Ernie O’Malley: A Life, by Harry F Martin with Cormac KH O’Malley, Merrion Press, 260 pp, €18.95, ISBN. 978-1785373909
Many years ago, in the early 1980s when I lived in north Galway, I was asked if I’d like to meet an Irish-American writer and art curator who was “passing through”. I said yes and we met – if memory serves me right – in Sweeney’s Hotel in Oughterard. We got on fine, talking about poetry, his own included. He wore what seems to me now looking back the attire of Irish America: well-travelled tweed jacket and flannels, colourful polo-neck, polished Oxfords and with a ruddy complexion under a fine head of silver hair and well-looked-after teeth.
It was a generational “look” I’d seen before as the outliers of American scholars and visiting writers, journalists and passionate cultural nationalists arrived in the country of their forebears en route to Connemara or Clare, or further south to Kerry and Cork, occasionally to Mayo or Donegal. Some had been hugely successful in the States, where they had been born from emigrant families in the early decades of the twentieth century. Others had in fact little personal connection to the country other than through university or during and after military service when they had fallen under the spell of Yeats or Joyce or Irish culture and its entanglements with the politics of independence as they swept through Europe at the end of WWII.
They loved “Ireland” and in their writing and curatorial roles set about establishing support systems for Irish literature and art by the mid-century, attending to the initial innovatory beginnings of what became “Irish Studies” at summer schools like the Yeats School in Sligo. But they also produced networks in the US – and elsewhere – through which Irish academics and creative writers and artists could connect with an international audience, some for the first time. Many went on to endow the Irish state with gifts of their art collections and libraries, others turned their attention to honouring the Irish community in North America and would eventually establish university chairs, libraries, endowments in one form or another; a massive yet under-written cultural history that awaits its judicious chronicler.
I never met that gentleman again. He moved on to his base in (I think it was) Clare and I was saddened to discover that he died only a few years after our comfortable conversation in Sweeney’s. My memory suggests a spring day and the air had that rinsed and sparkling quality to it. Radiant.
In those days tourism was mostly American and many folks were drawn to Connemara for the sites and situations of the hugely popular film of a previous generation – John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952). Ford’s real name (Wikipedia tells us) was John Martin Feeney and his parents hailed from Spiddal and Inishmore. He features throughout the new biography of the Irish republican military leader, writer and activist Ernie O’Malley, most tellingly in the way Ford is given the last word in the book’s final paragraph:
In 1964, years after Ernie’s funeral (27 March, 1957) John Ford was addressing a large group of newspaper reporters and members of the public at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. They were asking questions about a new film he was about to make in Ireland. He went off script and shouted a question to the crowd: ‘Tell me,’ he asked the assembly, ‘who was at Ernie O’Malley’s funeral …Did he get military honours?’
He did; as the closing photographs in this poignant life story show.
Ernie O’Malley: A Life, a hugely readable (if unanalytical) study, tells the story of how a Mayo-born son of a middle class Catholic family became one of the most significant commanders on the ground during the War of Independence and retained that leadership role during the Civil War (on the anti-Treaty side). As a very young man in the 1920s O’Malley (born in 1897) had been centrally involved in some of the most dangerous acts in the War of Independence against British forces ‑ including acts which his biographers detail such as reprisal executions of captured British soldiers – and in the attritional and hugely divisive civil war which almost cost him his life, wounded fourteen times by Free State solders on his capture and surviving a forty-one-day hunger strike during imprisonment. He would end up for a significant part of the late 1920s and ’30s, living in America, after a time of travelling throughout Europe:
His trip began with a flight in February 1925 from London to Abbeville, a small city in the north of France; it ended with his return from Dieppe to London by boat and then on to Dublin in September 1926. In between, Ernie visited well over one hundred cities, villages, mountain retreats, museums, churches and historic sites in France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and Holland. He kept scrupulous, detailed lists of places he visited, paintings he saw, books he read and people he met, as well as his itinerary while trekking in the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain.
Years of wandering, in one sense, but also, possibly, years of recovery from the brutalities and trauma of war. “Later in the spring of 1931, Ernie met the poet Hart Crane in Mexico city. Crane was there on a Guggenheim Fellowship. They hit it off immediately.” (Crane would be dead the following April.) O’Malley’s American life, both on the west coast, in Mexico and in New York, would eventually lead to his becoming increasingly recognised within an important coterie of fellow writers and artists with experimental lifestyles.
It also led to his meeting with Helen Hooker, whom he would marry (in 1935), returning to Ireland, and family life in Dublin, Mayo and Dublin again during the 1940s. The return was a mixed blessing. Family life seems to have suited O’Malley, but it was unstable and ultimately fragmented as his artist wife (a wealthy heiress) spent more time away from home, leading to a breakdown of the marriage (divorce in 1952) after a decade and more of their travels together throughout Ireland – itemising architectural and archaeological finds – collecting and curating art and book collections, and leading hugely creative lives with their three children.
The utopian desire behind the military mind is well-captured in the following extract quoted by his biographers as an example of how “Ernie uses words in Irish and allusions to history to give the reader an authentic view of the organic speech of the Irish people that he often encountered”:
Sometimes an old woman as I left a house would say, ‘Goodbye. God save you and guard you, a mhic, and may you have the strength to fight well,’ and press a strong, firm kiss on my mouth. For the moment I was her son who she loved and was proud of. I could see the peaceful, quiet strength of her worn, serene face when I was on the road. It was as if Ireland herself, An Shan Van Vocht, the Poor Old Woman, had saluted one who was fighting for her. There was a strange, passionate love of the land amongst the people … the arts were a broken tradition, the ideal of beauty had gone into the soil and the physical body.
The extract (from On Another Man’s Wound) is redolent of the rhetoric of republicanism and its Pearsean iconography of the time and to a certain extent, still is; although, unforgivably, the impressions of Mario Rosenstock intercept the once-populist sentiment with acidic mockery.
O’Malley received a diploma in European painting in spring 1938 from UCD and later he and Helen “visited Paris, where they spent time with Samuel Beckett”. Like Beckett, O’Malley was mightily impressed with the art of Jack B Yeats, with whom he would develop a lasting friendship along with other “modernists” of the time including the poet-diplomat Denis Devlin. And like Devlin too, O’Malley had a strong if manageable Catholic faith which did not short-circuit his politics.
Reading A Life, the absence of any consciousness of the North, either as the reality of the newly formed state of Northern Ireland or as a political-cultural-ideological challenge to the hegemonic aspirations of O’Malley’s republicanism, is unmissable; a shocking void which ultimately negated the republican argument of the time and, as a result, continues to do so one hundred years later.
O’Malley’s personal and family life is charted with tender and respectful understanding throughout this affectionate portrait. The social life of the West of Ireland, the health and financial difficulties which O’Malley encountered as his marriage unravelled and his attraction to John Ford’s generation of Irish-America never quite waned. He was to act as an adviser on Ford’s Irish films, including The Quiet Man and The Rising of the Moon (1956). It is likely too that the charisma of righteous violence and suffering which clung to those who had fought in the War of Independence never quite paled in the eyes of Irish America and the mystique of its undoubted belief in Irish militant republicanism. The Civil War was another matter.
As writer of memoirs, letters, and curator of a bloody and painful two decades of Ireland’s birth as a republic, Ernie O’Malley presents all the contradictions of his time, class, religion and political aspiration. Spending his final years between rented houses in Dublin and as guest with his son Cormac (who had remained with him) in the houses of wealthy friends in England, one can’t quite see how this fractured life was ever going to “settle”.
Like Charles Donnelly, another revolutionary, who died at a very young age in 1937, O’Malley’s death twenty years later robbed the country of an intellectual presence it could barely afford to lose. The photographs at O’Malley’s state funeral of Seán Lemass, Éamon de Valera and Frank Aiken, survivors all, in their formal suits of mourning, like three horsemen of the apocalypse, and in their undeniable positions of national pre-eminence, says as much.
Gerald Dawe’s The Last Peacock was published in 2019; Northern Windows/Southern Stars: Early Essays will be published in 2022.