Stories from the scrap


MEMOIR: Raids and Rallies,By Ernie O’Malley, Mercier Press, 282pp. €14.99

Raids and Rallies, recently reissued by Mercier Press, forms part of Ernie O’Malley’s remarkable revolutionary trilogy, in addition to his War of Independence and Civil War memoirs, On Another Man’s Wound and The Singing Flame. Raids and Rallies, first published as a series of articles in the Sunday Press in the 1950s, recounts a number of ambushes during the War of Independence, mostly in County Tipperary, one of the many areas where O’Malley was despatched as a travelling organiser on behalf of IRA GHQ.

Historians of the Irish revolution are greatly indebted to O’Malley, not merely for his prolific output during his lifetime. Two editions of his letters from the Civil War have been posthumously published, affording a unique insight into the increasingly desperate position of the imaginary republic inhabited by the anti-Treaty IRA, and a third is in the offing, focusing on his post-revolutionary existence in New York, New Mexico and the west of Ireland.

O’Malley’s detailed and frank interviews with IRA veterans are collected in the University College Dublin Archives, and form an important and unique part of the growing corpus of source material on the Irish Revolution. Richard English’s important 1998 biography, Ernie O’Malley: IRA Intellectual, reflects O’Malley’s unique importance as both chronicler and participant in these events, as well as a compelling figure in his own right.

Although O’Malley is not alone among IRA memoirists – Tom Barry and Dan Breen are among his most commercially successful comrades – his writing is marked by a lyricism and sensitivity not commonly found elsewhere. In a series of effective pen-portraits in Raids and Rallies, O’Malley’s perceptive and empathetic reading of his comrades comes particularly to the fore, alongside a heightened awareness of the natural world, the elements and the landscapes of Ireland, and the manner in which each of these shaped the conflict that he elsewhere termed “the scrap”.

O’Malley’s enthusiasm for action is one of the strongest features of the first half of the book. Among the most striking pictures to emerge is that of a scorched and charred O’Malley on the roof of Rineen barracks, pouring paraffin down into the rooms below. The burning of RIC barracks, often cursorily cited as a key component of the successful IRA campaign, is here the focus of the book’s most affecting chapters: the lengthy and painstaking preparations; the dangers experienced by Volunteers carrying buckets of sloshing petrol across burning roofs; the later innovation of a makeshift hose to spray fuel directly onto the blaze; and the vivid images of republican figures illuminated by leaping flames against the night sky, which O’Malley characteristically likened to a Caravaggio painting.

What it must have been like in the smoke-filled rooms of the barracks is not entered into, nor does O’Malley spare much consideration for the Crown forces, aside from a pointed reference to having “roast peeler for breakfast”. The Royal Irish Constabulary are dismissed as “Janissaries”, while the casual brutality of the Black and Tans is emphasised throughout, particularly during the infamous reprisals exacted upon the civilian population of West Clare.

O’Malley’s concern throughout is for his comrades; what he terms “a veritable litany of names of men” emerges from the pages, among them Ned Reilly, Jack “the Master” Ryan, Jim Gorman, Ryan Lacken, Paddy O’Brien and Pat Madden. The imperative of naming the ordinary participants is part of O’Malley’s project of recognition for the rank-and-filers, the country folk and the mountain men who gave the revolution its real drive, far away from the streets of Dublin. Although O’Malley does not place himself centre stage, something of his personality emerges; his admiration for the hillside men and their taciturn nature, their laconic humour, and their distrust of “talk” or gossip is perhaps unintentionally revealing.

Raids and Rallies, first published over a quarter of a century ago, in 1982, is perhaps the slightest of O’Malley’s revolutionary trilogy, and the striking intimacy of his two memoirs is not always present. The earlier sections of the book, where O’Malley is a participant in the ambushes he describes, are noticeably stronger and more affecting. But like the rest of his work, Raids and Ralliesis deeply appealing: free from the explicit grandstanding of other IRA memoirs, it offers a compelling glimpse of the real experiences of Volunteers. It remains an essential text for the study of the Irish Revolution.

Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid is the Rutherford Research Fellow at Fitzwilliam College, the University of Cambridge. Her study of the republican career of Seán MacBride will be published later this year by Liverpool University Press