The Story of Sarah Mellows (1865 – 1952)
In 1865 Sarah (Jordan) Mellows, the mother of the famous Irish revolutionaries Barney and Liam, was born into a large family of eighteen children in a small townland called Monalug in North County Wexford. Her parents were Patrick Jordan and Jane Carty. The Jordan’s were staunch Republicans and this had a profound effect on Sarah as she was growing up. However, in 1882, while working as a dressmaker in Fermoy, Cork, she had an encounter with a British Army Sergeant William Joseph Mellows. Mellows was born in in 1858 in Kilkenny (1). William’s father was also a soldier. As soon as they met, they fell in love and on 8th December 1885 Sarah and William were married. Despite William’s Irish background, he still saw things from a British perspective and was quite happy for Ireland to remain under British rule. There was an element of astonishment and disbelief amongst Sarah’s large nationalist family at this turn of events but as she was very happy and was obviously in love they didn’t interfere and gave the newlyweds their blessing. In fact she was asked many times over the following years about this surprising and unexpected relationship with someone from the ‘enemy’, and whenever her loyalty to Ireland was questioned and she always responded by stating “How could I be anything but a Republican, being a County Wexford woman”.
Shortly after Sarah and William were married, they were on the move and spent time in various army garrisons in Manchester and Glasgow before moving back to Ireland in 1895. They lived for a time in the Dublin suburb of Fairview before moving permanently to the Kilmainham area around the turn of the century. Kilmainham at that time was well populated with British army families and the Mellows family fitted in to the community with ease, despite Sarah’s Republican background.
Shortly after the move William retired from his position as an Army officer but he still kept in contact with his former army comrades and held high hopes that his sons William (Liam), Barney and Frederick would follow in his footsteps and take up a career in the British army. In 1906 Sarah and William suffered the loss of their only daughter and eldest child Jane Henrietta to tuberculosis. Sarah was devastated as this was now the 2nd death in the family; one other child, John, had died in childbirth in 1889 (2).
21 Mountshannon Road, Kilmainham, Dublin. The Mellows family home throughout 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War. It is the one on the right with the white door.
In 1911 Sarah’s three remaining children Liam, Barney and Frederick joined the Irish National Boy Scouts, Na Fianna Eireann (3). This was a new direction for the Mellows family, and one that father William did not readily approve of but it was not entirely surprising given Sarah’s family background. Through her son’s involvement with the Fianna and later the Irish Volunteers, Sarah Mellows was introduced to, and became friends, with many of the most prominent nationalists of that period, particularly from the women’s movement. She began to associate with such figures as Helena Moloney, Jennie Wyse Power, Nora Connolly and Kathleen Clarke but she struck up particularly close friendships with Mary “Mollie” Woods, Aine Ceannt and Countess Markievicz.
Na Fianna Eireann – Irish National Boy Scouts
Sarah also fully supported her son’s involvement in the independence movement, and despite her husband’s protests, she began to take an active role as well. She was one of the original members of Cumann na mBan in April 1914. Sarah was particularly linked with Na Fianna Eireann, given Barney and Liam’s involvement in that organisation. Her close friendships with Markievicz, Senior Fianna officer Eamon Martin and other prominent Fianna members such as Alfie White, Joseph Reynolds and Garry Holohan strengthened that close bond with the Fianna. Although Sarah and William both held different political views on the ‘Irish Question’, they remained very much in love and reluctantly supported each other in their different pursuits.
Herbert ‘Barney’ Mellows
One evening about a week before the Easter Rising, Sarah Mellows, accompanied by Aine Ceannt, secretly visited St. Enda’s School in the middle of the night to say goodbye to her eldest son Liam, who was on his way to Galway to lead the men of the West in the planned uprising. Liam, who had just escaped from England, where he had been recently deported, was hiding out at Patrick Pearse’s nationalist school disguised as a priest until he was ready to travel to Galway. Sarah did not know it at the time but it would be the last time she would see Liam for five years. Sarah was well informed of what was to come the following week and was happy to help in any way she could. Aine Ceannt later recalled Sarah sewing a green, white and orange tricolor flag just prior to the commencement of the Rising, at the request of Eamon Ceannt and it was presented to the 4th Battalion before they marched off to battle.
In the aftermath of the failed rebellion, British soldiers raided the Mellows home in Kilmainham. They were most likely looking for Liam. This was an extremely embarrassing incident for her unionist husband William. However, Liam was still in the West of Ireland at that time and would later sail for the United States. Barney had already been arrested and was on his way to a prison in England.
In the years following the 1916 Rising Sarah Mellows’ home in Kilmainham was often used as a meeting place for the Cumann na mBan members, and was frequently used as a safe house or as a place where Volunteers could go to for food and clothing. Sarah was also active in receiving and delivering messages across Dublin. She also proved useful in hiding guns and moving them around when needed. Despite Liam and Barney’s active roles in the Independence movement, Sarah herself was not suspected of being a person of interest to the British authorities. This was most likely due to William Joseph’s military background. Many visitors to the Mellows home often recalled a small Union Jack placed above the fireplace and other military insignia hanging in the home. These displays of loyalty to the British crown and the fact that they lived in an area that was predominantly unionist in nature, most probably allowed Sarah to get away with her republican activities as suspicion was unlikely to fall on such a house. However this convenient cover would soon gradually fade away over the next year or two as she became more prominent and outspoken in her anti-British views.
Sarah Mellows took a prominent role in the Irish National Aid Association (INAA) and the Volunteers Dependent Fund (VDF) as an organizer and fundraiser, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising. During the subsequent War of Independence (1919-1921) Sarah Mellows was particularly active with Madame Despard and Maud Gonne in their efforts to secure the release of hunger strikers and other prisoners. She was one of the leading figures in demonstrations outside prisons and in the street marches held in support of incarcerated prisoners.
As Sarah was now becoming well known to the authorities as an active Republican participant, the family home was now being raided on a regular basis. The relative protection previously afforded to her due to her marriage to a retired British army officer was no longer a luxury she could count on, as the love of her life, William Joseph, passed away in 1920.
Liam Mellows, upon hearing of his father’s death, returned home from America, and now Sarah had the support of her two sons’ once again. Barney had been in and out of prison in England three times since the 1916 Rising. While they were now around to look after their mother, they were still ‘on the run’ and were pursued by the British and had to be careful with their movements. Liam was appointed to the IRA G.H.Q. as Director of Purchases and this role involved the buying and importing of arms and ammunition.
In July 1921, a ‘Truce’ was called between the British and the Irish in order to allow talks to take place. Despite the Truce, the IRA still continued to train and arm itself in case talks broke down and hostilities resumed. In October 1921 a shipment of arms organized by Liam Mellows set sail for Ireland from Germany aboard the Frieda. It landed in Waterford and the German crew were sent to Dublin to hide out until things had settled down. It would have been disastrous if the authorities had discovered the details of this consignment of arms so the German sailors had to be hidden until it was safe to smuggle them back out of Ireland. Sarah Mellows hid two of the German seamen in her home in Kilmainham until Eamon Martin successfully ‘transported’ them out of the country.
The following year the Irish Civil War began and Liam was arrested following the surrender of the Anti-Treaty Four Courts Garrison. He spent the next five months in Mountjoy Prison until he was executed on December 8th, the anniversary of Sarah and William’s marriage. The previous evening, Sarah’s home in Kilmainham was raided by the Free State army, who were searching for her other son Barney. Barney was arrested later that evening in another location in the city and when Sarah heard of his capture the following morning, she went to Wellington Barracks, where he was being held. On the way to see Barney she heard the news of Liam’s execution and following a brief visit to Barney, she went immediately to Mountjoy prison accompanied by Mollie Woods. Following unsuccessful attempts to speak to the prison authorities, she was driven to the Governor General Tim Healy’s residence by Mollie’s husband where they were also unsuccessful in their efforts. They demanded to have the body of Liam released but it would be almost two years until the Free State Government would hand Liam’s body over to Sarah. Barney was released from Hare internment camp in July 1924.
Sarah Mellows remained active in republican circles throughout the 1920’s and on one occasion she travelled to the United States with family friend and former Fianna Chief of Staff Eamon Martin on a Republican fundraising mission. While there she visited her old friend Father Albert of the Capuchins, who was exiled by his superiors to California due to his involvement on the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. Albert was by this stage extremely ill and was not expected to live for much longer. Unfortunately Father Albert passed away the day after Sarah’s visit. Sarah and Eamon Martin stayed on for his funeral, which was held at the Santa Inez Capuchin Mission. Sarah returned home to Ireland soon after and remained an outspoken critic of the Free State Government for the remainder of that decade.
In February 1942 her remaining son Barney passed away at the age of forty-six. In May of that year Sarah Mellows was guest of honour at a ceremony which was held in Dublin to officially rename ‘Queen Maeve’ or ‘Queen Street’ Bridge in memory of her son Liam Mellows; a special prayer was also read out for Barney Mellows at the event. Close family friend Nora Connolly O’Brien unveiled two bronze plaques on the bridge, and former Fianna Chief of Staff Eamon Martin gave a passionate speech in honour of the two deceased patriots.
The Mellows Bridge
Sarah Mellows was also present, in 1945, at a ceremony in Castletown graveyard, near Monalug, the place of her birth, for the unveiling of a memorial to Liam by the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera.
Despite Sarah Mellow’s dedication to the cause of Irish freedom, and activities she took part in, the Government hesitated for many years in awarding Sarah a military pension, which she unquestionably deserved. She attempted to claim compensation for the death of Liam but also for her own activities during the revolutionary years. She was denied a pension for her own role but was eventually was granted a (very) small conditional allowance, a couple of years before her death “in respect of the death of your son”.
Sarah died at her home in December 1952. She was aged 87 years old. At her funeral, the National Association of Old Fianna Veterans and the Four Courts Garrison provided a Guard of Honour. A very large attendance included many of the prominent personalities of the Independence period. The Taoiseach and the President were represented by their A.D.C’s. Following the Funeral Mass she was buried at Glasnevin Cemetery.
Story and research by Eamon Murphy
1. – Despite several sources claiming that William Mellows was born in India, recent evidence notes that William was born in Kilkenny on 13 August 1858.
2. – The 1911 Census records show that 6 children had been born; Liam, Fred, Barney and three other children however C. Desmond Greaves claims in his “Liam Mellows” book that there were just two other children, John and Jane. A family tree I was given recently by a member of the Mellows family also shows five children in total so perhaps the census entry was in error, as often happened.
3. – Frederick was also to succumb to the dreaded TB in 1914.
– Aine Ceannt, BMH Witness Statement.
– Alfred White, BMH Witness Statement.
– Mary Flannery Woods, BMH Witness Statement.
– Joseph Reynolds, BMH Witness Statement.
– Una Daly, BMH Witness Statement.
– Robert Brennan, BMH Witness Statement.
– “Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution”, by C Desmond Greaves.
– “Survivors”, by Uinseann MacEoin (ed.)
– “Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army”, by Frank Robbins.
– “Eamon Ceannt, Supreme Sacrifice” by William Henry.
– Irish Independent, May 25th, 1942.
– Irish Press, May 25th, 1942.
– Irish Press, December 3rd, 1952.
– Irish Press, December 2nd, 1952.
– Irish Independent, December 2nd, 1952.
– Irish Press, December 10th, 1945.
– The Capuchin Annual, 1972.
– Eamon Martin Papers.
– Mellows Family Papers.
– Military Pension Records