Happy Birthday Peader O’Donnell

Peadar O'Donnell
Peadar O’Donnell

Peadar O’Donnell was born on February 22nd in Donegal, in 1893, and was educated locally and at St. Patrick’s College, Dublin. He became a school teacher in Donegal but in 1918 gave up teaching to become organiser of the I.T. and G.W.U. He joined the I.R.A. and at the Truce was OC. 1st Northern Division. He took the Republican side in the crisis of the Treaty and was elected to the Executive of the I.R.A. He was in the Four Courts when it was attacked on 28th June, 1922. He was in jail with Liam Mellowes when the latter with Rory O’Connor ,McKelvey and Barrett were executed on the morning of the 8th December. 
O’Donnell was held for some time as hostage in Donegal. He had begun his writing in jail, and his first novel, Storm, about the Anglo-Irish war was published in 1925. In his ” In Depth” portrait of O’Donnell in the Irish Times (April, ’68) Michael McInerney writes: ” Yet in spite of this preponderance of soldierly activity I think it is true to say that Mr. O’Donnell’s greatest battles during his sixty years of almost continuous activity, were won by the wielding of the pen, voice, and his creative gifts, rather than with the bomb or the gun. Indeed, his most fruitful and, in the long run, most important victories were in the winning of men’s minds away from nationalism and physical force to ideas of social, civil and cultural freedom envisaged by his own heroes, Tone, Emmet, Lalor, Pearse, Connolly, and his own special friend-Liam Mellowes.”

Among O’Donnell’s best known works are Adrigool, The Knife, The Gates Flew Open, On the Edge of the Stream, The Big Windows, Islanders and There Will Be Another Day. He was also a strong literary influence in non-fiction during his management of The Bell. He himself says his period as editor of An Phoblacht (the Republican paper), from 1924-1934, was one of the happiest and most active of his career.

Peadar O’Donnell on

His Writing

I’m a bad person to talk about books and writing really I was never very interested in books or in writing for their own sakes. My pen was a weapon and I used it as such because I was always involved in agitation But anyone who practises any of the arts finds that he does get caught up in the jargon peculiar to his craft or art. Writing in particular has developed a jargon of phrases and cliches. In fact I once heard someone talk about’ the colour of word chords ‘-everyone seemed to know what it meant, but I didn’t! The second reason one writes a book-I think in one’s formative days, one is very exposed to vivid impressions, and every impression opens a window onto some aspect of your environment. Writing is just the gift of getting back later to one of those windows and looking out onto the particular aspect of the environment to which it gives access; and if you have a theme and you are going to make it come alive, you call upon the people of the environment to live it out, and the people you call up are true to the environment and authentic in that way. Now the interesting thing about these vivid impressions is this: I think that we get a lot of impressions which are real physical communications for us but they don’t break through the level of our consciousness to form part of our reflective life; but one day you find yourself writing in the field to which these things belong, and working on them excites your mind. These communications which hitherto remained suspended below the level of your consciousness suddenly take light, and you get a view and depth which you didn’t hold until that moment, which you yourself enjoy. Now perhaps an extreme case of this is Joyce’s Ulysses. Stephen D. lets loose bits of the liturgy, phrases from this writer and that, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, street ballads-all these things had registered at an earlier stage and are now released by this technique. His’ Bloom’ has no roots in Ireland.

He is of Middle Eastern origin; he wants to be educated and noble and he wants a lot of the things which are really natural to Stephen D. Stephen D on the other hand is a Nationalist and a Catholic and passing through the Jesuits he has become a cynic; and he has the humiliating experience in a brothel of finding that the effect of the training of the Jesuits on him is that he cannot fulfil himself the way he wants-so you get these two, the intellectual frustrated, and the equally frustrated Bloom. At that particular time British rule in Ireland looked down on Nationalists and Catholic and if you renounced Catholicism it was like going over to the Castle, and he wasn’t able to do that or accept his Catholicism and so he emigrates. And then you have that wonderful scene of the burial, where nobody has any sympathy for the person who is being buried and someone sees a rat scurrying across behind a tombstone and he says to his companion that they should walk by the grave of the chief, Parnell; you are asked to see in that the meaning that Parnell was eaten by a lot of rats.

If someone decides to write a book in any area of his own environment, if his sympathy with life remains ricWy alive, he deepens his understanding of life and it is not just as he experiences it that he recalls it. There is some little touch of the environment and he takes the idea into the workshop of his mind and beats it under the magic of the imagination, and thus you get your story.

Now the reason I say this is that when I wrote Islanders (I was locked in solitary confinement with nothing to read), it almost wrote itself in my mind. I found my mind escaping to boats and islands and things that I loved. But if I were to read Islanders now, I think I would say that it was phoney! that it was either written by a man in prison or in exile. Now the reason I say this is not because its sentimental, but because I go back to the islalands now and I find there is nobody left there, so my story-which had a happy ending it and life were not going in the same direction. I love my islands, and I had no idea at that time that they were going to die. I had no idea we would betray the people who pushed us forward.

Now when I wrote The Big Windows it was different; I knew at that stage that that Glen was going to crumble. I had been wounded in 1921 and I was lying on a bed of straw on the floor of a house where they had given me shelter, and the two women, the mother and daughter-in-law were chatting happily together at the fire side. They thought I was asleep and I thought it unusual to hear two women of the house so friendly, and I liked it; I like happiness. Well, going off next day I said to the fellow with me, “Do you see that young woman at the big windows? They are unusually big windows. He said she was from the islands and he didn’t know much about her. I imagined that woman going to live in the Glen, away from her islands which are so full of light and she must have found her glen house very dark from the shadow of the mountains and the half-door, so she must have put in the unusually big windows. I don’t know if that was the answer, I’ve never been back.

But when I was being pushed by Jonathan Cape to write another novel, (they had previously published Islanders which I had smuggled out of prison and it had done very well. It had in fact been chosen as book of the month by a Catholic club, ironically enough in America), well, I was wondering what to write and I thought to myself of this woman of the island. How she would have more light in her eyes and her mind, and she would be a more cultured and sophisticated woman and she went to the Glen and absorbed these two handicaps. Then, I thought how am I going to end it? I couldn’t end it like Islanders, as I knew by then that the Glen was going to wither. Now land is cruel-especially marginal land. I t must be in strong hands; and people on the island are much more used to a woman losing her husband, so she took her child and went back to the island, and the people of the Glen talked of her and all she did and said. Now life was simple on the island and uncomplicated in the Glen, and so the stories are very flat with not much depth to them; although in the Big Windows there is a slight suggestion that no matter how enlightened we are, there’s an outer fringe to which our enlightenment doesn’t extend and everyone has his private fears. I thought to reduce this question of the enlightened area to “threepenny bits” and I took the woman who had to fight against the superstitions of the Glen, seduction and so on and in that way it had its depth. Now contrast that with a novel of Dostoyevsky who takes people, life living and with all their opinions and sits back; with a plurality of voices and people fighting out quite conflicting views and aspects of living. He seems to just stand aside to let them fight it out-just bearing witness.

I was in jail again in 1927 when a family on the Cork/Kerry border died of hunger and I knew it must be some freakish circumstance because neighbours don’t let neighbours die of hunger in a mountainy district. I was in a vicious sort of mood at the time and I decided that I would write a story which I based in Donegal based on those headlines as I had never been in the Cork/Kerry border at that time. Now I had this problem-if you are going to have two people crushed in by circumstances they have to be worthwhile if there’s going to be a tragedy. So I created a family so vital that when it came to a story where they had to hit the headlines, I had to murder them!

Liam Mellows at Wolfe Tones' grave at Bodenstown.
Liam Mellows at Wolfe Tones’ grave at Bodenstown.

Now, the Gates Flew Open is an example of a bad tempered book! In this book Mellowes plays a big part. You know, often in life one admires people from a distance, and if one meets them close up, one often finds that they are limited and disappointing. Well, I can say of Liam Mellowes truthfully, that he was the only man I ever met for whom I would have tossed my own life on the scrap heap to save his life. He was completely selfless and unambitious for himself. He went to the U.S.A. for de Valera and found that people who were organising the meetings for De Valera objected to Negroes and Indians joining the meetings and this, I think, deepened his awareness of social problems. Somebody, a moment ago asked about the recent letters concerning what happened before Mellowes execution. Well, what really happened was this: the chaplain had refused him absolution, but he was very strong spiritually. A man who could write to his mother, after being refused absolution, and say that he believed, like the old Gaels who died for Ireland, that they did not need prayer-that is a tough man.

Now Father MacMahon and Father Fennelly were two of the chaplains and there was a third one whose name I won’t give because he is still alive, and it’s up to him to disclose it; but I met him and he told me what happened, when Mellowes was going to be executed. This priest told me that he saw him being led blindfolded to his death, and he went over to him and took off the blindfold and said, “Look, Mellowes, you’re not dying like that,” and he heard his confession. Now what happened was this: the priest said to him, “Look, Mellowes, are you sorry for any wrong you did? ” and Mellowes replied: ” Of course I’m sorry for any wrong I did,” and the priest read into that statement enough to let him proceed. So I said to the priest, “I’m very glad I met you, because I was always venomous against the priest who heard his confession because I thought you had bluffed up to the last moment and then you were so scared of a man of his stature dying in such a fashion that when you found the bluff would not work, you heard his confession. Now, I believe you that it was just a generous Kerryman’s impulse. So when I wrote that letter recently, I said that the third man is still alive, and now it’s up to him, but he could only come in by letting down the other two priests.

The Bell

Yes, the black mark of Irish cultural life was that there was no publishing house. Joe McGrath gave me a thousand pounds to start the Bell and I didn’t realise it was so big a cheque until I looked at it afterwards. Then I got a group of industrialists together and told them that a literary magazine could only survive if it out-cropped an industry, and then I said that we would need some civilised industrialists who would direct token advertising towards the Bell. And Davy Frayne-the Scotsman-undertook to speak for them all, and he was very patient with me.

He explained that the war was on, that there were not enough materials available and that advertising would only increase their troubles. So I said ” Don’t worry, there is no safer place to advertise than with me! If you advertise with me I can guarantee you will have no results! ”

The Bell must be one of the few magazines which wound up with money in the kitty. The reason I wound it up when it was going well was because I did not want to see it die a slow death. You can’t sit and wait for material to come in to you with a magazine like that; or you just become a dustbin. You’ve got to go out and get the stuffpush the magazine against life. I had a very good man in Tony Cronin, but poor Tony was very unreliable and I couldn’t get anyone else to do the running around, so I wound it up. Sometimes I think I should have wound it up when Sean 0 Faolain stopped editing it.Someone asked there if the Bell or a similar magazine would survive in a socialist society. It might; when I go to Eastern Europe and they talk to me of the classical works etc.-I wait and then I ask them “What is the position of the small magazine, because all you young people were conditioned by the circumstances before the revolution. Well, these young people write under the new circumstances. How free are they? And I always find my stand more popular with the young than the old people.

It is a great pity that there is no secular publishing house in Ireland. Mercier Press are a publishing house, but they publish mostly religious books. The others are only printing houses or kept going on charity. Another reason that we don’t have a good publishing house is the censorship ban. There was an amusing incident once in a publishing firm in Dublin and there was an order for 250,000 books for a certain book which was a very good order. But the linotype operator refused to print it on the grounds that it was pornographic. So we got a priest in who explained to him that the order was for export, so it was okay!”


Well, I can answer that best by way of telling a story. Maria Ducci was very much on the rampage in Catholic Action here at one time, and the editor of Black Friars came to Dublin and he came in to see me at the Bell for a comment on this outburst of Catholic Action. I thought to myself “Someone is giving your leg one hell of a pull to send you to me,” so I decided whoever it was, I wouldn’t let them down; so we adjourned to the Gresham for a coffee and my mind was working nineteen to the dozen on the way down, so we sat down and I said, ” You’ll find it difficult to understand this. Evangelical outbursts are rare in purely Catholic countries because authority is very well rested. In Protestant countries you have evangelical outbursts because nearly every Protestant has to make his own religion. But in Ireland, you must remember that for a period the priests and the bishops deserted the people and went on a high jinks into politics and we were left with no pastors for a time. We were still Catholic, but we had no priests and no bishops. We held on to our religion and, of course, we thought one day they would come back” Then one day after their adventures they came back and I said to him” You know, you can’t do this sort of thing-be robbed of pastors and bishops for a period without introducing Protestant trends; and the evangelical outbursts that are being seen in Ireland now are merely the manifestation of Protestant trends introduced into the Catholic Church in Ireland during the time that the bishops and priests deserted us! ”

Now the funny thing about it all, is this: it never mattered one rattling damn to me whether a priest or layman made a statement-I dealt with it as an opinion and I would go so far as to say that I was numb in many ways about this. I could knock hell out of an opinion and be quite surprised to find an angry man around me about the opinion-because I never noticed him. So as far as I was concerned, I regarded these playboys of the clergy who went off in that way as just playboys, and I had the greatest contempt for them. I remember an amusing incident which happened when I was a young fellow at home in Donegal. We used to go to the Home Rule meetings as did the shopkeepers of the village-good Nationalists, and the priests, and the Parliamentary M.P. made speeches generally about Manchester marches, and we did all the cheering. Then the I R.A. movement came and we zipped up the village and told the people of the village whom we spoke for to say nothing and that we would do all the talking. And one day we had done something stupid and the parish priest had a go at us during a sermon and me and my organisation moved out. And the last man to leave the church was a shopkeeper whom we knew had no sympathy with us. So afterwards somebody said to him that day, ” In the name of God, Anthony, what possessed you to leave the church this morning?”

“Indeed, I’ll tell you the reason,” he replied, “every customer I had in the world had left the church! ”

You see Ireland in my opinion is not a clerical-ridden country, but it’s a yahoo-ridden Church! and it’s the black bastards of the laity who are the trouble in Ireland. And you don’t get an anti-clericalism movement among workers. They may stop practising their religion like many of the Irish who go to England, but they are not anti-clerical. Anti-clericalism is a middle class manifestation.


Nationalism is not dead. You must remember that even the anti-Hitler warfare was all patriotism and even in Russia it was’ Mother Russia.’ Nationalism dies when colonialism dies and all subject nations are free to realise their ego as a nation; then they can afford to forget about Nationalism. Sean Lemass and Co. have done a wonderful job here in the south by evolving a nationalism without the slightest trace of anti-Imperialism in it. Where the imperialists withdrew from the emerging countries they retained their financial control. Algeria is the only country where they have carried out the revolution to the degree that they eliminated colonialism or neo-colonialism of the withdrawing country. Cuba did, but could not have done so without Russia.

Common Market

I think the Common Market will strip the population of this country and Scotland and Wales. I mean, why the hell should anyone set up an industry in Ireland when the market is across on the mainland of Europe. The cartel Common Market was not a movement by the French, German and Belgian people. It was the cartel of these countries roping off territories for themselves to exploit. When they were organising industry in this country, it was all they could do to get them to move twenty miles outside Dublin so why will anyone move half way across Europe? If Britain goes into the Common Market, Ireland will be at their heels. You can’t afford to spend forty years creating a dependent economy and then have the market you have depended on slip into somewhere else to where they’ve been pulled in for a subsidy. And its the damnedest nonsense our fellows going around for discussions.

Ireland Today

I never go in for wishful thinking. I am not an angry man, but I am angry that there are a million Irish people in England. The first thing I would have done is to take the industrialists and say’ How much further can you expand and how many more people can you employ with financial help from us, and what are the areas you can’t reach, and for the rest, I would have bought the knowledge, not the firms. I don’t know any country which does not borrow to expand its industry, but we will not even use our own. In this country the Dail is the screen for the policy-makers and the ministers are their stooges. When the policies go wrong, the Government is thrown out and a new one comes in, but the policy-makers remain there. I think it is a wonderful escape to have the people excited over education, but it only means we are producing a different type of emigrant. I would like a Government that would concentrate on Irish industry with roots in the country first, and give them the greatest facilities possible for expansion. And where private enterprise couldn’t take it, I’d have hired experts, but I would not have let in alien firms.

The main weakness of the Irish economy today is in not being able to accommodate all the Irish people who want to be accommodated. No, I don’t advocate joining the ” rat race,” but I look at the question realistically. In any Irish village if the young people have money in their pockets they’ll brighten their village, and marry and have a family, etc. The material basis for life must be there first and then the other follows.


I think except for the Connolly short period in Dublin that women did not play a part in the National Movement and on account of not having the participation in leadership they were pushed out of equality in industry. Before any equality emerges, women must get equal pay for equal work. Irishmen are pretty backward in relation to women and Irish women will have a pretty hard fight to break their way through. And there is only one way to be free, and that is to practise freedom. I think the road is wide open for women if you will only get some group that will serve as a focus for feminine revolt. If I were advocating it I would suggest that women should burst out on a concrete issue such as housing and force themselves into the front row on this. If you are agitating you must select an idea that life can use, then it will form into a movement. ,

If you select a clever idea and life cannot use it, it will just develop into a cult and not grow from there. It will be contained within that bridgehead. You have one woman in Limerick, Frances Con dell, who was a good example at the front. And all the women of Ireland should have written to her encouraging her in public life. If you are going to do any agitation, you must remember that the individual himself doesn’t do it. People must be involved. You can change the direction you are going in, but you must shorten your steps to bring people along with you. Now when I was doing the Land agitation, I was at home in Donegal, and one day the Guards came for me and took me away and in the evening, they let me out again. And the following day they did the same thing, and so on for a few days. And after a few days a neighbour said to me, “What on earth are you at, Peadar, there was a time when no one could get hold of you and now two Guards can come and get you any day of the week.” And I said, ” Yes, but if you read about that, would you believe it?” and he said” Indeed I wouldn’t,” and I said” That’s just it, and they won’t get me again.” Now the interesting thing was that I took my work with me every day to the barracks and one day when the sergeant told me I could go, I said, ” Look, Sergeant, I’m in great form for work, would you ever leave me for a while and send me in a cup of tea? ” So he sent in the tea, and after that when he took me in, he would give me a clock and say, “There you are, you’ll know yourself when to go! ” So there is no need to quarrel with the police. You see, violence must be the crystallisation of the highest point of courage and intelligence in a mass movement going forward.

This article first appeared in 1969 and the original version can be viewed here.

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