Richard Mulcahy

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Richard Mulcahy (1886-1971) was an Irish revolutionary and politician. Born on 10 June 1886 in Waterford town, Ireland, he was the second child and eldest son of Patrick Mulcahy and Elizabeth Slattery. He was educated by the Christian brothers first in Waterford (to 1897) and latterly in Thurles, co. Tipperary (1898-1902). Subsequently he attended Kevin Street technical college (1908) and Bolton street technical college (to 1914), and trained as an engineer in the Post Office. On 2 June 1919 he married Mary Josephine O’Ryan (1884-1977) in co. Wexford. They had six children.

Mulcahy joined the Wexford and later the Keating branches of the Gaelic League. He also joined the Teeling branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1907, echoing the familiar paths of many Irish revolutionaries of the period. He joined the volunteers at their formation on 23 November 1913. Mulcahy was in Dublin in the post office engineering department when the 1916 Rising began. He joined Thomas Ashe of the Fingal volunteers as his second in command; their engagement at Ashbourne barracks, co. Meath, on 28 April was one of the few successful actions of the 1916 rising. He was afterwards interned with most of the other Rebel prisoners in Frongoch prison in Wales. After his release that December as part of a general amnesty he became part of the leadership of the volunteers, first as the commanding officer of the 2nd Dublin battalion and subsequently as officer commanding the Dublin Brigade.

In October 1917 Mulcahy was appointed director of training of the volunteer executive and in March 1918 he was appointed chief of staff of the newly formed general headquarters staff of the Irish volunteers. As such, he became one of the architects of the Irish War of Independence, along with the other brains of the headquarters staff, such as Michael Collins. However, few recognised as well as Mulcahy the effective limitations the headquarters had in leading the fight throughout the provinces. Mulcahy’s organisational prowess, often overlooked as a result of the Michael Collins legacy, formed a vital component in the war. With Collins he was responsible for forging the volunteers into the army which, by fighting a guerrilla war, forced the British to the negotiation table and subsequently to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Mulcahy remained chief of staff during the six months of the truce up until the ratification of the treaty by Dáil Éireann in January 1922. He supported the treaty and, with Collins, worked arduously to prevent the army from splitting over the contentious agreement.

Mulcahy was first elected to Dáil Éireann in the 1918 election and, apart from interludes following defeats at the general elections of 1937 and 1943, remained a TD until 1961. In January 1922 Mulcahy was appointed Minister for Defence in the post treaty Free State government. When civil war broke out he returned to the army as chief of staff and Michael Collins, who was then chairman of the provisional government and de facto leader of the country, returned to the army as commander-in-chief. These two men guided the nation through the horror of civil war until Collins was killed on 22 August 1922 in an anti-treaty ambush. Mulcahy, who was passed over in favour of W.T. Cosgrave to lead the government, then became commander-in-chief as well as minister for defence, assuming the responsibility for the survival of the Free State (However, at this stage the Free State had effectively won the war). After Collins’ death Mulcahy assumed the task of finishing off the irregulars and the subsequent demobilisation of the army. His absorption with the army however did blind him to the growing anti-military feeling within the cabinet and at times clouded his judgement. An example of this was his encouragement of the revived IRB in the army ranks – an action intended to counteract IRA influence in the army and promote loyalty to the Free State, but interpreted by some as mutiny.

Mulcahy played an important role in the setting of ethical boundaries during the civil war so as to prevent a slide into anarchy. His most controversial policy, the summary execution of untried prisoners, was an attempt to restrain and control violence in the army. After the Civil War he continued as minister for defence in the Free State cabinet until the army mutiny of March 1924. A number of senior officers, led by General Liam Tobin, demanded the resignation of the army council, which included Mulcahy. The cabinet, in which elements were extremely wary of the influence of the army (Such as Kevin O’Higgins) ordered an inquiry and – over Mulcahy’s head – appointed Eoin O’Duffy, the chief of the Garda Síochana (Police) to the army command. On 18 March the mutineers gathered in a Dublin pub with the appearance of hostile intent. The adjutant-general, having consulted Mulcahy, ordered their arrest, upon which the cabinet demanded, and got, the resignation of the army council. By resigning on the call of the government, and by refusing to appeal to the army to repudiate the government’s decision, Mulcahy and the generals on the army council affirmed that the new state would be ruled by civilian government, and the army de-politicised. The removal of the Irish army from the political process was one of Mulcahy’s most important contributions to the fledgling state.

After his resignation as minister for defence Mulcahy was briefly cast into the political wilderness. He chaired the Gaeltacht commission in 1925-6, a post to which he was well suited due to his lifelong passion for the Irish language. In 1927, under pressure from the rank and file of the pro treaty Cumann na nGaedhal, Cosgrave appointed him minister for local government and public health. He was Cosgrave’s most active loyalist and assumed the leadership of the party’s successor, Fine Gael, when Cosgrave retired in 1944. Having lost his Dublin seat during the previous years’ general election, Mulcahy found a route back into politics via south Tipperary. He travelled the length and breadth of the twenty six counties campaigning for the increasingly unpopular Fine Gael. Although lacking expertise in several policy areas – particular economic policy – Mulcahy steadied Fine Gael and established them as a major opposition party in Irish politics.

Mulcahy was a moving force behind the formation of the inter-party government in 1948. He organised the coalition and, being still dogged by associations dating from the civil war, stood aside for John Costello, a less controversial member of Fine Gael, to become Taoiseach, thus ensuring that Eamon de Valera and Fianna Fáil would be deprived of power. The inter party government was defeated in 1951, but was re-elected in 1954 for a further three year period. On both occasions Mulcahy was minister for education.

Mulcahy resigned the leadership of Fine Gael in October 1959 and left the Dáil at the next election. He spent much of his retirement annotating and sorting his extensive collection of papers which spanned his long and distinguished public and military life. He also recorded numerous conversations with contemporaries, family members, and historians about the revolutionary period and as such his collection is well regarded by historians of the period today.

Mulcahy died on 16 December 1971 of cancer at his home in Dublin. His role in the war of independence and his contributions to the birth of Irish democracy are often overlooked, partly due to the political ascendancy of Fianna Fáil from 1932.