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Army Mutiny 1924

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  • Army Mutiny 1924

    Army mutiny of 1924 threatens to ignite a new civil war

    Generals Mulcahy and McMahon inspect the men of the Railway Protection Corps just before their demobilisation

    The soldiers crouched on the roof of Devlin's Public House could hardly believe their ears.

    Below them, in a valley between two rooftops, they had cornered 11 men, trench-coated and armed.

    One of the trapped men looked over the parapet and in a parade-ground voice, one clearly used to being obeyed, yelled one word - "Surrender!"

    Taken aback for a moment, the soldiers then remembered why they had climbed up on the roof in the first place. They moved forward.

    The trapped men had maybe a second to decide how this would play out - gunbattle and almost certain death - or surrender and take their chances.

    They surrendered.

    There would be at least another act in this drama. No sense in not being around for it.

    Hands in the air, the men trod slowly down the narrow staircase, until they were lined up at the bar.

    From the frisking and the searching, pistols and ammunition were pulled from belts and coat pockets. The odd dropped bullet bounced and skittered across the floorboards.

    A search on the roof found another pistol and three dum-dum bullets - ordinary bullets made even more vicious by having crosses gouged into the tips.

    The soldiers finally got a chance to look over their bayonets into the faces of their prisoners.

    They must have wondered what the hell was going on.

    The Civil War had been over since the previous summer.

    The captured men were not die-hard on-the-run IRA Irregulars.

    The soldiers were looking into the eyes of their own superior officers.

    They counted off: four colonels, four commandants, one of them the aide de camp to the president; two ex-commandants and one ex-lieutenant.

    So was this how the story ended, the Army Mutiny of 1924 nipped in the bud, a dastardly and fiendish plot foiled, with a nation’s grateful thanks about to be bestowed on the men behind the raid on Devlin’s Public House?

    Or had the raid been a reckless adventure that came within seconds of igniting a new civil war and collapsing the infant Free State?

    Within days, the army careers of those men who ordered the raid would be over, as over as the careers of the men they arrested.

    The final act of the Revolutionary era was about to play out.​

    Generals Mulcahy and McMahon inspect the men of the Railway Protection Corps just before their demobilisation


    Since the previous summer, as the collapse of the anti-Treaty forces brought the Civil War to a close, the government knew that it could not put off for long the inevitable end to any war - demobilisation.

    The Army was, relative to the size of the population, one of the biggest in the world.

    It was costing the government £10 million a year, equivalent to €885m today, an astronomical sum that the new State could not bear any longer.​

    Troops deploy at the Civil War victory parade in Phoenix Park, Dublin, on 22 August 1922. Many of these officers and men would be demobilised in the months ahead.
    Last edited by Rhodes; 2 March 2024, 11:18.

  • #2

    Demobilisation hurt.

    Men who one day were ordered to risk their lives unto death, were the next day told their services were no longer required and shown the door.

    The world waiting outside for them had changed; the jobs they left were filled by men who had hung back.

    New jobs were scarce in an economy now having to wrench itself back to a peacetime footing.​

    Men like these, seen here being recruited barely two years before, were now being demobilised.

    The mobilisation of the war effort by the infant Free State in 1922 had been astonishing.

    An army was created almost overnight by Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy, from the bare bones of a handful of War of Independence-era units, many of whom had chosen the Free State side mainly out of loyalty to Collins and to their own officers.

    From those few thousand men, the Army ballooned in a few months to a strength of over 50,000 soldiers, most of whom were sworn in and sent straight into battle, without the most basic training.​

    Troops marching out of Beggar's Bush barracks in Dublin

    A page from An tÓglach magazine in 1923 showed the Free State Army High Command working to get recognition abroad

    Most armies get the time to grow and develop, building on experience and tradition to build up an ethos and a way of doing things by the book.

    The Free State Army got no such time. It could only draw from its roots, from the rough-and-ready experience of war with the British, and no sooner than it had been built up, it was to be drastically drawn down.

    The demobilisation undertaken by the Free State in 1924 was unique in its complexity and in the existential threat to democratic rule it posed if it went wrong.

    The government was dealing with:

    - An army that two years before, did not even exist.

    - An army whose first task had been to turn on its former comrades.

    - An army whose nucleus was held together by personal loyalties to officers and comrades.

    - An army whose founders had made their reputations by running an insurgency against the British based on usurping, challenging and undermining by ambush, sabotage and subterfuge every military force, every law and every regulation put up by the former colonial power. The founders had had to instill in the soldiers of the new army obedience and respect for the exact opposite and the government had expected that change to happen overnight.

    Reputations earned in the War of Independence would count for nothing and that was going to be painful.

    From a strength of 50,000 men, the plan was to aim for a book strength of 17,000. That meant laying off tens of thousands of men and hundreds of officers.

    Particular attention was paid to the demobilising of officers.​

    General Richard Mulcahy, Commander-in-Chief of the National Army and Minister for Defence wearing a black armband before Michael Collins' funeral.

    Mulcahy's nemesis: Home Affairs Minister Kevin O’Higgins.


    • #3

      For ten days in February 1924, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Minister for Defence, General Richard Mulcahy, and his senior officers in the Army Council worked on the list of those officers to be offered posts - and the list of officers who would be deemed surplus to requirements.

      Secret societies and an inside track

      A peacetime army would need officers with a skillset that would not automatically match the one needed in the War of Independence.

      To many of those officers chosen for demobilisation, it seemed that their achievements in that war were being ignored and preference given to ex-British Army officers and to men who had only become officers in the Civil War.

      The summer of 1923 saw a series of frustrating and indecisive meetings between the disgruntled, soon-to-be ex-officers and the Army command.

      The protesting officers had become convinced that there was an inside track in the Army, based on membership of the old Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society founded in the 19th century, long predating the Volunteers and the IRA, and to which many of the senior army officers belonged.

      The conviction grew among the protestors that jobs in the peacetime army were being assigned only to members of the IRB.​

      Plans were afoot to revamp the Constitution of the IRB in its new role in the Army

      They set up their own society, claiming to be the real keepers of the republican flame, hence the name: The Irish Republican Army Organisation (IRAO).

      The Army command and the Executive Council (The Cabinet) rejected the allegations of favouritism, but the fact was that the IRB had been re-established in the Army in 1923.

      The justification - with scant evidence to support it - given by General Sean O'Murthuile for its re-establishment was that it was approved to pre-empt the anti-Treaty side from claiming the IRB as its own.

      Generals Mulcahy and O'Murthuile had been on the original IRB Supreme Council.

      Mulcahy had gone as far as discussing an early draft of a revamped IRB constitution and how a revived IRB would be organised inside the Army.

      He claimed later that he saw the IRB as a force inside the Army that needed to be controlled and directed.

      Yet, when confronted at an Executive Council meeting back in February 1923 by the Home Affairs Minister Kevin O’Higgins with evidence of secret meetings of army officers who were IRB members, Mulcahy had simply denied it.

      So there now existed in the Army a combustible mix that could end in its own destruction: two opposing secret or not-so-secret societies, each claiming to be the keeper of the republican flame, circling each other.

      In March 1924, the tensions burst into the open when the IRAO broke cover.

      On Thursday 6 March, two officers, Colonel Charlie Dalton and Major-General Liam Tobin, on behalf of the IRAO, signed an ultimatum to the President William T Cosgrave, demanding the removal of the ruling Army Council and a suspension of demobilisation.

      The letter claimed the Free State government had abandoned the goal of achieving a republic.

      The Executive Council met the next day. Orders were issued for the arrest of the two officers.

      Industry and Commerce Minister Joe McGrath was an open supporter of the mutinous officers and wanted their case heard.

      When his home was searched that evening for the two officers, he believed he had been set up by his own colleagues and he resigned from the government.

      Industry and Commerce Minister Joe McGrath was the mutineers' champion in the government

      Major-General Liam Tobin, one of the leaders of the mutiny


      By Saturday 8 March, it was obvious mutiny was afoot.

      Across the country, individual officers were either resigning their commissions or absconding from their posts.

      In many cases, the absconders stole arms and ammunition on their way out - machine guns, rifles, pistols, grenades and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

      Forty officers resigned and fifty absconded from their posts.

      Among the resigned officers were: three majors-general, five colonels, 17 commandants, 12 captains and 12 lieutenants.

      Colonel Charlie Dalton, signatory to the mutineers' letter

      This was an officers' mutiny; no sergeants or enlisted men were involved..

      The government wanted a new man at the top in the Army, and on the same day, 8 March, moved General Eoin O’Duffy from his role as Commissioner of the Civic Guard/An Garda Siochána and appointed him as the new General Officer Commanding the Army.

      Richard Mulcahy was no longer in command, but crucially, and to O’Duffy’s own frustration, he still did not know the extent of his new powers.

      That confusion was now about to be exploited.​

      General Eoin O'Duffy, the former Commissioner of the Civic Guard, now the government’s choice as the new head of the Army


      • #4
        On Wednesday 12 March, President Cosgrave told the Dáil that the events of the previous days called for an inquiry into the running of the Army.

        This was followed that evening by a second letter to the President from Dalton and Tobin, which was almost a complete climb-down from the first letter, denying there had ever been any intention to challenge the government's authority.

        Smelling a rat

        The press and the Opposition in the Dáil smelled a rat.

        They believed the pattern of events made no sense:

        Two Army officers signed a letter threatening mutiny and demanding the dismissal of the Army Council.

        Some 90 officers resigned or went on the run with stolen weapons.

        The government’s response was not to announce roundups and arrests of mutineers, but simply that an inquiry would be held into how the Army was run.

        Whereupon the two authors of the mutinous ultimatum replied immediately by rowing back on almost all their threats, recognising the primacy of the government’s authority and claiming that their only intent had been to highlight the disorder at the top of the Army.

        The Labour Leader Thomas Johnson suspected secret government overtures to the mutineers

        The Labour leader Thomas Johnson summed it up: "The government had declared the first letter from the mutineers to be a challenge no government could ignore, a challenge to the democratic foundations of the State, and that arrests had been ordered."

        Then, the mutineers wrote their second letter.

        What, asked Johnson, had happened in between the two letters?

        "I am afraid that the government has accepted the ultimatum presented to them and has not asserted the authority of democratic government," he said.

        Johnson suspected that key decisions were made on an approach to the mutineers, away from Dáil scrutiny at a closed-door five-hour Cumann na nGaedheal Party meeting the day before.

        The Irish Times weighed in the day after the Dáil exchanges:

        "Mutiny is mutiny, and .....twenty-four hours cannot change it into a merely frank expression of military discontent, not even 24 hours of treatment in the secret alembic (filter) of Cumann na a situation which demanded courage, decision and faith in Irish democracy, the Government has failed to justify the people’s hopes," the newspaper wrote.

        During that Cumann na nGaedheal meeting, Joe McGrath was confirmed as the go-between to meet the mutineers, bringing with him the government’s terms for their surrender.

        Mulcahy initially wanted arrests, charges of mutiny levelled at the mutineers and courts-martial. The rest of the Executive Council did not want to go that far.

        The terms to be offered were contained in a letter from President Cosgrave to Joe McGrath on 17 March.

        The next day General Mulcahy sent a memo to the Army Council detailing the terms put to the mutineers.

        The terms:

        By 6pm on the 20 March:

        - All missing arms and ammunition were to be returned to where they were taken from.

        - Those who took the materiel would surrender themselves where they took it from.

        - Those who surrendered after giving up the arms and ammunition to be placed under open arrest after giving their parole (their recognition of the government’s authority).

        - Those who absconded from their posts to surrender themselves and be put under open arrest after giving their parole.

        McGrath later claimed the offer had included re-instatement for most of the mutineers, and that he would not have agreed to be the go-between if this was not on the table. His colleagues denied that that was ever contemplated.

        With the terms offered by the government now being considered by the mutineers, and with a deadline for a response set, logic would have dictated that until that deadline of 20 March, nothing would happen.

        What did happen next ignited the standoff into a full-blown crisis.​​​
        In early March 1924 the Free State government hoped they had finally seen the end of tragedy, destruction and death - until internal splits in their own army threatened a whole new civil war.


        • #5
          'Set the heather on fire' - How a raid on Devlin's Pub nearly ignited a second civil war

          Devlin's pub on Parnell Street, Dublin was a former IRA hideout from the War of Independence

          The Free State government thought its offer of terms to the Army mutineers had saved the day - until their own soldiers kicked in the doors of Devlin's pub.

          The raid

          Even as the terms to the mutineers were being drawn up, word was filtering in to the Army high command that officers involved in the mutiny were meeting over several nights in Devlin’s Public House on Parnell Street, a former IRA hideout from the War of Independence.

          On the night of the 18 March - the very same day Richard Mulcahy as Minister of Defence had sent the Army Council the terms and deadline for the mutineers to surrender - he ordered soldiers surrounding Devlin’s pub to raid it and arrest every officer found on the premises.

          He acted in conjunction with the Army Adjutant-General Gearóid O’Sullivan, the officer in charge of army discipline.

          Left entirely out of the picture by General Mulcahy that night were: President Cosgrave, the entire Executive Council and Eoin O’Duffy, the new General Officer Commanding the Defence Forces.

          The public and the press might have seen the raid as a nick-of-time strike against men bent on leading an armed insurrection, but the Executive Council saw it very differently.

          In their view, the timing could not have been worse, with the city a tinderbox, while the mutineers’ response to the government’s terms was awaited.

          Had the mutineers decided to make a stand, and make a fight of it, how would officers and men of the Army, who had up to then remained at their posts, have responded to deaths and injuries on either side?

          Would it have been a call to arms to those in the ranks still undecided about the mutineers’ cause?

          How many would see the raid as government treachery – when the government had in fact been literally the last people to know about it?

          'Set the heather on fire'

          The next day the government wielded the axe.

          The Minister for Home Affairs Kevin O’Higgins told the Dáil that the government believed that the raid cut across government policy and intent and it had jeopardised efforts to resolve an extremely dangerous and delicate situation by setting off a new conflict.

          This was an action "calculated to have, possibly, grave reactions within the Army and throughout the country, calculated perhaps to set the heather on fire, the heather we have been so assiduously attempting to quench and damp down".

          Therefore, he said, the government had sought the resignations of the entire Army Council, the Chief of Staff General Sean MacMahon, Lieutenant-Generals Adjutant-General Gearóid O’Sullivan and Quartermaster General Sean O’Murthuile from their army posts, but not from their commissions (their certification as officers).

          Generals O’Sullivan and O’Murthuile resigned immediately. As a mark of their disgust at how they were being treated, they also resigned their commissions.

          General MacMahon refused to resign, and was removed from both his post and his commission.

          Sacked: General Sean McMahon.​

          Sacked: General Gearóid O'Sullivan

          Sacked: Quartermaster General Sean O'Murthuile

          The government did not stop there. They also demanded the resignation of General Mulcahy from his role as Minister for Defence.

          He got out ahead by resigning in protest at the termination of the careers of the three generals.

          The centre held; the officers accepted their fate. Both Generals McMahon and Mulcahy explicitly told their subordinates that there should be no Army reaction against the government’s decisions.

          A few days later, O’Higgins and Mulcahy squared up to each other in the Dáil chamber.

          Neither held back.​

          Home Affairs Minister Kevin O'Higgins was furious about the raid on Devlin's pub


          • #6
            O’Higgins said the wave of dismissals was not just for the raid, but in response to a concern that had been growing among members of the Executive Council; that within the Army, factions, organisations and societies, secret and semi-secret, were building and circling each other.

            In the peacetime Army that was now being created, they had to be rooted out.

            The unsanctioned raid on Devlin’s pub was seen by the government, not as a military operation, but a case of one faction striking against another.

            'Condoning mutiny'

            Richard Mulcahy was unrepentant about his decision to launch the raid

            Richard Mulcahy accused the Executive Council of condoning and fostering mutiny in the Army by allowing the illegally-armed mutineers to openly meet in the city, mocking government authority.

            He presented himself as the sole defender of the law of the land: "Refusing to put the law into effect is condoning mutiny and fostering it, and my resignation was tendered because I could not stand over that."

            He claimed that he had not consulted the incoming officer commanding the Defence Forces, General O’Duffy, because his powers had not yet been legally defined.

            He said this meant that on the night of 18 March, General O’Duffy was not officially in charge.

            This was feeble. Even if General O’Duffy’s powers were not yet fully laid down in law, he was the government’s new man at the top of the Army, sent in expressly to mark a new beginning, and Mulcahy knew it.

            Joe McGrath accused him of ordering the raid as a final act of defiance before O’Duffy’s powers were made official.

            Labour Leader Thomas Johnson told him that if he accepted responsibility for making the offer of terms to the mutineers, he should not have sanctioned the raid.

            President WT Cosgrave, third from left, with members of his government

            Trust dies slowly; the last straw

            Mulcahy may have claimed that he was acting to the letter of the law, but for a soldier/politician who had rendered such great service to the new state, his judgement in ordering the raid just after agreeing the terms of surrender to the mutineers, was shocking.

            In the end, his protestations were in vain. His former colleagues in government simply did not trust him anymore.

            That trust had died in stages.

            Back in September 1922, as it became obvious the Civil War could not be contained or curtailed without a massive fight, Mulcahy had sat around the Executive Council table and solemnly agreed with his colleagues that there would be no unofficial back-channel meetings with leaders of the anti-Treaty forces.

            Mulcahy left that meeting – and went straight into an unofficial back-channel meeting with Eamon de Valera.

            Other Ministers never trusted him after that.

            Then, six months later, when senior Kerry Command officers were facing calls for their investigation and prosecution for atrocities and physical assaults on civilians and anti-Treaty prisoners, Mulcahy shielded them so blatantly that O’Higgins nearly resigned from the government.

            O’Higgins regarded Mulcahy’s stonewalling and backstairs dealings as revealing an attitude among the military men that the War of Independence veterans in the Free State Army could write their own regulations, nod-and-wink rules for those 'in the know’, that elected civilians of whatever seniority in government could never challenge.

            O’Higgins recalled the Executive Council meeting in February 1923 when Mulcahy had ‘blandly’ denied any idea that the IRB was reforming and assembling inside the Army.

            The raid on Devlin’s was the last straw.

            Never waste a crisis

            On the principle that no crisis should ever be wasted, the government cleaned house.

            The dismissed officers were replaced within 24 hours. Mulcahy’s brief was taken by the President himself.

            The next step was to defuse the crisis, without creating a new one. And if that took a strong dose of look-the-other-way pragmatism by the State, so be it.

            The deadline set for the mutineers to surrender themselves and the stolen weapons was extended to Saturday 22 March.

            The day before, the officers arrested in Devlin’s were released on condition that they would make the required formal submission to the authority of the State.

            The new deadline came and went. Stolen weapons and ammunition began to trickle back, using Joe McGrath as the go-between.

            In the end, the officers never surrendered themselves for open arrest and formal declarations of loyalty.

            They simply resigned, and walked away from their army careers, into the harsh uncertainties of civilian life, but without the stigma of dismissal that hung over the men who had taken action against them.​

            President WT Cosgrave on a tour of inspection in Cork

            On 26 March Kevin O’Higgins proposed to the Dáil that the resignations be accepted and that there be no question of arrest or court-martial.

            He reminded the Dáil that during and after the Civil War, the government spared from charges of treason thousands of anti-Treaty IRA prisoners who, if convicted, would have been imprisoned for 15 to 20 years:

            "Why? Not on merit, but because it was not considered politic in the interests of the state that these men be tried and sentenced for treason.

            It is all opportunism if you wish, but there needs to be opportunism in the handling of national affairs and very delicate situations." O'Higgins said.

            The clear implication was that there were times when the government had to stay its hand, in the greater cause of a return to peace.

            With the prisons still not fully emptied of anti-Treaty prisoners, the government was already steeling itself for the release to their families of the remains of the 81 men executed during the Civil War.

            That would be a traumatic and angry experience.

            The notion that at the same time the State would start to fill up the prisons again, this time with men who had served the Free State in its hour of greatest danger, to be guarded by men they had once commanded, was too much to bear.

            The supreme irony was, as Mulcahy pointed out after his resignation, that the reaction of the dismissed senior officers to the ending of their military careers refuted any idea that the officer corps held itself above the rules of a parliamentary democracy; when they were dismissed, or resigned, the officers obeyed their elected civilian superiors, they left their posts after ordering their angry subordinates to stay their hand.

            So, was it all a hysterical misunderstanding, an overreaction by the government?

            The danger posed by the existence of the IRB in the Army was not so much what it was at that moment, but what it could have grown into, if left unchallenged.

            No government could allow a secret oath-bound society, approved and protected by the High Command, claiming an exclusive right to judge how the elected government of the day was guarding the Republican flame, to exist inside the Army’s officer corps.

            That was how military coups began.


            There needed to be some legacy from the Army crisis, that would leave the State certain of its soldiers’ loyalty.

            On 3 April, the Army Inquiry Committee was established by President Cosgrave.

            Its mandate was: "To enquire into.... the facts and matters which have caused or led up to the indiscipline and mutinous or insubordinate conduct lately manifested in the National Army."

            Over two months, the Committee interviewed 27 witnesses at over 40 meetings.

            On 7 June, the Committee submitted its findings to President Cosgrave.

            'A disastrous error of judgement'

            The findings were unanimous. They were blunt and spared neither mutineers nor the men against whom they mutinied.

            The findings:

            - The Irish Republican Army Organisation was in existence since before the Civil War.

            - The IRAO did not see the Army as non-political.

            - The IRAO believed that the Army should impose its views on the civil government.

            - The IRAO believed the Army should be officered by men like them.

            - The Inquiry found that the IRAO objectives and methods were wholly incompatible with discipline and obedience.

            - However, their activities were intensified by the revival of the IRB in the Army, with the encouragement of certain members of the Army Council, and the Minister for Defence never told the Executive Council what was going on.

            - There was no confidence or intercourse between the two groups of officers.

            - The revival of the IRB within the Army was "a disastrous error of judgement" by the High Command.

            - It accentuated a mutiny that might never have happened, or could have been more firmly suppressed if those in command had not weakened their own authority by being seen to act in the interest of a hostile secret society.

            - There was no evidence of appointments or promotions being made by reason of membership of the IRB, but the mere suspicion of influence corruptly exercised by the IRB undermined confidence in the impartiality of the Army Council and higher commands.

            - That suspicion could not be tolerated in the Army.

            The Inquiry Committee recommendation was that there be a complete ban on such societies in the Army, and that in future, all officers would have to formally declare they were not members of any such bodies, in the same way recruits to the Civic Guard/Garda Siochána already did.

            This was in many ways the end of the Revolutionary era.

            There were strong echoes of Michael Collins’ insistence two years earlier, that the Free State’s new police force would be a clean break with the past, made up of men selected, trained and sworn-in to serve a peacetime role.

            In the same way, the government wanted the peacetime Army to be a break with the past.

            The Army Mutiny had put the country on the world’s front pages again, for all the wrong reasons.

            New York Times readers saw the front-page story of the mutiny alongside reports of coups in Honduras or El Salvador or the latest outrage in revolutionary Germany.

            The nightmare returned that had haunted the government during the Civil War – that in an era of chaos and conflict across the globe, the Free State would be dismissed as just another small nation engulfed in a doom cycle of self-reinforcing chaos.

            All the hard graft of winning and ending the Civil War, the battle for acceptance at the League of Nations, the beginning of an assertion of identity inside the British Empire to lay the groundwork for full independence, the slog of building financial credibility at home and abroad - all could have been in vain.

            The government chose to ‘win’ the standoff of the Army Mutiny by binding the wounds, learning the lessons and moving on.​

            The Free State government thought its offer of terms to the Army mutineers had saved the day - until their own soldiers kicked in the doors of Devlin's pub.


            • #7
              A complex time and you can see why, until around the 1960s or so the command arrangements made in 1924 were necessary

              but they aren’t necessary now


              • #8
                Since 1923, all the state's former enemies have been forgiven and invited back into the fold. The Sinn Fein that became Fianna Fail. The Sinn Fein that became Labour, The Sinn fein that became Sinn Fein.
                Only Oglaigh na hEireann is still treated with distrust by successive governments.
                For now, everything hangs on implementation of the CoDF report.