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The Samuel Beckett, Noel Lemass Connection – a secret Irish rebel

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Samuel Beckett’s formative years, 1916 to 1923, were marked by revolution in Ireland. We tend not to view Beckett (1906-1989) as a nationalistic writer, but the strife of his youth definitely marked the young Beckett. I was reminded of this when Beckett scholar Michael Coffey contacted me about the Beckett-Noel Lemass connection.

Noel Lemass was the older brother of future Irish Taoiseach Seán Lemass. He was in the GPO in 1916, fought in the War of Independence where he held the rank of captain in the IRA, and like his more famous brother, went against the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. After the end of the Irish Civil War he was abducted by pro-Treaty forces and brutally murdered, his remains being found months later in the Dublin Mountains.

Lemass’ murder is still controversial to this day and the perpetrators were never apprehended. Recently, Tim Pat Coogan in his book on Michael Collins assassination Squad, The Twelve Apostles, sought to set the record straight. “It was never established exactly who was responsible for the torture and killing of Lemass, but David Neligan himself told me it was the ‘Tobin bunch.’ ” David Neligan was famously Collins’ “Spy in the Castle” and Liam Tobin was Collins’ Deputy Director of Intelligence, running the operation out of #3 Crow Street.


Captain Noel Lemass.

Captain Noel Lemass.

If there was anyone who might know who did this dastardly act it is probably Dave Neligan. Coogan speculates that the motive for the murder might have gone back to Collins himself, although he had died the year before Lemass’ abduction. “Noel Lemass,” wrote Coogan, “had been a gifted intelligence officer with the Anti-Treaty Dublin Brigade IRA; he had been suspected of intercepting correspondence between Michael Collins and his fiancée Kitty Kiernan. To some Collins devotees, this alone might have seemed grounds for execution in the fervid political atmosphere of the day.”

Beckett wrote about Lemass, though not by his exact name, in his novel, Mercier and Camier when his characters come across the Noel Lemass Memorial in the Dublin Mountains:

What is that cross? said Camier.

There they go again.

Planted in the bog, not far from the road, but too far for the inscription to be visible, a plain cross stood.

I once knew, said Mercier, but no longer.

I too once knew, said Camier, I’m almost sure.

But he was not quite sure.

It was the grave of a nationalist, brought here in the night by the enemy and executed, or perhaps only the corpse brought here, to be dumped. He was buried long after, with a minimum of formality. His name was Masse, perhaps Massey. No great store was set by him now, in patriotic circles. It was true he had done little for the cause. But he still had this monument. All that, and no doubt much more, Mercier and perhaps Camier had once known, and all forgotten.

I asked Coffey when and where he first discovered Beckett’s interest in Lemass. “I believe it was at a Beckett conference in Phoenix,” he told me. “A scholar named Rodney Sharkey gave a paper on Ernie O’Malley and Beckett, in the course of which he talked about the murder of Noel and the........

© IrishCentral