News Analysis

Sunday 21 September 2014

Ulick O'Connor: A soldier and scholar hit by cruellest blow

The achievements of Eoin MacNeill were mighty, but the death of his son haunted him

Ulick O'Connor

Published 30/12/2012 | 05:00

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Eoin MacNeill, about whom his grandson Michael McDowell was quite revealing in an interview in this newspaper recently, was a close friend of my grandfather.

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As young civil servants, they used to go to the Aran Islands every summer with their children and spend a month there. Irish was the language of both their homes. My mother would refer to Eoin MacNeill as "uncle Eoin". As a boy in short pants, I would go with my parents to a beautiful mansion in the Phoenix Park where his son Niall used to give marvellous afternoon tea parties.

Eoin MacNeill was recognised to be one of the three greatest scholars in the Gaelic revival. Professor Francis John Byrne wrote of him: "To MacNeill belongs the credit of having dragged Celtic Ireland practically single-handed from the antiquarian myths into the light of history."

This world-famous scholar was the man who found himself Commander in Chief of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, charged with the duty of seeing that England fulfilled her promise of Home Rule for Ireland despite the presence of Carson's armed unionist army in the North which had opposed the break with England.

MacNeill's attitude in 1916 has often been misunderstood. Even though he was Commander in Chief of the Irish Volunteers, he had not been told about the Rising, and when he did learn about it, though at first he opposed it, he reluctantly agreed to proceed. When shortly afterwards the German captain bringing arms to the Volunteers scuttled his ship (as a result of appalling mishandling by the Kerry Volunteers), MacNeill withdrew his support and arranged for a cancellation notice to be despatched throughout the country.

Sentenced to life imprisonment after 1916, he was released in 1917 and resumed his work as a scholar. That his part during the War of Independence was recognised as a vital one is indicated by the fact that at the takeover of Dublin Castle from the British by the Irish Free State, Michael Collins and Eoin MacNeill were the two principal Irish representatives.

A few months later, the Civil War broke out and MacNeill was faced with a situation which could have come out of a Greek tragedy.

His favourite son Brian had joined the anti-Treaty forces who were opposed to the new Free State government in which his father was a minister. Brian was especially gifted, and his father had looked to him to carry on his own scholarly tradition.

In September 1922, Brian, in a conflict between the Free State forces and anti-Treaty forces, was shot dead at the foot of Benbulben mountain. It was the colossal blow for Eoin MacNeill, a tragedy which may have affected his judgement on two occasions over the next decade.

Two-and-a-half months later, MacNeill found himself confronted with an appalling situation. As a minister in the Cabinet, he was required to make a decision on whether or not four anti-Treaty prisoners (Rory O'Connor, Dick Barrett, Liam Mellows and Joe McKelvey), who had served on his side in the 1918-21 war against the English, should be executed.

It was made clear that none was involved in an event which had just taken place but they would be executed as a deterrent to others. This event was the shooting of Sean Hales, TD, in Capel Street by an anti-Treaty maverick.

MacNeill, with his acute mind, must have recognised that the prisoners, who were in jail at the time of the shooting, were innocent. That an ex-Commander in Chief of the Irish Volunteers should have seconded such a motion suggests that, taking his character record and political brilliance into account, he had not yet got over the effect of the death of his son.

This is borne out by the fact that when he served on the Boundary Commission in 1925, which was set up to decide the definition of border areas in Ulster, he resigned in what seems to have been a decision of a kind which 10 years before he might not have made.

Eoin MacNeill's achievements for Ireland were mighty. He was a vital and courageous figure in organising his countrymen to take their rightful place in the community of nations from which they had been excluded for 300 years. Professor Francis Byrne has summed up MacNeill in a splendid phrase with which we can best remember him: "He would never claim to have said the last word on a topic; it was his glory that he had to often say the first."

Sunday Independent

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