Peadar O'Donnell

Peadar O'Donnell

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Peadar O'Donnell was born in County Donegal, Ireland in 1893. He attended St Patrick's College, Dublin, where he trained as a teacher. He taught on Arranmore Island before spending time in Scotland.

O'Donnell joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the War of Independence. He was imprisoned in Mountjoy Gaol and went on hunger-strike for 41 days.

In 1924 he became a member of the Executive and Army Council of the IRA. His attempts at persuading the IRA to become a socialist organization ended in failure.

O'Donnell published his first novel, Storm in 1925. This was followed by Islanders (1928), Adrigool (1929), The Knife (1930) and On the Edge of the Stream (1934)

O'Donnell remained active in politics and helped establish the Workers' Revolutionary Party and edited its newspaper, The Workers' Voice. A founder member of the Republican Congress, O'Donnell, was also a leading opponent of Eoin O'Duffy and the Blue Shirts.

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War O'Donnell urged the formation of volunteer regiments to support the Popular Front government. O'Donnell and Frank Ryan established the Connolly Column (named after James Connolly) and in December 1936, Ryan and eighty volunteers left Dublin for Spain. The majority came from the Free State but there were also a group of socialists from Belfast. O'Donnell also went to Spain and later published Salud! An Irishman in Spain (1937).

After the Second World War O'Donnell edited the Irish literary journel, The Bell (1946-54). Other books by O'Donnell include The Big Windows (1955) and Proud Island (1975). O'Donnell also published two volumes of autobiography, The Gates Flew Open (1932) and There Will be Another Day (1963).

Peadar O'Donnell died in 1986.

The Modern Novel


Peadar O’Donnell was born in 1893 in a Meenmore, near Dungloe, County Donegal. His family was Irish-speaking. His father was a migrant worker and musician. He trained as a teacher in Dublin and then became a teacher, working on Arranmore Island, off the coast of Donegal. He became an organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and this led him to socialism.

He organised a unit of the Irish Citizen Army and then joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He was involved in various guerrilla activities and became an commander of the IRA.

He was opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty (which divided Ireland). He was part of a group that took over the Four Courts building in Dublin and was subsequently caught and imprisoned. He joined in a mass hunger strike and eventually escaped in 1924. While in prison he was elected as a TD (the Irish equivalent of MP). He became involved in socialist causes and remained involved in the anti-Treaty IRA.

He was a founder of the Republican Congress, which was opposed by the IRA, which had a brief success but then declined. He subsequently went to Spain and fought for the Spanish republicans opposed to Franco.

He had been writing since 1925 but, in the 1940s, he focused more on writing and much less on politics. His second novel, Islanders (US: The Way it Was With Them), received considerable acclaim. As well as writing novels, he wrote a play, edited the magazine The Bell and three memoirs. He died in 1986 at the age of ninety-three.

Books about Peadar O’Donnell

Peter Hegarty: Peadar O’Donnell
Donal Ó Drisceoil: Peadar O’Donnell

Other links


1925 Storm (novel)
1928 Islanders (US: The Way it Was With Them) (novel)
1929 Adrigoole (novel)
1930 The Knife (novel)
1932 The Gates Flew Open (prison diary)
1933 Wrack (drama)
1934 On the Edge of a Stream (novel)
1937 Salud! An Irishman in Spain (memoir)
1955 The Big Windows (novel)
1963 There Will Be Another Day (autobiography)
1975 Proud Island (novel)
1985 Not Yet Emmett (history)

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Pearse, Connolly, Larkin, De Valera, Collins, Yeats, O’Casey: august company for any man in the political, social and cultural history of the Irish people. Not only was Peadar O’Donnell alive when they were alive but he was actively involved with them in matters of common interest and he was still alive and active when they were long dead.

Son of a small farmer and migratory seasonal labourer, born in Meenmore, Dungloe, County Donegal on the 22nd February 1893, Peadar will be long remembered in his many roles: teacher, revolutionary soldier, political prisoner, trades-unionist, international socialist, journalist, novelist. But above all he was an Ulsterman — from Dungloe to Donaghadee — and in 1934 he arranged through the Republican Congress for sixty Northern Protestants to attend the Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown, to the embarrassment of some Nationalists.

Peadar didn’t mind if he embarrassed friends or provoked enemies if he believed sincerely in what he was doing. So when an Honorary University Degree was conferred upon President Ronald Reagan on the occasion of his visit to Ireland Peadar sat publicly in Galway to receive degrees returned by holders who considered Reagan unworthy of an Honorary Degree. Has time shown that the man who wrote ‘The Gates Flew Open’ had got the measure of the man who tried to keep ‘The Iran-gate’ tight shut?

Peadar had a long memory and in his 90th year he made a tour of Salvation Army Hostels in Britain for he had never forgotten, and often talked about, the kindness shown him in a Salvation Army Hostel in Glasgow over seventy years before.

How will we remember him? With great pride, for he made the long journey from Dublin to Cushendall nearly twenty years ago to speak to our young Society about a remarkable Glensman, Sean Murray, comrade-in-arms in his guerrilla days and first General Secretary of the Communist Party in Ireland. Though Peadar himself was not a Communist he believed passionately in the right of every political voice to be heard, and he referred to Sean Murray as one of the finest men he had ever known. Some praise. And again we will recall with joy that ‘Night of the Day of the Corncrake’ in 1984 when Peadar presented to his old friend John Hewitt the Gregory Medal in recognition of John’s contribution to literature in Ireland.

For me that was a very special night. Almost thirty-five years before, I had first read a poem by John Hewitt: it was ‘Fame’ and was published in The Bell, the much-lamented literary and political magazine founded by Peadar and Sean O’Faolain in October 1940. My many treasured copies of The Bell will keep his memory green (and orange) for me and mine, and a signed copy of his novel ‘Islanders’ will remind me that in his writings Peadar presented ‘a painfully comprehensive picture of Ireland in one of her most turbulent periods’.

Peadar loved the Glens of Antrim for in our Glens he found and loved people who were kin in spirit and history to the people of his Glens in West Donegal. So let us think of him as John Hewitt saw him in the poem ‘Calling on Peadar O’Donnell at Dungloe’:

The Rover Type: Peadar O’Donnell and the War of Independence in Donegal and Derry, 1919-1921

Oɽonnell certainly made an impression and he also knew how to create turmoil in his own side . And , his accounts weren't always believed is something that I've read before.

Some of the descriptions of him from acquaintances in Survivors are a hoot:

Peadar had a brilliant new idea every week – he was famous for that, a Plan of Campaign, that would impress everybody. The next day, he would have forgotten it. He would replace it with something else.

I liked Peadar. I did not pay great attention to some of his theories but I loved his droll humour he was so offhand and gay.

I ended up not including them in my article as (1) they dealt with PoD at a later time, (2) anyone who could handle a flying column in the WoI and survive must have been a cut above the rest, so the remarks come across to me as rather unfair.

I began the research expecting to find PoD a clown, but I ended up kinda liking him, if only cos of his ⟊n do' attitude.

Peadar O'Donnell and the Spanish Revolution

Peadar O'Donnell (1893-1986), the novelist and political activist, is a major figure in the history of the Irish left. Born in Donegal, he left teaching (and a prominent role in the Donegal branch of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation) to become a full-time organiser with the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union in 1918.

His mother, a fervent Larkinite, and her brother Peter, a member of the Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World) in Butte, Montana, had instilled a strong syndicalist sensibility in the young Peadar and its fruits emerged in an active burst of union organising, which included the successful strike at Monaghan asylum in January 1919 when he led the workers in a week long successful occupation of the institution. With the outbreak of the war of independence O'Donnell joined the IRA. He opposed the Treaty and was among the IRA executive when the Four Courts were shelled in 1922.

Imprisonment and hunger strikes followed before he escaped from the Curragh in 1924. For the next ten years he served on the Army Council and Executive of the IRA, arguing that class politics should be the dynamic of republican politics and the IRA should adopt the role of a Connolyite citizen army. As editor of An Phoblacht from 1926 to 1929 he pursued his left republican agenda, focussing particularly on the land annuities campaign, which he himself initiated as a grassroots popular campaign. The revolutionary left was monopolised by the 'orthodox' communists at this time and O'Donnell was aligned to many of the Comintern groupings that emerged in the late twenties and early thirties, particularly the Irish Working Farmers' Committee movement, a branch of Krestintern, the communist Peasant International.

A leading figure in the failed 1931 Saor Eire experiment, when the IRA rhetorically embraced a socialist programme, he eventually split from the IRA with the formation of the doomed Republican Congress in 1934. He went to Spain on a writing holiday in 1936 and was accidentally caught up in the revolution and civil war. His experiences formed the basis of his book Salud! An Irishman in Spain . Although no longer a member of any political organisation, O'Donnell remained an important figure in Irish political and cultural life.

He helped found the liberal Bell magazine in 1940 and edited it from 1946 to 1954. He was associated with most of the progressive campaigns in post-war Ireland and was a seminal figure in groups like the Anti-Apartheid Movement and CND. He was prominent in the Save the West campaign of the 1960s, and in the National Land League which agitated for the break up of large estates. He also continued his lifelong support of Irish emigrants abroad, particularly in Britain. He published the last of his 7 novels in 1975, and died aged 93 in 1986.

Salud! An Irishman in Spain

Salud! An Irishman in Spain (Methuen, London, 1937) , Peadar O'Donnell's book detailing his experiences in Spain in the early months of the revolution and civil war in 1936, is a little-known account of these events by one of Ireland's best known and respected radical figures. It is particularly interesting for Irish anarchists, given its sympathetic treatment of the anarcho-syndicalist contribution by a long-time 'fellow traveller' of the orthodox Irish communist movement, which has always set out to denigrate that contribution.

Not suprisingly, O'Donnell's account and impressions of anarchism in action in Spain in the summer and autumn of 1936 are never referred to by mainstream and Stalinist writers. They are notably ignored by the Communist Party of Ireland's Michael O'Riordan, who fought with the international brigades, in his book The Connolly Column and in the numerous talks he gives on the topic. For the likes of O'Riordan, Peadar O'Donnell had impeccable credentials, so to accommodate his portrayal of and sympathy with revolutionary Spain would be to undermine the official Stalinist line. Far easier to focus on and dismiss George Orwell, with whose account and impressions in Homage to Catalonia O'Donnell's tally, because of his direct involvement with the supposedly 'counter-revolutionary' POUM and his subsequent anti-Communist work for British Intelligence, fuelled by his hatred of Stalinism.

The tone of O'Donnell's book differs from that of Orwell's, being the account of an engaged (and accidental) observer rather than that of an active participant. It is uneven and obviously rushed, written with the immediate purpose of countering the anti-(Spanish) republican propaganda that was dominating public discourse in Ireland. It is regrettable that he did not subsequently write a more reflective piece with the benefit of hindsight, but this is typical of an activist who declared his pen to be merely a weapon to be used for immediate political purposes, and who always moved quickly on to a new cause.

Unlike Captain Jack White, O'Donnell did not 'convert' to anarchism in Spain. He was frequently critical of anarchist anti-clericalism, utopianism and 'pet theories', yet displayed a self-proclaimed 'enthusiasm' for the anarchists, which was at odds with the attitude of his republican socialist circle, which tended to take the Moscow line. This sympathy and enthusiasm was noted by contemporaries and comrades, including Frank Ryan, who led the Connolly Column to Spain in a letter to the CPI's Sean Murray in September 1937 Ryan makes reference to "Peadar's friends (the Anarchists)". While it is evident in Salud!, his positive view of the revolution does not feature in his journalistic accounts and comments on his return to Ireland. Instead, he fell in with the CPI line - that bourgeois democracy rather than socialist revolution offered the bulwark against fascism - which dominated the pro-republican/anti-fascist campaign in Ireland.

O'Donnell went with his wife Lile and some friends to Spain in July 1936 and intended remaining there for a year or two to do some writing, including a booklet on the changed agrarian situation under the new Republican government. His plans were radically altered, however, by the the fascist uprising a little over a fortnight later and he found himself swept up in the turmoil of those early months of revolutionary fervour and civil war.

He arrived in Barcelona with a letter of introduction from a contact in the French Communist Party, assuming that this would give him an entry into the centre of radical politics in the city. He soon discovered the actual situation. He went in search of the Communist Party, but having tried taxi after taxi, café after café, could find nobody who knew the whereabouts, nor even the existence of the Catalan Communist Party. Eventually he met a Kerryman who brought him to the CP offices, hidden away in a drab back street. He realised that it was the anarchists who were the overwhelmingly dominant force among the working class. The anarchist influence was everywhere and in discussions with members of the English speaking colony he was left in no doubt as to their time honoured role as 'bogey men': "To the foreign colonists the Anarchists were not dreamers seeking . . . to bring government to a standstill so that it might collapse and permit life in the villages to organize itself without interference and allow villages to interweave their social plans to ensure regional welfare, and work out, through autonomous areas, to a federated Spain. The Anarchist was just a man with a gun, or maybe a razor, with a weakness for killing at night time." (The failure of the bourgeois press to identify the strong anarchist influence in Spain was remarked upon by Irish journalist Mairin Mitchell in an article in the liberal journal Ireland To-Day in September 1936. She pointed out that CNT-FAI formed "the most important working class organisation in Spain . . . I have not seen this important fact stated in any of the English papers." She correctly predicted that the anarchists, "with their adherence to the fundamental meaning of anarchism", had little hope of finding a compromise with the "dictatorial Communists".)

O'Donnell met with FAI representatives, one of whom brought along a press clipping relating to the famous attack on him the previous April by a right-wing Catholic mob, when he tried to address a public meeting from a lamp post in Dublin and was lucky to escape with his life. They discussed plans for overcoming illiteracy and the respective educational theories of Padraig Pearse and Francisco Ferrer. O'Donnell made the fascinating suggestion, in the light of subsequent developments in distance learning, that as soon as the technology permitted the anarchists should pioneer the use of television to bring "the lecture room within sight and sound of the youth of the whole nation. What a fight will be made on that one day!". The end result of the discussions was an invitation to Peadar to attend the FAI-CNT regional conferences being organized to plan the land collectivisation campaign and to put his views in a memorandum that would be discussed.

He was back in his base in Sitges, a fishing village about 30 miles from Barcelona, when the fascist rising occurred. He and Lile immediately returned to Barcelona and immersed themselves in a city in the grip of a glorious revolutionary energy. Echoing Orwell, O'Donnell describes the atmosphere of the streets, saluting "that cityful of people, who preserved such uncanny order even in their first flush of victory". On a visit to the newly formed press bureau at anarchist headquarters, he was brought on board to edit the English language version of their international news bulletin and was given a press pass endorsed by the FAI-CNT and the new Anti-Fascist Militia Committee.

The O'Donnells set off for the Aragon Front with the first column from Barcelona, carried along by the collective passion and energy: "Saragossa must be freed. All Spain must be freed. The whole world must be freed. 'SALUD'. I'm sure I roared it too. I have not the slightest recollection what I did." They returned again to Barcelona - "where workers were in the first flush of their overlordship of industries" - and he describes the various groups insisting on marching under their own flags - the Communists, POUM, Socialist trade unions, "but above all came FAI-CNT, the real power in Barcelona".

Encouraged by their friends, Peadar and Lile decided to return to Ireland to try and give an account of what was actually happening in an atmosphere of catholic church fuelled anti-Red hysteria. The burning of churches was a particular focus of pro-Franco propaganda and he prepared to defend himself on this front he recalls joking to a priest in Ireland that the Spanish government had given him a free holiday in Spain on condition that he burned a few churches: "There was a chance that he might have written to the papers in Ireland by this time to give me away." He remained in Ireland in August, writing letters to the press and addressing public meetings on Spain before returning there in September.

O'Donnell's descriptions of life in rural Catalonia on his return reflect something of the changed mood since the heady days of July, and he detects a certain stagnation in the collectivised villages, with the rural population immobilised and the militias over-inclined "to poke their noses into every grumble that arose". Back in Barcelona he found the Catalan government publicity department "very poor", staffed mainly by foreign exiles from fascist countries "without the local sense of atmosphere which is the very lifeblood of publicity". The anarchists alone ran a readable paper, telling stories of "real happenings" and reflecting "the workaday life in reports from the syndicates". He re-established his anarchist contacts and was invited to address the large agricultural conference that was being held in the city. "I was sorely tempted", he writes, "to send telegrams to a few outstanding reactionary farmers in Ireland to tell them that I would have much pleasure in conveying their greetings to the Anarchist Farmers' Congress".

He devotes a whole chapter of Salud! to this congress, indicating, like his later reproduction of the decrees issued by the industrial syndicates in the Catalan town of Badalona, his concern to document the revolution as best he could as it was happening. His account of the speeches and contributions to the conference, centring on the pace of collectivisation, reflect his own views arising from his Irish experience. He instinctively sided with those whose ideas "went deep into the soil, into history", who argued for partial, staged collectivisation.

Compromise was reached to allow those with small farms to continue to work them, derelict farms and those of the enemy were to be collectivised, and no rents were to be paid to landlords. The acknowledgement of the universal peasant "passion for a piece of land" was, for O'Donnell, a victory for common sense and highlights his pragmatic approach to the land question in areas of high small farmer proprietorship like Ireland and Catalonia: strive for the collective ideal while allowing room for individualisation. The small farmer, he wrote in 1930, is "wedged into his holding . . . guaranteed tenure of the working farmer must continue, for it is that ease and rest of mind that will enable his thoughts to ripen for collective effort".

The talk in the cafes of Barcelona, where he spent much time, was of the shortage of arms, and he joined in the criticism of the government for failing to arm the people and permitting the war "to assume the character of a clash of armies only". He was approached by the militia with a view to securing arms and he wrote them a message to be sent to two people who had experience in gun running in the Irish struggle and agreed to make the necessary introductions if these people were willing to help. He set off for Madrid and immediately noted the Communist influence there in contrast to Barcelona where the anarchists were the driving force. He believed this to be an instinctive reaction to the fascist attacks on Communism: "If Communism was the enemy-in-chief in the eyes of the Fascists then it clearly was a fighting formation to which anti-Fascists should rally. There was also a groping hope of help from the Soviet Union . . .". He found that Madrid did not give "that impression of a people set free which Barcelona did" and that it was making a poorer fist of publicity than the Catalan capital "where the Anarchists at least brought glimpses of life into their writing." He saw in the Spanish capital a distortion of the situation:

"Fascists thundered their condemnation of Communism and the ordinary man in the street felt the impulse to give back 'Viva Communismo'. It was easier to see the main line of struggle in the villages, stretching out towards the front [where] the agrarian revolution was put through in a hurry". In discussions with foreigners and Spaniards in Madrid he heard again "this distant-minded judgement of the Anarchists. There was some surprise at my enthusiasm for them, for it was taken for granted that every foreigner coming to Madrid at this stage was a Communist."

After a brief excursion to London to arrange the publication of his account of his experiences in Spain and a few days on the French border observing the smuggling of arms to Republicans, he returned to Barcelona through the villages of Catalonia which he now found "fair and peaceful". Barcelona "was almost as it had been when I had first come into it in July although anybody could tell now where the Communist offices were to be found." His final impressions are of increasing Communist influence, with the "outlines of Government" coming into view, a push towards Republican 'unity' and the need to defend Madrid. With the International Brigades arriving and the defence of Madrid beginning, O'Donnell returned to Ireland and the book concludes with his description of the propaganda war in Ireland between the powerful supporters of Franco and the marginalised anti-fascists, with whom he vainly struggled against the tide.

A common lament on the left in Ireland concerns the historical appeal of nationalism/republicanism and its impact on the fortunes of the left. Connolly's 1916 gesture symbolised the problem, and Peadar O'Donnell's immersion in the republican movement is similarly pointed to. What is less often remarked upon is the detrimental impact of the virtual monopolisation of socialist politics by the Stalinists from the 1920s to the 1960s, so that a 'gut socialist' like O'Donnell, with a syndicalist background and a natural sympathy for the anarchist project once he had experienced it at first hand, re-immersed his socialism in the stagnant communist pool on his return to Ireland - primarily, it could be argued, because it was the only 'socialist' pool in town. He never joined the party, preferring to maintain his independence, but remained a fellow traveller until his death. An editorial in the Donegal Democrat following his death in 1986 was headed 'Death of a Quasi-Anarchist'. The latter term was used as a synonym for trouble-maker, but the writer might have inadvertently captured an element of O'Donnell missed by many others, an element that never developed due partly to the domination of Irish radical politics for most of the twentieth century by the elitist and authoritarian republican and communist traditions.

Donal Ó Drisceoil's biography of Peadar O'Donnell is published by Cork University Press in May 2001 as part of a new series entitled 'Radical Irish Lives'.

What Orwell said about Peadar O'Donnell

The most fascinating aspect of last weekend's revelation that George Orwell had sent a list of 38 writers, journalists and actors who he considered "crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way" to a secret section of the British Foreign Office in 1949 was the inclusion on it of Irish writer Peadar O'Donnell.

The revelations by historian Timothy Garton Ash, published by the Guardian, came in the week the media were celebrating the anniversary of Orwell's 100th birthday. It was, as Garton Ash put it, "an eerie greeting" from the grave. Orwell was dead within a year of shopping his peers and colleagues. The list was intended to warn against people who should not be trusted as anti-communist propagandists during the Cold War.

Orwell's list describes O'Donnell as a critic, which would tie in with his long association with the literary journal, The Bell, where he was managing editor under Sean O'Faolain, and from 1946, editor. Lawrence White, a member of the editorial team compiling the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography, and who has done extensive research on O'Donnell and on the history of the Irish Left generally, feels Orwell got it wrong with the Irish writer. "The purpose of Orwell's list seems to have been that the people on it should not be used as propagandists for the West, but Peadar O'Donnell would never have pretended to be any such thing."

O'Donnell, says White, didn't hesitate from co-operating with communists, a number of whom he was associated with, and would have understood the ideology of communism but adds that no evidence has emerged that he was a member of the Communist Party. "He was a leftist revolutionary, a socialist republican, but everything that he wrote about revolution would have followed a different model than that of Leninism let alone Stalinism."

Like Orwell, O'Donnell was in Spain during the Spanish civil war, though he was not a combatant. His non-fiction book, Salud!, was about the period and White remarks that of the people he writes about on the anti-Franco side he speaks most favourably of the anarchists, just as Orwell does in Homage to Catalonia. "Their reactions were parallel but O'Donnell was always looking for unity on the Left. Although he admired and praised the anarchists, he wasn't critical of the communists. I think Orwell would have resented the fact that O'Donnell didn't come out unequivocally against Stalinism, against Moscow."

The only known surviving member of the list, academic Norman Mackenzie, now 82, dismissed it as the work of a dying man whose mind was clouded by illness and bitterness about the Spanish civil war. O'Donnell is no longer with us to give his reaction, but it's a fascinating story none the less.

Incidentally, an article on O'Donnell and The Bell will appear later this year in the journal of the Ireland Institute, The Republic.

Members of the Fourth Dáil - Peadar O'Donnell

Peadar O'Donnell (Irish: Peadar Ó Domhnaill 22 February 1893 – 13 May 1986) was an Irish republican and socialist activist and writer.

Peadar O'Donnell was born into an Irish speaking family in Dungloe, County Donegal in northwest Ireland, in 1893. He attended St. Patrick's College, Dublin, where he trained as a teacher. He taught on Arranmore Island off the west coast of Donegal before spending time in Scotland.

By 1919, he was a leading organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union. He also attempted in Derry to organise a unit of the Irish Citizen Army (a socialist militia which had taken part in the Easter Rising). When this failed to get off the ground, O'Donnell joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and remained active in it during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). He led IRA guerrilla activities in County Londonderry and Donegal in this period, which mainly involved raids on Royal Irish Constabulary and British Army barracks. In 1921, he became the commander of the IRA's Donegal Brigade. He became known in this period as a headstrong and sometimes insubordinate officer as he often launched operations without orders and in defiance of directives from his superiors in the IRA. In the spring of 1921, O'Donnell and his men had to evade a sweep of the county by over 1000 British troops.

After the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922, O'Donnell and his IRA comrades were split over whether to accept this compromise, which ended their hopes of an Irish republic but which granted a self governing Irish Free State. O'Donnell opposed this compromise and in March 1922, was elected, along with Joe McKelvey as a representative for Ulster on the anti-Treaty IRA's army executive. In April he was among the anti-Treaty IRA men who took over the Four Courts building in Dublin and helped to spark the outbreak of civil war with the new Free State government. The Irish Civil War would rage for another nine months. O'Donnell escaped from the Four Courts building after its bombardment and surrender, but was subsequently captured by the Free State forces, and imprisoned in Mountjoy Gaol. At the end of the Civil War, he participated in the mass Republican hunger strike that was launched in protest at the continued imprisonment of Anti-Treaty IRA men, resisting in this manner for 41 days.

Unlike most Irish republicans of this era, O'Donnell did not see the republican cause solely in Irish nationalist terms. O'Donnell also advocated a social revolution in an independent Ireland, seeing himself as a follower of James Connolly, the socialist republican executed for his part in the Easter Rising. The period 1919-1923 had seen much social unrest in Ireland, including land occupations by the tenants in rural areas and the occupation of factories by workers. O'Donnel, in fact, is regarded as the first Irish person to use the term "occupation" in relation to the occupation of a workplace when he and the staff of Monaghan Asylum occupied the hospital in 1919.

O'Donnell believed that the IRA should have adopted these people's cause and supported land re-distribution and workers' rights. He blamed the anti-Treaty republicans' lack of support among the Irish public in the Civil War on their lack of a social programme. Some republicans, notably Liam Mellows, did share O'Donnell's view, but they were a minority.

According to author and historian Tom Mahon,

In 1923, while still in prison, he was elected Teachta Dála for Donegal as a Sinn Féin candidate. In 1924, on release from internment, O'Donnell became a member of the Executive and Army Council of the anti-Treaty IRA. He tried to steer it in a left-wing direction, and to this end founded organisations such as the Irish Working Farmers' Committee, which sent representatives to the Soviet Union and the Profintern. O'Donnell also founded the Anti-Tribute League, which opposed the repaying of annuities to the British government owed since the Irish Land Acts. He also founded a short-lived socialist republican party, Saor Éire.

In addition, O'Donnell and the IRA found themselves in conflict with their former enemies of the Civil War era. Éamon de Valera, who had founded Fianna Fáil from anti-Treaty republicans, came to power in Ireland in 1932, and subsequently legalised the IRA in 1932-36. O'Donnell announced that there would be "no free speech for traitors" (by which he meant Cumann na nGaedheal, the Free State party) and his men attacked Cumann na nGaedheal political meetings. In response, Eoin O'Duffy, a former Irish army General and Garda Síochána commissioner, founded the Blueshirts (a semi-fascist organisation, originally named the Army Comrades Association) to resist them. There was a considerable amount of street violence between the two sides before both the Blueshirts and then the IRA became banned organisations. O'Donnell saw the Blueshirts as a fascist movement based on the big farmer class.

O'Donnell's attempts at persuading the remnants of the defeated anti-Treaty IRA to become a socialist organization ended in failure. Eventually, O'Donnell and other left-wing republicans left the IRA to found the Republican Congress in 1934. However, this organisation made little impact in Irish politics.

O'Donnell happened to be in Barcelona attending the People's Olympics on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. He joined the Spanish Republican militia that supported the Popular Front government against Francisco Franco's military insurgency. When he returned to Ireland, he encouraged other republicans to fight for the Spanish Republic - accordingly, IRA men, led by Frank Ryan and some Communist Party of Ireland members joined the International Brigades, where they were known as the Connolly Column (after James Connolly).

This was a very unpopular stance in Ireland, as the powerful Roman Catholic Church strongly supported Franco's Catholic Nationalists. Attitudes to the Spanish Civil War also mirrored the divisions of Ireland's civil war. O'Donnell remarked that the Bishops had condemned the anti-Treaty side in the latter for opposing a democratic government, but were now advocating the same thing themselves. A former comrade of O'Donnell's, Eoin O'Duffy, led an Irish Brigade (Spanish Civil War) to fight for the Nationalists.

After the 1940s, O'Donnell devoted more of his time to writing and culture and less to politics, from which he withdrew more or less completely. He published his first novel, Storm, in 1925. This was followed by Islanders (1928), Adrigool (1929), The Knife (1930) and On the Edge of the Stream (1934). O'Donnell also went to Spain and later published Salud! An Irishman in Spain (1937).

After World War II, he edited the Irish literary journal, The Bell (1946-54). Other books by O'Donnell include The Big Window (1955) and Proud Island (1975). He also published two volumes of autobiography, The Gates Flew Open (1932) and There Will be Another Day (1963).
His one play, Wrack, was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on 21 November 1932, and published by Jonathan Cape the following year.

Islanders and Adrigoole were translated into Ulster Irish (Donegal dialect) by Seosamh Mac Grianna as Muintir an Oileáin and Eadarbhaile, respectively. All of his work has a strong social consciousness and works like Adrigoole, as well as being powerful works in themselves, exemplify socialist analyses of Irish society.

Portrait of Peadar O'Donnell as an Old Soldier

On an evening in 1917, Peadar O'Donnelll, twenty five years old and recently appointed full-time organiser for the ITGWU in the north-eastern counties, was sitting at a table in a small hotel in Monaghan having his supper. Four men, three in uniforms and one in a gray suit, approached him. They were members of the staff of the Monaghan County Asylum and had been on strike for three weeks. Unless, they explained, he could bring the power of his Union to bear to cut off the food supply for the asylum, their strike would be defeated by a scab staff due to start work the following morning under police protection.

"They had the weirdest idea of what one's powers were. I said I couldn't cut off the asylum from food and I wouldn't even if I could. They were obviously disappointed."

Even as he spoke he had the glimmer of an idea and asked the men to arrange a meeting for later that night. At nine o'clock all 83 members of the staff were in Monaghan Town Hall. "Yes, I've been thinking about it. I can really win this strike for you," they heard Peadar O'Donnell say. After some discussion, all 83 accompanied him to the gates of the asylum, where they were confronted by a large body of men from the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

"We're going back to work," they told the police, then strode into the asylum and took it over. The Resident Medical Superintendent, the Assistant Medical Superintendent, the matron and the head attendant were ejected from the building. In his first act as the new Resident Medical Superintendant, Peadar O'Donnell ordered the doors nailed up. Later someone - not himself - hoisted a red flag over the roof.

The grey.suited man who had come to the hotel was Willie Hare, a carpenter and an Orangeman. Over the twelve days of the occupation, O'Donnell made him his lieutenant. Wjth the police patrolling the grounds in force, only one door of the building was opened, guarded by pickets, once a day to let in a delivery of food. On the fourth day, Willie Hare told O'Donnell that the strikers were beaten. The pickets on the door had mutinied and decided to let in the first police patrol that would arrive.

"I said to Willie, 'Can you get four men that'll act like a flash?'. 'To tell you the truth,' he said, 'the only men I could trust in here now would be Orangemen.' I said, 'I don't give a damn what they are but they've got to act like a flash.' And I came down the corridor one way and Willie and his four warriors came down the other. We met at the door and the leader of the mutineers started to abuse me for all the bloody fly-by-nights that had walked him into this trouble, they'd all be sacked and so on. And as he talked I tapped my head and said 'The padded cell.' And Willie's four men just grabbed him and ran around the corner to the padded cell. And I turned to the others at the door and said 'Aren't you the right men in your job that didn't recognise what was wrong with him?' It was very dicey but it worked."

Eight days later the asylum corrimittee, headed by the local bishop capitulated entirely to the strikers' demands. It was a victory forged out of the strengths that made Peadar O'Donnell, in the words of Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army "the greatest agitator of his generation" - the ability to win the trust of working people and a keen eye for the main chance. But it was a rare victory in a career spanning sixty years of work as a union organiser, IRA leader, novelist and propagandist. At ninety, looking back, he says "I think I was never on the winning side in anything."

Failure doesn't worry him. He sees history as the ripening of conditions of change, his own role as that of an insignificant provoker of its flux. "I found myself looking on and any of the things that I got involved in came to my doorstep. I didn't have any escape from them. I was a good observer and I was lucky enough to have a ringside seat. I was aware of what was going on but I didn't have any real influence over any of the things that happened."

One of the disadvantages of survival, he says, is that because practically everyone else who took part in certain events is dead, your own role is exaggerated. And many of those events had an inevitability which erases the importance of the individuals involved in them. He neither relished nor was saddened by the Civil War, during the course of which he was held in prison under constant threat of execution by the Free State - it was merely inevitable.

"I was a member of the IRA Executive. We were a very pathetic executive, an absolutely bankrupt executive. All it did was oppose the Treaty - it had no policy of its own. I was on the Executive. I shouldn't have been but I was. I didn't have any influence and didn't deserve to have any. If I had been a junior person and the Treaty came along and I found the Labour people weren't going along with the resistance to it, I would probably have gone home, or gone to America. But I was senior enough to have to say whether I was for the Treaty or against it. And having said that you were against it, you were committed to going along with the resistance to it."

A belief in the processes that underlay all of the events in history came from a visit around 1917 to Scotland, where his father and older brother had worked as migratory labourers to support the poor farm at Meenmore, near Dungloe, where Peadair O'Donnell was born. On a visit to Glasgow he met men like Joe Duncan, General Secretary of the Scottish Farmworkers' Union and Manny Shinwell (now Lord Shinwell) then Chairman of Glasgow Trades Council and imbibed their revolutionary socialist ideas.

On his return to Donegal, he left his job as principal of the national school on Aranmore Island to work for the ITGWU. In Dublin's Liberty Hall he attended meetings of the Socialist Party. He also joined the IRA.

"The great trouble for anyone setting out on an agitational road for workers is to learn to talk to people in terms of their own experience. I remember a meeting of flax workers in Monaghan and I remember torturing myself would I ever learn to talk to such people in terms of their own experiences. On a dark night if you're at the head ofa column of men, all you have to do is take two or three steps ahead of them and you get lost in the darkness. You must start from where people are."

He combined IRA and union activity, believing that the two struggles were inseparable. "I really regarded the Tan war as the preliminary to the second war. You were fighting the first war for political freedom but in the words of the only phrase of Gaelic that was generally current around Liberty Hall 'Ni saoirse go saoirse lught oibre'." In 1920 he left the ITGWU for full-time IRA activity. He did so because a detective from Derry with whom he had worked in trying to organise a union of policemen and prison warders, warned him that he was about to be arrested. "I was amazed in 1922 when the Labour movement supported the Treaty because the whole thesis I was working on was that when Arthur Griffith ducked out of the independence movement at the level of Home Rule, the working class would take over the movement and press on for an independent Ireland."

The collapse of his fundamental political thesis left Peadar O'Donnell in the midst of a sea of contradictions. The Labour movement was too compromised, his influence in the IRA too weak. "I would have gone with de Valera but I thought that by remaining back after he had gone, that I could influence the IRA towards a Citizen Army agitational type of thing. When de Valera founded Fianna Fail, all that was really progressive in the anti-Treaty forces went with him. What was left was rigid IRB-types. Anything that wasn't physical force was politics and politics was disapproved of." His last hope of gathering together an array of forces which might lead to revolutionary change was the campaign against the payment of land annuities, the political activity which most completely engaged his passions.

The irony of Peadar O'Donnell's land annuity campaign was that it served in the end to consolidate the image of de Valera and Fianna Fail as being on the side of the small man, an image which helped them to attract the support that might otherwise have gone to more radical forces.

"The IRA wouldn't join the campaign, Labour wouldn't, and Fianna Fail had ordered that no TD could go on my platform. So we were very isolated. The decrees and the seizures came thick and fast and it became clear to me that the small farmers who supported the agitation would be crucified and the rest of the country would just look on. I decided to land the whole bloody agitation in Fianna Fail's lap. I met Sean Lemass at the bottom of Grafton Street one day and I was very angry and abrasive about this boycotting of my platform and he said 'Can't you see that we stand to gain from your agitation so long as we can't be accused of promoting it?' I realised that I had failed and I landed it in Fianna Fail's lap."

Writing and agitation came from the same source - a perception of the inevitable currents of change. With the imminence of change comes the desire to record. "I didn't celebrate a way of life, I just revealed it. I think the way a person writes is that in your formative years, if you're exposed to vivid impressions, every vivid impression opens a window onto some aspect of your environment. And writing is just a way of getting back to the window and looking out over the environment that it gives access to. And you run a theme through that environment. You call up people out of the earth to live out your theme."

His novels, particularly those of his maturity are sharp, naturalistic records, each existing within a clear and particular political context. If political causes arrived on his doorstep, so too were his books germinated from chance occurances.

"The book that I think is really the only novel that I ever wrote, The Big Windows came from really a very simple experience. I had been wounded in the early part of 1921 and I spent a night in a cottage in a glen and I was quite comfortable on straw. The woman of the house and her daughter-in-law must have thought that I was asleep and they chuckled together in a very happy way at the fireside. Going off the next morning I asked the local person 'Who is she, that woman?' and as I asked him I was noticing the unusually big windows in the house."

The woman, he was told, came from one of the islands.

"And that was as though you had struck a match in my mind. I had lived on an island and with the sea around it and the sky over it, an island is very full of light. I could imagine a girl coming from an island into a glen where the mountains were half-door height in the sky and the windows were like spectacles having trouble with her eyes, with the different light of the glen. I don't know whether there's a word of reality in that. For some reason or another it stuck and then one day or another I thought 'Well, yes. And there'd be also a different kind of light in her mind, because on an island there's no superstition of land - land is not important on an island. But in a glen, there'd be pretty backward superstitions of land which she'd reject. And I took these two ideas, the light of her eyes and the light of her mind being different to the light of the glen and I wrote The Big Windows."

"By that time I'd reached sufficient maturity in politics to realise that these townlands were withering, and if you give your book a happy ending in a withering community, then obviously your book and life are not going in the same direction. So I ended it by having her husband accidentally killed and she took her child and went back to the island."

The decision to establish with Sean O' Faolain the monthly literary magazine The Bell in 1940 was also a reaction to an immediate situation.

"I never had any deep motivation in these things. One reads a lot into it afterwards but to me it was a natural thing to do."

In retrospect he regrets, at least in part, his decision to assume the editorship of the magazine himself after O Faolain left in 1946.

"I probably should have wound up the Bell when Sean O Faolain ceased editing it because I really couldn't keep up his stature. The only useful thing that I did on The Bell was that I got Paddy Kavanagh to write "Tarry Flynn'. It might never have been written except that I serialised it in The Bell. You had to keep reminding yourself that Paddy Kavanagh was.a genius. Otherwise you'd break his neck down the stairs."

His political isolation was matched in its extent only by his personal ability to maintain contacts across practically all the divides. He included in his campaigns Catholic bishops and Orangemen from Belfast.

"Individually, I found most clerics decent enough to deal with. I am one of the few people who would hold that this is not a cleric-ridden country. It's a yahoo-ridden church." One of the few souvenirs he collected from his career as an agitator was an Orange sash given to him by the Deputy Grand Master of Derry. "I eventually reached a stage where Protestants, Orangemen were quite sure that if the Pope had any dark designs against them, its not me he was using. I don't think that anything really important in a revolutionary sense can take place in Ireland unless the industrial centre around Belfast is progressively involved. If you had a very progressive trade union and Labour movement in Britain it would spill over into Belfast and have an effect."

Otherwise the only hope he sees for bridging the sectarian divide is the anti-nuclear movement. He finds the campaign of the Provisionals distasteful. "It's not my kind of fight. While British occupation takes place in any part of Ireland, there will be young people that will take up a rifle and have a crack at them. And you may say its daft and foolish but it has the sanction of the whole of Irish history. But while I can understand the resentment against British occupation in Ireland, I cannot understand the method of conducting the struggle."

Since the collapse of the Republican Congress, the left. wing breakaway from the IRA which he formed in 1934 with George Gilmore and Frank Ryan, Peadar O'Donnell has operated outside of the confines of any political movement. He never had any major theoretical differences from the Communist Party, but he never joined their ranks. "I never joined the Communist Party for the same reason I never joined the IRB: I never found myself doing something that I could do better if I was a member of the party."

He took five Irish delegates to the European Small Farmers' Congress in Berlin in 1930 and agreed to preside over the opening session as an acceptable front for the Communist organisers.

"I said 'I might preside if you tell me the truth why you want me. If you're trying to tell me that it's some stature I enjoy, it's just not true and I won't do it.' I said to them 'Do you know what a dickey is?' I explained that it was a piece of peasant dress and it was a collar and front all in one. You put on the dickey to hide your shirt. So I said 'What you're really asking is am I prepared to be the green dickey to hide your red shirts? Okay, I've no objection to being the green dickey'."

The irony of Peadar O'Donnell's life is that he recorded in his books, with loving detail, a society that has died, and that the thrust of his political activity has been to hasten its death. He is unsentimental about the passing of the world of Islanders and Ardrigoole and The Big Windows. "There‡ is one thing constant in life and that's change and the Donegal that I knew has withered, it's changed. But it's a better way of life. It's not my way of life, but it's better."

His sallies into history have been tempered by a deep sense of the inevitable. "If you didn't reallse that you had to wait for conditions to ripen ," he says now, "you'd be very stupid. You can't have blossoms on potatoes until the stalks grow. And you can't jump through phases in history that have to be lived through."

Peadar O’Donnell book back in print after 83 years

A book by prominent Donegal writer and activist Peadar O’Donnell is available in print again after being out of circulation for over 80 years.

First published in 1937 by Methuen, ‘Salud! – An Irishman in Spain’ is the only first hand account by an Irish writer of the opening months of the Spanish Civil War.

The work has been revived by Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland (FIBI).

Born near Dungloe in 1893, Peadar O’Donnell was a veteran campaigner with an established reputation for republican, socialist, trade union and land reform activity. His experience in Spain in 1936 led to him becoming instrumental in the organising of the Irish volunteers to the International Brigades.

The newly published version of Salud! features a fresh introduction by Donal Donnelly, a close friend and ally of Peadar O’Donnell. The two men met while Donal was in the run, having made a dramatic escape from Crumlin Road prison in 1960.

“I was invited to write the foreword and I told them there are better qualified people than myself. But because of my connection, they wanted me and I was delighted to do it,” revealed Donal.

The Omagh man said that Salud! is worth reading for a number of reasons.

“Peadar was a prophet in many ways because he talked about the Open University long before it ever became a reality. Imagine in 1936 saying to the Anarchists in Spain that your education system is very good and that we may be able to bring the Open University to people’s homes. It was another 30 years or so before it actually came to be.

“Another reason is that there is a great internationalism to it. He makes references to the similarities between life in Spain and Ireland and how first and foremost we are all the same, one race, the human race.

“It’s a great book, so well written and well worth reading.”

In his foreward Donal Donnelly describes Salud! as a “powerful eyewitness testimony of an extraordinary period in world history”.

“Unavailable for far too long, this new edition is very welcome,” he adds.

Salud! – An Irishman in Spain is available from a number of online stores, among them, priced at €15.

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Watch the video: Moving Hearts Tribute To Peadar ODonnell intro (July 2022).


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