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Book Review Ernie O’Malley: revolutionary, ‘sthete, but not a strategist

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter McDermott

ERNIE O’MALLEY, IRA Intellectual, by Richard English. Published by Oxford University Press, 267 pp. $45.

"Of all of the people that I met and knew . . . " wrote C.S. "Todd" Andrews, a veteran of the Anglo-Irish and Civil Wars and the late father of the current Irish foreign minister, "[Ernie O’Malley] was the only one whom I would judge worthy of a full biography on a scale that would command universal rather than merely Irish interest."

This mightn’t seem such an eccentric view if one remembers that the story of the rivalry between Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera, men whom Andrews also knew, didn’t quite capture the American imagination when it was brought to the screen recently. Indeed, there are several aspects of the Ernie O’Malley saga that might have broader appeal. Certainly, his love life is more central to his story and more interesting than those of most of his comrades — although this is probably not what Todd Andrews had in mind.

In 1935, O’Malley, a former IRA leader, married Helen Huntington Hooker, a sculptor and the daughter of a wealthy Connecticut businessman. The Dublin-raised revolutionary and the New England sophisticate, an intense pair who shared a passion for the arts, spent much of their married life in a remote part of County Mayo. But the marriage fell apart after little more than a decade. The austere O’Malley, who, Richard English suggests, carried the mental scars of war to his grave, was a difficult partner. Helen asked for a divorce and absconded to America with two of their three children. When she later changed her mind and suggested a reconciliation, O’Malley turned her down.

Early in their marriage, O’Malley’s memoir of the War of Independence, "On Another Man’s Wound," was published in London and received excellent reviews. When it appeared some months later in America, under the title "Armies Without Banners," the New York Times reviewer described it as a "stirring and beautiful book." Sixty years on, novelist John McGahern, writing in the Irish Times, argued that the book "deserves a permanent and honored place in our literature."

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O’Malley began his revolutionary career in 1918, when having failed his second-year medical exams at UCD, he left home to become a full-time officer in the Irish Volunteers, a force that would soon be better known as the IRA. He spent much of his time as a wandering organizer attached to the general headquarters staff. When that body, under the leadership of Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy, backed the 1921 Treaty, O’Malley became director of organization in the anti-Treaty IRA.

With defeat in the civil war, the military phase of O’Malley’s career was over. However, he wasn’t interested in the political career that was his for the asking. De Valera found a role for him nonetheless: he sent him to America in 1928 to raise funds for his proposed new daily paper, the Irish Press.

O’Malley stayed on for a number of years. During this period he befriended some prominent literary and artistic figures, such as the photographer Edward Weston — whose portrait of O’Malley appears on the cover of this book — and the playwright Clifford Odets, and was acquainted with the painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

However, with de Valera’s Fianna Fail in power in the 1930s, he was lured back to Ireland with the promise of a military pension, the "means of practical subsistence," English says, and there he remained until his death in 1957.

English divides the book up into five long chapters: "Life," "Revolutionary," "Intellectual," "Companion," and "Legacy." Of these, the chapter on O’Malley’s life as a revolutionary is by far the strongest. He superbly dissects the ideological world view of the IRA at the time of the Anglo-Irish War, and the chapter generally is an excellent summary of some of the issues involved in discussions on the period.

O’Malley, at the same time anglocentric and anglophobic, English says, "fits the young, male, Catholic, non-Northern, middle class, educated, socially mobile profile common among members of the Irish Republican elite in these years." Elsewhere, English argues that "the Revolutionaries’ definition of Irish history and of Irishness itself was profoundly linked to Catholic experience. Catholicism was a binding and defining force for Irish Republicans."

English is convincing when he uses O’Malley’s revolutionary career and his writings as a way of illustrating the 1916-1923 period; he is much less so, however, when he has O’Malley carry the entire weight of "Pearsean Republicanism" over generations. A study of O’Malley is useful as deep background and, of course, intrinsically interesting. The author’s view, though, that it is "resoundingly relevant" for our own time is questionable. If O’Malley represented a "Republican purism," as English says, then it wasn’t of a kind that would be necessarily recognizable in later decades. For example, in the 1940s, O’Malley said that the Northern Ireland problem was not an easy one to solve, and he didn’t adhere to the surreal legalism that was the basis of later campaigns of violence.

O’Malley was a brave and dashing guerrilla fighter who later wrote brilliant literary accounts of his adventures in two wars, but he was not in any sense a military or political strategist. Later, as he became more involved in the arts, he undertook intellectual activity of the sort that English says, quoting Edward Said, "is fueled by care and affection rather than by profit and selfish, narrow specialization." He had an extraordinary range of interests: painting, sculpture, music, literature, and European history among them. The use of the subtitle "IRA Intellectual," then, is certainly misleading.

Overall, though, English, who had the cooperation of the O’Malley children and was able to speak to their mother before her death in 1993, has done an impressive job. In the end, he may not have produced the "full" O’Malley biography that Todd Andrews spoke of, but he has written an intelligent, scholarly and enjoyable book.

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