10 January 2008 Edition
1858 - 2008 Irish Republican Brotherhood 150th Anniversary
The Little Captain from Cincinnatti
WILLIAM MACKAY LOMASNEY may be little known in general historical terms but the explosive exploits of the diminutive Irish-American, a master of disguise creating mayhem for crown forces in Cork and taking the war to England, made him the sort of guerrilla leader that Michael Collins was to gain fame as 50 years later.
In this first episode of a two-part feature over this week and next, Sinn Féin TD AENGUS Ó SNODAIGH looks back at the life and death of ‘The Little Captain’.
JUST over 140 years ago, on 27 December 1867, an active service unit of Volunteers captured one of the British military’s outposts, the Martello Tower at Fota, County Cork, and emptied its weapons store.
Three days later, a gun shop in Patrick Street, Cork, was raided and during the next few days and weeks many other gin shops and coast guard stations were attacked and weapons seized. At the head of this active service unit of Irish republican soldiers was William Francis Lomasney, otherwise known as ‘Captain Mackay’ or ‘The Little Captain’.
Lomasney had been active in Ireland since 1865 in preparation for the forthcoming rising, though when he was arrested along with another Irish-American, John McCafferty, later that year, they agreed to leave the country after the judge stated they wouldn’t be required to stand trial if they left the country. Celebrations greeted the news at the time that they were released, though his freedom was to be short-lived.
He was arrested again in Liverpool within weeks, obviously still organising the Volunteers of the Irish Republican Brotherhood which had been formed seven years earlier. He was brought back to Ireland, to Mountjoy Jail, and was released again under the same conditions, that he leave the jurisdiction, which he did – though he was back in Ireland at the head of over 200 Cork Volunteers who gathered at Prayer Hill on 6 March 1867 in the north of the city to play their part in the planned rising. The column moved over the next few days through the county and the heavy snow which had fallen that week, stopping only to raid for arms, to fell telegraph poles, destroy bridges and pull-up railway lines.
They captured an RIC barracks at Ballyknockane without injuring anybody and then proceeded to burn it. During this attack, despite being fired on by the police inside, the Volunteers allowed the garrison to surrender untouched, before setting fire to the barracks. After that attack, because news had reached them of the general failure of the rising, the column dispersed, though Lomasney and others continued their sporadic raiding for arms and re-organising the Republican Army (the term ‘IRA’ was being used at this time in the USA in particular) for many months up to February 1868.
Two days after Christmas 1867, Lomasney and several other IRB men captured the fortified Martello Tower in Fota, County Cork. They held its armed guard captive while its large armoury was plundered of its arms and ammunition, though it wasn’t as full as it would be normally and the grenades which the Little Captain specifically asked the captives for were not in stock. Four days later, on 30 December, eight IRB men entered Henry Allport’s gun shop in Patrick Street in Cork City removed 72 revolvers and other guns along with a large quantity of revolver cartridges.
A month earlier, on 28 November, Richardson’s gun shop, also on Patrick Street, was taken over and stripped of its contents: 120 revolvers and 8 Snider rifles. Other gun shops and coast guard stations in County Cork were raided in this period and many weapons were seized on behalf of the Republic.
The exploits of Captain Mackay and his unit attracted songsters, one song written about them went like this: –
The Cork men and New York men
Oh, the gallant Cork men
Mixed with New York men,
I’m sure their equals cannot be found;
In deeds of daring,
They set men staring the world around.
No spies could match them,
No sentries watch them,
No specials catch them or mar their play,
While the clever Cork men
And cute New York men
Work new surprises by night and day.
Sedate and steady,
Calm, quick and ready,
They boldly enter, but make no din,
Where’re such trifles
As Snider rifles
And bright six-shooters are stored within.
The Queen’s round towers
Can’t baulk their powers,
Off go the weapons by sea and shore,
To where the Cork men
And smart New York men
Are daily piling their precious store.
John Bull, in wonder,
With voice like thunder,
Declares such plunder he must dislike;
They next may roll in
And sack Haulbowline
Or, on a sudden, run off with Spire.
His peace has vanished,
His joys are banished,
And gay or happy no more he’ll be,
Until those Cork men
And wild New York men
Are sunk together beneath the sea.
Oh, bold New York men
And daring Cork men,
We own your pleasures should all grow dim,
On thus discerning
And plainly learning
That your amusement gives pain to him.
Yet, from the nation,
Leaps forth, and echoes with thunderous sound –
“Here’s to all Cork men,
Likewise New York men,
Who stand for Ireland the world around!”
The Little Captain’s luck ran out though on 7 February 1868 when he was captured in Cronin’s grocery shop on Market Street, Cork. Ordering a drink and sitting down with some other customers, he was surrounded within minutes by RIC men, one of whom grabbed the small man by the collar. The Little Captain wasn’t going to give up his liberty without a fight and in the ensuing struggle in which both drew their revolvers, the policeman Constable Casey fell wounded, having been shot in the leg. He died several days later. Mackay and the others were captured.
This time he was brought before the court and charged with murder and also treason felony for his part in the March rising. He was tried on 20 March 1868 with much evidence against him and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment, even though he beat the charge of killing an RIC man. He was convicted of treason felony in front of a former Young Irelander, Thomas O’Hagan, who later became the Lord Chancellor of Ireland. O’Hagan was said to have wept when passing sentence as he tried during the trial to lecture Lomasney on the ‘enormity of his crimes’, only to have Lomasney respond that he was simply following O’Hagan’s own example of 1848.
William Lomasney’s speech from the dock, though not as famous today as those of Robert Emmet or Roger Casement, is a masterful piece of patriotic oratory.
“Much has been said during these trials on the objects and intentions of Fenianism. I feel confidently, my lord, as to my own motives.
“I shall not be guilty of the egotism to say whether they are pure or otherwise. I shall leave that to others to judge. I am not qualified to judge that myself; but I know in my soul that the motives which prompted me were pure, patriotic and unselfish.
“I know the motives that actuate the most active members of the Fenian organisation; and I know that very few persons, except such contemptible wretches as [the informer] Corydon, have profited by their connection with Fenianism. My best friends lost all they ever possessed by it. Talbot and Corydon, I believe, have sworn in previous trials that it was the intention of the Fenians to have divided the lands of Ireland amongst themselves in the event of success.
“Though a humble member of the organisation, I have the honour and satisfaction of being acquainted with the great majority of the leaders of Fenianism on both sides of the Atlantic and I never knew one of them to have exhibited a desire other than to have the proud satisfaction of freeing Ireland, which was the only reward they ever yearned for – the only object that ever animated them.
“As to myself, I can truly say that I entered into this movement without any idea of personal aggrandisement. When, in 1865, I bade my loving friends and parents goodbye in America, and come to Ireland, I was fully satisfied with the thought that I was coming to assist in the liberation of an enslaved nation; and I knew that the greatest sacrifice must be endured on our parts before the country could be raised to that proud position so beautifully described by the poet as ‘Great, glorious, and free – First flower of the earth, and first gem of the sea.’
“It was with that only wish and that only desire I came to Ireland, feeling that to realise it were to an honest man a greater reward than all the honours and riches and power this world could bestow. I cannot boast of learning, my lord; I have not had much opportunity of cultivating those talents with which Providence may have blessed me.
Still, I have read sufficient of the world’s history to know that no people ever acquired their liberty without enormous sacrifices – without losing always, I may say, some of the purest, bravest and best of their children.
“Liberty, if worth possessing, is surely worth struggling and fighting for, and in this struggle – of which, although the crown lawyers and the Government of England think they have seen the end, but of which I tell them they have not yet seen the commencement – I feel that enormous sacrifices must be made.
“Therefore, my lord, looking straight before me now, I say I was determined and was quite ready to sacrifice my life if necessary to acquire that liberty; and I am not now going to be so mean-spirited, so cowardly, or so contemptible as to shrink from my portion of the general suffering. I am ready, then, for the sentence of the court, satisfied that I have acted right, confident that I have committed no wrong, outrage or crime whatever, and that I have cast no disgrace upon my parents, my friends, my devoted wife or myself. I am, with God’s assistance, ready to meet my fate.
“I rest in the calm resignation of a man whose only ambition through life has been to benefit and free, not to injure, his fellow men, and whose only desire this moment is to obtain their prayers and blessings. With the approval of my own conscience, above all, hoping for the forgiveness of God for anything I may have done to displease him, and relying upon his self-sustaining grace to enable me to bear my punishment, no matter how severe, so long as it is for glorious old Ireland.”
This small Irish-American soldier (hence the nickname ‘The Little Captain’) from Cincinnatti, Ohio, was born in 1841 of Cork parents. John Devoy, leader of Clann na Gael, said of him that he was “a small man of slender build, who spoke with a lisp, modest and retiring in manner”, adding: “One who did not know him well would never take him for a desperate man but no one in the Fenian movement ever did more desperate things.”
He was also a master of disguise, regularly changing his facial features using beards and moustaches. The informer Le Caron said of him:
“Though of youthful appearance, his face was a most determined one, and the way it lent itself to disguise was truly marvellous. When covered with the dark bushy hair, of which he had a profusion, it was one face; when clean-shaven, quite another, and impossible of recognition.”
Lomasney’s father was a member of the sister organisation in the USA, the Fenian Brotherhood, and one of his grandfathers had been killed during the 1798 Rebellion. After about three years in Millbank Convict Prison, where he met John Devoy and became life-long friends and comrades, Lomasney was released under the general amnesty in 1871 and he returned to the USA where he opened a book shop in Michigan Avenue in Detroit.
Between then and 1878 there is very little account of him or his activities until it is recorded that he was a member of the Military Board of Clan na Gael in March of that year. He is being proposed by John Devoy, leader of Clan na Gael, which was in the ascendancy of republican organisations in the USA at the time. He was regarded as being ideal to travel around different areas in secret to boost morale among the republican movement and to give military lectures (Devoy’s Postbag 1, p311). As General Francis Frederick Millen [a British agent provocateur in the Fenians] put it, addressing “military men in secret session”. He was also tasked in this period with recruiting for the republican army of Clan na Gael.
In 1880 he was invited onto the Revolutionary Directory as part of their plans for a renewed military campaign against Britain’s occupation of Ireland. He was given a new codename, ‘Waldron’ to replace his old one, ‘K’.
His new codename was the new sign of one of the most concerted guerrilla offensives Britain was ever to face from Irish republicans.
Next week: Taking the war to England