Book Review:Liam Mellows, Soldier of the Irish Republic ~ Selected Writings, 1914–1922

By Conor McNamara

Published by Irish Academic Press, 2019

Reviewer: Kerron Ó Luain

It has been nearly half a century since iconic IRB, IRA and Sinn Féin man Liam Mellows, executed by Free State firing squad in 1922, received a substantial biographical treatment. That task fell to English Marxist activist and historian Desmond C. Greaves who published Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution in 1971.

In more recent times, Brian Hanley documented Mellows’ role in the Easter Rising and national politics between 1918-22 in a small book issued by Teagasc in 2016.

Mellows, therefore, still awaits a modern biography along the lines of Owen McGee’s work Arthur Griffith, Shane Kenna’s Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa: unrepentant Fenian (both published in 2015), or Anne Dolan and William Murphy’s recent thematic Michael Collins: the man and the revolution of 2018.

These biographies all draw on relatively newly released and digitised sources in the form of the Bureau of Military History (BMH) material and Irish, US and British newspapers, much of which was inaccessible to Greaves in the late 1960s.

Conor McNamara’s Liam Mellows, soldier of the Irish republic: selected writings, 1914-19, while not a holistic biography, combines elements of that genre with Mellows’ private letters, speeches, interviews and newspaper articles.

This primary source material has been assembled from various republican newspapers including Fianna, the newspaper of Na Fianna Éireann published between 1915 and 1916 and the IRB’s Irish Freedom which existed from 1910-1914.

Mellows’ writings are ““the disparate public and private utterances of a young man who lived an itinerant life during a time of rapidly changing political realities”.

Also featured are letters from various collections of personal correspondence between Mellows and his friends and comrades, housed mainly in the NLI.

The biographical sections of the book, meanwhile, offer important contextualisation that frame each piece of Mellows’ own penmanship.

They demonstrate in depth research in the BMH and NLI in their own right, as well as McNamara’s familiarity with the works of Mellows’ contemporaries such as Donegal IRA man Peadar O’Donnell, Cork-based republican Florence O’Donoghue and the Liverpool-raised Piaras Béaslaí, among others.

This collection of writings are a window into the mind of a highly dedicated early twentieth-century Irish republican. As McNamara explains, they are “the disparate public and private utterances of a young man who lived an itinerant life during a time of rapidly changing political realities”.

Mellows the Man

Who, then, was Mellows the man? For one, he idolised Pádraig Pearse, and, like him, “was unmarried, puritanical in habits and ruminated profoundly over his own actions, putting the cause of the republic above all else”.

Strongly influenced by the cultural revolution of the 1890s and early twentieth century, Mellows, who had been known as “Willie” to his family, Gaelicised his name to Liam during his teenage years.

Mellows was “unmarried, puritanical in habits and ruminated profoundly over his own actions, putting the cause of the republic above all else”.

Writing later on in 1917, Mellows asserted that “when Ireland spoke Irish the days of the British government in this country would be numbered”.

In Mellows’ youth his family suffered tragedy with the loss of several children. This left an indelible mark on the young man; his comrades later noting a deeply ingrained fatalism in his character.

Mellows’ charisma earned him many friends. It also won him the admiration of leading figures – along with many among the rank and file – of the republican movement. Athlone organiser Tomás Ó Maoileoin recalled of Mellows that he had “rarely met anyone with such an attractive personality”.

Despite his magnetic personality and confidence in social gatherings, Mellows disliked public speaking and only seems to have engaged in it out of a sense of duty. He believed at times that he had been put “on too high a pedestal” and, ultimately, had “feet of clay”.

The modesty and self-doubt exhibited throughout his writings evokes an empathy in the reader. Mellows was no selfish megalomaniac, as Treatyite enemies and the Catholic Church sometimes alleged of those they branded “irregulars”.


Mellows became involved with Na Fianna in 1911 where he “championed the concept of national salvation through an insurrection of the young”. His writings on their activities contained here, and titled The History of the Irish Boy Scouts, offer an important and detailed organisational and social history of that movement.

McNamara notes how Mellows was part of a coterie of young men in the IRB who, at the turn of the twentieth century, helped to transform the organisation “from a drinking club for old Fenians to a conspiratorial anti-imperialist sect”.

Mellows wrote an account of his part in the 1916 Rising in Galway, which he helped to lead.

Mellows found himself under the tutelage of Tom Clarke in the IRB, with whom he established a rapport, having a shared background in a military family and a common belief in the primacy of physical force.

This trajectory saw him eventually leading a band of rebels in Galway during the Rising of 1916.

In his True Story of the Galway Insurrection (1917), Mellows, according to McNamara, attempted to present “an heroic narrative of revolution”. Such accounts did not dovetail with the “more nuanced versions of events” provided to the BMH later on.

Nevertheless, there is much of value in Mellows’ recollection of Galway during the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Not least, and in light of the recent “RIC-gate”, is Mellows’ account of the role of the colonial police force in suppressing the rising and his description of RIC sergeants as the “little caesars of their districts”.


Perhaps the most trying time for Mellows came during his spell in the US in the wake of the 1916 Rising. Along with other “1916 exiles” he found himself in New York where he came to be at loggerheads with Clann na nGael over their support for the US in the First World War.

The Clann rowed in behind American imperialism, in the process exposing the cultural rift between the Irish and Irish America.

During his time in the US, Mellows associated with the likes of New York-based and long-time Fenian John Devoy and Philadelphia-based Tyrone republican Dr Patrick McCartan.

Consequently, over twenty of his interviews and speeches from his time there appear in Devoy’s Gaelic American and McCartan’s Irish Press.

Mellows’ speeches did not endear hims to many in Irish America. In the Central Opera House, in New York in 1918, he referred to his audience as “a lot of curs”.

On that, and other, occasions Mellows allowed his anger to spill over regarding what he viewed as the failure of Irish-Americans to speak out about US support for Britain; which, for him, meant by proxy support for British imperialism.

The Treaty and Dishonour

Following his return to Ireland, Mellows soon found himself immersed in the debate over the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Mellows made clear to those in the Dáil the link between the republic that had been declared and physically established and the concept of honour. To renege on the republic and accept the trappings of dominion status and the oath of allegiance meant dishonour.

Mellows said of the Treaty: “we do not seek to make this country a materially great country at the expense of its honour in any way whatsoever”.

He went as far as to say that “we do not seek to make this country a materially great country at the expense of its honour in any way whatsoever”.

It is hard not to draw parallels between this train of thought and De Valera’s later 1943 speech “On Language and Nation”, broadcast on RTÉ radio, in which he spoke of “frugal comfort” and “material wealth only as a basis for right living”.

The fundamental failure of Fianna Fáil to arrest the decline of the Irish language, the endemic culture of emigration, or the deep inequalities in Irish society owed much to this attitude. A radical redistribution which would have alleviated the social ills of depopulation, poverty, and language decline was never considered.

Instead, a capitalist-Catholic orthodoxy, with important but ultimately symbolic nods to the Irish language and culture, became entrenched for decades. But would Mellows have fallen into the Fianna Fáil camp of anti-Treatyite “honour”, support for the economic status quo and rigid Catholicity had he survived?

He certainly was not anti-clerical as his several close friends among the clergy and his stay in the Carmelite monastery in Manhattan while in exile demonstrate; as do the numerous references to god and Catholic religious motifs throughout this selection of his writings.

Despite this, Mellows found himself an enemy of the Catholic Church  by 1922 – not just for his refusal to endorse the Treaty but also because of the leftward direction he began to take on socio-economic issues.

A Socialist-Republican Martyr?

This brings us to the question of Liam Mellows’ socialism. It appears that he oriented towards the ideology only while in Mountjoy Gaol following the defeat of the republican garrison at the Four Courts in the summer of 1922.

On the back foot, he sought the support of the labour movement, which was not forthcoming. But as McNamara explains, for Mellows, “the blame lay firmly with Labour, rather than republicans’ unwillingness to frame their analysis in terms that would appeal to workers and the trade union movement”.

Mellows’ move towards socialism came very late in the day and in response to anti-Treatyite republicanism being on the ropes militarily.

All told, Mellows seemed to miss the point when it came to adopting an anti-capitalist stance. Previously, when the First World War broke out, he had believed that “the Irish press was in the hands of the British government, and the Irish people were deluded”.

Later, during the fanaticism engendered by the US entry to the war in 1918, Mellows fretted that the press in New York, where he then resided, was “English controlled”.

This overlooks the fundamental nature of both the Irish and American bourgeoisie and their vested interest in the British and (emerging) US empire.

This ideological strand was in line with much republican thinking in the IRB newspaper, Irish Freedom. In this view the Dublin Lockout of 1913 was not seen as a class struggle between a native working class and ruling class, but instead was a situation that only really became as dire as it did because of the British presence in Ireland.

Having never read the Greaves biography and having had only a surface-level knowledge of Mellows’ politics, it was surprising to learn from his writings collected here that his commitment to socialism was not what I had expected.

This was especially perplexing given his idolisation by what might be broadly termed left-republicans during the twentieth century and up to the present day. At best, his move towards socialism came very late in the day and in response to anti-Treatyite republicanism being on the ropes militarily. At worst, it was opportunistic.

As McNamara contends, those who hold Mellows in reverence as an icon of socialist-republicanism owe much to the later efforts of both Peadar O’Donnell and Desmond Greaves who sought out a stronger leftist tradition in the Civil War than perhaps existed.


This is not to take away from many of Mellows’ positive traits. He was a dogged military and political activist. And like his hero Pearse, he held lofty moral standards. It is clear from his writings that he did not fear death and was at nearly every turn prepared to sacrifice himself for the cause he believed in; the Republic.

Paradoxically, these attributes, according to McNamara, also contributed to some of Mellows’ failings, namely “his fixation on the centrality of the soldier’s honour, his unwillingness to recognise the significance of democratic sentiment [and] his detachment from the political process that the building of the new state required”.

This is an essential collection for anyone seeking to comprehend the mind of Liam Mellows, soldier of the Irish Republic.

On the other hand, Mellows arguably predicted what the compromise of the Treaty would breed – a state that was wed both psychologically and economically to the empire from which republicans had tried, but failed, to cleanly break.

The whole history of the Free State post-1922, “Republic” post-1949, and “Ireland” as it is now called today, demonstrates that there was far more than a mere grain of wisdom in Mellows’ forecast.

Despite not being a socialist, it is clear from his writings that Mellows was an egalitarian republican who understood the alingment of forces that manifested on the pro-Treaty side during the Civil War, which some historians would later deem to have been a counter-revolution.

Nonetheless, Mellows’ legacy, despite being later held aloft as a socialist-republican visionary, is, from the writings assembled here by McNamara, one of a typical Catholic of his era but also a remarkable unrepentant Fenian; devout to both the faith of his religion and the creed of physical force Irish republicanism.

This is an essential collection for anyone seeking to comprehend the mind of Liam Mellows, soldier of the Irish Republic.

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