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16 January 2017 Edition

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Champion of underdogs of the world and Ten views of Ernie O’Malley

Book Reviews

Land League, 1882 -1906

By Carla King, UCD Press

THIS is a riveting account of a determined idealist’s non-stop championing of underdogs the world over.

The list of Michael Davitt’s activities in his later years are seemingly endless. For a less-committed person, the extent of his travels alone would seem to leave little time for anything else. As well as repeatedly touring throughout Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, he also journeyed to America repeatedly. 

He also travelled throughout Europe, visiting France, Italy, Hungary, Germany, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, In addition, he also went as far afield as  South America, Tasmania, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Hawaii, and Samoa, amongst other places. 

When one considers the methods of travel available at that time, with limited infrastructure in many areas, the sheer physically arduous nature of these journeys and the time they took should not be underestimated. 

Nor were these visits recreational. Lecture tours, fund-raisers and dissemination of the facts of the Irish situation were of paramount importance. In addition, Davitt took every opportunity to champion the cause of labour, the marginalised and the disenfranchised in every location he visited. 

He made repeated visits to Russia to highlight the anti-Semitic pogroms there. His South African trip was to promote the Boer cause in their war with Britain. His deeply-held anti-imperialist beliefs led him to defend the rights of the indigenous people wherever he went.

On top of all of this, he was a Member of Parliament, a journalist and a foreign correspondent, author, convict and tireless campaigner for causes from Home Rule and land rights to prison and electoral reform. 

Not a bad track record for someone who started work in a Lancashire cotton mill at the age of nine.

Don’t be intimidated by the size of his book. It needs to be big in order to do justice to the man.

Ernie O’Malley in Context

Edited by Cormac K. H. O’Malley, Irish Academic Press

THIS is an unusual and most intriguing book. It is a collection of eleven essays, or rather ten essays and an “Afterword”.

The fact that the afterword is written by the doyen of revisionist historians, Roy Foster, does not mean that this is just another work of convoluted revisionist propaganda. In fact, whilst one may disagree with some of the points he makes, this is not one of the usual anti-republican polemics, and is actually spectacularly well-written. 

The book features essays by ten leading academics and is edited by Cormac K. H. O’Malley, Ernie O’Malley’s son, who is an American-based academic.

The essays cover a very broad spectrum. Whilst O’Malley’s great literary works, On Another Man’s Wound and The Singing Flame, are both covered in detail, there is also consideration of lesser-known aspects of his life.

Several of the essays relate to O’Malley’s years spent in Mexico and America, where he was exposed to and embraced the modernist art movement. He became a passionate advocate of all aspects of modernist art, including painting, literature and photography. In particular, he was an ardent promoter of Jack Yeats’s painting, which he felt was not getting the recognition it deserved in Ireland. 

Not all the contributors seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet. Several seem to belong to different choirs altogether. 

Professor Nathan Wallace has an essay examining Ken Loach’s use of Ernie O’Malley as the prototype for the character “Damien” in the film The Wind that Shakes the Barley and in which he takes Roy Foster to task for his revisionist reviews of the film, implying gently that he rather missed the point.    

Another contribution from Dr John Regan examines the destruction of the Four Courts, demonstrating conclusively that it was destroyed by Free State forces, effectively demolishing the myth that it was destroyed in a fit of republican pique.  

All in all, a fascinating book. Not an easy read but well worth the effort.

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