The mental toll of revolution

The physical price paid by many in the struggle for a free Ireland is well known. But the mental stress suffered by revolutionaries is an area that is rarely examined. Peter Berresford Ellis looks at the hidden cost of armed insurrection in Ireland.

Few historians know that one of Michael Collins' 'Squad' was so mentally disturbed by the part he played in the execution of British Intelligence offices on 'Bloody Sunday', 21 November 1920, that he felt a compulsion to give himself up. His worried seniors referred him to a psychiatric hospital.

Reading history about Ireland's armed struggle for independence, one seldom considers accounts of the effect of the mental stress, the shock and horror that can disturb people in such a conflict. During the more recent phase of the armed struggle, from 1969 to date, we appear to have developed more awareness of how it affects the mental health -- both of participants and the ordinary citizens.

Torture and brutality are as old as war itself. England has a long history of torture and I am not speaking merely in Irish terms. After World War II, the western world piously denounced such methods and signed various Human Rights Declarations. But in reality, the machinery of repression was just as harsh and indiscriminate in its brutality as ever it had been.

When Internment was introduced in Northern Ireland, in August, 1971, stories of torture began to filter out. As we all know now, the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branches made a careful and deliberate use of modern torture techniques on those they detained without trial.

John McGuffin, in his harrowing study The Guinea Pigs (Penguin, 1974) showed that the use of torture (or, as the UK admitted `inhumane and degrading treatment') was not merely to gain information but to perfect the system of sensory deprivation.

Verbal and physical abuse, `white noise', being thrown out of a helicopter while being told it was hundreds of feet in the air, led to the European Court of Human Rights finding the UK guilty, for the first time, of human rights

Early in 1973, I met Professor Rhona M. Fields, then an associate professor at Clarke University, Massachusetts, where she was teaching social psychology and sociology. Rhona had been living in Northern Ireland for a while, carrying out research on the conflict there. She had been one of the first professional psychologists to visit Long Kesh internment camp. She also carried out psychomotor and personality function tests on 125 ex-internees as well as motivation and cognitive growth studies in children.

When I met her she was just preparing a book, published later that year as A Society on the Run: a psychology of Northern Ireland A Society on the Run was a pioneer work.

It had an explosive birth. UK Government critics were fierce in their denunciation of the work and pressure was applied. Penguin eventualy withdrew it.

Rona was a strong advocate of the works of James Connolly and in her concluding argument she quoted Connolly a lot, especially his famous lines which began: 'If you remove the English army tomorrow and raise the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist republic, your efforts would be in vain….'

In 1999 my good friend Aly Renwick published his study Hidden Wounds: the problem of Northern Ireland veterans in Civvy Street which dealt with the problems of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among soldiers. The world at large is now aware that war, whether a guerrilla war or a 'conventional war' (if there is any distinction) produces mental casualties on all sides.

If such things happened in the 1969-95 period, obviously there were cases in 1916-23 and yet we know so little about them.

Captain Bowen Colthurst's notorious rampage of death against innocent civilisations in Dublin, in 1916, most notably the shooting of the famous writer, socialist and pacifist, Francis Sheehy Skeffington, stands out. Colthurst was found insane and sent to Broadmoor for a few years.

Can other cases be enumerated?

A short time ago I stumbled across a statement while trying to access some family history. This had been hidden in the archives of the Bureau of Military History in Dublin.

Vincent Cornelius Ellis (1893-1958) was a medical doctor, a graduate of UCD and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. He had joined Sinn Féin in 1917, when it announced its commitment to the 1916 republic. The following year he was elected as a Sinn Féin member of the South Dublin Board of Guardians and also found himself appointed assistant medical office at Grangegorman Mental Hospital in Dublin.

Vincent was a close friend of Michael Staines (1885-1955) who was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood from 1902 and on its Supreme Council in 1921-22. Staines had taken part in the 1916 uprising and was interned at Frongoch. He was elected as a Sinn Féin MP for Dublin in 1918, joined Dáil Éireann, working closely with the legal side of Government, and became a Dublin alderman as well. He was on the Grangegorman Mental Hospital Board.

Vincent Ellis worked closely with the independence movement, supplying his skills as a doctor. Indeed, most of the staff at Grangegorman was active in the republic movement and the hospital, Vincent admitted, was used to store arms and ammunition for the South Dublin Brigade.

In a statement made in 1950, Dr Vincent Ellis tells a fascinating story: "A day or two after 'Bloody Sunday', (November 21, 1920) a young man called to see me with a note signed 'O/C - Company, IRA', and initialled. The note was a request that I should do what I could for the bearer. The bearer was unknown to me."

Vincent Ellis took him to his office and the young man told him that one of those engaged in the executions of that Sunday had become mentally upset and wished to give himself up to the British.

Now this is historical dynamite. We all know that the executions of British intelligence offices were carried out by the twelve members of Michael Collins' Special Intelligence Unit called 'The Squad' led by Patrick Daly. We have all seen these men portrayed, especially in the film Michael Collins, as grim, ruthless, determined. Now we are being told that one of them became so mentally disturbed by the event that he wanted to give himself up.

It was pointed out that should this man surrender it would allow British Military Intelligence to discover the identities of some or all of the others involved with dire consequences to Collins.

Vincent Ellis suggested that the man be admitted into Grangegorman for therapy but, as assistant medical officer there, he was debarred from issuing an admission certificate. He advised his visitor to take the man to a Dr O'Carroll, in Westmoreland Row, for the admission certificate. He advised that the details of what led to this course being adopted should be withheld even from this doctor.

The man was not admitted and Vincent Ellis became worried as the weeks passed. One aspect that worried him was whether the man who had come to see him was not a British agent, checking on him. Vincent had been frank in his involvement and this would also reflect on his staff.

He contacted a senior officer in the IRA, who he trusted. The officer reassured him and no more was heard of the incident. But it was an incident that puts a new historic light on the events of that day and changes the notion of Collins' men has hardened and ruthless killers.

Soon after this incident, a large force of British military raided Grangegorman. Vincent Ellis had been warned to expect it from Collins' intelligence sources. It came about 5 a.m. one morning and lasted unto the afternoon. The arms store was not discovered.

One nurse on duty when the raid started was known to the soldiers and on a wanted list. Vincent Ellis had him locked into a padded cell and told him to act like an acute case until the raid was over. The raid accomplished nothing except a British officer cut the hospital telephone lines much to the anger of his superiors who wanted to 'phone their headquarters'. After the raid, the 'lunatic' was let out of the padded cell and resumed his duties as a nurse.

After the truce, Vincent Ellis was ordered to go to Broadmoor Asylum for the criminally insane in England to escort some IRA prisoners back to Dublin who were in a poor mental state. One of them was Pat Harte, former quartermaster of the 3rd Battalion, West Cork Brigade. He had been captured and tortured in Bandon Barracks on 20 July 1920, along with Tom Hales, the OC of the Brigade. Hales survived the torture but when Vincent collected Harte he was found to be in a bad state of dementia.

In the case of Harte and Hales the torture was carried out not by Auxiliaries or 'Black and Tans' but by regular British Army officers who pulled out the finger and toenails of their victims. Vincent Ellis adds in his statement: "With him at the same time were two other prisoners from Broadmoor and I think one of them was Henry Dillon, a Dublin man. He was taken home in care of his friends and subsequently admitted to Grangegorman. Harte was admitted directly. The third man was Leahy from Mayo. This man was mentally normal."

Leahy had been arrested carrying arms, a capital offence under the British military curfew. Leahy decided to feign madness. Neither the British military medical officer nor the local mental hospital doctor could fault his performance. They pronounced him 'insane' and he escaped execution by being sent off to Broadmoor.

Vincent Ellis found there was nothing at all wrong with him but kept quiet until they were safely back in Dublin where Leahy was quietly handed over to his friends and relatives.

Vincent seemed to follow the career of his friend and mentor, Michael Staines. Staines took the Pro-Treaty side, became Commissioner of the new police force, the Garda Siochána, and served as a senator from 1922-1936.

Vincent Ellis went back to University College, Dublin, to obtain some extra qualifications, became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Medicine and Member of the Irish Tuberculosis Society. By 1933 he had been appointed a surgeon to the Garda Siochána and soon was the force's Chief Medical Officer. He also served on the Central Council of the Irish Red Cross Society when it was first established in 1939.

His statement, (Document WS 682) in the Bureau of Military History, witnessed by Sergeant Edmond Morony, is an important piece of history connected with the War of Independence, and shows that there are still areas that have not been explored. Who was the member of Collins' 'Squad' and what happened to him?

In what other ways was the mental health of the participants of 1916-23 affected during this period of struggle? There is still much work to be done.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2003-12-23 21:12:17.
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Copyright © 2003 Peter Berresford Ellis