Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
Harry F. Martin with Cormac O’Malley: Ernie O’Malley: A Life, Merrion Press, Newbridge (Co Kildare), 2021
ISBN: 978 1 78537 390 9
I became aware of Ernie O’Malley from Roddy Doyle’s first excursion into historical fiction, A Star Called Henry (1999), the start of a trilogy loosely and irreverently based on the larger-than-life figure of O’Malley, and drawing satirically on Ernie’s own vivid memoirs. If you thought O’Casey roasted revolutionaries, then you’ve yet to see Doyle put a blowtorch to nationalist triumphalism. I was curious to see how loose the fiction was, so the biography of Ernie O’Malley co-written by a patriotic Irish-American with Ernie’s own son was irresistible. The reality was much sadder than Doyle’s fiction.
Far from being the son of a brothel-keeper and an impoverished Dublin family, he came of conservative almost bourgeois stock originally from Castlebar, a ‘shoneen’ town. His family was too close to the local Royal Irish Constabulary for the older Ernie to stomach. They spoke no Irish (like Yeats, the nanny was able to fill that gap, telling him ghost stories and stories from Táin bó Cúailgne, and others about the ‘mountainy men’). His father did clerical work (as a legal clerk in Castlebar, and later in the Congested Districts Board in Dublin), and afforded his numerous children the best education he could afford. So, when transplanted to Glasnevin, Dublin, aged nine, young Ernie grew up a Christian Brothers’ boy (the O’Connell CBS on North Circular Road), with a nascent nationalism to match. He graduated with a scholarship to UCD in 1915 and started a medical degree, many times revived but never completed. He fitted the profile R F Forster described of revolutionaries of the Rising: he had imbibed Christian Brothers’ ideologies of British oppression of Irish culture; he found his parents conservative; and he was not university educated. The Rising further radicalised him.
After a boyish contribution to the Rising, he joined the Volunteers, and secretly began to train in Wicklow under the direction of Michael Collins. This was the beginning of a long period as a guerrilla activist during the Tan War and the Civil War. He was a supporter of Sinn Féin, and later of the anti-Treaty forces. He was a brave and resourceful warrior, and initially a very gentlemanly one who would spare his enemies if there were good reason to do so (as he did in Killygordon and later in Ennis), which his biographers put down to ‘chivalry’.
As Martin and the son tell the story, very much in the uncritical pious style of the hagiographer, Ernie had an ability to inspire not only trust but awe among those he led, for his deeds of derring-do, his brute courage and fearlessness. He learnt his warcraft by studying British military manuals which taught useful skills like marching order, expertise in using explosives, and musketry. Not that guns were common currency in the IRA – arms were so limited that rifles had to be shared between brigades in different counties for particular actions. Most attacks on barracks and police stations during the War of Independence were motivated by the need to acquire guns. One of his men commented to his son that ‘he wouldn’t consider that he was outnumbered unless it was ten to one or more than that’. He relied on his wits and courage to outwit a superior force, and a certain charm which won the support of Cumann na mBan members who were ready to supply the handsome young man with ‘honey, homemade jam, freshly churned butter, griddle or large white oven cakes, a flitch of bacon, packages of cigarettes’ and their hero-worship, one assumes.
The shooting of 13 British intelligence officers in Dublin on 20 November 1920 and a few days later 17 auxiliaries in West Cork, masterminded by Michael Collins and Tom Barry respectively, marked something of a turn in Ernie’s fortunes when he was captured in Inistioge and tortured in Dublin Castle (he sustained damage to his eyes by a red hot poker and his feet were smashed by being trampled upon by jailors in boots). He would carry the wounds, and regrets about subsequent reprisals on his men, for the rest of his life. His treatment was in retribution for the Collins’ gang killing in December 1920. While in prison, and having narrowly avoided execution (British Intelligence were not aware of his real identity), he improved the shining hour and found the consoling powers of literature – The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment were his reading.
His escape (one of the British jailors assisted him) began the next even worse phase of his life – the civil war, during which the IRA attempted to build an army with meagre funding and no resources. He became second in charge of the Second Southern region, and training officer for the emerging IRA. He was by then a military polymath with good local knowledge of many different counties and skills in ‘infantry training, engineering, intelligence, medical services, signalling, munitions, artillery, chemicals, organisation, training, transportation, logistical support and quartermaster support’. Above all, he was intelligent, and just 23. Most of his men were, like him, not university graduates, and under 30. It’s easy to forget how young the Rising militia and those during the subsequent engagements, were.
This book, while it tends to the pious and hagiographical, gives a graphic account of the divided loyalties at play after the signing of the ill-fated Treaty. Ernie chose the side not supported by history. The writers are inclined to blame Collins and Mulcahy for not adequately briefing the two largest IRA divisions about Collins’ intention to achieve a Republic in stages. The biographers steadfastly remain on Ernie’s side in how this disastrous campaign of violence, the civil war, was waged – proffering a variety of could-have-beens to excuse their subject. They admit that Ernie had big regrets about his role in the Four Courts disaster. He could not at the time be persuaded by a priest to surrender, as Patrick Pearse had done, to save his people. Certainly, he experienced close-up the loss of support of the populace. My reading of his exploits, still full of derring-do, in this phase of his life was that he was addicted to adrenaline (Cuchulainn-style) and Republican ideology, a potent mix. He earned more bullets (carried to his grave), mounted another daring escape from Portobello prison hospital, and in 1923 embraced a hunger strike, narrowly avoiding execution. The death/execution rate of fellow IRA prisoners was high: between September 1922 and May 1923, 77 were officially executed and 157 were killed while in prison. New forms of atrocity, mines set off under the bodies of chained prisoners, were enacted, to Ernie’s dismay. Why was the church silent on such deeds? During this period, he lost touch with his family, and an isolation settled on him.
Radically unfit for civilian life, Ernie had to adjust to it and find reasons for living. He travelled in Europe, America and Mexico, and turned to the arts and bohemians and to filmmakers like John Ford, to supply new social connections. He wrote telling memoirs, was a consultant to other separatist groups like the Basques, and gave talks. Much of this was done because as an Irish former ‘freedom-fighter’, he was able to garner support in Irish-America. Until he won a military pension for his part in the War of Independence in 1934, and married a wealthy heiress and sculptor (the marriage was doomed), he struggled with severe poverty, a condition to which he’d become inured during his guerrilla years. The story of his post-revolutionary years is deeply sad, and very moving. He and his wife drifted apart (a city-bred bohemian, she could not stand living on his beloved farm in Mayo), and kidnapped all but one of his three children taking them to America, where she eventually divorced him against his will (divorce was not available in Ireland and Ernie remained a Catholic). Although the authors persist in calling him an intellectual, the basis for the claim is not compelling.
This book offers insights into how an intense political commitment is vulnerable to the inevitable compromises involved in politics. Ernie O’Malley had discernment around those he led, was clever and resourceful, but life at the top as a rebel cost him his humanity, his place in his family of origin and his marriage. It’s a high price to pay, and unhappily even today young men are still prepared to pay it.
Frances Devlin-Glass is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.