Ernie O’Malley: A Life Harry F Martin with Cormac KH O’Malley Merrion Press, €18.95
When Ernie O’Malley died in 1957, aged 59, Éamon de Valera’s government accorded him a State Funeral.
It was a tribute to his heroic role in the War of Independence and the Civil War. He was a leader among “the Legion of the Rearguard” – de Valera’s phrase for republicans who backed him in opposing the Treaty.
O’Malley told his story of these years in two volumes of memoirs, the first of which, entitled On Another Man’s Wound, published in 1936, was of sufficient merit as literature for WB Yeats to admit him to the Irish Academy of Letters.
A successful libel action by a fellow activist, who felt aggrieved by a reference to him, discouraged O’Malley from publishing a second volume covering the Civil War, The Singing Flame. It only appeared 20 years after his death.
What is new in this book, written by Irish-American Harry Martin in collaboration with O’Malley’s son Cormac, is its account of O’Malley’s unsettled but not unfruitful later life.
Having failed to complete his medical studies, which he had abandoned to become a revolutionary, O’Malley travelled in Europe and then migrated to the United States. He raised funds to enable de Valera to start the Irish Press newspaper to support the new Fianna Fáil party.
That ended O’Malley’s political involvement. “My soul lies with the arts,” he said in 1929. “In them lies happiness. I hope to be able to restore Ireland’s interest in them.” He mixed with Bohemian writers and artists in the south-west United States, started on his own memoir and wrote poetry.
Then, having moved to New York, he met Helen Hooker, the sculptress daughter of a wealthy WASP family – her ancestor had founded Connecticut. She fell for him when he berated her domineering father for America’s treatment of Native Americans.
They married in 1935 and settled in Dublin. A son was born. They rubbed shoulders with congenial souls from the theatrical and artistic world. Helen sculpted heads; Ernie wrote and lectured on works of art. They led the way in promoting Jack Yeats and collecting his work. Evie Hone was a close friend and the young Louis le Brocquy became a protégée.
With Helen’s money they acquired a second home in the ancient O’Malley territory of Mayo, where Ernie had spent the first nine years of his life, before his father got a civil service post in Dublin and moved his family of 10 to live in Glasnevin.
Initially, Ernie and Helen enjoyed life in Mayo, mixing farming with their other interests, and braving violent threats from locals when they bought more land. A daughter and second son were born. “I could not be more happy,” Helen wrote home.
The bliss did not last. O’Malley, by his own admission, had little experience of women; he was the kind of man who proved his masculinity by bravery amounting to bravado.
The trouble started with Ernie reading in bed at night. Helen retreated to a separate room and then began to wander when she was not welcomed back.
“Perhaps you need to be alone the rest of your life,” she wrote in 1946. “I have had to spend much of my life with you alone without companionship of heart or act.” The uncompromising streak in Ernie did not help.
It all reached a crescendo in 1950 when Helen “kidnapped” their elder son and daughter, who were at Irish college in Ring, and took them by private plane to her homeland. There was litigation, and later financial issues.
O’Malley was left to bring up the seven-year-old Cormac alone, sending him eventually to the English public school Ampleforth – an unusual if revealing choice for a son of one of the Legion of the Rearguard.
The picture that emerges of a lonely father struggling to rear a precious son on his own is sad. Friends helped; Ernie was always fortunate in the loyalty he inspired.
He went on with his writing, contributing to The Bell magazine and broadcasting on Radio Éireann. He rekindled memories of his glory days, which had left him with lifelong wounds, collecting accounts from old comrades and others of days when they had fought together.
John Ford, an Irish-American soulmate, recruited him to assist in the filming in the West of The Quiet Man and The Rising of the Moon.
Cormac, the sole beneficiary under his father’s will, returned with his mother to the US after his father’s death, went to Harvard and practised as a corporate lawyer in New York. He never lost interest in Ireland and remained devoted to his father’s memory.
He has been tireless in tracing information and has edited several collections of his father’s papers. This book carries on the good work, bringing together the pick of this material in a readable volume, also containing evocative photographs.