25. Robert Barton Sinn Féin MP

In the interests of balance, today we take a look at an abstentionist Sinn Féin MP, who became the first TD for West Wicklow. Robert Barton was returned for the constituency in the 1918 general election (held on 14 December), and on 4 January the press reported on a meeting in Baltinglass, at which Dunlavin man John J. Cunningham was one of the principal speakers, enthusiastically offering congratulations on the return of Mr. Barton. Cunningham told the gathering that ‘they had proved to the world… that Ireland stands for complete independence… the fight for independence must be carried on at home. They had shown by their votes that their wish was to see Ireland, their native land, as free as it was in the days of Saint Patrick’. Cunningham saw Barton as the man to turn the dream into a reality. This piece (first published in ‘The Little Book of Wicklow’) looks at the life and times of the self-same Robert Barton. Enjoy!

Robert Barton

Robert Barton was the son of Protestant and Unionist parents, born in 1881 to Charles and Agnes Barton of Glendalough House, Annamoe, County Wicklow. The family owned a large estate of over one thousand five hundred acres in Wicklow and their wealth was further enhanced by their interest in the famous French wineries of Barton and Guestier. Barton received a classic English public-school education at Rugby school before graduating from Oxford and, later, the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, England.[1] He introduced many agricultural improvements on his estate in Wicklow, and his tenants benefited from the new agricultural methods he employed. He also worked for the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society and was deeply involved in the co-operative movement. In 1908, while on a tour of co-operatives in the west of Ireland, the Unionist Barton became convinced that Home Rule was the way forward for Ireland. However, in October 1915 during World War One, Barton joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers as a commissioned officer.[2] Although two of his brothers were killed in the First World War, Barton resigned his commission in the wake of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.[3]

Robert Barton was in Dublin that week and was deeply impressed by the attitude of the captured rebels in the aftermath of the rising.[4] His own understanding and charitable attitude to the rebels and their families caught the attention of Michael Collins, who advanced Barton’s name within the Nationalist cause. In the general election of December 1918 Barton was elected as MP for west Wicklow[5] and his first mission was to accompany Michael Collins, George Gavan Duffy and Sean T. O’Ceallaigh to Paris in an effort to meet with US president Woodrow Wilson during the Paris Peace Conference, which was to end in the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Barton’s international diplomatic credentials were further underlined at the first meeting of the breakaway Sinn Féin Irish parliament in Dublin, the Dáil, when he read out their ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’.[6] His academic and practical farming background made him the obvious choice as the Dáil’s first Minister of Agriculture. He began the huge task of land redistribution in Ireland by setting up the National Land Bank.[7]

Prison Break

In February 1919 Barton was arrested and imprisoned by the British authorities. He found himself in Dublin’s infamous Mountjoy Jail on charges of making a seditious speech at uttering threats at Carnew, in the south of County Wicklow. On 16 March Barton was involved in one of the most daring and audacious prison breaks ever carried out in Ireland. Fellow Republican Richard Mulcahy had managed to smuggle a file into the prison, and Barton was sprung from the jail when a rope ladder was thrown over the twenty-feet high outer wall. Barton coolly left an effigy of himself in his bed and a note for the prison governor, stating that he felt that he had to leave due to the discomfort of his present surroundings! He remained on the run for nearly a year, but was recaptured in January 1920 and tried by court martial. He was incarcerated in Portland prison, where he suffered much at the hands of the warders. His support at home did not wane however, and he was elected chairman of Wicklow County Council in his absence![8] The convict chairman was released in July 1921 and was immediately involved in negotiating the truce on the vessel of General J. C. Smuts in Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) Harbour to end the War of Independence, which he co-signed with General Nevil Macready on 11 July at Dublin’s Mansion House. Barton’s popularity increased and he was elected as MP for Kildare-Wicklow in the second Dáil of 1921-3, becoming the Minister for Economic Affairs.[9] In that role it was always likely that he would be involved in the treaty negations with Britain, though even he could not have foreseen how much of a key player he would turn out to be in that long, bitter and tangled saga. He accompanied Eamon De Valera and Eamonn Duggan to London for preliminary talks in the summer of 1921 but De Valera and British prime minister David Lloyd George had a personality clash right from the beginning and these talks came to nought. They did, however, increase the perception that Barton was very closely aligned with De Valera within the internal machinations of Sinn Féin.

Signing the Treaty:

When the full Irish delegation left Dublin for London later that year, Barton was one of three cabinet ministers on the boat.[10] Michael Collins endorsed his inclusion, and ostensibly Barton was picked for his economic expertise.[11] However, the British government perceived him as a De Valera puppet and they tried to marginalize him from many aspects of the negotiations. A rift developed between Barton and the head of the delegation, Griffith, who was suspicious of ardent Republican Barton’s insistence on ‘external association’ between Britain and Ireland – an idea propounded by De Valera as a means of avoiding membership of the British Commonwealth for any new Irish state that might emerge. Barton’s attitude enraged Lloyd George, who referred to him scathingly as a ‘pipsqueak’, but he also annoyed Griffith, who felt that he ‘created the wrong atmosphere’ in talks on Anglo-Irish trade.[12] Despite many setbacks, a treaty was eventually hammered out and Lloyd George gave the Irish delegation a blunt message – sign or go back to Dublin and back to war!

Lloyd George’s ultimatum came with a time limit; the treaty had to be signed that night or not at all.[13] So began one of the most dramatic and significant nights in Irish history, one in which Barton was to be a pivotal figure with a central role. Collins knew that the IRA were very low on volunteers, supplies and ammunition and so in no position to renew the War of Independence, let alone to win it. Hence, he favoured signing the treaty. Arthur Griffith and Eamonn Duggan supported him in this position. Erskine Childers, the secretary of the Irish delegation, was against signing it. George Gavan Duffy wavered, letting it be known that he would allow himself to be guided by Robert Barton’s decision. Thus it transpired that, in effect, Barton had the casting vote among the Irish delegates, for they all had to sign the document in order for it to be accepted. Lloyd George had warned of ‘immediate and terrible’ war should the treaty be rejected. As Barton agonised over his Republican principles, Duggan warned him that he might be hanged from a lamppost in Dublin if his intransigence led to the resumption of war. Enough young men had sacrificed their lives according to Duggan, and any gains made in the negotiations were in danger of being lost if the war-weary and weakened people of Ireland were plunged into a new conflict. Three times that night Barton stopped the other members of the delegation from going to Downing Street to sign the document. Three times he relented and eventually emotional stress and peer pressure told, with Barton reluctantly agreeing to accept the treaty document as a means of averting more bloodshed. Encouraged by Childers (who, as secretary did not have to sign the treaty document), he had been the last man to hold out, and it was past 2 a.m. when he finally caved in to the enormous pressure. Barton’s decision to sign made the Irish Free State a reality, paved the way for an Irish republic and shaped the twenty-six county Ireland that we know today.

However, it was also instrumental in bring about the Irish Civil War of 1922-3. The treaty was passed in the Dáil, but a minority of its members, led by De Valera, refused to accept it and rejected the democratic vote of the Dáil. They went further, rejecting democracy itself,[14] and engaging in a Civil War with the newly elected government led by Griffith and Collins. On his return from London, Barton had pilloried De Valera for his absence from the treaty negotiations, claiming that the divisive situation that now existed was De Valera’s own fault. Barton voted for acceptance of the treaty in the crucial Dáil vote, but intriguingly, in a move demonstrative of the deep soul searching going on within him, he then joined the anti-treaty side in the Civil War that followed. He took part in the fighting in Dublin and was among the group of anti-treaty ‘irregulars’ who occupied the Hammam Hotel in O’Connell Street, the principal thoroughfare of Ireland’s capital city.[15] Having escaped from Dublin following the defeat of the anti-treatyites there, Barton was chosen as Minister for Economic Affairs in De Valera’s council of state, a shadow body set up in opposition to the elected pro-treaty government. In November 1922 the Barton family home was raided and Barton’s cousin Erskine Childers was arrested and later executed.[16] Barton survived the Civil War but lost his Dáil seat in the general election of August 1923. It was the last election he would ever contest. He retired from active politics, brooding over his role in the signing of the treaty and in the disastrous Civil War that followed. So consumed was he by his momentous decision to sign the document that he later wrote that he often wished that he had died in Portland prison rather than lived to take part in ‘these cursed negotiations’ that had cost so many lives.

 

Despite his retirement from the political arena, Robert Barton returned to public life when De Valera’s Fianna Fáil party came to power in 1932. He had always been a close friend of De Valera, and the new taoiseach made him a director of the Irish Press, the Fianna Fáil-oriented newspaper that was seen as the voice of De Valera in the Irish Free State. Sean MacEntee also appointed Barton to the board of the Agricultural Credit Corporation, a state-sponsored body established to give cheap loans to Irish farmers. He became chairman of the board of the ACC in 1933, a position he retained until 1959. Barton did not put himself forward as a candidate, but ardently campaigned on behalf of Fianna Fáil during the 1933 general election, claiming that the signatories of the Anglo-Irish treaty had been misguided and tricked into signing by promises that nationalists in the North of Ireland would have a say in the redrawing of the border between the North and the Free State. In 1934 Barton also became the chairman of the Turf Board, and remained in this post after the board had been altered and renamed Bórd na Móna in 1946. Coal shortages during World War Two did much to encourage the development of the bogs during the war years, and it was decided to harness and utilise the Irish bogs in the aftermath of the Emergency, as the war was known in neutral Ireland. As chairman of Bórd na Móna, Barton did much to develop the resource, especially in the Irish midlands, until his retirement in 1960. Now in his twilight years, Barton lived to a ripe old age, before dying on 10 August 1975.[17] To the end of his life, he was haunted by his decision the sign the treaty.

ENDNOTES.

[1] Dictionary of Irish biography, online version at https://dib.cambridge.org/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a0485&searchClicked=clicked&quickadvsearch=yes (visited 12 Nov 2012).

[2] Irish Military Archives [I.M.A.], Bureau of Military History [B.M.H.], witness statement of Robert Barton, Glendalough House, Annamoe, Co. Wicklow, WS979, p. 9. All other information in this essay is taken from this witness statement unless otherwise stated.

[3] R. F. Foster, ‘Parnell and his neighbours’ in, Wicklow: History and Society (Dublin, 1994), p. 908.

[4] Dorothy Macardle The Irish Republic (London, reprint, 1968), p. 16

[5] Catherine Wright, ‘Robert Childers Barton and the first Dail’, http://www.countywicklowheritage.org/page/robert_barton_and_the_first_dail (visited 4 Apr 2019).

[6] Dictionary of Irish biography, online version at https://dib.cambridge.org/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a0485&searchClicked=clicked&quickadvsearch=yes (visited 12 Nov 2012).

[7] Macardle, Republic, pp 263 and 280.

[8] Brian Donnelly, For the betterment of the people: A history of Wicklow County Council (Wicklow, 1999), pp 40-3, 53, 163, 167. See also Wicklow News-Letter, 19 Jun 1920.

[9] N.A.I., Department of the Taoiseach papers, Ministerial Appointments, TSCH/3/S10013

[10] Macardle, Republic, p. 482

[11] I.M.A., B.M.H., witness statement of Mrs Austin Stack, Seabank, Strand Road, Merrion, Dublin, WS418, p. 42.

[12] Dictionary of Irish biography, online version at https://dib.cambridge.org/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a0485&searchClicked=clicked&quickadvsearch=yes (visited 12 Nov 2012).

[13] Frank Pakenham (Earl of Longford), Peace by ordeal: an account, from first-hand sources, of the negotiation and signature of the Anglo-Irish treaty, 1921 (London, 1935), p. 330. The rest of the information on the treaty in this essay is taken from this source (pp 330 et seq.). Strangely, Barton was uncommonly reticent regarding the treaty in his witness statement. He merely stated ‘Regarding the signing of the treaty, I have very little to add to the information in Lord Pakenham’s book’. I.M.A., B.M.H., witness statement of Robert Barton, Glendalough House, Annamoe, Co. Wicklow, WS979, pp 33-34. He then suited the action to the word, adding nothing whatsoever about the tense night in London. Hence, Peace by Ordeal remains Barton’s best and only detailed account of the treaty deliberations.

[14] Robert Kee, The Green Flag (London 1972), p. 733.

[15] Interestingly, this is the last action mentioned in Barton’s witness statement. I.M.A., B.M.H., witness statement of Robert Barton, Glendalough House, Annamoe, Co. Wicklow, WS979, pp 46-47. He merely follows this up with a brief mention of his capture and incarceration. There is no mention of the fate of his cousin, Erskine Childers, or of the later course of the Civil War.

[16] Macardle, Republic, p. 742.

[17] Dictionary of Irish biography, online version at https://dib.cambridge.org/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a0485&searchClicked=clicked&quickadvsearch=yes (visited 12 Nov 2012).

Comments about this page

  • Thank you for reading this post and taking the time to comment on it.

    Your points about Robert Barton’s resignation of his commission are all correct. However, a short article such as this cannot include everything and must focus on the overarching narrative. I think your point regarding the inference about this resignation arises because of your interpretation of the key phrase ‘in the wake of’, which occurs at the end of paragraph one. I believe that you are taking this to mean ‘as a consequence of’, but the phrase can also simply mean ‘afterwards’. Dictionaries give both meanings (see, for example, https://www.oysterenglish.com/idiom-in-the-wake-of-something.html and https://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/in-the-wake-of-something). In this instance, ‘in the wake of the rising’ simply means ‘after the rising’. The source cited (3) is from R. F. Foster, Professor Emeritus of Irish History at Oxford University, and it reads ‘But, like his Childers relations, after 1916 he [Barton] took another path – resigning his commission, joining Sinn Féin, commencing his career as a nationalist’. You are correct when you state the dates of Robert Barton’s application to resign and the termination of his service as 1917 and 1918 respectively – hence these happened after (or ‘in the wake of’) the 1916 rising, and T. P. [Thomas Patrick] Gill was indeed involved.

    Your point regarding republican propaganda explaining away the Irish involvement in World War One is well made. There certainly was republican rodomontade to this effect, especially in the half century or so immediately after the formation of the Free State (later Republic). However, I don’t think it can be applied to this article. Admittedly, the source cited at the beginning of paragraph two, Dorothy Macardle, was republican in her sympathies and a staunch supporter of De Valera. Despite being a biased, non-academic historian however, her ‘Irish Republic’ contains a wealth of detail, and for this reason it is still frequently cited in current academic works on the period. The source cited (4) refers to ‘the conduct and logic of the prisoners’ contributing to Barton’s ‘conversion to the Republican cause’. The point is valid, but it does not exclude the possibilities that there may have been other contributing factors, and that the conversion may have been gradual.

    You actually refer to Barton’s separatist journey as ‘gradual’. I totally agree, but I think that your interpretation of another key phrase, this time in the second paragraph, differs from mine. The phrase in question is ‘aftermath of the rising’. I use this phrase to denote a more protracted period of time. I take the aftermath to include [at the very least] the executions, the swing towards Sinn Féin, the 1918 general election, the establishment of the first Dáil, the Soloheadbeg attack and the subsequent War of Independence. One may argue for later dates – the end of the Civil War, the Republic of Ireland Act, perhaps even the Good Friday Agreement – and some current republicans probably perceive themselves as still existing in the aftermath of the rising, but this is a moot point in this instance. The relevant fact here is that by 1918 Robert Barton was standing for election on the Sinn Féin ticket. Hence, two years after the Easter Rebellion, Robert Barton had changed his political views to support Sinn Féin’s separatism, so perhaps the final stage of his political journey was less gradual.

    Robert Barton’s political journey actually mirrored that of many Irish people, in that it was gradual, but it accelerated in its final stage. His antebellum support for Home Rule, his involvement in the Dublin Fusiliers, the resignation of his commission and his postbellum support for Sinn Féin are all mentioned in the article above. Each of these stages in his political life happened in the wake of the previous one. Given his later involvement in the Volunteers, the Dáil, the War of Independence, the treaty negotiations (including putting his signature on the document), and the Civil War, it would, I think, be otiose to overlook these actions, which showed his support for the rebels’ cause in the aftermath of the 1916 rising.

    I will finish with a short excerpt covering this period of Robert Barton’s life from his entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography by Pauric J. Dempsey (Royal Irish Academy) and (Shaun Boylan, Law Library), online at https://www.dib.ie/biography/barton-robert-childers-a0485

    ‘Prior to the general rebel surrender in Easter week 1916, Barton was dispatched to Dublin, where the subsequent treatment of the rebels, and their stoicism and conviction in the face of such treatment, made a deep impact on him. He soon resigned his commission and joined the republican movement. Interestingly, as early as 1907 he had made a £50 contribution to Sinn Féin. To Michael Collins (qv), he had distinguished himself by his kindness to the prisoners and their relatives. In the December 1918 general election Barton, now a Volunteer commandant, was elected Sinn Féin MP for Wicklow West….’

    By Dr. Chris Lawlor M.A. Hons (M.U.), Ph.D. (D.C.U.). (04/08/2021)
  • The inference that Robert Barton’s resignation as a comissioned officer in the Royal Dublin Fusileers was in some way attributable to or a consequence of the Easter Rebellion is entirely without foundation and is nothing more than republican propoganda to perpetuate a myth to explain away how hundreds of thousands of Irish, including Robert’s two brothers, his first cousin Erskine Childers and himself joined the British armed forces in WW1.

    Neither his service record in the regiment nor his own statements made on the matter evidence the Rebellion as an explanation for his application to resign his commission as an officer.
    Indeed, he wanted to go to the front to fight with his two brothers, both of whom would die in the trenches, but was transferred to the 11th Batallion when the 10 Battalion was sent to France in August 1916.

    Contrary to suggestions that Robert applied to resign in the wake of what he had witnessed during the rebellion he did not apply for leave to resign until 1917 and then for only for unconnected reasons , moreover, he continued to serve as an officer with the Dubs until June 1918, just before the end of the War.

    His application was finally granted at the request of JP Gill, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, on the grounds that Barton had a large Estate and his management thereof was conducive to the War effort, the production of food being viewed by the Government at that stage as being more important than the actual fighting !
    His journey from unionist to separatist was as gradual as it was complete by 1918.
    As recently as 1917 he supported the Constitutional cause at the Convention of that year and it was only after the collapse of the Convention that he finally joined Sinn Fein.

    By The Hon. Bernard Barton (03/08/2021)

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