| 15°C Dublin

Noble agitator and natural leader

Peadar O'Donnell by Peter Hegarty. Mercier Press; £12.99. There was a natural nobility about Peadar O'Donnell, says TONY O'REILLY of the man who wrought many changes in Irish politics

PEADAR O'Donnell was almost in loco parentis to me in the summers of the late 1940s. Let me explain. Although he and Lile had no natural children, they adopted the son of his dead brother Joe, Peadar Joe, and reared him with loving care at 174 Drumcondra Road.

Peadar Joe was in our rugby team at Belvedere and was an outstanding athlete in his youth. It seemed appropriate, he being from Drumcondra, and I from Griffith Avenue, that we should enjoin ourselves against the enemy. In the summers of 48, 49 and 50, I spent over two months each year at the O'Donnell house at Meenmore, between Burtonport and Dungloe.

There was a natural nobility about Peadar O'Donnell, which to a young boy defied analysis. He contrived a hint of humour about everything he said, but you knew that at times it masked the deep feelings and moral fervour of a man who believed that in every way, we were as good if no better than anyone else in the world. In a curious way he imbued me with those beliefs at an early stage, and as life unfolded itself unevenly in its endless tide towards an inevitable end, I have oft times been sustained by his sense of being Irish and being proud of it. Peter Hegarty's book is, in that sense, a historic book.

Peadar had the unusual conjunction of longevity, education, indignation, wit, and financial security. It is a combination that allows one to do many things some good, some bad. He chose the former. And the fires lit in his youth by the parlous condition of the migrant potato workers, and the hungry and homeless of Donegal, gave steel to his determination to effect change.

Looking back, the path he chose was perhaps the only one available to someone in isolated Donegal that of an agitator. As a teacher on Arranmore Island, whose topography dominates the Rosses, Peadar saw his task as that of organiser and agitator. He was a natural, if not particularly efficient, leader of the IRA in a staccato struggle during the troubles of 1921. His real effectiveness came into focus after the Civil War commenced with the shelling of the Four Courts in June 1922. Opting for the republican side, he was imprisoned in Mountjoy Prison, and indeed escaped from the Curragh in 1924. During his period in Mountjoy, the rather porous incarceration system allowed letters in abundance to flow throughout the prison, and despite his eloquence and exhortation, the inexorable tide of Free State victories diminished republican fervour and led to the laying down of arms in 1924. It did not, however, deflect his dedication to republicanism and to socialism.

HE married Lile in the same year, and thus began a 45-year idyll in which they were their own greatest supporters. They ran a ``salon'' in Drumcondra Road in which Lile's wealth and energy, and Peadar's eloquence, were the catalysts to as diverse a debate and audience as you could get anywhere in Ireland.

He participated in a somewhat ineffectual IRA during the Thirties, but resigned with his friend George Gilmore in March 1934. Despite his difficult reputation, he maintained excellent relations with Eamon de Valera and indeed personally, as Hegarty can testify, with members of the hierarchy. Nonetheless his conduct and his agitation, much of it tongue-in-cheek, was the stuff on which reputations are made. He became, as he said, ``Stalin's friend'' indicating that he was receiving almost daily communiqués from the Kremlin. He referred to Stalin as ``Uncle Joe'', though always with a twinkle in his eye. There is, however, no record of his ever actually being in Russia.

In 1936, he was on holiday in Spain and became involved in the Civil War there on the republican side. Although no Hemingway, his book Salud gave a graphic account of a brutal war and served to recruit many Irishmen for the International Brigade.

Perhaps his most important work was in giving space and opportunity to writers against a military censorship which imprisoned Ireland in the period 1940-45 with the creation, funding, and later editorship, of The Bell. I have in my possession every single copy of The Bell, from the day it was produced to the day it ceased publication in 1954. It is an elegant reminder of the encouragement that he gave a multitude of writers to express themselves and their quite contrary opinions, at a time when Frank Aiken, then censor-in-chief, caused newspapers to be bland and silent.

Writers such as Patrick Kavanagh, Valentine Iremonger, Brian O'Nolan (Myles na gCopaleen), Bryan MacMahon, Monk Gibbon, James Plunkett, Anthony Cronin and Honor Tracy wrote regularly and on short commons. But they gave a vigour, a life, and a vitality to an Ireland that was slowly becoming aware of itself and of the opportunities which in this generation, we are at last realising.

Sean O'Faolain was its first editor, and Peadar its last and somewhat erratic one. Anthony Cronin, who happily is still writing, and indeed went racing with us in Deauville last summer, was a long-suffering deputy editor and despaired of both his editor and Ireland. In The Young Writer, published in September 1951, Cronin described the atmosphere in Ireland at that time as ``unfavourable to life of any kind. Any method of escape would have been justified.'' His lampoon of O'Donnell, The Life of Riley, caricatured as the editor Prunshios MacGonaghy, described him as ``the jargon-spouting Northern Marxist''. Prunshios MacGonaghy was evidently O'Donnell a caricature that he apparently took in good part and a measure of the man.

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

Time has lent some enchantment to a more benign view of O'Donnell. But in the context of the times, The Bell stood alone and supreme as the one journal in which great, good and original writing could find a home.

For this, we are all in the debt of O'Faolain, Cronin, the unsinkable Honor Tracy, and a host of other fine writers and poets.

FOR me, Peadar decoded the painting of Jack B Yeats as he explained to me patiently, as a 10-year-old, the meaning of a painting called ``The New Road''. ''If I drew a horse like that at school, they'd have beaten me - but Yeats has seen the Garden of Eden and it's really quite beautiful,'' he said, and suddenly I understood.

His communism always struck me as of the verbal kind. There was a joke in Drumcondra where a taxi driver, on being asked about Peadar's Marxism, said, ``With Peadar, where there's smoke there's salmon.''

When you look back on his life, now seven years beyond a century, the things that will stand out are his successful crusade on the land annuity struggle with Father Hayes of Galway, and Colonel Moore one of the famous Moores of Moore Hall, and a brother of George Moore, the writer which led to the economic war with England, and indeed partially to de Valera's accession to power in 1932.

We will also reflect on his work as a union organiser and as a fearless yet fruitless espouser of the Republican Socialist cause.

But The Bell will remain the monument that people remember him by. He gave space where none existed; he was a patron, in the Italian sense of the word, expecting no return in monetary terms and his generosity cloaked by his articulate but essentially ersatz communism.

One goes through life and meets a wide range of people there are some you are glad to have met, others not so. Peadar is a man I am glad to have met, learned from, and observed.

He had the natural aristocracy of his race, and he never let anyone forget it.

Peter Hegarty's book has done a fine service to a man who never aspired to political greatness, but whose influence and impact will extend well beyond the 20th century.

Most Watched