By Irish Volunteers Commemorative Organisation member Chris Mooney

“When many of us are forgotten Cathal Brugha will be remembered”

–  Michael Collins



Cathal Brugha, Irish patriotHe was born on 18 July 1874 and baptised Charles William St John Burgess by his parents, Thomas Burgess a businessman and Mary Ann Burgess

[nee Flynn]. The Burgess family’s roots in Ireland are deep but they had their origins in Picardy, Northern France, according to Tomás Ó Dochartaigh, Cathal Brugha’s nephew and biographer[1]

In the year 1600 one or more of the family emigrated from France to Cornwall in England, and in 1649, around the beginning of Oliver Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland, a member or members of that branch of the family bought land in Co Carlow where, according to Ó Dochartaigh writing in the 1960s, some Burgesses may still be found. The Burgesses who arrived in Co Carlow were of course, Protestant. They became business people it seems, rather than landlords, but even so, it must have taken considerable courage to gamble on investing in so troubled a country; or was there perhaps among them a soldier in Cromwell’s New Model Army, many of whom were paid off in parcels of Irish land? However that may be, a descendant, one Richard Burgess[2],  married a Catholic and moved his family to Dublin sometime prior to 1859 when his name appeared in Tomm’s Directory [a Dublin Public Directory] as a tobacconist at 19 Mary’s Abbey[3] .


One of Richard Burgess’s four children was Thomas Burgess who in 1860 started his own business as a cabinet maker at 6 St Mary’s Abbey, Dublin. In that year he married and went to live at 7 Capel Street and in the same year, his father Richard died. One of Thomas’s brothers, also Richard, inherited 6 St Mary’s Abbey so Thomas moved his business to premises at 6 Ormonde Quay. Thomas continued to expand the business into the buying and selling of furniture and then into art dealing. Soon he had a branch in Nassau Street, Dublin and one in Newman St. in London. His wife Maryanne Flynn came from a well-established family of auctioneers in Dublin and both Thomas and Maryanne were Parnellite Nationalists by conviction[4] . They travelled to London frequently on business and Ó Dochartaigh tells us that while there they would sometimes exaggerate their Irish accents to show their allegiance[5]. In fact as Ó Dochartaigh points out, Thomas himself was said to have at one time been a member of the Fenian revolutionary movement of the 1860s, and to have advocated something stronger than parliamentary tactics for the winning of Irish freedom[6] .


For all their business affairs and travelling, Thomas and Maryanne managed to have 14 children. Politics notwithstanding, it must have been a typical Victorian-era Dublin middle class family in many ways. Tenth in that family was Charles, the second youngest boy after a succession of six girls. Hs father who doted on him, is said to have opened a bottle of champagne in joy at his arrival. When young Charles was about two the family moved to 29 North Farquhar Street and Charles’ first school was St Dominick’s. Another family story is perhaps indicative of a later trait in Charles. One day at Howth harbour he and his younger brother Alfred were sitting in a boat that was moored at the quay when they were ordered in no uncertain terms by a group of older boys, to get out. Charles refused and held his ground. Something in his demeanour shook the courage of his antagonists so that they backed off, unwilling to take his challenge[7]. Charles was young Alfred’s hero.

[1] Ó Dochartaigh,T. (1969), l.14.

[1] ‘Sceilg’ (1942), l.121. [ ‘Sceilg’, Brugha’s great friend and colleague in The Dáil, raises the assertion made by  Frank Pakenham and Frank O’Connor in biographies of Michael Collins that the Burgesses had part-Jewish ancestry, in order to refute it].

[1] Ó Dochartaigh, (1969), l.14. [Ó Dochartaigh, himself a nephew of Cathal Brugha, says that Richard Burgess was a Protestant who married a Catholic and that his family,  including his son Thomas, were all raised as Catholics. He also says that Thomas inherited a share of his father’s money. Cathal M. Brugha, a grandson of Cathal Brugha however, in a brief biog. of his grandfather in MacSwiney Brugha, Máire, HISTORY’S DAUGHTER, (The O’Brien Press Ltd, Dublin) 2005, p.262, says that Richard Burgess, a Protestant disinherited his son Thomas for marrying the Catholic Maryanne Flynn].

[1] Ó Dochartaigh, (1969), l.15.

[1]Ó Dochartaigh, (1969), l.15.  [presumably neither parent spoke Irish].

[1] Ó Dochartaigh (1969),  l.15.


Then in 1887, the Jubilee Year of Queen Victoria’s reign, a momentuous family event occurred. Thomas Burgess, importer and exporter of antiques, fine furniture and works of art, decided to open a branch in Australia.  It was 1887 and his chosen location was none other than ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ as that young city, after the Gold Rush of the 1850s, was experiencing a ‘land boom’ and was growing apace with new suburbs being laid out and ‘extravagant mansions’[8] being built. These grand mansions all no doubt required suitable furniture and artworks. Thomas dispatched his two eldest sons, Edward and Thomas jnr, together with a manager, on a ship loaded with goods to start the business in the antipodes. The initial excitement within the Burgess family must have been tremendous but, by the following year of 1888, the peak of that ‘land boom’, the Melbourne branch of Thomas Burgess’ hitherto thriving business had collapsed under huge debts[9] . Had he over-stretched himself financially, or was the business sucked down in the general financial whirlpool; or was there a more sinister explanation, deriving in some manner from the outrageous behaviour of many entrepreneurs in the business and finance sectors of Melbourne at the time?


Thomas senior headed straight for Melbourne to investigate, but things got worse rather than better for the Burgess family. He quarrelled with his two eldest sons on arrival and they split with their father. Neither ever returned to Ireland we are told[10] . Thomas was ruined as a businessman and had to sell everything he possessed to meet his debts.  He tried but never regained his former business confidence and the family had a great come-down in lifestyle. In spite of the financial disaster however, and thanks it seems to his wife’s independent means [she owned several houses received from her father as her wedding settlement[11] ] they managed to send Charles to Belvedere College, a prestigous Dublin Jesuit school, in 1888. Belvedere incidentally was founded in 1832, just a few years before the city of Melbourne. Éamon de Valera was to become a teacher of  Mathematics there for a time and Joseph Mary Plunkett, later a signatory to the Proclamation of 1916 and executed by the British, was a former pupil. Another famous ‘old boy’ was Kevin Barry who was hanged by the British in Mountjoy Jail in 1920. All were there after Charles had left the school. It must also be noted that one Reginald Clery, yet another ‘Old Belvederian’, a 22 year old trainee solicitor, was a member of the Georgius Rex, nicknamed ‘The Gorgeous Wrecks’ [a kind of Home Guard’ or ‘Dad’s army’ raised voluntarily during World War I] and was shot dead by a revolutionary in the earliest exchanges of the Easter Rising of 1916. The school thus reflected the profound shock that the Rising and its aftermath delivered to Irish society in general and its more Anglicised urban middle class in particular, with the school magazine of the time striving to achieve a balanced view and to make sense of what had occurred. After World War I, Belvedere, modelled as it was on the English public school system, attempted a greater acknowledgement of the divergent strands of Irish society of the time and introduced GAA games into its sports curriculum.

[1] Ó Dochartaigh (1969),  l.18.

[1] Cannon, Michael (1967),  p.6.

[1] Ó Dochartaigh (1969), l.16.

[1] Ó Dochartaigh(1969), l.18. [According to Ó Dochartaigh the family descended for a time into a kind of ‘genteel poverty’].



[1] ‘Sceilg’, l.2.

[1] Ó Dochartaigh, l.17.

But in 1888, following the collapse of the family business, the Burgess girls had to be withdrawn from their boarding schools their formal education at an end. It was another early indication of the young Charles’ character that he undertook to continue the girls’ education himself. One of his sisters later said that whatever the subject of Charles’ class might be it invariably ended up as a lecture on Irish history, his lifelong passion.


At Belvedere College (1888-1890) young Charles appears to have been a good all-round student. No details of his scholastic record are available but those who knew him at college have said that he was not particularly studious. History, and in particular Irish history, appears to have been almost an obsession from quite an early age and doubtless he would also have been exposed to the popular schoolboy literature of the day: ’Boys’ Own Adventures’ and Victorian tales of [mostly] British derring-do; but whether or not his interest in Irish history developed through school or from his parents is not clear. Charles was small in stature, about 5’ 4”, but a good all-round sportsman at college. He played rugby and cricket, enjoyed athletics, gymnastics, boxing and swimming, and was an excellent shot. He especially loved music and was known among his friends and acquaintances as a good singer[12] .


All in all, from what we know of his youth we could with some justification say that young Charles William St John Burgess was developing along the lines of the ideal young Irish middle class ‘West British’  gentleman of his time, interested in Irish history while being comfortable within the ambit of Victorian British culture. But there was, surprisingly enough, in Charles’ education one tenuous link with the older Irish culture of his native land. Among his subjects at Belvedere which naturally included Latin and French, he took Irish[13] usually then referred to in academic circles as ‘Celtic’. We don’t know to what extent tuition in Irish was taken seriously at Belvedere in the late 1880s, but there were several antiquarian societies in existence in Ireland which had among their aims the collection of the old literature and the study of the language. Douglas Hyde had already begun to make waves among them,[14] but The Gaelic League itself did not come into existence until 1893. Nevertheless, it was the Irish language, together with his great love of Irish history, which was later to provide Charles Burgess with the chart and compass by which he would steer the course of his entire short but dramatic adult life.


It had been Charles’ wish to go on to university and study medicine, but in 1890 at the age of 16 and with his 64 year old father’s consent, he left Belvedere College, unable to justify in his own mind any further delay in tackling the responsibility for his family’s welfare. He found himself a job as a clerk with the Dublin branch of an English firm of church suppliers, Hayes & Finch, whose head office was in London. Charles’ forceful personality and confident but gentlemanly approach to all problems must have almost immediately come to the notice of the management and before his 20th birthday [July 1894] he was made a travelling representative of the firm, dealing frequently with churchmen and women in all parts of the country and in England.


We must here digress for a moment to recollect that it was on 25 November 1892 that Douglas Hyde [then 32] [1] Ó Dochartaigh, l.17.

[1] Hyde began publishing articles on the Irish language in the Dublin University Review  in the mid-1880s and his LEABHAR SCÉALAÍOCHTA was published 1889.

[1] Ó Dochartaigh, T

delivered his famous lecture on ‘The Necessity For De-Anglicising Ireland’  to the Irish National Literary Society at Leinster Hall. In the following year Hyde, Prof Eoin MacNeill, and others founded Conradh na Gaeilge/The Gaelic League. The League grew slowly at first and we know that young Charles Burgess had no initial involvement with it, although he may have taken some passing interest. He was however, busy at work, travelling incessantly even as far afield as London for his employers. He travelled by train, bus and bicycle around the country as the necessity arose.


The year 1899 was one of both joy and sorrow for Charles. In that year his father Thomas died and Charles took on, as the eldest of the two sons left at home, the headship of the family. Then, one Sunday, as he and his younger brother Alfred and a cousin by the name of Leahy were on one of their regular cycling jaunts around the outskirts of Dublin they called in at a public house for some refreshments. While there Alfred met a workmate from the Dublin Corporation offices  named John Carrig and introduced him to Charles[15] . Carrig was with a group of his friends from the Keating Branch of the Gaelic League, a Dublin branch of highly dedicated and very active membership which had quite a few native or otherwise fluent Irish speakers, many from the Munster Gaeltacht districts, hence the name[16] . Charles was captivated as he saw that the Gaelic League was not just another strain of Nationalism but a movement dedicated to protecting, restoring and reviving Ireland’s own distinctive Gaelic culture through the Irish language. He accepted an invitation to attend branch meetings and this opened up a different world for him as he realised how little he really knew of the music and song, the history and literature of Gaelic Ireland. The ease and native fluency with which the Keating Branch members’ conversations flowed must have been a revelation to him with his school Irish. The chance meeting brought home to Charles just how Anglicised Irish people were becoming, particularly the aspirational and middle classes. The politics of the day were vigorously discussed at Keating Branch meetings and Charles found himself  strongly in tune with attitudes among his new friends, all of Nationalist sympathies but mostly impatient with the strategy and tactics of the Irish Parliamentary Party playing the Westminster  ‘Home Rule’  game. Charles’ decision was made.  Whereas he had hitherto probably followed his parents’ example in trying to avoid overt Anglicisms in his speech, he now believed that as an Irishman he should fully understand his own country and to do so must speak his own language properly, thus obviating the need he had within himself to perpetually assert his Irishness.[17]  Although ostensibly a non-political and non-sectarian organisation, the Gaelic League from the time it became a popularly-based association, could not but become a magnet for all but the mildest of Nationalists. For Charles Burgess, membership brought him his date with destiny.


As Charles now perceived matters, although he was a Nationalist, yet to his chagrin the cultural gap between him and an Englishman was in many important respects narrower than that between him and his fellow-members of the Keating Branch. He chafed at English political and cultural dominance over his country, but why then was his language English, and why were so many of his cultural touchstones also English? In a move that became typical of the man, Charles set out to re-make himself as a modern-day Gael. He now, at the age of 24-25, began to spend much of his spare time at Gaelic League classes, meetings and céilithe. As he travelled around the country for his work he would be sure to seek out the local branch and join in at classes and social events, volunteering his services in administrative and organisational matters in acordance with Keating Branch policy. Where no branch yet existed he sought out those local people who would be likely to become enthused. When he happened to be in or near an Irish-speaking district he would track down

[1] Geoffrey Keating/Seathrún Céitinn was a 17th century priest in Co Tipperary who wrote FORAS FEASA AR ÉIRINN, a history of Ireland from earliest times, and whose writings are regarded as the beginning of modern Irish literature.

[1]Charles’ speech-patterns may perhaps have had touches of the ‘West Briton’  in tone as was usual among some strata of middle class Dubliners.

[1] This was how he met J J  ‘Sceilg’ O’Kelly and the two continued to get together in various parts of the country since both followed similar professions [‘Sceilg’, l. 3-5.]

the best local singers and storytellers to converse with, and hone his steadily improving Irish[18] . Many stories were told of his good humour and unfailing pursuit of Gaelic culture and of his athleticism which he was always keen to exercise; his good-natured arm wrestling contests, his swimming in all weathers and his keeness on GAA sports which he had taken up after dropping the ‘garrison’ games of cricket and rugby. Many’s the mile he is known to have travelled by bike on country roads and boreens when his day’s work was done; there were never any half measures for Charles. It was at this juncture that Charles Burgess made his momentous decision to be known in future by one name only – Cathal Brugha.


One story told by the well-known writer and Gaelic Leaguer ‘Sceilg’ about his great friend Cathal Brugha concerns a day when both men were in Caherciveen, Co Kerry, on business. The day happened to be the eve of the annual local Feis. That evening in a public house Cathal was prevailed upon to challenge the local arm-wrestling champion, a man named Éamonn Mac Gearailt, to a contest.  Cathal defeated him two bouts out of three but ‘Sceilg’ says that Brugha let himself be beaten on the third occasion so that there would be no humiliation for the local man. Later that same evening they heard that a visiting priest was to give a sermon in Irish on the following morning at the festival Mass.  The priest was having difficulty in preparing his sermon and Cathal volunteered his assistance. He and some others spent the rest of the night and well into the following morning working on what was by ‘Sceilg’s’ account a triumph of composition. Brugha then suggested that as it was too late to think of sleep they should all go for a morning swim. He insisted on diving into a gully that was known locally as a danger spot and swam across it against a surging tide. On another occasion when they met in Killarney ‘Sceilg’ tells us, he and Cathal accompanied Fr Patrick Dineen[19] on a visit to the home of Daniel O’Connell at Derrynane, although Brugha, Sceilg says, was no great fan of ‘The Liberator’. One more sample of the tales of ‘Sceilg’  concerns an evening at a hotel in Longford where Cathal and some friends were sitting down to dine after the day’s business. The hotel had one long table for all guests and as they went in to their dinner a high official of the County Sherrif’s Office, a very overbearing man, bustled in and immediately assuming the chair at the head of the table, prepared to preside over the meal. Brugha calmly rose, saying to his friends ‘we don’t have to socialise with the likes of him’, and they left quietly to find a meal elsewhere[20] .


It was typical of Cathal Brugha that when in Waterford city on business he would always cycle to the outskirts of the city to see his friend Máirtín Ó Colmáin, a native of the nearby Comeragh Mountains who was by then in his seventies and blind. Máirtín had been employed by the city as a street-sweeper and was retired. He had grown up with Irish as his only language and had a vast store of songs, folklore and reminiscences that he loved to share. It seems likely that, it being relatively easily accessible by bicycle from Waterford city, Brugha would have frequently visited the Irish-speaking district of An Rinn / Ring with its flourishing Irish college, at the western end of that county. Certainly he took his family there for summer holidays for a number of years in later times and made many local friends there as confirmed by the late Peig Bean Uí Reagáin of Ring in several discussions with Raidió na Gaeltachta interviewers.  He was later to become closely connected with Waterford county politically as one of its TDs in the First Dáil. Brugha was also a regular visitor to Ardmore, another village about 14 miles further along the coast road from Ring,[21] where he combined legitimate business and Sinn Fein and Irish Volunteer matters in his discussions with a local shopkeeper ‘Sonny’ Foley who was Hon Secretary of the local Sinn Fein Club.


It was in 1908 when the Keating Branch seemed to be perpetually at loggerheads with the League’s Central Branch and itself in danger of a split that the members elected Cathal Brugha as branch president knowing the respect he had by then gathered from all who knew him. He was continually re-elected from that time on, through all that was to transpire, and held that position until his death. The Branch then had such luminaries in Irish cultural and political circles as Tomás Ó Cléirigh, Seán Mac Diarmada, Seán Mac Donnachadha, Risteárd Ó Maolchatha, Tomás Ághas, Diarmaid Ó hÉigeartaigh, Micheál Ó Coileán, Piaras Béaslaí, ‘Sceilg’ himself and Seán Ó Treasathaigh, many of whom were already members of The Irish Republican Brotherhood [IRB]. It was from these contacts that Cathal was recruited into that organisation with consequences that were later to unfold. [ it must be remembered that the IRB was a secret revolutionary society but was not itself a military organisation, its preference was to work by infiltration of the burgeoning political, cultural, sporting and quasi-military organisations then being referred to collectively as ‘Irish Ireland’ ].


One of Cathal Brugha’s early goals was to be able to deliver a speech in Irish to the critical ears of his own Keating Branch members. His efforts were such that he soon came under the notice of League leaders in debates and social conversations. The first official instance of this determination to ‘Gaelicise’ himself was to be seen in a public notice for an Irish language lecture on Dónal Cam,  a Gaelic hero of old. This was organised by the Ard-Chraobh or Central Branch of The Gaelic League and was advertised to be given by ‘CATHAL BUIRGHÉIS’[22] an early attempt to Gaelicise his name. Soon after he altered this to CATHAL BRUGHA, and ever after referred to himself as such; nor would he allow himself to be addressed by any other name.


As Cathal’s confidence grew he began to call upon the various authorities to respond to demands for Gaelú  or ‘Gaelicisation’ of Ireland’s public institutions.  Although always a staunch Catholic, Cathal was critical of the Church hierarchy for its apparent lack of interest, believing that it was within its power to do great things for the language if it were so minded. In this regard he pointed to the many examples of individual clergy throughout the country who were dedicated to the Athbheochan or ‘Revival’. Cathal believed that the Gaelic League had helped to raise the self-respect of many Irish people and that they were better individuals and better Catholics for it. Some priests of his acquaintance who were of a like mind had called on the League to organise local branches in their parishes for this reason. Others he knew, had themselves become League organisers. Charles was no starry-eyed optimist however, he characteristically called a spade a spade and deplored the apparently willful propensity among some Irishmen to fall out over the tactical details for achieving an objective that all were agreed upon in principle. He counselled patience to those who chafed at the lack of progress in establishing local branches or in organising local feiseanna and Irish classes, saying that ‘the Gael can be led but won’t be driven’.


It was at this time, as his Gaelic consciousness grew, that Cathal left his job with the English firm for whom he had worked since leaving college, believing that it was incompatible with his principles. Together with the Lalor brothers who had also worked for Hayes and Finch, he founded a new firm of Church candlemakers, called Lalors Ltd, at 14 Lower Ormond Quay. These premises would be his base all through his public life from that time on and were later raided by the British on several occasions necessitating some very narrow escapes for Cathal[23] .


Cathal continued his business travelling but it was at a Gaelic League class or social event in Birr, Co Offaly that he met Cáit Nic An Rí, [Kathleen Kingston] and they married on 08 February 1912. They would have six children, five girls and a boy. It’s noteworthy in terms of the Burgess family progeny that Cathal’s younger brother Alfred and his wife had four girls and a boy, Their eldest brother Edward (who had split with his father when in Australia) had just one daughter and the second eldest brother Thomas did not marry[24] .


Then in 1912 came one of those twists in history that have unimagined consequences not only for individuals like Cathal Brugha but for whole nations. British Prime Minister Asquith’s Liberals and The Tory Opposition had ended up with a hung parliament at Westminster after the General Election of 1906 and the government was dependent upon the Irish Parliamentary Party which held the balance of power in The Lower House.  In 1911 the Lords’ age-old veto on Bills from the Commons had finally been abolished, milords could still delay a Bill but no longer prevent its passing. The Irish Parliamentary or Nationalist Party’s chief at Westminster then was John Redmond, MP for Waterford City, a veteran of the post-Parnell era. Once again the price for Irish Party cooperation in government was to be a Home Rule Bill and no doubt many of the older generation of Irish people must have felt the old thrill of expectation that they had first experienced under the leadership of Parnell. But this was 1912 and a new generation of generally better educated young Irishmen and women had arrived on the threshold of public life. Their feelings on their country’s future had moved quite a long way beyond Redmond’s cherished dream of ‘Home Rule.’ They wanted a different future for their country and the mere listing of their preferred organisations, social, political and cultural, tells the story better than anything else – The Gaelic Athletic Association, founded in 1884, Conradh na Gaeilge/the Gaelic League, founded in 1893, Arthur Griffith’s original Sinn Féin Party founded in 1905, Fianna Éireann, founded in 1908 and last but by no means least, the Irish Volunteers, founded in 1913.


Cathal Brugha was one of those who helped to organise the Irish Volunteers. He was given the rank of first lieutenant under the command of Eamon Ceannt in the 4th Batt. Dublin Brigade.  Brugha did not take a publicly prominent part then, but characteristically he got down to learning about soldiering from manuals and from the ex-British army veterans who were so valuable to the Volunteer movement.  Meanwhile he continued his travelling for Lalors Ltd and his organisational work for the Gaelic League, Sinn Fein and the Volunteers. Estimates vary, but it is generally reckoned that the National Volunteers soon numbered some 100,000 albeit with negligible armament.  Erskine Childers, his wife and some others went ahead and landed a small amount of rifles at Howth on 24 July 1914. Cathal Brugha was on duty that day with his squad of Volunteers whose job it was to secure the quay and keep clear an escape route for the men taking charge of the arms. A further small shipment came in at Wexford a few days later and Cathal was again present. He was, it need hardly be said, a committed Irish Volunteer and on the ‘extreme’ or Republican wing.  He was of course, at that time still a member of the IRB[25] , which organisation was in secret control of three of the four Dublin Battalions of Volunteers.  With the occurrence of the split into National or ‘Redmondite’ Volunteers and Irish [Republican] Volunteers, his choice was an easy one.  On 24 August 1914 as World War I began, the IRB met and determined on a Rising at the earliest practical moment.  Although not a leading figure in this phase of the Rising, Brugha was given access to the plans and briefed to be among those who would take over as leaders in the event of a pre-emptive strike by the British authorities, for the IRB was well aware of the possibility of British intelligence having full information of their plans.


The date of the Rising was set for Easter Sunday April 1916 and, after its cancellation by Eoin MacNeill, the nominal chief, was altered by Pearse and Connolly to the following Monday.  Brugha under Eamonn Ceannt was assigned to command a troop to occupy the South Dublin Union, a poorhouse with a small hospital attached. It was a relatively isolated post from the revolutionaries’ GPO HQ, but they defended it with tremendous bravery, repelling several British sorties although only some 120 Volunteers of the nominal 700 men in the 4th Batt. had paraded that morning due largely to the countermanding and contradictory orders. Somehow a priest was able to visit the building and heard confessions before the attack started. Brugha it is said, insisted on the recitation of the rosary each evening during the siege as all fighting stopped overnight[26]. Not much happened after the initial sorties by the British on the Tues and Wed. But then, with the attack on Brugha’s own command post in the Union’s Nurses’ Home by several companies of the Sherwood Foresters having begun in earnest, it was only a matter of time. Cathal Brugha himself was so badly wounded on the Thursday that he was, at his own request, left to fight a dying rearguard action as his men withdrew towards the city centre. But Ceannt thought better of it when, unable to move out as quickly as he had intended, he and his men heard Brugha singing a war song as he came under fire. They returned for him, finding him sitting in a pool of his own blood with his back to a wall and preparing to meet the foe. Legend has it that he asked for a small bottle of liquid in his pocket to be given him, it was Lourdes water and it was said to have stopped the bleeding![27]  His comrades made a desperate effort and carried him out. They secreted Brugha in the hospital area of the South Dublin Union among the ordinary patients and it was there, after Pearse had surrendered, that the British, conducting a ‘mopping up’ operation eventually found him, lying near to death.  Brugha was rushed to the British army hospital in Dublin Castle where he hovered between life and death for some time but was eventually nursed back to life. However, he had been very badly injured by rifle and grenade wounds and the British allowed him to go free, thinking apparently that he was finished as an active soldier or participant in events for the future. Indeed Cathal had lost a part of one foot and had extensive wounds to his body. His active life and athletic pursuits however had given him great physical resilience albeit he always afterwards limped and used a battery-operated contraption attached to his waist with wires to a special shoe that he could only wear for a short while, to ease the continual pain of exposed nerves in his leg.


So it was that Cathal Brugha escaped being thrown into prison along with the other participants in the Easter Rising, but as it turned out he was far from finished as an activist. Whether or not his known activities prior to and during the Rising would have warranted his execution along with other leading figures in the eyes of the British we do not know. When Cathal was wounded his place as 2IC to Ceannt was taken by Liam Cosgrove and Cosgrove was initially among the 50 or so leaders sentenced to death, only to have it commuted to life. Rory O’Connor, one of the other leaders, was also wounded and when eventually released from hospital he got in touch with Cathal Brugha.  As their health returned, the two men became leading figures in the re-organisation of the Irish Volunteers. They opened communications with the men and women in jails around the country and, crucially, those in Frongoch Prison Camp, North Wales and in Reading Jail and other prisons in England, where so many of the younger men were already taking on the task of preparing for the renewal of the struggle.


At this stage it is instructive to take an overview of the scene in Ireland after the Rising. The IRB had since its inception regarded itself as the de facto albeit secret Government of Ireland. Its Head Council had however not been fully aware of the Rising plans. It was a coterie within the military council led by Pearse and Connolly who had declared the Republic, with Pearse himself as its President, not the official nominees of the Head Council of the IRB which however, continued to see itself as being in control. Since the Rising the young Michael Collins had made himself chief man of the IRB while he was still in Frongoch prison camp in Wales. Meanwhile back in Ireland Brugha and others were re-organising the Irish Volunteers while Arthur Griffith and his Sinn Féin Party,  a non-violent non-republican movement with no direct involvement in 1916, were still working for a Home Rule settlement as was the old Redmondite Irish Parliamentary Party whom many, particularly those of the older generation, still called ‘The Nationalist Party’.  Arthur Griffith himself was a rank and file member of the Irish Volunteers in Dublin but had taken no part in The Rising. There are several reasons given, one being that he had been intercepted by a Volunteer leader on the way to join his Company on Easter Monday morning and had been told that his journalistic/propaganda skills were best utilised away from the firing line. Griffith was never a Republican by conviction and had been in favour of an Austro-Hungarian style dual monarchy for Gt Britain and Ireland with an Irish assembly based upon the ideal of Henry Grattan’s Anglo-Irish controlled Parliament of the 18th Century. Griffith’s Sinn Féin party newspaper had achieved a high profile as a supposedly radical Irish revolutionary organ and it was this that caused the British media to dub the Easter Rising a ‘Sinn Féin’ action, making no distinction between it and the militant Republicans. In reality, as had so often before occurred, the movement for Irish freedom had several not necessarily fully compatible strands. But the big change was in the attitudes of the Irish people themselves. After the years of unrest in the lead-up to and the denoument of 1916, most Irish people were ready now for something altogether more serious and their welcome home for the released Irish Volunteer republican prisoners was a clear indication of the change. On their return from British prisons the men of the Irish Volunteers were to find their organisation well on the way to renewal.[28]


A general meeting of the Volunteers was called and Cathal Brugha attended, walking with the aid of two sticks. He called for the Volunteers to become truly the army of the Irish Republic which republicans believed had come into existence at Easter 1916, and he arranged with Harry Boland for Volunteer prisoners to stage disruptions within the British jails.  Around Ireland the general unrest continued to grow and at one Dublin meeting an RIC officer was killed by a blow from a stick or hurley. Cathal Brugha and Count Plunkett were among those subsequently arrested and jailed in England although most of the prisoners were soon released. Brugha and Plunkett were the last out and returned to a well organised welcome. Brugha was now recognised as leader of the Volunteers but on de Valera’s escape from Lincoln Jail he stepped aside for the senior survivor of 1916.


Several by-elections now eventuated in Ireland and the chance of testing the country’s new-found enthusiasm for full political freedom and of ousting Redmond’s party  drew together several strands of the independence movement including Count Plunkett’s organisation which sat somewhere intermediate between Brugha’s republicanism and Griffith’s dual monarchy. De Valera’s election as MP for East Clare was a triumph for this cooperative spirit among ‘moderate’ nationalists and republicans and moves were made to formally combine under one umbrella organisation. This proved to be tricky and might well have foundered were it not for the conciliatory urgings of de Valera and the magnaminity of both the militant republican Cathal Brugha and the monarchist Arthur Griffith. An Ard Fheis or General Convention of Sinn Féin was organised for 25 Oct 1917 and a general meeting of the Volunteers two days later. Brugha and Griffith agreed to sink their ideological differences in a common cause. So it was that men like Brugha, who disliked and distrusted politicians, were drawn into close alliance with more pragmatic men like Griffith, Count Plunkett and as it turned out, Michael Collins. The new organisation would adopt the name of Sinn Féin but would seek to retain the Republic of 1916 with the proviso that once it had been formally instituted the people would then by referendum be asked to choose the form of government. Éamon de Valera was elected by acclamation from the floor as President of the re-vamped Sinn Féin and Brugha was elected as chairman of the Admin Committee of the Irish Volunteers, which now in effect became a Sinn Féin army although still sworn by its own oath to uphold the Republic.  Marching and drilling went on openly around the country with hurleys and wooden guns but already in some districts there had been raids on private houses for various small arms such as hunting guns and war souvenirs. Brugha ordered this freelance activity to cease after several incidents where people were wounded and even killed, but it is extremely doubtful if his authority was quite sufficient, particularly in remoter areas, entirely to quell it. In recent years there have been claims of ‘widespread intimidation’ but there is little evidence and less cause to infer that the average Irish man or woman was not prepared to give the re-vamped Sinn Féin Party and by implication its aim of a Republic, their voluntary backing. The RIC of course, in their hundreds of barracks throughout the country, were watching all that ocurred and were well informed as to who were the local ‘trouble-makers’. Arrests began again but now the attitude of many people, not necessarily themselves activists or even outright republican sympathisers, had become far less co-operative toward the police.


As the Great War rolled on into 1918 without much prospect of British success, voluntary recruitment for the British army in Ireland, hitherto in large numbers, had practically dried up. The threat of Conscription being extended to Ireland now became a near-reality and was met with general condemnation. Even the Irish Catholic hierarchy publicly and officially denounced it and went even further, saying it was right for Irish people ‘to resist it by all means consistent with God’s Law’. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, had been reluctant to force conscription on Ireland, knowing the difficulties of enforcing it in practical terms and the adverse effect it would have on the powerful Irish lobby in still neutral America which he was so anxious to have on the Allied side.  But on 01 April 1918 came the sinking of the ‘Lusitania’ and US entry into the war. Now it seemed the USA could hardly object to enforcement of conscription in Ireland when she herself was a combatant alongside Britain. On 03 June 1918 British Field Marshall Lord French announced that 50,000 Irishmen would have to voluntarily join up by 01 Oct next and 20,000 each month thereafter if conscription was to be avoided. Then on 04 July the Irish Volunteers, Sinn Féin, Cumann na mBan, and the Gaelic League were all declared illegal organisations. On the following day all meetings and gatherings were also proscribed; It was in effect a declaration of war against ‘Irish Ireland’. Mass meetings of Sinn Féin ensued and Britain now felt justified in swooping upon the Sinn Fein leaders. Collins easily avoided the net as did other ‘military’ leaders such as Brugha, but deValera, Griffith and others allowed themselves to be taken so as to gain maximum publicity for Britain’s move against the Irish people. To emphasise the point 1,500 illegal GAA football and hurling matches were arranged and played at venues all around the country that same weekend. The RIC wisely did not attempt to stop them except in a few isolated instances.


On the 15 Aug 1918 Sinn Féin meetings were arranged throughout the country and again the RIC ignored them[29]. In An tÓglach [‘The Warrior’], the organ of the Volunteers, Brugha advised that Volunteers should not allow themselves to be arrested without resisting. In the following month he outlined the steps to be taken in the event of the senior British army officer in Ireland General French enforcing conscription; all Volunteer companies were to regard themselves as acting under martial law decreed by the Sinn Féin provisional government of Ireland, Dáil Éireann; district Volunteer commanders were to regard the entire resources of their districts as being at their disposal in a defensive war against British oppression. These instructions clearly reflected the republican view of Britain’s presence as an external enemy occupation force and they included permission for the blowing up of RIC stations, roads, bridges and railways and other acts of sabotage aimed at generally rendering the British administration in Ireland inoperative. The plan foreshadowed the strategy of the French Resistance Movement against German occupation during World War II and indeed of many independence movements around the globe.


But Brugha’s determination to convince the British people and the world of the true status of the British administration vis a vis Ireland, did not stop there. He was convinced that a workable plan and competent men to implement it were now in place and with the written consent[30]  of the Volunteer High Command he organised a squad of a dozen men to slip into London for a special mission. In Brugha’s sights were the members of the British Cabinet no less.  They were to be assassinated if, by their formal approval conscription were implemented in Ireland. Brugha himself stayed in London for several weeks and was visited by his eldest daughter Nollaig, during his sojourn there, but Britain’s war crisis eased, conscription was never implemented for Ireland and Brugha’s ‘special operations’ squad slipped back home.  On 11 Nov 1918 Germany surrendered and Brugha himself returned to Dublin. With the end of The Great War Irish ‘dissident’  prisoners were still being held in jails in Ireland and Britain while British military victory prades took place around Ireland. Many took this to be a direct insult to the memory of 1916 and to the Irish Volunteers. Plans were laid to disrupt the parades but were countermanded by Brugha on the grounds that there would be an as yet unacceptable risk of civilians being injured or killed. But events were about to leap forward once again in a way hardly contemplated by most Irish people a mere twelve months earlier.


The end of World War I and the subsequent General Election saw the now revitalised and more aggressive Sinn Fein sweep the board across the country except for the Loyalist majority in the north eastern counties and two Trinity College MPs. On the establishment of the Dail, Ireland’s first ever democratically elected parliament, Cathal Brugha as acting President of the Dail in Dev’s absence, now rejected the IRB with its secrecy and its tendency to get bogged down in its own internal wrangling. There was now a legitimate, democratically elected government of Ireland and the time for secrecy was, in Brugha’s mind, over. He called for an open defiance of Britain by the Irish people, under the leadership of the Irish Volunteers as the Army of the Republic in defence of their new democracy. He was however, not impressed at the unsanctioned actions of some Volunteer companies. Even the spectacularly successful escape bid of de Valera from Lincoln Jail, master-minded by Collins on 03 Feb 1919 was under orders from Brugha not to include the use of firearms. Again, his order in this instance may not have been fully complied with. Then on 06 March 1919 Piaras Mac Canna, a Dáil TD, died in Gloucester prison; ill-treatment  by his gaolers was said to have been the prime cause. Robert Barton, a cousin of Erskine Childers, escaped from Mountjoy soon after. Feverish behind-the-scenes activity by Dail agents arranged for prisoner-instigated rioting in several British jails leading to several mass escapes. In a further significant upping of the ante Brugha now authorised a Volunteer raid on Collinstown airfield outside Dublin for arms, but still refused to sanction raids on private homes.


At the next session of the Dáil on 01 April 1919 Cathal Brugha voluntarily stood down as President to make way for Dev’s election by acclaim to that position.  He was himself elected by acclaim as Minister for Defence. In his acceptance speech he called upon the Irish people to give their fullest support to the Dáil, the democratically elected parliament of the Irish nation, and its institutions which were then being put in place.  He asked them to ignore the alien administration of Britain. It was not a French-style bloody revolution he sought but a kind of national civilian boycott of all British institutions of state with the promise of Volunteer protection for anyone who was threatened with violent reprisal by Britain’s agents or any others who continued to give support to Britain’s occupation of Ireland. He declared that his job as Minister For Defence would be:


to defend the native government and its various arms and branches


to supply a force to support and enforce the operation of Dáil legislation if need be


to to render inoperative all foreign power over Ireland


to make the RIC defunct and supply a native police


to nullify the power of the British army in Ireland,


to conduct all matters strictly in accordance with Dáil legislation and regulations.


This was in effect a gauntlet thrown down to Britain and on 10 June 1919 ‘The Freeman’s Journal’ reported that Dublin’s quays were jammed with incoming British military and equipment. The RIC had 10,000 members and before the end of 1919 there were, Churchill said, 43,000 British troops in Ireland. Democratic voice of the people or no, Britain was not prepared to cut Ireland loose from its empire.  The country was on a knife-edge. Brugha continued to attend his office at Lalors Ltd daily, but also used the alias of ‘Mr Vincent’ as he moved around the country. All who called to see him at Lalors’, whether on company business or otherwise, were first met by Vincent Lalor before being taken upstairs to see ‘Mr Vincent’ who had rigged a system of mirrors on the stairs and an escape hatch in the roof as an extra precaution against the ‘wrong’ type of callers. He also sported a long reddish moustache. Brugha recommended that Dáil TDs and functionaries receive salaries but never accepted one for himself. He it was who appointed Michael Collins as Chief of Intelligence with the task of breaking the dangerous British spy system in Ireland once and for all. Collins’ old job as Adjutant General of the Volunteers Brugha now gave to Richard Mulcahy.


The tension was near to breaking point as Britain stepped up its activity designed to intimidate the Irish dissidents and simultaneously demonstrate to the great powers gathering in Paris that the Irish question was a purely internal matter of quelling a fringe group of extremists which was in no way representative of the mass of the Irish people. The Dáil decided to send a delegation to the Paris Peace Conference to seek international recognition for Irish nationhood. For Sinn Féin’s political leaders much now hung on US President Wilson’s acceptance of a US Senate vote to the effect that Ireland’s case be heard at the Paris Peace Conference. To the Senate’s representatives who had come to Paris in support of the Dáil delegation Wilson said that although he was in favour of small nations having the right to self-determination in principle, in practice the four Great Powers had to unanimously agree. Neither Britain nor France with their colonial empires, were so inclined and thus was dashed finally Irish hopes for international recognition through appeal to the declared aims of the Great War.


Cathal Brugha was devastated by the failure. He had been amongst the foremost in reining in the Volunteers from open conflict with the RIC and British army up to that point, counselling patience and putting his faith in Wilson and other world statesmen at Paris. Now Britain had effectively been given a free hand in Ireland. The Dáil was in British eyes an illegal organisation. The Dáil cabinet met and gave Brugha authority as Minister for Defence to take all measures to counter Britain’s attempts at suppression. Money was desperately needed and Dev was sent to America to raise funds. His absence also ensured the safety of the Irish leader since the Dáil knew from past history what was coming once Britain’s power in Ireland was openly challenged. It was recognised too that it was Dev’s prestige and his careful tightrope act which kept the internal Sinn Féin alliance of Republicans and Home Rulers operating smoothly and that his loss might upset that balance.


On 10 April 1919 the Dáil assented to the motion of Éamon de Valera that all further communication with the British government on matters of Ireland’s independence be terminated. The Irish Volunteer organisation, now becoming known as the Irish Republican Army or IRA, was ordered to deal with anyone found to be collaborating with Britain in Ireland and this included individual members of British institutions such as the RIC, the British army regiments based in Ireland, civil servants, public transport staff, etc.  Many RIC members, themselves irishmen and by no means all opposed to Irish independence, resigned as they and their families came under pressure from within their communities and as smaller rural and village barracks were attacked. By August many RIC barracks had been closed and the members withdrawn to larger centres, leaving the IRA a much freer hand in rural areas. Some local Volunteer leaders were now being urged by the Dublin GHQ to be more active in their own home territories, recruiting, training, raiding for arms and ambushing RIC and British army patrols and convoys. Some were relieved of their commands and more vigorous men put in their places with a view to escalating activity in quiet districts, thus taking some of the pressure off the ‘hot spots’. As the shooting war was stepped up, the IRA in most districts recognised their own woefully inadequate firepower and avoided ‘conventional’ war tactics. This inadequacy could not be, nor was it ever, rectified, indeed it was in itself to dictate the IRA’s best strategy, for on the one occasion when it initiated a daylight attack in large numbers upon one of the most important centres of British control in Ireland, namely the Customs House Building in central Dublin, the targetted civil service records were indeed destroyed but the IRA suffered its worst casualties in any single action. After this attempt, which is said to have been ordered by the Dáil as a means of proving to the world’s media the reality of Ireland’s War of Independence, (what might today be called a ‘media event’) the IRA confined itself to ‘the war of the flea’, recognising for the most part that to ‘win’ did not involve ‘driving the Gall into the sea’ or ‘defeating the army of the British empire’ as some with more bellligerence than common sense saw it, but to continue to exist as a constant thorn in the side of the British administration, disrupting its ‘normal’ day to day affairs and wearing down its functionaries with an interminable feeling of insecurity.  In theory the IRA did not need to win even one battle, it only needed to remain ‘in the field’ as British and most importantly, American public opinion sickened of the unequal contest and pressured their leaders to end it with a favourable outcome for the Irish people.


Already by September 1919 a full-time IRA ‘black ops’ squad of trained men, permanently ‘on the run’, was in operation in the Dublin area to deal with spies, double agents and informers. This idea soon commended itself to other areas and men were sent to Dublin to train and gain experience. On the night of 03 April 1920, all across the country over 300 RIC barracks and some 100 tax offices were fired. Cathal Brugha, who was at this time ‘on the run’  himself in rural Co Waterford,  placed a guard on a house of a particular RIC sergeant and ordered that the wife and young family should not be touched. Arland Ussher, the well-known writer on Irish matters whose own home was similarly treated, met this family and remarked on their praise for the demeanour of the IRA men who came to guard them[31] . Many parts of Munster and Connacht were by now outside of British control in practical terms and the IRA were policing the districts instead.  The system of Dáil or ‘Sinn Féin’  courts as they were popularly called, was also now being established in many districts. Local identities of known integrity were appointed as judges and local solicitors and barristers whether through conviction or pragmatism, generally co-operated with and commonly gave allegiance to, these courts.  The IRA enforced the courts’ verdicts, even to the extent of ‘imprisoning’ some offenders in remote locations on occasion. Brugha made sure that foreign journalists, observers and opinion-makers were frequently shown this ‘Sinn Féin’ system in operation, in particular of course, the Irish-American news outlets, and won admiration in many quarters for the orderly manner in which it functioned unless disrupted by British raids and imprisonments of court operatives.


Britain was thus forced to confront the distasteful choice of gradually allowing the day to day life of much of Ireland to slide from her grasp, or to suppress the ‘alternative’ government immediately, before its legitimacy had become too obvious to enable the full range of coercion tactics to be employed. Lloyd George decided, under what pressure from shadowy ‘champions of empire’ may never be known, to opt for a quick and ‘extra-legal’ solution. In March of 1920 the notorious ‘Black and Tans’ made their debut on the Irish stage. By August 1920 British troops in Ireland amounted to 50,000, with some 15,000 RIC augmented by Auxiliaries or Cadets and the aforementioned ‘Black and Tans’[32] . They were heavily armed, used armoured tenders and cars and occasionally light spotter aircraft and were given carte blanche to get ‘murder by the throat,’ to quote Lloyd George in the British House of Commons. It has been estimated that the IRA had some 100,000 volunteers by this time, but no more than about 3,000 were operational at any one time[33] due to lack of training and the ever-present lack of arms and ammunition. In some ways it must be wondered if many more than that number were required or even necessary to the IRA’s overall strategy and guerilla tactics? Indeed it has been argued that a larger volunteer force could not have been kept supplied and under the relatively tight discipline and excellent morale that was generally maintained right up to the Truce in July 1921.


It was in that summer of 1920 that Britain infiltrated a group of experienced army operatives, the ‘Cairo Gang’, into Dublin with orders to hunt down the IRA leaders and ‘invite them to a Buck House garden party’. Cathal Brugha soon obtained a list of their names numbering perhaps 30 or more from Michael Collins, Head of IRA HQ Intelligence, and gave the order for 16 of them to be dealt with. In a number of cases he was not convinced of their purpose as British officers or ex-officers and had crossed them off the list.


As the war evolved the mistaken notion arose among IRA district commandants that they could take orders direct from Brugha as Minister of Defence, but Brugha was meticulous in requiring that the chain of command be observed and that all orders for the IRA issue through the Commanding Officer, now Richard Mulcahy. However Michael Collins, as head of the IRB, still wielded a powerful influence on those IRA leaders who were also IRB members, as he had on rank and file Volunteers, most of whom found him to be highly approachable and unlike the more formal Brugha. Indeed, Richard Mulcahy may well have deferred to Collins as a fellow IRB man, thus promoting the idea that Collins ran the whole show. It was Mulcahy who was later quoted as saying that ‘the IRA could keep the British from governing but apart from the smaller RIC barracks never succeeded in ousting Britain from any important posts’. In this he was quite accurate, but his words were wrongly taken in some quarters to imply that the IRA campaign was thus a failure when in fact he had merely distilled the essence of the successful guerilla war into a nice sound bite. Ó Dochartaigh takes Mulcahy’s utterance as an indication that he had never understood the thrust of IRA strategy and tactics as Brugha had developed them, but it may also be that others misenterpreted his words intentionally or otherwise. In that early summer of 1921 the unusually warm sunny weather and long daylight hours, added to the chronic deficiency in arms, did succeed in putting more pressure than ever before on the IRA, but as an organisation it was capable in Brugha’s estimation, of scaling back and adapting its activities to ease its way through until winter and darkness again gave it an advantage. Meanwhile as the responsible minister in the Dáil he was attempting at all times to ease the shortage of arms and ammunition.


Cathal Brugha kept a low profile as the war intensified, he lived often in a room above Lalors Ltd and went ‘on the run’ when things got too hot in Dublin. The British were aware of his role and raided his family’s home on several occasions, manhandling his wife and children, keeping them outdoors for long periods at night and ransacking the house itself. On at least one occasion a bloodhound was used to try to find Brugha who had some close shaves when he succeeded in visiting his family. One Brugha daughter later recalled in childhood once going to meet the father she hardly knew in a Dublin park, while another remembered meeting him in Ballybunion, Co Kerry. He was known to always carry two hand guns which may be the basis for a later assertion at the time of his death[34] . The British had not imprisoned the families of any of the Dáil TDs or IRA top men but Brugha decided to send his family away to the country as a precaution and it was to An Rinn or Ring, the tiny Co Waterford Gaeltacht village they went.


The prospect of a bloodless and smooth transition to full independence, never much more than a fantasy,  was now long gone but there were still those in Ireland who hoped to resussitate the Home Rule Act to give all of Ireland a measure of autonomy with some generous hedging for the Unionist minority. By August 1920, in Ó Dochartaigh’s view, Arthur Griffith, the long-time advocate of a dual monarchy for Britain and Ireland, was already in secret communication with the British government on the possibility of ‘Dominion status’ a Home Rule solution for Ireland. In this scenario Griffith looked on Lloyd George’s Government of Ireland Act not as a desperate attempt to solve the Irish Question but as almost his own dream for Ireland, his last chance to have things his own way. In Ó Dochartaigh’s view neither Brugha nor Collins were aware of this.


Now fate intervened in the person of Bishop Clune of Western Australia who originally visited Lloyd George to complain at the murder of a young volunteer prisoner Conor Clune (whom according to Ó Dochartaigh, some wrongly believed to have been his nephew) while in captivity in Dublin Castle, and at the general behaviour of the Tans. Almost simultaneously on 26 Nov 1920, Griffith was arrested and imprisoned in Mountjoy where Bishop Clune spoke with him. On 04 December Clune met and spoke with Michael Collins. The three men agreed on terms for a Truce and showed them to Brugha who agreed in turn to table them before the Dáil. The Dáil accepted the terms in principle and Clune hastened back to London believing he had the basis for peace. But in the meantime Lloyd George had received letters from the Galway Council and one from a maverick Wexford TD which gave him reason to think that the Irish were on the point of surrender to the terrorist tactics of the Tans. He held a top brass meeting with Lord Wilson, General MacReady and senior civil servants from Dublin Castle. All agreed that the British army, RIC and Tans could smash the IRA in four months. Lloyd George thereupon dismissed Clune’s proposed truce, demanding that the IRA first surrender and disarm. On 23 Dec Dev returned from his mission in America and resumed his position as President of the Dáil from Collins who himself had been deputising for Griffith who was in jail.


So the war rolled on into 1921; many of the IRA were now ‘on the run’ and their ASUs or ‘flying columns’ were under severe pressure. Brugha sought frantically for arms and ammunition as well as money to succour the families of his men. In May 1921 he succeeded in obtaining a shipment of 49 Thompson sub-machine guns. Both Brugha and Collins denounced in a Dail session the ‘traitors’ who had clandestinely approached Lloyd George but the two men exchanged harsh words over Brugha’s querying of Collins’ financial reports. In the course of his speech Brugha declared that in his travels and from his extensive contacts around the country he had concluded that the people’s morale was high.


So it was that in May 1921 the IRA destroyed the Customs House, a major arm of British administration with vast quantities of taxation records, and although some  volunteers were killed and about 70 captured by the British as a result of that action, by that same month the British High Command was admitting in secret to Lloyd George that it had not in fact broken the resistance of the IRA and events had given ample evidence to prove it.[35]  The war had now taken a vicious turn with British-based IRA units targeting the homes of individual Tans in reprisal for RIC/Tan activity against Irish homes; a number of private houses and business warehouses in London and Liverpool were burned out.


On 24 June 1921 Lloyd George changed tack once more and wrote to de Valera proposing a Truce to enable Sinn Féin – British govt negotiations.  He sent a similar letter to James Craig the PM of the newly created Northern Ireland statelet. Brugha strongly opposed the idea and advised de Valera accordingly. It was Brugha’s view that it was folly to go into the house of the enemy to talk peace and urged that talks be held in a neutral country, France or Belgium perhaps; but Dev however, was cautiously in favour and he swayed the Dáil to his viewpoint. A Truce was called and began on 11 July 1921. Brugha expected it to last 3 weeks and acted to bring the IRA more clearly under Dáil control as the national army so as to clarify its standing in the terms of the Truce. At Brugha’s instigation the IRA’s own Army Council was suspended. This would have several effects: Volunteers once recognised as soldiers of a combatant national army controlled by a legitimate government could no longer be legally sentenced to death by Britain, arms could more easily be obtained from legitimate sources and prisoner of war status would be legalised for IRA members in jails under Britain’s own laws. Brugha pushed ahead with improving the organisation and training of the IRA and purchase of arms and equipment. Soon after the Truce went into effect the number of bomb-making factories in Dublin rose from one to twelve[36] .


The Truce dragged on however, with ‘talks about talks’ and messages between de Valera in Dublin and Lloyd George in London. Griffith, according to Ó Dochartaigh, was ‘soft’ on the terms of a Treaty even before Dev and Lloyd George’s early meetings and well before he led the Irish negotiators to London in Dec 1921. The international press buzzed and several IRA leaders who had hitherto been under cover became ‘personalities’ with stories about them in the international media, not always accurate. But Cathal Brugha wanted any talks with the British government to take place on neutral ground, Paris or Brussels rather than on British soil, and he did not trust the politicians to come up with a solution that would obviate the need for a renewal of the armed struggle. Thus he continued to shun the spotlight as before. This may have helped to deny him a more prominent place in Irish history.


The return of the Irish delegation from London, not with a draft Treaty but one already signed, split the Dáil and led to the most acrimonious debate. Yet Brugha was not the most extreme of the republicans in that he accepted Dev’s ‘external relations’ solution to the problem of Ireland’s attachment to the British empire and Commonwealth whereas Liam Mellowes and others would not.  All TDs were asked to speak for or against the Treaty and Cathal Brugha’s speech in opposition has been quoted in part to show his alleged hatred of Collins and Griffith. Yet he opened his attack by saying that after the 1916 Rising he had spoken to Arthur Griffith about Sinn Féin’s non-violence policy and had asked him, if the League of Nations should agree to Irish freedom but Britain continue to refuse it, would he – Griffith – fight? Griffith had said that he would, and he –  Cathal Brugha –  had then agreed to an alliance of the Volunteers with Sinn Féin[37]. Brugha went on to deplore the erosion of the solidarity and steadfastness of the movement and declared that he had never felt comfortable with politics. He beseeched the Dáil to reject the Treaty even now; the Irish people had suffered great hardship to get this far and had only to hang on a bit longer to succeed. He was, he declared, in the best position to say if the IRA was capable of continuing the fight and he assured the Dáil that it was, so long as it had the support of the people. As the debate became more heated and interjections came thick and fast, Brugha did become more personal in his remarks about the real position of Collins, now being feted as ‘the man who won the war’. It isn’t difficult to imagine the frustration that drove Brugha to such an attack, he could see the evil work that going to talk to the enemy in his own house had wrought. He knew that the war was not yet won, that full independence could not be achieved over a table when it had not been achieved in the field, that to renew the struggle was feasable but that there should be no apparent rifts in the movement if the morale of both the IRA and the people in general were to be maintained as before. Alas for Cathal Brugha, things had already slid back from that desired state; as the pro-Treaty element and conservative forces in Ireland, muted during the war, now began to push their partisan barrows.  For Brugha the clear bright vision of the Republic of 1916 was fading into the background and, as he had feared, Britain was again setting the agenda. On 14 Jan 1922, almost exactly two years after the First Dáil met, the British-sponsored Parliament of Southern Ireland soon to become the Parliament of the Irish Free State, had its second meeting. This time along with the four members from Trinity College who alone attended the first session, the pro-Treaty TDs, still nominally Sinn Feiners, also attended. The minutes of its meeting were incidentally, forwarded to their erstwhile London superiors by Dublin Castle officials in their new role as ‘the Irish Civil Service,’ perhaps out of habit.


Both Brugha and de Valera addressed meetings around the country speaking against the Treaty, but the tide was running against them pushed by the solidly pro-Treaty press. The new Irish Free State government dithered for some weeks as Collins and others on both sides of the Treaty divide tried to find a way to ‘square the circle’, but under British pressure it proscribed the IRA Ard Fheis for March 1922. On 13 April, in what was seen by most Irish people as a misguided attempt to bring the old IRA together again against Britain, the Republicans under O’Connor occupied the Four Courts building in central Dublin and prepared to be blasted out of it in a repeat of the 1916 scenario. Cathal Brugha was present at IRA meetings there and tried hard to avoid an outbreak of open hostilities with the Free State; so much so that the heavy criticisms he received for his efforts from men whose integrity he had respected, stung him into declaring that should the firing start he, Cathal Brugha, would be there defending the Republic as ever in his capacity as a Volunteer of the Dublin Brigade. All efforts, including an abortive agreement between the Collins and Dev factions to fix the outcome of the coming election for the Free State, came to nought due to British insistence. Griffith himself was furious when he learned of the ‘pact’ and was also instrumental in its abandonment by Collins[38] .


On 28 June 1922, the Free State army, with an artillery piece supplied by Britain, commenced the shelling of the Four Courts. The IRA garrison were easily overwhelmed but the building itself was blown up, whether by accident or design, by its garrison before they surrendered. Other IRA contingents in occupation of several hotels and public buildings on O’Connell Street were driven inexorably into a tighter and tighter defensive perimeter until it was decided to attempt to get away to the country with as many fighting men as possible. Oscar Traynor was in overall command of the Dublin brigade and Cathal Brugha was commanding a small force based in the Granville and Hammam Hotels. When Traynor’s order came to get out Brugha sent away all but a tiny rearguard to hold on as long as possible. Over several days this group fought a pitched battle with the Free State forces as the buildings around them were literally shelled to the ground until at last a mere handful of men and women remained, under Brugha’s command. All pledged to stick it out to the end, but as the group retreated to the last burning room Brugha gave the order to surrender and to file out on the street to the right of the doorway. The group did so but those watching saw no sign of Brugha among them. Then, dramatically, another door which the fire brigade were already attempting to demolish from the outside, burst open from the inside and Brugha stepped into the street, stood for a moment before turning, not to the right but to the left. What happened next is one of those mysteries of history which will probably never be fully explained. Some eye-witnesses said Brugha dropped to one knee in a firing position, others said that he had charged the Free Staters with two guns in his hands, firing as he approached; others said he had only one gun, and at least one eye-witness declared that he had seen no guns in Brugha’s possession. There was even disagreement as to whether or not Brugha had fired first, or at all, at his enemies.  All however seemed to agree that he gave evidence by his movements of an intention not to surrender to the confronting troops (there is no unanimity either on whether or not he was called upon to do so). However matters may have transpired, a number of shots did ring out and Cathal Brugha fell on the street, bleeding profusely from a wound to his thigh. He made an attempt to rise but fell back. A priest standing in the crowd, rushed to his side. Free State soldiers attempted to put him in their lorry but were somehow prevented from doing so and shortly thereafter the St John’s Ambulance people, also waiting on the side lines, took him in an ambulance to the Mater Hospital for an emergency operation. The following day Brugha showed some signs of improvement in his condition but on the next morning he began to slip away. He and his wife Cáitlín spoke together in Irish for a short while, then a priest again gave him the last rites of the Catholic Church and he quietly expired. It was Friday 07 July 1922, only 11 days before his 48 birthday[39].


Why did Cathal Brugha not surrender to the Free State forces after his brave fight in the Hammam Hotel as he might honourably have done? Some said that as a hard line Republican he had wished to die because of his disillusionment; that he saw everything he had striven for as having been bargained away. Others believed that he wanted to renew the sacrifice of the men of 1916 as a reminder to the Irish people of their true Republican inheritance. Yet others say he genuinely believed his death in battle would shock the two sides of the ‘old IRA’ into coming together once again, remembering their sacred oath to be true to the Republic of 1916 of which he saw the First Dáil of 1919 as the embodiment. Having looked back at the character of the man and his sheer vitality I feel such ‘death-wish’ theories are unconvincingly morbid. Cathal Brugha was a man of action who by all accounts of those who knew him well, loved life.  He was however, genuinely shocked at the apparent haste in which so many erstwhile colleagues were rushing to give away at the negotiating table what in his view the British could not extract militarily. He believed that the bolder the Irish became the more successful they had been, so long as they kept to the strategy of guerilla warfare. The British could continue with their repressive policies and insistence that their opponents were mere criminals and bandits, etc, only for so long. If the Irish people would only hold on Britain would eventually come to accept that ‘the game wasn’t worth the candle’.  Everything that Brugha did as Minister of Defence, both in the Dáil and outside it, was fuelled by that belief and bent towards clarifying that situation for the British.  Militarily, the British High Command differed as to the feasibility of a clear-cut victory. Politically too, the British were by no means of one opinion on the Irish situation, with Dublin Castle often at odds with Whitehall and the British cabinet itself, on what it would take to retrieve the Irish situation or even if it were desirable to try.


Today, almost 90 years after the warrior’s death, what can be said of Cathal Brugha the man and of what are often regarded as his ‘extremist’ views? He surely was a man of iron constitution and iron will, but hardly the fanatic that some would like to paint him.  He necessarily had a deep belief in the possibility of regeneration for the Irish nation and that conviction simply would not let him give up while breath remained in his body.





Chris Mooney                                                                                      Sept. 2015









CATHAL BRUGHA, Seán Ua Ceallaigh, BÁC 1942


CATHAL BRUGHA: A Shaol Is A Thréithe, Tomás Ó Dochartaigh, BÁC 1969


THE LAND BOOMERS, Michael Cannon, Melbourne 1967





Archive of Bureau of Military History, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin









[1] Ó Dochartaigh,T. (1969), l.14.

[2] ‘Sceilg’ (1942), l.121. [ ‘Sceilg’, Brugha’s great friend and colleague in The Dáil, raises the assertion made by  Frank Pakenham and Frank O’Connor in biographies of Michael Collins that the Burgesses had part-Jewish ancestry, in order to refute it].

[3] Ó Dochartaigh, (1969), l.14. [Ó Dochartaigh, himself a nephew of Cathal Brugha, says that Richard Burgess was a Protestant who married a Catholic and that his family,  including his son Thomas, were all raised as Catholics. He also says that Thomas inherited a share of his father’s money. Cathal M. Brugha, a grandson of Cathal Brugha however, in a brief biog. of his grandfather in MacSwiney Brugha, Máire, HISTORY’S DAUGHTER, (The O’Brien Press Ltd, Dublin) 2005, p.262, says that Richard Burgess, a Protestant disinherited his son Thomas for marrying the Catholic Maryanne Flynn].

[4] Ó Dochartaigh, (1969), l.15.

[5]Ó Dochartaigh, (1969), l.15.  [presumably neither parent spoke Irish].

[6] Ó Dochartaigh (1969),  l.15.

[7] Ó Dochartaigh (1969),  l.18.

[8] Cannon, Michael (1967),  p.6.

[9] Ó Dochartaigh (1969), l.16.

[10] Ó Dochartaigh(1969), l.18. [According to Ó Dochartaigh the family descended for a time into a kind of ‘genteel poverty’].



[11] ‘Sceilg’, l.2.

[12] Ó Dochartaigh, l.17.

[13] Hyde began publishing articles on the Irish language in the Dublin University Review  in the mid-1880s and his LEABHAR SCÉALAÍOCHTA was published 1889.

[14] Ó Dochartaigh, T

[15] Geoffrey Keating/Seathrún Céitinn was a 17th century priest in Co Tipperary who wrote FORAS FEASA AR ÉIRINN, a history of Ireland from earliest times, and whose writings are regarded as the beginning of modern Irish literature.

[16]Charles’ speech-patterns may perhaps have had touches of the ‘West Briton’  in tone as was usual among some strata of middle class Dubliners.

[17] This was how he met J J  ‘Sceilg’ O’Kelly and the two continued to get together in various parts of the country since both followed similar professions [‘Sceilg’, l. 3-5.]

[18] An tAthair Pádraig Ó Duinnín/Fr Patrick Dineen of Dineen’s Irish-English Dictionary fame.

[19] ‘Sceilg’, l. 6.

[20] Brugha used to visit Foley’s store in Ardmore on both Lalor company business and in his capacity as an organiser with Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers. He liaised with this author’s granduncle John ‘Sonny’ Foley who was Hon Sec. of the local SF Club and briefly a Waterford Co Councillor.

[21] Ó Dochartaigh, l.25.

[22] Sceilg, l.330, quotes Dr Carroll O’Brien of Perth, WA, who was in Dublin and was taken to meet Brugha at his ‘day job’ address only to first witness a British raid on that office before their actual meeting shortly after, in the same premises.

[23] Ó Dochartaigh, l.32.

[24] Ibid, Ó Dochartaigh

[25] Ibid, Ó Dochertaigh

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid, Ó Dochartaigh

[28] Ó Dochartaigh, Ibid.

[29] Ibid

[30] The Irish Volunteers’ own constitution made them subject only to their own high command, in mid-1919 Brugha put a motion to the Dáil that henceforth the IRA as it was now being called, be subject to Dáil control and it was carried 30 – 5.

[31] Ó Dochartaigh, l.119

[32] Ibid, l.122

[33] Ó Dochartaigh, l.135

[34] Ibid, l.155: statistics on IRA actions.

[35] Ó Dochartaigh, l.167

[36] Ibid, l

[37] Ó Dochartaigh, l. 156-60?


[39] Edward Burgess, Cathal Brugha’s brother and eldest son of the family, was in South Africa in 1922 and received a letter of condolence from Tielman Roos, Chairman of the National Party of Transvaal, on the death of Cathal Brugha. The letter was addressed to Eamon Burgess, Esq. Secretary, Irish Republican Association, Praetoria.  A copy of the letter dated 15 August 1922 and apparently given to P J Little, TD, who succeeded Cathal Brugha, is among papers held by the Bureau of Military History, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin.