Beer hall putsch – Frank McNally on the Free State Army Mutiny of 1924

The threat of a coup lasted until the early hours of March 19th

On the night of March 6th,1924, two senior officers in the Free State Army presented an ultimatum to government: remove the Army Council and abandon plans for mass demobilisation or face unspecified consequences.

When the executive president, WT Cosgrave, read the letter to the Dáil a few days later, he called it a “challenge to the democratic foundations of the State and [as such] the concern of every Deputy, of every party, and of every citizen”. But for a man who had been through a lot during the troubled years, this was one crisis too many. Cosgrave promptly took sick leave for a week and left Kevin O’Higgins, his minister for justice and the strong man of Government, in effective charge.

The threat of a coup lasted until the early hours of March 19th when Free State troops surrounded Liam Devlin’s pub and grocery store in Parnell Street, where a group of rebel officers had gathered to discuss their plans. What used to be Devlin’s is now the location of one of Dublin’s newer hotels, the Point A. And there, on Wednesday morning – the centenary of the ultimatum – I was a given what my host Des Gunning called a short walking tour of the site – from the hotel’s front door to the café inside – in the company John Healy, a grandson of Devlin.

The context of the 1924 mutiny, as Gunning explained over coffee, was the extraordinary militarisation of Ireland in the previous two years, when the national Army swelled to 55,000 men.

This was clearly untenable, so minister of defence Richard Mulcahy set about reducing the number to 17,000. There were, however, opposing factions involved and the demobilisation plan unsettled the fault lines. Mulcahy was head of a group of generals from the old Irish Republican Brotherhood, whose members had benefited from his influence.

The ultimatum’s signatories, meanwhile – Major Gen Liam Tobin and Col Charlie Dalton – were members of a new Irish Republican Army Organisation, set up in late 1922, which considered the Army command insufficiently “patriotic”.

Their objections included the high number of former British army men recruited to the officer corps. But Tobin’s misgivings were further heightened by the knowledge that his own job would be scrapped under Mulcahy’s plans. Also centrally involved in the drama was the minister for industry and commerce, Joe McGrath, who sympathised with the IRAO and whose house was searched during the crisis, under Mulcahy’s orders.

Devlin’s pub and shop, a four-storey building opposite the Rotunda Hospital, had played a central part in the War of Independence as a meeting place for Michael Collins’s intelligence gathering operation, with regular visitors including his man in Dublin Castle, Ned Broy.

But it was also where the 1924 crisis came to a head on the evening of 18th March 1924. Then, according to The Irish Times, “about forty men in conclave”, including Tobin and Dalton, met in an upstairs room. At about 9pm, troops ordered by Mulcahy, who had not informed the government, first attempted to rush the room but were warned off. They then instead threw a cordon around the building, with machine guns trained on the entrance.

During several tense hours that followed, McGrath made a theatrical appearance at the scene, negotiating with those inside and drawing newspaper comparisons with the role Winston Churchill had played during the siege of Sidney Street in London years before.

Some of the rebels took to the roof. A large crowd watched from the street below. Shots were fired eventually, but only in warning, it seems, although a few were reported to be of unknown origin.

The standoff ended between 3am and 4am, when most of those inside surrendered peacefully. Tobin and Dalton somehow escaped, perhaps (suggests John Healy) through tunnels below the pub.

In the compromise that followed, no charges were levelled against the mutineers. The government merely ordered an inquiry and demanded the resignations of the army council, causing Mulcahy to resign in protest and strengthening O’Higgins’s reputation.

McGrath had already handed in his resignation, it emerged, and persuaded other like-minded TDs to do so, precipitating nine byelections, which they fought under the banner of the National Party, confident of regaining seats.

In an early lesson on the complexities of the new transferrable vote system, they all lost. With the benefit of transfers, the ruling Cumann na nGaedheal won seven of the by-elections. Sinn Féin took the other two.

Not for the first time, the Rotunda Hospital had enjoyed (dangerous) ringside seats to a national drama. Not for the first time also, as Des Gunning jokes, expectant mothers witnessed the metaphorical birth-pangs of a nation while themselves enduring the real thing. As for Liam Devlin, according to his grandson, the Derry-born publican sold his Parnell Street premises soon after. He went on to have a short and successful career in construction, building Dublin’s first “garden city” suburb at Marino.

In the interim, he had also bought a small toffee factory. And he would later make his real fortune, thanks in part to the recent output of the Rotunda, from creating “Ireland’s largest children’s confectionary company”.

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