Book review: Modern Ireland and Revolution by Ernie O’Malley

Following his involvement in the War of Independence and Civil War, Ernie O’Malley spent years collecting information on those conflicts for a book. However, he ran into difficulties getting it published, probably because of his literary approach to history.
Book review: Modern Ireland and Revolution by Ernie O’Malley

While writing Tans, Terror and Troubles, I spent days wading through the notes that O’Malley took on his interviews with Kerry people. It was a frustrating but rewarding endeavour.

In recent years the interviews have been supplemented by the release of the 1,773 interviews conducted by the Bureau of Military History. Many of the more radical Republican activists were unwilling to co-operate with the bureau, but they did talk to O’Malley.

And Mercier Press has been providing an invaluable service in bringing out O’Malley’s notes under the general title of The Men Will Talk to Me.

Interviews with activists in West Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway and Mayo have now been published in separate books, which are real treasures. They should be valuable to students interested in researching Leaving Cert projects on local activities in that period.

On Another Man’s Wound, the one book that Ernie O’Malley published during his lifetime, is widely regarded as a classic. However, O’Malley was obviously sorely disillusioned with the outcome of the conflicts. His disillusionment was cemented when he visited Mexico in the early 1930s.

“I learned about betrayal, how a people is sold by spurious politicians and the futility of super names like ‘revolution’ and ‘republic’,” he later said.

David Lloyd argues O’Malley has performed a signal service “that promises to disentangle the ideological tendencies and the practices of Republican activists from the skein of myth in which historical Romanticism has wound them and to allow a more complicated image to emerge of the spectrum of political positions that Republicanism has embraced.”

That gives a flavour of the intellectual approach of the essays in this book. It is really aimed more at an academic audience rather than the casual reader, because it needs to be studied rather than just read.

It certainly provides an in-depth analysis of O’Malley, and the methodology of his research and writing. John M Regan renders a service in debunking the suggestion that the Republicans deliberately blew up the Public Record Office as they were abandoning the Four Courts in July 1922. He notes, despite suggestions to the contrary, O’Malley never stated that they were deliberately responsible.

“The cultural vandalism involved in the destruction was not deemed significant by those inside or outside the Four Courts,” Dr Regan adds. “Free State gunners lobbed hundreds of shells into the Four Courts.” They were just as indifferent to the irreplaceable contents of the Public Record Office.

“Historians have every right to revise the past as they wish, or indeed invent it anew in more satisfactory forms,” Dr Regan says. “Invented history necessarily is not wrong in any moral sense (as long as it involves no deception), and, like other forms of expression, ordinarily, it should not be censored. Instead, invented history must be loudly applauded, if only to draw attention to its form and function, not to mention its occasional creative ingenuity.”

If historians wish to engage in such practices, they should not, in my opinion, call such work ‘history’. Of course, historical novels play a valuable role in highlighting the atmosphere of a time, but such novels should not be confused with actual history.

Modern Ireland and Revolution in Context

Ernie O’Malley

Irish Academic Press, €29.99

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