“The Death of Brugh”


In 1922, rebel leader Cathal Brugh(a) is trapped (in a Dublin hotel) along with his fighting comrades; attempting to escape through the back door, he is shot. The singer praises and laments him


Cathal Brugha was an officer in the resistance forces during the rebellion of 1916, famed for how hard he fought. He was also a political leader, arguing strenuously for a Republican government. - PJS

Brugha (born Charles Burgess, but like many Irish revolutionaries, he changed his name to a Gaelic form) fought and was wounded in the Easter Rebellion, but survived and was the Defence Minister in the 1919 Dail (the Irish parliament, which at that time would have to be regarded as provisional).

By the time he died, the Irish Free State had been organized (admittedly as a dominion) by Britain. But when the Irish cabinet voted (1921) on the dominion Treaty with Britain, Brugha (along with de Valera and Stack) voted against it (it was a 4-3 vote, with Barton, Collins, Cosgrave, and Griffith voting for the treaty). The vote in the Dail was 64-57 in favor.

When, later, Archbishop Byrne arranged a conference between Griffith, Collins, Brugha, and de Valera, Brugha called Collins a British agent, and when the latter proposed a referendum on the treaty, declared that circumstances were such that the people should not be allowed to vote (see Tim Pat Coogan, _Michael Collins_, p. 320).

The result was civil war, with pro- and anti-Treaty forces bitterly contesting the nature of a future Ireland. The legitimate government was pro-Treaty; Brugha was against. Thus Brugha was actually fighting *against* the legitimate government of Ireland when he died, fleeing from a burned building, gun in hand.

According to Robert Kee, _Ourselves Alone_, being volume III of _The Green Flag_, p. 166, "Out of one of the blazing buildings in which a group of anti-Treaty men had eventually surrendered there emerged... a small dark man carrying a Thompson sub-machine gun. He hadshaken off a St. John's Ambulance man who tried to make him surrender, and suddenly started firing... He was brought down in a hail of bullets, and died two days later. Altogether some sixty people were killed and three hundred wounded in eight days' fighting in Dublin."

To be fair, Brugha had allowed the remainder of his forces to surrender before setting out alone. Calton Younger, in _The Irish Civil War_, pp. 341-342, speculates that Brugha wanted to die as a sacrifice. But he did flee the Granville Hotel, breaking away from the men who served under him -- and when he was cornered, he fought rather than surrendering, and forced the army to kill him.

Perhaps the fittest description of him came from Richard Mulcahy (1886-1971), chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers and one of the most important men in holding together the Free State government: he was "as brave and as brainless as a bull" (Coogan, p. 34). He was tough as a bull, too; during the Easter Rising, he had taken "frightful" grenade wounds and lay for hours in a room "with little or no plaster left on the walls and every piece of furniture wrecked" (see Michael Foy and Brian Barton, _The Easter Rising_, p. 102). He was spared a firing squad in 1916 because he was thought too wounded to survive. Obviously he proved the doctors wrong (Coogan, p. 71).

Even Collins had mild words for him: "Because of his sincerity, I would forgive him anything. at worst he was a fanatic though in what has been a noble cause" (Kee, p. 167).

Reading Coogan's description of Brugha (p. 70), which describes an inflexible, unimaginative, doctrinaire man -- so doctrinaire that he actually wanted to fight pitched battles against the English! (p. 142) -- I can't help but think how much he sounds like an *English* officer -- even though Brugha, were he alive, would doubtless beat me to a pulp for saying that.

The idiocy of this viewpoint is shown by a comment by Richard Mulcahy, the Irish Chief of Staff, who (after Collins) was probably the man most responsible for forcing the British to negotiate; he observed that, for all the deaths, the Irish rebels had never managed to drive the English out of anything more significant than "a fairly good-sized police barracks" (Kee, p. 145.)

Nor was Brugha particularly close to the "men in the trenches"; Coogan on p. 142 reports that he continued to work at his business through most of the Troubles.

He would have made a wonderful prison camp commandant, I think: Loyal, dependable, and completely lacking in imagination. As a senior government official, he was probably more trouble than he was worth.

Brugha was not the only famous casualty in this period; the Irish shed at least as much of their own blood in the Civil War as the English ever had, and many leaders on both sides were ambushed, executed, or otherwise eliminated. For an even stronger example, and a far greater loss, see "General Michael Collins."

It is sad to note that much of this may have been based on personality rather than policy: Sean Dowling state that "Cathal Brugha hated Collins like poison. It was pathological. ... Brugha was Minister for Defence but he never did anything.... Collins was so energetic that he had usurped many of Brugha's functions; he sure was hated by him." (Quoted by Coogan, p. 175.) - RBW

Cross references


  • Johnny McDonagh, "The Death of Brugh" (on Lomax42, LomaxCD1742)


  1. Roud #12941
  2. BI, RcTDOB


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1951 (recording, Johnny McDonagh)