Diarmaid Ferriter: Much light still to be shed on origins of State

Details of what lay behind the threatened Army mutiny of 1924 are only emerging now

Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy at Arthur Griffith's funeral, August 1922

Some archival doors are opening; others are being shut, such is the uneven nature of access to our documented heritage at present. Last week it was reported that only about one-third of State documents from 1989 due for public access under the 30-year rule will be released because the National Archives does not have the space or staff to accept the material. Also last week, the Department of Defence opened the files relating to the inquiry into the threatened Army mutiny of 1924 that have been locked up for 95 years .

That threatened mutiny was an intriguing, dramatic episode. In March 1924, two Army officers of the Free State, Maj Gen Liam Tobin and Colonel Charles Dalton, gave an ultimatum to the government demanding it do more to achieve an Irish Republic or face mutiny: “We can no longer be party to the treachery that threatens to destroy the aspirations of a nation.” It was a remarkably audacious move by those in the Army who considered themselves keepers of the flame of Michael Collins; who regarded ex-British army officers and post-truce recruits as being given preferential treatment and maintained that Irish Republican Brotherhood members within the Army had undue sway over promotion and retention of army personnel.

The ultimatum was quickly depicted as a challenge to the democratic foundations of the State. Minister for defence Richard Mulcahy responded: “Two army officers have attempted to involve the army in a challenge to the authority of the government. This is an outrageous departure from the spirit of the army. It will not be tolerated.”

While historians rake over the various testimonies and hearings to dissect the political power game and revisit the reputations of cabinet heavyweights such as Mulcahy and Kevin O’Higgins, minister for home affairs at the time, they should be conscious of the need to broaden our understanding of what happened in 1924. O’Higgins was, and often still is, heralded as the man who decided never again would the institutions of the State, in his words, “take their stride from a soldier’s boot”.


Resigned in protest

It was a great soundbite, but it deflected attention away from his own agenda and determination to sideline Mulcahy, who resigned in protest at being told the Army council (of which he was a member) would have to resign. Mulcahy had presided over a difficult scheme of demobilisation and as historian Ronan Fanning saw it, “Mulcahy’s selfless and dignified response to his own humiliation averted the prospect of a mutiny, and copper-fastened the primacy of civilian over military authority as well as the democratic legitimacy of the infant state.” But interestingly, that too is what is claimed by many of the champions of O’Higgins, Mulcahy’s nemesis in cabinet.

And what about Mulcahy’s approach to those singled out for demobilisation? What we can also consider now is the fate of soldiers who found themselves demobilised through no fault of their own and who faced a bleak vista. By the end of the Civil War the Army had bloated to nearly 60,000 soldiers, and needed to be drastically culled. This newly released archive includes appeal testimonies from those thrown to the wolves. None of them were reinstated.

His appeal, like all others, was dismissed as Mulcahy deemed him `an officer surplus to requirements'

Consider, for example, James Corbett from Co Clare, who referred to his four years of service in the IRA and joining of the National Army before the Civil War. As he was absent for so long from home he forfeited his farm inheritance: “I have now no means of livelihood or nothing whatsoever to fall back on.” Or Peter Leary from Roscommon, who had given seven years of service and refused to accept a demobilisation gratuity on principle as he had done nothing wrong: “I am just now on the verge of starvation. I have a wife and 5 small children and no hope only the workhouse.” His appeal, like all others, was dismissed as Mulcahy deemed him “an officer surplus to requirements”. What were the real grounds for deciding who was dismissed?


An association of ex-officers was established to assist these men. Its treasurer wrote to the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Edward Byrne, in November 1925: “The circumstances of many of our members are so pitiable, some practically in a state of destitution, that between 80 and 100 of them find a night’s shelter in the Phoenix and other public parks of our city.”

These are the kinds of insights that will add greatly to a nuanced historic assessment of that era as we approach the centenary of the state’s foundation. But such welcome archival releases need to be matched with the full operation of the 1986 National Archives Act, which places a legal obligation on numerous State departments and bodies to release material, which is not currently being fulfilled. This can only be done if the State embraces and funds a coherent and consistent approach to archival releases.