50 Years Ago


No account of the 1940s would be complete without reference to the various Republican parties which sprung up during the decade. Clann na Poblachta has been alluded to and will be mentioned again. But there were predecessors to it.

The first of these was Córas na Poblachta which was launched within weeks of the execution in England of Barnes and McCormack in February 1940 just as Clann na Poblachta was formed soon after the death of Seán McCaughey in 1946.

Coogan refers to the developments in the spring of 1940:

“In Dublin at this time there was much talk of a new political movement which was believed to be a challenge to the government and was popularly reported to be ready to take over the government on some form of corporate basis.

“This movement, which came to be known as Córas na Poblachta (Company of Republicans), did in fact contain the nucleus of a party. Eight years later it formed the core of a coalition which introduced some new ideas into Irish politics and which took power from Fianna Fáil. In the early months of 1940, however, its leaders were not capable of such a feat nor were the times right for a change.

“The principal figures in Córas na Poblachta were Simon Donnelly, who had fought in Boland’s Mill under de Valera in 1916; Seán Fitzpatrick, another War of Independence veteran; Con Lehane, who had lately left the IRA; Seán [recte Séamus] Gibbons; Tom O’Rourke; Seán Dowling, one of Rory O’Connor’s principal lieutenants in the Civil War days; Colonel Roger McCorley, one of the principal IRA leaders in Belfast during the Anglo-Irish War who had taken the Free State side in the Civil War; Frank Thornton, one of Michael Collins’s top intelligence officers; Roger McHugh, a lecturer in English at University College, Dublin and now [1970] professor there; Captain Martin Bell and Peter O’Connor.”

Enno Stephan in his Spies in Ireland quotes the more upbeat account of the “neutral Zuecher Zeitung ominously reporting from Dublin (February 22, 1940)”:

“Last night 104 former officers of the old Irish Republican Army who previously supported de Valera’s government held a meeting at the conclusion of which it was announced that a mass meeting for the inauguration of a new Irish Republican movement would be held on 2nd March.

“The United Press was told that the projected party would be ready to take over the government of Ireland on either a corporate or fascist basis.

“Simon Donnelly, the former leader of the Dublin section of the old IRA, was elected as President of a committee of fifteen members. It is presumed that the new movement will endeavour, with the support of the opposition, to achieve the dissolution of the Dáil and a General Election this spring.”


Not only was this report wildly optimistic about the new party before it was even formed but it was seeing the development through fascist-tinted glasses, talking about former IRA officers and a corporate or fascist basis for the state.

Bell is much more succinct: “On February 21 at a public meeting a new more radical Republican party, Córas na Poblachta, was formed by old IRA men (Seán Dowling, Simon Donnelly, Séamus Gibbons and Seán Fitzpatrick) angered by de Valera’s policies. Córas na Poblachta ran aground on the hard rocks of Fianna Fáil at the first by-election.”

He does mention that Séamus O’Donovan, Director of Chemicals on IRA Headquarters Staff in 1921 and author of the “S” Plan for the Sabotage Campaign in England by the IRA in 1939-40 attended the meeting and proposed several of the basic resolutions.

“This was one of the rare times he had publicly dabbled in politics although if anything his association with the other old IRA men long out of politics may have diverted [Special Branch] attention from him.”

Séamus O’Donovan had also been three times to Berlin before WWII as the IRA’s Liaison Officer with the Germans after they made initial contact in February 1939. He was under deep cover still in early 1940 – having been inactive from 1924 to ’38 – and being publicly associated with Córas na Poblachta suited his situation very well.

Coogan outlines the new party’s programme saying it “sought the formal declaration of a Republic. Though it realised that its writ would run only in the twenty-six counties, it would claim that the jurisdiction extended over the six counties.

“Nobody bothered too much about how this writ would be enforced, either on a wartime England or a wartime North of Ireland. In fact this declaration of a Republic was made eight years later by the coalition which ousted Fianna Fáil.


“Its language policy required the use of the Irish learned at school, with Irish street names, shop signs, and government documents and bank notes. This policy was followed by successive governments.

“Córas na Poblachta [which translates as Republican System not Company – Ed.] also proposed to introduce national service, for educational purposes, to ensure that everyone understood his responsibilities.

“The basic economic principle of the Córas na Poblachta founders was the statutory right to employment and a living wage. In other economic fields the party’s thinking was strictly republican in the IRA sense.

“It proposed breaking the link with British currency, the nationalisation of banks and the making of people employed in banks into civil servants.

“Free education for all children over primary age was proposed as a right, as was university education when feasible. This last proposal has become Irish government policy only since the mid-1960s, although another of the party’s ideas, the introduction of children’s allowances, was taken up by Fianna Fáil three years after Córas na Poblachta was dissolved.

“Dissolution occurred because people tended to discuss the party rather than join it.”

Indeed Coogan notes that one of the Córas leaders Frank Thornton reverted to type and joined the wartime Free State army.

The response of the Republican Movement to all of this came like a trumpet blast. With the IRA driven underground, the Wolfe Tone Weekly newspaper banned and Sinn Féin, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann marginalised, it fell to Brian O’Higgins to articulate the Republican viewpoint.

Brian had been an Irish-Irelander from the turn of the century, was “out” as a Volunteer in the 1916 Rising, was a faithful Deputy of the First and Second (All-Ireland) Dáileanna and had edited the Wolfe Tone Weekly 1937-39. He was close to Comdt-Gen Tom Maguire.

We do not know if his open letter to the inaugural conference on March 2, 1940 was published in the newspapers. Certainly wartime censorship was preventing all expression of Republican opinion but it was published as a leaflet, a copy of which is to hand.

Brian challenged the Chairman and Secretary of the meeting to read it to the assembled conference. He himself thought the time was opportune to “restore the living Republic” of 32 Counties, and recalled the proclamation of that Republic in 1916 and its establishment “formally and publicly” by the All-Ireland Dáil in 1919.

He went on: “There have been many betrayals and defections and surrenders since then but no man has dared to go before the people and ask them to disestablish the Republic and repudiate the Declaration of Independence.

“That being so, why should any body of Republicans propose to establish or even re-establish what no man has dared to disestablish? To declare or re-declare what no man has dared to openly repudiate?

“I say openly, because the chief purpose underlying the introduction of the present ‘Free State’ Constitution was the underhand abolition of the Republic of Ireland.

“That sinister move was pointed out at the time by the Executive Council of Dáil Éireann [ie the 32-County Dáil – Ed], but they were not in a position to put their warning effectively before the people.

“The first move towards a total abandonment and repudiation of the Republican position was effected by cunning politicians, even though a minority only of the electors voted for the amended ‘Free State’ Constitution – the alleged ‘Republican’ Constitution under which an Irish Republican automatically becomes a criminal if he refuses to answer the impertinent questions of a policeman.

“You say in your circular that you deem it unwise at this stage to give your proposals regarding the new Movement in detail, but surely clarity and candour were never more badly needed than today. The country has had a surfeit of ambiguity and evasion.


“The noble sacrifice that has just been made for us on an English scaffold [Barnes and McCormack – Ed] has touched the hearts of the people everywhere, and shown them the courage and patriotism and utter unselfishness of the men who transferred the scene of England’s long war against us from Irish to English soil.

“I, for one, believe that a genuine forward Republican Movement, if earnestly and honestly set on foot, would win nation-wide support and sweep aside the compromisers and hypocrites and petty tyrants who are striving to hold the 32 Counties of Ireland within the British Empire, and to retain the British Monarch as King of this country.”

Brian concludes his letter with a punch-line as appropriate in 1997 as it was in 1940: “But, if, with the experience of the past eighteen years in your possession, and the results of deception everywhere before your eyes, you propose to set up another bogus Republican Party that will contest elections and give glowing promises to the people, and then enter a Partition Assembly to repeat all over again the compromises and surrenders of the parties at present there, you deserve not the support but the active opposition of all earnest Irish Republicans.
Brian Ó hUiginn, February 28, 1940.”

Brian spoke for all the active Republicans who had already at that stage entered on the dark years of the 1940s.

(More next month. Refs. The IRA by TP Coogan; The Secret Army by J Bowyer Bell; Spies in Ireland by Enno Stephan and “Declare the Republic” by Brian O’Higgins, March 1940.)


Starry Plough

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