Rebel with a cause

Sean Moylan: Rebel Leader

His witness statement to the Bureau of Military History has already been published, but this fascinating biography by his granddaughter, Aideen Carroll, puts that story in perspective and rounds it off with a look at his political career up to the ’50s.

While the study is an affectionate profile, it does show that “Moylan was an enigmatic and difficult character”. He had a tendency to talk first with his fists.

For instance, he had one son and four daughters. When the youngest daughter was born, a man commiserated with him. “I’m sorry for your trouble,” he said. Moylan said nothing and floored the man with a punch.

Likewise, outside Leinster House one day, he punched a fellow deputy who suggested that somebody had shot himself in the foot to get a pension. When Moylan did talk, his words were not always carefully chosen.

Despite his part in War of Independence, he resented being called a gunman in the Dáil by James Dillon of Fine Gael in 1934. “Deputy Dillon and others like him who never handled a gun in defence of this country should keep their mouths shut when men and soldiers talk,” Moylan snapped.

He did not mean that Dillon had no right to speak. Neither was he a bigot, though an earlier outburst – in relation to the British threat of war if the Treaty were not implemented – tended to invite a different interpretation.

“If they want a war of extermination on us,” Moylan told the Dáil during the Treaty debate, “I may not see it finished, but by God no loyalist in north Cork will see it finish, and it is about time somebody told Lloyd George that.”

Historian Peter Hart was particularly critical of those comments and the subsequent Dunmanway massacre in which 10 Protestant civilians were murdered in April 1922, but he did not blame Moylan. “In fairness,” Hart wrote. “It should be noted that Moylan, despite his rhetoric, had nothing to do with the massacre and had the best record of any IRA brigade commander in treating the Protestant minority.”

Moylan told the staff of the Department of Education following his appointment as their minister in 1951: “There are many mistakes current about Éamon de Valera, one of them being that he is a man totally lacking in a sense of humour. But the fact that I stand before you as Minister for Education is testimony to his sense of humour.”

Moylan is remembered for opening 38 vocational schools, but also for his failure to act in relation to a complaint against a Christian Brother who broke a boy’s hand as a punishment in the Artane Industrial School. “I know in that particular school how deep is the anxiety for the children’s spiritual and physical welfare,” Moylan told the Dáil. “This is an isolated incident; it can only happen again as an accident.”

We now know that Moylan was terribly deluded in this matter, but it was not because he was afraid to stand up to the religious.

One Sunday he interrupted the sermon of Fr Jeremiah Bick, the parish priest of Kiskeam, who had a tendency to wander into politics in his sermons. “Stop your politics, Father, and preach the Gospel,” Moylan shouted.

He lost his Dáil seat in the Fianna Fáil landslide of 1957, but de Valera rewarded him by nominating him to the Senate and then appointing him Minister for Agriculture, the first senator to be appointed to cabinet.

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