‘A Full Life, A Good End’

Liam Hennessy

O’Brien Press and series editors Lorcan Collins and Ruan O’Donnell are to be congratulated on conceiving the project of publishing accessible and populist (in the best sense of that word) biographies of the sixteen men – leaders and “others” ‑ who were executed, mostly in the stonebreakers’ yard in Kilmainham Gaol, following the suppression of the 1916 Rising in Dublin and elsewhere. The project is deliberately timed so that all sixteen will have had biographies of this kind published under the soubriquet 16 Lives in time for the centenary (celebration/commemoration?) of the Rising, now just over two years away. It is true that some of the foremost leaders have been the subject of intense research and concomitant and exhaustive biography (one thinks, for example, of Donal Nevin’s labour of love on James Connolly, A Full Life, and Ruth Dudley Edwards’s revisionist treatment of Pearse in her paradoxical The Triumph of Failure). Others, perhaps, not so well known, such as Michael Mallin and Michael O’Hanrahan, have not been so extensively studied.

The purpose of the O’Brien Press series is to rectify these omissions, while still covering the major figures. In this context, it seems entirely fitting that among the first to be published were biographies of James Connolly and Michael Mallin, who was chief-of-staff to Connolly’s commandant-general of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) during the Rising. The two men who were to be so formally, if not personally, close in the run-up to the Rising offer some interesting comparisons and contrasts as two of the leading three socialist figures in the Rising (the third was, just about arguably, Countess Markievicz, who served as Mallin’s second-in-command of the St Stephen’s Green garrison). The author of the Connolly biography is series co-editor Lorcan Collins, co-founder of the popular 1916 walking tour, while Brian Hughes extends his M Phil thesis in addressing Mallin and extracting him from the traditional focus on Connolly and Markievicz.

The two future insurgents had similar formative experiences in their childhood and adolescence. They were both born into large Catholic families which often suffered grinding poverty. Connolly was born of Irish parents in the Canongate slum of late nineteenth century Edinburgh. Suffice to say that his father worked intermittently for the municipal council as a dung carter and Connolly himself left school and began working at the age of eleven as a printer’s devil. Mallin was born in the Dublin equivalent of Canongate, Ward’s Hill in the Liberties. His family circumstances were not, perhaps, as extreme as those of Connolly as his relations counted themselves as skilled workers and tradesmen and women, being carpenters, shipwrights and silk weavers. Mallin was to take on this latter trade on his return to Ireland following over thirteen years’ service in the British army. He had joined the army – partly due to the influence of relatives ‑ as a boy drummer at the age of fourteen when he was only four feet five inches in height. Mallin and Connolly were both small compact men. Connolly too joined the British army, probably for economic reasons, and had to falsify his age to do so. But there the resemblance ends insofar as their respective military service careers are concerned, at least as the two writers see it. Hughes provides considerable detail on Mallin’s army career in India, including his skill as a marksman and his growing disillusion and anger with the British treatment of native tribespeople. From these experiences, he began to draw analogies with the British government in Ireland while still a serving soldier. Collins gives little detail on Connolly’s military service, which was spent in Ireland (he first stepped on Irish soil as a British soldier), other than to imply that during his service here he began to be radicalised. Connolly left the army shortly before his seven-year stint was to end, while Mallin served out his time of twelve years and some more while recuperating from a bout of malaria and awaiting ship transport home from India.

It is on their return to Ireland following their military service and marriage that Connolly’s and Mallin’s paths diverged. Connolly threw himself into organisational, lecturing, journalism and propaganda work from an avowedly theoretically socialist perspective, work that saw him and his growing young family continually struggling with poverty. This became such a pressing issue that it led to his leaving for America in 1902 to speak on the socialist lecture circuit, as well as working as an insurance clerk among other jobs. His family followed afterwards and recalled it later as perhaps the happiest time of their lives. Collins chronicles Connolly’s travels and travails during this period in great detail but never in a formulaic way. What emerges is a measure of the man not only as theorist and activist but also as a person whom financial circumstances and political commitments sundered from his family all too often. Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910 and worked variously as an ITGWU organiser in a sometimes sectarian Belfast while continuing his writing and lecturing. In a sense, this period, on his return from America, can be seen as a prelude to his involvement in the 1913 strike and lockout and his respectful, if uneasy, relationship with the charismatic Jim Larkin.

Mallin, on the other hand, on leaving the army took up the family trade of silk weaver and gradually became immersed in trade unionism, ultimately as secretary of the Silk Weavers’ Union. This part of his life culminated in the four-month silk weavers’ strike in early 1913 at the Dublin poplin firm (poplin, a mix of wool and silk, was seen as an Irish speciality) of Atkinson, which Mallin largely and successfully led and which, as Hughes notes, can be seen with other contemporaneous industrial disputes in Dublin as a sort of a backdrop to the lockout.

It was about this time, at the end of the weavers’ strike, that Mallin’s and Connolly’s lives began to intersect again (Connolly had, by this time, substituted for Larkin as acting general secretary of the ITGWU following the latter’s departure to America). The brutalities associated with the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) during the lockout led to the establishment of the ICA and it was in this arena that Connolly’s and Mallin’s destinies were to be aligned. After Larkin’s departure in 1914, Connolly also took over as leader of a demoralised ICA and, for reasons that neither author seems able to explain adequately, appointed Mallin as his chief-of-staff. Hughes, however, speculates that Connolly may have been impressed with Mallin as a union organiser and by the fact that he had extensive military experience. (While Mallin was never proud of his service in the British army, he did not make too much effort to conceal the fact that he had served. Connolly, on the other hand, was always very circumspect about the matter.)

The lead-up to the 1916 Easter Rising and the involvement of Connolly and Mallin is covered in engaging and pacy detail by both authors, much of it familiar from other sources. This ranges from Connolly’s increasing conflation of socialism and nationalism to the murky episode of his “kidnapping” by the IRB military council (sadly no new insights here, although Collins does argue, none too convincingly, that Connolly could not have been held against his will and concludes with his enigmatic response to an inquiry from a female colleague about his weekend long absence: “Ah that would be telling.”). However, not familiar is Mallin’s organising and drilling of the tiny ICA. Both men exhibited a shared impatience to rise, a matter of considerable concern to the military council of the IRB, which may have prompted Connolly’s “detention”.

It is widely accepted that, after MacNeill’s countermanding order was disseminated throughout the country by messengers and published in the Sunday Independent on April 23rd, 1916 and the Aud captured by the British navy and scuttled by its captain, that whatever little hope the Rising had of military success disappeared. Curiously, both Connolly and Mallin had written about urban warfare in the Worker’s Republic and the tactic of using warrens and lanes as redoubts to defend against an attacking force. From that perspective, the choice of major public buildings in Dublin as the loci of resistance seems inconsistent. As no extant plan of the Rising has been found, it is hard to evaluate this decision, although Connolly’s belief that capitalists would never bomb capitalist buildings may have had a part to play.

In any event, Volunteer strategy, such as it was, would have dominated. Whatever about using the GPO and other landmark buildings, the decision to garrison St Stephen’s Green and Mallin’s failure to occupy the Shelbourne hotel ‑ which the British army was to use for lethal machine gun postings ‑ has been seen as strategically inept. The Green was an exposed location with the slit trenches that Mallin had ordered to be dug offering scant protection. Not surprisingly, within a day, the Stephen’s Green garrison had to abandon the Green and occupied the College of Surgeons. Hughes makes little effort to confound the perceived wisdom, although he does emphasise Mallin’s personal bravery, calmness, kindness to and consideration for those under his command. Similarly, Collins’s narrative of Connolly’s almost leonine bravery – especially after being wounded twice, on the second occasion very badly in the ankle – makes moving reading. During the fighting, personal bravery and willingness to lead by example was central to both men’s Easter Week.

It was after the surrender that, in a rather sad and distressing way, Connolly’s and Mallin’s paths once more diverged. Connolly’s field general court martial was held around his bedside in the Red Cross Hospital in Dublin Castle, where he was gangrenous and taking morphine for pain. He recorded his defence in which he explicitly stated that: “I do not wish to make any defence except against charges of wanton cruelty to prisoners.” Mallin, at his field general court martial in Richmond barracks, did mount a defence which, at this distance and with hindsight, appears as deliberately self serving in that he tried to convince the court he was not a leading figure and that he had served as a subordinate to Countess Markievicz. This is particularly difficult to accept as Mallin had explicitly made her his second-in-command with her existing ICA rank of lieutenant on the occupation of the Green. Moreover, Hughes cites another analyst of the Rising who suggested that this attempted disavowal of his leading role by Mallin “threatened literally to put her (Countess Markievicz) in the firing line” and quotes Mallin’s defence where he said: “I had no commission in the Citizen Army. I was never taken into the confidence of James Connolly.”

However, it is easy to be judgemental at this distance in time at the actions of a relatively young man who may not have wished to die a sacrificial death, a wish that has also been attributed to some of the other leading figures in the revisionist texts.  He was certainly acutely conscious of the parlous state in which he was leaving his wife, four children and another daughter not yet born. Both he and Connolly were socialists with very modest means to leave their families, unlike some of the more middle class leaders who had lesser family commitments and greater personal incomes. This is a point which Hughes rightly makes in an effort to contextualise Mallin’s aberration. However understandable Mallin’s wavering and dissimulation was, it does not detract in any way from the bravery of all the insurgents who either died in the fighting or were executed, whatever about their democratic mandate.

In any event, both Connolly and Mallin were composed in the hours before their execution and both took confession and communion. Connolly’s last words to his wife, Lillie, as reported by his daughter Nora (including the words “Hasn’t it been a full life, Lillie and isn’t this is a good end?”, from which Donal Nevin derived the title of his biography) and Mallin’s last, almost unbearably poignant, four page stream of consciousness letter to his wife, Agnes, reproduced in full by Hughes, make for painful reading. It prompted this reviewer to remember what another great socialist writer – Brecht – believed, that it is the women and children, however desperately, who always bear the burden of the military adventures of men.

James Connolly and Michael Mallin had much in common but also differed in a number of ways. Both were born into poverty, served in the British army, were teetotal and became convinced and active socialists and nationalists. Connolly buttressed his instinctive socialism with his keen intellectual writings and propaganda. Those writings continue to form an important part of the socialist canon to this day. Mallin was more of a micro-level organiser and his limited writings (including, significantly, extracts from his letters to his fiancée from India) first exposed here to a wider audience by Hughes, while powerful, would not have the same theoretical focus as those of Connolly. Mallin was a devout and strict Catholic. Connolly never really practised and had some harsh words to say about the role of some priests in the recent history of the Ireland of his time. However, he did receive confession and communion from a Capuchin friar, Father Aloysius, more than a week before his execution and again on the actual day of his death. When Father Aloysius reported the first of these to Pearse, Pearse’s response was “Thank God, it is the only thing I was anxious about.”!

The various strands of these two of sixteen lives are well teased out by Collins and Hughes, although both slip into colloquial infelicities on occasion (“Connolly was on a roll.”, “the IRB resolved to get Connolly on-side.”) Just occasionally too, Collins falls into slightly hagiographical mode. Nevertheless, these are excellent introductions to the lives and work of both men. They will inform the general reader, serve the Leaving Certificate student of modern Irish history well and would not go amiss in the hands of undergraduates. The production is first class; further books in the series will do well to match these two and will be looked forward to by many.

Liam Hennessy is a former history teacher and civil servant.

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