Austin Stack was blamed by many for the disaster that befell the German guns plan in Kerry, but he played a key role later in the first Dáil.
By Ryle Dwyer, Irish Examiner
It seemed like the events in Kerry during the run up to the Easter Rebellion were one debacle after another. Some held Austin Stack responsible for failing to rescue Casement. “Austin was blamed by some for not trying to organise a rescue,” his wife Una later recalled. “I know he felt very sore about it. He always said his orders were definite, that no shot should be fired before the start of general hostilities on Easter Sunday and he knew well that any fracas that might take place in Tralee would frustrate all the plans made for the Rising,” she explained.
Despite the failure either to help Casement, or to contact the Aud in Tralee Bay, Stack was held in very high regard by leaders, like Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins.
Stack formed a particular bond with Collins, whose correspondence with Stack in jail, provides the best insight into Collins’s thinking. They could hardly have known each other very well at the time, but Collins wrote to him in effusive terms. “I was very glad to get your letter, especially the personal note which I appreciated,” Collins wrote to Stack on August 29, 1918. “Without insincerity I can say that I do appreciate it more from yourself than from anyone I know.
“As for us on the outside,” Collins wrote to Stack the week after helping to spring de Valera from Lincoln Jail, “all ordinary peaceful means are ended and we shall be taking the only alternative actions in a short while now.”
He was planning to provoke war with the British. His plan was to undermine the Dublin Castle by destroying the regime’s intelligence system, which was dependent on police and detectives around the country.
“To paralyse the British machine it was necessary to strike at individuals,” Collins later explained. Without their police, Dublin Castle would be virtually deaf and blind. The British would, of course, retaliate, but if they did so blindly, without proper intelligence, they would inevitably hit innocent Irish people and drive the Irish people into the arms of the Republicans.
De Valera had no intention of leading such a war, and Collins betrayed his frustration in letters to Stack. “It is very bad,” he wrote. “The chief actor was very firm on the withdrawal, as indeed was Cathal. I used my influence the other way, and was in a practical minority of one. It may be that all arguments were sound, but it seems to me that they have put up a challenge which strikes at the fundamentals of our policy and our attitude.”
Sinn Féin politicians were making things “intolerable” for the militants. “The policy now seems to be to squeeze out anyone who is tainted with strong fighting ideas, or should I say the utility of fighting,” Collins complained, The party’s standing committee comprised of talkers and thinkers, rather than men of action.
“We have too many of the bargaining type already,” Collins grumbled to Stack in May 1919. “I am not sure that our movement or part of it is alive to the developing situation.”
For more than a year, Collins had been hoping to spring Stack from prison, but on each occasion, Stack was moved to another jail. While Stack was in Strangeways jail in Manchester, Collins visited him in the prison to finalise plans for his successful escape on October 25, 1919. Collins then visited him in hiding to finalise arrangements for his return to Dublin.
Collins also used his influence to have Stack appointed IRA deputy chief of staff under Richard Mulcahy. But from the day of his appointment in 1919 until the Truce in July 1921, Stack never attended any meeting of the headquarters staff.
Following the arrest of acting President Arthur Griffith in November 1920, both Cathal Brugha and Stack were offered the post of acting President, but both declined it. Stack said he was too busy establishing the Republican Courts.
As a result, Collins became the acting President for four hectic weeks. The strain was tremendous. “Those of us who were in constant touch with him always possessed the fear that he would collapse under it,” Seán Ó Muirthile wrote.
Collins could be a hard taskmaster. “Your department, Austin, is nothing but a bloody joke,” he told Stack one day.
When Stack had the temerity to make a financial suggestion, the Big Fellow snapped, “What the hell do you know about finance?” “I know more about finance, than you know about manners!” Stack replied.
It was “easy to work with” Stack, according to Pádraic O’Keeffe, who served as joint national secretary of Sinn Féin with him. “Of course,” O’Keeffe added rather pointedly, “he did no work.”
Within the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) it was the same story, according to P.S. O’Hegarty, a historian who had been very active in the IRB. “Many of the County Centres were just ornamental,” he noted. “Austin Stack was County Centre for Kerry, for instance, in all these years but neither [Michael] Crowe nor Diarmuid Lynch who succeeded him as divisional representatives for Munster, could get him to do anything, and his removal from office for laziness was many times mooted — but there was nobody else on offer.” It was significant that one of de Valera’s first moves following his return from the US in December 1920 was to appoint Stack deputy president.
Once the Truce came into force in July 1921, the IRA headquarters staff insisted on the replacement of Stack with Eoin O’Duffy as Deputy Chief of Staff, much to de Valera’s indignation. The week before the Treaty was signed, the President invited members of HQ staff to sit in with cabinet members to discuss his plans for Stack and O’Duffy to act as joint deputy chief of staff.
Each member of the headquarters objected to Stack’s appointment before de Valera became exasperated. “Ye may mutiny, if ye like, but Ireland will give me another Army,” he said.
The leadership of the movement was not a happy band of brothers prior to the signing of the Treaty. The divisions only became apparent to the public in its aftermath.
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