Frank Aiken: revolutionary, statesman, polymath

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Devalera & Fianna Fail, Issue 3 May/June2013, News, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 21

Aiken representing Ireland at the United Nations in the 1960s, where he pursued a non-aligned position somewhat at odds with Lemass, who favoured orienting Ireland ever closer to Anglo-American hegemony. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Aiken representing Ireland at the United Nations in the 1960s, where he pursued a non-aligned position somewhat at odds with Lemass, who favoured orienting Ireland ever closer to Anglo-American hegemony. (United Nations Archive)

United Nations Photo Archive

United Nations Photo Archive

United Nations Photo Archive

Frank Aiken cuts a colossal figure in twentieth-century Irish history. But in 2006, when RTÉ broadcast a documentary on him as part of its ‘Hidden History’ series, sectarian killings in County Down featured most prominently (reviewed in HI 15.1, Jan./Feb. 2007). Clearly, in post-Peace Process Ireland Aiken remains a controversial figure: one version of the documentary was later posted on-line, with Aiken contemptuously dubbed the ‘Butcher of Altnaveigh’.

Aiken’s birth and upbringing in what would become Northern Ireland provide the outline sketch for the anti-partitionist dinosaur of caricature. He came from a sturdy Catholic, nationalist, farming family in County Armagh. By March 1921 the physically imposing Aiken, every inch the IRA ‘big man’, had risen to commandant of the IRA’s 4th Northern Division. A few months later, Aiken’s reputation was bolstered by his responsibility for a ‘spectacular’: the derailment of the train carrying the cavalry regiment that had escorted King George V at the opening of the Northern Ireland parliament.

But as the newly independent state descended into civil war, Aiken adopted a neutral stance. His earnest efforts to avert civil strife were reflected in his key role in the negotiation of the ill-fated Collins–de Valera electoral pact. The noble derring-do of this emerging lion of the north would soon, however, become tainted by the actions of his IRA division. Allegedly responding to the rape of a local Catholic woman, Aiken’s men carried out a notorious reprisal massacre in Altnaveigh, Co. Down, on 17 June 1922, when several innocent members of a small Presbyterian community were shot dead. ‘The Butcher of Altnaveigh’ was born.

Meanwhile, Aiken was struggling to maintain his neutrality in the civil conflict. His refusal to endorse the provisional government in Dublin led to his arrest and imprisonment in Dundalk jail. Irrepressible, Aiken first led a mass escape of over a hundred prisoners, then recaptured Dundalk and its military barracks. Aiken brought his swashbuckling exploits to an end and secured his place in history when, as successor to Liam Lynch as IRA chief-of-staff, he gave the cease-fire order ‘to dump arms’ in May 1923. Aiken later topped the poll as the Sinn Féin abstentionist candidate in Louth at the general election of August 1923. He would hold this seat until his retirement from politics 50 years later.

 

Aiken sharing a lighter moment with Éamon de Valera. Dev trusted him; in 1951, with his party’s return to power, he chose Aiken to succeed him as minister for external affairs. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Aiken sharing a lighter moment with Éamon de Valera. Dev trusted him; in 1951, with his party’s return to power, he chose Aiken to succeed him as minister for external affairs. 

He endorsed Éamon de Valera’s decision to dump abstentionism, and his links with the IRA were instrumental in reconciling the army to the Fianna Fáil government in 1932 and beyond. De Valera appointed him minister for defence, and ministerial appointments in successive governments followed. Aiken enthusiastically championed the state-driven turf development of the 1930s and, as ‘the most enthusiastic of amateur inventors’, as a contemporary dubbed him, devised many schemes of scientific innovation, some hare-brained and some brilliant.

With the coming of World War II in 1939, Aiken would do much to sully his reputation by overseeing a fastidious censorship regime. He did possess an under-documented wit, though, and with the lifting of censorship in 1945 he drily invited his corpulent Anglophile antagonist ‘Bertie’ Smyllie (editor of the Irish Times) to an end-of-censorship dinner in Dublin Castle with the words ‘Dinner jacket optional. Rapier de rigueur. Dagger verboten’.

Infamously, Aiken’s truculent articulation of Irish neutrality before US President Franklyn D. Roosevelt in 1941 prompted FDR to fly into a rage during which he pulled the tablecloth from the Oval Office table, sending cutlery flying around the room. Contrary to popular opinion, however, Aiken’s trip to America was not a dead loss. He did not come back with arms but he was able to acquire two ships—later renamed Irish Pine and Irish Oak—which did much to save cabinet colleague Seán Lemass’s bacon at a time when Ireland’s food supply situation was truly perilous. Aiken’s wartime antics did much to secure his reputation as an Anglophobic anti-partitionist. Pub rumours might have had it that Aiken, given half a chance, would order a border incursion, but de Valera trusted him; in 1951, with his party’s return to power, he chose Aiken to succeed him as minister for external affairs.

With Dev moving to the Áras in 1959, many feared that the unity of the Long Fella’s era would be shattered. The rivalry between Lemass and Aiken, two of de Valera’s most loyal lieutenants, is renowned. A notable point of departure between the two men was Aiken’s determination to cement a non-aligned Irish identity at the United Nations. With Lemass orienting Ireland ever closer to Anglo-American hegemony, Aiken bravely stuck his neck out and steered a different course, passionately pursuing decolonisation in Africa and Asia and ensuring Ireland’s palatability to the UN as a peacekeeping nation. Aiken’s left-leaning image is bolstered by his disdain for ‘the men in the mohair suits’, the likes of the brash Charles Haughey, who brazenly canoodled with speculators and builders in Dublin bars and restaurants. And yet he remained, like Lemass, a social conservative who was anxious about the creeping liberalisation of Irish society.

Under Jack Lynch, an aging Aiken was reappointed tánaiste and minister for external affairs. Far removed from the republican thug of unionist lore, Aiken would maintain a moderate stance when the modern Troubles erupted. Such was his venom towards Haughey, Aiken privately announced that he would resign rather than fight the 1973 election if Haughey was ratified as a candidate. Disillusioned, Aiken never attended another party event in the last ten years of his life. HI

 

Bryce Evans is Lecturer in Modern History at Liverpool Hope University.

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