Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

7 June 2024

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A star that shone brightly - Volunteer Ella O’Dwyer remembered

My comrade in Arms, Óglaigh na hÉireann, Ella O’Dwyer, came from Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Her sudden passing has carved a pain in my heart that I never knew existed. My deepest sympathy goes out to Ella’s sister Marian and her brothers Darb (Gerry), Paddy and Philly.

Ella wasn’t born into a republican family. It was Ella who made the O’Dwyer’s of Tipperary synonymous with Irish Republicanism. 

Ella later

When I first met her, she was incensed. She could not accept, in the years of 1980 and 1981, that young Irish people in Long Kesh and Armagh, men and women her age, endured what Thomas Ashe and Terence MacSwiney had experienced on hunger strike.

Understanding the depths of oppression in the north of Ireland and knowing that our right to resist was valid, Ella did what needed to be done — she joined the struggle to right a terrible wrong: Partition. 

Ella nice pic

Ella played her part and was known for her determination and drive. For Ella, taking the war to Britain was the natural response to their oppression in Ireland. She studied and perfected an English accent, and whether it was purchasing tickets, asking questions, or getting us from A to B, she spoke with a perfect Cockney accent. She operated in England with an impressive confidence, and she impressed everyone around her.

Arrested in Glasgow in 1985, we two found ourselves remanded for 13 months in Brixton, “in the jail that held MacSwiney”. With 600 men and us two women, we clung to each other, navigating a dark passage that tested our resilience and strained the fabric of our humanity. The relentless strip searching was outrageous, but particularly disdainful to Ella was the body mauling, searched six times a day, every day. Them touching her turned her stomach.

Ella 1987 An Phoblacht

An Phoblacht/Republican News, Christmas 1987

Ella 1987 An Phoblacht 2

Despite the cruelty of the screws in Brixton and later Durham Jail, Ella and I maintained solidarity, facing challenges together. Our unity discouraged others from attempting to drive a wedge between us. “You touch one of us, you better do us both,” We’d tell them. “And you better finish us off because if you leave one of us standing, it’ll be a ‘BIG’ mistake.” Thankfully, they believed us.

Ella and Martina in prison

• Irish POWs Ella O'Dwyer and Martina Anderson

The ongoing struggle for basic rights and dignity persisted throughout our years in Durham Jail, and Ella’s gift for composing letters and describing the appalling jail conditions helped us gain support outside and amplify the harsh realities of prison life. 

Ella release protest

Ella wrote to Jackie McMullan in Long Kesh, and they got married in Durham Jail. Despite the unusual circumstances, it was a beautiful event. Jackie, serving life, was released on parole, and although their relationship didn't survive the pressure of jail, they remained good friends. Jackie visited Ella a few weeks ago when he was in Dublin for a Palestinian protest. She spoke fondly of that. 

Ella O’Dwyer was the smartest republican I’ve ever met. A UCD honours graduate in English, linguistics, and philosophy, she built upon that success in the University of Hard Knocks, Durham Jail, where she achieved an MA from Durham University and later a PhD published as a book—'The Rising of the Moon: The Language of Power'." 

Ella's book

It’s definitely not a book for the beach; even some university lecturers would give it a by-ball. Ella drew on the literary and philosophical theories of brilliant academics like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, and Martin Heidegger. She also analysed the writings of Beckett, W.B. Yeats, and many others. While I struggled with a dictionary trying to teach myself how to spell, Ella found consolation in the writings of Samuel Beckett.

Ella used to tell me that while Beckett was “deadly serious, he lightened up her prison world”. I remember one day we were walking in the exercise yard, and she was telling me how much she loved Beckett’s novel, "Molloy". 

She explained how the character collected stones on a beach and passed the time by distributing them between his pockets, sucking each stone one after the other. I looked at her as if she’d lost the plot, and she knew that look. I can still hear her laugh at the expression on my face as she explained through tears of laughter that “having a purpose or goal was not the same as having meaning”. 

Beckett, she told me, had it “right to a T.” How did he click this? Wide eyes with no comprehension, we laughed at my relief of not having to answer that one!

Ella in maghaberry

When she was writing her PhD, she told me it was a "study of literature, of fiction, the theory of meaning, meaning itself." She was “looking at meaning, how it operates, the psychological effects of the world, and how structures of oppression affect people.” I often quoted those sentences back to her, and she laughed heartily. She was on a hiding to nothing with me as someone to bounce her ideas off, but she never let that stop her or make me feel unable to grasp the depth of her thinking. She taught me a lot and left a lot for the world to learn.

Ella and Martina 2004 SFAF

• Martina and Ella at the 2004 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis

Upon Release Ella worked for TD Seán Crowe, Coiste and also wrote for An Phoblacht. On Tuesday 4 June Ella spoke to me about the Legend series compiled by An Phoblacht and one of the legends was Michael Gaughan. 

She spoke about her interviewing Danny 'Jack' McElduff and said it would help me in preparation for an event with Gerry Kelly. I immediately contacted An Phoblacht, who promptly sent the booklet by email and I WhatsApped it to Ella, saying, “You are a star.” And a star she was, one that will always shine brightly in my heart and mind. 

It’s now a cliché, but for Óglach Ella O’Dwyer, it is a truism—we will never meet the likes of her again. I loved you comrade, and I hope you knew it.

Ella and Danny

• Ella and Danny 'Jack' McElduff in 2009

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Contributions from key figures in the churches, academia and wider civic society as well as senior republican figures

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