Official position — Brian Maye on Tomás Mac Giolla

Northern Ireland’s deepening crisis split republicans and Mac Giolla was president of Official Sinn Féin by January 1970

Tomás Mac Giolla, who was born 100 years ago on January 24th, was well known in Irish political life in the 1980s and 1990s, but his involvement goes back long before that and he played a central part in both Sinn Féin and the IRA from the 1950s onwards.

He was born Thomas Gill at Fatheen House, Nenagh, Co Tipperary, one of three children of Robert Gill, a county-council civil engineer, and Mary Hourigan. Following primary education at the local Christian Brothers’ school and secondary at St Flannan’s College, Ennis, he was able to attend UCD thanks to financial help from relatives, from where he graduated with a BA and studied at night for a BComm. From 1947, he worked for the ESB as a revenue accountant.

With the declaration of the Republic of Ireland in 1949, he joined the Anti-Partition League.

A few years later, he joined the IRA and then Sinn Féin and was elected to the latter’s ard-comhairle in 1956. He took no direct part in the IRA’s border campaign 1956-1962 but was among leading republicans who were at first jailed and then interned in the Curragh. Here he began to use the Irish form of his name – Mac Giolla – and he later classed internment as “probably the two most important years of my life”.


He married Máire (May) McLaughlin, a republican activist from the East Wall area of Dublin, in September 1961 and credited her with introducing him to the city’s tradition of working-class radical politics. That same year he contested the Tipperary North constituency for Sinn Féin in the general election but finished bottom of the poll.

When the IRA border campaign ended in 1962, several veterans resigned and Mac Giolla became Sinn Féin president. Brian Hanley, who wrote the entry on him in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, described him as Sinn Féin’s public face in the 1960s, an Irish-speaker, practising Catholic, heavy smoker but teetotaller. He worked closely with IRA leader Cathal Goulding, supporting his moves to become involved in social agitation but remaining a traditional republican, supporting, for example, continuing abstention from parliament. Considering republicanism and socialism identical, he believed the latter was unrelated to atheism or authoritarianism.

Deeply involved in Sinn Féin activities, and frequently arrested, he was becoming more well known publicly. When violence flared in Belfast in 1969, he declared that only the IRA could protect nationalists and if the “Free State army” could not defend people, they should give guns to the IRA to do so. Northern Ireland’s deepening crisis split republicans and Mac Giolla was president of Official Sinn Féin by January 1970. Initially conciliatory to the Provisionals, he firmly believed that elements within Fianna Fáil were responsible for their emergence, and he came to regard their violence as counterproductive and sectarian. But violent actions by the Officials made it difficult for him to maintain a consistent stance. They gradually moved away from violence and in 1978, Mac Giolla declared that the Provisionals were engaged in a war against the Irish people that was as bad as that waged by the Black and Tans.

Being identified with eastern-bloc socialism troubled the Officials and Mac Giolla considered Cuba a better model for Ireland to follow. Although not a key driver in the ideological changes, according to Brian Hanley, he was important in the move to electoral politics, embodied in the name Sinn Féin, the Workers’ Party (SFWP) in 1977. That year, he retired from the ESB and devoted himself fully to SFWP, becoming the party’s first member on Dublin Corporation in 1979 and holding that seat until 1998. He was elected to the Dáil for what was now the Workers’ Party (WP) in November 1982 and he and the party’s other TD, Proinsias de Rossa, were effective performers, particularly criticising Labour who were in government with Fine Gael.

Mac Giolla was re-elected in 1987 and stood down as leader in 1988 to make way for a younger replacement. In 1989, the WP returned seven TDs but split in 1992 when all the TDs apart from Mac Giolla left to form Democratic Left; he was later to blame de Rossa for the split. He lost his seat by only 59 votes in the November 1992 election and subsequently failed on two occasions to regain it. However, he was delighted and “deeply honoured” to become Dublin’s lord mayor in 1993.

Retirement in the late 1990s gave him time to devote to personal interests. In an interview, he described himself as more an agnostic than an atheist and while he had been a teetotaller, he now “enjoyed a few jars”. He died on February 4th, 2010, aged 86. At his funeral in Ballyfermot Civic Centre, the affection for him among the local community was evident. He was buried in Palmerstown Cemetery.