Irish Rebel Maurice Meade: May You Live in Interesting Times

It was around mid-afternoon on February 3, 1921, as the Irish Volunteers of the Mid and East Limerick Brigades emerged onto the road near Dromkeen House in Co. Limerick. The firing at the Dromkeen Ambush had just ended, having only gone on for a few minutes, but the effect on the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) men in the ambushed convoy had been devastating.

Though two constables in the first lorry managed to escape, seven lay dead or dying on the road. Two more were wounded but still alive and were taken into the nearby farmhouse of Mr. English. Two constables were captured unharmed or possibly slightly injured.

These two men, Samuel Adams and either William Doyle or Patrick Foody presented an uncomfortable conundrum for the Volunteers. The British had instituted a policy authorizing the execution of any Irishmen captured with firearms. It was not an empty threat, as they had already executed at least one prisoner under that regulation. Many Irish believed they should now do the same with Crown Forces prisoners.

On January 6, representatives of Volunteer units from Cork, Tipperary, and East Limerick met. They sent a list of suggestions for prosecuting the war in the future to General Headquarters in Dublin. Among them was this one: “That G.H.Q. issue a proclamation to effect: In view of the enemy proclamation that our troops will be shot if found armed, the enemy will be similarly dealt with by our troops.” They had gotten no response from Dublin yet, but in the minds of many Volunteers, the execution of Volunteer prisoners by the Crown called for the same in return. As Tom Barry wrote later, “They had gone in the mire to destroy us and our nation and down after them we had to go,” but not everyone agreed.

Now Donncadh O’Hannigan, (right) the commanding officer of the East Limerick flying column, and the men of the Mid and East Limerick Volunteer Brigades were faced with a moral dilemma that others would be facing around the island over the next five months. They had to make a life-and-death decision. Not wanting to make such a decision himself, O’Hannigan held a drum head Court-Martial with four other officers. The vote was 3-2 for execution.

O’Hannigan then had to find two men in the group willing to carry out this sentence. He picked two, but in the end one of the men, Sean Stapleton, could not bring himself to do it. And so, it would fall on the other, Maurice Meade, to execute both. “May you live in interesting times” is a curse that is sometimes attributed to the Chinese. The idea is that certain times are deemed “interesting” because events like wars and revolutions make for “interesting” history. The life of Maurice Meade would certainly illustrate that curse well. Meade was not a great leader of men. He was an ordinary man with a unique experience of many parts of the “interesting times” of WWI and the Irish War of Independence.

Meade, was born in Ballinavanna, Elton, Co. Limerick on May 11, 1891. In his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History over 25 years after the war, he gave the date of his birth as 1893, but local records indicate it was 1891. According to Maurice’s statement, his parents, John and Margaret, had a big family, but he didn’t tell how many siblings he had. That big family caused his school years to be abbreviated, and he went to work with a local farmer at the age of twelve.

Unlike many participants in the War of Independence, Meade’s family was not involved with the growing nationalist movement. He was looking for independence, but it was for himself at that time, not his country. Meade found his work on the O’Sullivan family farm in Coolalough boring, and all of his pay went directly to his father. Meade’s days were filled with working very hard for very little money. So it’s not surprising that he was looking for something more, and like many young Irishmen before him, he saw enlistment in the British army as a way out.

A trip to visit an older sister in Cork City in the last summer of 1911 gave him the opportunity he sought to enlist. His sister got wind of his plan and thwarted it temporarily. But the next day he evaded her and got the enlistment papers signed. He was soon in Clonmel to begin training with the Royal Irish Regiment, but his sister arrived again, contending he was underage and bringing him home. A few days later he ran away from home to Clonmel and enlisted once again in the Royal Irish Regiment, this time for good.

(Left: Cap badge of the Royal Irish Regiment)

After his initial training, the Regiment posted him to Guernsey in the Channel Islands. During his time there, he won awards for his cross-country running. When WWI started, his 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment was among the first troops sent to France, landing on August 13, 1914. They were involved in the early war “Race to the Sea” in which the British and French armies raced toward the North Sea along with the German army, both trying to get around d the other’s northern flank.

Meade and his 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment would meet with disaster in their first major battle at Le Bassée in northern France. They were the victims of their own success in this case. They advanced on October 19, and took their objective at Le Pilly. However, the Germans stalled the advance to the north and south, leaving them exposed. When the Germans counterattacked all along the line the next day, it spelled disaster for the 2nd Battalion.

(Below: A group of WWI Royal Irish Regiment soldiers.)

The Battalion was cut and surrounded for three days. Their commanding officer was killed, and they were slowly running out of food and ammunition. They were finally forced to surrender. Of 900 soldiers who went into the battle, only 300 survived to become prisoners. Of those, an officer of the German 56th Regiment recalled that hardly one hundred of them could walk. Meade was lucky enough to be one of the survivors and began his period as a German POW. The casualty figures certainly showed how staunchly the Royal Irish had held out. They had 177 killed or died of wounds, 200 of the302 captured were seriously wounded, and another another 163 wounded had been evacuated before the village was surrounded.

Meade said it took them a week to get to their final destination in Germany and that they got little food during the trip. That destination was Hamelin-on-Weser, southwest of Hanover. The Germans held them in a barbwire enclosure with no buildings at all. With winter setting in, they had no shelter and were given little food. They got one loaf of bread each to last a week, and soup in the middle of the day. The soup was said to be made up of anything handy and sometimes contained horse hide. Meade said the POWs would sometimes steal potato peels from the cook tent garbage to supplement their diet.

In December, the Irish prisoners were separated from the other POWs and sent to a camp in Limburg. There their treatment and their living conditions got much better. Prisoner Michael Keogh recalled that there they had, “Fine wooden huts, each with two rooms to house 50 men: well ventilated, comfortable: beds on wooden trestles, and ample blankets.”

(Left: Limberg POW camp)

The Germans had an ulterior motive in moving these Irish prisoners. The prisoners soon discovered that Roger Casement was attempting to recruit an Irish Brigade to assist in a possible invasion of Ireland. A priest named Father Crotty came to discuss the idea with them shortly after they arrived.

(Below: A drawing of Casement attempting to recruit Irish POWs)

Casement also visited the camp in December to appeal for recruits. He was not impressed by the POWs he met there. He described them as “dirty and shivering in their thin khakis” and looking terribly demoralized. In truth, many of them, like Meade, were not from families with long Republican traditions, and some were not even Irish. The Germans had not used any records to know which were Irish. They had merely assembled the POWs in their camps and asked the Irish to step out. Thinking it was possible the Irish would be sent home or at least sent to better facilities, it is believed many non-Irishmen also stepped forward. Joseph Zerhusen, the German-appointed interpreter to the brigade, later said those POWs put peer pressure on the actual Irismen to reject the idea of enlisting in this brigade.

The recruiting began slowly, and that never changed. Of the thousands of Irish prisoners held by the Germans, only about 56 ever volunteered for what was over-optimistically named the Irish “Brigade.” One of those recruits was Meade. In his Irish military archives witness statement, he doesn’t give his reasons for joining. He said earlier in his statement, “I had no interest in, nor did I know anything of the national movement at the time.” Promises of better treatment and food attracted some; for others, it may have simply been the typical youthful desire for adventure. At one point, Meade says they even got to meet the Kaiser, which was undoubtedly more exciting than the stifling boredom of their POW camp.

(Below: A group of NCOs from Casement's Irish Brigade)

The Germans moved the recruits to Zossen in July 1915, where they trained them on captured British Lewis machine guns. The Irish were very familiar with the British weapon. Meade said the German officers sometimes berated their training NCOs for being slower in stripping and assembling the weapons than their “students,” causing tension. On New Year’s Eve, that boiled over into a massive brawl in the mess hall that moved out into the streets and had to be quelled by other troops. Meade was apparently one of the instigators on the Irish side, as he was one of three the Germans disciplined over the brawl.

It quickly became evident that the “Brigade” would never recruit enough to be a useful force in any possible invasion during the coming Irish rising. Once Casement departed on his ill-fated pre-Rising trip back to Ireland, the Germans weren’t sure what to do with their few Irish recruits. Meade joined the German army and served with them in the middle east. He recalled how he “spoke to some of the British prisoners captured during the fighting in Egypt and they were amazed at me, being as they thought a German, being able to speak English so well.”

Meade returned to Germany in early 1918 and was discharged. He got a job with a firm called Polete, a liquor distributor in Dirschau. He started wearing his Irish Brigade uniform when he went out because the Germans respected uniforms. Unfortunately for him, it led to his arrest by the British. Meade was sent back to London along with another Brigade member, Patrick O’Neill, a veteran of the Connaught Rangers.

(Below: The Tower of London)

The British made Meade and O’Neill wear British Marine uniforms with all badges and brass buttons stipped off. When they landed, they were guarded by 300 soldiers and taken to the famous Tower of London. Many famous people had spent their last days there, and it seemed inevitable Meade and O’Neill would as well. They were tried and convicted of high treason and sentenced to die. But a day before their execution, they got word of King’s Pardon.

Meade returned to Co. Limerick, but his “treason” difficulties were not over. The RIC and the commanders of the Royal Irish Regiment took issue with the King’s Pardon. A constable he knew previously enticed him into the RIC station in Elton where he was arrested and shipped off to the headquarters of the Royal Irish Regiment in Clonmel. The incarceration was rather loose and he just walked away one night.

When Meade returned to his hometown of Ballylanders, David Tobin and Donnacha O’Hannigan took him into the local East Limerick Brigade of the Irish Volunteers. He claimed in his witness statement that he joined the brigade flying column at that time, but this was April 1919, and there were no flying columns yet. Meade was already on the run, as would be most of the men who were later in flying columns. Meade was not yet 30 and was joining his fourth military organization.

(Below: Meade in his Free State uniform.)

O’Hannigan was happy to have a WWI veteran in his brigade. Given Meade’s military experience, he appointed him to the post of training officer. The East Limerick Brigade would be very active during the war, and Meade was right in the middle of that action. His Volunteer comrades describe Meade as a “crack shot and hugely competent in combat.”

Meade took part in the successful attack on the Ballylanders RIC barracks in April 1920. He also took part in the more famous attack on the Killmallock barracks in May. That one, unlike Ballylanders, did not succeed in capturing any weapons, but the barracks was destroyed and abandoned.

As the Volunteers shifted from barracks attacks to ambushing crown forces in the summer of 1920 through to the end of the war, Meade was involved in all the significant actions of the brigade. When Donncadh O’Hannigan organized what is considered the first flying column of “on the run” men that summer, Meade was a part of it.

Meade participated in the Kildorrery Ambush on August 7, where they successfully captured arms and ammunition. The eight ambushed RIC members were on foot, and all were wounded. The Volunteers stayed with the wounded man and tended to them for some time. It would not be long before this humane treatment of RIC and army prisoners by the Volunteers would become a thing of the past in most counties. This was probably inevitable, with the British treating the Volunteers as criminals rather than combatants in a war.

Sometime that late summer, Meade had an interesting connection to the famous kidnapping of British General Lucas. Lucas spent the last part of this captivity with the East Limerick Brigade guarding him, and by his own admission, they treated him exceedingly well. That included an abundant supply of whiskey, but not all of it got there, thanks to Meade. One bottle had to pass through Meade’s hands to get to Lucas, and when he found out its planned destination, he intercepted it. One comrade reported that Meade said, “What! For that - - - - - and me having my tongue out for a drink for two weeks.” The bottle went no further.

On November 7, Meade was at the ambush at Grange. This ambush was unsuccessful, as the Irish were expecting just two vehicles and eight arrived. The outnumbered Irish flying column was forced to retreat.

Meade was assigned to operate a Maxim machine gun (right) during the Glenacurrane Ambush on December 17. They blocked the road with a fallen tree, and O’Hannigan placed Meade behind where the convoy would stop, with orders to help prevent them from retreating from the ambush area. He admitted to disobeying O’Hannigan’s orders and firing at the touring car at the end of the convoy. According to his account, his firing precipitated the surrender of the soldiers of the Lincolnshire Regiment who were guarding the convoy. Meade’s witness statement mentioned no disciplinary action following the ambush, and O’Hannigan didn’t mention the incident.

(Below: Members of the East Limerick flying column.)

When the action was over, O’Hannigan once again treated his prisoners humanely. The wounded were given first aid and then were transported to a cottage in Athmaslings Cross. Things were about to get much more brutal, however.

Meade’s most famous, or infamous, actions of the war occurred on February 7, 1921, at the Dromkeen Ambush. One must understand the condition in Ireland at the time to fully understand the actions of Meade and his comrades that day. On December 10, 1920, the British had declared martial law in the counties of Cork, Kerry, Limerick, and Tipperary. They declared the right to execute any Irishman arrested while possessing firearms and officially sanctioned reprisals against Irish property following ambushes. Unofficial reprisals had been going on for months.

(Below: The site of the Dromkeen Ambush.)

On February 7, 1921, less than a week before the Dromkeen Ambush, Captain Cornelius Murphy of Liam Lynch’s Cork No. 2 Brigade was the first Volunteer executed under this provision. The British had also destroyed dozens of homes and would eventually demolish over 150 before the truce. Many, though not all, Irish Volunteers believed they should also begin executing prisoners. That was the mindset of many of the men of the East Limerick Brigade as they marched out to set up their ambush in Dromkeen.

The Volunteer’s ambushes, even the successful ones, seldom went as planned during the war, but Dromkeen came close. Two RIC men in the first of the two lorries got away, but the rest were all killed, wounded, or captured. With the new circumstances in the war, the unwounded constable’s lives hung in the balance. Hannigan assembled a drumhead court-martial with himself and officers Seán Stapleton, David Guerin, and Richard O’Connell, which sealed the fate of the two uninjured constables.

(Below: The Dromkeen Ambush Monument.)

Meade recalled that O’Hannigan called him and said, “Here, Maurice, will you shoot one of them?” I agreed to do so. He gave Stapleton the job of executing the other. And when Stapleton could bring himself to shoot the other constable, Meade shot him as well. Meade was very matter-of-fact in relating this in his witness statement. He simply stated that they believed the British decision to execute captured Volunteer soldiers justified their actions. Was he harboring some grievance toward the RIC because of his treatment after his pardon that made it easier for him to shoot them? He left no comments behind on that subject.

The 11 policemen killed at Dromkeen were Constables Samuel Adams,  George Bell,  John Bourke,  Michael Doyle,  Patrick Foody,  William Hayton,  William Kingston,  Sidney Millin,  Bernard Mollaghan,  Arthur Pearce and Henry Smith. The two executed by Meade were Adams, and either Doyle or Foody. It was one of the war’s highest single ambush death tolls for the RIC.

On May 1, Meade was present at the flying column’s near disaster at Shraherla. They were surprised by two lorries full of RIC constables with Lewis guns. Meade was the first to see them approaching and burst into a home where several Volunteers were staying, crying out, “Come out quick, or you’ll be riddled! The Tans are us.” Meade barely escaped, with his coat riddled with holes by one of the Lewis guns. Capt Paddy Stair, James Horan, and Tim Hennessy were killed during the fight, and Patrick Casey was captured and then executed.

Meade’s War of Independence was not quite over when the truce went into effect in July, 1921. He was involved in one more act of violence connected to the war, brought on by the fact that some RIC constables could also not let go of the war.

On December 9, 1921, a train bringing home Irish prisoners from Ballykinlar Internment Camp was bombed in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, mortally wounding one of the former prisoners, Declan Hurton. The Volunteers believed the bomber was RIC Sgt. Thomas Enright. He was  a WWI veteran who was born in Listowel, Co. Kerry. They also believed Enright had murdered publican Larry Hickey, in Thurles in March 1921. The Volunteers had attempted to kill Enright for the murder of Hickey before the truce and failed. The truce probably would have saved him, but his attack on the prisoner train was the last straw for the Volunteers.

(Right: Sgt. Thomas Enright)

Meade and several of his East Limerick comrades were in Kilmallock in December 1921 and discovered that Sgt. Enright was there with some dogs he had entered in local races. In his witness statement, Meade says matter-of-factly, “we agreed to shoot him and we did so that night.” Enright and Constable Timoney were shot as they left a hotel at 10:30 PM. Enright died, while Timoney was hit several times but survived.

Unlike many members of the western brigades, Meade fought on the Free State side in the Irish Civil War. He remained in the army for a time after the Civil War, becoming a 2nd Lieutenant. He had another close brush with death in March 1923, when the Republicans captured him near Castleconnell. With the Free State executing many Republican prisoners at the time, any prisoner’s life was certainly in jeopardy.

An IRA member named John Baggott had been killed in action earlier in the day. Sean Carroll, the leader of the area’s anti-Treaty forces, knew that Baggott’s brothers might want revenge. At this point, many Republicans were accepting that their cause was lost. Perhaps that also figured into Carroll’s decision to release Meade. He had once again lived to tell the tale.

Meade married Hanora (Nora) Hayes of Emly in 1923. The couple had no children, and Meade left the army in September 1924.

Meade spent the rest of his post-war life in the mundane work routine that most Irishmen would live for years to come. He drove a horse and cart, taking milk to the creamery for the rest of his working life. It was the way he probably would have lived his whole life had he been born in a different era. Instead, he spent time in five different military organizations: the British Army, Casement’s Irish Brigade, the German Army, the Irish Republican Army, and the Irish Free State Army. Against all odds, Meade lived to old age, dying on April 19, 1972, at age 81, in Emly, where he was buried.

(Left: The elderly Maurice Meade)

In WWI, Meade fought in Europe and the Middle East and later in some of the most famous and controversial actions of the Irish War of Independence. After WWI, he sat in a cell in the Tower of London, believing he had one day to live. Then he helped free his country from centuries of bondage. Undoubtedly, many criticize him for some of his actions. Like most soldiers, however, he was just the point of the spear.

Revolutions are often the most brutal type of war, as the government usually considers the rebel forces criminals. Many leaders on both sides were responsible for orders and policy decisions that often put front-line soldiers like Meade in terrible positions. Maurice Meade was an ordinary man whose early adulthood was made remarkable by living in some of Irish history’s most “interesting times.”


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Comment by Joe Gannon on August 17, 2023 at 4:08pm

Casement's Irish Brigade Declaration  … Written in June 1915 by Joseph Plunkett


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