Ernie O’Malley fails to take one last barracks

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2007), News, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 15

Ernie O’Malley in 1929. (University of Arizona)

Ernie O’Malley in 1929. (University of Arizona)

This year, 2007, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Ernie O’Malley, and it is almost 110 years since his birth in Ellison Street, Castlebar. He spent only eight years there, where his father, Luke, an official with the Congested Districts Board, was a supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party, the typical Irish Catholic nationalist position at that time. In 1906 the O’Malley family moved to Dublin, where Ernie was educated in O’Connell’s CBS and in University College Dublin, where he studied medicine. His studies were interrupted by the 1916 Rising, which changed the course of his life. Ten years later he would return to his studies but would not finish them.
From 1917 until 1924 he was a member of the IRA, and in his account of the War of Independence, The singing flame, he tells of how he met Michael Collins for the first time in an office in Bachelor’s Walk. After that meeting with Collins, Mulcahy and Brugha, he was appointed area organiser for general headquarters and was to travel around a number of counties in the west, the midlands and the north-east, meeting companies and participating in actions. His first action was in County Monaghan with Eoin O’Duffy at Ballytrain barracks, which was successfully attacked in the spring of 1920. Later he assisted the volunteers of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade at Holyford and Rearcross, where he was burned while helping to set fire to the roof of the barracks. He was part of the group that took over Mallow infantry barracks in September 1920, with dire consequences for the town afterwards. They also carried out an attack on Dangan barracks, Co. Offaly.
Ernie O’Malley then went south-east to Kilkenny to meet and mobilise the west Kilkenny brigade. They attempted to take the Auxiliary barracks in Inistioge, where he was captured along with others. When captured he gave the alias Bernard Stewert, and even under torture he would not reveal his own name. He was taken to Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, where he was interrogated and finally escaped in February 1921. Later that year, at Modreeney, north Tipperary, volunteers whom he had trained would carry out a successful action against the Black and Tans.
A month before this ambush Ernie O’Malley was appointed commandant general of the 2nd Southern Division, consisting of a number of brigades in Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny. He took the anti-Treaty side and was the director of organisation of the IRA in the lead-up to the Civil War; in the autumn of 1922 he was appointed assistant chief of staff to Liam Lynch. During the spring of 1922 he returned to the west, Sligo and Castlebar, to meet the western divisions, and saw again the places along the western seaboard where his family had a holiday home around the shores of Clew Bay. Returning to Dublin, he was part of the garrison in the Four Courts until the bombardment in late June 1922. O’Malley was captured but later escaped and crossed the Wicklow Mountains into Carlow and other neighbouring counties, where he went on the run. He subsequently returned to Dublin and spent time on the run in the city, until he was badly wounded at Humphrey’s house in Aylesbury Road and taken to the hospital wing of Mountjoy, where he spent months in recovery. He went on hunger strike and was finally released in 1924. While interned, he was elected to represent North Dublin in Dáil Éireann but did not take his seat.
After travelling Europe, O’Malley went to America on a fund-raising campaign for the Irish Press. The 1930s would see him enter a life of scholarship, art and literature, and in his later years he would return to the revolution to collect the memories of the men who had been involved in the 1916–23 period. He produced three books (two of them were published posthumously): On another man’s wound (1936), The singing flame (1978) and Raids and rallies (1982). He was the literary editor of The Bell and lived for a number of years in the west of Ireland, where he married the American sculptor Helen Hooker, whose father was a wealthy businessman. They had three children. While living in Burrishoole Lodge near Newport he farmed two holdings. During the war he wrote for The Bell and was a patron of the arts, collecting the work of Jack B. Yeats and Louis le Brocquy. His most ambitious and successful project was to collect in his hand-written notebooks the reminiscences of over 400 veterans of the 1916–23 era. The 53 notebooks were later donated by his son Cormac to UCD archives and are now available on CD ROM format. During his travels his health failed and he had a heart attack in 1953. By then the Irish Press wanted to serialise the memoirs he had collected, and the editor, Col. M. Feehan, published excerpts between 1955 and 1956. Ernie O’Malley died on 25 March 1957, aged 59, and was given a state funeral, attended by Taoiseach Éamon de Valera and President Seán T. O’Kelly.
While there is a monument to the O’Malley family in Castlebar’s Mall, there is no monument to Ernie O’Malley himself. To redress this omission a proposal was put to the town council in late 2006 to name a new link road in his honour. In the absence of agreement, the council decided to conduct a plebiscite of the road’s residents. Of the 30 who voted, 21 were in favour of ‘Ernie O’Malley Road’. Nevertheless, at its next meeting, in January 2007, the town council voted 6 to 3 in favour of the name commonly used by locals—‘Barracks Bridge Road’. The irony, surely, would not be lost on the man himself, the scourge of RIC barracks the length and breadth of the country during the War of Independence.

James Reddiough is a local Mayo historian.

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