Book Review of Richard Mulcahy from the Politics of War to the Politics of Peace 1913-1924 by Padraig O Caoimh, Irish Academic Press 2019

Rating: 4.5/5


  • A long overdue biography on a vital founder of the Irish Free State and Irish Army
  • Rich analysis that is easy to read
  • Provides needed context on the IRB’s role during the Irish-Anglo War and the Irish Civil War


  • Provides little personal information about Richard Mulcahy
  • A few chapters are dense because of the amount of information being presented
  • There needs to a second volume

This biography is long overdue and excels at bringing Mulcahy out of Collin’s shadow, highlighting a career of various ups and down during the Irish War of Independence as well as the Irish Civil War.

Richard Mulcahy born on May 10, 1886 in Waterford, fought one of the few successful engagements during Easter Rising, served as Chief of Staff of the IRA during the War for Independence, and served as Chief of Staff and Minister of Defense (after Collins died) during the Irish Civil War. However, he was always overshadowed by the giants of the Irish State such as Collins and De Valera. Only recently have historians started to explore his role beyond the executions during the Irish Civil War and the 1924 Army Mutiny.

General Richard Mulcahy Image: Wikicommons

O Caoimh broke his biography up into ten different stages of Mulcahy’s transition from quiet postal service worker to founder of the Irish Army and lightning rod for controversy. He utilizes this structure to help us understand how Mulcahy was both shaped and resisted social and political develops within Ireland, making him both a man of his times and out of sync with time.

When Mulcahy was at his best, he managed the IRA ‘army’, a motley collection of angry people with itchy trigger fingers and lack of arms to achieve the damage they wanted to against the British, acted as a buffer between Cathal Brugha and Michael Collins while De Valera was in America, and provided the dull, but vital organizational work of a Chief of Staff required to build a non-partisan army during an active civil war. I would argue that his greatest achievement was his role in keeping the Irish Army together after Collins’ assassination, conducting a brutal counter-terrorist campaign while also indulging in peace overtures and talks.

At his worst, he was a quarrelsome, secretive, and proud man who often did things he thought best, even behind his own government’s back, and bristled at civil interference in military affairs when the civil interests conflicted with his own interests (yet, it must be noted that when he was requested to resign from his Minister of Defense position after the Army Mutiny, he did as ordered and endured a humiliating investigation into his past without resisting in any form that wasn’t proper in a democracy).

O Caoimh doesn’t shy from pointing out Mulcahy’s flaws or highlighting his contradictions but is a fair biographer. Actually, I was surprised he found less flaw with Mulcahy’s enforcement of the Civil War executions and focused more on his overall difficult relationship with O’Higgins and his handling of the Army Mutiny. I also disagree with O Caoimh that Mulcahy’s decision to arrest the mutineers without the government’s permission was naive. It was a calculated decision, one he had made many times before, that was meant to break the government (as they often did whenever he made his own decisions during the civil war).

However, he works hard to contextualize those flaws within the times and Mulcahy’s own mental state (Mulcahy often became pig-headed and silent when under deep stress). O Caoimh also goes out of his way to explain the logic behind some of Mulcahy’s deepest foes, providing a welcomed insight into the Collins-Mulcahy-Brugha controversy as well as Cosgrave’s and O’Higgins’ deep mistrust of army command, especially Mulcahy.

O Caoimh’s greatest contribution is highlighting Mulcahy’s deep involvement with the secretive and conspiratorial IRB. The IRB was an old oath-bound organization that was developed by the Young Irelanders in the 1840s and resurrected by Tom Clarke and Sean MacDiarmada (two leaders of Easter Rising). Collins and Mulcahy were members as were several IRA men, but there was also a group of IRA men who distrusted the IRB such as De Valera, Brugha, and O’Higgins. O Caoimh makes the argument that both Collins and Mulcahy were active in keeping the IRB alive during the War of Independence and that Collins and Mulcahy were planning to use the IRB to build a new Irish elite following the Civil War. O Caoimh argues that after Collins’ death, Mulcahy, while holding no formal leadership position within the IRB, was instrumental in reshaping it, even hoping that he could use the IRB to infiltrate important positions within the Irish Government and then turn it into a political party. This is the first time I’ve read of the IRB being so involved in reorganizing Irish politics as well as Mulcahy’s and Collins’ involvement.

Quite frankly, I think Mulcahy tried to build the Army around an IRB heart because he felt hated and isolated by the Cosgrave government, was hated by the anti-Treatyites, and even small sections of his own army was beginning to grumble about mutinying against him. He felt he could only trust the IRB and so he wanted to surround himself with IRB men (during the Civil War, he frequently negotiated with Liam Lynch, another IRB man). Whether that would eventually turn into a quiet take over of other powerful government positions and later a political party or if he just wanted to create a small safe area for himself within the government is up for debate.

While O Caoimh’s work on IRB is welcomed, I think there are certain chapters where he makes things overly complicated as he tries to trace Mulcahy’s development simultaneously with the IRB’s development. I hope he will work on a book on the IRB, as his research and writing is impeccable and the IRB is clearly a core interest for him.

The only major flaw of this biography is that it barely covers Mulcahy’s personal life or

richard and wife
Richard and Min Mulcahy Image: Wikicommons

how his religion affected his work during the wars. He mentions that Mulcahy was a deeply committed Catholic and mentions his trouble with his wife’s family, but it would have been interesting to see how the pressures of rebelling affected his family life and faith and vice versa.

I also disagreed with his need to rank Mulcahy against Collins in his conclusion chapter. While I doubt anyone could replace Collins and Mulcahy certainly struggled to escape his shadow-with his own people and within historical context-I think he did enough to stand on his own and deserves to be acknowledged as Collins’ equal, not a subordinate within Irish history.

My other complaint is that O Caoimh ends the book right after the mutiny. I understand why he structured the book the way he did, but I have yet to find a biography that covers Mulcahy’s entire life and that is a shame since Mulcahy played a large role in creating Fine Gael and I would enjoy reading O Caoimh’s analysis of his handling of the Blue Shirt disaster (Irish fascists) and his attempts to defeat De Valera at the polls. Here’s to hoping there will some day be a volume two to this greatly needed biography.

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