Analysis: no family rivalled the prominence of the Ryans during the War of Independence, but few were as bitterly divided by the aftermath

Very few families could match the revolutionary record of the Ryan family of Tomcoole, Co Wexford. This large family produced several dedicated Cumann na mBan activists, namely Min, Agnes, Nell, Kit and Phyllis. Their brother Jim, a member of the Irish Volunteers, was medical officer in the GPO and was elected as a TD in the first Dáil. By the end of the War of Independence, Min was married to Richard Mulcahy, IRA chief of staff; Agnes was married to former IRB president Denis McCullough and Kit was married to the prominent Sinn Féin diplomat and future president of Ireland Seán T. O'Kelly (after Kit's death in 1934, O'Kelly went on to marry her sister Phyllis two years later after receiving a papal dispensation). Jim had married Máirín Cregan, a member of Cumann na mBan.

The family was united in the pursuit of Irish independence until the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. This granted the Irish Free State dominion status, but not a republic, leading to fierce divisions in the country. Supporters of the Treaty regarded this settlement as a major step in the pursuit of national independence but to its detractors it betrayed the republic declared in 1916.

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The divisions that soon plagued the country were replicated in microcosm within the Ryan family. Jim, Phyllis, Nell and Kit and their respective spouses opposed the Treaty, while Min and Agnes and their husbands were in favour. Whereas Min argued that the Treaty was a means of achieving the republic, the intractable Nell dismissed Michael Collins's 'grand Charter of Liberty' as a 'myth’.

Likewise, Máirín thought it better to continue the war with Britain, with all the death that entailed, rather than accept an inadequate settlement. Her husband and the other anti-Treaty siblings were not so obstinate. In fact, their pro-Treaty relatives would later allege that they initially supported the Treaty only to be moved into opposition by Seán T. O’Kelly and Éamon de Valera. Conversely, Jim recalled Min originally being in ‘a fever of excitement’ against the Treaty. He also regarded Mulcahy as blindly following Collins: ‘no matter what Mick Collins said Dick Mulcahy thought he was right.’

The Dáil vote in favour of the Treaty in January 1922 further solidified the differences between proponents and opponents. Cumann na mBan soon split as well, resulting in Min and others forming an alternative organisation for the pro-Treaty minority. Elsewhere, efforts were made to stop the fractious descent. Mulcahy admirably tried to keep the IRA somewhat united, while Jim and his Dáil colleagues attempted to resolve the differences between both factions and so avoid the ‘terrible consequences.’ Indeed, there was hope that some sort of unity could be maintained as both wings of Sinn Féin fought the 1922 election on a joint platform. The party in Wexford was particularly united in its campaign, with the pro-Treaty Agnes campaigning vigorously on behalf of her anti-Treaty brother.

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But the division could only be patched over for so long before a mixture of provocation, frustration and pressure resulted in the new National army shelling the anti-Treaty garrison in the Four Courts in June 1922. People on both sides now retreated into their respective camps. Jim immediately rallied to his beleaguered comrades, while Mulcahy, now serving as minister for defence, urged his soldiers to put aside past friendships in suppressing the 'irregulars'.

The government forces quickly asserted their military dominance, winning the battle in the capital and then moving to assert their authority across the country. Within a few months, both Jim and Seán T. O’Kelly were imprisoned during which time their contempt for their opponents only increased. The focus of their ire was Mulcahy, the ‘one man to blame for all this’ as Jim put it. Jim wanted Mulcahy exposed for all the hardship that he believed he was now responsible for. This is indicative of the hatred that the Civil War caused, even within once united families.

The failure of the anti-Treaty forces to hold territory by conventional military means resulted in a reversion to guerrilla tactics. This included targeting supporters of the new regime. Denis McCullough, who was not in any position of authority, was among those targeted, when his Dublin music shop was bombed at the end of 1922. Even though Jim and Máirín had regarded McCullough warmly before the Treaty, they were unsympathetic when their brother-in-law's business was destroyed. The bombing deepened divisions within the family because it was criticised by another more neutral-minded sister, much to Máirín’s irritation.

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Mulcahy and his government were unrepentant in putting down all resistance, which infamously included the policy of executions. This horrified many and Min was urged by her sisters to try make Mulcahy show mercy. This was in vain. Min's sisters may have hoped that her heart was not in the Treaty cause. It was in this belief that at least one of her sisters suggested that Min take the extraordinary step of leaving her husband. Evidently, the oath to the republic took precedence over any marital vows.

But the perception that Min was simply being led by her husband was somewhat misplaced and she was quite willing to defend the government’s actions to uphold the Treaty settlement. When most of the family was aggrieved over the March 1923 execution of Jim Parle, a family friend from Wexford, Min wrote to the young man’s mother. The letter was reportedly a ‘long sermon’ ‘full of controversy’ in defence of the Treaty.

The pressure on Min only increased further when Nell was arrested for her rebellious activities in April 1923. Nell immediately began a hunger strike to force her release. Once again, Min received agonised appeals from her family to use her influence to have her sister released. In an impossible position, Min was distressed about her sister’s welfare even though Nell believed that Min could not show such concern.

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Fortunately, Nell did not die. When her health deteriorated, the government acquiesced and this prevented a family tragedy. The imminent end of the Civil War perhaps also helped. The Free State’s ultimate victory still left them with thousands of republican prisoners, which included Jim and O’Kelly.

Frustration with their continued imprisonment led the prisoners to launch a mass hunger strike towards the end of 1923. While most prisoners abandoned the strike relatively quickly, the most intractable, including Jim, remained ready to make a ‘last desperate stand.’ For Jim, surrendering to Mulcahy, the ‘Murderer-in-Chief’, was completely anathema. He repeatedly made it clear to his family that no-one was to appeal to his powerful relations under any circumstances. Death was preferable to engagement with his erstwhile comrade and brother-in-law. Ultimately, the strike was called off before Jim had to sacrifice his life.

Despite their zeal, no member of the Ryan family was killed during the Civil War. At a national level, the scars and bitterness of the Civil War cut to the bone and persisted for decades. Fortunately, however, familial bonds allowed significant reconciliation within the Ryan family in a relatively short number of years. No family rivalled the prominence enjoyed by the Ryans during the War of Independence period and sadly few families were as bitterly divided by the Treaty. During the opening battle of the Civil War, Mulcahy spoke of the madness within. One wonders if privately he had not just the country at large in mind, but also his in-laws.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ