McDowell's search for the rebel uncle he never knew
The former tánaiste has traced the life and death of Brian MacNeill in a new television documentary
High on the foggy slopes of Benbulbin mountain, in Co Sligo, in September 1922 six anti-Treaty IRA volunteers were summarily executed after they were captured by a large contingent of Free State forces. One of them was a 21-year-old Dublin medical student, Brian MacNeill.
MacNeill’s brothers Turlough and Niall had volunteered as soldiers on the other side. His father, Eoin MacNeill, was one of the founders of the Free State and was a cabinet minister at the time, essentially directing the army that killed his son.
Eoin MacNeill was the grandfather of Michael McDowell, lawyer and former tánaiste, minister for justice and attorney general. Brian MacNeill was his uncle, dead long before McDowell was born.
In A Lost Son, a new documentary produced and directed by Niamh Sammon, McDowell explores the short life of an uncle he never knew, and how MacNeill ended up on the opposite side to his father in the Civil War. In addition, McDowell tries to untangle the conflicting narratives surrounding MacNeill’s death on Benbulbin.
Eoin MacNeill was the leader of the Irish Volunteers. He had famously tried to stop Pádraig Pearse from pressing ahead with the Rising at the last minute. MacNeill would not countenance a blood sacrifice, believing in military force only if it could succeed.
Brian was the second eldest of Eoin’s seven children. McDowell paints a picture of a happy and carefree young man. He and his brothers had been involved with the volunteers since their teens, and when the truce was established in the War of Independence in 1921 Brian was sent to Sligo to help train local volunteers. He had completed two years of medical studies at University College Dublin.
He ended up on the anti-Treaty side partly due to geography. When the newly independent state descended into civil war, the western seaboard was deeply anti-Treaty. McDowell argues convincingly that loyalty to his comrades in Sligo motivated Brian to side with them.
Extraordinarily, the fact that MacNeill was on the opposite side caused no rancour or division in the family. He remained his mother’s “fair-headed boy”. In a touching letter after his son’s death, Eoin MacNeill wrote: “My Brian died as he lived, upright, gentle, kind and fearless. He shook hands with the man who found him dying and, when asked where the rest of his men were, he laughed and told them to find out.”
The tragedy bore so heavily on the family that Brian’s death and its circumstances were barely discussed after 1922.
McDowell says he knew the vague outline of his uncle’s story but has come to a greater understanding only in recent times. He had read Calton Younger’s 1969 book, Ireland’s Civil War, which quoted the accounts of senior Free State officers. According to those accounts, MacNeill and his comrades had died in a gunfight after being outnumbered by Free State forces.
McDowell believes this was not the case, that there was a cover-up and his uncle and five comrades, unarmed after surrendering, were shot by Free State soldiers.
On the Treaty, McDowell is resolute that it provided the only realistic option at the time. As for the Civil War, he describes it in the film as a tragedy in slow motion.
“I would regard the Civil War as a complete disaster. Collins, Griffith and MacNeill had got as good a deal as Ireland was going to get,” he says. From a Fine Gael background, McDowell was always an admirer of Collins and placed himself on the “green side” of the party until he left to join the Progressive Democrats, in 1986.
McDowell believes Éamon de Valera was sucked into being the figurehead for anti-Treaty forces, essentially led by extremists such as Rory O’Connor and Countess Markiewicz. In a typical McDowell description, he says they were “peddling snake oil to the Irish people” to the effect that some form of republic was available.
It’s also clear McDowell regards his uncle’s death as a terrible and tragic waste of youth, talent and potential, especially as MacNeill had written to his mother to say he was thinking of returning to his medical studies.
At the same time, the IRA brigade with which he was involved had carried out very violent attacks. “He and his pals had shot a lot of other people,” he says.
The abiding impression from this thoughtful documentary is of McDowell’s view of the futility of the Civil War. “What did it all achieve in the end only to set back Ireland’s cause about five years?” he says.