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9 December 1999 Edition

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O'Donnell abú

Peadar O'Donnell
By Peter Hegarty
Published by Mercier Press
Price £12.99

Peadar O'Donnell's extraordinary life spanned the 20th century and it also spanned a whole range of Irish experiences. A son of the Donegal Gaeltacht, he was a national teacher, trade union organiser, IRA fighter in the Tan war, IRA Executive member in the Civil War, political prisoner, political agitator, editor of An Phoblacht, founder of The Bell magazine, novelist, internationalist, socialist and republican.

Peter Hegarty brings all these aspects of O'Donnell's character and career to life in this excellent biography. It is packed with incident. The writing is clear and direct. I read it in the space of a couple of days and while I knew a fair bit about O'Donnell this book filled in many gaps and provided fascinating new insights.

Perhaps the least well-known period in O'Donnell's life of activism was his time as an organiser for the Transport Union in Ulster in 1918 and 1919 when he blazed a trail through Cavan, Monaghan, Donegal, Tyrone and Derry. It was a measure of the energy and talent of the man that he could organise so many workers in such a short time and so successfully. It was also a measure of the radical spirit of the time when the red flag and the tricolour flew side by side and a new political consciousness provided fertile ground for O'Donnell. But the seeds of bitter division were also being sown as the Orange bosses, who were on the verge of power in the new Six-County statelet, successfully divided Protestants from their fellow workers. The pogroms in Derry in 1920, where O'Donnell was based, were both anti-nationalist and anti-labour.

O'Donnell had his union experience behind him when he joined the IRA and it made him a very unusual Volunteer. He knew that the Movement of the time was essentially a broad front and out of it would come a power struggle along social and economic lines. This is perfectly illustrated by the successful IRA attack on Ballytrain RIC barracks in County Monaghan in 1920. Two of the attackers were O'Donnell and Eoin O'Duffy, later leader of the Blueshirts, who were at opposite ends of the political spectrum ten years later.

O'Donnell was uniquely placed to see how the gombeen men were taking over the revolution and he understood the dynamics of the Civil War better than most. He wrote brilliantly about this period in The Gates Flew Open, which ranks with Ernie O'Malley's The Singing Flame as the best book on the Civil War. For the rest of his life, O'Donnell was one of the leading critics of the crass conservatism which dominated the Free State.

After the Civil War, O'Donnell again became a whirlwind agitator. As editor, he turned An Phoblacht into a dynamic paper which was the leading voice of opposition to the Cosgrave regime. Virtually single-handed, he made the Land Annuities into a national and international issue. It was taken up by de Valera and was one of the key factors which helped Fianna Fáil to power in 1932. With Frank Ryan, O'Donnell was the leading figure of the Republican Left in the 1930s, but it was a time of disillusionment as the Republican Congress split, the IRA turned away from politics and Fianna Fáil mopped up political support. This period is best covered by Seán Cronin in Frank Ryan - the Search for the Republic, which deals more deftly and in more detail with the 1930s.

While he never ceased to be a political activist, O'Donnell turned more towards literature, concentrating on his own novels and on The Bell magazine which he founded with Seán Ó Faoláin. This was an anti-establishment journal which challenged the hypocrisy and censorship of the confessional State in the 26 Counties, as well as providing an outlet for young writers.

While many republicans and writers had to emigrate in the middle years of the century, O'Donnell's steady income from his novels and his partner's inheritance allowed them to stay in Ireland and he remained a focus for radicalism, often a lone voice, but much respected and one who could not easily be dismissed. One of his last public political outings was to take part in a demonstration in Galway against the visit of U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1984. By the time of his death in 1986, he was recognised by many as, in the author's words, ``one of the most influential shapers of modern Ireland''.

Peter Hegarty has produced a fascinating biography and I highly recommend it. I have one quibble. He does not discuss O'Donnell's ideas in any depth or analyse his importance as a key figure in Irish politics. Perhaps this is a job for another day. Undoubtedly O'Donnell's contribution was decisive in the long journey of Irish republicanism, a journey that has reached another momentous stage this week. I wonder what O'Donnell would think?

This book is available from the Sinn Féin Siopa, 44 Parnell Square, Dublin.


Culture Vultures

Political Cartoons 1990-1999

Ian Knox

The Blackstaff Press


On a previous occasion, I referred to Ian Knox as ``one of the best of today's cartoonists.'' Having looked at this book I am tempted to abandon that pretence of objectivity and delete the words ``one of.''

This book contains a selection of his work from the final decade of the 20th century. An art student wishing to learn about draughtsmanship could do worse than examine the drawings in this book. Along the way the student will be amused, entertained and informed.

I will not pretend that I agree with the political analysis implied in the cartoons. After all, the vast majority of them first appeared in the ``Irish News'' and that paper is by and large, the journalistic face of the SDLP. My view of say, Seamus Mallon, is unlikely to reflected in that organ. And there will be no jokes at the expense of John Hume for he as we all know, is a suitable case for canonisation. One image, for example, depicts John Hume as single-handedly fixing the engine of a the car which is the Peace Process. Gerry Adams is not to be seen.

Am I nit-picking? Of course I am. That's what reviewers do. Enough of it. This is a wonderful collection of work. It's very funny and you will get a penny change out of £6.


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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