Shortly after coming of age, the London-born son of a prominent Newry Protestant family converts to Catholicism, Gaelicises his identity and establishes himself as one of the most original and prolific nationalist writers engaged with the Irish revolution. It sounds like a contrived film script but, in fact, describes the extraordinary life of one of the most compelling – and sadly overlooked – members of Ireland’s revolution generation, Aodh de Blácam.
Indeed, aside from a valuable entry to the Dictionary of Irish Biography, de Blácam is absent from most histories of the Irish revolution. This oversight stems from the fact his contribution was principally ideological and, therefore, less dramatic than that of his many contemporaries who fought and died for the republican cause.
But a century on from the revolution, at a time when people across Ireland are concerned to better understand the evolution of the states that arose from it, it is opportune to revisit de Blácam’s life and work. For his substantial body of political writing provides an invaluable window into the range of transnational intellectual influences that shaped the Irish revolution and conditioned the subsequent development of the Free State.
Born Hugh Saunders Blackham on December 11th, 1891, son of William George Blackham, a Newry-born apothecary, and his English wife Elizabeth (née Saunders), he was raised as an Evangelical Protestant.
However, he experienced a religious crisis as a young man and, partly in response to his father’s Home Rule sympathies, he gravitated inexorably thereafter in the direction of Catholicism and Irish nationalism.
Blackham timed his first visit to Dublin in 1910 to coincide with the opening of a new Sinn Féin headquarters. By the time the Great War erupted four years later, he had converted to Catholicism, Gaelicised his identity and relocated permanently to Dublin, where he made his living as a freelance journalist. Interned briefly during the War of Independence, de Blácam worked as a propagandist with the nationalist journalist and Sinn Féin party founder Arthur Griffith and was eventually appointed editor of Young Ireland.
De Blácam opposed the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and spent the next three decades working closely alongside the long-serving Fianna Fáil taoiseach Éamon de Valera. In addition to contributing to The Irish Times, he is best remembered for his satirical “Roddy the Rover” column, which appeared in the Irish Press from 1931 to 1947.
Settled on a small farm in Ravensdale, Co Louth, de Blácam eventually left Fianna Fáil for Clann na Poblachta. On the formation of the 1948-51 interparty government, he served as an adviser and speechwriter to minister for health Noël Browne and supported the implementation of the controversial Mother and Child Scheme. He died on January 13th, 1951, and was survived by his wife, Mary McCarville and two sons.
Remarkably prolific in his journalistic and literary output throughout his life, de Blácam produced during the revolution two major political manifestos: Towards the Republic (1918) and What Sinn Féin Stands For (1921). These texts reveal to us much regarding the range of ideas that animated the notoriously loose-knit Sinn Féin coalition.
Perhaps most importantly, they illustrate the complex correlation of radical socialist and republican sources in shaping Irish nationalism during the period, as well as more conservative and religious perspectives derived from the tradition of Catholic social theory. Indeed, de Blácam recognised explicitly that Ireland “is peculiar among nations, because in her the most advanced revolutionary spirit is united with the most conservative religious tradition.”
It is, ultimately, only by analysing how intellectuals like de Blácam worked to synthesise such ostensibly incompatible influences in formulating a coherent political doctrine for an independent government that we can hope to comprehend how the Irish revolution produced quite such a conservative state in its aftermath.
Drawing on the work of Karl Marx and James Connolly, for instance, de Blácam was scathing of British imperialism as well as the material inequality generated by liberal capitalism. However, he was equally determined to refute any association of Sinn Féin with “Bolshevism” and regarded both “Nazism and Communism” as “present-day forms of Caesar-worship.”
Instead, de Blácam argued, an independent Irish state must draw on the corporatist economic principles advocated by the contemporary papacy to develop an alternative political and economic model that would accord more closely with national tastes.
By effectively counterbalancing the interests of capital and labour, this system was presented as eschewing the twin excesses of laissez-faire capitalism and socialist collectivism and promised to ensure both popular material prosperity and individual liberty in a manner that reflected the traditions of Ireland’s ancient Gaelic constitution.
In this regard, de Blácam’s outlook was typical of the radical intellectual experimentation that predominated among Catholic and nationalist thinkers across Europe in the uncertain future that evolved in the wake of the first World War, and it is essential that the political thought of the Irish revolution begins to be understood in this broader context. For if we are to comprehend why the Irish Free State developed in the fashion it did after 1921, rather than simply critiquing particular policies, we must pay greater heed to the perspectives expressed by its intellectual architects and endeavour to understand them on their own terms.
♦ Seán Donnelly was awarded a PhD in Modern Irish History from Teesside University and has published widely on the political and intellectual history of the revolution and its aftermath. Most recently, he contributed an in-depth examination of de Blácam’s life and work to the journal of Modern Intellectual History.