Peadar O’Donnell, Irish republican, socialist activist, politician, writer and one of the foremost radicals of 20th-century Ireland, dies in Dublin on May 13, 1986.
O’Donnell is born on February 22, 1893, in Meenmore, near Dungloe, County Donegal, youngest among six sons and three daughters of Biddy and James O’Donnell. He is greatly influenced by his upbringing in the Rosses, in northwest Donegal, one of the poorest and most remote parts of Ireland. His father, a popular local fiddler, earns a living through his smallholding, seasonal labouring in Scotland, and winter work in a local corn mill. His mother, who comes from a radical labour and nationalist political background, works in a local cooperative store. He attends Rampart national school and Roshine national school, near Burtonport, where he is a monitor for four years. In 1911 he wins a scholarship to attend St. Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, Dublin, and returns in 1913 to the Rosses, where he spends two years teaching on the islands of Inishfree. In 1915 he is appointed head of Derryhenny national school, near Dungloe, and the following year becomes principal of a national school on the island of Arranmore, where he begins to write.
O’Donnell had long been concerned by the poor conditions of the local ‘tatie-hokers’ (potato pickers) who migrate annually to Scotland. In the summer of 1918, he travels there to help organise the Scottish Farm Servants’ Union. While there he is influenced by left-wing radicals such as Willie Gallacher, later a communist Member of Parliament (MP), and Emanuel ‘Manny’ Shinwell, later Baron Shinwell. In September 1918, against a background of rising labour militancy, he leaves teaching to become a full-time organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) in the west Ulster area. The following year he organises one of Ireland’s first “soviets” when the attendants and nurses of the Monaghan District Lunatic Asylum occupy the grounds and appoint O’Donnell as governor until their demands are met.
In early 1919 O’Donnell joins the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Monaghan, resigning from the ITGWU for full-time IRA service in late 1920. He leads the 2nd Battalion, Donegal IRA, from the summer of 1920. In December 1920 he goes “on the run” and leads a flying column in west Donegal until May 1921, when he is wounded. Regarded as insubordinate and militarily inexperienced, he is unpopular among the other senior officers of the 1st Northern Division. He, in turn, is disappointed by the lack of social radicalism among the nationalist leadership. He opposes the Anglo-Irish Treaty, is placed in command of the minority anti-treaty 1st Northern Division, and is a member of the IRA executive that occupies the Four Courts in Dublin in defiance of the provisional government.
Arrested in June 1922, O’Donnell shares a prison cell with Liam Mellows and influences his radical “Notes from Mountjoy,” an important document for subsequent left-wing republicans. He spends the next two years in various prisons and internment camps. His execution is widely expected to follow those of December 8, 1922. In August 1923, he is elected as a Sinn Féin Teachta Dála (TD) for Donegal in the general election called after the end of the Irish Civil War. He goes on hunger strike for forty-one days in late 1923 and succeeds in escaping from the Curragh in March 1924. In June 1924, while on the run, he marries Lile O’Donel, a wealthy Cumann na mBan activist who had smuggled communications for republican prisoners. O’Donel, a radical and member of the Communist Party, is the daughter of Ignatius O’Donel, a prominent landowner from Mayo. They have no children but raise their nephew, Peadar Joe, as their own son after the death in New York of O’Donnell’s brother Joe.
O’Donnell begins writing seriously while in jail and remains a prolific writer, journalist, and editor until the 1960s. His first novel, Storm, set in the Irish War of Independence, is published in 1925. One of his most highly regarded books, Islanders, is published in 1928. Adrigoole, like Islanders a story of poverty and starvation in rural Ireland, is published the following year. The Knife (1930) and On the Edge of the Stream (1934) soon follow. The most significant of his later novels is probably The Big Windows (1954). Foremost among his qualities as a writer is his empathy for the people, life, and landscape of rural Ireland. But his novels have been criticised for their slow pace, excessive detail, and didactic nature. He claims his writing is incidental to his political activism. His trilogy of autobiographical non-fiction, The Gates flew Open (1932), Salud! An Irishman in Spain (1936), and There Will Be Another Day (1963), which respectively concern the Irish Civil War, his activism during the Spanish Civil War, and his role in the land annuities agitation, remain highly regarded. His other important literary achievement is with The Bell, an innovative literary and political magazine which plays a useful dissenting role in an insular and conservative period. He founds The Bell with the writer Seán Ó Faoláin in 1940 and edits it from 1946 until it ceases publication in 1954.
O’Donnell exercises an influential role in the interwar IRA, particularly through his editorship of An Phoblacht (1926–29), which he attempts to divert from militarism to socialist agitation. His ultimate aim is for a thirty-two-county socialist republic. His most successful campaign is organising small farmers against the payment of land annuities to the government in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This campaign is later adopted by Fianna Fáil and contributes to their electoral success in 1932. He is less successful in radicalising the IRA. After the failure of Saor Éire, a left-wing IRA front which provokes clerical and popular hostility against the IRA, increasing tensions between the IRA’s left-wing and the leadership lead O’Donnell, along with Frank Ryan and George Gilmore, to split from the IRA to establish the short-lived Republican Congress in 1934.
Although O’Donnell claims he was never a Communist Party member, he plays a central role in forging links between republicans and the revolutionary left both in Ireland and internationally, and invariably supports the communist party line at critical junctures. After the failure of Republican Congress, he takes up the cause of the Spanish republic. His championing of unpopular causes such as communism and Spain entail a good deal of frustration. He is physically attacked at political meetings and in 1932, despite having never visited the Soviet Union, loses a high-profile libel action against the Dominican Irish Rosary, which claim he had studied in Moscow‘s Lenin College. He is banned from entering the United States for several decades, although he maintains: “My relations with all the great powers continue to be friendly.”
O’Donnell continues to support radical campaigns until his death. He is an outspoken advocate of Irish emigrants. He is prominent in the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and serves as its president in the early 1960s. He is a leading protester against the Vietnam War and a supporter of African anti-colonial movements such as that against apartheid. In later years he is involved in the “Save the west” campaign, highlighting the problems of the west of Ireland.
After several months of ill-health following a heart attack, O’Donnell dies in Dublin, aged 93, on May 13, 1986. He leaves instructions that there are to be “no priests, no politicians and no pomp” at his funeral, and those wishes are granted. He is cremated in Glasnevin Cemetery and his ashes are buried at his wife’s home in Swinford, County Mayo. Although he once remarked that every cause he fought for was a failure, he is now regarded as one of the most influential socialist republican theorists and an important voice of dissent in twentieth-century Ireland.
(From: “O’Donnell, Peadar” by Fearghal McGarry, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)