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Wednesday 24 April 2019

Historian Donal's book casts new light on Louth's untold story

Donal Hall launched his new book on Louth and The Irish Revolution 1912-23 last week
Donal Hall launched his new book on Louth and The Irish Revolution 1912-23 last week

Margaret Roddy

Oscar Wilde famously said 'The problem is the English can't remember history, while the Irish can't forget it'.

And while we mightn't forget it, parts of our history have been shrouded in silence - a silence born out of the painful period leading up to foundation of the State.

Now, local historian and author Donal Hall has pushed open the curtains to reveal what happened in our county in the early years of the 20th century.

Donal grew up listening to stories about Irish history. Both his parents were interested in history and spoke of events which happened when they were children.

'I was very aware of what had happened and listening to then talking, it was like it happened yesterday,' he says. His father was from St Patrick's Terrace, also known as Happy Valley, while his mother was from around the corner in Seatown.

'My father's family were Republicans and were involved in the War of Independence while my mother's family had been in the British army and were out fighting in France at the time of the Rebellion,' he recalls.

This gave him a personal insight into the complexity of Irish history and it evident in his latest book 'Louth: The Irish Revolution 1912-23,' which has just been published by Four Court Press.

A proud Louth man, Donal was conscious that the county's story hadn't been told when it came to that defining period of Irish history.

Most accounts of the period concentrate on what happened in Dublin, Cork, Kerry, Limerick and other places whose names are remembered in story and song. Louth, if it gets a mention, is just a footnote.

Donal's passion for local history spurred him to return to education when in 1995 his wife Tricia spotted an advertisement for a part time humanities degree which included a history specialisation. This led to him eventually attaining his doctorate in history and to writing a number of highly regarded books.

'Professor Terry Dooley was my supervisor when I was doing my Masters at NUI Maynooth. He's from Kilanney, Co Monaghan so he is familiar with this area.' He also worked with Martin Maguire of DkIT when he was doing his Ph.D.

Having initially researched the period of the First World War and particularly the fate of the Louth soldiers who lost their lives in battle, he explains that it was a sense of curiosity which propelled him to carry on researching those years which shaped Irish history.

He wanted to tell the story from all sides, from those who believed in Home Rule and enlisted in the British Army in the First World War to those who joined the Rising and later fought in the War of Independence, to the bitter Civil War which divided families, communities and former comrades in arms.

'I was always very interested in both sides of the story and never felt any bias one way or the other,' he says.

Nothing has ever been written about that period in Louth, he says. 'In the general history books, Louth didn't get a look in.'

'All I ever heard were stories. The object of my research was to find out what happened.'

For over twenty years, Donal has dedicated his life to that task, and since his retirement, he was able to devote more time to visiting archives, pouring over old newspaper reports and contacting families whose ancestors were involved in the events of that era. He has been rigorous in his research as illustrated by the long list of sources listed in the book.

Thus, he was well positioned to accept a commission from series editors Mary Ann Lyons and Daithi O Corrain to write the Louth volume for the Four Courts Press series of books for the Decade of Centenaries.

'I started work on this book three years ago but I had most of the research done,' he says. 'Mostly the last three years were spent writing and editing and editing and editing. The biggest problem was I only had 80,000 words to tells the story,'

The story he tells is a fascinating one which sets the headline acts of the 1916 Revolution, War of Independence and Civil War into the context of the period.

He explains that when he began researching a book on the war dead of Co Louth, he was struck by the fact that local newspapers were reporting on both the Great War and the case for Home Rule, or,after 1916, the rise of militant republicanism.

'It occurred to me that I couldn't understand the motivations of those who enlisted in WW1, without an appreciation of the political background at home, neither could I understand the revolution without understanding the context of the World War.'

The book examines the social and economic conditions which were influential in determining the course of history. It is also full of human stories, and Donal doesn't hesitate in detailing the sacrifices made by many during that brutal and bitter time.

Arguing that we must not allow ourselves to become 'hostages of history', Donal is conscious that the commemorations for the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War are going to be difficult as they have the potential to re-open old wounds.

'Over the next four years we in this county and in this country are going to examine painful events that occurred a century ago. The commemoration must be compassionate but it must also be all-encompassing,' he commented at the launch of the book in An Táin Arts Centre last week.

An adoring grandfather, he had dedicated the book to his grandchildren. 'Seeing the world through their young adult eyes over the years has at times imbued me with a feeling of sadness that a century ago, so many fine young people died needlessly because old men, mostly, could not agree, and are still dying today all around the world for the same reason,' he said.

'Louth: The Irish Revolution 1912-23' in available in Roe River Books, Park Street.

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