The revolution's unsung hero

MICHAEL KENNEDY reviews My Father, The Genral by Ristéard Mulcahy, Liberties Oress, 283pp €17.99

MICHAEL KENNEDYreviews My Father, The Genralby Ristéard Mulcahy, Liberties Oress, 283pp €17.99

GEN Richard Mulcahy was described in 1923 by a British journalist as “the most interesting man in Europe”. Mulcahy was then commander-in-chief of the National Army and Minister for Defence. He was a 1916 veteran who had previously been a Sinn Féin TD and IRA chief of staff during the Anglo-Irish War. All this in eight years and Mulcahy was still in his 30s.

Following the Army mutiny in 1924, Mulcahy resigned from Cosgrave’s cabinet. He would later lead Fine Gael and join both inter-party governments but would never again hold the public eye as he had done in the early years of the Irish State.

His son, Prof Risteárd Mulcahy, well-known cardiologist and founder of the Irish Heart Foundation, has for many years studied Mulcahy’s role in the Irish revolution.


My Father, The Generalis Prof Mulcahy's second book to range over his father's life and times. It focuses largely on the years 1916 to 1924, though it covers Mulcahy's full career, including a short section on the first inter-party government and the repeal of the External Relations Act. Its objective is straightforward. As his father's literary executor he is "impelled to ensure" that Mulcahy's contribution to Irish nationality and independence, and his wider contribution to the safeguarding of democracy, should be preserved in the national consciousness.

After his resignation, Mulcahy became the forgotten hero of the revolutionary years. Overshadowed by Michael Collins, his reputation was further hampered by his association with executions during the Civil War. According to his son, Mulcahy embraced obscurity. He was more comfortable as a backroom boy. Even when he was chief of staff he showed no resentment when the political and military reputation of his subordinate Collins soared. Instead, Mulcahy believed Collins could do no wrong and was uncritically defensive of his posthumous reputation. In 1948, in a further act of selflessness, Mulcahy stood aside from leading the coalition that removed Fianna Fáil from power and allowed John A Costello become taoiseach. He knew that Civil War politics made him unpalatable to some of the coalition partners. Mulcahy appears to have been an almost unique specimen: a man without personal ambition who was reluctant to speak in public of his own past.

LARGE SECTIONS of the narrative are based on a dialogue between father and son contained in 160 interviews taped between 1963 and 1970. Edited transcriptions and synopses of interviews are layered between a narrative provided by Risteárd Mulcahy using materials in his father's papers. Particular use is made of Mulcahy's lengthy annotation of Piaras Béaslaí's 1926 biography of Collins, Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland.

Risteárd Mulcahy’s own gloss on his father’s motivation is evident throughout. It can particularly be seen in the section dealing with the IRA during the War of Independence. He emphasises the pivotal role of GHQ over the IRA at a country-wide level, highlighting Mulcahy’s role as chief of staff. His take on the relationship between Mulcahy as chief of staff and Collins as director of intelligence is among the most enjoyable sections of the book. Another is the short, succinct section on the Army mutiny and Mulcahy’s difficult relationship with Kevin O’Higgins.

The reader becomes a fly on a wall as Mulcahy's past is teased out. The inclusion of transcriptions from those interviews only referred to would have been welcome. This is particularly so in the section dealing with the Rising. Here subjects from de Valera's "mental detachment" in Boland's Mills during Easter week to an assessment of the mistakes that occurred during the Rising are only fleetingly covered. However, lengthy accounts of the regime at Knutsford Prison and Frongoch Camp, where Mulcahy was held after the Rising, both taken from his annotation of Béaslaí's Michael Collins, make riveting reading.

The motif throughout is of an ordinary man in extraordinary times, who was not interested in power but, when power was thrust upon him, was well capable of responding to it. Mulcahy excelled in combining that power with his skill for building and organising, as seen in his creation of the National Army from scratch during the Civil War. The interviews and the meticulous preparation of his papers for public inspection at UCD archives after his death in 1971 show these abilities extended to organising for posterity.

THERE ARE FEW insights into Mulcahy outside his military and political self. Mulcahy the man emerges only in the very last section, and in a time of increasing austerity his belief in “hard work, early rising, walking” as well as his love of “plain, simple food” may strike a chord. He was austere and frugal, an outlook well in tune with many in the first generation of politicians in independent Ireland. Mulcahy the private person, including the father, still remains something of an enigma.

My Father, The Generalis a provoking account of the key years and events in one man's life and in the life of the State. It is also the journey of a son seeking to understand his father's achievements and legacy, in itself an engaging process. The structure is often idiosyncratic and many of the judgements personal. All children construct images of their father. They rarely do so in public, nor with such conviction and verve.

Michael Kennedy is the executive editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series, volume VI of which (1939-1941) was published last year