Book Review: Peadar O’Donnell by Donal Ó’Drisceoil


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Radical Irish Lives: Peadar O’Donnell by Donal Ó’Drisceoil – Cork University Press

The recent reportage of the teachers’ unions conferences would have delighted Peadar O’Donnell, who began his career as an activist in the INTO. The general tenor of the media response was ‘how dare these people object to having their pay slashed and conditions of work and contracts interfered with unilaterally’. ‘The teacher conference season has exposed deep and fundamental divisions among the unions.’ was the Irish Times take, reporting that two out of the three unions had rejected the public service pay deal and that a third had narrowly squeaked past rejection by four votes. So much for ‘deep divisions’. O’Donnell, as a trade union activist, and later as editor of The Bell, would have seen it all as typical of a press that is fatally prejudiced against workers.

Peadar O’Donnell was born on a five-acre farm in The Rosses of Donegal in 1893. This in itself would seem to be a remarkable and unlikely beginning for a left-wing radical. That he should begin his working life as a National School teacher in 1913 made it even more unlikely, schoolteachers in those days, if not today, being under so much pressure to conform.

Nevertheless, he would quickly move into full-time organisation on behalf of the ITGU and one of his first successes was the occupation of Monaghan Asylum in 1919. The occupation was, in fact, the first action in Ireland to describe itself as a soviet and the red flag was raised above it. The occupation occurred after talks with the Asylum Committee had broken down on the issue of equal pay increases for men and women. The workers occupied the premises and ran it successfully, electing O’Donnell as governor, and in the end, the Asylum Committee met all their demands. This tendency to adopt radical practical approaches to political problems stayed with O’Donnell. He borrowed his tactics promiscuously – from anarcho-syndicalists, communists, republicans and even, on occasion, from bourgeois politics. The aim of such actions, besides the immediate effect of solving a particular local problem, was always politicisation. He was conscious that involvement in direct action helped to change how people analysed their problems, it radicalised them and shifted their focus from the personal to the communal and social.

Thus began a remarkable and long career of labour and left-wing activism that saw him fight in as an active flying column commandant in the War of Independence, take the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, be elected to the first Dáil, edit An Phoblacht and later The Bell, help start the agitation against the Land Annuities, and be a founder member of the Republican Congress. A committed Marxist, he worked tirelessly for land redistribution, a cause close to the heart of the Rosses man whose family subsisted on five acres of land and tatie-hoking in Scotland. Until the late forties he was at the heart of the radical left in Ireland and saw it wax and wane, be devastated by the Spanish Civil War and eventually crumble in the face of the new Troubles.

Although he fought in the IRA, he was always conscious of the bourgeois nature of it’s leadership and cadres and believed from the outset that the political class that was developing around Dáil Éireann would sell out the labour movement in favour of a bourgeois peace with the empire. That was his analysis of the Treaty, when it came, and his reasons for opposing it were founded in a Marxist critique rather than the objections to the Oath of Allegiance, which motivated many others. The middle-class anti-labour government that emerged in the Free State confirmed him in his opinion.  He wrongly believed, however, that it was possible to organise the farm labourer, small farmer and the industrial worker around common injustices and that such a group could become a powerful political force in Ireland. Despite occasional episodes of solidarity no such lasting movement was to develop. This was, probably, his life’s ambition. When, in his latter years, it became clear that such a popular front was impossible, he withdrew into his other life – that of a writer – without ever fully abandoning his cause.

He was a key figure in the attempt to get the IRA, diminished by the Civil War and by the founding of Fianna Fáil, to adopt a socialist programme and plan of action. Again here he was frustrated by the leadership which was sympathetic but believed the struggle for complete independence should come first and the social struggle later. In fact, they believed that the success of the national struggle would bring them to power and allow them to impose social change. This messianic certainty dominated the IRA’s thinking until at least the late sixties. And anyway the IRA became an increasingly hostile environment for a socialist activist, to the point where it made a determined effort to destroy O’Donnell’s brainchild, The Republican Congress.

This short-lived attempt at unity and solidarity in the left has much to teach us for our present circumstances. O’ Donnell’s dream was that the left parties and movements would put aside factional differences and dreams of becoming the next government but one, and concentrate on what they had in common. The history of the left in Ireland is little known outside specialist circles, but a glance at this section of the book will show that it was alive and well and considered a very serious threat indeed by both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (which was founded during the period in question). Hunger marches, rent strikes, anti-eviction actions, squatting, resistance to cattle seizures and land evictions, protest meetings attended by as many as 10,000 people at a time, street clashes with the Blueshirts – this was the atmosphere of the time. Ireland, like the rest of Europe was in a ferment of possibilities and social constructs were fluid enough to allow radicals to imagine a different future to the Catholic-confessional petit bourgeois statelet that had been installed by the Treaty. There was a substantial socialist element in the IRA and, particularly, in Cumann na mBan; a communist party; a radical tendency in the Trades Union Congress; numerous ad hoc resistance groups that developed out of the slum problems, tenant leagues, unemployment and small farmer action against the land annuities; and a variety of smaller parties, factions and tendencies, as well as the Labour Party. The latter was viewed with suspicion by the radical left because of various positions it had adopted over the years, beginning with the decision not to contest the 1918 General Election, but to cede the ground to Sinn Féin. But for a brief period in 1934, it seemed as if these disparate groups could make common cause against a Fianna Fáil intent on serving the interests of big farmers and rent-earning landlords. That unity was so brief was not the fault of O’Donnell whose Marxism was eclectic and broad enough for him to embrace with affection even the Anarchists of Catalonia. That factional interests won over solidarity should be a warning to us all, in the light of recent calls for a unified left front to fight FF and FG in the next election, but equally the history of this moment can be an inspiration for those who are intent not on power, but on resisting the hegemony of the jobbing politician, the banker and the developer in this auctioneer’s republic of ours.

One aspect of the activism of the period that might be of particular and local interest now, was the agitation over rental property and evictions which led to the Tenant League forcibly retaking property on behalf of homeless families. Now that we’re talking about bulldozing ghost estates, maybe the time has come to install homeless families in some of these ‘desirable residences’ instead of allowing them to stand idle, or be recycled so the developers can build on them again at some future stage.

O’Donnell found himself on holiday in Spain in 1936, in search of a quiet place to finish a novel when the Franco rebellion began. Famously, he had made attempts to make contact with the Communist Party in Barcelona only to discover that the left in the city was almost entirely anarchist and the communists a tiny hole-in-the-corner operation. When the war broke out he was astonished to see the anarchists not only defeat the fascists in that part of Spain, but set about transforming their city in a methodical and orderly fashion into a model of equality and fraternity, organise their principal industries so as to be effective in feeding the citizenry and arming the resistance to fascism, and ultimately fight very effectively. He fell in love with anarchism without ever abandoning his deeply felt commitment to Marxism and would eventually return to Ireland to write Salud!, his own Homage to Catalonia, in the hope of correcting the infantile but effective propaganda of nun-rape and church-burning that had been whipped up by a church hell-bent on fascism Spanish-style.

O’Donnell was, as well as all these things, an interesting and successful novelist. Liam O’Flaherty, a fellow communist, had advised him about a publisher and he had a long and continuing relationship with Jonathan Cape. Most of his novels reflected his political analysis of Irish society, but no more so than the writings of his contemporaries reflected, by their silence or otherwise, their own political stance. Politics is always archived in a text, whether it is a deliberate part of the scheme of the book or simply part of the mental architecture that produced it – this despite the fact that writers often claim their work is apolitical. O’Donnell’s work arose out of his personal and political engagements – that the stuff of his life was political is at least part of the explanation for the political structure of the relationships in books such as Islanders, Adrigoole, On the Edge of The Stream and possibly his best book The Big Windows.

There are many fascinating insights here into the wellsprings of O’Donnell’s inspiration, as well as, for example, his editing methods (avoidance) at The Bell where he encouraged the young Brendan Behan and James Plunkett, and where he published Patrick Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn in the correct belief that the censors ‘would never dare ban a thing I was responsible for.’ He was a great encourager of writers, something always to be valued in an editor. There is an account of his good, if occasionally combative, personal relationship with O’Faoláin, as well as a neat and accurate description of Anthony Cronin, whom O’Donnell tried to help and who, in return, would write savage caricatures of him in The Life Of Riley and Dead as Doornails. Ó’Drisceoil describes him as ‘representative of the kind of cynicism and individualism that O’Donnell wanted challenged.’ Cronin would later become a sort of cultural commissar to Charlie Haughey and help establish Aosdána, the entirely apolitical nature of which would strike O’Donnell as political in the extreme. O’Faoláin always claimed that it was O’Donnell who started The Bell, while O’Donnell responded that it was ‘Sean O’Faoláin’s creation’. Such mutual generosity is rare among writers and editors. Whoever the founder was, The Bell was a remarkable achievement, a breath of fresh air in the isolationist Ireland of the 1940s.

To continue to document the life and engagement of this remarkable man would take something almost as long as the book itself and would do a disservice to the detail that O’Drisceoil marshals with such scholarly ease. An elegantly written piece of history, it is a marvellous introduction to the forgotten narrative of left-wing agitation in the first half of the twentieth century, and a service to the memory of a man of whom the author rightly says, ‘everyone has his own Peadar O’Donnell.’ Nowhere does he burden the reader, despite the plethora of acronyms describing political organisations whose very existence has been forgotten for fifty or more years. This is a highly readable and consistently interesting account by a man who understands the left as well as the history. But in summary, let me simply quote the author’s own final assessment of the man:

‘The failure of his overall socialist republican project to achieve its aims should not blind us to O’Donnells many real achievements, most of which cannot be measured by conventional, state-centred criteria of political success. His trade union work, his campaigns on behalf of emigrants and small farmers, his involvement in the battle against the slums – all of these led to real and fundamental improvements in the lot of many ordinary people. His private generosity benefited many; his encouragement and ability to empower and inspire transformed the lives of countless writers and activists; and it is impossible to know how many people were influenced by his journalism and literature to view the world in a different way.’

William Wall is the author four novels, the most recent of which, This Is The Country (2005), has been described as a ‘broad attack on the Celtic Tiger’. He has also published poetry and short stories.

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William Wall is the author four novels, the most recent of which, This Is The Country (2005), has been described as a 'broad attack on the Celtic Tiger'. He has also published poetry and short stories.

10 Responses

  1. Pope Epopt

    April 29, 2010 8:41 am

    Thank you for the long review William.

    I had heard of the man and had a vague idea of what he stood for but no more than that (mea maxima culpa). I had no idea of the breadth of his activity – a real left innovator and dog knows we need more of them.

    Definitely a book on my wish list.

  2. 1

    April 29, 2010 12:35 pm

    Good review.

    “Peadar O’Donnell was born on a five-acre farm in The Rosses of Donegal in 1893. This in itself would seem to be a remarkable and unlikely beginning for a left-wing radical”

    It would be remarkable that anyone would think such a beginning would lead elsewhere.

  3. William Wall

    April 29, 2010 3:22 pm

    Actually I come from small farming stock myself, and I can tell you the number of left-wing radicals from that constituency is small. Name me another half dozen and I’ll change my mind.

  4. 1

    April 29, 2010 3:54 pm

    well myself would be another one. so thats two of us.

    I guess my point is that its a constituency that I think we left wingers have failed to connect with. Even as today most left wing parties dont target rural constituencies. I believe its a problem of the left’s making as much as any inherent small-farmer conservativism which I think the left tends towards mistakenly believes is true of all farmers – latifundia or 40 acres. As o’Broin noted in his book even Connolly failed to recognise that a message tailored to industrial workers was not going to reasonate with rural ireland. However in true left fashion we have insisted on keepin on with the old style and when we have no rural vote we assume that its simply because rural Ireland is a right wing fiefdom.

    Its one of the biggest assumptions/dogmas the left has taken as gospel and should be scrapped, and could be scrapped with little effort bu the left.

    I regret that it will not be done full stop by most left winger parties

  5. Conor McCabe

    April 29, 2010 5:50 pm

    “I guess my point is that its a constituency that I think we left wingers have failed to connect with. Even as today most left wing parties dont target rural constituencies.”

    I know a lot of the Left don’t see the Irish Labour Party as left, or as ever having been left, but its power-base since 1922 has been rural Ireland and not the cities. The urban working class tended to vote fianna Fail, not labour. (Mind you, the rural working class did as well.) But still, it’s a fallacy to argue that the left in Ireland ignored rural Ireland, unless you are saying that Labour never was a left party to begin with.

    I haven’t read O’Broin’s book but if the point is that Connolly ignored rural Ireland so his contemporaries in the Irish left ignored rural Ireland, that also is wrong, as any reading of the history of the ITGWU from 1917 to 1924 will tell you.

    Great review, by the way.

  6. William Wall

    April 30, 2010 5:14 am

    This is an excellent observation. But I think rural Ireland shares many of the national concerns that urban Ireland has – more so now than in the past. Labour has always had a strong following among farm labourers and rural industrial workers and now also has a following among other groups. The main lesson that could be learned from O’Donnell’s life, if we can learn anything from the past, is that what’s needed now is mutual respect for our different analyses, a common front. If the left is to succeed in changing the discourse here it needs to be able to put aside theoretical differences and histories in favour of a long term project to make people see that their interests don’t lie with enriching the Right and its friends

  7. gh

    May 1, 2010 5:45 pm

    “If the left is to succeed in changing the discourse here it needs to be able to put aside theoretical differences and histories”

    a first for everything a chara

  8. Ciarán

    May 2, 2010 12:40 am

    [Peadar] believed from the outset that the political class that was developing around Dáil Éireann would sell out the labour movement in favour of a bourgeois peace with the empire

    It should also be pointed out that he was just as critical of the trade union leadership that turned its back on the national struggle. He often spoke of the empty chair left by Connolly for the labour movement at the head of the struggle that was never taken up.

  9. William Wall

    May 2, 2010 6:14 am

    Peadar saw very quickly that the trade union leadership was interested in membership numbers and negotiation but not in politicisation or even, sometimes, in solidarity with other unions. He saw strikes and other actions as a way of making visible the political structure that kept people in their place. Very often during his lifetime the leadership distanced itself from his radicalism. That there was also a radical element among the trades union should also be noted, however. And as often, the membership was well-ahead of the leadership.
    This is a point I should have covered in my review as it’s directly relevant to the present situation where the union leadership in the public service, for example, feels itself in a position to negotiate almost anything for the sake of peace and quiet, but the membership and delegates take a much more adversarial stand. Peadar O’Donnell would have written cogently and bitingly on the comfort zone issues of trade union leaders, and to express his solidarity with the more radical tendencies.