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Modern Ireland and Revolution

Ernie O’Malley in Context
Cormac O’Malley
Irish Academic Press

Modern Ireland and Revolution: Ernie O’Malley in Context


From the Introduction

This is the first collection of essays published on Ernie O'Malley and is part of a continuing revival of interest in a writer and a radical whose art and archives offer the possibility to think again of Irish cultural history in the twentieth century. The ongoing decade of commemorations, which stops before the Civil War with which O'Malley is associated so strongly, has broadened the conversation further, with partic­ular regard to the role of women, not only in rebellion but also in the professions, in social life and in political thought. There is a sense, however, in which the years that followed the rebellion are being recast as centenary steps of the inevitable progress to statehood. This is where this collection, and the life and work of Ernie O'Malley, prove both instructive and provocative, his role in the War of Independence and in the Civil War to follow a very public disruption of the idea that the decade of centenaries should end in 1922, where it might better have begun.

O'Malley played a leading role in these events. A young man at the outbreak of the Easter Rising his leadership of various military formations after 1918 and his commit­ment to an Irish republic after the negotiated settlement of the Anglo-Irish Treaty became a proxy for illegitimate extremism because of his presence at the Four Courts in Dublin when it was destroyed during the initial phase of the Civil War. With it went many of the ancient records of Irish history and so the dreadful loss of these documents has become a symbolic proxy for all those qualities that the independent state associated with a hostile republicanism. One of the more provocative essays in this collection is by John M. Regan, who suggests the story behind this disaster might be more complicated than we have come to believe in the context of documentary evidence that points to other possible reasons for the inferno. Whatever the truth of this episode, the enigma of Ernie O'Malley, and the personas projected upon him, represents a case study in the management of post-revolutionary tensions in a divided society, and a reminder of the effect these tensions can have on the foundations of scholarly study. O'Malley's own first instinct after the conflict was to flee, first to Europe and then to America, where he travelled westward until he reached the boundaries of that broad landmass. He found in the American west, as he did later in Mayo, a space to think, write and correspond his experience with that of social groups who, like him, were in exile from the centre of things. Writing offered one way back to society, as did book learning, and O'Malley spent his wandering years immersed in both.

In doing so he entered another cultural zone, which preceded the military campaign but was ambivalent about it. The literary revival was a broad based movement whose major figures represent a small fraction of the diverse interests that cultural experiment engaged with in the decades before 1922. O'Malley had less interest in the older gener­ation that shaped the revival's first and classic phase — William Butler Yeats, George Russell and their contemporaries creating an idea of Ireland that gave partial form to the rebellion generation's ideals. But there were stark differences between the practice of rebellion and the art of nationality and once the Treaty marked a divide between those who would hold and those who would fight on, Yeats and Russell made quick compromise with the new state. This was not true of James Joyce, who created his own revolution with the publication of Ulysses in the same year the Civil War began. As Luke Gibbons shows, O'Malley read this book later with careful and significant atten­tion, a fact that speaks to O'Malley's own construction of his memoir, On Another Man's Wound, as part biography and part modernist fiction. The genesis of this hybridity can be traced to O'Malley's lectures on modern Irish literature and history in Santa Fe at the turn of the 1930s. The substance of these talks is lost but the connection between O'Malley's writing, Joyce, and the fall of the imperial systems upon which the worlds of O'Malley and Joyce were first built is significant to an understanding of both Irish writers' comparative relevance to other times and places. This is an argument that David Lloyd follows in his consideration of the multiple ways in to understand the context of O'Malley's career beyond the narrowly republican, which is itself a concept generated by the need of the new state, as Lloyd sees it, to regulate the political advance of socially committed combatants against it. O'Malley was not in the vanguard of social change in the way that some of his contemporaries were and it might be argued that the most advanced thinking on issues like suffragism, human rights, sex and vegetar­ianism had peaked at the time of the Easter Rising, in part because this thinking was connected to wider patterns of social change in Edwardian Britain.

The revolution that O'Malley entered was barely worth the name in social terms, being a collapse of British political will by force of guerrilla warfare, an achievement no less the remarkable for that. It was a sporadic, intense and intimate war, the effects of which shadowed, or perhaps shaped, O'Malley for the rest of his life. There is no search for self-pity in his writing of the period, and only the occasional flicker of personal revelation with regard to the conflict's effect upon him, no matter that he constantly sought to create projects that spoke to other individuals' truth of the period. This is remarkably evident in his project to record by hand hundreds of volunteers' testimonies. Even here O'Malley has become a subject of myth, his desire to talk with combatants interpreted as his desire to create an alternative and republican archive of the conflict. Eve Morrison suggests the unlikeliness of this proposition in her insightful account of O'Malley's witness interviews and shows how closely aligned his work was to that of the official Bureau of Military History's witness statements. There is no doubt of O'Malley's dislike, whether well founded or not, of the officer in charge of the government-sponsored programme, but this cannot be said to constitute a dedicated stance against the Bureau's perspective. The major obstacle to incorporating O'Malley's research into the state archives appears rather to have been his handwriting, which is notoriously difficult to decipher. O'Malley was a creature of notebooks and a builder of archives. The pathology of this desire to capture information in reams of paper might be connected to the working out later of so much loss, emotionally and materially, in the years of disturbance. If so, the orchestration of new information was a constant refrain that did not diminish, however long O'Malley lived.

The audiences for these projects shifted according to time and context. O'Malley's interviews were an expression partly of his own sense of responsibility to record versions of the conflict that spoke to his own early adult experiences. His notebooks and diaries were more personal again and exhibit an always-restless personality, capable of sharp judgement and great in relative measure. The published works amplified O'Malley's ambition to find an audience of receptive minds in post-independence Ireland. This was no easy task and Seumas O'Malley's essay on the idea of the Irish in On Another Man's Wound as an undivided people is an insightful exploration of the challenges the author faced. He places these challenges in a European context that stresses again the deep transnational relationships that an encounter with Irish cultural history can generate. Macy Todd develops this argument with her reading of Ernie O'Malley and Roger Casement in context of revolutionary literature. Taking these two cultural actors as psychoanalytic case studies, Todd digs into the significance of O'Malley and Casement's responses to injustice, as they perceived it, and their consequent represen­tation of the violence that followed their confrontations with state powers involved in the possession of contested territories.