A MELLOWS FAMILY STORY
The mellows family are one of the lesser known members of the Irish republican movement. Liam (William Joseph) Mellows is the most famous of the family and although he died at the young age of 30, he managed to become a major player in republican politics.
Liam was born on 25th May, 1892 at Hartshead Military Barracks in Ashton-Under-Lyne, Lancashire, England. His Mother Sarah Jordan was born into a large family of eighteen children in a small town called Monalug, Inch, Co. Wexford.
In 1882, while working as a dressmaker in Fermoy, Co. Cork she met Liam’s father a British Army Sergeant, William Joseph Mellows, who himself was born in 1858 in Kilkenny. It was said that they fell in love at first sight and on the 8th of December 1885 they were married.
This caused some astonishment within Sarah’s family as the Jordans were staunch Republicans. However it was obvious that Sarah and Williams love was real, so the family did not interfere and gave the newlyweds their blessing. Sarah was asked several times over the following years about her relationship with someone from the enemy and whenever her loyalty was questioned she always responded by stating “How could I be anything but a republican, being a Co. Wexford woman”.
Sadly, in 1889 Sarah and William’s first born son John died at childbirth. Sarah and William set up home in various army garrisons in Manchester and Glasgow and in 1895, when the family were very young, Staff Sergeant Mellows was offered the
post of Provost Marshal of the Curragh. A post that carried a commission, on condition that he compromised his Catholic faith by what was represented to be a token attendance at the Protestant garrison church. He refused. His Colonel then suggested that before coming to a final decision he should consult Mrs. Mellows, as a commission would mean a pension to her after his death. Sarah saw the Colonel herself, on her own and her family’s behalf, but refused the offer just as firmly.
They moved permanently to 21 Mountshannon Road, Rialto, Kilmainham which was heavily populated with British army families. Despite Sarah’s Republican background they fitted into the community with ease. Liam, however, remained in Wexford with his grandfather Patrick Jordan, due to his ill health.
As a youth he had attended the military school in Wellington Barracks in Cork and the Portobello garrison school in Dublin. Liam had two other brothers, Barney and Frederick and a sister named Jenny. The Mellows family were devastated when Jenny, who was studying for a teaching profession and Frederick, died at an early age from tuberculosis.
All the Mellows family were very musical, Liam being a talented violin player and said to be very like his father; both had a rook-like stature, a serious mind and an undying loyalty for what was right. William hoped that Liam would follow in his footsteps and take up a career in the British army but much to his father’s disappointment Liam refused a military career, and in 1908 found work as a bookkeeper in Goodbody’s tobacco factory. His father accepted his decision and did not attempt to influence him.
In 1911 Liam, Barney and Frederick joined the Irish National Boy Scouts, Na Fianna Eireann. Through the Fianna, Sarah was introduced and became friends with many of the most prominent nationalists and also the women within the movement. She had a close friendship with Mary “Molly” Woods, Aine Ceannt and Countess Markievicz.
Sarah supported her son’s involvement in the independence movements but this did not affect her relationship with William and they remained very much in love. Barney was appointed Battalion Commander of Dolphins Barn and Director of Finance of the Dublin Fianna until his arrest in 1917. Liam became the Fianna’s main organiser before being enlisted into the IRB and he was also on the co-founding committee of the Irish Volunteers. Liam was introduced to James Connolly at the Countess Markievicz house and Connolly was very impressed by him. Liam joined the IRB and became a founder member of the Irish Volunteers. He was arrested and jailed on several occasions under The Defence Of The Realm Act.
In March 1916 Liam was arrested and deported to England on 2nd April. He was given the option of residing in a non-military area with relatives, and chose Leek in Staffordshire. However, during Holy Week, Barney and James Connollys daughter Nora, travelled to Staffordshire where Liam was under house arrest. Barney changed places with Liam, who disguised himself as a priest and made his way back to Ireland, via Glasgow and Belfast. On reaching Dublin he stayed at St. Enda’s school in Rathfarnham where he received his orders from Pearse and Connolly to travel west to Galway on Good Friday. Liam’s mother and Aine Ceannt secretly visited St. Endas that night to say goodbye to Liam. Sarah would not see Liam again for another five years.
Liam was put in command of the Republican forces in Galway.
Liam was put in command of the Republican forces in Galway. Despite his slight physical stature his analytical and organising skills and his personality made an immediate impact on the ordinary rural volunteers, who were largely from the small farming class. Liam’s orders from Dublin were to mobilise and take control of the RIC barracks and use the captured weapons in any ensuing military action. However, the Galway rebellion was undermined by two events.
The first was the capture of 20,000 German rifles which were intended for the insurgent. If these arms had been distributed in Galway and throughout Ireland as planned much more control of the RIC could have been attempted. The second was Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order causing huge confusion on the day before the rising was due to begin. Because of this the vast majority of Irish Volunteers did nothing during Easter week.
Although Liam managed to mobilise many Volunteers they were insufficiently armed to take on the military forces that gathered around them. The marines began to encircle Liam’s rebel position at Limepark on the Friday and HMS Gloucester in Galway Bay had been shelling the fields around Athenry from Tuesday onwards. Around 500 volunteers were now left, only armed with a small number of rifles with about 30 rounds of ammunition each, old shotguns and other weapons sourced from their homes. This lack of arms and ammunition ensured no further attacks could happen and so they began retreating further into a defensive position. Finally at Moyode on the Saturday 29th April, 1916, five days after the rising in Galway had begun, the exhausted Liam ordered the rebels to return to their homes. Liam, Alfie Monaghan and Fran Hynes then went on the run for the next five months hiding in huts in the Clare Mountains.
Barney Mellows was one of those engaged in the attack on the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park on Easter Monday. Barney acted as Aide-de-Camp to Robert Brennan and after written dispatches to Connolly were sent to the Four Courts, Barney managed to burn them before surrender. The British soldiers raided the Mellows home in Kilmainham several times after the failed rebellion looking for Liam which was extremely embarrassing for Liam’s unionist father.
Barney was arrested and sent to a prison in England. Liam got orders to go to America and in September 1916, arrangements were made by Fr. Burke of Killaloe with Captain Collins of Cork, to bring Liam on a freighter to Liverpool. Two nun’s habits were obtained from Killaloe Convent and Liam and a Miss Pauline Barry from Gort disguised themselves and travelled to Cork and then on to Liverpool. After two weeks Liam sailed to America under the guise of a coal trimmer by the name of John Atheridge on a tramp steamer. This took six weeks as the steamer sailed to Barbados and then on to New York.
Liam began work with John Devoy on the Gaelic American newspaper but was soon arrested by the US authorities and imprisoned in the Manhattan Detention Complex in New York, charged with aiding the German enemy and entering America on a false name. He was released in 1918 and although in ill health, due to pneumonia, he continued to tour the US speaking for the Republican cause and helping to organise Eamon de Valera’s fundraising trip to America. In 1919-20 becoming one of the First Dáil representatives in the United States.
Liam’s family home in Kilmainham was often used as a meeting place for the Cumann na mBan members and was frequently used as a safe house or as a place where Volunteers could go to for food and clothing. Sarah and her family would receive and deliver messages across Dublin and would hide guns, moving them around when needed. Liam’s Mother was never suspected of being a person of interest to the British authorities even though Liam and Barney had active roles in the Independence movement. Their father’s military background, the display of military insignia in the house and the small Union Jack above the fireplace showed their loyalty to the British Crown, allowing Sarah to get away with her republican activities.
However, as Sarah became more outspoken in her anti-British views and her active role in releasing hunger strikers and other prisoners during the War of Independence, this convenient cover would soon gradually fade away. In 1920, Sarah’s beloved husband William passed away and upon hearing this Liam returned from America. Sarah had now got both Liam and Barney by her side. Barney had been in and out of prison in England three times since the 1916 rising and both brothers had to be careful as the British were still pursuing them. In October 1920, Liam was appointed to the IRA General Headquarters Staff as Director of Purchases with the brief to smuggle arms into the country.
In July 1921, a ‘Truce’ was called between the British and the Irish in order to allow talks to take place. However, despite the Truce the IRA still continued to train and arm itself in case talks broke down and hostilities resumed. In October 1921, a shipment of arms, organized by Liam from Germany aboard the Frieda, landed in Waterford and the German crew were sent to Dublin to hide out until things had settled down. It would have been disastrous if the authorities had discovered the details of this consignment of arms, so therefore the German sailors had to be hidden until it was safe to smuggle them back out of Ireland. Once again the Mellows home was used to hide two of the German seamen until they were successfully gotten out of the country.
Following the Truce and signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty in 1921, which Liam totally rejected, he along with IRA forces which included Rory O’Connor, Dick Barrett and Anti-Treaty IRA Chief of Staff Joe McKelvey, took over the Four Courts in Dublin. The British supplied guns to the pro-Treaty Irish Free State troops and they forced the Four Courts IRA to surrender. Liam and others were arrested and imprisoned in Mountjoy Prison.
On 7th December, 1922 the IRA shot dead Free State TD Sean Hales. In an act of callous reprisal the newly-formed Free State Government decided to execute Liam and his comrades Rory O’Connor, Dick Barrett and Joe McKelvey on the 8th December 1922. The same date as the anniversary of Liam’s parents marriage.
At 3.30 a.m. they were brought from their cells and their sentence was read to them. When going to execution, Liam asked the chaplain if he was denied the sacraments because he was a Republican. The chaplain denied this and after an interval, Liam went to Confession and received Communion. This delayed his execution until 9 a.m. The soldiers were nervous, and the first volley wounded Liam severely. The chaplain rushed over and attended to him, after which Liam, raising himself with some difficulty on one knee, called out: “You’ll have to shoot straight, boys”. The second volley was sufficient.
The previous evening, the Mellows home in Kilmainham was raided by the Free State army, who were searching for Sarah’s other son Barney. Barney was arrested and sent to Wellington Barracks. On her way to see Barney Sarah heard by newspaper of Liam’s execution. She had spent the previous night on a fruitless journey to the Governor General, Timothy Healy and others, asking them to intervene on the pending executions. After a brief visit to Barney she went to Mountjoy prison accompanied by Mrs. Mollie Woods to demand the release of Liam’s body. It took almost two years until the Free State Government would hand Liam’s body over to Sarah. Barney was released from Hare internment camp in July 1924.
The morning of Liam’s execution Liam wrote a letter to his mother –
“My Dearest Mother,-
“The time is short, and much that I would like to day must go unsaid. But you will understand; in such moments heart speaks to heart. At 3.30 this morning we (Dick Barrett, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and I) were informed that we were to be executed as reprisal.’ Welcome be the will of God, for Ireland is in His keeping despite foreign monarchs and Treaties. Though unworthy of the greatest human honour that can be paid and Irishman or woman, I go to join Tone and Emmet, the Fenians, Tom Clarke, Connolly, Pearse, Kevin Barry, and Childers. My last thoughts will be on God and Ireland and you.
“You must not grieve, Mother darling. Once before, you though you has given me to Ireland. The reality has now come. You will bear this as you have borne all the afflictions the cause of Ireland brought you nobly and bravely. It is a sore trial for you but that great courageous soul of yours will rejoice, for I die fir the truth. Life is only for a little while, and we shall be reunited hereafter.
“I would write to Barney separately, but alas! He is not at home. That he will be brave I know: that he will persevere until the wrong is righted, and the shadow of shame is lifted from our country, I do not doubt. May God bless and protect him and give him the courage, fortitude and wisdom necessary to adhere to truth and honour and principle. Through you I send to him my fondest love.
“Through you I also send another message. It is this: Let no thought of revenge or reprisal animate Republicans because of our deaths. We die for truth. Vindication will come, the mists will be cleared away, and brothers in blood will before long be brothers once more – Imperialist England.in this belief I die happy, forgiving all, as I hope myself to be forgiven.
“The path the people of Ireland must tread is straight and broad and true, though narrow. Only by following if can they be men. It is a hard road, but it is the road Our Saviour followed – the road of Sacrifice. The Republic lives: our deaths make that a certainty.
“I had hoped that someday I might rest in some quiet place – beside grandfather and grandmother in Castletown, not amidst the worldly pop of Glasnevin; but if is to be the prison clay, it is all the sweeter, for many of our best lie here.
“I send my love to Aunts Maggie, Julia, Jane and Annie, all my cousins in Wexford, Dublin, Clare and Armagh.
“Tell Patsy, also. I send my love, and Farther Feeney and Father McGuinness.
“Go to Mrs. Pearse. She will comfort you. I intended writing to Mrs. Woods and family, but time prevents me doing so. Give my love to them all.
“I have had the chaplain to see me. It is sad, but I cannot agree to accept the Bishops’ Pastoral. My conscience is quite clear, thank God. With the old Gaodhals, I believe that those who die for Ireland have no need of prayer.
“God bless, protect and comfort you.
“Your loving son,
At the end Liam received a soldier’s death which was what he would have wished. Liam was re-interned in Castletown graveyard with his beloved grandparents as requested in his final letter. Liam’s life and actions will always continue to inspire.
He is quoted as saying:
“The republic stands for truth and honour. For all that is noblest in our race. By truth and honour, principle and sacrifice alone will Ireland be free.”
“We do not seek to make this country a materially great country at the expense of its honour in any way whatsoever. We would rather have this country poor and indigent, we would rather have the people of Ireland eking out a poor existence on the soil; as long as they possessed their souls, their minds, and their honour. This fight has been for something more than the fleshpots of Empire.”
He wrote a social programme based on the Dáil’s Democratic Programme of 1919 aimed at winning popular support for the anti-Treaty cause and Mellows was one of the more strident TDs on the approach to the Irish Civil War. On 28th April, 1922 he told the Dáil:
“There would no question of civil war here now were it not for the undermining of the Republic. The Republic has been deserted by those who state they still intend to work for a Republic. The Volunteers can have very little faith at this moment in the Government that assembles here, because all they can see in it is a chameleon Government. One moment, when they look at it, it is the green, white and orange of the Republic, and at another moment, when they look at it, it is the red, white and blue of the British Empire. We in the Army, who have taken this step, have been termed “mutineers,” “irregulars,” and so forth. We are not “mutineers”, because we have remained loyal to our trust. We are not “mutineers” except against the British Government in this country. We may be “irregular” in the sense that funds are not forthcoming to maintain us, but we were always like that and it is no disgrace to be called “irregulars” in that sense. We are not wild people.”
Sarah Mellows remained an outspoken critic of the Free State Government and continued to be active in Republican circles throughout the 1920’s. On one occasion she travelled to America with family friend and former Fianna Chief of Staff Eamon Martin, on a Republican fundraising mission.
In February 1942, Barney passed away in the Hospice for the Dying at Harold’s Cross at the age of forty six. He was given a full military funeral with President Eamon de Valera and other members of the IRA present.
In May of that year Sarah Mellows was guest of honour at a ceremony which was held in Dublin to officially rename ‘Queen Maeve’ or ‘Queen Street’ Bridge in memory of her son Liam Mellows; a special prayer was also read out for Barney Mellows at the event. Close family friend Nora Connolly O’Brien unveiled two bronze plaques on the bridge, and former Fianna Chief of Staff Eamon Martin gave a passionate speech in honour of the two deceased patriots.
For many years the Government hesitated to award a military pension to Sarah even though she dedicated her life to the freedom of Ireland. A couple of years before her death she was eventually granted a very small conditional allowance in respect of the death of Liam. In December 1952 Sarah passed away at home. Her funeral was attended by the President and the Taoiseach and with many prominent personalities of the Independence period. At her funeral Veterans and the Four Courts Garrison provided a Guard of Honour. Sarah is buried at Glasnevin Cemetery.
The Mellows family are only one of many families who dedicated their lives to the freedom of Ireland and it is to them that we must give and owe our gratitude, for if it was not for their bravery, courage and unending love of a free Ireland we would not be the Ireland we are today.
An annual commemoration ceremony is held at Liam’s grave site. He is remembered by statues in Eyre Square in Galway City, in the official name of the Irish Defense Forces army barracks at Renmore (Dún Úi Maoilíosa, that is, Mellow’s Fort), and in the naming of Mellows Bridge in Dublin. He is also remembered in the names of two hurling clubs. Mellows Avenue in Arklow is named in his honor, as is Liam Mellows Street in Tuam, County Galway.
The History of Na Fianna Eireann – Sarah Mellows 1865-1952 – Eamon Murphy
O’Neill, Corcoran and Jordan family papers
National Library of Ireland
Irish Press Cuttings O’Neill Family papers
Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution – By C. Desmond Greaves
Bureau of Military History (BMH) witness statement – Aine Ceannt
Bureau of Military History (BMH) witness statement – Joseph Reynolds
Bureau of Military History (BMH) witness statement – Robert Brennan
Comments about this page
Thanks for those comments Eithne.
This page was provided by Brige Woodward nee Taaffe, Einin Taaffes’ daughter who I believe you know.
Thank you for making this story of the Mellows family available.
I was always familiar with the story of Liam but knew little of Barney and nothing at all about the role of Sarah. It was lovely to see a photograph of Sarah as she would have been my great grand aunt ‘SerAnn’.
My great grand-mother was Annie Jordan who is referred to in Liam’s final letter, she lived in Flurry-bridge Co Armagh. Liam was always referred to as ‘Willy’ by my grandmother and my great aunt Kitty, who was a nurse in Dublin. Kitty told the story of hearing about the executions when she was at work. As soon as she finished her duty she went round to visit her aunt ‘SerAnn” and when she was there the house was raided. It was thought an injured person must have been there as a nurse was seen entering the house.
Research and text from the above story is sourced from the following article: https://fiannaeireannhistory.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/sarah-mellows-1865-1952/
Thank you so much for sharing this fascinating and heart breaking yet inspiring story Brige. The photographs are amazing. The willpower and determination of Irish people who believed so strongly in what they were doing is truly incredible as I read the story. They were not a “wild people” but fighting for “something more than the flesh pots of Empire”.
It is a treasure for your family and a legacy to the foundation of this state of Ireland. Thank you.
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