

Throughout this period, Mulcahy also held a role in the new Irish government as Minister of Defence, thereby giving him an influence over military policy. For the purposes of this study, this writer will give an overview at how Mulcahy, in both his political and military roles, was to oversee this new army in light of various challenges from within and without. He occupied a fascinating place in running this new army, the chief purpose of which was to ensure the survival of a burgeoning state that emerged after a prolonged period of revolution.

Born in 1886, and originally from Waterford, Richard Mulcahy’s post office career took him to various locales across the country. During this time, Mulcahy had his first brush with advanced nationalism, becoming a keen Irish language speaker with involvement in the organisation known as the Gaelic League. Mulcahy also became an admirer of the separatist ideals espoused in the writings of the prominent radical journalist Arthur Griffith.

On arrival to Dublin in 1907, Mulcahy joined the Keating Branch of the Gaelic League. Here, he met several noted figures, such as Michael Collins, with whom Mulcahy became closely associated with in the revolutionary period. Mulcahy would also join the nationalist militia, the Irish Volunteers, on their founding in 1913 and likely joined the secret society known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the IRB) at this time.

Rising through their ranks as a second lieutenant in the Dublin Brigade, Mulcahy would assist the Volunteers during the IRB insurrection known as the Easter Rising of 1916. Mulcahy served as second-in-command to Commandant Thomas Ashe during the Battle of Ashbourne and emerged with high military reputation. Subsquently imprisoned with the defeat of the rebellion, on his release at the end of 1916, Mulcahy would prove to be an important and dedicated worker on the rebuilding of the revolutionary movement through 1917-18.

When the reformed Volunteers formed a General Headquarters Staff in March 1918, Mulcahy was appointed the Chief-of-Staff. The Volunteers would later as a military body become known as the Irish Republican Army (referred hereafter as the IRA), during the subsequent War of Independence from 1919-21. As Chief-of-Staff, Mulcahy was to direct IRA military policy against British police and military to enforce the sovereignty of the independence Irish Republic.

Overseeing the political policy of this Republic was the cabinet and parliament of Dáil Éireann, established in January 1919. Here, Mulcahy sat as an elected deputy for Dublin Clontarf. As IRA Chief-of-Staff, Mulcahy was to stress GHQ policy in various communications to the IRA units across the country. Mulcahy had to also deal with requests for funds and arms from the IRA brigades through the conflict. Emerging from the conflict having mixed relations with certain figures in the revolutionary movement, Mulcahy nonetheless remained as Chief-of-Staff following the truce of July 1921.

Ultimately, the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 led to a split in the republican movement, between those who supported the creation of the British dominion known as the Irish Free State and those who wished to maintain the independent Irish Republic previously declared. Mulcahy’s role in events would dramatically change as he supported the ‘pro-Treaty’ faction. Most notably, in the new pro-Treaty Dáil government that was formed in January 1922, Mulcahy would become the new Minister for Defence while remaining as the army’s Chief-of-Staff.[1]

Pro-Treaty propaganda poster emphasising Mulcahy’s military experience during the Easter Rising and War of Independence, produced during Civil War. Source.

The civil war begins
The most crucial working relationship Richard Mulcahy would have throughout most of 1922 is that with his contemporary, Michael Collins; this would prove pivotal to the formation of the new National Army. The men had been closely associated following their appointments to the Volunteer executive in October 1917. Like Mulcahy, Collins served on the GHQ staff, his most notable role being Director-of-Intelligence of the IRA until the ratification of the Treaty in December 1921. The latter role was aided by Collins’ central role in the Supreme Council of the secret society known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (or the IRB). Mulcahy’s son, Risteárd, notes in his personal memoir of his father that in his father’s recollections of Collins he does not express resentment at Collins’s larger reputation during the War of Independence in both a political and military sense even though in that conflict Mulcahy was supposed to be Collins’ direct superior.[2]

On this working relationship with Collins during the War of Independence, Mulcahy recalled: ‘I opened and kept open for him all the doors and pathways he wanted to travel – our relations were always harmonious and frank and we didn’t exchange unnecessary information. We knew what the other was at, and particularly in his domain on intelligence, I had no occasion to be questioning him.’[3] Robert Barton suggested in a recollection however that the more active Collins would tire of Mulcahy’s diligent note-taking, saying, ‘he couldn’t get anything out of… [Mulcahy] unless the latter had everything on paper as a geometrical problem. He was careful about details only. No imagination or sense, unobtrusive, but a hard worker.’[4]

Richard Mulcahy pictured with Michael Collins in the cortege at Arthur Griffith’s funeral, 16 August 1922. Source: PA Images.

Nonethless, the trust Mulcahy held in the other man would carry through on into the civil war phase. As Maryann Valiulis notes of the two men their ‘complimentary personalities, their common methodical attention to detail and their mutual insistence on rigorous organisation gave the national army a dynamic combination at its very core.’[5] This would be pivotal in the early months of 1922, as the core of the new army for the Irish Free State was established during the uncertain negotiations with the anti-Treaty faction of the IRA, and the uncertainty of the latter holding an IRA Convention.[6]

The chief factor in forming the new National Army was the departing British army garrisons from the jurisdiction that was to fall under the administration of the Irish Free State. Complicating this development was the IRA took over the army barracks no matter if the unit in question was either pro or anti-Treaty. As early as January 12, as Mulcahy stressed to the cabinet the need for pro-Treaty troops to be present at these barrack handovers. Thus, ‘such troops should be loaned from the Defence Department and that cost of their clothing and maintenance shall be defrayed out of the funds of the Provisional Government.’ Mulcahy’s scheme was adopted, though the plan was not made public due to fears it would upset the unity negotiations between both sides of the IRA at the time.[7]

It is worth noting that in early 1922 large areas of the country were controlled by anti-Treaty units. Hence, before the pro-Treaty government could build up any reliable military force, already a large proportion of the country was potentially outside their control. Clearly the anti-Treaty members of the IRA had the advantage in terms of numbers and experience, at least in the first few months of 1922.[8]

The size of the pro-Treaty military force was relatively small to begin with, its first base being at Beggar’s Bush barracks in Dublin. As a result, considerable independence was given to pro-Treaty local commands and their commanding officers. Another potential issue that would have ramifications later would be the involvement in the leadership of the army of members of Collins’ ‘Squad’ during the War of Independence, such as Liam Tobin, Tom Cullen and Frank Thornton. Their loyalty to the new army was mainly due to their loyalty to Collins, rather than a fervent belief in the pro-Treaty cause.[9]

Nonetheless, as before, Mulcahy as chief-of-staff was to direct the army from headquarters, beginning with a nucleus of 4000 men. It would the responsibility of Mulcahy to ensure a professional army would be raised, trained and well-equipped.[10] Following a series of convoluted events by mid-June 1922, civil war seemed inevitable. This was mainly the collapse of the army negotiations and the kidnapping of Mulcahy’s Deputy Chief-of-Staff JJ ‘Ginger’ O’Connell by the anti-Treaty IRA faction based in the Four Courts. On 28 June, 1922, the Irish Civil War began as the National Army began the bombardment of the Four Courts. The battle soon spread to other areas of Dublin, mainly along Dublin’s O’Connell Street. The result was a divisive victory for the National Army, with much of the anti-Treaty IRA routed and their leadership captured.[11]

Mulcahy, at this juncture, would be central to a decision that proved to be a serious error in judgement. As the battle in Dublin raged, Mulcahy allowed Liam Lynch, the Chief-of-Staff of the anti-Treaty IRA, to head south after he was arrested. Mulcahy hoped, based on Lynch’s previous disputes with the IRA leadership, that Lynch would be a moderating force on the IRA. Ultimately, Lynch was to be the dominating and leading figure of the anti-Treaty forces. As Mulcahy later said, ‘Liam Lynch was to Cork from a military point-of-view what de Valera was on the political. That is the thing couldn’t have been what it was without him.’ Similarly, in July when Frank Aiken of the 4th Northern Division attempted to ensure his IRA faction would remain neutral, Mulcahy was determined to not make the same mistake again and promptly arrested him and ordered the seizure of the IRA controlled barracks in Dundalk.[12]

As the conflict now threatened to spread to the south-western counties into July, Collins wrote to Griffith in his capacity as President of Dáil requesting that Griffith appoint a ‘War Council of Three’. This would consist of Collins as Commander-in-Chief of the National Army, Mulcahy remaining as Chief-of-Staff and Minister of Defence and Eoin O’Duffy overseeing the South-Western Command (the most troubled region). Griffith agreed, and Collins resigned his position as Provisional Government chairman to take up the post.[13] Now, Mulcahy and Collins were to work closer together than ever before. Both were eager to bring a swift end to the civil war due to a mutual worry over the effects the conflict would have on the new state.[14]

With their superior resources and strategies, the burgeoning National Army overseen by Collins and Mulcahy swifty took key areas of Cork, Limerick, and Waterford through July and August.[15] Hence, by the start of August, the pro-Treaty military forces were now in a much stronger position, having divisively beaten the anti-Treaty IRA by way of conventional warfare. As of August 5, the army was made up of 14,000 regular soldiers and 5000 reservists, in addition to another 6,000 reservists already signed up but not processed.[16] The fighting prowess of the National Army was greatly enhanced Mulcahy dispatching members of the Dublin Brigade to various units throughout the country.[17]

As Maryann Valiulis notes that by mid-August 1922 ‘the war in the field was over. The Republicans had lost – they simply did not know it.’[18] The conflict now entered a conventional guerilla phase, with tragedy striking on 22 August. While on an inspection tour of the South-Western Command in his native Cork, an army convoy including Michael Collins was attacked by an ambush party of anti-Treaty IRA while driving the remote valley of Béal na mBláth. Collins was the only one killed in the ambush, in circumstances that remain contested in some historical accounts.[19]

On Collins’ death, Mulcahy would issue a proclamation to the soldiers of the National Army. In this proclamation, Mulcahy would encourage the men under his command to stay strong and be inspired by the example of their late commander-in-chief. In typical, high-minded rhetoric, Mulcahy movingly writes to ‘the Men of the Army: Stand calmly by your posts. Bend bravely and undaunted to your work. Let no cruel act or reprisal blemish your bright honour.’[20] Mulcahy attempting to stir his troops of aspirations to dead nationalist heroes would be a common thread in later addresses to his men. Nonetheless, revealing of his own grief at the loss, Mulcahy would write to one contemporary that trying to articulate the loss of Collins in his army address was ‘difficult enough to panagyrise’.[21]

Maj Gen Emmet Dalton, front row, right, at the funeral of Michael Collins with Gen Richard Mulcahy, left, and Adj Gen Gearoid O’Sullivan, middle

The National Army leadership pictured at the funeral of Commander-in-Chief Michael Collins in Dublin on 25 August 1922. Mulcahy, the new Commander-in-Chief, is pictured on the far left in front, alongside Adjutant-General Gearóid O’Sullivan (middle) and Major-General Emmet Dalton (far right). Source.

The army and the people
In the immediate aftermath of Collins’ death, the possibility was mooted of Mulcahy rising to head the government in place of Cosgrave. That this was suggested by his ministerial colleague Kevin O’Higgins was ironic in light of subsequent events. However, Mulcahy wished to remain as head of the army, and see the conflict to the end. Mulcahy was appointed the new commander-in-chief, yet remained the Minister for Defence at cabinet level. Ultimately, the holding of these two positions by one individual was to be an ‘uneasy combination’.[22]

One reason for this was that prior to Collins’ death, during the outbreak of the civil war Mulcahy’s role as Minister for Defence was not clearly defined. With his ministry, Mulcahy was to theoretically function as the army’s representative at cabinet level. However, as commander-in-chief, Collins in his frequent dealings with the cabinet already filled this role. Following Collins’ death, Mulcahy now had to operate in both his Ministerial role and Collins’ former position as the new commander-in-chief.

These dual roles immediately came into dispute when the third Dáil conveyed on 9 September, Mulcahy’s ministerial appointment being amongst other appointments. While Mulcahy was not present for the debate, several deputies were quick to point out what they perceived as a lack of wisdom in Mulcahy holding both roles.[23]

The most interesting example is that of independent deputy Darrell Figgis, who worried the appointment of Mulcahy as Minister would unintentionally play to the propaganda of the anti-Treaty forces. Given the frequency which republicans often referred to the pro-Treaty side as a ‘military junta’, it was ‘important that the criticism of this kind made by those who are acting criminally in the country should not be supported by action taken here or taken or permitted to be taken by this Government.’ If the government were to allow Mulcahy function in these dual roles, Figgis believed ‘that you are presenting people who at the present moment are acting illegally with an argument which they should not be presented with.’[24]

Nonetheless, despite the objections, with the government majority Mulcahy’s nomination was ultimately approved by the Dáil. Though Mulcahy himself was not present for the debate, Cosgrave robustly defended the decision, stating that Mulcahy ‘has been identified with the Army for many years, and his long and successful Army record has not deprived him of being able to give the Government very valuable assistance in Council.’[25]

Meanwhile, reflecting similar diligence as in his previous role as IRA Chief-of-Staff, Mulcahy insisted on strict attention to detail in communications with the various commandants at their post. These methods were enforced in his capacity as Chief-of-Staff before the death of Collins and continued to be encouraged.

One notable departure from the 1919-21 period was Mulcahy’s efforts for army units to avoid confusion over false orders issued by the anti-Treaty forces. Here, Mulcahy departed from the anonymity reflected in communications in the previous war period. As the conflict began in June 1922, Mulcahy insisted all communications from any army department be signed with a full name, rank and staff, command or unit. In addition, each communication was to be dated and timed exactly on receipt and dispatch. In Mulcahy’s determination, all of this detail in communication was a necessary precaution.[26]

As the conflict continued, members of the public addressed their concerns directly to Mulcahy. In one such letter, an anonymous resident of Louisburg, Co. Mayo, implored Mulcahy to send a garrison of troops to the area. The resident cited several reasons for their distress, including mention of robbery and looting by the anti-Treaty IRA in the area. As the writer explains, ‘the Irregulars have a great stronghold here… while the people have to entertain and amuse them without complaining. They dare not even expression their opinions.’ In a dramatic end to the letter, the writer finishes with: ‘… there is not a village in Ireland suffering so much in silence at the present day.’[27] In response, Mulcahy wrote to Seán Mac Eoin, General Officer Commanding of the Western Command, asking for a report on the situation referred to in the letter.[28]

This need to immediately investigate and respond to criticisms from members of the public is a recurring theme in Mulcahy’s communications. In another exchange with Mac Eoin in late December 1922, Mulcahy referred to complaints received from a friend of President W.T. Cosgrave. Mulcahy mentioned the President’s friend had written to say overall that the army’s ‘intelligence in the Sligo area is very inefficient’ and furthermore, ‘that our troops go out on their raids and sweeps without any direct objectives.’ Mulcahy noted an instance referred to where a leader of the anti-Treaty IRA was able to attend Confession in Sligo town unobstructed, and that it is well known by residents in the area where the local anti-Treaty forces sleep at night. Mulcahy ended the communication to Mac Eoin by saying he is to note these criticisms ‘with a view to throwing your eye around and seeing what is wrong and what improvements can be made.’[29]

With regards to his relationship with the cabinet during the conflict, Mulcahy mainly dealt in routine matters at the outset. For instance, a sampling of the various memoranda that Mulcahy brought to the cabinet table in this period reveals the various army-related matters he sought approval and opinions for. One recurring request for instance was that of request for increased recruitment to the various army divisions. For example, in November 1922, one memorandum from Mulcahy shows a request for ‘formal authority for the enrolling of 2,000 men in the Railway Maintenance Corps. I also desire formal authority in the maintenance of this Corps from Army Funds at present.’[30]

More pressing however was often cases of proposed measures to obstruct various actions of the anti-Treaty IRA. In September, Mulcahy proposed in one memorandum the possibility of introducing permits for motor cars and petrol, in the hope it may prevent movement of vehicles seized by their republican opponents. Conscious of the army taking over too many responsibilities, Mulcahy at the end suggested the possibility of whether the Department of Home Affairs or the army should administer this scheme.[31]

Though these matters may seem routine, as the conflict dragged on, Mulcahy developed an increasingly sour relationship with a number of his cabinet colleagues, mainly due to his approach and manner with them. As Valiulis notes, in occupying his two roles, Mulcahy merely ‘continued the pattern established by Collins. But… his cabinet increasingly balked at what they considered his high-handed ways, his aloofness. What they might tolerate from Collins, they would denounce from Mulcahy.’ Valiulis cites the reasons being the war conditions in the country and a growing uneasiness with the army as it grew. It also could have come down to the fact ‘Mulcahy simply did not have Collins’ stature, prestige and charisma.’[32]

Matters were not helped by Mulcahy’s relative isolation working in Portobello barracks in the critical winter months of 1922, as his cabinet colleagues were corralled (for reasons of security) in Government Buildings.  This was due to Mulcahy’s tendency to see himself as an outsider and cast himself as such.[33] All of these factors would ultimately result in Mulcahy increasingly coming into conflict with the cabinet.

Image result for Richard Mulcahy Civil War

Richard Mulcahy, accompanied by Eoin O’Duffy and Paddy Daly, inspects the first Unit of the National Army at Beggar Bush’s Barracks, August 1922. Source.

Executions and reprisals
Regarding his historical legacy, perhaps the two most commonly noted aspects of Richard Mulcahy’s command of the National Army during the Civil War was his support of the executions of republican prisoners and his response to unofficial reprisals by his soldiers through the conflict.

Following a failed secret meeting with de Valera in September 1922, Mulcahy requested the cabinet for additional powers. Mulcahy felt, as de Valera would not encourage republicans to surrender, the conflict was to be become more intractable. The result was the Emergency Powers Bill being introduced to the Dáil later that month, which gave military courts to power to impose the death penalty for various offences, including attacks on the army or destruction of property.[34] Defending the measure before the deputies, Mulcahy explained: ‘It is a necessity that these people in the country who are committing murder… should know that they forfeit their lives if they continue to do that work, and the Government must set up the machinery for taking that forfeiture. The Army… is prepared to do the work of executing these people…’[35]

The first four executions took place in Kilmainham Gaol on 17 November, with the more notable Erskine Childers being executed in Beggar’s Bush barracks on 24 November. What proved more controversial however was the reprisal executions of the four IRA leaders – Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joseph McKelvey – in Mountjoy Jail on 8 December. Having been prisoner since the fall of the Four Courts the previous July, Mulcahy had put the four men forward to be executed official reprisal following the assassination of the pro-Treaty TD, Sean Hales.[36]

In a heated Dáil debate on 8 December (following the executions earlier that morning), Mulcahy engaged the opposition deputies in a robust defence of the four executions in Mountjoy. Invoking the previous national conflict, Mulcahy stated: ’The action that has taken place this morning was brought about by the fact that there are those working around us today, more vicious, more insidious, and more striking than British ever employed against representative government in Ireland.’ Mulcahy reminded his parliamentary opponents of a letter delivered to the Speaker of the House in late November threatening violence on the deputies present, not to mention the fact Seán Hales had been assassinated on attempting to attend the parliament. Mulcahy emphasised that ‘the action that was taken this morning as a deterrent action taken to secure that this country shall not be destroyed and thrown into chaos by the toleration of any group of men acting together for the destruction… of those single representative people.’[37]

As seen from this Dáil debate, Mulcahy did not hesitate to take full responsibility for the policy of executions of republicans, which would result in seventy-seven official executions in all. Given there were no further assassination of pro-Treaty TDs through to the end of conflict, the policy must be judged a grim success. Nonetheless, on reflection in later years, Mulcahy would also continue to express anger at being forced into persuing such a policy decision by his anti-Treaty opponents. Mulcahy felt as the political leader of the anti-Treaty forces, and the leading opponent of the Treaty, Éamon de Valera bore direct responsibility for the violence of the conflict.[38]

There is an inclination to suggest there is at least a vague evasiveness of Mulcahy’s part for taking explicit responsibility for the policy, by claiming he was backed into extreme measures by his opponents. Partisan politics too surely played a part in this aspect of Mulcahy’s criticism, given de Valera found greater electoral political success for his party in the state then Mulcahy ever did for his own. That Mulcahy would maintain this line for the rest of his life is likely the result of the executions being frequently invoked in the contested political legacies of the civil war period, by both republican partisans and more objective historians.[39]

Retrospectively, Mulcahy would also admit: ‘There can be no question but that I personally was the ultimate and supreme authority for these, and at all times accepted the supreme responsibility.’[40] His biographer, Maryann Valiulus felt: ‘because of the policy of the executions which he so clearly identified and because of some harsh decisions and statements, it was the unyielding, rigid persona which came to be associated with in the popular mind with the commander-in-chief.’[41]

Image result for Richard Mulcahy Civil War

Richard Mulcahy, pictured circa 1922. Source.

This persona again came to the fore when Mulcahy maintained a similar approach in his response to the unofficial reprisals carried out by the National Army on republican prisoners, as a result of the deaths of soliders by mines laid by republicans.

The most well-known instances of these reprisals occured in Kerry as seen in instances at Ballyseedy, Cahirciveen and Countess Bridge. Not surprisingly, an official army inquiry cleared the National Army in Kerry of any wrong-doing.[42] Demonstrating his firm loyalty to his soldiers, Mulcahy robustly defended the Army’s conduct in Kerry in the Dáil, which was overseen by one of his key allies, Major-General Paddy Daly: ’… very few, I think, of the civil population in Kerry will question their desire for discipline… I have the fullest confidence that the honour of the Army is… deeply rooted in them.’[43]

Nonethless, Mulcahy’s stance in these instances would have a profound impact on the legacy of the National Army during the civil war he had not the foresight to see at the time.[44]

Towards the end of 1922, Mulcahy’s relationship with his ministerial colleagues continued to sour, particularly with Kevin O’Higgins and Patrick Hogan. Mulcahy at times had to resist hard-line proposals from the cabinet as to the conduct of the war. In December, O’Higgins put forward a proposal where by 10 families who supported the republicans would be put out of their homes, and shut businesses would see a military post established therein.

In response, Mulcahy wrote, with an eye towards army discipline: ‘I am not inclined to agree at all – apart altogether from our difficulties in providing men for such posts.’ O’Higgins and Hogan main worry seemed to be about softening army attitudes to the republican opposition and wished to expand on the policy of executions. One policy the pair pursued was the establishment of committees of army officers at battalion level to pass sentences on republican prisoners. Once established, these committees led to a more localised focus on choosing those for execution.[45]

Nonetheless, by a combination of factors such as the continuance of the execution policy and sheer military strength, the National Army had the anti-Treaty IRA overwhelmed by April 1923. One crucial development was the death of Liam Lynch on April 10 following a pursuit across the Knockmealdown mountains by National Army soldiers. Lynch’s replacement as IRA Chief-of-Staff, Frank Aiken, in consultation with de Valera and other republican leaders, issued a ceasfire order the following month and request to dump arms. With Aiken’s statement suggesting republicans should perhaps now pursue political means for a republic, the civil war for the anti-Treaty forces was now over.[46] As Collins and Mulcahy had originally hoped with their military force, the National Army had now ensured the defeat of republican militants and the survival of the new state.

Though beyond the scope of this article, it is worth briefly commenting on the fate of Richard Mulcahy’s military career, as a result of the so-called ‘army mutiny’ crisis in 1924. These ructions in the National Army ranks were the result of mass demobilisation of men after the civil war, to say nothing of the increasingly zealous belief of former Collins allies, led by Liam Tobin, they were being overlooked for key military positions in favour of those high up in the still-existing Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).

Exploiting their concerns of this disgruntled section were some of Mulcahy’s cabinet adversaries during the civil war, such as Kevin O’Higgins. Matters came to a head after a convoluted series of exchanges and developments with the dramatic arrest of those involved in Tobin’s mutinous faction on 12 March, 1924. Mulcahy was blamed for causing the crisis after a government inquiry, subsequent to the inquiry he had already been replaced in his role as commander-in-chief and had resigned as Minister of Defence. Though he would enjoy a long political career in the state, including ministerial positions, Mulcahy would never again hold the portfolio of Defence or a military position.[47]

Ironically, the mutiny crisis ensured the complete subservience of the National Army to civilian rule in the new state. This, in many respects, is the greatest legacy of Mulcahy’s tenure as commander-in-chief.


National Army soldiers outside Cruise’s Royal Hotel in 1922. Photo: Source.

Mulcahy in the civil war period shared much with a Russian contemporary, Leon Trotsky, in terms of the latter’s experiences of the Russian revolutionary period in the early twentieth century. Notably of much more avowed Marxist politics then Mulcahy, like his Irish counterpart, Trotsky rose through the various phases of the revolutionary Russian movement on his skills and talent.[48]

On the founding of their state in October 1917, the ruling Bolsheviks immediately faced a civil war on a much more dramatic scale then the Irish experience given the much larger landscape and array of forces amassed against them. The conflict, which lasted until 1922, not only involved anti-Bolshevik militants, but these forces were backed by invading foreign powers.

In the Bolshevik government, Trotsky was appointed Commissar of War in 1918 and oversaw the creation and command of a ‘Red Army’ to defend the new Bolshevik state. Trotsky’s methods of army structure and mass conscription annoyed the attitudes of his revolutionary colleagues, particularly his recruitment of former officers of the royalist army. Yet, the army, led by Trotsky, ultimately emerged victorious by the end of the conflict, the membership in the second-last year of the civil war estimated at 5 million.[49]

The opposition to the Bolsheviks made up a varied political spectrum, and at times, Trotsky had to send Red Army units to battle former leftist allies of the Bolsheviks. Nowhere is this more notable then in the instance of the Kronstadt naval base in February 1920, the sailors based there electing a new Soviet opposed to the Bolshevik leadership.  The following month, Trotsky personally led an effort to suppress the mutiny with the bombardment of the base, an example of the oft-referred to ‘Red Terror’ employed by his army. Interestingly, only several years before, in 1917, Trotsky had referred to these one-time comrades as ‘the pride and glory of the revolution’ and their actions had helped the Bolsheviks in seizing power.[50]

And yet, despite the victory of his army during the civil war, and his considerable skills, Trotsky’s own pride and arrogance among his colleagues ultimately doomed his political career in Russia as soon as the health (and leadership) of the Bolshevik leader, Vladamir Lenin, went into decline.[51]

Intriguingly, in a lengthy memorandum legal advisor Kevin O’Shiel wrote to the Irish cabinet (including Mulcahy) in December 1922 dispelling advice on how to conduct the war, there was mention of the success of the Red Army under Trotsky: ‘Once in power their first task was the creation and disciplining of the vast Red Army. It was a most essential and necessary weapon if they were to remain long in power, as on all sides enemies, well provided with funds and munitions from outside were closing in on them…’ Disappointingly, for the sake of this study, Mulcahy left no handwritten note alongside this particular point.[52]

As head of the army during the Irish Civil War, the challenges for Mulcahy included training, recruitment and maintaining a firm discipline, knowing it was pivotal this army quickly win the support of the Irish people. To his allies on the pro-Treaty side, Mulcahy was ideal for this role, having had already proven his worth as Chief-of-Staff of the IRA during the previous War of Independence of 1919-21. In his correspondence with those in his command and public pronouncements, Mulcahy would again return to the importance of the National Army as a body to uphold the people’s will in establishing this new state.

Mulcahy had the perfect ally in the highly skilled and energetic Michael Collins until his death. What followed was a blurring of the lines with Mulcahy as Minister-for-Defence at cabinet level, and him functioning in a military role, however there is little evidence this exercised him – not even being present for the initial Dáil debate on the matter. As can be gathered from his defence of the executions policy, Mulcahy regarded the civil war as an unconventional conflict that needed unconventional means to end it.

Regarding himself as ideal to influence political decisions over the military side revealed a considerable sense of self-confidence that annoyed his cabinet colleagues and heightened tensions amongst them as the conflict continued. Ultimately it was the tensions caused by his dual political and military roles that ended Mulcahy’s army career.

It is clear by the end of his tenure in the National Army, Richard Mulcahy could be said by his detractors to have possessed such a sense of self-belief to the point of sheer arrogance. More likely, given his devotion and loyalty to those under his command, it was a strong belief in the ability of his new military force to ensure Irish independence that resulted in his style of leadership – and see through the various challenges to this new military body through the conflict. As his son Risteárd Mulcahy explained, his father ‘had great pride in the army he had helped build and command: it was an integral part of his brand of idealogy and nationalism. He believed it held the key which would ensure Ireland’s emergence as a free, prosperous, Christian, and plurastic democracy… His ideal extended beyond the function of the army as a military force alone and he believed… would prepare young men to be better citizens.’[53]

In an a speech to National Army soldiers in October 1922, Mulcahy remarked that they could look forward to making ‘the army a national institution through which the young men of Ireland [would] pass to be much better men and citizens’. Similarly, in a letter to troops sent from army GHQ in February 1923, Mulcahy evoked the memory of the executed rebel leaders of the Easter Rising, an insurrection of which he was a veteran: ‘Am I thoughtful as to what the Army means to the country – what the country wants for it – what it can effect for the people and their character? Am I working in the steady spirit of service of Pearse and Tom Clarke and Seán MacDermott?’[54]

In this respect, Mulcahy cleared regarded the National Army as a body that continued that earlier revolutionary tradition established during Easter Week 1916, not dissimilar to how his opponents on the anti-Treaty side felt about their own cause.[55] Notably, Mulcahy’s contemporary, Leon Trotsky wrote of the Red Army towards the end of Russia’s civil war as a body as one with the people: ‘Even before now the Red Army was an integral part of workers’ and peasants’ Russia. But now, more every day, a more intimate bond has been established between them.’[56]

As the civil war raged, Mulcahy’s defined his new army as a liberating force for Ireland, however abhorrent a concept to his republican opponents. Central to Mulcahy’s personal idealogy was the idea the army could help deliver on the promise of independence. This writer feels it these core beliefs that affected his decision-making throughout the conflict, contributed to his firmness of self-belief and empowered him in dealing head-on with issues and personalities on his own side opposed to him.


Richard Mulcahy pictured in the uniform of the National Army, pictured circa 1922. Source.


Primary Sources


University College Dublin Archives Department
Richard Mulcahy Papers (P7)

 Official Records

Parliamentary Debates: Dáil Éireann: Official Reports

Secondary Sources

Published Works


Dolan, Anne, Commemorating the Irish civil war: History and memory, 1923-2000 (New York, 2003),

Dorney, John, The civil war in Dublin: The fight for the Irish capital 1922-1924 (Kildare, 2017)

Figes, Orlando, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991 (2014, London)

Gillis, Liz, Military history of the Irish civil war: The fall of Dublin (Cork, 2011)

Hopkinson, Michael, Green against green: the Irish civil war (Dublin, 2004 ed.)

MacArdle, Dorothy, Tragedies of Kerry (Dublin, 2004 ed.)

Mulcahy, Risteárd, My father, the General: Richard Mulcahy and the military history of the revolution (Dublin, 2009)

Regan, John M., The Irish counter-revolution: 1921-1936 (Dublin, 2001 ed.)

Ryan, Meda, The real chief Liam Lynch (Cork, 2005 ed.)

Valiulis, Maryann Gialanella, Portrait of a revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the founding of the Irish Free State (Dublin, 1992)

Internet Sources

Dictionary of Irish Biography: http://dib.cambridge.org.dcu.idm.oclc.org/

Marxist Internet Archives: https://www.marxists.org/


[1] Summary of Mulcahy’s life and career until the outbreak of the civil war mainly summarised from Dictionary of Irish Biography, ‘Richard Mulcahy’ entry by William Murphy, (http://dib.cambridge.org.dcu.idm.oclc.org/) (2 February 2019).

[2] Mulcahy, Risteárd, My father, the General: Richard Mulcahy and the military history of the revolution (Dublin, 2009), pp 89, 91.

[3] Ibid, p.93.

[4] Quoted on John M. Regan, The Irish counter-revolution: 1921-1936 (Dublin, 2001 ed.), p.88.

[5] Maryann Gialanella Valiulis, Portrait of a revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the founding of the Irish Free State (Dublin, 1992), p.160.

[6] Ibid, p.152.

[7] Michael Hopkinson, Green against green: the Irish civil war (Dublin, 2004 ed.), pp 60-61.

[8] Ibid, p.58.

[9] Ibid, pp 61-62.

[10] Valiulis, General Richard Mulcahy, p.161.

[11] For two detailed accounts of the battle in Dublin at the Civil War’s outbreak, see Liz Gillis, Military history of the Irish civil war: The fall of Dublin (Cork, 2011) and John Dorney, The civil war in Dublin: The fight for the Irish capital 1922-1924 (Kildare, 2017), pp 74-99.

[12] Valiulis, General Richard Mulcahy, pp 155-156.

[13] Hopkinson, Green against green, p.136.

[14] Valiulis, General Richard Mulcahy, p.164.

[15] See Hopkinson, Green against green, pp 146-153, pp 162-165.

[16] Valiulis, General Richard Mulcahy, p.165.

[17] Ibid, p.162.

[18] Ibid, p.166.

[19] For a summary of the speculation, see Hopkinson, Green against green, pp 176-179.

[20] Valiulis, General Richard Mulcahy, p.140.

[21] Personal letter from Richard Mulcahy to George Gavan Duffy, 1 September 1922, UCD Archives, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/100(3).

[22] Valiulis, General Richard Mulcahy, p.172

[23] Ibid, pp 172-173.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Parliamentary Debates: Dáil Éireann: Official Report, 1/1 (Saturday 9 September 1922).

[26] Valiulis, General Richard Mulcahy, p.160.

[27] ‘Louisburg Petitioner’ to Richard Mulcahy, 8 December 1922, UCDA, Richard Mucahy papers, P7/B/75(21).

[28] Communication from Commander-in-Chief Mulcahy to General-Officer-Commanding Mac Eoin, 13 December 1922, UCDA, Richard Mulcahy papers, P7/B/75(20).

[29] Communication from Commander-in-Chief Mulcahy to General Officer-Commanding MacEoin, 22 December 1922, UCDA, Richard Mulcahy papers, Archives, P7/C/75(24).

[30] General Memorandum by Commander-in-Chief, 13 November 1922, UCDA, Richard Mulcahy papers, P7/B/250.

[31]General Memorandum by Commander-in-Chief, 30 September 1922, UCDA, Richard Mulcahy papers, P7/B/258.

[32] Valiulis, General Richard Mulcahy, pp 162-163.

[33] Regan, Irish counter-revolution, p.88.

[34] Valilus, General Richard Mulcahy, p.176.

[35]Parliamentary Debates: Dáil Éireann: Official Report, 1/13 (Wednesday 27 September 1922).

[36] Hopkinson, Green against green, pp 189-192.

[37] Parliamentary Debates: Dáil Éireann: Official Report, 2/3 (Friday 8 December 1922)

[38] Valiulis, pp 183-184

[39] For a partisan example, see Dorothy MacArdle, Tragedies of Kerry (Dublin, 2004 ed.). For a more objective historical view, see Anne Dolan, Commemorating the Irish civil war: History and memory, 1923-2000 (New York, 2003), pp 1-5

[40] As quoted in Hopkinson, Green against green, p.181.

[41] Valiulis, General Richard Mulcahy, p.187.

[42] See Ibid, pp. 187-192 and Hopkinson, Green against green, pp 240-242.

[43] Parliamentary Debates: Dáil Éireann: Official Report, (Tuesday 17 April 1923).

[44] See Valiulis, General Richard Mulcahy, p.192.

[45] Regan, Irish counter-revolution, pp 120-121.

[46] Hopkinson, Green against green, pp 256-258.

[47] See Valiulis, General Richard Mulcahy, pp 199-220.

[48] Figes, Orlando, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991, (2014, London), p.89.

[49] Ibid, pp 149-150.

[50] Ibid, pp 165-155.

[51] Ibid, p.170.

[52] Memorandum from Kevin O’Shiel to cabinet, n. d. December 1922, UCD, Richard Mulcahy papers, P7/B/101(16).

[53] Mulcahy, My Father, p.177.

[54] Both quoted from Ibid, p.178.

[55] See Ryan, Meda, The real chief Liam Lynch (Cork, 2005 ed.), p.185.

[56] Quote taken from Leon Trotsky, The military writings of Leon Trotsky Volume 4: 1921-1923, ‘The Fifth Year – A Year For Study’ from Marxists Internet Archive, (https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1921/military/ch20.htm) (25 April 2018)