Book Review by Hugh Vaughan
Síobhra Aiken et al.: The Men Will Talk to Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the
Northern Divisions, Merrion Press, Dublin, 2018
The British patrol had driven up and down the road where he had been assigned to shoot an informer. He had collected the gun but was very thankful that he didn’t have to carry out his assignment.
I lay deep in the grass sweating. I could smell their cigarette smoke, hear their British accents, laughing and even see their boots. Thankfully they moved on. Somebody must have informed. Thank God, I didn’t have to kill. I put the gun, wrapped in a rag, back in the safe place, under the bridge, near Murlog chapel.
This was a man who enjoyed telling stories to us youngsters, my cousin Philsy, and me. His bald head hidden under his crease-worn hat. Small craggy face, tiny soft eyes and soiled overalls, his wire-haired terrier always by his side. Cozy and warm, we sat on boxes covered in potato sacks in the smoke-filled backyard shed used for smoking bacon, for his son Billy, a butcher. He was ‘Baldy Daddy’, the impolite name we gave to my mother’s father.
The famed Irish republican revolutionary, Ernie O’Malley interviewed and recorded men like my grandfather during the 1940s and 1950s. The book, The Men Will Talk to Me is an insightful and often brutal reflection on the horror of the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War. I had heard of him, but knew little, nor that he had written a literary masterpiece. The more I researched this dashing figure, the more I was drawn away from the interviewees and to the author himself.
O’Malley was born in County Mayo of middle-class stock who became a handsome freedom-fighter, an intellectual, committed Republican, mixing with Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera. His health was damaged by a brutal British interrogation – he found his interrogators and executed them. He survived 12 bullets, went on hunger-strike, and was contemptuous of those who accepted the 1921 Treaty. Such was the nerve of the man, he walked into Dublin Castle in an army uniform and received a revolver, explaining, he needed one for his own protection as there were too many rebels about.
After being imprisoned by the new Free State for his anti-Treaty sentiments, his post-revolutionary life took on a bohemian flavour. He mixed with a wide range of artistic and literary figures, travelling extensively in Europe and America, including Taos, New Mexico, meeting D H Lawrence, amongst other literary greats. His friends included Samuel Beckett, Louis MacNeice, John Wayne and John Ford. His memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, was published in 1936, with much rewriting, seen by many as a masterpiece of 20th-century Irish literature.
Cillian Murphy’s character in the film, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, is based on Ernie O’Malley and covers both wars. In a documentary by Irish broadcaster TnaG, his memoirs and life are explored.
The Irish government’s Bureau of Military History also documented this period and O’Malley’s interviews could be seen as a counter-archive to the government’s efforts, highlighting the revolutionary activities of primarily anti-Treaty Volunteers.
An example from this book douments a senior Commander Daly and his band of 100 anti-Treaty men take refuge in Donegal, in Glenveagh Castle. After being ousted they went on the run, reduced to thirty men, fed by locals from both sides, despite their crippling poverty. A simple mistake, he didn’t post a lookout which then led to his arrest and execution. A series of letters demonstrates the growing divisions of the Civil War.
In a similar vein, as O’Malley’s daring, an interviewee tells of an IRA man, Malone from Clare, who was captured by the British and made to watch while his home burn. The officer in charge was Irish and took him to the barracks to write farewell notes, presumably prior to execution. A change of guard allowed the IRA man to declare to the new guard, ‘I came in here to see (naming the soldier) and he has kept me waiting hours.’ He walked straight out of the barracks.
The Northern Divisions were not wholly supported by the nationalist population. The promised support from Dublin to fight against partition did not materialise and with tens of thousands of the Ulster Volunteer Force mobilized, financed and equipped by the British, their chances were limited. The pogroms against the Catholics in the 1920s in the eastern part of NI were used to persuade the British to support the UVF or else it would get worse. One Loyalist lamented that the Catholic house fires spread to many of their supporters too. It is these bloody and brutal testimonies of the Civil War that stun. Fellow comrades are summarily executed as reprisals, men tied to a land mine (one survived).
Personal testimonies, like oral history and folklore generally, have far greater interpretive possibilities than is often recognised. Witness statements are uniquely versatile sources that impart an enormous amount of new detail about the events of the revolutionary period of 1913-1923 and also reflect the concerns, attitudes and mentalities at work when the witnesses were interviewed in the 1940s and 1950s.
Bureau witnesses were ordinary, fallible human beings who lost friends and family members to the conflict, and who had themselves taken part in extraordinary, and often highly traumatic, events. It was not always easy for them to remember, for all sorts of reasons, and sometimes it was painful. Their recollections play a key role in making Irish revolutionary studies an exceptionally rich field of research.
These oral histories detail the ordinary activist, providing insights to their lived experience. Here you meet those from working-class backgrounds who – in contrast to the revolutionary élite – rarely recorded their thoughts in letters, diaries or memoirs.
In the London Review of Books, historian and academic Roy Foster, reviewing Ernie O’Malley: IRA Intellectual by Richard English, writes,
W.B. Yeats liked to think (and write) that the insurrection of Easter 1916 was ignited by a generation of cultural revolutionaries; and it did indeed bear – in retrospect at least – some resemblance to a revolution of the intellectuals. But the towering figures among Irish writers during the long upheaval from the Fin de Siècle to the Thirties lived aside from the world of the insurrectionists. The latter were rarely writers and the books they produced are undistinguished. Tom Barry’s Guerrilla Days in Ireland and Dan Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom have their charms, but there was no Herzen or Trotsky capable of distilling the Irish revolutionary mentality and experience into a classic memoir: except for Ernie O’Malley … On Another Man’s Wound is one of the masterpieces of 20th-century Irish literature; and what Richard English calls ‘the enraptured style of politics’ is central to any proper understanding of Irish Republicanism.
After On Another Man’s Wound was re-released in 2013, the reviewer in The Irish Echo (Australia) wrote
… what the book provides is a visceral feel for what it meant to be at the centre of the events in those years, the sufferings of the ordinary people, their generosity to the fighters, the mindless vandalism of some elements of the occupying forces. It is written without bitterness or rancour, the work of a thoughtful person, far removed from the other first person accounts from those years … He describes human beings in an unusual situation, not the heroes that they sometimes thought themselves to be. He, with his middle class Dublin accent and upbringing was required to get them all to pull in the same direction.
Merrion Press have published selections of his 500 interviews from Kerry, Galway, Mayo and now the Northern interviews. His son, Cormac O’Malley is the series editor and has produced a treasure trove of mostly the rank and file combatants. Filled with annotations about people and events, it guides the reader through this momentous period of Irish history.
This is for the careful reader who wants to get close to the action.
Hugh McMahon Vaughan was born in Strabane, and raised in Derry, Northern Ireland, and currently lives in Melbourne, lecturing in Information Systems. He has written two books: A Bump on the Road and Cillefoyle Park, both creative memoirs, focusing on living in the North West of Ireland during the Troubles. Hughmvaughan.com