Ernie O'Malley: IRA Intellectual

Via The Transcripts Martin Galvin speaks to Cormac O’Malley via telephone about his father, Ernie O’Malley, and about his father’s books and legacy. The title of this piece is taken from the engrossing book on Ernie O'Malley by Richard English.

Radio Free Eireann

4 February 2017
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
listen on the internet: Saturdays Noon EST
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(begins time stamp ~ 15:12)
Martin: With us on the line we have Cormac O’Malley and this is Martin Galvin in studio, Mr. O’Malley. And I just played that song, or the start of the song, Tipperary So Far Away, for somebody that I knew, was very close to, was a great mentor of mine, somebody who may be remembered as the John Devoy of this generation, Michael Flannery, who was – talked about your father very much. Now, I just want to start: You’ve written, or put together, a number of books: On Another Man’s Wound, The Singing Flame, Raids and Rallies – the latest book. Just tell us a little bit about your father, Ernie O’Malley, and just how these books were put together – why they’re important.

Ernie O’Malley, NYC 1934 by Helen Hooker

Cormac: Sure. Well, nice to chat with you and always interested to talk about Ernie O’Malley.
This happens to be the hundred and twentieth anniversary of his birth and the sixtieth anniversary of his death. And it’s really only in the last twenty years, given the issues that had gone in in Ireland during the forty years after his death, that Nationalists have been more acceptable than previously. There was a lull in the generation. Father was born in Mayo in 1897, got his education at University College Dublin, tried to become a doctor, got wrapped up in the cause of Irish freedom starting on Easter Monday 1916 when he read the Irish Proclamation which said Ireland should be for the Irish. You know for many people that was a shock. It. woke them up. They suddenly realised that there had been somebody in Ireland who shouldn’t be there. Father never hated the English as such he just thought they shouldn’t be in Ireland so that was sort of his philosophical position and when it came to a military position he sort of said: Let’s move them out. So he joined the Irish Volunteers, the IRA. He went up in the command to be very much involved in Tipperary and ultimately came back to Tipperary as a senior officer, Commandant General in charge of the Second Southern Division and would have known Mick Flannery there in those days. Subsequently he was not supportive of even the truce, he didn’t know why senior management in the IRA called for a truce and definitely against the treaty and he came on to be Number Two under Liam Lynch as the Assistant Chief of Staff of the IRA against the Free State. But all of those causes were failed in a certain sense and he was caught, imprisoned, not only by the Brits but by the Free State. He got out in 1924 in very poor health, came to America and started to write. And his big book was On Another Man’s Wound – it’s easy to sleep on another man’s wound.

Martin: That title, actually, has become a metaphor in a way for The North that’s often repeated. People in the Six Counties would talk about what they were suffering and going through and how there were people who, in the Twenty-Six Counties and that’s where my family’s from as well, but there were people in the Twenty-Six Counties who seemed too easy to sleep on the fact that a part of Ireland, another part of Ireland, was still under British rule.

Cormac: Definitely. And indeed that was the, you know – as he published that book he was somewhat, well it’s not written down what he meant by it but I interpret that that he’s the person who got wounded – and they were a lot of people who didn’t so – but who got the glory. So I found him sort of saying that it’s easy for them to sleep on his wounds and part of what was involved…

…One of the things you’ve just mentioned – your father was a leading figure in the IRA during the War of Independence. He was also involved – he was in prison, I believe he was on hunger strike, nearly shot during by – after being captured by people who he had fought along side, were involved in that struggle and when there was a civil war, and a lot of the people who were leading figures in the War of Independence had to come to America because they were harassed, they were suppressed, there was efforts to keep them from working, there were efforts to keep them from playing a regular part in the society in the aftermath of the War of Independence and you find that with your father as well – certainly Michael Flannery came to America – a lot of the people who were involved in that struggle came to America for that reason.

Cormac: Judge Comerford, too.

Martin: Yes.

Cormac: Now, what is interesting: It’s an easy figure to pick which is: fourteen thousand Republicans were put into jails. The Free State had no idea that there were fourteen thousand people to round up but they finally did. They weren’t kept in very good conditions because there were far more people than they were capable of handling under normal prison conditions. When they started to demob, after Frank Aiken sort of called a truce and downed arms in May of 1923, the Republicans were kept in jail for another year. Now what happened during that year as the Free State became more established and they demobilised their army and it was those, their army then, got whatever jobs were going back down the country and when the Republicans got out in 1924, the fourteen thousand of them – and Ernie O’Malley got out in one of the last in July 1924 – there were really no jobs available – certainly no state jobs – and they had been looked down upon and most of those fourteen thousand – I don’t know what percentage the historians will give but maybe ten thousand came over to America and certainly Mick Flannery, Judge Comerford, many of the names I’ve mentioned in the New York environment while I lived here, came over at that time.

Martin: They didn’t realise when they were being pushed out or when they were pushing people of that political belief out that they’d be laying the groundwork for Clann na nGael, for Irish Northern Aid, for people like that to be here and be at the start – would keep pushing – you know I use the phrase John Devoy – keep pushing for there to be another struggle for Irish independence. Alright, John McDonagh wanted me to specially mention: One of the works that you did, your father, Ernie O’Malley, went around to various areas, Kerry, Galway, Mayo and Corcaigh, and he interviewed other people who had participated in the struggle and how important that research was and you were able to get it published and he wanted me to draw the parallel between that and what is happening with the Boston Tapes and efforts to get the stories of Republicans in the struggle today. Just tell us about that work that you did.

Well it was, you know, as you may have read John McGahern who, in Amongst Women, the old men, the veterans, would sit around in the pubs and talk and revive – they wouldn’t tell the wives, they wouldn’t tell their children – but a couple of the comrades, such as Father and Florrie O’Donoghue and others, developed a concept that this should be recorded in some way and that grew into sort of a political, well a quasi-political development, within the interregnum of party of 1946 to ’48. And they created a Bureau of Military History and the thought was to hire professors and you know independent people but also some from both sides to give a fair impression and to go around the countryside or have a bureau in Dublin where people could come to and that group of ten or twenty people, staffed by the government, interviewed seventeen hundred and seventy-six people over the course of ten years. Father disagreed with them on the principle they were going to stop their interview chronology at the time of the truce. And he said that look, the fight went on ’til 1924 and you know the Free Staters were still executing Republicans in ’23 and ’24 so I’m going to do my own study. So he went around all by himself without anyone paying him and he, having been the senior military commander on the Republican side, personally got four hundred and fifty statements from – and interviews with people – in probably twenty-four – twenty-five different counties. And when he died in 1957 and I found these notebooks I gave them to the University College Dublin where they have been sleeping ever since. But in the year 2000 what I tried to do was to go back and transcribe these handwritten documents, which were terrible to transcribe, and I found some people who helped me in the counties of – starting off in Kerry, Galway, Mayo – and we were able to recount – and my aim was to bring to the grandchildren of these people the stories of what their fathers and grandfathers had done because, just like our Vietnam vets here, people don’t talk about war and it just so happens that Ernie O’Malley did capture not only the deeds that they done – good and bad and indifferent – but also the accents in which they spoke. So these family documents are really very interesting in numerous ways. But…

Martin: …Well it’s a striking thing: You’re talking about 1916 through 1924, you’re talking about a crucial period in Irish history when at least twenty-six counties became independent and here it is in the – you’re talking about 1957 or 1960 – and people were still worried about telling the story of what had happened so many years before in the history of their country. It would be almost like in the American Revolution just somehow in 1812 being afraid to have veterans of the American Revolution talk about how they had fought against the British and won independence.

Cormac: Sure. But you know there is the syndrome, which we all know, which people suffer when they go through the hardships of struggles and hunger strikes and internment and you know, from certain points of view when they get ex-communicated by the Church, there’s the burden of shame comes upon some people, not all, and they shut up about it. They don’t tell their wives – the wives don’t understand what went on. And so that just become their history and, as McGahern tells in his stories, the men tell it to themselves but not to their children. And so what I wanted to do in doing this series of books – and Father had written, I found in one of his drawers a beautiful book, which I published, called Rising Out: Seán Connolly of Longford and Seán Connolly was a local organiser sent by Mick Collins from – he’d organised not only Longford but he went up to South Roscommon, North Roscommon and Leitrim and he was doing in those three counties what Father had done in seventeen different counties. And I think Father wanted to tell the story not of a big man like himself but of a small man who was doing exactly the same thing, encountering the same problems – we sort of glorify what the image of the Republicans were in those days – they hard hard times just as fellows in The North later had, convincing their fellow citizens to take a stand. These were basically conservative, Catholic, rural families – those were hard to shift even if they Fenian tradition and songs in the pub. Getting a man to, or a young man who’s a farmer, to go out and train for military operations is really a very difficult thing. And so this was a beautiful story that Father took based on the interviews that he did in Roscommon and Leitrim. He was able to pull an entire book together so he not only did On Another Man’s Wound and The Singing Flame and a book published in the Sunday Press called The Raids and Rallies but he’d done this third book, fourth book, Rising Out, which is also a great read.

Martin: Before you go, John McDonagh asked me to share a story with you about your father that Michael Flannery had told me and what had happened is after Bernadette Devlin was attacked and wounded in The North of Ireland there were a number of IRA Volunteers who wanted to do something in retaliation and they were told they couldn’t and they went out and they did it under another name and eventually it got adopted – everybody thought it was something that should have been done – but I’m sitting around and Mike Flannery says: Well, when I was in the IRA we had an operation where we supposed to attack a barracks (I forget which barracks it was) and everything was all planned and word came from GHQ (General Headquarters) not to do anything, and we found out later there was a good reason for it (but they were not aware of it). So they went and got your father because he was in the area and he was in GHQ and they told him he could be in charge of the operation. And the reason they did that is that if they got in any trouble with GHQ for having this unauthorised operation they would say: Well Ernie O’Malley was there. He authorised it. He was okay. And it just, the way he said it, it just showed the parallels between people of current or recent generations and the people that your father interviewed, talked about, was one of, played such a prominent part of – and I really have to commend you. I enjoyed the books, The Singing Flame, On Another Man’s Wound – the other books that you’ve been involved in and if you hadn’t put those books together and made them public that crucial, crucial part of Irish history would have been lost to us. So I want to just really commend – and very appreciative of everything that your father did but I certainly want to commend and appreciate everything that you did in making sure that that history would be preserved.

Cormac: Well thank you very much, indeed. There is a book I did on the Civil War called No Surrender Here The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, and that really tells – there had, ironically enough, had been no Irish academic ever to take the Republican side, or at least tell the Republican side. And what I tried to do was I found in the archive sixty or more letters between Ernie O’Malley and Liam Lynch, the Commander and the Assistant Commander, as to what their attitude was on all of the relevant issues going on in the Civil War. It’s a six hundred page book and it tells that story quite well.

Martin: Let me just ask you before we go: I’ve always found most of the people who became involved in the Civil War – now we know that partition was permanent but again, Michael Flannery, some of the other veterans at that time – told me that that was not the big issue. That they thought the Boundary Commission, they were all told the Boundary Commission – Tyrone, Fermanagh, Doire City, they’re all going to go to part of the Twenty-Six Counties and the British are going to get out because there’s going to be very little left – but the thing that they would not do was having pledged to the Irish Republic and said that the Irish Republic had national freedom, a right to national freedom – they weren’t going to take an oath, they weren’t going to have a Lord Lieutenant or some kind of Home Rule, Free State within British rule. Is that what you found as you did this research?

Cormac: Well definitely. I mean there are – I’m sort of writing about that right now – and one of the issues which the Republicans sort of rejected the treaty on the grounds first of all that the thirty-two counties were not included. That’s a little bit, one can actually think of that as an ostrich issue – the six counties had already been carved off. They were a existing government at the time that that the treaty existed and that there was a military police state up there with their own British armaments, etc. So there was no way that the British government in an empire which was not yet falling apart was going to give that six counties back to Ireland and indeed the time schedule will be shown by later scholars that the treaty discussions were delayed until that government was, in fact, opened so that they would say: Look it, that’s off the table. The second big issue was, indeed, the Oath of Allegiance. The Oath of Allegiance was the issue to the foreign king and you know, these were Catholic fights, whether they had been ex-communicated or not, and they felt that their republic had started in January 1919 and that they were fighting for something that already existed and they couldn’t possibly concede – that they would do whatever would be indifferent to that cause and compromise it. So the oath really did become the significant issue. Now, what historians need to look at is whether the Republican position in 1922, having had the treaty approved by the Cabinet – you know, four to three, approved by the Dáil, by sixty-four to fifty-seven, approved by the parliamentary election which gave, let’s say, a minority to anti-treaty and a majority to the pro-treaty and labour people – and then to take up arms against you know, ultimately against, the Free State. So they were righteous. They had a cause. But history still, historians have still looked at them in a dubious attitude.

Martin: Alright. We’re going to have to leave it there. We could go on for a much longer time. I want to thank Cormac O’Malley. Some of the books are: On Another Man’s Wound, The Singing Flame, Raids and Rallies. There are other books you’ve published and if you see them on amazon dot com – or is there any other way that people should get those books?

Cormac: They can go to or write me at cormac.omalley@gmail dot com and I’ll put you in touch.

Martin: Alright, if you want to find out about the War of Independence, if you want to find out about the Civil War, if you want to learn what it was really like, what those Volunteers really had to go through, those are the places to do your research. Alright, thank you.

Cormac: Thank you very much indeed.

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1 comment:

  1. I heard the interview with Cormac O’Malley about his dad Ernie shortly after it was first broadcast it was very informative. After listening to the part about Ernie O'Malley's interviews with his former comrades to place on the public record their own experience of the war of independence and the civil war which followed. I wondered if this research was to the fore in AM's mind when he started out talking to his former comrades about their war in what was due to become the Boston tapes achieve.