Hillside Men

Roy Foster

  • Ernie O’Malley: IRA Intellectual by Richard English
    Oxford, 284 pp, £25.00, March 1998, ISBN 0 01 982059 3

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.

O’Malley was one of the most celebrated of the freedom-fighters: a youthful guerrilla leader with fiery red hair and an ascetically handsome face, contemptuous of those who – as he saw it – sold out by accepting the 1921 Treaty terms. After fighting on the side of the Republican irreconcilables in the Civil War he was imprisoned by the new Free State, and subsequently set off for America – but a very different America from the classic Irish emigrant destination. He had always been an omnivorous reader, and during spells in Mexico, in Taos and at a writers’ centre in Yaddo, he worked characteristically hard at learning how to write. His memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, was published in 1936, after a difficult gestation, much rewriting and a snowstorm of rejection-slips. (In America, it appeared as Army without Banners.) Among many Irish readers it achieved cult status: for my money, it is one of the masterpieces of 20th-century Irish literature.

Here, at last, the exalted years of struggle were remembered in an authentically modern prose, comparable to the fiction of that same generation by Sean O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor and Liam O’Flaherty. Other auto-biographical writers (or non-writers) like Barry and Breen had produced naive, highly-coloured morality tales, written in an idiom derived from the 19th-century nationalist tracts excoriated by Yeats. O’Malley tells his story in cadences influenced by the early Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and American writer friends like Hart Crane, but with a dry assurance all his own. The heroics come through all the more powerfully in his highly-polished but economical style.

The supreme example can be found in the closing paragraph of the book. It is July 1921; the freedom-fighters, bivouacked out on the hills, suddenly and disbelievingly hear of the Truce, which will soon lead to the Treaty. The conclusion is masterly, not least for the children’s jingle which O’Malley adds as a kind of epiphany at the end – recalling the way his Mayo nurse used to end her songs and stories, and hinting caustically at future disappointments for the revolutionary generation.

Con typed my orders to the five brigades. We sat down to talk about the news in wonder. What did it mean? And why had senior officers no other information than a bald message? Would the Truce last a week, or perhaps two weeks? We were willing to keep up the pressure which had been increasing steadily; soon, in a month or more, the division would begin operations in the towns and use columns by sections. Bewildered, we waited for Mickey Fitz, the Quartermaster, to discuss the speeding up of ‘cheddar’ and ‘war flour’. And so ended for us what we called the scrap, the people later on, the trouble; and others, fond of labels, the Revolution.

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Put on the kettle and make the tay, and if they weren’t happy, that you may.

By the time he wrote this, O’Malley knew all about post-revolutionary disillusionment. He went on to produce a sequel, The Singing Flame, which is less accomplished but possesses much of the same drive and power. Always a stringent self-critic, he considered it unfinished, and it was not published until 1978, 21 years after his death. It deals with the Civil War and with his imprisonment, a period that saw the end of O’Malley’s career as an active revolutionary. His politics remained implacably Republican, but he had embarked on a search for intellectual and personal fulfilment, both of which eluded him. Post-revolutionary Ireland was never comfortable with him, nor he with it: a central theme of Richard English’s absorbing study is O’Malley’s ambivalence towards Irish pieties, and his efforts to define the Ireland he had fought for. The country he had envisaged would have revered the writings of uncompromising Modernists like his friend Samuel Beckett, or the avant-garde painters and sculptors whose work O’Malley collected and wrote about. In the Thirties and Forties, ‘Eire’ was unlikely to do this, and it is significant that some of O’Malley’s most substantial writing in his latter years was devoted to the work of another artist friend, Jack Yeats, particularly to those paintings where the painter, like his brother, conjured up an Ireland both ‘terrible and gay’. For painter, poet and ex-revolutionary, such visions supplied a kind of compensation.

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