Film failed to do justice to drama surrounding death of Harry Boland

 

Seventy-Five years ago on an August weekend residents of the seaside town of Skerries in north Co Dublin woke to see the Grand Hotel surrounded by armed National Army soldiers who refused to answer questions about what had happened.

One rumour said they had assassinated a man in the hotel the previous night as some locals heard shots. The more rational had heard that someone very important was shot dead and that the soldiers had arrested another man.

The newspapers carried a short terse report issued by the Provisional Government. It read: "Mr H. Boland, TD for Roscommon who was shot while resisting arrest by the National Troops in the Grand Hotel Skerries early Monday morning, died in St Vincent's Hospital at 9 p.m. last night."

H. Boland was Harry Boland, former friend and confidant of Michael Collins and at the time of his death press secretary to Eamon de Valera. In his film Michael Collins the director Neil Jordan portrays the death of Harry Boland being shot in the Dublin sewers and in the best tradition of a Hollywood gangster movie.

In reality the events of night of July 31st and the early hours of August 1st, 1922, in Skerries were more dramatic.

Harry Boland was born in Dublin in 1884 and educated with his younger brother Gerry in Clontarf. His father James, who greatly influenced him was politically active in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the fledgling GAA. Harry Boland fought at the GPO in April 1916 and was interned in Dartmoor and Lewes jail.

The British authorities released Boland in 1917 and with others such as Frank Thornton he returned to Dublin. From mid 1919 to late 1922 Harry Boland spent most of his time working with de Valera in the United States and only returned to Dublin summoned by telegram to vote in the Treaty debate.

At the end of June and after the surrender of the Four Courts, some Republican forces from Tipperary occupied the village of Blessington in Co Wicklow. During the early part of July 1922, Harry Boland took up a military role by filling a staff position in the Republican forces in the South Dublin Brigade.

However, on July 5th, Joe McGrath led the National Troops and recaptured the town. The state forces captured Harry's brother Gerry (who was a founder of Fianna Fail and was a minister in later de Valera administrations) but Harry escaped.

By the middle of July 1922 the city and surrounding countryside were in the hands of government and mopping up operations continued. During the week of July 13th Harry Boland was sleeping rough in the Dublin foothills and wrote "Can you imagine me on the run from Mick Collins? It's ludicrous!" A little later during the last week of July, Boland wrote again that "I will be the first to be killed because Mick knows that I know too much about him."

As a known senior Republican figure, Harry Boland's movements in Dublin city on Saturday, July 30th were unusually obvious. He dined openly at Jammet's restaurant that evening and the following day he took the afternoon train from Amiens Street (Connolly Station) either accompanied by a man or followed by one.

There are suggested scenarios of what happened next. In one Boland got off the Belfast train at Skerries as a distraction from his real destination. There have been suggestions that Harry Boland's real destination on that Sunday afternoon at the height of the Irish Civil War to meet Joe McKelvey in Belfast. This seems unlikely as McKelvey was under arrest and interned in Mountjoy Prison.

A second theory was that Boland was meeting Michael Collins in Dundalk whom that weekend was investigating a breakout of Republican prisoners in the town. It is possible that Boland did not realise that Collins had returned to Dublin late on Saturday night.

A third was that Boland was in Skerries to meet "someone important". The names of Frank Thornton and Joe McGrath have been mentioned. However, this is speculation.

Why select a small closely-knit town like Skerries with wellknown Treaty agents who monitored the arrival of all strangers in town. Boland was a skilled agent with at least seven years' military undercover experience and he would hardly expose himself in Skerries in such an obvious fashion as registering at the Grand Hotel at the beginning of the August weekend unless he felt safe.

Several accounts exist of what happened in the Grand Hotel, Skerries. Some time in the early hours of Monday August 1st, a detachment of National Troops raided the hotel and soldiers woke an unarmed Boland. Boland demanded to see the officer in charge and during the altercation was shot but did not attempt to escape.

He was transferred to St Vincent's Hospital where he died.

Other contemporary accounts from newspapers differ substantially from the version given above. For example, newspapers reported on August 5th that there was a violent struggle when Boland tried to seize the gun from an officer who had attempted to arrest him.

Boland ran down the corridor, soldiers fired two shots over his head and finally he was shot and injured. The local doctor and curate attended Boland in the hotel and then the injured Boland was transported first to Portobello Barracks in Dublin and then to St Vincent's Hospital.

A man named Murphy, described as Boland's companion, was placed under military arrest. Newspapers also stated that Murphy was not his correct name and but Joseph Griffin a well-known republican. The background or the identity of this man is unknown.

Michael Collins wrote to Kitty Kiernan that "I passed Vincent's Hospital and saw a crowd outside. My mind went in to him, Harry lying there dead and I thought of the times together . . . I had sent a wreath. Nevertheless, I suppose they would return it torn up."

In his obituary Boland was regarded as among the most reasonable of the anti-Treaty Party in the Dail and it was said that his death would be widely deplored. In May 1922, Boland tried to broker a reconciliation between de Valera and Collins but it collapsed. Harry Boland was 38 years old.

The following day the funeral took place and a guard of honour marched alongside the coffin accompanied by 30 priests on foot. Outside the ruined GPO the cortege met some armoured cars containing armed National Troops. The vehicles stopped and the uniformed soldiers led by their officers laid down their arms, removed their caps and stood to attention until the hearse passed.

Depicted as Collins's "fall guy", Boland often mirrored his many varied moods. Collins's petulance, their public displays of banter and playfulness were the public faces but behind this facade Harry Boland was a man of tireless energy intelligent and a politically astute leader.

Boland's differences with Collins were due in part with presence of Kitty Kiernan but it likely that he had disagreed politically with Collins by 1920. His death in Skerries was a political embarrassment to the Provisional Government under Arthur Griffith and made excellent propaganda for de Valera and the Republican forces who maintained that military agents assassinated Boland in Skerries.

His death may have been due to a botched attempt at an arrest that badly went wrong by inexperienced local National Troops. There are still unanswered questions; the presence of shadowy individual or individuals, and why Skerries?

Boland's death was followed rapidly by that of Arthur Griffith and then by Michael Collins's own death at Beal na Bleath on August 22nd, 1922.