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The Short and Tragic Life of an Irish Dandy

With a Homburg hat placed at a jaunty angle and sporting a perfectly trimmed ginger beard, in which he took inordinate pride, the impeccably dressed Darrell Figgis was a familiar sight in war-torn Dublin.

Scion of a prominent Dublin Protestant business family, he stood out from the rough country boys who were taking over high and low office in the early days of the new Free State. But that made him a target for former comrades, who despised not just his stylish elegance and air of cultured indifference, but also his independent-minded attacks on his old friends Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera. The result was one of the most bizarre and tragic events of the period.

On June 13, 1922, on the orders of Harry Boland, four men -- including Bob Briscoe, who later became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin -- burst into the Figgis house in Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin. Fearing they had come to shoot her troublesome husband, his wife Millie attempted to block their way and was roughly treated by the gang, who then smashed down the door to the study, held down Figgis and cut off one half of his lush red beard.

"Poor Darrell Figgis lost his nice red beard," mocked Kitty Kiernan in a letter to Michael Collins the day the story appeared in the Evening Herald. "When I read about it I could imagine you laughing and enjoying it very much. But it was a mean thing for Harry's cronies to do . . . he was lucky it was only his beard."

She wasn't the only one to enjoy the "degrading" of Darrell Figgis, as it came to be known.

"You should see him strolling down O'Connell Street in smartly cut clothes with his red hair gleaming, newly polished boots, and a fine, red, square-cut beard that was his special pride," wrote one of the participants. "Figgis started making some very detrimental remarks about the IRA. We did not consider him a menace -- he was too much of a lightweight -- but he annoyed us with his waspish stings . . . some of us held him tipped back on his swivel chair while one man produced a glittering razor. Figgis squealed like a pig . . . I think he would have been happier if we had just cut his throat," he added, seemingly unaware of the traumatic effect of their actions on their one-time comrade. Figgis would recover quickly, but the attack unhinged his wife Millie, with tragic consequences.

The unlikely revolutionary Darrell Edmund Figgis was born in Rathmines, Dublin, on September 17, 1882, to a prosperous tea-importing family. He appears to have spent his early life as part of the great British colonial system, flitting between a privileged life in Calcutta, India, and staunch Protestant schools in Ireland.

As a young man he worked in London for his uncle, who was also in the tea business. But Darrell Figgis had greater and more artistic ambitions. He mixed in the city's literary set and here he met the writer GK Chesterton, who championed his literary pretensions, writing a foreword to Figgis's first book of poetry A Vision of Life, published in 1909, and later getting him a job as a literary editor, where he began writing novels using the pseudonym Michael Ireland.

It was while writing a series of essays on modern poets that he came under the influence of W B Yeats. In 1913, longing to connect with his Celtic heritage, he gave up his job and moved to Achill Island to learn Irish and become part of the Gaelic revival. There, he formed a friendship with the painter Paul Henry and was sworn into the Irish Volunteers.

A man of prodigious energy and tremendous organisational ability, he was the main organiser of the famous arms shipment that was landed at Howth Pier in 1914. As the first of the guns were being taken away, a party of RIC men arrived and Figgis and Thomas MacDonagh, later executed in 1916, engaged in a "shouting match" with the leader of the detachment, William Harrell.

"After about half-an-hour of trying to get the better of MacDonagh and Figgis, the RIC chief gave up and ordered his men and British military reinforcements to move in and seize the guns," said one report of the incidents. But by then most of the weapons had been spirited away and the large crowd that had gathered jeered as the police left with only 19 rifles from the consignment.

Figgis did not take part in 1916, but was interned in Reading Gaol, an experience which he promptly turned into a new book, A Chronicle of Jails. On his release in 1917 he was appointed Secretary of Sinn Fein, but he was jailed again in 1919. By 1920, he was a prominent member of the first Dail and it was Figgis who chaired the committee that drew up the State's first Constitution, an event which is commemorated with a plaque in the aptly named Constitution Room of the Shelbourne Hotel.

Shortly afterwards, Figgis met up with Andrew Belton, a former British-army officer and adventurer looking for business opportunities in the new Free State. In late 1922, with the country still in the grip of civil war, they formed a company called Irish Developments Ltd with the intention of applying for a broadcasting licence for the proposed radio station, 2RN, and a hydroelectric project on the river Liffey. But the two men fell out, and this was when things began to get dirty.

Figgis had been elected an Independent member of the fourth Dail in 1923 and was appointed a member of the Dail Committee which would award the State's first broadcasting licence. But when rumours about the bid by Belton's Irish Broadcasting Company began to circulate around Dublin in early January 1924, Figgis suddenly resigned from the committee, days before it was due to present its report to the Dail.

"It appeared from a document, written by Mr Belton himself, that he had entered into arrangements with Mr Figgis to share with him the profits of projects (in which the Irish Developments Company was to engage) in return for the exercise of special influence which he believed Mr Figgis was able to exert upon the chiefs of the late Provisional Government in furtherance of these projects," declared Patrick O'Malley, the chairman.

The process, he said, "seemed to savour of corrupt practice" and, having considered charges and counter charges from Belton and Figgis, he concluded: "It would be altogether unwise and unjustifiable to grant a State concession to that company."

Figgis was devastated at this blow to his political ambitions. In a lengthy speech which has remarkable echoes of today's tribunals, he stoutly defended his honour: "I only desire to say that not only at a later date will I call for the publication of all the evidence, but I will ask that the evidence of any and all documents handed in be released from privilege in order that the whole matter may be investigated, if necessary, by the courts of law in this country."

But the reality was that Figgis, who had once held such lofty political ambitions, was finished by the scandal surrounding the broadcasting licence. He continued to make trenchant speeches in the Dail and was particularly eloquent about the savage effect of tuberculosis in rural Ireland.

He and his wife Millie separated sometime in 1923 and the flamboyant 40-year-old Figgis was now seen around town with his lover, Rita North, an attractive 19-year-old 'dancing mistress' who lived with her parents in Thomas Street, Dublin. Impressed with the Free State TD and his influential and artistic friends, Rita delighted in accompanying him to tea dances in the Shelbourne and the Gresham hotels.

Millie, whose mental health had been fragile since the attack by the IRA gang on her home, was distraught when she discovered her husband's new romance. On November 18, 1924, she ordered a taxi to take her from her home at No 17 Fitzwilliam Street to the Hellfire Club in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. Somewhere near Rathfarnham, she took out a Webley revolver that had been given to her husband by Michael Collins following the beard-cutting incident and she shot herself in the head.

She was pronounced dead at the Meath Hospital where the matron handed her husband Milly's blood-soaked suicide note, which said she couldn't take any more.

After recovering from the death of his wife, Figgis resumed his relationship with Rita and continued to work as a TD for his constituency of Dublin County. In early October 1925, Rita, who had been complaining of pains for a number of weeks, discovered she was pregnant. She and Figgis went to London shortly afterwards, and Rita was apparently under the impression that they were going there to be married.

Figgis stayed, as usual, in the exclusive Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, while Rita booked into more modest accommodation at the Astoria Hotel. According to Figgis, he first discovered that Rita was pregnant on October 5, but when he told her that she must inform her family, she said they would do nothing of the kind. A fellow member of the RAC provided him with the name of a doctor in Shaftesbury Avenue who specialised in helping actresses and dancers in dealing with unwanted pregnancies. Later that day Dr Smerke Zarchi brought her to his home in Hendon where he performed an abortion.

Four days later, Figgis, calling himself Mr Southe and posing as her husband, had Rita admitted to Hendon Cottage Hospital suffering from complications from the earlier procedure. He did, however, tell the surgeon treating her his real name and that he was a member of the Irish Free State Parliament, adding: "I have never sailed under false colours in my life."

He later claimed that he appealed, once again, to Rita for permission to inform her family. She urged him to do nothing of the kind, saying that she would be well in two or three days and they could get married. "It would be kinder for them [her family], and better for both of us," she added, according to later reports. The doctor said that Rita was "a brave little soul" and "a fighter" and she would recover in two or three days "and they could be married".

Tragically, she did not recover. An inquest in London later found that the attractive young dancing mistress had died of blood poisoning as a result of the operation.

The night of the inquest verdict, October 22, 1925, Figgis went back to the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall. Harry Gordon Watney, a fellow clubman who knew him well, said afterwards: "Figgis called me out of the chess room and said he was as unhappy as a man could be. I tried to find out the cause of his unhappiness, but he would not tell me. It was not financial."

On October 26, the distraught TD turned up at a boarding house in Bloomsbury, giving the landlady, Miss Jane Griffiths, the name "Mr Southe" and saying that he would be staying for a few nights. Although he was obviously "a well-to-do gentleman", according to the landlady, he curiously picked a poky room with a gas fire at the top of the house. He went out for an hour and had a short conversation with the landlady before retiring for the night.

When the maid brought hot water to his room the following morning at 8am, she found Figgis lying on his side in the bed and a strong smell of gas in the room. Darrell Figgis had killed himself at the age of 43.

The inquest into his death was told that although paper had been stuffed into the chimney, the windows and doors had not been "stopped up" and there wasn't enough gas in the meter to have killed him. The only conclusion that could be arrived at was that "poison may also have played a part".

A dagger and a number of letters addressed to personal friends were found beside his body. In one he appeared to believe he could fake his death, writing: "I thought out a way to make it appear as an accident. That will save everybody."

Another simply said: "This really is the only way, God bless you all."

Ever thoughtful, another contained a sum of money and instructions to: "Give the dear soul who runs the place [an unspecified sum of money] for the trouble to which I am putting her."

Did he kill himself? "That is more than likely what happened, but it is possible that someone made it look like suicide. Maybe, reading between the lines, that was what it was made to look like," said his grand-nephew George D Figgis some years ago.

While his old comrades such as Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, Eamon De Valera, Sir Roger Casement and many more were given State funerals through the streets of Dublin, and fine memorials erected over their graves, only a small band of friends attended the burial of Darrell Figgis in West Hampstead Cemetery in London on October 30, 1925.

The man who had done so much for the new State was then written out of its official history and his exploits in the great events that shaped the nation almost entirely forgotten. Even the location of his grave was lost for almost 80 years.

The new Ireland had enough clean-cut dead heroes and wished to avert its eyes from the political and business scandal and the tragedy of suicide and abortion that had blighted the life of one its most brilliant founding fathers.


Sunday Indo Life Magazine