Book Review: Portrait of a Revolutionary

Portrait of a Revolutionary General Richard Mulcahy and the Founding of the Irish Free State by Maryann Valiulis Published in 1992 by University Press of Kentucky

Richard Mulcahy is a criminally underappreciated Irishmen. Born in the 1890s and starting his career as a postal worker, he would eventually study to become an engineer, before taking part in Easter Rising, and ending up as Chief of Staff of the IRA. Working together with men like Michael Collins, Eamon De Valera, and Cathal Brugha, Mulcahy struggled to install order on an unruly group of insurgents. His most important contribution to the creation of the Irish Free State, however, was his firm leadership during the Irish Civil War and the 1924 Mutiny that followed. The Mutiny pushed him to the background as De Valera took the spotlight, but Mulcahy remained a permanent feature of Irish Politics becoming party leader of Fine Gael in 1944 and serving in a various number of ministries throughout his long life. He even cobbled together a coalition government that forced De Valera’s party to the opposition in the 1948 elections. He died in 1971 at the age of 85.

Despite all this, Maryann Valiulis’ biography is the only biography I can find on him and it was published back in 1992. While Townshend brings Mulcahy back to the proper spotlight in his book The Republic (and was the reason I took an interest in Mulcahy) he seems to be the steady rock that people overlook because of the insanity that is De Valera’s mixed reputation and the larger than life mythos that surrounds Michael Collins to this day. Vaiulis’ biography goes a long way to reassessing Mulcahy’s legacy and it would probably have met with his approval.

Like him, it is quiet, to the point, and fairly unbiased. While Maryann goes a long way to clarify what Mulcahy did during for the IRA, she doesn’t try to take any of the spotlight from Collins or De Valera. Instead, Maryann explains in clear terms how Mulcahy fits between those two influences and makes a fairly convincing argument that Mulcahy was the only stable thing in the IRA from the beginning of the Anglo-Irish war to the 1924 Mutiny and he is mostly responsible for the first Irish government’s survival and the loyalty of the army following the Civil War.

Maryann frames Mulcahy’s life as the eternal struggle of legitimizing an insurgency force and, later, a state born out of a blood insurgency and civil war. During the Anglo-Irish War, Mulcahy was obsessed with making the IRA sound like a regular army, while also acknowledging the need for irregular tactics. He was close to Collins, but also disapproved of some of the extreme methods Collins supported. He also insisted that the Dail and political leadership of the IRA be respected but grew snippy when De Valera and Brugha tried to interfere in ‘army business’. However, it can be argued that he was so protective of his army because Brugha insisted on using it to curb Collins’ meteoric rise. Mulcahy tried extremely hard to ensure that the army wouldn’t take sides and, yet, his own personal loyalty and respect of Collins ensured that the army was bent towards Collins. Mulcahy’s task was an impossible one, but Maryann makes a convincing argue that he was far more successful then would have been expected and this success paid off during the Civil War and the Mutiny.

Maryann argues that the fact that the army didn’t go off on a murdering spree after the death of Collins was because of Mulcahy’s hard work at instilling discipline and respect for law and order. She argues that while the war was terrible, and his support of executions is a black mark against his reputation, the fact that more men didn’t stream to the anti-treaty side is a testament to his abilities as chief of staff. Additionally, the only reason Mulcahy supported the executions was because he believed it would stop the spiral into mass violence and because the political government was raging at him for not taking a stronger stance against the anti-treaty forces. While the executions are hard to forgive, they had a cold logic to them. They were not undertaken by a man mad with grief or desire for revenge. While I’m not sure it makes the executions easier to swallow, it goes a long way into explaining how Mulcahy worked and his views on how the army and government should function.

Maryann argues that Mulcahy’s greatest weakness was his refusal or inability to understand how the political side of the house worked. He was curt with political officials at best and did not do anything to relieve their fears during the Civil War or assure them that the power the army had amassed would not be used against the state. When the 1924 Mutiny occurred, Mulcahy used the army to break its leadership, but without formal approval of the state. This was the excuse his enemies in the Dail needed and they refuted his methods and said that his actions were treasonous. He was called to resign, and he and his staff did so. Maryann argued that, while this was a great personal defeat for Mulcahy, it was one of his greatest sacrifices for Ireland. She argues that he could have used the army to force the government to support his actions or even attempt a coup. Instead, he stepped down and told the army to support their government. They did as commanded, establishing that even when a government was unfair, it had to be obeyed.

Maryann’s biography stopped here and only gives a brief overview of his life after the mutiny, which is a shame. While he would never return to the spotlight, he was still instrumental in creating a post-civil war Ireland and he was a major player in the creation of Fine Gael and the coalition government that overthrew the De Valera government in 1948.

The only other weakness of Maryann’s biography is that there is little exploration into his personal life or private thoughts. She doesn’t mention his marriage or the fact that almost everyone in his wife’s family was anti-treaty and that one of her sisters told his wife to leave Mulcahy because he was a traitor to everything they had fought for. Nor does she dive into the relations Mulcahy had with men like Collins, Lynch, and Braugha. It is repeated many times that Mulcahy was distant and could appear cold, but at the same time he formed a strong enough friendship with Lynch that he was willing to trust him during the Civil War (a tragic mistake). He was also able to establish a strong working partnership with Collins that survived the Anglo-Irish War and the Civil War. It is also mentioned multiple times throughout the biography that Mulcahy, himself, said that he treasured the bonds made during the Anglo-Irish War, which suggests that he was a quiet, and possibly lonely man, with the capacity to make deep, long-lasting friends. It would have been interesting to have some sort of discussion as to how the Civil War shattered those bonds and their affects on Mulcahy’s inner state. Maryann mentions a number of quotes from other men’s diaries expressing admiration for Mulcahy although there is always a hint of mild annoyance at his standoffish manner. How did a man like that win the loyalty of most of his troops? How did a man like that form any sort of relationship with Collins who was known for horse playing and being boisterous? Additionally, Mulcahy’s hatred for De Valera comes out of Dev’s part in creating the Civil War and that would have been interesting to unravel further, especially since this hatred seemed to have grown into a hatred for all political men-the main reason for his downfall during the 1924 Mutiny.

Pros: A very balanced account of an interesting man who has remained a constant, but largely unexplored presence in Irish history. It provides an excellent insight into how Mulcahy organized the IRA was organized during the Anglo-Irish War, his attempts to keep the army from cracking during the Civil War, and how he rebuilt the army following the Civil War. Maryann makes strong arguments about Mulcahy’s lasting legacy on the army and that he was the stable force the IRA had during the tumultuous period between 1921-1924. She also paints an interesting picture of the divides between the army and Dail and raises the question as to why Ireland didn’t dissolve into eventual failed statehood after the British left. For Maryann, the answer is Richard Mulcahy.

Cons: The book doesn’t expand beyond the mutiny which is a shame for Mulcahy was just as invested in creating an opposition to De Valera’s government as he had been in creating an insurgency against the British. Additionally, we end the book with a deep understanding of his efforts in building an army, but we know little about the man himself. He comes across as a very quiet and distant man with a capacity of making deep and long-lasting friendships and it would have been enlightening to investigating that further.

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