Ernie O’Malley has always appeared as somewhat of an enigma to me. A veteran of the War of Independence and the following Civil War, he remained puritanical in his vision for an Irish Republic and held an uncompromising belief that any violence used in attaining same was soundly and morally justified. His politics never deviated from the creation of the Republic, his head never turned and he was happy to play the part of the consummate soldier.
His works on the War of Independence (“On Another Man’s Wound”) and the Civil War (“The Singing Flame”) are easily two of the best books on the Revolutionary period, his style a descriptive pose capable of painting a vivid scene. Covering the period July 1921 to July 1924, The Singing Flame commences around the 1921 Truce and runs right through to the death of Liam Lynch and as such the cataclysmic aftermath of the split and all it entailed feature heavily and heartrendingly.
For the purpose of this article though, the book goes into great detail about the occupation, defence of and surrender of the Four Courts during the Battle of Dublin (in which O’Malley’s younger brother also fought, under Oscar Traynor in ‘The Block’ on O’Connell Street.) There are articles to be written about that event in detail and no doubt there will be given the upcoming centenaries but an interesting character jumped out on my last reading of the book that I can find no record of anywhere else- a well coiffured American Dandy gun-runner who had somehow been taken prisoner in the Four Courts.
Already we had one prisoner near the guardroom. He was a professional gun-runner. He entertained us with stories of Mexico and of the South American Republics. He passed comments on the hotels in Dublin; there was only one where a person could eat in comfort. I expect the food from the Officer’s Mess was not much to his liking. He was rather tall, well dressed, with light fair hair and a slight mustache varying between fair and white, well pointed at the ends, he must have used some kind of grease. He was accused of trying to double cross some of our agents in Belgium and Germany who were attempting to purchase arms. He protested vigorously. This was an outrage, it was the first time he had ever been arrested. He was told it might be the last time, and his smile, showing a few gold teeth, dwindled away. His nasal voice was not raised so often now.
After O’Malley’s escape from Dublin, he describes making his way to Bray where he encountered the prisoner again.
What South Dublin had been doing since the attack on the Courts I could not imagine. A man walked over from the hotel door. He was the American gun-runner whom we had released a few hours before the attack on the Four Courts began. He inquired for Liam Mellows and Paddy O’Brien. ‘I liked them well,’ he said. ‘I sure am sorry about O’Brien. They were good boys in there.’ He flashed his gold- toothed smile. ‘I’m waiting for the next boat, glad to go; this country of yours is too sharp for me.’ ‘If you send us a consignment of trench mortars,’ I said, ‘no one will quarrel with you about your excess profits.’
The Easter Rising and the War of Independence have their fair share of tales of foreign influence, accounts of which can be drawn down from the Bureau of Military History’s Witness Statements and the Military Service Pensions Collection. The Civil War, given the Republican side’s principled refusal for the most part to deal with the Free State relies on O’Malley’s own collection “The Men Will Talk to Me” for any anecdotal evidence relating to the period. I’ve searched several other sources relating to the Four Courts occupation but can’t find any other references to the prisoner- any help would be appreciated!