Alice Ginnell’s Civil War: December 1921 to July 1922

In an earlier edition (see article by Dr Ann Marie O’Brien) and podcast, we discussed the life and career of Alice King who was born near Mullingar in 1882 to James and Georgina King. On 30 January 1902 she married Laurence Ginnell (whose career we followed in these podcasts and in the following article by Dr Paul Hughes). Between 1906 and 1918 the couple spent much of their time in London due to Laurence’s political career as an Irish Parliamentary Party MP for Westmeath North (he switched from the IPP to Sinn Féin after the Easter Rising). Alice, who was a friend of Constance Markievicz and Maud Gonne, joined the London branch of Cumann na mBan after its establishment in 1915.

‘important dates and events’

During subsequent years, Alice Ginnell was a skilled activist and organiser for both Cumann na mBan and Sinn Féin. For example, she was Laurence’s election agent during his successful campaign as the Sinn Féin candidate for Westmeath in the 1918 general election. During the War of Independence, Alice travelled to the United States with Laurence, who was Director of Publicity in the First Dáil Éireann. Laurence was posted to a consular position in Chicago, from where he attempted to gain American support for an Irish republic. In July 1921, the Dáil ordered Laurence to Buenos Aires, Argentina. There, as previously in Chicago, his mission was to advocate on behalf of an Irish republic.

Alice accompanied Laurence on each of those missions. In Argentina, she gave and attended receptions with state officials, fostered contacts with the Irish religious community in Buenos Aires and managed Laurence’s contacts with the press. She also kept a record of her activities that she later provided to the Bureau of Military History as a witness statement. She described the witness statement as follows:

The following chronology of important dates and events with which I was associated in the public life of my late husband, Laurence Ginnell, has been compiled by me from my diaries and those of my late husband. It covers the period 1874 to 1923, and while the information contained therein is somewhat brief in regard to certain dates and events, it will I hope be of use to the future historian.

We pick up the story in December 1921. Alice, like her husband, opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, a fact that she recorded in her diary:

The more I think of these terms the more I dislike them and that it would now be time for L.G. [Laurence Ginnell] to withdraw from public life or at any rate not to take the oath to the King. It is either that the delegates have been tricked or that the treaty was signed so that the Dáil could reject the terms and that de Valera could recommend them to reject them.

At that time, the Ginnells were still in Argentina and, initially, they had to rely upon press reports to get a sense of what was happening in Ireland. As they obtained more information, the Ginnells became increasingly perturbed by the terms of Treaty, although on 9 December Laurence received a telegram from Robert Brennan in Dublin – who was then first secretary of Dáil Éireann’s Department of Foreign Affairs and who would oppose the Treaty - not to make any public pronouncements regarding the agreement. On 12 December 1921, Alice noted that the ‘news about Ireland looked very bad as if there was a serious split’ and a few days later Laurence decided to make an official announcement:

No decision arrived at by Dáil Eireann yet. After deep consideration and talking things over with Mother Rita, San Antonio [a town a short distance from Buenos Aires], regarding the instructions we got to make no pronouncement regarding the treaty and not wishing to disobey them but still wishing to show where we stood, L.G. sent a cablegram: ‘I vote against ratification’.

‘afraid of this new year’

Apart from the situation in Ireland, the Ginnells had other concerns as 1921 came to a close. That year and the previous years were not easy for the couple. Laurence had been by imprisoned by the British Crown forces on multiple occasions, a sequence of events that damaged his health and his condition deteriorated while they were in Argentina. On 30 December 1921 Alice spoke about her fears:

A.G. [Alice Ginnell] had a talk with Mother Rita and told her she had been thinking how dreadful it would be if L.G. died in Argentina and she had to go alone with the coffin to Ireland. Mother Rita said that there would be great difficulty in getting permission to remove his body – which did not improve the outlook. M. Rita said she ought to set about getting out of the country as soon as possible and write to someone to say how bad L.G. really is.

New Year’s Day 1922 was a bleak time for Alice and she confided to her diary that she dreaded what lay ahead:

A very lonely day in the Hospital Maria Morgan [Buenos Aires]. A.G. felt it was the last New Year's Day that L.G. would see. All the nuns seemed to feel the same loneliness. Writing in her (A.G.'s) autograph book, L.G. wished her ‘unclouded happiness under God's protection and guidance and with my love and respect as long as I live’. A.G. wrote ‘I am afraid of this new year that is coming in’.

The Ginnells were determined to return to Ireland, although Laurence received notice from George Gavan Duffy – then minister for external affairs in the Provisional Government – of a possible interim assignment in Chile and Peru until the forthcoming general election in Ireland. Gavan Duffy informed Ginnell that the Dáil’s existing diplomatic apparatus would be maintained until the Irish people, at ‘a general election, had decided whether they would accept the "Free State" or not’. Despite Laurence’s declining health, Alice’s diary entry of 2 March noted that they were ‘willing to go to Chile and Peru on behalf of the Republic if instructed and financed by cable’.

Ultimately, the Chile and Peru mission did not go ahead, so on 4 April 1922 the Ginnells set sail from Argentina, reaching the port of Liverpool 25 days later:

We arrived in Liverpool. Mrs. G's father met us as we were getting off the boat. Some people … thought it would be a good idea if L.G. would call a meeting of the leaders on both sides in the ‘split’ to try to come to some arrangement to prevent its widening and to arrive at some way of working together, but L.G. did not think he would meet with any success.

‘a split in the Volunteers’

From Liverpool, they sailed to Ireland. Laurence would run as an anti-Treaty Sinn Féin candidate in the forthcoming June general election in the constituency of Longford-Westmeath. As they travelled from Dublin to the constituency in early May 1922, the Ginnells could see that the country was on the verge of civil war.

As we were coming into Kinnegad the road was blocked – the Free State troops were taking the barracks from the Republicans – fulfilling L's prophesy when the Treaty was signed – that the next thing would be a split in the Volunteers. There was a great welcome for us at home but L.G. was not at all well.

A few days later, Alice was notified by a ‘Republican organiser’ that she would act as Laurence’s election agent. She managed a successful campaign and he took a seat in the so-called Pact Election of 16 June 1922 (the election is discussed in this article by Dr John Burke). By then, Laurence was living in a house outside Bray, partly for health reasons and also, perhaps, because it put him within reach of Dublin and the Dáil.

Yet, as discussed in a previous article, the election did not prevent the Treaty split from leading to Civil War. That new conflict began on 28 June 1922 and eleven days later Alice Ginnell recorded an entry in her diary that gives a sense of the chaos then prevalent in the country. Everyone, especially public figures such as Laurence Ginnell, was susceptible to threats and violence.

Three nights running a man entered the house in Bray. The first night he stole some chickens - as a blind perhaps. The next night he got £60 belonging to L.G. He said he had instructions from Captain Doran (?) of the Free State Army and gave a receipt for the money as having been taken for the Free State Army. Only that Miss O'Shea held his hand, he would have bashed L's head in. L.G. sent a wire to M. Collins about the matter, saying he was holding him responsible for the money and demanding effective protection. Captain Doran called and said that the man whom they had arrested had only been enrolled three days and said that it was reported that Fr. Dominic [a Capuchin priest who had formerly been imprisoned by the British Crown forces and who had ministered to the anti-Treaty IRA garrison in the Four Courts] and de Valera were staying in the house - as if that were excuse enough.

Those events, discussed in more detail in this article, subsequently led to a court case during which Ginnell claimed that the robbery was part of a campaign of intimidation by the Provisional Government against opponents of the Treaty. In the next article, we will follow Alice Ginnell as she and her husband responded to the pressures of war, division, financial difficulties and Laurence’s dangerously poor health.

By Dr Ian Kenneally - Historian in Residence, Westmeath County Council


Bureau of Military History Witness Statement 0982 – Alice Ginnell;Military Archives pension application - Alice Ginnell; Dáil Éireann debates; University College Dublin Archives – Richard Mulcahy Papers and Ernie O’Malley Papers; Irish Independent, Freeman’s Journal, Offaly Independent, Poblacht na hÉireann, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For further detail, see articles mentioned above and Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green: the Irish Civil War (Gill & Macmillan, 2004).

This article was published on: 8th May, 2023
Filed under: Decade of Centenary
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