IT IS a measure of the man named Máirtín Mór that, more than 80 years after his passing, mention of the name to certain generations of Galwegians, brings an instant reaction of awe, mingled with a touch of fear.
It is even more remarkable that during, or after, his lifetime, nobody was ever able to get past that defiant and challenging face presented in the very few photographs which have survived him - with the exception of Peadar O’Dowd whose groundbreaking biography, published more than a decade ago, opened the door and allowed some light in.
For Máirtín Mór MacDonogh, the man who could lift a keg of Guinness over his head, who stood taller than any of his peers, did not just control the political and commercial life of Galway for three decades, he was Galway. Yet despite that dominant position ifor the first third of the 20th century, MacDonagh was an extraordinarily private man. He never married, rarely socialised, and had few friends. Little or nothing of the man survives outside a few photographs.
For most Galwegians, then, Máirtín Mór remains a cruel, hard fisted, ruthless landlord and boss, the quintessential gombeen man described by Liam O’Flaherty in The House Of Gold, a book based loosely on MacDonagh’s life which had the honour to be the first book banned in Ireland.
The real achievement of Jackie Uí Chionna’s new biography of McDonogh, He Was Galway (Four Courts Press ), is not just that she goes a long way to dispel this negative image, it is the convincing way she does it.
Due to the dearth of personal documentation, she set out to recreate the character of Máirtín Mór, using whatever second or third hand material she could find, an extraordinary difficult and courageous path to take and one she took with tremendous energy and commitment. Her research was painstaking, comprehensive, and meticulous. Marry this to a soft, not to say seductive, narrative power that packs a hell of a punch when needed, and the result is impressive.
She brings the reader from MacDonogh’s youth, skilfully describing his Connemara and Aran background, to his move into Galway city and the establishment of the MacDonogh empire there. Slowly and surely she builds a portrait of the man, and it is from this point the book gathers momentum.
Máirtín Mór is presented as a man of astonishing strength both in body and mind, a direct man who did not suffer fools under any circumstances, and who wasn’t slow in using his fists if needs be, a man who was totally ruthless to those that crossed him. Along with this image, we also meet Máirtín Mór the human being, kind and caring towards those in need and this is what makes this book a most intriguing read.