Chapter 15: A Fiasco in Glasgow

ONE day, while resting in the Donegal hills, a dispatch-bearer approached one of the sentries. He carried a dispatch for me from the I. R. A. commander in Derry enclosing another from Dublin.

The letter stated that Frank Carty, the Sligo commandant, had been arrested in Glasgow, and would be sent back to Derry, under heavy guard, for execution. The name of the steamer was given, and the probable date of sailing. Under this factual statement was a message written in Gaelic as follows:

I want you to investigate this problem, and if there is any way of effecting a rescue, I want you to try, and am confident of your ability to succeed.

Regards

(Signed) MICHAEL COLLINS.

Mick Collins signed the dispatch with a nom de plume known only to Republican commanders.

So Carty was in trouble again!

Accompanied by six men armed with automatics and carrying twenty rounds of ammunition each, I set out for Glasgow. We planned to return on the boat with Carty and attempt a rescue at sea. I knew that the steward of the ship and several members of the crew, being Republicans at heart, could be depended upon to assist.

Dressed as laborers and carrying red bandannas to secrete our guns, we submitted ourselves to the scrutiny of the guards at the gangway, and then took up our steerage quarters. The steward and friendly members of the crew, when called into our confidence, swore to help our plans to capture the vessel on its return with Carty. We carried sufficient medical dope to paralyze the whole British Army, and the steward agreed to brew a pot of tea for the sentries on the return trip at an appointed time, heavily charged with the anaesthetic. Then, when they had succumbed to the drug, we would take the keys and unlock the strong-room in which Carty would be held prisoner. At this stage we would ascend the bridge, hold up the skipper and his officers, and stop the ship when abreast of Inishowen Head. But the plan was doomed even as it was made. When we arrived in Glasgow I proceeded to Sinn Fein headquarters, to find a beehive of industry. The place was jammed with men busily overhauling Colt 45’s, Webleys, Smith and Wessons and other less modern cannon. Promptly I gave my credentials to the commanding officer, and stated the purpose of my mission. He frowned and shook his head. “Sorry, Hennessey, but we’ve decided to stage the rescue right here in Glasgow. We’ll stick up the prison van in an hour’s time. I have every hope of success.”

As he spoke he pointed to the crowd of Glasgow Celts fussing about their arsenal in the excitement of last-minute preparations. They were loyal to the ideals of the Republic, and anxious to carry the war into Scotland. Glasgow has a huge Irish population, and emigration has steadily drained the Celts of the Northern Irish counties, who have sought the cities and farms of Scotland to make the living which is denied them at home.

” If I were to call off our attack,” went on the Commander, ” it would shatter the whole Republican movement here. Anyway, I doubt if they’d obey me, so our original scheme will have to prevail.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” I agreed. ” But I’m afraid you’ll never get Frank Carty out of a prison van in broad daylight—in the heart of Glasgow.”

It was, indeed, the height of folly, or maybe courage, to attack in broad daylight, and in the centre of an enemy quarter like Glasgow, a van with an armed escort. I expressed my vehement disapproval of the exploit, but offered the services of myself and my six colleagues.

“No, thanks,” came the commander’s courteous rejection; ” this is our affair, and I have all the men I require, but you can come along if you like and watch the fun.”

Wishing the boys the best of luck in their tough assignment, I returned to acquaint my men with the sad state of affairs.

The attempted rescue, as I predicted, proved an utter fiasco. The Republicans, waiting until the van conveying Carty from the prison to the Court-house had reached High Street, poured a volley of revolver fire on the driver and escort, District-Inspector Johnson of the Glasgow Police. The latter was shot dead and the driver badly wounded.

Bringing the van to a stop, an attempt was made to break open the door—but failed hopelessly. One desperate Republican, firing a bullet through the lock, made it impossible to open the door even when they secured the keys from the fallen man.

The I.R.A. men, realizing the futility of the attack and the amount of alarm raised, took cover and scattered through the city. Naturally, the killing of a high police officer aroused a terrible howl of resentment in the papers. I paid a hurried visit to headquarters, where some of the attackers were foregathered, gloomily discussing the failure of the attempt, but pleased at the propagandist value of carrying the Irish war into the midst of the enemy. Carty’s feeling, cooped up in the van, must have been chaotic as he listened to the revolver fusillade and the spattering of bullets on his steel chariot.

I bade my Glasgow comrades adieu and departed for a safer section of the city. None too soon! That evening the commandant, a Catholic priest named McGrory, and thirty others were arrested, accused with complicity in the murder of District-Inspector Johnson.

By good fortune I avoided capture, and hurried my gang down to Greenock by rail, where we took the ship back to Belfast. Our would-be accomplices on the ship were chagrined by the turn of affairs. We arrived quietly in Belfast and returned by train to Derry, chagrined and disgruntled by the results in Glasgow.

Carty was shipped back to Mountjoy Prison in a destroyer to Dublin, instead of to Derry, and placed in Death Row with others sentenced to be shot for murder and treason to the Crown.

Among them was Sean McKeown, the famous blacksmith of Ballinalee. The Armistice saved their lives, and they were released after the signing of the treaty.

The Glasgow incident has always been a source of aggravation to me. The Scotland Yard sleuths, using Sherlock Holmes tactics, discovered the black hat which I left in the Sinn Fein headquarters in Glasgow. After the prison van debacle I had abandoned the dark chapeau for a less conspicuous cap.

“Page Doctor Watson. The Scotch detectives have the guilty man.”

It was Hennessey! The alarm was given for my immediate capture. After the truce at least six people were recognized and arrested as Charles Hennessey. One of them was a cousin of mine bearing the same name; others were my aide-de-camp, Owen Callan, and even Michael Collins’s secretary. Eventually they were released, being unable to show the recent shot-wounds I had received in encounters.

I am not ashamed to admit any military offence properly chargeable to me, but I am innocent of any active participation in the Glasgow affair. I hope that my friendly Sherlocks in that town will read this, and tear up the “warrants” made out for my apprehension.

The English furore over, the sortie in Glasgow seemed to be a strained piece of British logic. They advised us, in the Press, to confine our quarrel to our own country; but the British did not restrict their pillaging and aggrandizement to English soil. If I were to be in command of another Irish Army, the scene of battle would be on the other side of the Channel, where the residents of England and Scotland would have a chance to learn some of the disagreeable features of war at home. The Irish have tasted steel and smelled powder for seven centuries, a period sufficiently long to challenge any nation’s self-respect.

In Ireland once more, I returned to my command in the hills of Donegal, where we preyed upon the rich aliens who own the huge estates and hunting-preserves and control the banking system. The well-to-do element, Catholic and Protestant, were not very sympathetic to our cause; but their attitude slowly changed under the pressure of our attack on the British outposts and barracks.

As the days went by, the Republic began to show power, and the business men had sufficient sense to consider our suggestion that they do business with Irish banks.

I shall deal later with some of our “tactics” which weakened England’s economic grip in Donegal.

A part of Ireland that is off the tourist track, Donegal is rugged, sparsely settled, and shares with Connaught and Kerry a reputation for scenic grandeur. It is rich in tradition, but poor in soil, and the natives eke out a meagre livelihood on the stony hillsides and wind-swept glens. The gales of the Atlantic blow pitilessly against the rocky headlands, and the tiny holdings of these yield large crops of choice stones, but few potatoes.

The spell of St. Patrick never penetrated very deep into the minds of the people around the mountains of Errigal and Bluestack. They are Catholics, of course, with a strong admixture of paganism that no bishop’s letter could ever read out of their hearts. It is a land of storytellers, who pass on the rich legends of the North from one generation to another. Here is a rich field of the poet and novelist looking for fresh themes. Many of their stories have never been penned, though Dr. Douglas Hyde and other Gaelic speakers have written many of the legends and folk-stories during the past generation.

My rendezvous, when the trail became too hot, was a dugout near an old hill-woman’s cabin. I visited her several times and held long talks with her in Gaelic. She could tell time by the stars, and knew all the constellations and planets. On the flagstones in front of her cabin was a chart in the form of an elaborate sundial marking the path of the sun in its equinoctial variations. Below, in the distance, a jagged line of hills served as indices for the rising stars and planets.

Some of these hill-folk are the remnants of a race well educated in book- and sky-lore. They were driven to the crags of Donegal by the invader.

Dean Swift once said, “Ireland has a nobility, but you’ll find it in the hovels. . . .” The result of the siege of Limerick and the visitation of the pious scourge Cromwell!

There is a marked difference between the Gaelic-speaking people of the mountains and the urban folk of the smaller cities. Personally I am not an admirer of the citizen of the garrisoned Dublin, Limerick, Cork, or Wexford. There is a marked cleavage in their mien and mutual opinions. A mountain man is a proud fellow possessing spine and spirit; a fighter who never flinches under heavy fire. I like the mountain lads, too—quick, taciturn, and ever dependable. Their women are dark-eyed and dark-haired, more reticent than the blue-eyed, fair girls of the milder counties. They are lithe, strong, and solid, the equal of their men in tilling the stingy soil and caring for the pigs and cows.

Living conditions are poor, but they make the best of a , tough existence. The sacrifices of the mountain women during the war were heroic. When we were on the run, seeking asylum from the military, they surrendered their beds to fagged Republican soldiers and shivered through the long night in the barn, if they were fortunate enough to have a cow or donkey.

Often they dashed miles through dangerous bog and over lonesome mountain trails, seeking medical aid for the wounded, or carrying important dispatches to commandants. Frequently they were part of the volunteer network of espionage which made the Sinn Fein intelligence so effective in frustrating British surprise attacks

• • • • •

Patriotism and economics are inseparable companions. Despite the ideals of the soldier concerned only with the pure aspect of political freedom, he must give consideration to business and finance. England’s weakest grip was her military domination. It was the tentacles of the British banking and credit system that held the tightest grip on Ireland.

Sound reasoning has convinced me that, with the wealthy, patriotism is strongly influenced by the color of ink on the ledgers. I served notice both to the enemy and the business houses of Donegal, that I intended to close the British banks and force the farmers, tradesmen, and landowners to do business with strictly Irish depositories, such as the Munster and Leinster Bank, and the National Bank, both sturdy institutions deserving of local support. “Money made in Ireland must stay in Ireland.” That was the ultimatum.

At first the business men were inclined to shrug their shoulders at the audacity of a handful of guerrilla rebels who dared to interrupt the deep-grooved routine of British custom. A few raids on the alien banks, however, and there followed a series of runs which stiffened up the backs of their pompous officers. When the military could afford them neither relief nor protection, even the Unionist, cursing us as brigands, took his funds out of the British and placed them in the Irish banks that were free of pillage. A few cached their money.

Our next step was to post notices to the people urging them to pay no rates, taxes, or rents during the war— advice which they obeyed with an alacrity that alarmed the landlords. Then we gave our attention to the British playgrounds, the huge estates where the monocled Briton came for a deer- or grouse-hunt. At Glenveagh Castle the mountains and dales are fenced around for miles with heavy wire. How many square miles are enclosed in the estate I cannot fathom or guess, but it is a tremendous piece of real estate sacred to British royalty. We cut the wire fences around Glenveagh and allowed the stately red deer and other game to escape.

Fishermen also dared to net the sacred salmon, and common folk ate the royal sturgeon, proclaimed by law to be a royal fish sacrosanct to the King’s table. Gradually the spirit of the people rose to an attitude of contempt for British sovereignty. The lion had a host of thorns in his paw, and there was no Androcles!

Our strongest resistance came from a section of the Church. The young priests were sympathetic to our cause, but powerless to help, and those who actually did jump the traces were severely disciplined. We suspected that most of the Church pressure came from Rome through the offices of the British emissaries at the Vatican. For centuries the Irish Catholic has been ruled by his parish priest, and he voted the benevolent despotism a better choice than British tyranny.

That the clerics were successful is attested in the records of Ireland’s civil crime. There are more crimes of violence in New York or Chicago in a single week than Ireland can claim in a decade. Personally I owe my life on more than one occasion to the kindly assistance of friendly ministers of the Church…

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