|Photo Credit: Seosamh Ó Mhaoileoin as Chief Marshall at Bodenstown.|
On Saturday, 10 November, Republican Sinn Féin (RSF) appointed a new president at their annual Ard-Fheis (annual meeting) in Dublin’s Teacher’s Club. RSF was formed when a group of Republican traditionalists around people like Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Dáithí Ó Conaill, Joe O’Neill, and Des Long walked-out of the (Provisional) Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis in opposition to the dropping of abstentionism to Leinster House in 1986. The same year a “Continuity Army Council” was formed; however, it remained under the public radar until it emerged in the mid-1990s as the “Continuity IRA”.
From their formation in 1986 until 2009, RSF was led by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh from Longford/Roscommon, the former President of (Provisional) Sinn Féin and Chief-of-Staff of the IRA. He was succeeded by Des Dalton from Kildare who won the election against Republican veteran Des Long from Limerick. Less than one year later, the movement split and Long left with a significant portion of its membership. Over the years, Republicans like Geraldine Taylor from Belfast, Cáit Trainor from Armagh, and Fergal Moore from Lurgan/Monaghan became vice-presidents, yet, all of them left the organization at different stages in recent years.
For those observing the developments within Irish republicanism, the departure of Des Dalton as president of RSF was a question of “when”, rather than “if”. The first time it was confirmed to me by a source from within the organization that Dalton will be replaced at the next Ard-Fheis was in August 2018. Since then speculation thrived over who will succeed him. Over the following weeks and months, three names kept on coming up: John Joe McCusker from Fermanagh, an experienced Republican from Fermanagh; Tomás Ó Curraoin, the only councillor of the organisation from Galway; and Pádraig Garvey, one of the few younger Republicans in RSF, he is from Kerry and contested, unsuccessfully, the last local elections.
McCusker was the speaker at several recent national Easter commemorations of the organisation in Dublin, the main speaker at their Bodenstown commemoration to the grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone in Sallins, Co Kildare, in June 2018, and a long-standing member of their Ard Chomhairle (national leadership). All pointed towards McCusker who had chaired this year’s Ruairí Ó Brádaigh Autumn School, held in Roscommon in September. A man who came from Westmeath to attend the event later told that “McCusker already acted like a president.” He, like me, and many others were caught by surprise over the decision that was announced last weekend.
At noon on Saturday, at the very start of the Ard-Fheis, Seosamh Ó Mhaoileoin (Joseph Malone) was announced president of RSF without an election – a novelty in the history of the organisation. As news of his appointment spread, his name came as a big surprise to me and many others. For observers like me, Seosamh Ó Mhaoileoin was not on the short-list of candidates, not even on the long-list. On Sunday evening, I was on the phone with a former CIRA prisoner who now lives in Belfast. When I gave him the name of the new president of RSF, his reaction was a surprised and simple: “Who?” So, who is Seosamh Ó Mhaoileoin?
In April 2015 I held a series of interviews with Seosamh as part of the research for my PhD thesis. Since 2009, I interview Irish republicans. So far, I have conducted around 100 interviews. The interview series I conducted with Seosamh in April 2015 was the most in-depth interviews I held so far. For our first interview, we met at an arranged meeting point in a small town near Tyrellspass in County Westmeath. From there, we drove to his house in, most likely, one of the most rural areas on the island.
From the first contact on, he was very welcoming, helpful, and forthcoming. During my days interviewing Seosamh, I met one of the most humble, genuine and open-minded Republicans in Ireland. Despite being largely unknown to many Republicans and observes today, his history in the republican movement stretches back to the early days of the Northern Ireland conflict.
From the very beginning of the war in the North, Seosamh was an active member of the Provisionals in the southern Republic of Ireland. That quickly brought him to the attention of the state and he was sentenced to six months in Mountjoy Prison. That was in 1973, during the time of the helicopter escape. On 31 October 1973, “a little helicopter flew across the sky and down into the yard where some prisoners were walking” as the Wolfe Tones would later celebrate the escape of Seamus Twomey, Kevin Mallon, and J.B. O’Hagan from Mountjoy. As a result, 130 republican prisoners were transferred to Portlaoise Prison where security was tighter on 9 November.
Seosamh was one of them. But he soon got released; however, it was not the last time he had seen Portlaoise from inside. He quickly re-joined the Provisional IRA after his release, he was later on-the-run and re-arrested at a training camp in County Kerry in 1980. The camp had been set up by Seán O’Callaghan, “the informer”, a man Seosamh knew himself.
When the training camp was raided by the Irish gardaí, Seosamh attempted to escape and got shot in his knee. He was captured and brought to Tralee Hospital. He was eventually sentenced to seven years in prison and, again, brought to Portlaoise.
He was imprisoned there until just shortly before the split of the Provisional movement in 1986. A split that had a severe effect on Seosamh for he was not solely a member of the Provisional IRA, he also held a strong desire for non-armed politics and, after his second sentencing, had immediately joined the Sinn Féin Cumann in Portlaoise. The Cumann, while originally formed in Mountjoy, had re-constituted as the “Harvey/McCaughey/Smith Cumann Sinn Féin” in January 1978.
All through the years, Seosamh defended abstentionism, as the debates were intensifying since the departure of Ó Brádaigh as president of Sinn Féin in 1983 – and so did the majority of the Portlaoise prisoners. Among Seosamh’s comrades in jail were the staunch abstentionist Jim Lynagh and the vocal opponent of abstentionism, Jim Monaghan. Hence, it was no surprise that Seosamh took the abstentionist position during the Sinn Féin split only months after his release.
He was among those who formed Republican Sinn Féin. He sat on the RSF caretaker executive. This makes him the last member of the caretaker executive who is still a member of RSF. Among others on the caretaker executive in November 1986 were Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Dáithí Ó Conaill from Cork, Cathleen Knowles from Dublin, Des Long, Joe O’Neill from Donegal, hunger striker Pat Ward, also from Donegal, and Diog Ní Chonaill, the daughter of Daíthí. All other members have either died or left the organisation since.
In recent years, Seosamh served as the regular Chief Marshall at the annual Bodenstown commemoration of RSF. He is a fluent Irish speaker. It has been reported that half of his first presidential remarks at the Ard-Fheis on Sunday were in Irish. (It remains to be seen if RSF will publish the full transcript of his remarks.) Already in Portlaoise, Seosamh promoted the Irish language. He joined the Gaeltacht wing which was located on the top landing and edited the Irish-language prison paper “Macalla”, meaning “Echo”, in English. From 1984 on, he organised two Irish night per year in the prison. For a time, he was also on the three-men Gaeltacht committee together with other Irish-speaking republicans like Cyril MacCurtain from Limerick.
Seosamh also has a passion for the sport. During his imprisonment, he ran up to eight miles every morning in the prison yard. “14 laps of the yard were a mile. 84 laps are six miles, sometimes I ran seven, but I could also run eight miles,” he tells me. While he likes running, his true passion is the GAA. He is an ardent follower of his local club and holds his own GAA archive.
Seosamh is a genuine, honest and long-standing Republican. A few years ago, one could find more people like him in RSF but things have changed since. The fact that he was appointed and not elected to his new position raises suspicion that he was merely put in place to lessen the damage done to RSF in the period since the departure of long-time president Ruairí Ó Brádaigh in 2009 and, in particular, in the years from 2014 to 2018 by his predecessor Des Dalton.
The past four years saw the rapid decline of the organisation that resulted in an almost complete demise under the presidency of Dalton. That Dalton did not attend the Ard-Fheis to give his last presidential address to the delegates and that no motion was put forward to thank him for his service to the organisation speaks for itself and his standing within Irish republicanism today. A short Facebook note on the account of RSF only mentioned that they “hope that they will welcome him back as a rank-and-file member in the future” – as being the successor of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, one can hardly fall from grace any lower than he did.
Seosamh Ó Mhaoileoin is a largely unknown figure within Irish republicanism. However, for RSF, his appointment seems a wise choice for he has the necessary republican reputation to be a stabilising factor after long years of turmoil. I attended the last presidential address of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh in Wynn’s Hotel on Abbey Street in the centre of Dublin in October 2009. There were over 200 people in the room. Among those with me in the audience listening to Ó Brádaigh were Times journalist Seán O’Dríscoll and the Irish News’ Allison Morris. At last year’s Ard-Fheis, the numbers were well below 50 and I was informed that the numbers merely stagnated this year. The stagnation rather than the further erosion of members and visitors in attendance is probably the best the organisation could have hoped for.
After years of internal fighting, numerous splits and the departure of senior members, the organisation is pushed back into isolation in merely a handful of areas in Ireland, namely Dublin, North Armagh, Wexford, and Kerry; the membership is ageing and there is stark gender imbalance. The following month will demonstrate if Seosamh Ó Mhaoileoin is able to stabilise the organisation. However, observers of Anti-GFA republicanism consider the destruction done in recent years as being too damaging. The movement, as a whole, seems to be beyond repair. It is most likely that his role is not the one of a stabiliser but the one of the liquidator. Seosamh is a capable man who was brought into this position at the wrong time. At the end of the day, it is not his fault.
Dieter Reinisch is a Historian at the European University Institute in Florence and Editorial Board member of the journal “Studi irlandesi: A Journal of Irish Studies” (Florence University Press). He teaches History and Gender Studies at the Universities of Vienna and Salzburg. He tweets on @ReinischDieter and blogs on me.eui.eu/dieter-reinisch.