Frank Aiken

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Frank Aiken
In office
21 April 1965 – 2 July 1969
Preceded by Seán MacEntee
Succeeded by Erskine H. Childers
Minister for External Affairs
In office
20 March 1957 – 2 July 1969
Preceded by Liam Cosgrave
Succeeded by Patrick Hillery
In office
13 June 1951 – 2 June 1954
Preceded by Seán MacBride
Succeeded by Liam Cosgrave
Personal details
Born (1898-02-13)13 February 1898
Camlough, County Armagh, Ireland
Died 18 May 1983(1983-05-18) (aged 85)
Dublin, Ireland
Political party Fianna Fáil (1927–73)
Other political
Sinn Féin (1923–26)

Frank Aiken (13 February 1898 – 18 May 1983) was an Irish politician and a commander of the Irish Republican Army. Originally a member of Sinn Féin, he was later a founding member of Fianna Fáil. Aiken was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1923 and at each subsequent election until 1973.[1] Aiken served as Minister for Defence (1932–39), Minister for the Co-ordination of Defensive Measures (1939–45), Minister for Finance (1945–48) and Minister for External Affairs (1951–54 and 1957–69). He also served as Minister for Lands and Fisheries. Aiken served as Tánaiste of Ireland from 1965 until 1969. He holds the distinction of being the second longest-serving member of Dáil Éireann.

Early life

Francis Thomas (Frank) Aiken was born on 13 February 1898 at Carrickbracken, Camlough in County Armagh. The seventh and youngest child of James Aiken, a builder from Co Tyrone, and Mary McGeeney of Corromannon, Beleek, Co Armagh. James built catholic churches in South Armagh. Aiken was a nationalist, a member of the IRB, and County councilor, who refused an offer to stand as an MP. James was Chairman of the Local Board of the Poor Guardians. In 1900, on her visit to Ireland, he told Queen Victoria, he would welcome her only "until Ireland has become free."

He was educated in Newry by Irish Christian Brothers at Abbey Christian Brothers Grammar School and at St Colman's College, Newry, and in 1914 he joined the Irish Volunteers and the Gaelic League. He became secretary of the local branch in 1917, and joining Sinn Féin, founded a Sinn Féin Club or cumainn at Camlough, County Armagh, while working at the Co-Operative Flax-Scutching society. Aiken was committed to Gaelic speech which he learnt at the Donegal Gaeltacht, Ormeath Irish College.

Activist and organiser

Aiken was 6 ft tall as a teenager, as such was elected Lieutenant of the local Irish Volunteers. He got his first taste of politics helping De Valera in the Clare election of July 1917, when an active Sinn Fein officer of Camlough Club. At the rowdy by-election, at Bessbrook in February 1918, Aiken was elected a Captain of Volunteers, stewarding electioneering. As Comhairle Ceanntair it was job to be chief fund-raiser for the Dublin Executive, responsible for the Dail Loan, the first to be issued by the Dail Eireann. He was quickly promoted through the ranks rising to Commandant of Newry, and brigadier of 4th Northern. The area he controlled extended to North Louth, South and West Co Down, parts of Tyrone and Antrim, and all Co Armagh, from at least March 1921.

From autumn 1919, Aiken was on the run, wanted by the British troops who burnt down his house. As a symbolic gesture of Catholic radicalism he replaced Eoin MacNeill as patron with Thomas Ashe, the cycling hero and martyr.[2] Also setting up GAA Club, Gaelic League branch, a Cumann na mBan camogie league.[3]

Within a few years becoming Chairman of the Armagh branch of Sinn Féin, he was also elected onto Armagh County Council. Making an outward display of defiance, Aiken raised the republican Irish tricolor, the Sinn Fein flag, opposite Camlough Barracks in Armagh, designed as deliberate provocation.[4]

War of Irish Independence

During the War of Independence Aiken commanded the Fourth Northern Division of the Irish Republican Army.[5] Aiken was notable by his absence when Gen. O'Malley called a commander's meeting to GHQ on the Truce of 27 July 1921. The IRA spent £6,000 per month nonetheless.[6] Throughout this period both British and Irish contingents displayed brutality due to drunkenness. For example, Aiken was forced to dismiss two of his officers for breach of discipline. Mulcahy was instructed to issue orders to all commanders to this effect.[7] Although Aiken had a continuously skeptical relationship with Mulcahy and the GHQ Staff when the first ever circular reached his command from the Minister of Defence on the Republic's 'New Army' reorganization of 15 September 1921.[8]

Irish Civil War

Alike to De Valera, Aiken was an Anti-Treaty northern Sinn Feiner, but after many months the republicans were in a weaker position. Moreover the movement was bitterly divided about how to treat Britain's offer to cease military operations in Ireland. What they objected to was to exchange one Governor-General for another under the Free State, without sole and total control of the government. De Valera would only accept an independent republic; Piaras Beaslai and Arthur Griffith pleaded for peace and tranquility to return to a 'living Irish nation.' when the Treaty was signed on 22 December 1921. Aiken's ambivalent attitude was because the Catholic Church was strongly in favour of the treaty, denouncing de Valera's intransigence.[9] And many of the IRA in the north who had once opposed it, finally agreed. Sean MacEntee was among those who had seen the RIC Specials and Black and Tan "murder-gangs" wring legitimacy out of sectarian violence. They could no longer deny the compelling reality of Ulster's Partition.[10]

Irish Republican Army involvement

Aiken, operating from the south Armagh/north Louth area, was one of the most effective IRA commanders in Ulster during the conflict. In May 1920, he led 200 IRA men in an attack on the Royal Irish Constabulary barracks in Newtownhamilton, forcing the police to surrender and then burning the building and seizing the arms contained within. In December 1920, he led another assault, this time abortive, on the RIC station in his home village of Camlough. In reprisal the newly formed Ulster Special Constabulary burned Aiken's home and those of ten of his relatives in the Camlough area. From this point onwards, the conflict in Aiken's area took on an increasingly bitter and sectarian quality.

In April 1921, Aiken's IRA unit took a Protestant church congregation hostage in Creggan, County Armagh to ambush the police and Special Constabulary arriving for the service. One Special was killed in the ensuing ambush. Although Aiken then released the Ulster Protestant civilians unharmed, the incident heightened local sectarian animosity.[citation needed] Starting the following month, the Special Constabulary started shooting Catholic civilians in revenge for IRA attacks. In June 1921 Aiken organised his most successful attack on the British military, when his men detonated a mine under a British troop train headed from Belfast to Dublin, killing the train guard, three cavalry soldiers and 63 of their horses.[11] Shortly afterwards, the Specials took four Catholics from their homes in Bessbrook and Altnaveigh and killed them.

The cycle of violence continued in the area in the following year, despite a formal truce with the British from 11 July 1921. Michael Collins organised a clandestine guerrilla offensive against the newly created polity of Northern Ireland in May 1922, despite being responsible for the Ulster Council Command in January 1922, which has been described as a genuflection to the Unionist doctrine of Ulster's separateness. The Collins and the Griffith government began a dual monarchism policy, that according to de Valera was the end of the Republic and the republican ideal.[12]

For reasons that have never been properly determined, Aiken and his Fourth Northern Division never took part in the operation, although it was planned that they would. Aiken, Head of the Ulster Council Command still believed in the power of the gun to cure all evils. Nonetheless, the local IRA's inaction at this time did not end the bloodshed in South Armagh. Aiken has been accused by unionists of ethnic cleansing of Protestants from parts of South Armagh, Newry, and other parts of the north,[13] in particular the killing of seven presbyterian civilians, called the Altnaveigh Massacre on 17 June 1922.[14] Aiken and over 200 men were arrested and imprisoned in Dundalk Jail for pretending to remain neutral.[15]

The IRA split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and this left Aiken ultimately aligned with the anti-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War in spite of personal efforts to prevent division and civil war. Aiken tried to remain neutral and after fighting broke out between pro- and anti-Treaty units in Dublin, he wrote to Richard Mulcahy on 6 July 1922 calling for a truce and the removal of the Oath of Allegiance (Ireland) from the Free State constitution. On 17 July, Aiken's division issued a manifesto outlining his differences with Beggars Bush GHQ

After the assassination of Collins in August 1922, Aiken could not support the Irish Free State, as civil war became inevitable.

Just ten days imprisonment he was freed in a mass escape of 100 men from Dundalk prison on 28 July. Then, on 14 August, he led a surprise attack of 300–400 anti-treaty IRA men on Dundalk. They blew holes in the army barracks there and rapidly took control of the town at a cost of just two of his men killed. The operation freed 240 republican prisoners and seized 400 rifles. While in possession of the town, Aiken publicly called for an end to the civil war. For the remainder of the conflict he remained at large with his unit, carrying out guerrilla attacks on Free State forces; however, Aiken was never enthusiastic or nuanced about the internecine struggle.[16]

A Compromise: strategise for peace

As the spring campaign for 1923 arrived, Aiken urged caution on the Provisional Government, as Collins and Lynch believed it still possible to have a Republican constitution under the Treaty. Aiken owed his post to Collins, after the split, and not to pressure.[17] Aiken was with Lynch's patrol when they were ambushed at Knockmealdown, where the chief was shot and killed. He rescued the IRA's papers saved and brought through at any cost.[18] Aiken's reward was promotion in succession to Liam Lynch as IRA Chief of Staff in March 1923. He had a mutual understanding and respect for De Valera, when ended the war by Proclamation on 27 April, and he was "permitted to wander Co Armagh unmolested".[19] As Chief he issued the cease-fire and dump-arms orders on 24 May 1923 that effectively ended the Irish Civil War. He remained Chief of Staff of the IRA until 12 November 1925.

In the summer of 1925, the anti-treaty IRA sent a delegation led by Pa Murray to the Soviet Union for a personal meeting with Joseph Stalin, in the hopes of gaining Soviet finance and weaponry assistance.[20] A secret pact was agreed where the IRA would spy on the United States and the United Kingdom and pass information to Red Army military intelligence in New York City and London in return for £500 a month.[20] The pact was originally approved by Aiken, who left soon after, before being succeeded by Andrew Cooney and Moss Twomey who kept up the secret espionage relationship.[20]

Founder of Fianna Fáil and government minister

Aiken was at April 1925 Commemoration ceremony at Dundalk. But by March 1926, he was in America when De Valera founded a new party, Fianna Fail. Aiken was first elected to Dáil Éireann as a Sinn Féin candidate for Louth in 1923, continuing to be re-elected for Fianna Fáil at every election until his retirement from politics fifty years later.[21] He entered the first Fianna Fáil government as Minister for Defence, later becoming Minister for the Co-ordination of Defensive Measures with responsibility for overseeing Ireland's national defence and neutral position during the Second World War (see The Emergency). In May 1926 he bought Dun Gaiothe, a dairy farm, at Sandyford, Dublin. Aiken was an inventive, creative individual, an amateur inventor, taking out patents for a Turf stove, a beehive, air shelter, electric cooker, and a spring heel for a shoe.[22]

Clash with the Governor General

Aiken became a source of controversy in mid-1932 when he, along with Vice-President of the Executive Council Seán T. O'Kelly publicly snubbed the Governor General of the Irish Free State James McNeill, by staging a public walkout at a function in the French legation in Dublin. McNeill privately wrote to Éamon de Valera, the President of the Executive Council, to complain at what media reports called the "boorishness" of Aiken and O'Kelly's behaviour. While agreeing that the situation was "regrettable" de Valera, instead of chastising the ministers, suggested that the Governor General inform the Executive Council of his social engagements to enable ministers to avoid ones he was attending. Aiken had in March 1932 been trying to reach a new rapprochement, and "reconciled the Army to the new regime"[23] On 9 March he visited republican prisoners in Arbour Hill prison released the next day - he was given the vice-presidency Agriculture to James Ryan at the Ottawa Conference. He advised on the usage of cutting peat bogs in Co Meath, and visited Curragh Camp to use the turf to accelerate land distribution to the poor tenantry. Land was released in 'the Midlands' for development.

McNeill took offence at de Valera's response and against government advice, published his correspondence with de Valera. De Valera then formally advised King George V to dismiss the Governor General. The King arranged a special deal between both men, whereby McNeill would retire from his post a few weeks earlier than planned, with the resignation coinciding with the dates de Valera had suggested for the dismissal. On 25 April 1938, Aiken was too closely associated with the IRA to be allowed into the Anglo-Irish Agreement negotiations. Although the governor-generalship of the Irish Free State was controversial, the media and even anti-governor-generalship politicians in the opposition Labour Party publicly, and even members of de Valera's cabinet privately, criticised Aiken and O'Kelly for their treatment of McNeill, whom all sides saw as a decent and honourable man. Aiken refused to discuss the affair later in life. De Valera later made amends by appointing Mrs McNeill as an Irish ambassador.

Minister for the Coordination of Defensive Measures

Aiken was appointed to this post by de Valera at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Aiken gained notoriety in liberal Dublin circles for his overseeing of censorship. A trip to procure arms and supplies from America was ultimately unsuccessful, although Aiken did manage to secure two merchant ships. Aiken also oversaw the management of defence and recruitment to the Defence Forces. His clashes with R. M. Smyllie, editor of The Irish Times, ensured his censorious attitude was resented by many. Aiken, however, justified these measures, citing the 'terrible and all prevailing force of modern warfare'.[24] During the Emergency he was also put in charge of Government censorship. He remained a confirmed Anglo-phobe, thinking that Britain would lose the war in 1940, he refused to back McDonald's Plan for the Unification of Ireland. Yet according to De Valera he was "a dogged and inquisistive minister."

Minister for External Affairs

Wreath laying ceremony at Commodore John Barry Memorial. President Kennedy, Mayor of Wexford Thomas Burne, Minister of External Affairs of Ireland Frank Aiken, U. S. Ambassador to Ireland Matthew McCloskey, Naval Aide to the President Tazewell Shepard, others. Wexford, Ireland, Crescent Quay.

Aiken was Minister for Finance for three years following the war and was involved in economic post–war development, in the industrial, agricultural, educational and other spheres. However, it was his two periods as Minister for External Affairs, 1951-4, and 1957-69 that Aiken fulfilled his enormous political potential. As Foreign Minister he adopted where possible an independent stance for Ireland at the United Nations and other international forums such as the Council of Europe. Despite a great deal of opposition, both at home and abroad, he stubbornly asserted the right of smaller UN member countries to discuss the representation of communist China at the General Assembly. Unable to bring the issue of the partition of Ireland to the UN, because of Britain's veto on the Security Council and unwillingness of other Western nations to interfere in what they saw as British affairs at that time (the US taking a more ambiguous position), Aiken ensured that Ireland vigorously defended the rights of small nations such as Tibet and Hungary, nations whose problems he felt Ireland could identify with and had a moral obligation to help.

Aiken also supported the right of countries such as Algeria to self-determination and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa. Under Ireland's policy of promoting the primacy of international law and reducing global tension at the height of the Cold War, Aiken promoted the idea of areas of law, which he believed would free the most tense regions around the world from the threat of nuclear war.

The 'Aiken Plan' was introduced at the United Nations in an effort to combine disarmament and peace in the Middle East, Ireland a country being on good terms with both Israel and many Arab countries. In the UN the Irish delegation sat between Iraq and Israel and formed a kind of physical 'buffer' and in the days of Aiken (who as a minister spent a lot of time with the UN delegation) both the Italians (who on their turn sat in the vicinity of the Iraqi delegation), the Irish and the Israeli claimed to be the one and only UN delegation of New York, a city inhabited by many Irish, Jewish and Italians.

Aiken was also a champion of nuclear non-proliferation and he received the honour of being the first minister to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 at Moscow. Aiken's impact as Minister for External Affairs was such that he is sometimes seen as the father of Irish foreign policy. His performance was praised in particular by a later Minister for Foreign Affairs, Fine Gael's Garret FitzGerald.

Quit politics over Charles Haughey

Aiken retired from Ministerial office and as Tánaiste in 1969. During the Arms Crisis it is said that the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, turned to Aiken for advice on a number of issues. He retired from politics in 1973 due to the fact that Charles Haughey, whose style of politics Aiken strongly disliked, was allowed to run as a Fianna Fáil candidate in the 1973 general election. Initially he planned to announce the reason for his decision but under pressure finally agreed to announce that he was retiring on medical advice.[25]

Refused candidacy for the presidency of Ireland

After his retirement, outgoing President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera, sought to convince Aiken, one of his closest friends, to run for Fianna Fáil in the 1973 presidential election. However Aiken refused all requests to run and the party finally selected Erskine H. Childers to be its candidate. Childers won the election. In 1966, Aiken was appalled by the candidature of Charles Haughey, who was an open anti-partitionist. When Jack Lynch, the Taoiseach and friend, announced his retirement, and future rise owed to Haughey, Aiken refused to serve. Haughey was a shrewd, but corruptible campaigner: running a gang of 500 businessmen out of Gresham's Hotel, Dublin to raise funds for his cause. Haughey's support for the Provisional IRA's bombing war was eventually exposed as in defiance of Aiken's warnings and persistent advice.[26]

Clash with Ernest Blythe

Shortly before his death, former Cumann na nGaedheal minister Ernest Blythe accused Aiken of rudely snubbing him in public throughout his political career. He said that, because of his support for the Treaty and Aiken's opposition, Aiken would pointedly turn his back on him whenever they came into contact.

Aiken's continuing bitterness towards Blythe was in contrast with the cross-party friendship which had developed between their colleagues Seán MacEntee (anti-treaty) and Desmond FitzGerald (pro-treaty) who, after the divide, re-established relationships and ensured their children held no civil war bitterness. The great rivals Éamon de Valera and W. T. Cosgrave, after years of enmity, also became reconciled in the 1960s. However Aiken refused to reconcile with former friends who had taken sides in the Civil War.


Frank Aiken died on 18 May 1983 in Dublin from natural causes at the age of 85. He was buried with full State honours in his native Camlough, County Armagh, Northern Ireland.

Honours and memorials

Aiken received many decorations and honours, including honorary doctorates from the National University of Ireland and University College Dublin. He received the Grand Cross of St. Olav, the highest honour Norway can give to a foreigner, during a state visit to Norway in 1964.[27] He was also a lifelong supporter of the Irish language. His son, also named Frank, ran unsuccessfully in the 1987 and 1989 general elections for the Progressive Democrats. His wife died in a road accident in 1978.

Aiken Barracks, in Dundalk, County Louth, is named after Aiken and is the headquarters of the 27 Infantry Battalion.

The extensive property owned by Aiken in the Lamb's Cross area of County Dublin (lying between Sandyford and Stepaside) has been transformed into the housing estate called Aiken's Village.


  1. "Mr. Frank Aiken". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 15 January 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. W M. Lewis, "Frank Aiken and the Fourth Northern Division: A Personal and Provincial Experience of the Irish Revolution, 1916-1923", PhD thesis, Queen's University, Belfast 2011, 64-65.
  3. C Townshend, "The Republic: The Fight For Irish Independence" (London 2014), p.23.
  4. University College of Dublin Archive P104/1309, cited by Townshend in "The Republic", 32.
  5. C Townshend, "The Republic: The Fight For Irish Independence" (Penguin 2014), 457.
  6. Lawlor, S "Britain and Ireland 1914-23", (Dublin 1983), 122.
  7. Townshend, 320. from a Statement made Frank Aiken held in University College Dublin Archives P104/1308.
  8. Valiulis, M, "Portrait of a Revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the Founding of the Free State" (Dublin 1992), 105.
  9. Jim McDermott, "Northern Divisions: The Old IRA and the Belfast Pogroms 1910-22" (Belfast 2001), 151.
  10. Lewis, 'Frank Aiken', 132.
  11. "South Armagh History – The 4th Northern Division". Sinn Féin Cumann South Armagh. Retrieved 19 April 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. see Townshend "The Republic", pp.380, 431, for a discussion of what historians have argued.
  15. Hopkinson, "History of the War of Independence", p.170.
  16. Irish Dictionary of National Biography
  17. McGarry, Fearghal, "Eoin O'Duffy: A Self-Made Hero" (Oxford 2005), pp.107, 111.
  18. Florence O' Donoghue, "No Other Law" (Dublin, 1954, 1986), 305.
  19. Gartin et al., p.24.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 "The secret IRA–Soviet agreement, 1925". History Ireland. 8 February 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Frank Aiken". Retrieved 15 January 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Skinner, p.178; Horgan, p.67-8.
  23. J.J.Lee, p.176.
  24. Bryce Evans and Stephen Kelly, eds, Frank Aiken: Nationalist and Internationalist (Dublin, IAP, 2014)
  25. Bruce Arnold, Jack Lynch: Hero in Crisis (Merlin Publishing, 2001) p.173-175.
  27. "First Irish State Visit to Norway 1964". RTÉ Archives. Retrieved 5 April 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Kelly, Dr. S & Evans, B, (eds.) Frank Aiken: Nationalist and Internationalist (Irish Academic Press, 2014)
  • Bowman, J, De Valera and the Ulster Question 1917-1973 (Oxford 1982)
  • Campbell, Colm, Emergency Law in England 1918-1925 (Oxford 1994)
  • Cronin, S, The Ideology of the IRA (Ann Arbor 1972)
  • Hart, P, The IRA at war 1916-1923 (London 2003)
  • Henry, R.M, The Evolution of Sinn Fein (Dublin and London, 1920)
  • Hepburn, A.C, Catholic Belfast and Nationalist Ireland in the era of Joe Devlin 1871-1934 (Oxford 2008)
  • Hopkinson, Michael, The Irish War of Independence (Dublin and Montreal 2002).
  • Lee, John Joseph, and Dorgan, T )eds.), Revising the Rising(Derry 1991).
  • McCartan, Patrick, With de Valera in America (New York 1932)
  • McDermott, J, Northern Divisions: The Old IRA and the Belfast Pogroms, 1920-22 (Belfast 2001)
  • Phoenix, E, Northern Nationalism: Nationalist Politics, Partition and the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland 1890-1941 (Belfast 1994)
  • Skinnider, Margaret, Doing My Bit For Ireland (New York 1917).

External links

New constituency Teachta Dála for Louth
Succeeded by
Joseph Farrell
Political offices
Preceded by
Desmond FitzGerald
Minister for Defence
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Oscar Traynor
Preceded by
Joseph Connolly
Minister for Lands and Fisheries
Succeeded by
Gerald Boland
New office Minister for the Co-ordination of Defensive Measures
Succeeded by
Office abolished
Preceded by
Seán T. O'Kelly
Minister for Finance
Succeeded by
Patrick McGilligan
Preceded by
Seán MacBride
Minister for External Affairs
Succeeded by
Liam Cosgrave
Preceded by
James Dillon
Minister for Agriculture
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Seán Moylan
Preceded by
Liam Cosgrave
Minister for External Affairs
Succeeded by
Patrick Hillery
Preceded by
Seán Moylan
Minister for Agriculture
Nov. 1957
Succeeded by
Paddy Smith
Preceded by
Seán MacEntee
Succeeded by
Erskine H. Childers