He proposed a Republican constitution at the 1917 Sinn Féin convention which was unanimously accepted. In October 1917 he became Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army and held that post until March 1919.
Brugha was born in Dublin of mixed Roman Catholic and Protestant parentage. His father, Thomas, was a cabinet maker and antique dealer who had been disinherited by his family for marrying a Catholic.
He was the tenth of fourteen children and was educated at the Jesuit Belvedere College but was forced to leave at the age of sixteen because of the failure of his father’s business. He went on to set up a church candle manufacturing firm with two brothers, Anthony Burgess and Vincent Lalor Burgess, and took on the role of travelling salesman
Brugha, Cathal by James Quinn
Brugha, Cathal (1874–1922), revolutionary, was born Charles William St John
Burgess 18 July 1874 at 13 Richmond Avenue, Fairview, Dublin, tenth among
fourteen children (four sons and ten daughters) of Thomas Burgess (d. 1899), art
dealer and native of Carlow, and Maryanne Burgess (née Flynn). Thomas
Burgess was a protestant but his wife was a catholic, and the children were
raised as catholics; young Charles was particularly devout in his religious
observances. The home was strongly nationalist: Thomas Burgess was a fervent
Parnellite and may have been a Fenian. Charles received his primary education
at the Colmkille Schools, Dominick St., and entered Belvedere College in 1888.
He intended to study medicine but his schooling was cut short in 1890 when his
father’s business failed. He started work as a clerk in Hayes & Finch, a church
supplies firm, later becoming a travelling salesman.
Although small in height, he was strong and wiry and a fine all-round athlete,
excelling at boxing, swimming, cycling, gymnastics, cricket, and rugby. He had
an austere and determined manner, and did not smoke, drink, or swear. He
joined the Gaelic League in 1899, and soon became a fluent Irish-speaker,
changing his name to ‘Cathal Brugha’ and concentrating on Gaelic culture and
sports. In 1908 he was elected president of the League’s Keating branch (to
1922), which was a hotbed of separatism, and he was closely involved in
campaigning for compulsory Irish in the NUI. At a Gaelic League meeting in 1909
in Birr, King’s Co. (Offaly), he met Kathleen Kingston (1879–1959) and they
married in Dublin on 8 February 1912. Because of misgivings about working for
an English-owned business, in 1909 he and two fellow employees, Anthony and
Vincent Lalor, founded Lalor Ltd, a candlemaking firm based at 14 Lower
Ormond Quay; Brugha became a director and travelling salesman. Joining the
IRB in 1908, he used contacts made on his travels to recruit into the movement.
He was elected first lieutenant in C company, 4th Dublin battalion of the Irish
Volunteers in November 1913, and by spring 1914 he was battalion adjutant. He
led the advance column of Volunteers that landed arms at Howth, Co. Dublin, on
26 July 1914.
During the 1916 rising, the 4th battalion held the South Dublin Union and Brugha
was vice-commandant to Eamonn Ceannt (qv). In fierce fighting at the Union
complex on Thursday 27 April Brugha was badly wounded and became
separated from his unit, but managed single-handed to hold off a large body of
British troops despite multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds. Ceannt found him
propped against a wall in a pool of his own blood clutching a pistol as he defiantly
sang ‘God save Ireland’ and taunted the attacking troops. On Friday he seemed
close to death and was moved to the Union hospital. He was later treated in
Dublin Castle and George V hospitals and was so badly wounded that he was
discharged in August 1916 as incurable, by which time his detention order had
expired. After a long convalescence he made a partial recovery, but he continued
to suffer great pain from his wounds, was badly lamed, and generally moved
around by bicycle.
In November 1916 he began efforts to revive the Volunteers, presiding over a
conference in Dublin of about fifty members. He was arrested and briefly
imprisoned when he addressed a public demonstration (10 June 1917)
demanding the immediate release of all political prisoners. A fervent republican,
he was elected to the party executive at the Sinn Féin convention in October
1917 and argued successfully for the adoption of a republican constitution. He
saw himself primarily as a soldier and was suspicious of politics: he rarely
attended Sinn Féin meetings and concentrated on arming and reorganising the
Irish Volunteers, serving as their chief of staff (October 1917–April 1919). During
the conscription crisis of spring 1918 he strongly opposed Sinn Féin’s
cooperation with the Irish parliamentary party, and resigned from the party
executive in April 1918. He travelled to London with a party of twelve Volunteers
intent on assassinating British government ministers if conscription were imposed
on Ireland; organising an attack on the British cabinet remained his pet project
throughout the war of independence.
He was elected TD for Waterford in December 1918. In the absence of the
imprisoned Éamon de Valera (qv) and Arthur Griffith (qv) he was elected acting
president (priomh-aire) of the first dáil (22 January 1919), but resigned the
presidency in de Valera’s favour on 1 April 1919 and was appointed minister for
defence. One of the few leading separatists to remain at large throughout 1918–
21, he was often on the run, but for much of the time he continued to work as a
travelling salesman for Lalor’s, and remitted his ministerial salary to his assistant
Richard Mulcahy (qv), preferring that his dáil work should be unpaid. Close
friends spoke of his courtesy and kindness, but to others he often seemed stern
and aloof; he did not encourage discussion and gave his opinions with directness
and finality. A strict disciplinarian, he strongly disapproved of independent actions
by Volunteers without dáil approval, and often insisted that those involved be
punished. He was particularly anxious to avoid civilian casualties, and only
reluctantly gave way to the shooting of police detectives and intelligence officers.
However, his contact with active Volunteers was limited and some considered
him ‘hopelessly out of touch’ (Béaslaí, ii, 99) with the IRA campaign on the
ground. The decentralised nature of the IRA, the independence of local
commanders, and the influence of other general staff officers – particularly
Michael Collins (qv) – meant that Brugha’s control of the army was always
problematic. On 20 August 1919 he proposed that Volunteers and dáil deputies
should take an oath of allegiance to the Irish republic and its government, Dáil
Éireann; while many individuals and units took the oath, the proposal was never
formally approved by the IRA. One notable occasion when he asserted his
authority was before ‘Bloody Sunday’ (21 November 1920), when he removed
several names from Collins’s assassination list, claiming there was insufficient
information against them.
Brugha was particularly anxious to counteract the IRB’s influence over the IRA.
After 1916 he quit the IRB, believing that the conflict of authority between the IRB
military council and Volunteer leadership had sabotaged the rising, and that as
republicanism became a mass movement there was no need for a secret
organisation. His suspicions of the IRB were aggravated by the fact that Collins
was its head. Brugha had long resented the power that Collins – a fellow cabinet
member but nominal military subordinate – had over defence matters. Given
Collins’s positions as IRA adjutant general and director of intelligence, his
activities extended into many areas that Brugha considered his domain. The
situation was further complicated when, after the arrest of acting president Griffith
in November 1920, Brugha declined the presidency and it was assumed by
Collins. Although he had reasonable cause for complaint that Collins was
usurping some of his department’s functions, Brugha also harboured a strong
personal resentment of Collins’s popularity and mystique. With ample scope for
conflicts of authority, an ill-concealed antagonism simmered on between them
throughout the war of independence and beyond.
Brugha strongly declined membership of the delegation selected to negotiate
with the British government in September 1921, preferring to remain unknown
should the talks fail and fighting recommence. While the negotiations proceeded,
de Valera attempted to bring republican hardliners such as Brugha and Austin
Stack (qv) around to his concept of ‘external association’ with the British
commonwealth, which Brugha was grudgingly prepared to tolerate. He strongly
opposed the treaty and spoke passionately against it in the dáil (7 January 1922).
He claimed that the treaty was ‘national suicide’ since it meant surrendering the
independent republic declared in 1916 and ratified in 1919. Stung by claims that
Collins was ‘the man who won the war’, Brugha made a bitter personal attack on
him. He questioned whether Collins had ever fired a shot for Ireland and implied
that he was a publicity seeker whose reputation had been inflated by
sensationalist newspapers. He described him as ‘merely a subordinate in the
department of defence’ and remarked that in dealing mainly with Griffith and
Collins ‘the British government selected its men … because they knew they were
the two weakest men we had on the team’ (Debate, 326, 333). Even many antitreatyites
were appalled by this attack, which damaged Brugha’s reputation far
more than Collins’s.
After the dáil approved the treaty, Brugha was replaced as minister for defence
by Mulcahy. In March 1922 he became a vice-president of the anti-treaty
Cumann na Poblachta, and in these months often restrained extreme
republicans. At the anti-treaty IRA conference of 26–7 March he opposed
proposals to stage an immediate military coup and to attack British soldiers who
had not yet evacuated, but he later argued at a public meeting in Navan in April
that the army was bound by its oath to the republic and was justified in
temporarily assuming the functions of government. He took no part in negotiating
the electoral pact of 20 May, claiming that by this stage he was ‘sick of politics’,
and wished only to see both sides unite and mount an expedition to defend
embattled northern nationalists. On 16 June he was elected TD for Waterford–
Tipperary East, coming third in a five-seat constituency. When the shelling of the
Four Courts started the civil war (28 June), he reported for duty to the Hammam
hotel in Upper O’Connell St., which with the Gresham and Granville hotels had
been taken over by anti-treatyites. The hotels soon came under heavy fire and by
5 July were untenable. Most of the defenders surrendered, but Brugha fought on.
With the Granville ablaze, he charged into the street that now bears his name,
firing a pistol, and was shot in the thigh and seriously wounded. He died 7 July
1922 in the Mater hospital, Dublin, and was buried in the republican plot in
He was survived by his wife, Caitlín Brugha, who was elected Sinn Féin TD for
Waterford (1923–7), five daughters, and a son, Ruairí (b. 1917), who became
Fianna Fáil TD for South Co. Dublin (1973–7) and married Máire, daughter of
Terence MacSwiney (qv).
Even in a movement of zealous men and women, Brugha’s zeal was exceptional.
Immovable on points of principle, he was fixated on the idea of the republic.
Many of the tributes paid to him after his death reflected a mixture of admiration
for his tenacity and exasperation at his intransigence. Piaras Béaslaí (qv), once a
close friend, noted that ‘his leonine courage was accompanied by an almost
taurine obstinacy’ (Béaslaí, i, 79). Collins was deeply moved by his death and
reflected: ‘Because of his sincerity, I would forgive him anything. At worst he was
a fanatic though in what has been a noble cause. At best I number him among
the very few who have given their all … that this country should have its freedom.
When many of us are forgotten, Cathal Brugha will be remembered’ (quoted in
Debate on the treaty between Great Britain and Ireland signed in London on 6
December 1921 (1922); Seán Ó Ceallaigh, ‘Cathal Brugha – as I knew him’,
Catholic Bulletin, 12 (1922), 485–96; id. (Sceilg), Cathal Brugha (1942); id., A
trinity of martyrs (1947); Piaras Beaslaí, Michael Collins and the making of a new
Ireland (2 vols, 1926), i, 78–9, 157, 270; ii, 99, 336–8, 408; Frank Pakenham,
Peace by ordeal (1935); Rex Taylor, Michael Collins (1958); Dorothy Macardle,
The Irish republic (1968); Tómas Ó Dochartaigh, Cathal Brugha, a shaol is a
thréithe (1969); Ernie O’Malley, The singing flame (1978); Micheál Ó Cillín,
‘Cathal Brugha, 1874–1922’, Dublin Hist. Rec., xxxviii, no. 4 (1985), 141–9;
Beathaisnéis, v; Michael Laffan, The resurrection of Ireland: the Sinn Féin party
1916–23 (1999), 118, 138, 271, 267, 282, 382, 405; Michael Hopkinson, The
Irish war of independence (2002).
James Quinn, ‘Brugha, Cathal’, Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge
University Press, 2009), vol 1, pp 951–954.