After I had written The Rolling English Road for Dublin Review of Books on May 18 2015 ( https://www.drb.ie/essays/the-rolling-english-road ) Seumas, Jim Phelan’s son, wrote me a letter:
I enjoyed your piece about my father-it was pretty colourful and you’ve clearly put a lot of work into the research. It is still missing crucial areas, particularly Jim’s part in the Irish War of Independence, which became a defining event of his early life.
To understand this, you have to read Green Volcano, his 1938 novel of the Irish struggle which he called ‘the most important book’. This will tell you all you need to know about Jim's views on the formation of the Irish state, and how and why he was involved.
Forrest Reid in his review for The Spectator described Green Volcano as a thriller about the role of rival secret services during the Irish troubles concluding his short review waspishly with, ‘Luckily it breaks off before Mr Phelan has time to spoil it: the hydra of propaganda is just beginning to raise its head when the curtain is rung down’.
Green Volcano is now a collector’s item but I eventually got hold of an electronic version and read it carefully. When I reported back to Seumas I told him that I had enjoyed the gripping tale of espionage and vengeance but that my ignorance of the complexities of the Irish struggle had hindered my understanding.
Glad you've read Green Volcano, and at least it should give you some understanding of how deeply Jim and those of his generation felt about the betrayal of the Irish republic at the end of the War of Independence (1918-21) and how bitter were the divisions left by the Civil War that followed. It was the Free State forces (Fine Gael) that won the war, backed by arms and money from Britain. while De Valera and his Fianna Fail followers were the losers. The one thing they all had in common was that they all outlawed the IRA.
It is sometimes hard for English people to get a handle on Anglo-Irish politics but it's really pretty basic. So far as Jim is concerned, the key point of Green Volcano is the secrecy -- because his work was undercover -- and the division, because the movement was left fatally split in two. The Ben Robinson character is semi-autobiographical and the gun-running is clearly based on experience. My father was a rebel and involved with the Irish Citizens Army but like most of those who had been committed to the cause he was always very guarded about what he said later even to me- that's really all I can say, and I hope you can work out the rest.
Phelan wrote in his autobiography (The Name is Phelan) that during the Dublin Lock Out while working as a blacksmith at Inchicore he had walked through the city with an iron bar concealed in his sleeve and had become adept in rough house tactics in the street battles fought against ‘Murphy’s men’He had also observed the brutality of the police as he listened to the fiery Liverpool-Irish orator Jim Larkin deliver his Bloody Sunday speech from the balcony of Murphy’s Imperial Hotel on O’Connell Street. The ‘lawless nightmare’ came to an end after 4 months of resistance in 1913 when the Trades Union Council of Great Britain refused Larkin’s and the Edinburgh born Marxist, James Connolly’s request to recommend a general strike to its members. Most of the defeated men drifted back to work where they were forced to sign a pledge that they would not join any trades union. Some of those who had been blacklisted felt they had no alternative but to sign up for the British Army.
It was not too long before Phelan was back counting the milestones, this time on the run from the looming threat of two shotgun weddings. After a walk to Toulon and Marseilles he arrived in London on the SS Halcyon and tramped north up the old Watling Street toby. On arrival in Liverpool he checked into a boarding house full of navvies, sailors and drifters, and after sprucing himself up set off in search of his old shipmate George Garrett but was informed by a sailor that his friend was away at sea. Phelan then walked down to the docks where he bumped in to an old Dublin acquaintance, Archie Anderson hanging from the stern-rail of SS Elbana. Anderson who was ‘a Jim Larkin man’ told Phelan that James Connolly had resurrected the Irish Citizen Army as an alternative to the Irish Volunteer Force and was recruiting revolutionaries to continue to fight for an independent Irish republic. He then took Phelan ‘to do a bit of business’, which involved buying four revolvers. After Phelan had returned to his job as a blacksmith at the Inchicore factory in Dublin Anderson would bring guns for him to fit with new springs.
In 1921 after the Anglo-Irish Peace Treaty had been signed Phelan listened to a rallying speech given by Liam O’Flaherty. O’Flaherty was an Irish Guards veteran of World War I who had joined the Industrial Workers of the World in New York and been introduced to Communism by his brother before returning to Ireland. Like Phelan and George Garrett he would also become a writer.
Phelan wrote in The Name is Phelan:
‘O’ Flaherty was a magnificent speaker, with an ineradicable twist of mischief in his makeup. The organising of a beggar’s legion, comparable to the host of the beggar syndicate described by Dumas in Twenty Years After obviously appealed to him. It did to me too’.
After more casual jobs Phelan next answered an advertisement to join the Tank Corps in the British Army and set off for a place called Wool in Dorset where a huge mausoleum of World War I fighter tanks lay unused. Instead of supplying his new friends in the Citizen Army with weapons he whiled away the hours reading the works of Thomas Hardy and playing chess. On a period of leave he returned to Dublin to find The Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (The Black and Tans) made up mainly of World War 1 veterans from English and Scottish cities patrolling the Dublin streets in armed vehicles. To Phelan’s disappointment his former friends in the demi-monde of The Liberties had decided to support the British against the poorly paid Irish workers of Townsend Street. During his time back in Dublin he fell into a relationship with a girl called Dora Mary O’ Brien. On his reluctant return to his blacksmith work at Wool he learned that an anonymous letter had been sent to his superiors alleging he was a conspirator. The British authorities did not pursue the matter but the accusation gave him the opportunity to negotiate an early discharge.
On January 18 1922 a garrison of unemployed men led by O’Flaherty which included Phelan seized the Rotunda in Dublin (now the Gate Theatre). O’Flaherty in his capacity as spokesman for the ‘Council of the Unemployed’ informed the press that it was a peaceful protest against the apathy of the authorities but warned that should they be arrested they would not recognise the legal process. The hoisting of the Red Flag and the declaration of a Soviet Republic led to consternation in the ranks of the newly formed Irish Communist Party and the gathering of an angry crowd outside the concert hall. After four days of occupation during which shots were fired over the heads of the mob from inside the hall the Free State troops evicted the anti-Treaty protesters. Phelan travelled with O’Flaherty to Cork before returning to Dora in Dublin where he resumed his role as a gun repairer for Archie Anderson.
On March 13 1922 he was back in Liverpool and wrote in The Name is Phelan:
I jumped about, to Cardiff, to Bristol, to Glasgow, but always back to Liverpool (or to the port of Garston, rather which is seven miles from Liverpool up the Mersey) where my main interests lay’.
…There was a quiet unhurried feel about Liverpool that I liked. From the first day I was at home, nearer to peace than I had been for months. The vast line of docks inevitably drew me, and much of my time went in learning the names of ports as strange-sounding as Tyre and Sidon.
There he took a job as a blacksmith at Bowman and Beddows in Roscoe Street and on 31st October 1922 became a father when Dora had a daughter Catherine Mary born at 296 Beaufort Street, Liverpool 8. Although the British were less concerned about Irish politics now the peace treaty had been signed, and the Irish republicans were fighting amongst themselves, the Liverpool police kept a close eye on Phelan. On one occasion an Irishman called Detective Inspector Moore spoke to him in Gaelic and warned him to keep away from the waterfront. Some weeks later he was stopped and searched on the Dock Road by detectives. His stealth and secretiveness and use of aliases such as Albert or Seamus Finchley led to suspicions among the authorities that he might be the new chief of the IRA. George Garrett was still working as a stoker but in meetings he had with his compatriot referred to himself as a writer.
The Irish Civil War had begun with fierce in-fighting between two factions of the victorious rebels. Phelan’s brother Willie was now in prison and Liberty Hall had been fired on by the Free State Government. Liam O Flaherty came to Liverpool and told Phelan that the Republicans planned to wage war in the Wicklow Mountains and that he wanted him to join as a commandant. Phelan declined:
Not knowing, how could I tell him I felt nothing and hoped nothing that I knew no loyalties to tear at me, had no convictions to drive me, wanted everything from the world but expected nothing and would take nothing.
On June 11 1923 Phelan and another man attempted to rob a post office on Hopwood Street off the Scotland Road in Liverpool. During the raid Thomas Lovelady, 22 year old man rushed to the rescue of his sister and was shot in the abdomen by one of the gunmen. Phelan was arrested shortly afterwards and later charged with murder. In his statement to the police he claimed that he had joined his accomplice a man known to the police as John McAteer or McGinty at a lodging house at 97 Byrom Street on June 8. At about ten minutes to seven in the evening the two men entered the post office. With Phelan standing with his back guarding the door McAteer went behind the counter to snatch the proceeds. One of the postmistresses attempted to phone the police while the other made a movement as if to go to the back of the shop but then froze. The girl with the telephone then screamed and Phelan claimed he ran out and into Scotland Road. As he was about to run down Newsham Street he heard a gunshot. McAteer then rushed past him and as he tried to escape Phelan then claimed he had been forced to fire his 0.22 pistol in the air to scare off a group of men who pursued them. Before being arrested he admitted firing a second shot although he later retracted this.
He also claimed that McAteer had instructed him on the morning of the robbery to bring the guns to the lodging house saying that ‘one of them post offices has got to go up’. The guns had been supplied by John Braddock and handed over to him in a package on Hardman Street by James Horan, a Communist and that he had also received a piece of lead pipe from a man called Joe Kennedy. Another gun had been handed over to Augustine Power who had been with McAteer and himself sussing out possible targets around Scotland Road earlier in the day and who had been supposed to meet them that evening. Phelan denied that they had any intention of shooting anybody and that the choice of the post office had been done at the last-minute. In a subsequent statement Phelan added that he had first been approached in March the previous year by Joseph Kennedy and James Cully to assist in a hold-up either at a butchers called Higgins or a post office on Scotland Road near St Martin’s Hall but had backed out.
Phelan was sentenced to death by hanging and detained at His Majesty’s pleasure in Strangeways. It was accepted that he had not pulled the trigger. On the eve of his execution following pleas for clemency from his mother and others the Home Office commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, a fate worse than death in Phelan’s eyes. Not long after he had begun his prison term he was subpoenaed to give evidence against Augustine Power and John Braddock, two Communist sympathisers charged with being in possession of guns and explosives. Despite his statement to the police that had incriminated the two men Phelan had made his mind up not to turn King’s evidence. Each of the Prosecution barrister’s questions was greeted with ‘I did not’ and finally he shouted in a loud voice, ‘I will not have my evidence distorted by the police’. The Daily Express of September 29 1923 headlined their special report from the courts with ‘Jaunty Life Convict. Reprieved Man’s Grimaces and Smiles. Sneers in Court’. After the trial Phelan was branded by the English press as a dangerous IRA gunman, a misnomer he did nothing to dispel during his 13 years spent in HM Prisons.
Nothing was known about McAteer’s escape until the recent publication of a book by Barry McLoughlin entitled Left to the Wolves; Irish Victims of Stalinist Terror . John Francis (Seán) McAteer was one of fourteen children, born in in a two up two down terraced house with an outdoor toilet and no hot water in Barnet Street, Liverpool 7. After he had been sacked as an agitator in the Dublin docks he became embroiled in several revolutionary adventures in the United States of America.In 1922 he returned to Ireland and joined the Republican cause with the Irish Citizen’s Army living at 10 North Clarence Street in Dublin . He also fought with the IRA in Wicklow and Tipperary.
With financial assistance from the British Communist Party, McAteer had managed to escape justice in England and fled to the Soviet Union where he assumed the name of David Ivanovich Twist or SeánTwist and married a Russian woman called Tamara. The Russians put him to work as a teacher and propagandist in the Seaman’s Club in Odessa and in 1927 he was sent to China as a Comintern agent. He then returned to Odessa where his outspokenness against corruption brought him enemies. During the Great Purge he was charged with spying and executed by a firing squad on 29th November 1937.
When I asked Seumas about McAteer and his links to Russia he wrote back:
Green Volcano was translated into Russian in 1941 and distributed in the USSR, as you probably know, but you may not know that the first country in the world to recognise the Soviets as the legitimate government was the infant Irish Republic -- at one time every Soviet schoolchild knew that because it was taught in all their schools. The preface written by the literary critic Abel Startsev was removed in later print runs when he became persona non grata during Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges. There were a lot of sometime Bolsheviks in Ireland in my father’s time, a reminder that Ireland usually reflects dominant global ideologies in one form or another. I had to drink a lot of toasts in vodka when I was there under Brezhnev.
Good luck with your efforts
Slan go fail, Seumas.
Larkin, Connolly and McAteer were all members of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies)a labour union founded in Chicago in 1905 that promoted the concept of "One Big Union" and contended that all workers should be united to supplant capitalism and wage labour with industrial democracy. The Wobblies constitution stated that the working class and the bosses had nothing in common and that industrial peace could never exist as long as millions of workers suffered from hunger and want. Class struggle had to continue so that the rank and file could take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system and live in harmony with the Earth.
Phelan and McAteer had been frequent visitors to a Dublin house on Langrishe Place owned by Jim Larkin’s sister, Delia. It was a known meeting place for intellectual reformers like Maude Eden and Maeve Kavanagh and writers like Sean O’Casey as well as some members of the Transport Union. Delia kept salon with great strength of character so that even after her marriage to a Colgan, the workers of Townsend Street continued to address her respectfully as Miss Larkin. Phelan’s sister Maggie married Delia Larkin’s brother-in-law, John in 1921 and one of McAteer’s sisters Catherine married Phelan’s younger brother William Cornelius (James) in St Joseph’s church Dublin.
It later transpired that the botched post office heist in Liverpool had been ordered by far left elements within a successor group of the Irish Citizen’s Army in the immediate post-truce period to acquire money for the dependents of imprisoned comrades.
To try to understand ‘the rest’ as Seumas had put it I next turned to Ten-A-Penny People, a book published in the same year as Green Volcano about working class tensions in Manchester based on Phelan’s own working experiences in Liverpool. The book opens with a story that George Garrett had told him when the two men first met in New Orleans in 1913 andwhen Garrett had helped Phelan get a seaman’s card. Garrett told Phelan that when he had refused to follow in his father’s footsteps and go to sea his father had beaten him senseless and then urinated on his face before carting him down to the docks and pocketing the signing on fee. Garrett becomes Joe Jarrow in the book:
The soft Liverpool brogue can be menacing at times, and Old Man Jarrow meant to be threatening now. Slit-eyed, with his mouth set hard and both big fists clenched, he surveyed the enormous youngster before him.
After the beating by his father Joe Jarrow goes to tell his girlfriend Kitty the bad news in a meeting place which was probably close to the Tate and Lyle sugar factory on Love Lane:
The long dead wall of a well-known sugar works flanked the road. He walked close to this wall, partly turned inward in uncomfortable diagonal fashion, so that his progress was furtive and slinking. Although he trod the streets of a sea-port he moved like a forest-animal, crouching close to the cover even as he walked….He halted in a mean little square. A dozen tiny cottages grouped around a single water-tap, a lavatory and a row of dust-bins…Young Joe lounged away, down a ‘jigger’ to the right into another and smaller jigger where he waited. Like most of the lanes, it was about four feet wide, ran between seven-foot walls and looked like part of a maze. Here in the rabbit-burrow passages so incongruous in a big city, was the only meeting place known to Young Joe and his kind.
Joe returns home and throws the only photograph of his bullied and beaten dead mother onto the fire and takes the tram to the Herculaneum dock to board SS Ventura, bound for Callao. The narrative continues with a patchwork of cinematic montages describing the formative years of some of the main characters of the book. There is an extended account of violent strike action at the shipbuilding firm of Gannet and Swon, an attempted suicide by a mother, romance and a case of arson with murder. Factional quarrels lead to disorganised chaos and counterproductive mob rule at the factory. In the mayhem the police end up battering the blacklegs they are meant to be defending. Later onin the story Joe Jarrow who has become a tramp learns from a lorry driver that his sweetheart Kitty is now married and living in Manchester and has become a committed member of the Communist Party.
Jarrow tells the lorry driver:
I’ve preached the class- struggle up and down a few countries. I never pass a Communist or Socialist branch. But I’ll join no party.
In Ten-A-Penny People there is also a couple called Dick and Joan Rogan, both Party members who talk like automatons with telegrammatic speech and consider themselves to superior idealistic intellectuals distinguished from the hoi-polloi by their willingness to die for their beliefs:
“Acquiescent?-name?” inquired Dick. “Wife-gas.
“Harrish”, Joan told him. “Minnie’s father”.
“Harrish, Probably Harrish .Crushed, strained. Long tension. Snap-violent. Harrish!” Rogan was almost positive.
Phelan concludes his story with the veteran socialist ship stoker Soashie Rudd, who had befriended Jarrow and given him ‘The Apostate’ by Jack London to read on theVentura, speaking from a soapbox on the cast iron shore to an angry crowd of Liverpool dockers:
Aye mates that’s what it means. This wage-cut of yours isn’t directed to you boys alone. They’re aiming for the whole working class. All over the world boys from Tientsin to Madrid, and from Liverpool and Manchester to Berlin and Addis Ababa, they’re aiming at the whole working class. You saw it two months ago in Manchester; you’re seeing it now here. I don’t work in your trade, mates. I’m just a ship’s foreman who knows the boss-class.
In Ten-A-Penny People it is the ordinary working people like Joe Jarrow (George Garrett) who opposed class war and agitprop, and not the automatons of the British Communist Party that come over as the heroes.
After his release from Parkhurst prison after spending 13 years in prison Jim Phelan became a successful writer mixing in London literary circles where he was suspected by some of his acquaintances of being a double agent.
Phelan was sympathetic to the Wobblies and subscribed to the view of his friend Garrett that all workers were slaves to the capitalists irrespective of their race colour or creed.
In the George Garrett Archive in Liverpool there is a signed copy of Museum (published under the title of Lifer in the USA) Phelan’s first book. On the inside cover he has pasted a red illustration in the style of a Soviet propagandist poster announcing ‘Jim and Jill have a baby’ (Seumas) and a dedication:
To my old-time side-kicker, George Garrett-the sailor, the stoker of steamers, the man with the clout.
Some come through.
Jim Phelan September ‘37
Below this he had glued in a typed bio-sketch, possibly written by his publisher;
‘Born Seumas Ua Faolain (a cousin of Sean O’ Faolain, author of A Nest of Simple Folk. Mr Phelan early became a worker for Irish freedom, took part in the Easter Rebellion, and after the shooting of a mail-clerk in Lancashire, became known in the British press as the ‘Silent Witness’ because of his refusal to incriminate rebel comrades. While in prison he wrote nearly five million words, ranging in tone from lyric poems to the brutal truth about penal servitude’.
By Phelan’s own admission The Name is Phelan was written to capture a readership in post-war England and it cannot be excluded that some of what he wrote was ‘a line of guff’ but I felt this unlikely. Phelan’s father had served time in prison and had a revolutionary background as had his grandfather. Independent historical sources supported what Seumas had told me that his father was a staunch republican with sympathy for international workers’ rights who had made no secret of his deep mistrust for the Catholic Church, all politicians and The Communist Party. After learning the rest I now saw him as a radical libertarian socialist who became involved in the Irish War of Independence but was to find his greatest freedom roaming the roads of The British Isles and Continental Europe, He was a committed outsider and a lucid dreamer who by freeing up time found himself able to link his future and past through many varying presents:
Drifting I looked out over the water, at the other iron bollard on Dublin riverside and at the thirteen-year-old who sat there to look out over Dublin bay at me. I looked forward, too, and saw many a picture which in later days, I knew to come alive. Hamburg docks, for instance, I saw quite clearly, and years after the false-nostalgia came when I looked at them in reality. I even saw Guatemala.
This essay is dedicated to Seumas Joseph Phelan born February 4 1938, moral compass of the newsroom, Republican and socialist who died on September 28 2016 at his home in Trevethin, New South Wales, Australia.
Seumas Boy Phelan- ‘a childhood work’
Extract from II- Naughty Mans (Horizon ed Cyril Connolly July 1943):
When your Jim is thinking a lot, about the bloody words he’s going to type, that’s lousy. Rule one, stay alive. Rule two, don’t fool about with your food. Rule three, don’t go off the deep end. Your daddy goes off the deep end if you intersturb him when hc’s writing the bloody words. I made rule three. Jim says There’s a Clever Boy.
When I get to be a big man I am going to shoot Jim. Ah, no, Seumas Boy, of course not, your good Jim. So I will though’.
Andrew Lees is a Professor of Neurology at the National Hospital, Queen Square London and a writer. His next book Brazil that never was to be published in 2020 by Notting Hill Editions and New York Review of Books like most of his previously published works has been inspired by the port of Liverpool.
My thanks are due to Barry McLoughlin, author of Left to the Wolves: Victims of Irish Victims of Stalinist Terror for his scholarly insights into Jim Phelan’s involvement in the Irish struggle and for providing me with some documents relating to the trial at Manchester Assizes. Dr McLoughlin also gave me permission to publish the picture of Phelan at the time of his arrest and the 1922 photograph originally from Freeman’s Journal of January 20 1922 and published in his book. David Cowell and Tony Wailey also provided black pearls.
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