Who fears to speak of Ernie O’Malley?

Old Mayo

Ernie O’Malley and son Cormac at Burrishoole Lodge, Newport, 1950. Photo: Courtesy of Cormac O'Malley

Ernie O’Malley and son Cormac at Burrishoole Lodge, Newport, 1950. Photo: Courtesy of Cormac O'Malley

This week’s title borrows from John Kells Ingram’s famous 1843 political ballad, "The Memory of the Dead". In his poem, Ingram posits that later generations turned their fattened backs on the memory of the rebels of 1798, "Who Fears to Speak of '98?" Ingram was not a republican, but he penned his piece for the nationalist paper The Nation because he sympathised with what the United Irishmen had attempted to do and he had always pledged to defend brave men who opposed tyranny.

It was quite a demonstration of awareness to have taken such a view. Though he supported the union between Ireland and Britain, Ingram could look beyond his own scholarly conclusions, and those of his social and professional circles, and rationalise that his political foe merited respect. Whether you call it empathy, appreciation or admiration, it is a trait not often found in modern Ireland. Who of you will be aware that on this day May 26 in 1897, Ernie O'Malley was born in Castlebar? That is not an accusatory finger-wag. Why is it that O'Malley barely registers in his home county? His credentials for inclusion in the county's ‘hall of fame’ are unparalleled. Ernie O’Malley’s introduction into Irish republicanism came during a short appearance in Easter Week 1916. While he did not play any major role in the rebellion, his political spirits were stirred by the Rising and he was steered on a course that would see him become one of Ireland’s most determined fighters. His revolutionary days have been well documented by scholars but what set O’Malley apart from contemporaries was the fullness of his life post-Civil War.

When Ernie O’Malley died in 1957, one Mayo paper did not print an obituary even though his contribution to Ireland was acknowledged with a State funeral. The two obituaries I did find only deal with his life up to the time he was sentenced to be shot, which was at the end of his active IRA involvement. But O’Malley was so much more. After the hostilities of the twenties, O’Malley travelled widely and used the time to stretch his artistic legs. It was while in America he met sculptor and artist Helen Hooker in 1933. The couple married in 1935 and after an initial period in Dublin, they bought Burrishoole Lodge, Newport, in O’Malley’s home county. His natural talent for writing and conveying truth came across firstly in his memoir of the War of Independence, On Another Man’s Wound. The book displays a man not merely concerned with Irish independence, but the right kind of independence where spirit, culture, and imagination could develop freely. The writer John McGahern said of On Another Man’s Wound that it deserved a permanent and honoured place in our literature. His memoir was followed by The Singing Flame, an account of the Civil War. In this book, O’Malley inspires every Irish person to be creative, not for the sake of only displaying positivity, but to display reality. As a communicator, broadcasts of ‘Ernie O’Malley of Newport' reading from his work Raids and Rallies engrossed listeners on Radio Éireann in the fifties.

Despite his revolutionary and artistic pedigree, Mayo's reluctance to adequately honour O'Malley has been uninspiring, to say the least. In the 1980s, a squabble in Mayo over whether or not to accept a most generous offer of a valuable art collection from the O’Malley family meant the gift had to be withdrawn. The plan was to erect a purpose built O’Malley Museum in Castlebar to house the 600 pieces. The end result was a major embarrassment for the county. The family remained very much connected with Mayo however. The contents of Burrishoole Lodge were only auctioned by Ernie’s widow, Mrs. Helen Hooker-O’Malley-Roelofs, in the early 1980s. In a further show of generosity, Ernie O’Malley’s family commissioned a £14,000 bronze statue from artist Peter Grant and gifted it to their father’s hometown of Castlebar in 1992. The statue received such physical abuse that one urban councillor commented it “turned out to be one the dirtiest things that was ever put into the Mall”. A later move to have a new road named in honour of the town’s famous son was blocked by Castlebar town councillors. For a man who packed so much into life and on so many platforms, political and artistic, his life has been largely and possibly deliberately expunged from local historical comment. One hopes that as the opportunities offered by this decade of commemorations continue, Ernie O’Malley’s life will be remembered by the county he never forgot. To borrow again from Ingram’s ode, “Who blushes at the name?”

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