Simon Smyth 🔖 reviews a classic from the corpus of Irish Republican literature.


The book follows the author's imprisonment during the Irish Civil War. It starts with Peadar O'Donnell's mind going dark, his sensation of being buried and the panic of imprisonment. "I had never felt so unutterably alone."

The downsides to this book are more than compensated by its upsides. It is a very good book but I plodded through it because of its antiquated style rather than its content. I found it disjointed with a hazy chronology. The narrative was difficult to follow at times, moving from one event to another.

It is much closer in writing style to the Victorian era's Glimpses Of An Irish Felon's Life by Thomas Clarke than to the more modern style of Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy, more so than the time differences would suggest.

It holds a wealth of wisdom on Republican resistance. From forming warm relationships with jailers to creating opportunities for escape and otherwise; tunnelling or other strategies for escape; burning the prison; hunger strikes; smuggling; sending comms; building relationships; the interaction with the prison doctors; training, classes and education; being brutalised etc. It is easy to imagine this book as an instruction manual for Long Kesh during the recent conflict. Many of the techniques employed have a longer provenance. However, in the days of Thomas Clarke you were forbidden to read and couldn't even speak to other prisoners and only in exceptional circumstances to the screws and only with their permission.

You can see his antiquated style in the account of his ambivalence towards the idea of a figurehead for Republicanism. The grammar is even antiquated and that caused a little discomfort:

What a pity Mellows was dead: had there been such as he to assemble round there was a team of us left yet ... If there was not (... a Connolly left in Dublin ...) weren't there hundreds of us left in the jails, and shouldn't we make a collective genius to gather this stubborn resistance? The big thing to emphasise is that the stubborn splendour of the big mass of the people must be involved in the tactics of the Revolution: this heresy of the cult of armed men that brought Collins to Imperialism and us to defeat must be overcome.

In Bobby Sands' diaries he speaks of his admiration for a piece by Rudyard Kipling, a player in colonialism and in this book O'Donnell speaks of his love of books particularly P.G. Wodehouse:

The book was great. It was Damsel in Distress by Wodehouse: Look here, that man is wonderful. This was the first book that I had got since coming to Finner except for the Shakespearean interlude. I read it in gulps, took it again in sips, raced through it, dallied over it: I could say whole pages of it yet. I always raise my hand in salute to Wodehouse every time I see his name in a bookshop window.

He endured significant hardships, lack of clothing, food, bullied mercilessly but he mustered significant courage and resources to tackle anything that came his way. The 80 odd reprisal executions carried out by the new Irish Free State were in full swing. For a considerable period and for good reason Peadar O'Donnell thought he was next. The novelist and gun smuggler Erskine Childers was one of the first to die but the Free State soon went about executing prisoners with relish.

His depiction of living day to day, under threat of execution, demonstrates part of the barbarity of living with a death sentence, particularly being unaware of the date or the intention of your captors. Without a firm date and with the constant uncertainty it amounts to inhumane or degrading treatment. How can you plan your next day or week when your life could be extinguished at any time?

His description of the maltreatment of the "Free State Tommies" by the military police in Arbour Hill shows how a war can desensitise a person and allow them to bully and maim even their own.

Then the ceasefire came:

And then one morning my courier came in excitedly and flung me a piece of the Irish Independent of the day before. The ceasefire order had been given to the Legion of the Rearguard - the remnant of the I.R.A. still in the field. The war was over; all executions were off. He was on his hunkers before me as I read, and when I looked up he had his hat off, and his face was shining.
 
Very funny at times, a quirky dark humour, wry at times. His deployment of satire entertains. At other times, most prominently during his metaphysical musings of the working of the mind when the body is enduring a hunger strike, the writing can be profound, it holds great truths.

Going blind from hunger and sensing the unrelenting approach of death must be frightening. George Plunkett and Ernie O'Malley suffered greatly from hunger strike. Lying in bed during the strike and chuckling over a cookery book they showed more courage, self-deprecating humour and self-control than the jibes and insults thrown at such people from those curs who are lacking such attributes, although they often get their mocking material from the same source - food.

After a few deaths, the strike was called off: "You have missed one of life's great moments if you haven't tasted a brandy egg-flip after a forty-one days' fast."

Although the narrative focuses mainly on O'Donnell and his thoughts, a veritable Who's Who of contemporaneous Republicans are dotted throughout: Austin Stack, Ernie O'Malley, Liam Mellows, Dick Barrett, Rory O'Connor etc.

It is short: not a light read nor a chore, it just doesn't flow easily. I will finish my review with a cliché: a significant figure on the Republican left and an accomplished writer Peadar O'Donnell's prison memoir is important for any student of Irish history.

Peadar O'Donnell, 2013, The Gates Flew Open. Published by Mercier Press. ASIN: B07QS4JDHH.

⏩ Simon Smyth is an avid reader and collector of books.

The Gates Flew Open

Simon Smyth 🔖 reviews a classic from the corpus of Irish Republican literature.


The book follows the author's imprisonment during the Irish Civil War. It starts with Peadar O'Donnell's mind going dark, his sensation of being buried and the panic of imprisonment. "I had never felt so unutterably alone."

The downsides to this book are more than compensated by its upsides. It is a very good book but I plodded through it because of its antiquated style rather than its content. I found it disjointed with a hazy chronology. The narrative was difficult to follow at times, moving from one event to another.

It is much closer in writing style to the Victorian era's Glimpses Of An Irish Felon's Life by Thomas Clarke than to the more modern style of Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy, more so than the time differences would suggest.

It holds a wealth of wisdom on Republican resistance. From forming warm relationships with jailers to creating opportunities for escape and otherwise; tunnelling or other strategies for escape; burning the prison; hunger strikes; smuggling; sending comms; building relationships; the interaction with the prison doctors; training, classes and education; being brutalised etc. It is easy to imagine this book as an instruction manual for Long Kesh during the recent conflict. Many of the techniques employed have a longer provenance. However, in the days of Thomas Clarke you were forbidden to read and couldn't even speak to other prisoners and only in exceptional circumstances to the screws and only with their permission.

You can see his antiquated style in the account of his ambivalence towards the idea of a figurehead for Republicanism. The grammar is even antiquated and that caused a little discomfort:

What a pity Mellows was dead: had there been such as he to assemble round there was a team of us left yet ... If there was not (... a Connolly left in Dublin ...) weren't there hundreds of us left in the jails, and shouldn't we make a collective genius to gather this stubborn resistance? The big thing to emphasise is that the stubborn splendour of the big mass of the people must be involved in the tactics of the Revolution: this heresy of the cult of armed men that brought Collins to Imperialism and us to defeat must be overcome.

In Bobby Sands' diaries he speaks of his admiration for a piece by Rudyard Kipling, a player in colonialism and in this book O'Donnell speaks of his love of books particularly P.G. Wodehouse:

The book was great. It was Damsel in Distress by Wodehouse: Look here, that man is wonderful. This was the first book that I had got since coming to Finner except for the Shakespearean interlude. I read it in gulps, took it again in sips, raced through it, dallied over it: I could say whole pages of it yet. I always raise my hand in salute to Wodehouse every time I see his name in a bookshop window.

He endured significant hardships, lack of clothing, food, bullied mercilessly but he mustered significant courage and resources to tackle anything that came his way. The 80 odd reprisal executions carried out by the new Irish Free State were in full swing. For a considerable period and for good reason Peadar O'Donnell thought he was next. The novelist and gun smuggler Erskine Childers was one of the first to die but the Free State soon went about executing prisoners with relish.

His depiction of living day to day, under threat of execution, demonstrates part of the barbarity of living with a death sentence, particularly being unaware of the date or the intention of your captors. Without a firm date and with the constant uncertainty it amounts to inhumane or degrading treatment. How can you plan your next day or week when your life could be extinguished at any time?

His description of the maltreatment of the "Free State Tommies" by the military police in Arbour Hill shows how a war can desensitise a person and allow them to bully and maim even their own.

Then the ceasefire came:

And then one morning my courier came in excitedly and flung me a piece of the Irish Independent of the day before. The ceasefire order had been given to the Legion of the Rearguard - the remnant of the I.R.A. still in the field. The war was over; all executions were off. He was on his hunkers before me as I read, and when I looked up he had his hat off, and his face was shining.
 
Very funny at times, a quirky dark humour, wry at times. His deployment of satire entertains. At other times, most prominently during his metaphysical musings of the working of the mind when the body is enduring a hunger strike, the writing can be profound, it holds great truths.

Going blind from hunger and sensing the unrelenting approach of death must be frightening. George Plunkett and Ernie O'Malley suffered greatly from hunger strike. Lying in bed during the strike and chuckling over a cookery book they showed more courage, self-deprecating humour and self-control than the jibes and insults thrown at such people from those curs who are lacking such attributes, although they often get their mocking material from the same source - food.

After a few deaths, the strike was called off: "You have missed one of life's great moments if you haven't tasted a brandy egg-flip after a forty-one days' fast."

Although the narrative focuses mainly on O'Donnell and his thoughts, a veritable Who's Who of contemporaneous Republicans are dotted throughout: Austin Stack, Ernie O'Malley, Liam Mellows, Dick Barrett, Rory O'Connor etc.

It is short: not a light read nor a chore, it just doesn't flow easily. I will finish my review with a cliché: a significant figure on the Republican left and an accomplished writer Peadar O'Donnell's prison memoir is important for any student of Irish history.

Peadar O'Donnell, 2013, The Gates Flew Open. Published by Mercier Press. ASIN: B07QS4JDHH.

⏩ Simon Smyth is an avid reader and collector of books.

5 comments:

  1. Quick point. I read that book a few years back and went into an O'Donnell period, digesting his fiction and non - fiction. Got his 'There Will Be Another Day.' at a wee shop in Donegal. But finally had to give up wi' 'Salud' the style of writing was wearing me down and in the end counter - productive. Reviewer is richt though, there are profound truths in there: encountering a new TD up his way in Donegal, the descriptor 'cute hoor' was and is universally apt. If you are unfortunate enough to come across these brass necked chancers that make up every parliament you'll understand straight away!

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  2. According to one contemporary, Michael O´Donoghue, who knew him as part of the IRA in Donegal prior to the Civil War, O´Donnell was "a revolutionary thinker and writer, was of the rover type, too volatile for an efficient Volunteer officer, sublime in theory – military, economic, social, political – but in practice a wash-out. He had no control over the IRA under him and was constitutionally unfit for military campaigning of any kind, guerrilla above all." He did concede, however, that "it was a pleasure and an education to hear him airing his views on a variety of subjects."

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  3. As always Simon, thanks for blogging this with TPQ. Many years ago I read Monkeys In The Superstructure by him but don't recall the awkwardness of language which is very much evident in the snippet you provide.

    Loved that line of his about the brandy flipped egg. Sounds great for any day of the year or circumstance, ending hunger strikes or not.

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  4. Dundee for Connolly, I can imagine the slog at the end of a run of books by Peadar O'Donnell, the persistence because of the transfer of brilliance from the author's mind to the page but giving up after too many titles with a faltering style.

    Daniel, With my limited knowledge of O'Donnell I can imagine him as a leader but perhaps not in the military sense as described by Michael O'Donoghue. Maybe the leader of an intellectual endeavour, classes or a civilian collective. Saying that, my knowledge of such things and O'Donnell himself is academic so I could be wrong. As for O'Donoghue his opinion could also be wrong despite knowing him better but I can sense some truth in his words. Thank you, O'Donoghue's perspective is certainly interesting.

    Anthony, thanks very much for providing the space for the review on the Quill. O'Donnell was able to provoke my senses which was another reason to favour the book. Although, I could read another one of his I'd need a break as my stamina would not be up to reading them one after another.

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    Replies
    1. And yet O´Donnell could claim quite an extensive military record, including IRA operations in Donegal and Derry, and rising up the ranks to O.C. of the Second Donegal Brigade and then a member of the anti-Treaty IRA Executive. None of which one would guess from reading his prison memoirs, where he limited himself to the role of passive victim, or his reminiscence in general.

      One historian who had the advantage of meeting him, Michael McInerney, noted the difficulties in getting O´Donnell to say much about his own contribution to the revolutionary era. Otherwise, we´re dependent on later sources, such as Statements in the Bureau of Military History or Ernie O´Malley´s interviews, or contemporary IRA GHQ paperwork (a dispute O´Donnell had with the Derry Battalion leadership was recorded extensively).

      More information on the subject can perhaps be found in an article of mine, at https://erinascendantwordpress.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/the-rover-type-peadar-odonnell-and-the-war-of-independence-in-donegal-and-derry-1919-1921/

      As a side note, O´Donnell gave slightly different accounts of the night of the 8th December, when Liam Mellows, Rory O´Connor, Dick Barrett and Joe McKelvey were shot. In ´The Gates Flew Open´, he overheard in his cell the four men being taken out of theirs and led away, but was otherwise uninvolved. Meanwhile in his interview to historian Uinseann MacEoin, he was initially included in the group, only to be reprieved and sent back to his cell at the last minute.

      Obviously, O´Donnell was a man with many layers to him, and not a man to be easily defined. Another acquittance, Todd Andrews, was to pay tribute to him as "one of the most remarkable men of our generation" - certainly, one of the most interesting.

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