EOIN MacNeill, scholar, chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers, Government minister, unintentional architect of the Six Counties statelet, cowardly assassin and formulator of the compulsory Irish policy in schools, was born 150 years ago on May 15th, 1867.
And, unlike the hoopla that has surrounded less distinguished people who participated in the War of Independence and in the foundation of the State, commemorations are not planned to honour MacNeill’s commitment to the national cause.
The reason is not hard to find: his involvement in the Civil War and, as a government minister, his enthusiastic endorsement of the Provisional Government’s grotesque reprisal-execution policy. In 1922, he seconded a proposal to shoot former comrades, O’Connor, McKelvey, Barrett and Mellows.
These celebrated Republicans were internees and had not been tried by any court but were selected for death on the basis that they were the most prominent of the Republican prisoners then held by MacNeill’s Free State government
A brutal act
Even today, the savagery of these judicial murders has the capacity to shock. In his book ‘The Irish Counter-Revolution 1921-1936,’ historian John M Regan, describes the killings as a ‘brutal and an utterly ruthless act without pretence of legality.’
In all, according to Tod Andrews, 153 people fell victim to extrajudicial killings committed by government forces from June 1922 to August 1923 and to which MacNeill voiced no opposition. Add to that the depredations of the National Army (Ballyseedy and the atrocities in Kerry, etc.) and the vile truth emerges that the government, which claimed to uphold law and order, surpassed the Black and Tan campaign in scale and horror.
Thomas Johnson, leader of the Labour party, declared in a Dáil debate that the summary execution of republicans ‘rendered the government morally indistinguishable from the previous British administration.’
Not that MacNeill was afraid of public contempt and condemnation. He did what he thought was right and, indeed, had earlier demonstrated his single-mindedness when he countermanded the 1916 Easter Rising, a move that threw the armed rebellion into confusion.
Mrs Thomas Clarke, wife of the Proclamation signatory, denounced MacNeill as a traitor, and James Connolly had to restrain the fiery Countess Markiewicz from gunning down MacNeill.
Although he was chairman of the council that formed the Irish Volunteers, and later chief of staff, McNeill had no role in the rebellion or its planning. Indeed he opposed it, arguing there was little hope of success against the British Army and that the defeat would lead to a collapse in support for Home Rule.
A major player in the politics of the day, he was not a pacifist. His politics were right wing and pro-Treaty, and in 1923 he helped establish Cumann na Gaedhael, a party that later morphed into Fine Gael.
His political nemesis caught up with him on his appointment to the Irish Boundary Commission, which met during 1924-25 and whose purpose was to delineate a permanent border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.
A ‘provisional’ border between Northern and Southern Ireland already existed. It been put in place as part of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, while the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty allowed for a Border Commission to adjudicate on the exact location of the border in the event of Northern Ireland deciding to break away from the Irish Free State, which of course it did.
The Free State had great hopes for the Border Commission and, on the basis that, most border areas had nationalist majorities, naively expected the transfer of a considerable amount of land to the South, and that the boundary line would be established in accordance with the wishes of local nationalist and unionist majorities.
But, argued unionists, since Counties Fermanagh, Tyrone, Derry city and many electoral divisions of Armagh had large nationalist majorities, the secession of these areas would make the Six Counties unable to function as a political entity in its own right. Consequently, unionists demanded that the ‘provisional’ border should remain unchanged.
In an act of gross arbitrariness that was to condemn Northern nationalists to decades of discrimination and violence, WT Cosgrave and his Free State government agreed with the unionists, although MacNeill had reservations. He refused to accept the outcome of the Commission and, to his credit, resigned from that body.
From that point onwards, the partition of the country was inevitable; the carve-up being motivated in accordance with unionist objectives. The Dublin government showed such cynical disregard for nationalist interests that the Border Commission report was not made public until 1969!
MacNeill failed miserably in protecting his northern kith and kin. Some historians suggest he was never the man for the job and that Cosgrave, who was negotiating a complex debt trade-off in return for the border staying as it was, cynically permitted that MacNeill was outflanked in negotiations. Two years later, he lost his Dáil seat.
His political career in bits and despised by large sections of the public, he retired from politics. The denigration of his achievements has persisted to the present day.
And in this commemorative era, when the memory of local two-bit heroes is honoured by some observance, MacNeill, who was a major player in the establishment of the State, has become a forgotten figure. In the meantime, his grandson, Michael MacDowell, (founder member of the Progressive Democrats) is trying to rehabilitate his reputation.
Perhaps oblivion was Eoin MacNeill’s historic fate, considering his legacy as a merciless government minister. Also a factor was the fact that people never have been able to decide if MacNeill’s legacy was that of patriot, traitor or clown.
Charitable folk prefer to think he was nothing more than an academic playing at politics – the likes of which Ireland would have been better without.
Pain in the neck
And now for something different: Penny, an avid South Kensington reader of this column, last week spotted a prominent female FG politico slip into an auction at Christies and … wait for it … bid for a North European Vampire Slaying Kit!
Amongst other bits and bobs, the kit consisted of various glass tubes, three crucifixes, a Bible, a mirror, a dagger, a hammer and a pistol. The case was 7 in. high, 19 in. wide and 13 in. deep, and was sold to the lady who looked remarkably like … no we can’t reveal her identity … life is too short and, as is traditional with vampires, it’s always love at first bite. She paid a whopping £4,375.
Which, of course, prompted this comment in Dinty’s: ‘What’s the difference between a politico and a vampire? Answer: the vampire stops when you’re bled dry.’
That prompted even more awful attempts at humour in a jugular vein, such as: ‘Why do vampires read The Southern Star? Because it has great circulation!’
Geddit? (You’re fired – Ed).