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Peadar O'Donnell- tribute to a socialist fighter

Militant, June 1986
By Anton McCabe and Bill Webster

Peadar O'Donnell, socialist and writer, died on 13th May at the age of 93. With him died a link with the revolutionary movement that swept Ireland between 1907 and 1923 and the great figures who led it.

He was clear where he stood. Last year in Glenties, Co. Donegal, he said that his belief in social revolution was as strong as then as it was when he started out. He wrote: "It is an illusion to suppose that you can have a peaceful society under the capitalist order - just by improving the social welfare - that is nonsense." He told one of the authors of this tribute that he could not conceive of a movement towards social revolution in Ireland unless one had obtained the unity of the working class.

There were confusions and mistakes in his political career - but they were those of a revolutionary. Peadar was also modest. In a letter to one of the authors he wrote (March 8th 1982), "I'm afraid that my role was a very minor one indeed."

Monaghan soviet

Born in west Donegal, from a small farmer background, he absorbed politics from his mother who helped establish a co-op locally to break the power of petty exploiters, and who was a Larkinite. After teaching in west Donegal he went to Scotland in 1917 where he met leading trade unionists and social revolutionaries to discuss the problems of the day.

In 1918 he applied to the Irish Transport and General Workers Union for a post as organiser. It was a time of land seizures, factory occupations, strikes and general strikes, of enthusiasm in Ireland for the Bolshevik revolution; when the Irish Transport and General Workers Union seemed to stand for socialist revolution and its membership went from 50,000 to 130,000. The Irish Press (14/5/86) judged the mood of the time: "In his (Peadar's) native Donegal this was predominantly leftist. Connolly's 'Watchword of Labour' would be sung at dances and other functions rather than 'The Soldiers' Song'."

As a union organizer he was not a comfortable bureaucrat. He covered all Ulster outside of the Belfast area - travelling by bicycle. His remarkable contribution to the class struggle is chronicled in the official history of the ITGWU. "At Caledon, a village in Co. Tyrone, where was refused use of a hall, he climbed up a tree and addressed a meeting from one of its branches, descending afterwards to enrol 107 members. He won over members of a local Orange band who played and parade in support of the strike that developed.

"In Monaghan in 1919 the wardens of the mental hospital had been on strike for three weeks when they approached O'Donnell for assistance because they were nearly beaten. He led a march on the hospital and the authorities thought they were going back to work but he fooled them - the workers immediately occupied and held the building for 12 days. The red flag was run up by this Monaghan soviet. They key activists were men and women from Protestant backgrounds. A satisfactory pay increase was secured."


It can be judged how far ahead of his time he was - with his encouragement the male nurses insisted that the pay increase be applied to the female workers.

O'Donnell wanted a class-struggle union; but the leaders of the union wanted to be comfortable bureaucrats and were unwilling to challenge capitalism - while claiming the mantle of the murdered Connolly and the jailed Larkin.

Frustrated, Peadar joined the IRA to be more active in the struggle. He took part in the guerrilla struggle. In 1921 he opposed the Treaty and supported a move forward to national and class liberation. He saw in the Treaty that "The middle class was getting all they wanted, namely the transfer of patronage from Dublin Castle to the Irish parliament. The mere control of patronage did not seem to me sufficient reason for the struggle we had been through." He sums up the failure of the previous few years: "Pure ideals were used as a mask and as blinkers to direct the movement away from revolution." Labour left the struggle to the petty-bourgeois nationalists of Sinn Fein who, inevitably, sold out to imperialism.

Peadar was sentenced to death by the military dictatorship that was the government of the Irish Free State. He was shunted from prison to prison, being taken to Donegal as a hostage. He wanted a social movement: "What a pity Mellowes (a leader close to Connolly's ideas) was dead; had there been such as him to assemble round there was a tem of us yet. Was there a Connolly left in Dublin? …The big thing to emphasise is that the stubborn splendour of the big mass of people must be involved in the tactics of the revolution; this heresy of the cult of armed men that brought Collins to imperialism and us to defeat must be overcome."

He was scathing on 'physical force' republicanism; "We (the republican military leaders) had a pretty barren mind socially; many on the republican side were against change. Had we won I would agree that the end results might not have been much different from what one sees today."

In 1923 Peadar was elected as a TD for Donegal, as a republican. Single-handedly he began the movement against the land annuities. The movement spread through the west of Ireland. It shook the Cosgrave dictatorship and eventually brought it down. The tragedy was that it was taken over by Fianna Fail because it needed a parliamentary voice. Peadar went to the Labour leaders - who refused because the demand was illegal.

Most of the IRA leaders were nationalist conspirators, opposed to 'politics'; the organisation was in the process of degenerating into a nationalist military conspiracy. Peadar was increasingly isolated on the executive. He stayed from loyalty to an organisation and to comrades and from lack of anywhere else to go.

He helped to reform the Communist Party of Ireland, in the mistaken belief that it could be an instrument of revolution. He was removed as editor of the IRA paper and IRA members were forbidden to speak on social or economic topics. Finally in 1934 he was expelled from the IRA - for socialism.

He helped set up the Republican Congress. This tried to link the social revolution and the national question. At the Wolfe Tone Commemoration at Bodenstown in 1934 he helped to bring down two busloads of workers from the Shankill Road, members of the Republican Congress. The IRA attacked them and the other left-wingers. Congress was a heroic effort; in fighting the fascist menace, in leading strikes and uniting Northern workers. With no clear ideas, no clear programme, and no clean break from the old republican methods and confusions, it was doomed quickly to collapse.


After Italy, Germany and with the Fascist menace of the blueshirts and Fine Gael (then fascists) in Ireland he saw the fight against fascism as the concern of all workers. [With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936] he played a big part in organising support in Ireland for the left and helping socialists go out and fight.

He tried to be as active as he could, and to tie together the struggles of town and country workers. Unlike many others, he never gave up hope or become embittered. In February 1982 he wrote to one of the authors that he was enthused by the meeting in Dublin at which Tony Benn spoke, a meeting organised by Labour Youth; enthused by the number of young people present and at the presentation of the ideas of Larkin and Connolly.

His books have to be read to understand the social movement in Ireland in this century, and the real processes in society. He had a real understanding of the rhythms of life in the Irish countryside, and the will to live and struggle of the peasantry. Their optimism is an inspiration. Socialists should read especially The Knife, (Irish Humanities Press 1980); The Gates Flew Open (Mercier 1966) and There will be another day (Dolmen Press, 1963).

The Editorial Board and supporters of Militant mourn the death of Peadar O'Donnell. There can be no better way than in taking to heart the concluding words of There will be another day.

"..the Ireland of the poor came to the very doorstep of the struggle for power twice in 10 years, in 1922 and again in 1931. In each case it failed to achieve a leadership to correspond with its needs and was driven back in confusion. It has paid a heavy price…for those failures. It has however gained sharp political lessons…Other men, on other days, will contemplate those mistakes, for of course the Ireland of the poor will be back. There will be another day."

Note: As of today, Feb. 10th 2005, the following are all available on Amazon, but try your local bookshops and libraries as well for the other books:
  • Proud island
  • Islanders
  • Gates flew open
  • Knife
  • Big Windows

More Labour History pieces are available here

Another series of articles on Northern Ireland political developments
are available here.

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