Solving the Mallin mystery

Noel McDermott reviewed the biography of a Citizen Army leader in Issue 48 (June 2012).

Brian Hughes, Michael Mallin, (O’Brien Press)

Michael Mallin was executed in 1916 for his part in the Easter rising, leading the Citizen Army forces in the Stephen’s Green area. If he never did anything else, this should assure him a permanent place in the history of modern Ireland and its labour movement. In reality he has remained something of a mystery man, with little known of him beyond isolated incidents and his appearances in the stories of others. But now he has an excellent biography which finally tells us in full how Mallin lived and how he died, part of a series which bids fair to lift the lid on a few others executed in 1916 and little known since.

The mystery arises from the very beginning, with Mallin’s birth. He himself appears to have believed he was born in 1876. He gave his age as 34 in the 1911 census, and was registered as a forty-year-old on his death certificate. The fact that his birth wasn’t officially registered has fuelled various birthdates in accounts of his life, one as late as 1880.1 But the truth has been on the record since 1966 when Séamus Ó Mealláin wrote a remarkable series of articles on his father’s life, ignored purely because they are in Irish. Brian Hughes has drawn extensively on them, however.2 Mallin was born on 1 December 1874 at 1 Ward’s Hill in Dublin’s Liberties, and baptised in St Nicholas’s church six days later.3

The author writes that “The family lived in a number of locations around the Liberties over the years” (p 20), but quotes no evidence. Baptismal records of John and Sarah Mallin’s children (five died in infancy and six survived) allow us to trace their movements beyond the addresses noted here. By 1877 they had moved up the street to 5 Ward’s Hill (home of Sarah’s parents, judging by her address in the marriage register), and were still there the following year. But they had left the Liberties for the northside by 1883, living at 6 Findlater Place until 1886 at least. The statement that “by 1901 they had moved to a residence in Cuffe Street where they would remain for at least the next decade” (p 20) misses the fact that they moved between three addresses in that street—around the corner from where their eldest son would fight in 1916.

Michael Mallin joined the British army in 1889, but the tradition­al motive of escaping poverty seems not to have been behind it. With his father a carpenter and his mother a silk winder, the Mallins wouldn’t have been the worst off. Although his mother didn’t share in it, there was a tradition of military service in her family. It seems an aunt brought Michael to see a military band at the Curragh in 1889, where an uncle worked as a pay sergeant. Much to the indignation of his nationalist father, the pomp and circumstance seduced the teen­ager into joining up with the Royal Scots Fusiliers on 21 October.4 The author doesn’t go into the anomalies of his recruitment form: Mallin’s birthplace is given as the neighbouring St Catherine’s parish, and his age as 14 years and no months. He may well have believed he was lying to barely claim the minimum age. At any rate, the form only asked for “Age physically equivalent to”: in other words, what the army could get away with.

His earliest years in the army seem uneventful enough in various parts of Britain and Ireland, where he became an accomplished bandsman and a good shot. But in 1896 his battalion was sent to India to subdue a rebellion in the Tirah region. They were successful, if only for the time being, and were decorated accordingly.5 But this period saw Mallin develop from an impressionable drummer boy to a man filled with righteous hatred of the empire he was serving. Hughes performs a real service in quoting from letters Mallin wrote home to his girlfriend Agnes Hickey, where his new outlook is clear (p 36-8):

the British army is a Hell on earth I wish I were well out of it…
we aught to leave the poor people alone… if I were not a soldier I would be out fighting for them.
while we are fighting for England’s Queen and Government they were letting our poor people starve…
if I had my way I would take all our members of parliament out into the Bay put a rope round their necks with a stone at the end of it and throw them in…
a day will come when we will be able to pay England back with Interest all she has done to us and I hope I am alive and in Ireland I will help to pay it.

Mallin was happy to shake the dust of the British army off his feet on returning to Dublin in 1902. He became a silk weaver, evidently using his mother’s connection with the trade to bypass the usual apprenticeship period. But silk weaving alone proved insufficient to feed a family that would eventually grow to five children following his marriage. Mallin became a shopkeeper at various points in the city. Judging by the repeated moves from shop to shop, he may not have been a very effective one, but one of them failed due to the 1913 lock­out: many of his customers had no money, and policemen took their custom elsewhere after he expressed vocal support for the strikers they were batoning. Other business ventures, from a cinema in the city centre to a poultry farm in Finglas, came to nothing too.6 But he did derive a little profit as well as much pleasure from his talents as a musician.

This book does a fine job in unearthing the details of Mallin’s activity as a trade unionist. He became secretary of the Dublin silk weavers’ union by 1908, and led a strike in his own factory in 1913. One of many such disputes overshadowed by the great lockout that would soon follow, this strike saw a hundred weavers out for four months before winning some improvement in their conditions. Mallin’s statements during the strike breathe a defiance which isn’t found often enough in today’s movement, naming names of scabs and insisting on solidarity.

But within a year, the union removed Mallin from his position and went to court to force him to hand over its books. There is no evidence at all that he was on the fiddle, but perhaps he wasn’t the most efficient keeper of accounts. Hughes speculates that it could have been “the result of his growing radicalism” (p 81). At the end of the day, the weavers’ union was a 200-year-old craft society, as concerned with indenturing apprentices to the trade as with wages and hours, and Mallin may have been adopting a Larkinite attitude that militant spirit meant more than organisation, that throwing everything into the fight was more important than keeping the official ledgers up to date.

The left in Dublin enjoyed a revival around 1909, leading to the establishment of the Socialist Party of Ireland that year. Mallin attended a unity conference and was elected to the committee it established. The author claims that “this appointment to the socialist unity committee places Mallin firmly among the leading Dublin socialists at the time” (p 53). But that goes too far: this would remain the highpoint of his involvement with them, and he was never active in the new party.

Soon after the Irish Citizen Army emerged in 1913 Mallin became instructor to its Fintan Lalor Pipe Band. But the ICA’s musical wing was no cushy number: if they understood the importance of a band in boosting the morale of their troops and supporters, so did the police. They made repeated efforts to put the band’s instruments verifiably beyond use, and it was a point of honour for the Citizen Army to defend them. Mallin was subsequent­ly put in charge of the ITGWU’s hall in Inchicore. He used it as a drilling centre, and his background helped in cajoling soldiers from the local barracks to part with the odd rifle. Before long James Connolly appointed him chief of staff.

A story is mentioned here as “a revealing picture of their relation­ship” (p 92). Mallin contracted malaria in India, and once suffered a relapse in Connolly’s presence, causing him to slur his speech and appear delirious. Connolly rebuked him for being drunk on duty. The anecdote has been cited as “an indication of the well-authenticated insensitivity of Connolly in his dealings with colleagues”,7 but this is an unfair reproach, either in general or in this particular case. Instead of telling Connolly of his condition, Mallin replied: “I gave you a promise when joining the Citizen Army that I was finished with all that.”8 This would suggest that, although an active teetotaller, Mallin may well have had an occasional fondness for the drop after all. This is only human, of course, but so is Connolly’s reaction to the facts as he knew them.

While Connolly’s military writings are quite well known by now, the same cannot be said for Mallin’s contributions to the same series in The Workers’ Republic in 1915. Drawing directly on his personal experiences in India, they hold up the methods used against Britain then as a model for the Citizen Army in the warfare that lay ahead:

In such fighting the lanes and alleys are a great source of danger to regular troops; they lead to nowhere but to the street fighters, organised in squads of eight or sixteen… Led by resourceful leaders such bodies do incalculable damage… the real dangerous demoralising fighting is done by small irregular bodies, hastily dividing, using anything capable of killing or wounding that lies ready to hand.9

Hughes tells the story of an ICA unit coming second to an Irish Volunteer company in a shooting competition, only to discover that Mallin was the judge who marked them down. But he misses an article where Mallin explained his decision, insisting that, instead of “wild firing” for “the spectacular effect”, every bullet should be made count: “Two hits in five is so much better than ten in fifty.”10

But the author is right to point out that “what is most striking about Mallin’s writing in the Workers’ Republic is how little resem­blance the tactics of the Indian tribes bear to the events of Easter Week, in Mallin’s garrison or elsewhere in the city” (p 104). He ended up with the hopeless task of occupying Stephen’s Green, a park wide open to the tall buildings surrounding it on four sides. There were no narrow streets in here for the Citizen Army to split up into small fighting units, and they only avoided the fate of sitting ducks by retreating to the College of Surgeons. As a consequence Mallin has often come under criticism since, and a chapter is devoted here to assessing this.

The motivation behind occupying Stephen’s Green cannot be definitively explained, as no plan for the rising has come down to us. And the confusion in which the rising was put off and on again that Easter weekend means that what took place was far less than what was intended. As a result, we are forced to rely on more or less well informed speculation.

It bears emphasising that the plan for the rising was not Mallin’s or Connolly’s or the Citizen Army’s. It was the work of Joseph Plunkett in the main. Although Connolly led the rebel forces from the GPO, he had been brought on board only three months earlier, by which stage he could have done no more than add some details to the plan. While the theory and practice of the ICA had some influence on the Volunteers, its military approach was not the keynote of the rising as planned. Much of it consisted of taking and holding prominent positions in Dublin. This is not wrong in itself, of course. While the GPO had little value militarily, as one of the capital’s most prominent landmarks, no one could reasonably rise in Dublin without occupying it: after all, an insurrection is armed propaganda too. Possibly Stephen’s Green was seen as a similarly significant position to be taken. Mallin was anything but happy when he was shown the plans, anyway, seeing the whole approach as far too inflexible.

An intriguing possibility mentioned here11 is that the Citizen Army was originally intended to occupy Jacob’s biscuit factory as well, Mallin and a comrade doing reconnaissance of the factory shortly before Easter. Now, Stephen’s Green starts to make sense if it is seen as a major outpost of Jacob’s rather than a position of its own. Jacob’s was situated in a maze of narrow streets, many of whose occupants would have been sympathetic to the Citizen Army, and could have been a solid base for guerrilla operations such as Mallin had envisaged.

In the event, Jacob’s was placed under the command of Thomas MacDonagh, who held the factory and did little else, to the frustration of some of the Volunteers there who were left with little to do in Easter week. MacDonagh was brought into the leadership of the rising only weeks before: was Jacob’s transferred at the last minute from Mallin to him, so as to give the last member of the provisional government a major command post? The Citizen Army in Jacob’s is an idea to conjure with. They would probably have made better use of it, and could conceivably have linked up with republican forces a mile away in Marrowbone Lane. But Jacob’s was also despised by the labour movement for the way it humiliated women who returned to work there after the lockout.12 This would have been an occupation by a workers’ militia of an enemy factory, the combination of industrial and military revolution that an ICA man spoke of during the rising.13 Perhaps the concern that such an action would give too left-wing a flavour to the rising may have influenced the decision to change the plans late in the day?

Whatever lay behind the change, it left exponents of urban warfare fighting in the most rural part of Dublin city (with the exception of the Phoenix Park). They did remarkably well, consider­ing, and managed to put into practice some of the tactics they had learned.14 It is unlikely that anyone else could have done a much better job than Mallin did. Hughes’s overall conclusion is sound: the position was indeed poor, but Mallin cannot be blamed for the tough hand he was dealt, and acted as well as could be expected in the circumstances.

A well-known photograph is reproduced in the book, supposedly showing Mallin and Constance Markievicz after their surrender. But it has been claimed that the man in the picture is not Mallin at all,15 and it certainly bears little resemblance to other pictures of him, with the impressive moustache he sported in civilian life noticeably absent. What Mallin would say about Markievicz at his court martial, how­ever, constitutes the one big stain on his character.

He claimed there that he was only a simple silk weaver who taught the Citizen Army band and, having no involvement in their rebel activities, got caught up in a rising he knew nothing of. It could be argued that no one is obliged to tell the truth to a military kangaroo court, and that any lie necessary to escape its clutches could be justified. But Mallin went further, telling them that Markievicz was in command in Stephen’s Green and had appointed him as deputy. This was the exact opposite of the truth, and threatened to place her in front of a firing squad. He may have believed—rightly, as it turned out—that the British wouldn’t go so far as executing a woman, but he had no way of knowing that, and putting a comrade’s life on the line to save his own neck was indeed “particularly dishonourable” (p 169), not to mention ultimately futile.

The predicament that led him to this desperate attempt to avoid a death sentence was the fact that his execution caused greater personal tragedy than anyone else’s. Others left families who were reared, or young families that were well provided for. Mallin’s widow was left with four young children and another on the way, and next to nothing to live on. Even in the frantic build-up to the rising, Mallin was weaving a square of poplin in the hope that Agnes could get a few pounds for it. Much was raised after the rising to help, but scandal­ously, the relief was distributed to dependents of executed men “in a manner that reflected their social standing prior to the Rising” (p 212). Different classes were kept in the manner they had become accustomed to, with the widow and two children of a university lecturer allocated five times as much as the Mallins.

The pain of the separation is laid bare in a letter Mallin wrote to his wife after hearing of his sentence. Hughes calls it “the most striking piece to emerge from the writing of those facing the firing squad” (p 177), and reproduces it in full for the first time. Poured on to the page “as a near stream of consciousness, with little or no punctuation” (p 178), it bursts with the thoughts of a man deter­mined to get some important things said while he still has the chance.

The author protests against the way extracts from the letter have been used over the years to emphasise its author’s Catholicism, but he seems concerned to go the other way. The letter can leave no one in doubt that Mallin was a very devout Catholic. It is replete with references to God’s will, help, blessing and protection. There is no upping the republic—not to mention the workers’ republic—but the belief that “Ireland will come out greater and grander but she must not forget she is Catholic she must keep her Faith” (p 232). He asks his wife never to love another man, to make a priest of one son and a nun of their daughter. Unsurprisingly, these instructions were followed, and only one of the Mallins briefly followed their father into political activism, fighting on the republican side in the civil war. While Mallin comes across as more pious than most, a coincidence of religious belief and labour activism was not uncommon in the Ireland at the time.

It would be nice to hope that his faith provided Mallin with some consolation on the misfortune that was staring him in the face. While his last letter dwells less than others did on the cause he was to die for, it is argued here that (p 185)

Mallin shows a far more developed sense of the loss and sadness that his execution would cause for others… Here is a portrait of a man who had two priorities in life, and for whom one tragically cost him the other.

This seems a little unfair, as the letters of others executed in 1916 show no shortage of love and concern for wives, children, friends and comrades. Every one of them had to reconcile their duty to the cause with their duty to their loved ones. The fact that Mallin expressed his anguish in such a raw manner is not so much evidence that he cared more, but that he hadn’t managed to resolve those conflicting priorities as well as others had.

The empire Mallin had served for thirteen unlucky years, and battled for six brave days, stood him in front of its rifles on the morning of 8 May 1916 and put an end to his life. Whatever criticisms are due, that life is one we should know and admire, not least because the dilemmas and injustices Michael Mallin tackled are anything but a matter of history.


  1. In 1948 Dublin’s Fighting Story described him as “about thirty-six years of age when executed” (Mercier 2009 edition, p 202).
  2. They appeared from 23 September to 28 October 1966 in the weekly Inniu. Unfortunately, they are all wrongly dated in this book’s footnotes.
  3. Hughes is a day out on the baptism (although Séamus Ó Mealláin gives the correct date). He also dates the marriage of Mallin’s parents no more precisely than “around 1874” (p 17), while records of the same parish show Sarah Dowling marrying John Mallin on 1 February 1874.
  4. Strictly speaking, he didn’t join up in Birr (as stated on p 21) but in Dublin, being formally attached to the Fusiliers in Crinkill Barracks on 24 October. Mallin’s attestation form, WO 97/5453/27, National Archives (Britain).
  5. It should be pointed out, however, that Mallin’s medals (as listed on p 25) were awarded to the entire battalion rather than to himself personally.
  6. Shortly before his execution Mallin asked forgiveness for his failings “in the management of my father’s business” (p 234) which suggests that his father may have lost money in one of his enterprises.
  7. Dónal Nevin, James Connolly: ‘A Full Life’ (Gill & Macmillan 2005), p 627-8.
  8. Frank Robbins, Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Academy Press 1975), p 70.
  9. Michael Mallin, ‘Guerilla Warfare in India’, The Workers’ Republic, August 7 1915.
  10. One of the Judges, ‘Impressions of a Judge at St. Enda’s’, The Workers’ Republic, September 11 1915.
  11. And many years ago in R M Fox, The History of the Irish Citizen Army (James Duffy 1943), p 130-1.
  12. See the sheer hatred that comes through in James Connolly, ‘The Outrages at Jacob’s’, The Irish Worker, 14 March 1914 (reprinted in Red Banner 5).
  13. See Max Caulfield, The Easter Rebellion (Four Square 1964), p 127.
  14. One such was breaking through the nearby Turkish baths in an attempt to take the battle to the enemy in the northern buildings of the Green. But the reference to Lincoln Place (p 143-4) is mistaken: Millar & Jury’s baths there had closed down in 1900, and it was their baths at 127 Stephen’s Green that were tunnelled through.
  15. Joe McGowan (ed.), Constance Markievicz: The People’s Countess (Aeolus 2003) identifies him as John Ginnell.