Peadar O’Donnell: Writer, Republican, Socialist

SF, Gaillimh

Today, we commemorate the passing of Peadar O’Donnell, a man who dedicated his life to the cause of socialist-republicanism. While there is far too much to cover in such a short space, we will try to touch on the highlights.

Born in Dungloe, west Donegal, in 1893, O’Donnell initially trained as a teacher, working in a school on the island of Aranmore. However, it was clear to him that the life of an educator was not his calling.

Due to the influence of both his mother and uncle (a staunch Larkinite and an IWW member in America respectively) [1], O’Donnell was exposed to socialism from an early age. Even before joining the IRA, he was a noted and prolific organiser. In 1918, he was a leading organiser of the ITGWU in Ulster. In 1919, he presided over one of the first soviets declared outside of the Soviet Union (preceding Limerick by two months). At the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum (as it was then known), he organised an alliance between staff and patients to strike for better pay and conditions, raising the red flag and barricading the premises against the incursions of armed RIC officers. During the War of Independence, O’Donnell used his position in the ITGWU to try and build a unit of the ICA in Derry, even poaching potential IRA members. This only fell through when O’Donnell himself joined the IRA, eventually rising to the position of commander of the 2nd Brigade of the Northern Division.

While presiding over this command, his socialist outlook played a decisive role, as he oft times came into conflict with Irish Republican Police officers attempting to enforce Land Arbitration Court decisions in his area he felt were too in favour of large estate-holders.

With the signing of the Treaty, the IRA split and O’Donnell was present as one of Ulster’s representatives on the Anti-Treaty Army Executive when fighting began in the Four Courts. After the garrison’s surrender, he was interned with fellow Ulsterman Joe McKelvey, and others such as Liam Mellows, in Mountjoy Prison. Between 1922 and 1924, O’Donnell served time on different occasions in Mountjoy, the Curragh, Sligo, Arbour Hill, and Kilmainham, participating in a 41-day hunger strike in the latter, in an attempt to force the Free State’s hand in releasing republican prisoners.

Finally, in 1924, O’Donnell escaped from the Curragh. In his own words:

“I left my hut about 3 a.m. wearing Dr Comer’s brown boots, Ned Bofin’s brown leggings, and a top coat that did not belong to me nor to any prisoner in the camp. The searchlight in the turret ceased flashing; I walked up to the prison gates: they were flung open. There was some little delay before I got through the second wall of barbed wire, but a gate opened there also, eventually. The North Star was shining out clear and friendly, and it told me the breeze was blowing from south-east which was my road, so I put my face to the breeze and ran after it. And when the day cleared I kept close to the shelter of the hedges and hurried towards the friendly hills, now clear in the distance” [2]

Following his escape, he went on to marry Lile O’Donel, a member of Cumman na mBan, who he had corresponded with heavily in prison, as she had been his liaison with the rest of the army. It was their first face-to-face meeting.

O’Donnell’s reach as an activist after the civil war has been underestimated in histories of the early Irish Free State. In 1926, O’Donnell led a campaign against the policy of paying land annuities to the British government. These were the repayment of loans granted by the Irish Land Commission in the 1880s, which the Free State had agreed to honour. However, the payments fell disproportionately on farmers on the west coast. The campaign, beginning in Donegal, eventually encompassed the entire west coast from Donegal down to Galway and Clare, and led to O’Donnell sharing a platform at a meeting outside Ennis with Eamonn DeValera. The campaign gained support enough to eventually contribute to Fianna Fail’s election in 1932, laying the groundwork for the subsequent Anglo-Irish Trade War of 1932-38.

Before he eventually left the IRA, O’Donnell acted as editor of An Phoblacht, and attempted to drive the organisation in a leftward direction, but to no avail. He went on to found numerous groups on the republican left, chief among them being Saor Éire (1931), and the Republican Congress (1934), with the latter’s persistent attacks on the Blueshirts being a reason for them never reaching prominence on the island.

In 1936, O’Donnell found himself in Spain, having travelled there to write about the programmes of the newly elected Republican government, specifically the People’s Olympiad (a socialist alternative to the Berlin Olympics). While there, he was caught in the outbreak of the civil war, the experience of which formed the basis for his book Salud! An Irishman in Spain.

Not only a political activist, O’Donnell was also a prolific novelist and cultural figure in 20th century Ireland. Giving prime position in his writings to the west coast, and especially island communities, O’Donnell drew frequently on his experiences with these locales and their denizens to produce exceptionally moving and evocative pieces of fiction, such as Islanders, Adragoole, and The Big Windows. From 1946-54, O’Donnell edited The Bell, a literary journal that stood out among the backdrop of Church dominance and state censorship, as a publication of incisive left-wing commentary.

Throughout the latter half of his life, O’Donnell and his wife kept an open house in Dublin, until her death in 1969. In 1986, at the age of 93, O’Donnell passed away in Monkstown. He was cremated in Glasnevin, and laid to rest alongside his wife Lile at her family’s plot in Swinford, Co. Mayo.

[1] Proinnsias O’Conluain, ‘Peadar O’Donnell at 90’, RTÉ, 1983,

[2] O’Donnell, Peadar. And the Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 189

Recommended Reading:
Ó Drisceoil, Donal. Peadar O’Donnell (Cork University Press, 2001)

O’Donnell, Peadar. There Will Be Another Day (Donegal: Red Sky Books, 2017)

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