Ernie O’Malley – the great non-political guerrilla

[The review below by Desmond Greaves of the book The Singing Flame: A Memoir of the Irish Civil War 1922-24 by Ernie O’Malley, edited by Frances Mary Blake, was carried in the Irish Democrat under the pseudonym “Killeshandra”, one of several pseudonyms used by the editor. The book was first published by Anvil Books in 1978 and it has been reprinted several times since.]

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A posthumous sequel to “On Another Man’s Wound” can only be welcome, and Frances Mary Blake is to be congratulated on the unobtrusive editing that has made it available to the public.

The first volume told the story of the revolution in Ireland. It was full of the heroism of a united people. This book tells the sad tale of the counter-revolution that followed, when the functions of repression which had been performed for generations by foreign imperialism, were suddenly and cataclysmically taken over by a class within Ireland. Nobody who read this book could ever vote Fine Gael, though there are a few acknowledgments of individuals – Paudeen O’Keefe for example, the “nothing-escapes-from-here-but-gas” Governor of Mountjoy, who for all his drunken bluster was recognised by the prisoners as a decent man at bottom, and was popular.

But see what politics can do to decent men: Griffith with the brain of a shopkeeper, Collins of a cattle-dealer, Mulcahy of a career-soldier. Imperialism had denied these men the opportunities in life they would have wished for. When the change came and imperialism offered them the job of keeping down their fellow-countrymen, they seized the opportunity with both hands. The task of political repression is the same whoever performs it. And so we come to the atrocities at Ballyseedy Cross and the other unhappy stories in this second book of jails.

As for O’Malley himself he was quite remarkable. He was so cultured and yet so non-political. He would stuff a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets into his pocket before going out on an ambush. If he was sensitive to the inherent chauvinism of Shakespeare he gives no sign of it. He was only 24 when the story ends and may have been captivated by the language.

He was a kind of connoisseur of art and used to have long music sessions with Rory O’Connor. The absorption in military matters is quite surprising. And he never got over it. I remember intending to call on him at Burrishoole in Co. Mayo, until I found he was holding the house against his wife and had rifles poking out of every window!

The story is fascinating and the choice of detail masterly, but again and again one is brought up against the same thing, the futility of attempting a military solution to a political problem. Even when you are the stronger party, this seldom works. When you are the weaker it is useless. All the vigour, determination, enthusiasm, solidarity and almost reckless courage that had brought the Republicans through the Tan War was frittered away in a series of demonstrative struggles against petty tyrants, while the villains of the piece sat uninterested at Westminster. And when Fianna Fail was ultimately founded, there was little left to found it with.

Interest will probably centre mainly on the defence of the Four Courts, ending in the explosion that sent hundreds of years of Irish history sky high. O’Malley had on his hands a headquarters staff who did not know their own minds. He could neither fight nor evacuate. And across O’Connell Street in the Hammam Hotel, Cathal Brugha was in like condition. He had De Valera in the guise of a common soldier. Either fight or make peace. The politics of the situation paralysed them. They could not make up their minds. If the whole country had poured into Dublin the Four Courts might have been relieved, and history might have been different. But the will was not there.

If anybody had said “make peace” he would not have been listened to. Yet everybody was talking about it!

O’Malley does not deal with the attempts of the Labour movement to mediate. Again and again as in his previous writing, O’Malley’s position as an uncompromising democrat is displayed. But the Labour movement seems to hold no interest for him. This is significant, for the only alternative to defeat was a junction with the forces of Labour. The Republicans repeatedly saw the need for this, and as repeatedly their leaders shied away from it.

This is a valuable and thought-provoking book and is for the most part well written. The editor has done her work well, but she should not have passed the faulty syntax on page 162 (I for me) and a judiciously placed comma in one or two places would make for easier reading.

However, this book must be unreservedly placed on the “highly recommended” list, and if £10 is thought a trifle dear, then there are libraries which should have it.