David Fitzgerald 1897 – 1933

With grateful acknowledgement to Jerome Hanratty for his invaluable help

The name of David Gerald Fitzgerald is almost unknown, even in Irish Republican circles. And yet he played an important part in the fight for Irish independence, and in the political development of the country after the creation of the Irish Free State. This short biography has been put together with the aid of letters he wrote to my great-aunt, Frances Hanratty, and the newspaper report of his funeral in 1933. Perhaps it may stimulate a professional historian to write a more complete account of the life of this enigmatic character.

young fitzgerald

He was born in Cahir, County Tipperary, in 1897, and first became associated with the independence movement when he joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913 at the age of 16. A year later, in July 1914, he was involved in the Howth gun running episode when the Volunteers unloaded a shipment of 1,500 rifles from a yacht belonging to Erskine Childers, the Asgard. The Dublin police, assisted by a detachment from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, intercepted the Volunteers as they arrived in Dublin, and in the skirmish that followed the troops opened fire on a stone-throwing crowd at Bachelor’s Walk, killing three people and injuring 32. Following this incident Fitzgerald was advised by his employers in the Custom House that he could either resign or transfer to Belfast. He chose resignation.

A much larger venture by the Ulster Volunteers had taken place earlier in the year. Some 20,000 rifles and 4,000,000 rounds of ammunition were smuggled into Larne on 24th April. However, in that instance, the police and military made no attempt to interfere. In both cases the arms had been purchased from Germany, which no doubt foresaw the imminent outbreak of war with Britain, and felt it would be useful to stir things up in advance.

Fitzgerald took part in the 1916 Easter Rising and was one of the few who succeeded in escaping arrest, making his way to Glasgow and thence to Newcastle upon Tyne. He spent the next three years as a sailor, making a number of trips to the United States. In 1919 he returned to Ireland and volunteered for service once more. Michael Collins assigned him to the North-East of England, where presumably he linked up with such activists as Gilbert Barrington, Richard Purcell and others, and organised the Tyneside Battalions of the IRA. His main role was to arrange the procurement and transport of stores and arms to Ireland for use in the War of Independence. During this period he made some trips to Ireland, and on one of them had a narrow escape from arrest when he and Michael Collins were held up by a Black and Tan patrol. Collins saved the situation by producing a fake police pass. After the abortive attack on the Forth Banks oil refinery in March 1921 Fitzgerald was made the Brigade Adjutant of the Tyneside IRA, and seems to have taken over as the main organiser. He certainly had the ears of Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor as the following short letters show:

letter from Michael Collins  letter from Rory O'Connor

After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 he returned to Ireland.

During his time on Tyneside he came into contact with Cissie and Millie Brennan, and their sister Frances Hanratty, who were active in the Jarrow Branch of the Irish Self-Determination League. According to Michael Mackin, Fitzgerald had his headquarters at 43, Harold Street, the home of Cissie and Millie. (Frances Hanratty’s house at 156, St Paul’s Road was used as an arms dump). A romantic attachment sprang up between himself and Millie. Early in 1922 he returned to England, was arrested, and committed for trial at Birmingham on 26th May. He wrote to Frances Hanratty from the court:

Friday 26th May, 1922Franc A Chara,This is entirely a private note. What is wrong with Millie? I wrote to her twice but received no answer. The last letter I had from her was written on 15th. Will you try and find out if she received those letters? I’ve been in a stew this past week about this. I can’t make out what is wrong with Millie, so will you please tell me the truth, Franc…..

There is little doubt that my case will be put off till the Assizes (July I believe) so that means the summer in jail.

Nobody has any doubt as to how this will end for some of us. It is as far as I am concerned a foregone conclusion. A couple may be acquitted. M.W. gave evidence yesterday. She looked bad. I was sorry for her.

Well I can’t say much more Franc so I’ll close hoping everyone is in the best of health….

Be careful what you mention in answers….

As it turned out the case against him was not so clear-cut, and on 1st June he was released on bail in the surety of £50. This considerable sum for the times was put up by Charles Hanratty, the husband of Frances, however it is probable that the money actually came out of ISDL funds.

bail bond

Five days later David Fitzgerald and Mildred Brennan acted as god-parents at the baptism of Nora Hanratty, the first-born child of Charles and Frances Hanratty, in St. Bede‘s Church, Jarrow. It is not clear whether he skipped bail, or whether no summons was issued, but later in the month he was back in Dublin, and received a visit from Millie Brennan, by now his fiancee, and Mollie Finnegan, a fellow-teacher in Jarrow (and an ISDL stalwart). He wrote once more to Frances Hanratty.

Dublin,
June 1922Franc A Chara,Your welcome letter arrived this morning about the same time as the two travellers. The first person I saw was Mollie Finnegan and then along came Millie looking very draggled and tired. They had a devil of a crossing. It rained all the time and they could not get a berth or even a seat the boat was so crowded. Millie was still wet when she arrived. I was scared she would get her death of cold but I took them along to Flemmings and they all had some breakfast and were as fresh as paint again. She looked very well, just a bit tired.

I am not too late in wishing you many happy returns of your wedding-day. It will be a year next Thursday. It has been an eventful year for most of us. I didn’t think then that I would be engaged within the year

You must thank Charlie for going all the way to Brighton for that hat of mine (1) It was too much trouble and expense to make that journey. Still, I’m very glad to have the old tile again and it looks fine cleaned.

Dublin is pretty quiet now with only the occasional ‘bush’ but the war is only starting in the country. I have had no direct news from home but have heard a lot indirectly. The brother’s area is getting it hot just now. He is in charge of a Column, I hope he pulls through all right. (2) He is very incautious at times but of course a timid careful man would not be much use in charge of a flying column.

How are your mother and father doing. I hope they are in the best of health. When does Rosalie go to college? I suppose she will have two years of it.

Well, I hope this finds you and Charlie in the pink, it is too bad you could not come over.

Banneact leat
D.

(1) This probably refers to a gun.
(2) His brother Matt Fitzgerald did survive the Civil War.

On 16th June the General Election in Ireland resulted in an overwhelming victory for the pro-Treaty faction within Sinn Fein. The result came as a shock to committed republicans such as Fitzgerald, and he made his feelings clear in a further letter to Frances:

Dublin,
July 1922Franc A Chara,Things are in a nice state here, a ‘free state’ in fact (I wonder how I can pun about it). The election results are damnable. It makes one feel mad about everything. However, the I.R.A. is very tenacious, it will die hard. It may surprise a lot of people before it does – if it does….

I hear Conroy was over here last week. I didn’t see him but I hear a lot of things. How is everyone doing? I suppose Charlie is studying hard just now. What is this about Tommy(1) going to Australia? It’s a long way to go for a job. What does Maggie think?

I had a letter from Peablossom. He was very sarcastic about Dick (2) and the Treaty campaign. How is the ISDL doing in Jarrow? Gil (3) has been telling me that it is looking up in other places. I’m glad of that, it will keep the thing up over there I hope. Wonder when I’ll get back again? Mac tells me he wrote to the Chief Constable at Jarrow about my clothes so you should have results. He tells me he made it very stiff.

Give my best regards to everyone. Tell Chickie (4) I was asking for him if you see him.

Best of luck,
Remember me to Nora,
D.

(1) Tommy Durham.
(2) ‘Dick’ may refer to Richard Purcell, his former colleague-in-arms on Tyneside, who had taken the pro-Treaty side. Alternatively it may refer to Richard Mulcahy, the Minister of Defence for the Provisional Government.
(3) ‘Gil’ presumably refers to Gilbert Barrington, by now in Dublin.
(4) Michael Mackin.
The identity of ‘Peablossom’ is not known.

Fitzgerald’s words were prophetic. The Civil War turned into a struggle even bloodier than the War of Independence. During the conflict he was attached to the 5th Mullingar Brigade and took part in a number of operations, managing to avoid capture until the cessation of hostilities in April 1923.

Although the Civil War was officially over, the I.R.A. remained in existence as an illegal opposition force, and Fitzgerald was deeply involved in the reorganisation of the movement in the Irish Midlands. This led in 1925 to his arrest in Navan. He was charged under the Firearms Act, and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment in Mountjoy Jail. He had spent only a few months in prison when he was freed in a spectacular I.R.A. prison break organised by George Gilmore. Nineteen prisoners were released, including Fitzgerald, and as Dublin had become too hot for him he was assigned to organisational work in the Six Counties.

The following account of the jailbreak is taken from an Irish Republican blogspot. The original source of the information is not quoted.

“The IRA began to re-group in 1925, and the Free State regime once more began to imprison large numbers of republicans. David Fitzgerald and Jim Killeen, two IRA Officers, were arrested and put in Mountjoy Jail. The O/C of the Dublin Brigade, Mick Price, and the IRA’s Director of Intelligence, Michael Carolan, along with Sean Russell, set about organising a jail-break from Mountjoy, but before the plan could be finalised, both Carolan and Russell were themselves arrested. Mick Price and George Gilmore took over the operation; they were aware that Mountjoy Jail was now more or less being run as a ‘civilian’ jail, but also knew that there was a light contingent of armed Free State military present. Through contacts inside the jail, Russell, before he was arrested, had located a twenty-minute ‘gap’ when internal security was slack, and had built the escape-plan to suit same.
It was proposed by the escape committee that six IRA Volunteers, three disguised as Free State Gardai and the others as prisoners, would bluff their way into the prison, hold up the warders and the sentries and release their comrades . Three Garda uniforms had already been procured and false paper-work had been forged, stamped and signed – transport had also been arranged. On the evening of November 25th, 1925, George Gilmore and five IRA comrades met in a house in Drumcondra, Dublin, and held a final rehearsal of their roles; three of them changed into Garda uniforms and armed themselves with revolvers, as well as the forged committal orders. All six then drove to Mountjoy Jail. At the prison gates, ‘Sergeant Ryan’ (George Gilmore) and ‘Gardai Shelly’ and ‘Malone’ informed the prison staff that their three ‘prisoners’ would be serving a three-month prison sentence for poaching in Wicklow. All six were admitted to the jail. Once inside, the warders were overpowered, and one of their master-keys was taken. The three ‘Gardai’ and ‘prisoners’ made their way unchallenged through the series of gates and passageways and freed 19 IRA prisoners. The twenty-five men, escorted by three of their number dressed in Gardai uniform, again bluffed their way past the confused jail staff and made it safely to the street (included in those that walked to freedom that night were Jim Killeen, Michael Carolan and David Fitzgerald).
A number of cars had been arranged to take the escapees away, but only one car turned up (driven by taxi driver Tom Finlay) who had parked on the North Circular Road, outside the prison. This car loaded-up with as many men as it could fit in and sped off; the rest of the IRA men escaped on foot. Within less than an hour the area around the prison was sealed off by Free State military and police but it was too late – the twenty-five men were already in safe houses”.

In October 1929 he was re-arrested in Dublin, and returned to Mountjoy to serve the remainder of his term. Jim Killeen, who presumably was still on the run himself, wrote to Frances with the news of his arrest:

Oct 31st 1929A Chara Oft,I am sure you will be surprised to hear from me, but under the circumstances I think it is my duty to write you. I expect by this time you have learned of Dave’s arrest, if not, I’ll give you the circumstances. He was identified by a C.I.D. man in Capel Street Dublin on Saturday Oct 12th about 3 pm. He tried to get away but failed. He is at present in Mountjoy Jail serving an unexpired sentence of 2 years. I believe he has something over 12 months to do. Of course he may not have to put in so long a term. I’m hoping he’ll be released after a few months. His health is fairly good, his nerves are just a wee bit affected, otherwise he’s in great form. I think he will only be allowed one letter and a visit monthly. I would have written sooner but I couldn’t think of any of your addresses.

Kindly remember me to your father and mother, also Cissie, Millie and Rosalie. If I can give you any more information I’ll gladly do so. You can use the same address as you did for him, only mark the letter ‘Jim K’. Trusting this finds yourself, your husband and the kiddies in real good form. Very best wishes to all.

Myrce do cara,
Jim Killean

Fitzgerald was a socialist in the mould of James Connolly, and a passionate believer in social justice. Whilst on Tyneside he had had contacts with the Third International in connection with his arms procurement activities, and after the Civil War he was a frequent visitor to Russia (1) (2). According to Peadar O’Donnell he and George Gilmore were in Moscow on one occasion to discuss military training when they were hurriedly asked to leave by their hosts. Britain had decided to open diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and Stalin did not want the embarrassment of IRA men on the premises (3). It is more likely that the British already knew they were there, and the expulsion had been part of the arrangements for the opening of negotiations.

(1) “The IRA” by Tim Pat Coogan, 2000 edition, ISBN 0 00 653155 5
(2) James Fitzgerald-Kenney, speaking in Dail Eireann, 14th October 1931, stated “in 1930 Mr. David Fitzgerald, who is secretary of Saor Eire, spent a very considerable time in Russia”.
(3) “Peadar O’ Donnell, Irish Social Rebel” by Michael McInerney

On his release from Mountjoy he was given the rank of Staff Commandant and assigned to IRA GHQ Staff. This was a period of great division within the IRA. On the one hand there were those who continued to view it as a military force – the Army of the 32-county Irish Republic which had been proclaimed in 1916, and which was not dead, but merely slumbering. On the other hand there were those such as O’Donnell who believed that the days of military confrontation were over, and the time had come for the organisation to redefine itself in political terms. (1) According to Tim Pat Coogan, the ‘politicals’ scored a temporary victory when “an organisation of workers and working farmers was set up in May 1931, following a decision of the IRA convention of February 1931” (2) The name of this new party was Saor Eire (Free Ireland), and its platform was essentially Marxism without the anti-religious element. Its first Congress was held in the Iona Ballroom in Dublin on 26th September 1931. Given his background it is not surprising that Fitzgerald sided with the ‘politicals’, but there was more to it than that. According to Peadar O’Donnell, “it was a man known only to Republicans – the late David Fitzgerald, who was the real face behind the radical and socialist analysis of economic life in Ireland contained in Saor Eire documents”. (3)

(1) Its successor organisation is still struggling with this problem
(2) “The IRA” by Tim Pat Coogan, 2000 edition, ISBN 0 00 653155 5
(3) “Peadar O’ Donnell, Irish Social Rebel” by Michael McInerney

Throughout the long days of the Civil War and his time of political activity thereafter David Fitzgerald and Millie Brennan appear to have maintained their relationship, but the strains on it were eventually to tell. We do not know which of them broke off the engagement, but it appears that it took place sometime in 1931. Worse was to come. In October 1931 Saor Eire was denounced by the Catholic Bishops of Ireland as “frankly communistic in its aims”. On 20th October the IRA, Saor Eire and ten other radical Republican organizations were declared illegal under the Constitution (Declaration of Unlawful Associations) Order. In a letter to Frances Hanratty dated October 22nd, Fitzgerald poured out his heart on both issues. There was also an ominous reference to his state of health.

Dublin,
22.10.31My dear Franc,I must answer your letter whilst there is still time. To the ordinary uncertainties of life we have had added the ‘military tribunal’ (1) Perhaps you have seen the Irish papers – I send you a couple today so you may get a glimpse of the situation. You will see we are outlawed. Every revolutionary working-class movement in Ireland, or rather in the 26 counties, is outlawed and may neither meet nor speak nor print, and the leaders it seems are to be dealt with by the tribunal. The state, the Interests and the church have found their common expression in the supreme military tribunal. It is wonderful the gusto with which these meek priests demand blood. One of them in a house a week ago where a friend of mine was present prophesied plenty of executions. Let them – they are free to do all this for all I care.

What makes me furious is the blackguardly campaign of lies and misrepresentations they have pushed in this country. I never dreamed they could be so dirty – so utterly regardless of truth or fair dealing. From people all over the country I get reports of a campaign of personal vilification of ourselves by men who never even saw us. Priests in the West have gone into scores of houses, pushing their whispering campaign, telling people we (by name) are anti Christs, supported by Russian gold &c. They have utterly twisted our aims and programmes and have deliberately worked for the forcible suppression of Saor Eire. Have you seen the ‘Pastoral’? I’m told it was much more full of hell and damnation but the Papal Nuncio insists it be cut down. To hear these rogues talk of Russian gold, of Anti God etc knowing full well they lie! Not alone do they lie by mouth – they live a lie. They know no Christianity. I’ve been in every parish in Ireland these past ten years and I know them – and I know the starvation and misery they fatten amidst. To hear them prate of ‘destruction of Christian homes’ in a city like Dublin where conditions are a nightmare, where 70,000 people live four or more to a room – men, women, all herded together like beasts, where 60,000 are unemployed, without even the dole – starving. You have no idea of the filth and vice of the slum proletariat of this city – utterly declassed.

All sorts of rumours have been flying around. I’m sick and tired of people coming to me with ‘first hand information’ as to the list of men to be executed. Be sure one’s own name is always present on such a list. It gives people I think a melancholy pleasure to be able to inform one of his probable demise. I laugh at some of this – I know Dublin and its power of rumour, but the wives of some of the ‘intended’ cannot look at it this way and it has played the devil with some of them. Killing a few of us may retard the movement but it will not squelch it – for its roots are too deep. They are sunk in the economic misery of the nation.

How is your health keeping? And Charles and the family? All well I hope. Here is the winter almost on us and you must be prepared. I had the doctor thumping my lungs the other day – he found them ‘dull’, he said, (I certainly found him dull – he was a most pessimistic doctor), but there’s nothing very wrong a touch of cold and catarrh on the lung – small things in these days of ‘supreme tribunals’. I eat well, sleep well, and my nerves are good in spite of tobacco and ‘midnight oil’.

How are the elections going in Jarrow? I suppose the ‘red menace’ is spreading there too – amongst the hungry – and threatening the Christian homes. How are all at 29? Hope your mother is keeping well.

I never wrote to Millie as said I would. It’s easy to say it – but what can I write? Easy too to say this to you – but how could I justify myself to Millie? I cannot truthfully offer ‘force of circumstances’ as a palliative for I hung on to this work deliberately with a definite objective knowing well where it was leading me and knowing full well that it excluded consideration of domestic affairs. That’s the plain statement of it – I knew it was a choice and I chose deliberately. There is no rest in the life we lead in work – which perhaps is why we get such a lot of work done but the ‘personal future’ is pretty hopeless if one considers it. I don’t know what I could say to Millie if I wrote – I’ve tried it and torn up several attempts.

Don’t consider yourself bound to answer any particular letter of mine. Write any time you feel like it:

Best wishes to all.
D.

(1) The Constitution (Amendment No. 17) Act introduced trial in secret by military tribunal

Despite his fears, Fitzgerald was not brought before a tribunal, but he was sought by the CID and in evading them suffered further hardships. In 1932 his health began to decline rapidly, and he became a permanent invalid. Shortly before he died he was visited once more by Millie Brennan and her sister Cissie. On her return Cissie wrote the following to Frances Hanratty.

August 1933….We left poor Dave in a sad state, God help him. We spent practically the whole of Thursday with him. He struggled to keep up and I really think he exerted himself too much (He usually drops off to sleep every few minutes but on Thursday it was plain he was warding the sleep off)….When we returned the priest was ringing at the door and was admitted with us. He went straight upstairs – we couldn’t imagine what had happened – nurses flying about and Dr McCarthy on the telephone. Finally we were told that Dave was dreadfully bad – his pulse was practically gone and and they were keeping life in him with stimulants and injections. At last Mollie and Bridie (1) came down and they said that he knew he was dying and had asked their forgiveness for his impatience and crossness while he has been ill. We then had to leave for that cursed boat though we couldn’t tell how his seizure would turn out.

If you saw him, Franc, you wouldn’t think he would live an hour – so wasted and worn with suffering. I a praying that God will take him as soon as possible for he is fully prepared – he has received Communion twice a week since Easter and says the Rosary and Litany of Our Lady every night. The priest anointed him on Thursday too.

Millie saw him every day but we could only see him for a short while every two or three days. He would sit hunched up in a chair with his bad arm on a cushion and his leg propped up too; when he fell to sleep his head would hang on his chest – that was the only restful position he could get day ot night. It is well for you that you didn’t go to see him; I am sure the sight of him would cut you through. Death is the only ease he can look forward too now.

(1) David Fitzgerald’s sisters.

David Fitzgerald died in a private nursing home in Eccles Street, Dublin, on 1st September 1933. His funeral, held in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street, was attended by many leading figures in the IRA, both from GHQ and from country brigades, by leading politicians, representatives of other Republican organisations such as Cumann na mBan, and by members of the general public. After Mass, his body was taken to Cahir and laid to rest in Kilaldriffe cemetery.

Re-reading Fitzgerald’s last letter to Frances Hanratty more than 70 years later, it is hard not to be convinced of his genuine belief that he, and the movement he represented, were being maliciously slandered. And yet the manifesto of Saor Eire was wholly Marxist. Its aim was the establishment of a Worker’s State, which could only come about by the overthrow of the existing order. Not only that, the IRA, despite having lost the Civil War, was once again questioning the legitimacy of the Free State Government, a democratically elected administration, and describing it as an agent of the British Government. The Constitutional Amendment Act which created the secret Tribunal was hotly debated in the Dail, as the Parliamentary recordshows, but the matter at issue was not whether the IRA posed a threat. Its opponents argued that existing powers were adequate to deal with the threat, and that the threat would go away if measures were taken to deal with the poverty and social injustice prevalent at the time. All were agreed however that the IRA could not be allowed to operate above the law. Surely Fitzgerald, as an intelligent man, realised this too.

Millie Brennan, his erstwhile fiancee, never married. She continued as a Primary School teacher and ended her career at St. Aloysius’ in Hebburn-on-Tyne. I knew her well, and travelled with her frequently on the bus to Hebburn during the early 1960’s. She was a kind and gentle person, deeply religious and generous to a fault. Never once would I have imagined that in her past she had been the fiancee of an IRA gunman!

fitzgerald funeral report

Patrick Brennan
Rowlands Gill
September 2005

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2 comments on “David Fitzgerald 1897 – 1933

  1. Donal ( Danny) Donnelly says:

    Jerome, would Dave’s sister have been a regular visitor during the sixties & seventies to Peadar O’Donnell when he lived in Drumcondra, Dublin ?

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