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.

English has had unique access to O’Malley’s papers in private hands as well as to the large archive in University College, Dublin, and has written a fascinating thematic study rather than a straightforward biography. His opening chapter charts the overall course of the life, and the influences which were there from the beginning. O’Malley bears little resemblance to the archetypal Irish revolutionary as sketched by Tom Garvin: a young man from the country, aspiring and impatient, frustrated of opportunities, working at a level below that befitting his education. His Mayo background, as the son of a solicitor’s clerk in Castlebar, remained hugely important to him, however, and when the family moved to Dublin in 1905 he attended the Christian Brothers’ ‘O’Connell School’, the nursery of several other revolutionaries. His brothers joined the British Army, his parents remained opposed to Sinn Fein, and at the time of the Easter Rising O’Malley himself was enrolled (on a prestigious scholarship) as a medical student at the National University. He had no politics, he later recalled, ‘save to laugh at other people’s opinions’. There is an echo here of the young Joyce; but one also remembers Joyce’s outburst to his parents, after an evening at an Ibsenite play, that revolution would break out within the family, and against the family. O’Malley, too, was in this mould.

English is rightly cautious about endorsing O’Malley’s claim that he and a fellow student borrowed a rifle and began sniping at soldiers during the Rising, but it is certain that Easter 1916 was a revelation for him. He joined the Volunteers and attended demonstrations. As for his parents, ‘I would disappoint their hopes of a profession and be a black sheep. I carefully oiled and greased my rifle, wrapped it in oily rags, and made my brothers promise to take care of it. Then I left home in March of 1918.’ At 20, he joined the brotherhood of freedom-fighters, who now became his closest family.

Michael Collins, for whom O’Malley retained a certain sardonic respect, sent him to London to buy arms, and posted him around the Irish countryside to organise and train Volunteer groups. O’Malley found his ideal comrades among the South Tipperary Brigade, and as the war escalated so did his reputation. At 22 he was Commandant General of the IRA’s 2nd Southern Division and had taken a leading part in attacks on police barracks; he was arrested, he escaped, he was mythologised. This is the period he recalls in On Another Man’s Wound, while noting – in a characteristic passage – the process of myth-making that was already underway.

Every one of our little fights or attacks was significant, they made panoramic pictures of the struggle in the people’s eyes and lived on in their minds. Only in our country could the details of an individual fight expand to the generalisations of a pitched battle. What to me was a defeat, such as the destruction of an occupied post without the capture of its arms, would soon be sung of as a victory. Our own critical judgments, which adjudged action and made it grow gigantic through memory and distance, were like to folklore. To the outsider, who saw our strivings and their glorification, this flaring imagination that lit the stars might make him think of a burglar who shouted at the top of his voice to hide the noise of his feet. Actually the people saw the clash between two mentalities, two trends in direction, and two philosophies of life; between exploiters and exploited. Even the living were quickly becoming folklore; I had heard my own name in song at the few dances I had attended.

By opposing the Treaty, O’Malley was instrumental in precipitating the Civil War: an unforgettable passage in The Singing Flame describes the irreconcilable revolutionaries in occupation of the blazing Four Courts building in central Dublin, with O’Malley himself curled up underneath Gandon’s great Georgian dome, finding solace in its proportions. (In much the same way, comrades would remember him reading Dostoevsky while ‘on the run’ in the mountains of north Munster.) He featured in a number of celebrated Civil War incidents, and was finally captured in a shoot-out in Ailesbury Road, the heart of Dublin’s haut-bourgeois enclave. He brought mayhem into unlikely and unsettling places, and was already at odds with the postwar world. The Irish Free State, meanwhile, eased back into compromise and respectability.

Not O’Malley, however; briefly elected to the Dáil as a symbol of resistance, he never really took part in its proceedings, retaining the old IRA-man’s suspicion of ‘politics’. His return to his medical studies didn’t work out either. From the mid-Twenties, increasingly disillusioned, he travelled in Spain and Italy, subsisting on small handouts from his family and the IRA. But in 1928, he was asked to help raise money in America for de Valera’s new Republican newspaper, the Irish Press. An unlikely fundraiser, O’Malley was not greatly enamoured of the traditional Irish-American circuit; instead, he gravitated to the world of artists and intellectuals. His friendships with painters and photographers, notably Edward Weston, Paul Strand and Alfred Steiglitz, are preserved in some fine portraits reproduced in English’s book; for their part, the Americans seem to have seen in O’Malley’s uncompromising features the lineaments of the essential revolutionary, a Bazarov of his time. Settling for a time in Taos, where he was taken up by Mabel Dodge Luhan, he began to write; in 1931 he met Hart Crane and they became close friends, briefly sharing a house in Mexico. Contacts with the Group Theatre and other avant-garde movements took him to Yaddo, the writers’ centre run on monastic lines at Saratoga Springs. His move to the East Coast brought him the opportunity to finish his memoir; it was there, too, that he met and married Helen Huntington Hooker.

She was rich and well-connected; one brother-in-law was John D. Rockefeller III, another the novelist John P. Marquand. As English remarks, the Hooker family, and the conflicts provoked by Helen’s headstrong ways, read like the plot of a Marquand novel. It did not have a happy ending, but the beginning was romantic: a runaway marriage in 1935, a house in O’Malley’s beloved Mayo, involvement in Dublin’s theatrical and literary scene, while the publication of On Another Man’s Wound the year after their marriage established O’Malley as a writer. (His verse, though Harriet Monroe published it in Poetry, is quite another thing.) Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain were early admirers and proposed O’Malley for membership in the Irish Academy of Letters. As O’Connor recalled, ‘Yeats greeted us with his Renaissance cardinal’s chuckle and asked: “What do you two young rascals mean by trying to fill my Academy with gunmen?” ’

By 1940, O’Malley was closely involved with the circle round the Bell, the Irish journal founded by Sean O’Faolain with the old Republican and Communist Peadar O’Donnell. It attracted an eclectic range of contributors: Elizabeth Bowen, John Hewitt, Louis MacNeice, Patrick Kavanagh, Hubert Butler, Flann O’Brien, Liam O’Flaherty and others. ‘Cannot we all meet, throwing in what we have?’ Bowen wrote in her essay ‘The Big House’, published in the Bell’s first issue. The magazine accordingly stood for pluralism and intellectual openness in a modern Ireland: for aesthetics above ideology. It attracted dissidents from the consensus, and it is not surprising to find O’Malley as its books editor in the mid-Forties. The magazine and the kind of friends he made through it (notably MacNeice), seemed to offer an earnest of the Ireland he had fought for. So did the artistic achievements of the coming generation; for ‘the gunman’ had become, among other things, an art patron and critic. Helen was an accomplished sculptor and, like her husband, had a good eye; she also had large holdings in the family business, Hooker Electrochemicals. The O’Malleys bought Vlamincks, Modiglianis, Rouaults, Henry Moores and, most notably, Jack Yeatses. The works they collected by this great but uneven painter are almost invariably first-rate and O’Malley’s writing on Yeats ranks with the best. He also devoted himself to arranging exhibitions of Irish painters in Britain, and encouraging young artists like Evie Hone and Louis le Brocquy.

But it all ran into the sand. By the late Forties the marriage was foundering: Helen was spending most of her time in America, and O’Malley was in financial trouble – Sotheby’s sold off much of his library in 1949. In 1950, Helen abducted two of their three children from their Irish school to America, which was a cause of abiding bitterness. The increasingly frail O’Malley camped out in Mayo or lived in a small Dublin flat with his young son, whom he adored; he became preoccupied with assembling information on the revolutionary period, through interviews as well as archives, ballads and folklore, driving from end to end of the country in an old Ford which he often slept in as well. He was, in a sense, on the run again: English paints a memorable picture of ‘the physically damaged ex-revolutionary, his private life in tatters, solitarily attempting to reassemble his purposeful revolutionary youth’. There were visits to Beckett in Paris and to his close friend Catherine Walston in Cambridge or London, but his early death at 59 in 1957 seems inevitable.

Whatever else he had lost in the last years of his life, he had managed to keep his paintings to the end. One of them was a great Jack Yeats of 1937, which he bought directly from the studio. Yeats’s cataloguer, Hilary Pyle, thinks it was inspired by the Troubles fifteen years earlier. The artist himself described it as ‘an important picture of mine ... a dead tramp lying on a headland with another tramp standing by – and a dark sea and dark sky’. The two tramps are oddly prophetic: Beckett, too, was an aficionado of the painter. But equally prescient is the image of a bereft companion, setting out alone in an epic and threatening western landscape It is called Death for Only One.

The Mourners at the funeral included the President, the Taoiseach and various dignitaries; the obituaries sanctified his revolutionary derring-do of forty years before. But the new Irish Establishment had had little to do with him in his lifetime, and it would have been considered tasteless of his obituarists to stress the line bleakly stated by O’Malley himself in the then unpublished second volume of his autobiography: ‘I had given allegiance to a certain ideal of freedom as personified by the Irish Republic. It has not been realised except in the mind.’ This quotation lies at the heart of English’s sympathetic exploration of O’Malley’s career. After surveying the sad and incomplete life, he investigates aspects of O’Malley’s character and his legend – as activist, as intellectual and as companion – and the legacies he left behind. It is a brave attempt to flout the biographical conventions and though there is some repetition and an occasional loss of focus, it enables English to scrutinise the contradictions and unfinished business at the heart of O’Malley’s life.

The élitism of the old IRA view comes through clearly, and the ruthlessness that lay behind the policy of ‘inspiration and intimidation’, whose effects on the ground have just been spelt out by Peter Hart in another pioneering study of this period, The IRA and Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-23. Since O’Malley came so early into the war, and was consistently committed to action rather than politics, his experience strikingly illustrates both the strengths and the limitations of the irreconcilables, before as well as after 1921. His own articulateness and his intellectual honesty throw a harsh light on the struggle; O’Malley was prepared to admit that the IRA did not represent a majority of nationalist opinion after the Treaty, but was equally certain that this was irrelevant. In 1923, he equated the campaign for ‘freedom’ to fighting for ‘the spread of spirituality such as it is, to counteract the agnosticism and materialism of our own and other countries’. By the time he was writing his memoirs a decade later, this kind of evangelism had abated; he wrote to an old companion, ‘I have the bad and disagreeable habit of writing the truth as I see it, and not as other people (including yourself) realise it, in which we are a race of spiritualised idealists with a world idea of freedom, having nothing to learn for we have made no mistakes’. Nonetheless, English tellingly points out that an early draft of On Another Man’s Wound began with the question: ‘How does one reconstruct a spiritual state of mind?’ The genius of that book lies in O’Malley’s ability to recall and express the exaltation of the ‘hillside men’ as none of his comrades could. And he remained convinced that ‘the spiritualistic interpretation of nationalism is the only thing that matters’. English calls this ‘the enraptured style of politics’, and it is central to the Irish revolution.

At the same time, as O’Malley’s intellectual odyssey round Europe and the United States continues, a different and dissonant note is struck. In On Another Man’s Wound he writes that the turning of the living into instant subjects of folklore ‘hid our real selves; and when I saw myself as clearly as I could in terms of myself, I resented the legend. It made me other than myself and attuned to act to standards that were not my own.’ This was accompanied by an impatience with policies of Gaelicisation, a dislike of censorship and a deep interest in – for instance – English literature. O’Malley visited London and wrote for Horizon, but he affected a rather grand dislike of the country itself: ‘an icy land, no interest in ideas or in talk and too frustrated with its own sense of authority from top to bottom ... This seems rude but I cannot talk to the English except aristocratic English or writers, taxi drivers, Cockneys and some others.’ His apprenticeship in literature owed much, on the other hand, to an admiration for Arthur Quiller-Couch, and his first ideas in art criticism came from Walter Pater. His biographer develops this line by mischievously placing him in the world of John Buchan heroes (in unguarded moments, O’Malley’s own language bears him out: ‘I had few real chums but what I had were staunch’).

The revolutionaries of 1916-21 set great store by Ireland’s distance from Britain and from British mores, partly so as to differentiate their cause from that of John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party, and, indeed, from the propaganda and esprit de corps of World War One, which the Redmondites had unwisely endorsed. But when the revolution was over, those who made the Treaty, and abided by it, had to rationalise the continuing connection between the two countries and work out a modus vivendi. The conflict between those who continued to be purists and their successors remained at the centre of nationalist discourse, and is vividly evident at the extremes of nationalist politics today. While O’Malley stands, in English’s words, as ‘an emblem of his whole Revolutionary generation’, he also expresses ambivalences and uncertainties which are a central part of the national inheritance.

Perhaps because of this, the longest section in this book concerns ‘The Intellectual’. After America, O’Malley’s life oscillated between monastic seclusion in Mayo (where both he and his wife complained bitterly about the lack of intellectual stimulation, Helen comparing her life to that of a serf in medieval Russia) and immersion in the world of Dublin’s artistic bohemia. This entailed experimental theatre, arranging art exhibitions, and vehement discussions around the Bell – often with people, like MacNeice, who were far from sharing his political background or beliefs. Strikingly, O’Malley seems to have avoided party involvement. He had supported the Spanish Republicans against Franco, but apparently saw Churchill’s Britain and Hitler’s Germany as much of a muchness. Yet he does not seem to have shared the wish of some of his former comrades to restart the war in Ulster. In his revolutionary days he had believed that those who wished to ‘serve the Empire’ should be removed from Ireland to serve it somewhere else, but the complications involved in this may subsequently have occurred to him. English quotes a late and unpublished draft in which O’Malley considers the effects of the Civil War: among them,

a new understanding and an unromantic realisation of ourselves as a people. At one time it had been easy to blame the British for our faults and easy to interpret them in terms of conditions forced on us by historical necessity; now, some learned to analyse cause and effect, to blame themselves and to face the evil necessity of power.

As English points out, O’Malley does not fit very closely Edward Said’s model of post-colonial consciousness. English also notes, however, that his subject neatly answers Said’s call (in his 1993 Reith Lectures) for intellectual ‘amateurism ... fuelled by care and affection’ rather than by profit and specialisation. If O’Malley is not an ‘intellectual’ in some of the accepted senses of that much-abused word, his intellectual appetite and his narrow but impressive abilities led him to a viewpoint on Irish affairs which now looks oddly modern. The title of this book, bald though it initially seems, is in the end vindicated. But O’Malley’s autodidacticism, as much as his natural inclination to dissidence, also identifies him as a classic romantic revolutionary: a Stendhalian hero out of his time, with disillusionment programmed in from the outset. What emerges clearly from this innovative and perceptive study is that the interrogations and uncertainties inseparable from O’Malley’s post-revolutionary odyssey supply the real leitmotif of his story. And, solitary and cantankerous though he was, his experience may also offer his countrymen, especially his fellow nationalists, some direction at the crossroads where they stand today.