Family of divided loyalties that was reunited in grief
All my sons’ great-grandparents were dramatically affected by the ‘decade of centenaries’ but Brian Mac Neill particularly epitomises civil war’s tragedy
Michael McDowell on Ben Bulben in Co Sligo, where his uncle Brian was shot dead by Free State soldiers in 1922.
Eoin MacNeill with his sons Brian and Niall in 1917. Brian took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War.
Poster advertising first meeting of Irish Volunteers on November 25th, 1913. Photograph: National Museum of Ireland
In the decade 2012 to 2022, frequently referred to nowadays in Ireland as “a decade of centenaries”, I have been asked in a number of different ways to reflect on some of those events from the perspective of a descendant of one of the leading figures in Ireland’s national struggle for independence. I do not claim any special authority for family members of historical figures; it is, however, almost inevitable that family connections colour one’s views of historical events.
Examining my own present family, I find that the events of the “decade of centenaries” have left indelible marks. Put it this way - my sons’ eight great-grandparents’ lives were each dramatically affected by those events.
On my side of my family, Eoin Mac Neill, my maternal grandfather, played a well-known central role in the tumultuous events in the 10 years leading up to the foundation of the independent Irish state.
But my paternal grandfather, John M McDowell, was in his own way closely involved as well. He was a prominent member of John Redmond’s United Irish League, closely associated with Nationalist MPs John Redmond, John Dillon, John Nugent and Joseph Devlin, as their legal adviser in their struggle for Home Rule.
In the immediate aftermath of 1916, he saw the way the wind was blowing, and, as a constitutional nationalist, urged his party to pursue Dominion Home Rule to ward off the Sinn Féin threat. He died suddenly in 1925 in London on a social trip in the company of his wife, John Nugent and Joseph Devlin.
My wife’s grandparents’ lives were equally affected by those events. Joseph Brennan, then a leading Sinn Féin member in Cahirciveen, had his home blown up as an official reprisal by British forces under martial law, and came to Dublin to pursue a career that would eventually see him elected to the Senate.
Patrick McCarvill, her maternal grandfather, as a young doctor was heavily involved in the IRA in Monaghan, was elected as a Republican TD, imprisoned by the British and Free State governments, and went on hunger strike. His fiancee and future wife, Eileen McGrane, was Michael Collins’s secretary when he was on the run, was captured and imprisoned by the British and later by the Free State government, joining McCarvill on hunger strike.
So, from the constitutional, nationalist Redmondite lawyer to the anti-Treaty Republican hunger strikers, my sons’ eight great-grandparents span a broad spectrum of nationalist and separatist activity in those years. Three of them became parliamentarians; three served multiple prison terms. They each endured a great deal of personal tragedy and sacrifice.
John M McDowell and his wife Maud lost their 19-year-old favourite orphan nephew, William, who had been reared in their home, in the slaughter of the Somme on September 9th, 1916 in the battle of Ginchy. His warm letters to them from the trenches make sad reading. Cut to pieces by machine-gun fire in the advance of the 7th Leinster Battalion at Guillemont, his body was never found. Such was the price of his family’s loyalty to the constitutional politics of John Redmond.
Perhaps a better-known, and most obviously poignant, piece of my family’s history concerns the shooting, in the course of the Civil War, of Brian Mac Neill, the 22-year-old second eldest son of Eoin Mac Neill, on the slopes of Ben Bulben, in September 1922, by soldiers of the Free State Army serving his father’s government.
Brian, like his two brothers, Niall and Turlough, had enlisted in the South Dublin IRA’s 6th Battalion. and were members of an active service unit that played a leading role in the War of Independence from 1919 to 1921. Their father’s home was the battalion’s hidden weapons dump, never discovered in the course of multiple British searches.
All three boys were on the run and imprisoned during that period. During the Truce, Brian was sent by IRA HQ to help reorganise the IRA in Sligo, north Roscommon and east Mayo. He was appointed divisional adjutant. When the IRA split over the Treaty, Brian’s division went anti-Treaty. With a heavy heart, his loyalty to his division outweighed his loyalty to his father and to his brothers, both of whom became commissioned officers in the National Army.
Prior to the commencement of Civil War hostilities, Brian was a frequent visitor to the family home in Blackrock, sometimes giving his minister father, Eoin, a lift from there to Government Buildings in a commandeered Dodge motor car. Brian, a first-class honours second-year medical student, who had taken a year out to fulfil his IRA duties, was by all accounts his mother’s favourite. Cheery and outgoing, he was also a very popular figure in the anti-Treaty movement in Sligo.
After the attack on the Four Courts, and the commencement of open Civil War, Brian could no longer travel home but kept in regular touch with his parents and brothers in a warm and loving correspondence via safe houses in Sligo.
After the death of Michael Collins, Gen Richard Mulcahy put strong pressure on Gen Sean Mac Eoin, his Western commander, to bring a quick and decisive end to the Civil War in Sligo and the west.
By this time, Brian had informed the Republican leadership that the IRA in Sligo was going to adopt guerrilla tactics. From their stronghold at Rahelly near Sligo, they engaged in a hit and run campaign against the Free State forces, inflicting heavy casualties and losses in terms of men killed and materiel captured.
Many brave Free State soldiers, including close comrades in the War of Independence of Sean Mac Eoin, died at their hands in roadside ambushes and full-scale incursions on towns held by the Free State. Free State intelligence officers were to be “shot on sight”. Brig Gen Joe Ring and Paddy Callaghan (a previous member of Mac Eoin’s Longford Flying Column) were killed in ambushes in Mayo and Sligo.
Dáil Eireann had passed a resolution giving the National Army powers to conduct field courts-martial and to execute “Irregulars” found under arms. Mac Eoin was in no humour to show mercy to those who had shot his comrades.
In the end, Free State forces cornered the leadership of the Republican forces between Rahelly and Ben Bulben.
The day after the decisive battle in which the Republicans were surrounded and routed, a number of them sought to escape the ring of steel surrounding them by crossing Ben Bulben in the hope of regrouping at a hidden cave above Glencar Lake.
Brian MacNeill and three others, Seamus Devins TD and Volunteers Carroll and Banks, were surprised and surrounded in a mountain gully by a party of Free Staters commanded by two officers, McGoohan and Sexton.
What happened next is not certain but it appears most probable that they surrendered, were disarmed and shot by their captors. Apparently, Brian MacNeill, realising what was about to happen, attempted to run and was shot a short distance from where the other three were gunned down.
Certainly, the same party of Free State troops two hours later captured two more “Irregulars”, Volunteers Patrick Langan and Joseph Benson, and executed them, mangling their bodies with machine-gun fire after they were put standing in a deep bog hole on the top of the mountain. All the bodies were left where they lay.
The Free State forces published untrue and highly misleading accounts of the killings and privately gave the MacNeill family a further untrue but consoling version of the shootings. “Sligo’s Noble Six”, as the victims became known, became symbols of Civil War cruelty. They remain embedded in the political and historical fabric of Co Sligo to this day.
For Eoin Mac Neill, his wife Taddie, and their children, this was a cause of unimaginable grief and misgivings, which they dealt with entirely privately, and an horrendous outcome to their participation in the struggle for Irish freedom. A letter written by Eoin Mac Neill at the height of the Civil War gives some insight into his grief, his pride in, and his love for his lost son.
In the end, Brian’s coffin was borne by his brothers and by fellow IRA comrades now wearing Free State uniforms, to his family grave at Kilbarrack in Dublin. Such was, and is, the reality of civil war.
All of this is part of my sons’ family legacy.
Michael McDowell is a Senior Counsel and former tánaiste and leader of the Progressive Democrats.