Liam Mellows: Republican Enigma

Anti-Treaty leader’s personal steel was cloaked by his inoffensive character, writes Conor McNamara


Liam Mellows’ portrait by Mick O’Dea, exhibited at Triskel Christchurch, Cork, in 2015. The 600 men under his command had fewer than 30 .303 service rifles and 300 shotguns.


Liam Mellows, who led the Galway Rebels during Easter Week, was shot dead by the Irish Free State on December 8, 1922.

It was one of the first brutal executions of Anti-Treaty IRA Volunteers by the National Army during the Civil War. He was 30 years of age and had given his entire adult life to the cause of an Irish Republic.

William ‘Liam’ Mellows was born in 1892 in Lancashire, England. His father was a military officer and Liam and his brother Herbert, known as Barney, moved to Wexford in their childhood.

Inspired by their love of Irish history, the brothers became indefatigable organisers for Na Fianna Éireann boy scouts and the Irish Volunteers, formed in 1909 and 1913, respectively.

Of small stature, but physically fit, a non-drinker or smoker, Mellows’ sole relief from his life’s work of building an Irish Republic was playing his beloved fiddle for friends and comrades. Sent by HQ to organise the Galway Volunteers in March 1915, Mellows’ personal steel was cloaked by his inoffensive character.


Volunteer Frank Hynes recalled: “My impression of him was that he may be a clever lad — he was about 22 years — but couldn’t be much good at fighting… I learned later that he was determined to give his life in the fight.”

Following the Rising, Mellows escaped to the United States where he spent several unhappy years in New York involved in various capacities with Clan na nGael and other branches of the republican movement.

A close friend of Volunteer leader, Patrick McCartan, he was incarcerated in The Tombs Prison in late 1917 for entering the US without a passport.

While abroad he was elected Sinn Féin MP for both Galway East and Meath North in the December 1918 general election. On his return to Ireland in October 1920, he was appointed director of arms purchases at IRA HQ.

He implacably opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and was part of the Anti-Treaty IRA leadership that occupied the Four Courts in April 1922. Captured in the attack on the complex by the National Army, he was subsequently shot dead in December 1922, in reprisal for an attack by the Anti-Treaty IRA in which Cork TD Sean Hales was killed.

Mellows’ career is a classic example of the disenchantment among a coterie of republican leaders with the Irish revolution’s political direction. Like Patrick Pearse, he shared English ancestry, but had a profound sense of the republican cause’s righteousness, and could not countenance any form of political compromise.

Like Pearse, he held a close bond with his only intimate friend, his brother. Both were devoted to their mothers, with whom they shared their ideals for their country.

In a letter to an acquaintance in 1919 Mellows wrote with typical lack of ego:

“You place me on too high a pedestal. Someday you may turn iconoclast and then you will find that, like all idols, this one has feet of clay… And after all talk is cheap. It is the deed that counts, and there I have failed lamentably…There are men and women in Ireland today, compared with whom I am as nothing, simple, honest, knowing nothing of the maze of politics or the ways of the great world, yet, they cherished in their hearts great ideals and noble aspirations… Dreamers fanatics, intransigents, fools, yes, but unconquerable and sublime.”


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