Portrait of Peadar O'Donnell as an Old Soldier
On an evening in 1917, Peadar O'Donnelll, twenty five years old and recently appointed full-time organiser for the ITGWU in the north-eastern counties, was sitting at a table in a small hotel in Monaghan having his supper. Four men, three in uniforms and one in a gray suit, approached him. They were members of the staff of the Monaghan County Asylum and had been on strike for three weeks. Unless, they explained, he could bring the power of his Union to bear to cut off the food supply for the asylum, their strike would be defeated by a scab staff due to start work the following morning under police protection.
"They had the weirdest idea of what one's powers were. I said I couldn't cut off the asylum from food and I wouldn't even if I could. They were obviously disappointed."
Even as he spoke he had the glimmer of an idea and asked the men to arrange a meeting for later that night. At nine o'clock all 83 members of the staff were in Monaghan Town Hall. "Yes, I've been thinking about it. I can really win this strike for you," they heard Peadar O'Donnell say. After some discussion, all 83 accompanied him to the gates of the asylum, where they were confronted by a large body of men from the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
"We're going back to work," they told the police, then strode into the asylum and took it over. The Resident Medical Superintendent, the Assistant Medical Superintendent, the matron and the head attendant were ejected from the building. In his first act as the new Resident Medical Superintendant, Peadar O'Donnell ordered the doors nailed up. Later someone - not himself - hoisted a red flag over the roof.
The grey.suited man who had come to the hotel was Willie Hare, a carpenter and an Orangeman. Over the twelve days of the occupation, O'Donnell made him his lieutenant. Wjth the police patrolling the grounds in force, only one door of the building was opened, guarded by pickets, once a day to let in a delivery of food. On the fourth day, Willie Hare told O'Donnell that the strikers were beaten. The pickets on the door had mutinied and decided to let in the first police patrol that would arrive.
"I said to Willie, 'Can you get four men that'll act like a flash?'. 'To tell you the truth,' he said, 'the only men I could trust in here now would be Orangemen.' I said, 'I don't give a damn what they are but they've got to act like a flash.' And I came down the corridor one way and Willie and his four warriors came down the other. We met at the door and the leader of the mutineers started to abuse me for all the bloody fly-by-nights that had walked him into this trouble, they'd all be sacked and so on. And as he talked I tapped my head and said 'The padded cell.' And Willie's four men just grabbed him and ran around the corner to the padded cell. And I turned to the others at the door and said 'Aren't you the right men in your job that didn't recognise what was wrong with him?' It was very dicey but it worked."
Eight days later the asylum corrimittee, headed by the local bishop capitulated entirely to the strikers' demands. It was a victory forged out of the strengths that made Peadar O'Donnell, in the words of Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army "the greatest agitator of his generation" - the ability to win the trust of working people and a keen eye for the main chance. But it was a rare victory in a career spanning sixty years of work as a union organiser, IRA leader, novelist and propagandist. At ninety, looking back, he says "I think I was never on the winning side in anything."
Failure doesn't worry him. He sees history as the ripening of conditions of change, his own role as that of an insignificant provoker of its flux. "I found myself looking on and any of the things that I got involved in came to my doorstep. I didn't have any escape from them. I was a good observer and I was lucky enough to have a ringside seat. I was aware of what was going on but I didn't have any real influence over any of the things that happened."
One of the disadvantages of survival, he says, is that because practically everyone else who took part in certain events is dead, your own role is exaggerated. And many of those events had an inevitability which erases the importance of the individuals involved in them. He neither relished nor was saddened by the Civil War, during the course of which he was held in prison under constant threat of execution by the Free State - it was merely inevitable.
"I was a member of the IRA Executive. We were a very pathetic executive, an absolutely bankrupt executive. All it did was oppose the Treaty - it had no policy of its own. I was on the Executive. I shouldn't have been but I was. I didn't have any influence and didn't deserve to have any. If I had been a junior person and the Treaty came along and I found the Labour people weren't going along with the resistance to it, I would probably have gone home, or gone to America. But I was senior enough to have to say whether I was for the Treaty or against it. And having said that you were against it, you were committed to going along with the resistance to it."
A belief in the processes that underlay all of the events in history came from a visit around 1917 to Scotland, where his father and older brother had worked as migratory labourers to support the poor farm at Meenmore, near Dungloe, where Peadair O'Donnell was born. On a visit to Glasgow he met men like Joe Duncan, General Secretary of the Scottish Farmworkers' Union and Manny Shinwell (now Lord Shinwell) then Chairman of Glasgow Trades Council and imbibed their revolutionary socialist ideas.
On his return to Donegal, he left his job as principal of the national school on Aranmore Island to work for the ITGWU. In Dublin's Liberty Hall he attended meetings of the Socialist Party. He also joined the IRA.
"The great trouble for anyone setting out on an agitational road for workers is to learn to talk to people in terms of their own experience. I remember a meeting of flax workers in Monaghan and I remember torturing myself would I ever learn to talk to such people in terms of their own experiences. On a dark night if you're at the head ofa column of men, all you have to do is take two or three steps ahead of them and you get lost in the darkness. You must start from where people are."
He combined IRA and union activity, believing that the two struggles were inseparable. "I really regarded the Tan war as the preliminary to the second war. You were fighting the first war for political freedom but in the words of the only phrase of Gaelic that was generally current around Liberty Hall 'Ni saoirse go saoirse lught oibre'." In 1920 he left the ITGWU for full-time IRA activity. He did so because a detective from Derry with whom he had worked in trying to organise a union of policemen and prison warders, warned him that he was about to be arrested. "I was amazed in 1922 when the Labour movement supported the Treaty because the whole thesis I was working on was that when Arthur Griffith ducked out of the independence movement at the level of Home Rule, the working class would take over the movement and press on for an independent Ireland."
The collapse of his fundamental political thesis left Peadar O'Donnell in the midst of a sea of contradictions. The Labour movement was too compromised, his influence in the IRA too weak. "I would have gone with de Valera but I thought that by remaining back after he had gone, that I could influence the IRA towards a Citizen Army agitational type of thing. When de Valera founded Fianna Fail, all that was really progressive in the anti-Treaty forces went with him. What was left was rigid IRB-types. Anything that wasn't physical force was politics and politics was disapproved of." His last hope of gathering together an array of forces which might lead to revolutionary change was the campaign against the payment of land annuities, the political activity which most completely engaged his passions.
The irony of Peadar O'Donnell's land annuity campaign was that it served in the end to consolidate the image of de Valera and Fianna Fail as being on the side of the small man, an image which helped them to attract the support that might otherwise have gone to more radical forces.
"The IRA wouldn't join the campaign, Labour wouldn't, and Fianna Fail had ordered that no TD could go on my platform. So we were very isolated. The decrees and the seizures came thick and fast and it became clear to me that the small farmers who supported the agitation would be crucified and the rest of the country would just look on. I decided to land the whole bloody agitation in Fianna Fail's lap. I met Sean Lemass at the bottom of Grafton Street one day and I was very angry and abrasive about this boycotting of my platform and he said 'Can't you see that we stand to gain from your agitation so long as we can't be accused of promoting it?' I realised that I had failed and I landed it in Fianna Fail's lap."
Writing and agitation came from the same source - a perception of the inevitable currents of change. With the imminence of change comes the desire to record. "I didn't celebrate a way of life, I just revealed it. I think the way a person writes is that in your formative years, if you're exposed to vivid impressions, every vivid impression opens a window onto some aspect of your environment. And writing is just a way of getting back to the window and looking out over the environment that it gives access to. And you run a theme through that environment. You call up people out of the earth to live out your theme."
His novels, particularly those of his maturity are sharp, naturalistic records, each existing within a clear and particular political context. If political causes arrived on his doorstep, so too were his books germinated from chance occurances.
"The book that I think is really the only novel that I ever wrote, The Big Windows came from really a very simple experience. I had been wounded in the early part of 1921 and I spent a night in a cottage in a glen and I was quite comfortable on straw. The woman of the house and her daughter-in-law must have thought that I was asleep and they chuckled together in a very happy way at the fireside. Going off the next morning I asked the local person 'Who is she, that woman?' and as I asked him I was noticing the unusually big windows in the house."
The woman, he was told, came from one of the islands.
"And that was as though you had struck a match in my mind. I had lived on an island and with the sea around it and the sky over it, an island is very full of light. I could imagine a girl coming from an island into a glen where the mountains were half-door height in the sky and the windows were like spectacles having trouble with her eyes, with the different light of the glen. I don't know whether there's a word of reality in that. For some reason or another it stuck and then one day or another I thought 'Well, yes. And there'd be also a different kind of light in her mind, because on an island there's no superstition of land - land is not important on an island. But in a glen, there'd be pretty backward superstitions of land which she'd reject. And I took these two ideas, the light of her eyes and the light of her mind being different to the light of the glen and I wrote The Big Windows."
"By that time I'd reached sufficient maturity in politics to realise that these townlands were withering, and if you give your book a happy ending in a withering community, then obviously your book and life are not going in the same direction. So I ended it by having her husband accidentally killed and she took her child and went back to the island."
The decision to establish with Sean O' Faolain the monthly literary magazine The Bell in 1940 was also a reaction to an immediate situation.
"I never had any deep motivation in these things. One reads a lot into it afterwards but to me it was a natural thing to do."
In retrospect he regrets, at least in part, his decision to assume the editorship of the magazine himself after O Faolain left in 1946.
"I probably should have wound up the Bell when Sean O Faolain ceased editing it because I really couldn't keep up his stature. The only useful thing that I did on The Bell was that I got Paddy Kavanagh to write "Tarry Flynn'. It might never have been written except that I serialised it in The Bell. You had to keep reminding yourself that Paddy Kavanagh was.a genius. Otherwise you'd break his neck down the stairs."
His political isolation was matched in its extent only by his personal ability to maintain contacts across practically all the divides. He included in his campaigns Catholic bishops and Orangemen from Belfast.
"Individually, I found most clerics decent enough to deal with. I am one of the few people who would hold that this is not a cleric-ridden country. It's a yahoo-ridden church." One of the few souvenirs he collected from his career as an agitator was an Orange sash given to him by the Deputy Grand Master of Derry. "I eventually reached a stage where Protestants, Orangemen were quite sure that if the Pope had any dark designs against them, its not me he was using. I don't think that anything really important in a revolutionary sense can take place in Ireland unless the industrial centre around Belfast is progressively involved. If you had a very progressive trade union and Labour movement in Britain it would spill over into Belfast and have an effect."
Otherwise the only hope he sees for bridging the sectarian divide is the anti-nuclear movement. He finds the campaign of the Provisionals distasteful. "It's not my kind of fight. While British occupation takes place in any part of Ireland, there will be young people that will take up a rifle and have a crack at them. And you may say its daft and foolish but it has the sanction of the whole of Irish history. But while I can understand the resentment against British occupation in Ireland, I cannot understand the method of conducting the struggle."
Since the collapse of the Republican Congress, the left. wing breakaway from the IRA which he formed in 1934 with George Gilmore and Frank Ryan, Peadar O'Donnell has operated outside of the confines of any political movement. He never had any major theoretical differences from the Communist Party, but he never joined their ranks. "I never joined the Communist Party for the same reason I never joined the IRB: I never found myself doing something that I could do better if I was a member of the party."
He took five Irish delegates to the European Small Farmers' Congress in Berlin in 1930 and agreed to preside over the opening session as an acceptable front for the Communist organisers.
"I said 'I might preside if you tell me the truth why you want me. If you're trying to tell me that it's some stature I enjoy, it's just not true and I won't do it.' I said to them 'Do you know what a dickey is?' I explained that it was a piece of peasant dress and it was a collar and front all in one. You put on the dickey to hide your shirt. So I said 'What you're really asking is am I prepared to be the green dickey to hide your red shirts? Okay, I've no objection to being the green dickey'."
The irony of Peadar O'Donnell's life is that he recorded in his books, with loving detail, a society that has died, and that the thrust of his political activity has been to hasten its death. He is unsentimental about the passing of the world of Islanders and Ardrigoole and The Big Windows. "There‡ is one thing constant in life and that's change and the Donegal that I knew has withered, it's changed. But it's a better way of life. It's not my way of life, but it's better."
His sallies into history have been tempered by a deep sense of the inevitable. "If you didn't reallse that you had to wait for conditions to ripen ," he says now, "you'd be very stupid. You can't have blossoms on potatoes until the stalks grow. And you can't jump through phases in history that have to be lived through."