On December 8th 1922, after five months in custody and without any connection to what was happening in the country, Liam Mellows was executed in Mountjoy Prison together with Rory O’Connor, Joseph McKelvey and Dick Barrett. It was a reprisal which shocked the country and did much to entrench bitter disputes.
Liam Mellows was only 30 years of age when he went before the firing squad – but by then he had lived a life full of extraordinary heroism. It was a life defined by a passionate commitment to the freedom of his country. He was what Ernie O’Malley called “a clear flame, steadfast, burning of its own strength”. It is a flame which still burns brightly in our history.
It is both an honour and a duty for us to gather here 90 years later to remember him and to reflect on the many lessons for us which come from his life and ideals.
Nothing in the background of William Joseph Mellows suggested that he would be a nationalist or a revolutionary. In May 1892 he was born in a military barracks in Lancashire. Both his father and his grandfather were soldiers in the British army. He was educated in military schools attached to barracks in both Cork and Dublin. It was his father’s eager wish that he too would join the army – but he said no and chose a different path.
As a very young child he was regularly ill so his mother sent him to spend time with her family here in Wexford. It was here that he developed his deep attachment to the people of this country and his appreciation of their situation. He could not help but be inspired by a county which had fought and suffered more than any other in our first and greatest republican rebellion.
Having rejected an army career he went to work in Dublin in junior shop positions. This was no ordinary time. The first decade of the last century was defined by rising ideals and commitment to both cultural and political nationalism. On the streets and in the meeting houses of Dublin and throughout the country, lone activists were inspiring their contemporaries to build movements which would quickly achieve great things in the face of even greater adversity.
In 1911 Mellows joined Fianna Éireann, soon afterwards the IRB and within two years he had quit his job and spent the rest of his life working full-time for the republican cause.
Mellows travelled the country recruiting and building up networks. He was close to James Connolly and served on the executive committee of the Volunteers. If you look at the evidence of the time it is remarkable how much public support there was for the cause. It is not true that it lay completely dormant and without public support. Yes it lacked support amongst the elites, but throughout the country the men and women of no property were profoundly committed to the cause.
His organising skills and ability to inspire others quickly brought him to the attention of the British Authorities who first jailed and then deported him. In the days before the Rising he returned to Ireland and headed to Galway. In Oranmore and Athenry, hundreds rallied in what was the largest action outside of Dublin. They had only tiny resources available to them and had no chance of prevailing – but they showed that popular support for republicanism was very clearly present in the countryside.
Resourceful as ever, Mellows escaped to America where his organising skills were on display yet again. He played a central role in de Valera’s triumphant tour and raised money and arms for the struggle back home. Many years later Bob Briscoe wrote about his time working with Mellows in America – about how they filled their days with idealistic talk of Ireland’s future and being relentless in seeking every opportunity to promote Ireland’s cause. Like everyone else who knew him well, Briscoe wrote of a considerate man – one who was appalled at himself for bringing bacon on his Jewish friend’s breakfast plate.
The election of Liam Mellows to the first Dáil for both Galway East and Meath showed his public standing as a national leader of a movement which had received full public legitimacy in the first election to follow the 1916 Rising.
It’s impossible to look at how much was achieved in such a short time and not be inspired by the spirit of the times and the heroism of those who risked so much for their country. The republican cause which Mellows helped lead was a genuine national revolution. It was also the only revolution of that time in Europe which succeeded in establishing a state subject to the will of the people.
During our revolution there was a remarkable unity, a great spirit of sacrifice and a resolute determination. They faced and overcame the fixed will of the mightiest imperial power in the world – and they did this because they had behind them the fixed will of a people determined to be free.
The split which followed the ratification of the Treaty was a dark moment in Irish history. There is no positive purpose served by treating it as if should be seen as black and white.
Seán Lemass once commented that the greatest bitterness about the Civil War emerged not from the generation which fought in it but from the generation which followed. There are very many cases of people who fought each other then becoming close afterwards. This was because they respected each other as being fundamentally part of the same tradition.
In recent decades this has returned, and a spirit of joint national remembrance has developed. Irish people of all traditions have shown how they value what had previously been seen as our separate histories. It is unfortunately true that this government has begun to show a bias in its approach to remembrance which will mark a major step backwards if it continues. At a minimum, there should be an end to the almost bizarre reappearance of civil-war related heckling in the Dáil from members of the government.
If there’s one thing we should always learn from history it is that we must not try to refight its battles. The best way to show respect for the great people and events of history is to recognise how their actions created new realities. The clearest way to disrespect them is to say that circumstances have not changed – to claim that those who honour them must always follow the same methods.
It is profoundly unhistorical and wrong to either take the methods of the past and apply them to today or to take the values of today and seek to apply them to the past.
What we can and should do is to try and learn lessons from the spirit of times past – and to use these lessons to renew our country.
Our revolution was driven by men and women of great practical idealism. They didn’t just want to change the names and backgrounds of the people who ran the country, they wanted to build a country which was close to its people and subject to their will. This made them highly innovative and open to questioning even basic assumptions.
The state which has developed from our revolution is today one of the longest continuously democratic states in the world. Its republican constitution is 75 years old and has been in place longer than any written constitution in Europe. These are facts to be proud of – but the need for ongoing radical reform is obvious.
The men and women who served alongside Liam Mellows were radicals – they would have seen a time of crisis as a time to re-evaluate and to renew.
In the last two decades our country achieved a historic breakthrough in establishing a national consensus in relation to the future of political relations on this island. We should be just as resolute in seeking a new political settlement within this state. A crisis as profound as the economic and social crisis of today cannot be solved without a deep renewal of our politics.
Yesterday the Constitutional Convention was inaugurated on the basis of an extremely limited range of issues and timescale. Nothing in the agenda imposed by government would change any substantive aspect of how this country is governed. Not one power held by government or the Oireachtas would be altered. No attempt would be undertaken to reconnect the people to their democracy.
A decade of commemorations is underway which will soon turn to the events which founded this state. The best way to commemorate those events would be to undertake a genuine programme of democratic renewal, starting with moves to reduce the stranglehold which government has on nearly every political decision in our country.
The execution of Liam Mellows and his comrades 90 years ago was a very dark moment in our history. It deepened divisions and undermined the legitimacy of the new state. On a human level, men who had served their country loyally were lost to the cause of building it. Many of their colleagues, such as Seán Lemass and Frank Aiken, were later to form the most dynamic generation of constitutional and economic state builders.
There is no doubt that Liam Mellows gave great service to our country. Let us celebrate what he helped to achieve and let us mourn the loss of such a vibrant man who would no doubt have achieved much more if he had lived.