Historian, author and government press chief

Sat, Jan 8, 2011, 00:00

EOIN NEESON: EOIN NEESON, who has died aged 83, was a journalist, historian and former director of the Government Information Bureau (GIB). He also was a sometime playwright - he wrote his first play at 11 - and as Donal O'Neill wrote fiction.

He was proud of his leading role in the government's international publicity drive following the Northern eruption in 1969: "The British suddenly realised they were not getting things all their own way on the information front. By the end of August they were complaining about our efforts."

These efforts were part of what George Colley, who oversaw the operation, termed an international "publicity putsch" and covered the "Six County Area". Additional personnel with public relations experience, mostly from the semi-State sector, were drafted in to augment the GIB staff.

An exception was Séamus Brady, who was a freelance journalist and PR man. Appointed at the behest of Charles Haughey, he soon left the GIB to edit the Voice of the North, a pro-republican newspaper.

In 1971, Neeson told the Dáil Public Accounts Committee he knew that Brady had received £5,000 from the £100,000 fund, which had been voted for the relief of distress in the North, to publish the newspaper. But he denied the project had government support and did not know why bills from Brady should come to him.

In 1973, after the Fine Gael-Labour coalition took office, Neeson was appointed to other duties, and served in a number of government departments, including fisheries, forestry and tourism as well as energy.

As a historian he was best known for The Civil War in Ireland: 1922-23, published in 1966. The book was reviewed in The Irish Timesby Ernest Blythe, a Cumann na nGaedheal veteran, whose lengthy review was carried in instalments over four days.

Blythe got straight to the point. Neeson had been "thoroughly soaked in hectic and unreliable propaganda both of the pro-Treaty and of the anti-Treaty varieties," he wrote in the first instalment. A detailed critique followed.

Twenty-three years later, at the launch of the book's second edition, Neeson condemned the "awful cult" of historical revisionism. He said it was ironic that it was the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising that started the cult.

"To suggest that the vast majority of those on both sides were inspired by anything but the highest motives and ideals is prejudice of the worst kind," he added.

Born in Cork in 1927, he was one of two children of Seán Neeson and his wife Geraldine (née Sullivan). Both parents were staunch republicans.

He was educated at the Christian Brothers College, Cork, and Newbridge College, Co Kildare. On completing second-level education, he spent two years in the Air Corps.

He always wanted to be a writer and cut his teeth as a journalist in the provincial press. Having served as editor of The Kerrymanhe became managing editor of the Munster Tribune. He then moved to the Evening Mailwhere he worked under Alan Montgomery.

Later, in 1961, he joined the staff of the fledgling Telifís Éireann having been recruited by the head of drama Hilton Edwards. He next became a news reporter before leaving RTÉ in 1967 to become chief press officer of CIÉ. The following year he was appointed to succeed Pádraig Ó hAnnracháin as director of the GIB.

His other books include The Life and Death of Michael Collins(1968), The First Book of Irish Myths(1965), The Book of Irish Saints(1967), A History of Irish Forestry(1991) and Birth of a Republic(1998).

He took strong exception to a review of his most recent book in this newspaper. He alleged in an article that the reviewer's assessment was informed by "prejudice and spleen". There was an exchange of letters, and a third party entered the fray to adjudicate in the reviewer's favour.

Neeson was involved in a more voluminous correspondence which lasted, on and off, from 1995 to 2002. This concerned the Roger Casement "Black Diaries", which he insisted were forgeries.

Then, in 2002, following forensic tests, he acknowledged that the diaries were genuine, but expressed the fear that "Casement would be portrayed as some kind of homosexual icon rather than the great man he was".

In other articles and letters he defended Éamon de Valera's conduct as commandant of the Boland's Mill garrison in 1916, argued in favour of Ireland's wartime neutrality, took issue with the term "British Isles" and supported the broadcasting of the Angelus.

His adaptation of Ibsen's Enemy of the Peoplewas the first full-length play to be broadcast by Telefís Éireann, and he was co-author of The Face of Treasonwhich was staged at the Abbey Theatre in 1965.

His novels included Crucible(1987) which featured St Patrick as the central character.

He collected antique weapons, including swords and pistols, and also enjoyed music, swimming, shooting and golf.

He is survived by his family.

Eoin Neeson: born September 13th, 1927; died January 2nd, 2011