Letters from Captivity
My grandfather Brig. General Cuthbert Henry Tindall Lucas was captured by the IRA in 1920 and held for over a month. He was treated exceptionally well and eventually ‘allowed’ to escape. It is one of the few ‘good’ stories to come from a very dark period during the Irish War of Independence. It stands alone as a story that unites both Irish and British sides in a shared celebration of humanity, humour, respect and basic human kindness. It is an extraordinary, true story.
Many books written about the period mention the capture of General Lucas. Some refer to my grandfather being allowed to write to my grandmother who was expecting their first child. I have these letters which my grandmother kept tied up in ribbon. As this is the 100th anniversary of the capture of General Lucas, I felt that it would be a good way to mark the occasion by revealing the content of the letters, and to add the Lucas’ family recollections to help support and balance the Irish version of the story of one of the IRA’s biggest propaganda coups of the war.
Over the next few weeks I plan to post the contents of the letter written on that day 100 years earlier, along with the corresponding extracts from the secret diary that my grandfather kept on a tiny scrap of paper and from the official diary that he submitted to his superiors on his release. I have tried to link these with IRA Witness statements, Irish oral history collected by Olive Carey, Tom Toomey and Aideen Carroll among others and stories passed down in my own family. There are also extracts from Hansard, British political diaries, the Churchill Archive and newspaper accounts from around the world.
I am far from an expert, but I just want to provide the details that I have collected to enrich and publicise what I sincerely believe is a wonderful true story that needs to be more well-known. Passions were running high at that time, there were terrible things happening in Ireland and yet in the midst of this, a British general and Irish Freedom fighters and their families found a way of bringing a smile to their respective countries’ faces, simply by being the best that they could be in the circumstances.
"Treated as a gentleman by gentlemen"
The men holding my grandfather were by no means ‘soft’. These were very hardened fighters and many had been involved in the killing of British soldiers, RIC police officers and others considered ‘spies’ or collaborators with the enemy. Liam Lynch and Michael Brennan who worked together to capture and hold the general were two of the most successful IRA commandants around at the time.
If it wasn’t for those Irish fighters’ humanity and kindness, my family and I would not be here today. So I’ll forever be grateful that they tolerated my grandfather’s passion for whiskey and cards and didn’t shoot him as happened to some of the IRA’s other military captives. There was something about him that made him ‘too nice a guy to shoot’. I hope that his letters and diaries give some indication as to what that was.
I do not in any way condone the violence and killings on either side. I was once called ‘a traitor’ by an anonymous gentleman from Ulster for saying that I was grateful for the kindness shown to my grandfather.
Many years ago in the school where I taught there were a group of 10/11 year old lads who were constantly in trouble to the point of being close to being expelled. There was also a group of 6/7 year old lads who were struggling with reading. I thought that maybe one group could help the other and set up a reading buddy scheme. I gave the older boys instructions and then sat back and watched closely, ready to intervene if necessary. To my amazement something wonderful happened. The older boys were transformed into responsible, caring and kind reading assistants and the younger boys responded to their kindness and tried hard with their reading. I was so excited that I asked the Headteacher to come and watch their next session. Sadly the Head stood at the door and pointed to each boy in turn telling me what they were in trouble for. He couldn’t see that for the present moment in time those boys were displaying something good and praiseworthy.
Those boys didn’t become saints over night and the change in their behaviour during the reading sessions didn’t make a huge difference to their behaviour elsewhere in the school. My point is that for that moment of time there was something worth celebrating in their behaviour.
The British Army represented by Brig General Lucas and Sinn Fein/IRA as represented by those holding the general didn’t become saints over night and nothing much changed in the fight as a consequence, in fact the violence and killings actually increased, but for that one period of time something happened concerning soldier’s behaviour to soldier that was good and praiseworthy and should be celebrated. It’s the Irish War of Independence’s equivalent of the WW1 Christmas Day football match. Men (and women) from both sides whilst staying true to their values, were able to relax a little, enjoy each other’s company and for a few weeks, drink whiskey; play cards, croquet and tennis; ‘save the hay’ and go salmon poaching. It’s a story that you couldn’t make up.
I haven’t found an IRA Witness statement that says a bad word against Brig. General Lucas and his recorded statements about those who held him were that they were ‘delightful people’ and that he was ‘treated as a gentleman by gentlemen’. His statements and reports halted any reprisals against those who had abducted and held him. British politicians must have been frustrated about this as some would have liked an excuse to “go in hard."
It's my pleasure to introduce you to CHTL and Poppy
I refer to my grandfather as ‘CHTL’, these were his initials. He hated the name Cuthbert and labelled photos of himself with those initials and all his belongings were stamped with them too. My grandmother was called ‘Poppy’ by her friends and family, although her birth name was ‘Joan’ - a name she hated. My grandfather called her ‘Pip’, but as that was a personal name between the two of them, I prefer to call her ‘Poppy’ which feels more respectful.
I hope that you enjoy reading the letters, please delve in and don’t feel obliged to read everything. Your interest may just be in the human story of a couple split apart by conflict, or you may be more interested in the IRA statements or the political discussions in the British Parliament. As I’ve said, I am not an expert and there are an enormous selection of very good books written on the subject that I encourage people to read if they want to delve deeper. The story has so much depth that it might start you on a journey of discovery following one of its many tangents. There are so many fascinating characters that appear along the way, each with their own stories...
Credit for the website goes to Sophie Brookes, a great granddaughter of CHTL and Poppy, who designed and set it up. Thanks also goes to other members of the ‘Lucas’ family: Liz Lister, Steve Warburton, David Brookes and Maureen Lucas who all contributed in various ways to the setting up of this website. There’s much appreciation of the love and support from many of Major General CHT Lucas’ descendants - this is a family project.