Trials, tribulations and treaty


Stephen Coyle

‘ON Thursday morning, I arrived at Lieutenant Sandy Carmichael’s home, at Argyle Street, Glasgow. When I entered the house, I took off my overcoat, and hung it on the back of a room door, taking my revolver and ammunition from the pockets and putting them in my jacket pockets where I also had two despatches. I then took my jacket off, and hung it over the back of a chair.

“I went into the kitchen. Mrs Carmichael said she was pleased that I had come, that she was in trouble. During a conversation, she began to cry, and said that her husband had gone out to work, but before leaving the house, had told her that he had found explosives in Alex’s (their son’s) room, and that, if they were not removed by night time, either he or Alex would have to leave the house. I told Mrs Carmichael not to worry, that he should not have had them in the house, and that I would take them away, after I had had a rest.

“I was not long in the house when Mrs Carmichael answered a knock at the door. She was followed back into the kitchen by a man, claiming to be a tramcar inspector, and wishing to interview Seamus Reader regarding a tramcar accident in which his name was given as a witness. On being told that I could not be a witness to the accident mentioned, as I was not in the city at the time, he wanted to know where I was.

“I told him that I had just arrived from Dublin, that I knew he was not a tramcar inspector, that he was Sergeant G. Maguire, G Division, Royal Irish Constabulary, operating in Glasgow. He said he had a detailed account of my movements for the past six months, and that I would have to make a statement on my recent visit to Ireland. He said that I left Glasgow on January 15, and while in Dublin sent a telegram to Glasgow. I told him that I had not sent any telegram—which of course was true. I learned afterwards that it was Sean Hegarty who had sent the telegram in my name, without my knowledge, by arrangement with Joe Robinson.

“The detective sergeant then asked me where I had stayed while in Dublin. I told him I had lodged with my aunt, but as she was ill and I did not want her annoyed, I therefore would not give him her address, as he would cause her home to be raided by the RIC. He then said he would have to search me, and asked for the jacket I wore in Dublin.

“I then remembered that Mrs Carmichael had told me about explosives being in the house, so I told the sergeant I was responsible for all the explosives in the house, and showed him Alex’s bedroom. While he was looking for and examining the explosives, I went into the next bed-sitting room where my jacket was hanging on the back of a chair. I lifted my jacket with my left hand, and was withdrawing with my other hand my revolver from the right-hand pocket of the jacket, when Mrs Carmichael seeing my action grasped me in her arms—she was a strong stoutly built woman—and shouted ‘no killing in my house.’

“At this point I noticed Glasgow uniformed police running into the room where the detective-sergeant was searching. I struggled free from Mrs Carmichael’s grip, and threw my jacket under a concealed bed, the loaded revolver, 20 rounds of 31 ammunition, and two despatches still in the pockets of the jacket. As I was moving towards the window, the police rushed in and seized me. The Irish detective-sergeant then entered, and told the police in the room to get me to the police station in all haste. He told me to take off my green Fianna tunic and Sam Browne belt. When handing them over, I told him that my jacket and overcoat were hanging on the back of the room door. He searched them and gave them to me to put on. In the excitement, he did not notice that the jacket was too big for me, as it belonged to Alex Carmichael. I quickly covered it with my overcoat, and was then taken to Cranstonhill Police Station, to be charged and detained.

“As I was being escorted to prison, Liam Gribben, Quartermaster of ‘A’ Company, and members of the Friel family entered Mrs Carmichael’s house and secured my jacket. Liam Gribben kept and dealt with the despatches intended for Captain Joe Robinson. He gave the IRB despatches to Pat O’Neill, and the revolver to Mrs Margaret Skinnider of Cumann na mBan, to keep for me, as it was a present from the Countess Markievicz in 1915. It was sent from England by the O’Rahilly to John Carney in Scotland who delivered it to me at his shop in Govan. When Tom White was going to Dublin at Easter, 1916, he had to dispose of it when trying to pass the pickets and barricades in Dublin during the fighting in Easter Week.

“On the morning of the January 20, 1916 after being brought into Cranstonhill Police Station, Glasgow, I was again searched, and it was only then that the old police station sergeant noticed that the jacket I was wearing did not fit me. When the police realised that they had been tricked, I was punched on the ear by the Irish detective, and then locked in a cell. They rushed off again to Carmichael’s house to get my jacket, but were too late. As I already stated Liam Gribben and Pat O’Neill had custody of its contents. That evening, I was taken to a room in the Glasgow county buildings for questioning by the Special Branch of the Police.

“I think they must have realised that, owing to my sea journey and the excitement of my arrest, I was not in a fit state for interrogation. I was then taken to Uddingston police station and locked up for the night. Attempts were made to get a statement from me there, but I was too tired to be bothered.”

Both Reader and Robinson were sent to Duke Street prison in Glasgow on charges of burglary of 500 pounds of explosives, raiding the admiralty works and importing arms from Germany, which were all destined for Ireland. They were then transferred to Edinburgh Castle, and remained there until after the Rising. They were later interned at Reading Jail, being released on December 24, 1916. Reader recalled that they ‘got a tremendous welcome from the IRB and Republicans’ when they returned from internment to Glasgow. They were invited to house parties and ceilis all over Scotland.

Daring, dangerous deeds
The highly dangerous task of shipping arms, munitions and men from Scotland from late 1915 and early 1916, included a significant amount of the small arms and all of the explosives used in the Rising. Without this war material, Seán MacDiarmada claimed the Easter Rising would not have happened. This lends weight to the assertion by Seamus Reader who went on to head the Scottish Brigade of the IRA, in a letter to John Maclean’s daughter, Nan Milton, in the 1960s:”If one thinks deeply on this issue one will get a picture of the important part played by Scots at the period 1916.”

Following Joe’s release from prison, he resumed his Fianna and Irish Volunteer activities. He immediately began to re-organise the local units and was again appointed as O/C of the Irish Volunteers in Scotland.

In early 1918, Joe was arrested on a charge of having in his possession explosive substances, and of directing two boys to move the said explosives. Seamus Reader gave the following account of what happened: “On about 7pm on December 3, 1917 in Mrs Robinson’s house, 10 Robson Street, I had just finished my tea and was waiting for Joe Robinson to arrive as I had to interview him in connection with ‘A’ Coy and the Battalion HQ of the Glasgow Volunteers. Liam Gribben [Battalion Quartermaster] who had come to the house at 5.50pm could not wait any longer for Joe. He said that he had to be in the decorator’s store, Saltmarket before 8pm that night. He had not gone long when three or four Glasgow detectives entered the house and began to search the rooms.

“On the sideboard of the sitting room were two swords and a pair of handcuffs. They asked for an explanation and I told them as they knew I was a piper, the swords were used at Highland dancing for the sword dance. That the handcuffs were souvenirs and I had been showing them to a friend who had just left the house. I asked them if they were making any charges against me, and one of them said not in the meantime. I told them that I had an appointment to bring a young lady to the Glasgow Olympic Theatre that night and did not wish to keep her waiting. I was told that they were there to arrest Joe Robinson and that nobody would be allowed to leave the house meantime. Shortly after 9pm, Miss Una McKeown [Glasgow Cumann na mBan] arrived at the house to find out what was the cause of my delay. She was allowed in and was also detained.

“Shortly after 10pm, Joe Robinson entered the house and was put under arrest on a charge of having sent, in the custody of two boys, high explosives. When Robinson asked: ‘Was I being charged?’ He was told that the boys had made a statement to the effect that I was not in any way involved in the transaction and was unaware that they the scouts, were being sent to Ireland. Robinson had told them not to tell anyone. Robinson was then taken into police custody. I was told that I would be free to leave the house after they had left. In doing so, I then went with Una McKeown to the Painters shop in Saltmarket to notify whoever was there that Robinson had been arrested. I told Una McKeown to wait outside and when I entered the shop, I found it was occupied by the Police and that Liam Gribben was being detained. On being questioned by the Police I told them that I had just came from Robinson’s home and that Robinson was now under arrest in the Central Police Station. At this the Police withdrew from the premises. I then told Liam Gribben to go and warn Alex Carmichael, Lieutenant of ‘A’ Company.

A tale of two Robinsons
At his trial, Joe Robinson emphasised that his actions were political in nature. His counsel claimed the right of Irishmen to determine for themselves the form of government for Ireland. On February 1, 1918 he was sentenced to ten years penal servitude which he served at Peterhead convict prison in Scotland. Whilst there he met John Maclean who was sentenced to five years penal servitude under Defence of the Realm Act on 11 charges of attempting to cause mutiny, sedition and disaffection amongst the civilian population. Whilst in Peterhead Robinson was nominated as a prisoner candidate by Sinn Féin to stand for the mostly Unionist constituency of North Down in the British General Election, and secured 6 per cent of the vote.

During Joe’s time in prison, his younger brother Séumus was moving up the ranks of the IRA. Robinson who was a member of ‘A’ Company of the Irish Volunteers as well as the IRB and Gaelic League, returned to Ireland before the Rising and joined the Irish Volunteer Camp at Kimmage with other members of the Glasgow Company and units from Liverpool, London and Manchester. On Easter Monday he was in charge of a small group of Volunteers that occupied Hopkins & Hopkins’ Jewellers at the corner of Eden Quay on one side of the O’Connell Street Bridge. They came under constant sniper fire from the roof of Trinity College, but held this position until they were forced to retreat on Thursday when the building was engulfed by fire. Robinson made his escape to the Metropole Hotel and fought there until the garrison retreated to the GPO on Friday evening at the evacuation. He was in the group, under the command of Seán McLoughlin who replaced the wounded James Connolly as Commander-in-Chief of the Republican Forces, which was in Sackville Lane waiting to attack the barricade at the top of Moore Street, when the decision to negotiate a surrender was made on Saturday afternoon. Séumas Robinson was deported to Stafford Jail on May 8th and later interned in Reading Jail, before being transferred to Frongoch and released at Christmas 1916.

In 1917, he went to work in Ballagh, Tipperary and was elected O/C of the famous 3rd Tipperary Brigade, which was one of the most prominent in the Irish War of Independence. With Dan Breen, Seán Treacy and Seán Hogan, he led the Soloheadbeg ambush on January 21, 1919, which were the opening shots of the War of Independence. He took part in the rescue of Seán Hogan at Knocklong Railway Station in May 1919. Soon after, he was arrested for drilling and was imprisoned in Belfast Jail until October 1919. He was involved in the assassination attempt on the Lord Lieutenant Lord French, at Ashbourne, Dublin, in December 1919. In 1921, Séumas Robinson was elected to Dáil Éireann, as a TD for East Tipperary and Waterford. He took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War and became O/C of the Second Southern Division.

During the Dáil debates, Séumas Robinson contrasted the legendary Michael Collins of press reports with the ‘weak’ man who put his signature to the agreement. Séumas Robinson demanded answers to the following questions: What position exactly did Michael Collins hold in the army? Did he ever take part in any armed conflict in which he fought by shooting?; the number of such battles or fights; in fact, is there any authoritative record of his ever fired a shot for Ireland at an enemy of Ireland? Robinson concluded that there was ‘a prima facie case… for the charge of treason’ against Collins and Griffith.

The dislike was reciprocated. Shortly after his signing of the Treaty, Collins ruefully joked to Eamon O’Dwyer that bringing Robinson to Tipperary had been O’Dwyer’s worst mistake.

Men from the 3rd Tipperary Brigade, under Robinson’s command reinforced the Four Courts Garrison. It is noteworthy that his Brigade were the recipients of a lot of the arms and ammunition that were collected by the Scottish Brigade.

Returning to his brother, Joe was released from Peterhead Prison in March 1922 in the midst of the Treaty crisis. He immediately announced that he was not in favour of the recent Anglo-Irish Treaty and thus aligned himself with the Anti-Treaty side.