Fr Kevin Hegarty
One of the highlights of the recent ‘Wild Atlantic Words Literary Festival’ was Cormac O’Malley reading from the works of his father, Ernie O’Malley. Ernie O’Malley was one of the most significant figures of the War of Independence and the Civil War. John McGahern described his memoir of revolution ‘On Another Man’s Wound’ as a book of ‘high literary quality’ and the one classic work to have emerged directly from the violence that led to the founding of the Irish Free State. It is fitting that he should be remembered in the schedule of centenary celebrations of the years of Irish revolution.
O’Malley was born 120 years ago in Castlebar. One of eleven children, his father was clerk to the Crown Solicitor for Mayo.
In 1906, when his father received an appointment with the Congested Districts Board, the family moved to Dublin. Ernie was educated by the Christian Brothers and received a scholarship to study medicine at UCD. At this time he shared his family’s pro- British sympathies. He even thought of joining his older brother in the British Army.
The novelist, Graham Greene has written of the door that opened O’Malley’s life and legacy into the future was the Easter Rising of 1916. In the memoir ‘On Another Man’s Wound’ he captures colourfully what he witnessed during that fateful week. He evokes the sunny April morning, the sense of people on holiday. However, as he walked into Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), the scene changed. He saw a new flag, the tricolour on the flagship of the GPO. There were dead horses behind Nelson’s Pillar. On the pillar he read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
He has left us a marvellous description of the aftermath of the Rising, the looting and the general break down of order. People from the slums – the crowded, dilapidated tenements, once the homes of eighteenth century grandees – had looted some of the shops. A boy walked around with a bright yellow shoe on one foot, the other bare. Women carried aprons full of footwear, stopping at intervals to sit on the curb and try on a pair of satin shoes, then dissatisfied, flung them away and fitted on another and different variety. Boys wore silk hats perched on their noses or backwards at a drunken angle.
The Rising and the subsequent executions changed radically his political perspective. He joined the Irish Volunteers where he displayed considerable military acumen. During the ‘War of Independence’ he saw significant service in several parts of Ireland and rose to the rank of Commandant General.
O’Malley refused to accept the compromise that was the ‘Anglo Irish Treaty’ and fought in the Civil War during which he was severely injured and imprisoned.
After his release he travelled through Europe and the USA where he became friendly with many literary and artistic figures. He married a wealthy American, Helen Hooker and they lived for a time in Burrishoole. After the failure of the marriage, he returned to Dublin where he died in 1957. In the words of his biographer, Richard English, his historical significance lies in his having been both a leading Irish revolutionary, and the author of compelling autobiographical accounts of those years.
Finally, just as I returned from holiday, I learnt of the death of Neill O’Neill. Neill was always so courteous and helpful. He had a deep pride in and passion for this newspaper. His loss is devastating for his partner Emma, his parents Colam and Mary, his siblings Conor, Finbar, Aoife and Orla and extended family and wide circle of friends. May they find comfort in the wonderful memories they have of him.
Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam uasail.