By Colman Cassidy, 18 July 1975
Peadar O’Donnell, by Grattan Freyer, Bucknell University Press
Peadar O’Donnell:Irish Social Rebel by Michael McInerney, O’Brien Press
These two books make a good introduction to the work of Peadar O’Donnell – novelist, schoolteacher, journalist, patriot and political agitator – which is not as well known as it should be. The smaller book by Grattan Freyer – 128 pages – traces his early development as a socialist and examines his novels and non-fiction in the light of historical and social events. O’Donnell the political agitator is dealt with in greater detail by Michael McInerney, who spotlights the main political events and personalities in Irish history from 1920 to the present; the writer was for 30 years political correspondent of The Irish Times.
O’Donnell wrote the epilogue for McInerney’s book. The writing expresses something of the old man’s wisdom and humility, but not defeat. His is the courage of the crusader bent on social reform. Thus, at the age of 81 he writes:
- I am convinced that only a progressively mass movement with a clearly definable working-class core in its leadership can get us out of the mess we are in…The Republican Movement should recognise the prerequisite and…that they are not the material for the working-class core…They should help such a leadership forward and make way for it…It would be blasphemy to suggest that a point of assembly is not possible…for all the inflamed, divisive passions of today.
O’Donnell was born at Meenmore, County Donegal in 1893, the fifth of nine children. The family lived simply – five acres of land with some rough mountain grazing. Like most of his neighbours, the father was a migrant labourer, working in Scotland each summer to support his large family. Young O’Donnell avoided this fate when at the age of 14 he was asked to remain at the local national school as a monitor; this led to his entering teachers’ training college in Dublin. At the age or 23 he returned to Donegal and taught in a number of mainland schools before becoming principal on the island of Arranmore, where he developed teaching methods well in advance of his time. It was here that he began to write.
None of this early work was submitted for publication and when the first books did appear there seemed to be no literary influences; the virtue of the style derives directly from the subject-matter. Each of the novels is set against the background of rural Donegal and describes a unique way of life which is now disappearing. Storm (1925) was followed by Islanders (1928) and Adrigoole a year later. The Knife, a study of relations between Catholics and Protestants in a small community, appeared in 1931. O’Donnell’s characters express themselves in forceful action; when he draws a story to a close a social purpose has been realised. There is a gap of 21 years between the publication of On the Edge of the Stream, in 1934 and the final novel, The Big Windows, and it was during this time O’Donnell earned a reputation for himself as the greatest agitator of his generation.
A visit to Scotland in 1917 while he was still teaching at Aranmore, opened his eyes to the conditions of the migrant workers: ‘They accepted conditions in the bothies as British soldiers accepted conditions in the trenches.’ In Glasgow he heard men like Willie Gallagher, Emanuel Shinwell and John MacLean proclaim the gospel of working-class government and from that time onwards he was a pragmatic socialist. The following year he abandoned teaching for political agitation, becoming full-time organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. It was a turbulent period in Irish history, with the War of Independence soon to overshadow the whole country. O’Donnell was wounded in action against the British; the Anglo-Irish Treaty proposals caused a split in the IRA and O’Donnell took the anti-Treaty side with the rank of commandant-general on the Republican Army Executive. Captured by the Free State forces in July 1922, he escaped from the Curragh two years later and set about writing his first novel. At the same time he became editor of An Phoblacht, the official organ of the IRA.
Under his editorship immediate changes became apparent: the paper strongly emphasised social and economic questions and there was a regular column on literary topics that showed the schoolmaster’s drive for adult education. O’Donnell waged war in An Phoblacht on land annuities – the method by which Irish farmers bought out their holdings from Britain – which were having a crippling effect on small farmers, many of who lost everything in their efforts to meet the payments. In republican eyes this tax paid directly to Britain was devoid of all moral sanction and after six years of bitter campaigning, what had begun as a one-man struggle ended in victory in 1931; land annuities were abolished at the cost of economic war with Britain.
O’Donnell was a militant who was never tempted by constitutionalism. He believed that the IRA should serve a socialist as well as a nationalist end, and, after abortive struggles within the leadership, he and two comrades led a short-lived splinter group outside in the mid-Thirties.
McInerney thinks O’Donnell failed to take the gun out of Irish politics because no one of equal stature within the IRA leadership grasped his fantastic idea of changing the military force into a social-political organisation. Thereafter, his role as a social publicist was confined to addressing a few public meetings, plus his long series of articles and editorials in The Bell. Founded by Sean O’Faolain in 1940 with O’Donnell’s active help, this monthly review of literary topics and social and political questions fulfilled a cultural need in a young country that had achieved a precarious independence less than two decades before. O’Donnell was editor from 1946 until it ended in December 1954.
It is possible to read the O’Donnell novels without being conscious that the writer is a social reformer as well as an artist; the message or the teaching is there, just the same. The Gates Flew Open, the first part of his autobiography – the British Museum copy was destroyed by war-time bombing – adds something to the select prison literature of all lands; the second part, Salud! An Irishman in Spain, conveys aspects of the Spanish Civil War that only a novelist at close range could grasp. Wrack, O’Donnell’s only staged play, ran for a short time at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1932 and had an equally short revival – one week -three years later; yet it reads brilliantly and a sense of intense realism is sustained throughout.
Freyer sees O’Donnell as a voice in the wilderness in an Ireland which was at that time one of the most conservative states in Europe:
- In the development of modern Ireland two political traditions combine and conflict: the constitutionalism of British democracy which enabled men like Burke, O’Connell and Parnell to learn the parliamentary game and paved the way for their successors to set up a closely similar government in Dublin; the militant oathbound secret societies…the Fenian traadition of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the IRA. A third tradition has sometimes entered, but it has seldom dominated the vision of human brotherhood is present in Wolfe Tone at the end of the 18th century and in Connolly’s teaching prior to Easter Week, 1916. It is only recessively represented in between in the agitation of Lalor and Davitt- the Land League – and it has been conspicuously absent since.
O’Donnell epitomises this third tradition.