A Review of Peadar O'Donnell by Donal O Drisceoil

Socialist View Summer 2001

Peadar O'Donnell by Donal O Drisceoil is written by a university lecturer, and published by Cork University Press in its 'Radical Irish Lives' series. It is very readable, totally the opposite of what academic writing too often is. That makes it both a good read, and one with a political punch.

By Anton McCabe

O'Donnell (1893-1986) was a writer, campaigning journalist, trade union leader, socialist and republican - all in no particular order. The story of his life covers the hidden history of 20th century Ireland, the struggle of the workers and small farmers for a better form of society.

At the core of O'Donnell's story is the lost revolution in Ireland in the years after World War One. O'Donnell was an active participant. His works, both fiction and autobiography, bear powerful witness to those times. His tragedy was that he was a man of action, not of theory. O Drisceoil does not glide over that shortcoming.

O'Donnell came from the poverty-stricken Rosses area of West Donegal. His father supported the family by mixing small farming, fishing, migratory work in Scotland and work in a local mill. He rose to become a primary school teacher, about the highest degree of social mobility possible.

The book documents how radical, socialistic and even socialist ideas had reached O'Donnell's remote area nearly a century ago. In 1906 a Co-Op was set up in the area. Such a step was not mild: it meant defying the merchants and their supporters, the Catholic clergy.

By the time O'Donnell was in his late teens, the revolutionary trade union leader Jim Larkin had come to Ireland. Larkin's ideas were being discussed in remote West Donegal, and had their supporters.

O'Donnell taught in several schools round his home area. By 1916 he was on Arranmore Island. His experience there shows how radicalisation spread after the executions of the 1916 leaders.

O Drisceoil quotes from letters he wrote to the Derry Journal, and speeches he made at meetings of the INTO (teachers' union). These show the influence of Marxism, picked up through Connolly.

O'Donnell in those years was a revolutionary, but didn't know how to bring the revolution about. He left teaching to become an organiser with the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) which stood, in words, for working-class revolution.

Even today, Monaghan and South Tyrone are considered backwaters. O Drisceoil documents how O'Donnell set those areas ablaze.

In January 1919, the attendants at Monaghan Asylum could win no concessions from the committee which employed them. They occupied the building and ran up the Red Flag. The committee surrendered.

The strike at Fulton's mill in the small South Tyrone village of Caledon is another epic struggle documented here. The mostly Protestant workers held nightly marches, with the red flag at their head. A citizen police force was established. Tragically, this struggle went down to defeat.

With the Labour leaders not bringing the struggles together in a fight for power, O'Donnell moved to the IRA, because at least it was fighting. He rejected the Treaty of 1921, which led to the independence of the South. There are good descriptions of the dark days of 1922-3, when the 'democracy' of the new Southern state was built by the judicial murder of its opponents.

A free man in the 20s, he had both republican and socialist instincts. Sometimes the two led in the same, positive direction: at other times, there was conflict and it wasn't always the socialist in him that won out.

Simply by telling the story, O Drisceoil explains where left republicanism comes from, and what are its fatal weaknesses.

The land annuities struggle of the late 1920s involved tens of thousands of small farmers. The British government had solved Ireland's land problem by buying out the landlords, then getting the farmers to pay the money back. 3 million per year was being collected for the British exchequer by the new Southern government, from farmers who couldn't afford it. It led to the fall of the semi-dictatorial Cosgrave government.

O Drisceoil describes how the movement was built, largely by one man, Peadar O'Donnell Because the leaders of the Labour Party and trade unions had become conservative, the movement was however captured by the rising Fianna Fail party.

All the time O'Donnell was writing. His fiction reflects involvement in political activity, and an understanding of ordinary country people, their lives, aspirations and struggles.

O'Donnell, like many of his generation, saw revolutionary ideas as being those of Stalinism. This made looking after the interests of the Russian government the priority. The ideas were not only wrong, they were switched for other, equally wrong, ideas without warning, causing greater confusion.

By the late 1930s, O'Donnell's revolutionary fire had been dimmed. However, unlike many others, he never deserted to the right, but stayed loyal to the idea of socialism.

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