Lone crusader: David Thornley and the intellectuals

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 3 May/June2013, Reviews, Volume 21

Lone crusader: David Thornley and the intellectuals

Edward Thornley
(Ashfield Press, €21.50)
ISBN 9789068798


81The premature death of David Thornley in June 1978 deprived Ireland of a significant intellectual best known for his current affairs work on RTÉ’s Seven Days programme and as a Labour TD for Dublin North-West from 1969 to 1977. Unseated in the 1977 general election, he joined the Socialist Labour Party shortly before his death the following year, despite an often-fractious relationship with the extraordinary Noel Browne.
From all evidence, he was a highly intelligent, articulate, engaged and dynamic person. His wide-ranging public contribution to Irish life was all the more important for its dissenting thrust in a time of political and economic turmoil. Clashing with such strident figures as Noel Browne and ‘crypto-unionist’ Conor Cruise O’Brien, the gulf between some of Ireland’s most insightful and combative commentators was often very wide indeed.
This new biography—at times affectionate in tone, at others remarkably sharp vis-à-vis contemporaries—is an informative and much-needed account of a neglected personality in an under-explored period. Edward Thornley explicitly sets about setting the record straight, using arguments that attempt vindication of his late brother’s perspectives. No prisoners are taken in a book in which O’Brien, Browne, Garret Fitzgerald and many others deemed to have transgressed are severely castigated. Lacking sufficient autobiographical source material, the author provides the details necessary in any memoir and is very much an active voice in the overall account. His pursuit of those whom he believes to have maligned his brother’s reputation, including Ruairi Quinn, exceeds the remit of a standard biography in a book unbounded by traditional constraints. The result is often riveting and certain to infuriate many.
Thornley’s background, as outlined in this book, was one of a socially complex middle-class Dublin family being challenged to redefine its outlook on the British connection when confronted by the realities of the 1916 Rising. Residence in the city centre, on the same street that was once home to the Pearse brothers, assured at least casual interest in a Parnellite household. The transformation of Irish society following the Treaty ensured that David Thornley, whose English father did not manage to remain in Dublin employment under terms he found acceptable, was born in Surrey in 1935. His Irishness, however, was refreshed by relocation to Sandymount, Dublin, in childhood and avid politicisation that extended to close interaction with Noel Browne in the 1950s. The book contends that Browne’s published comments on Thornley were wildly inaccurate insofar as they concerned an alleged unhealthy interest in Nazism. His personal politics are defined, using his brother’s phrase, as those of ‘a democrat, a socialist and a constitutional republican’.
Educated at Trinity College Dublin, from BA to the Ph.D he was awarded in 1959, Thornley was in his element as a lecturer in the same institution where he was promoted Associate Professor in 1968. By then well known in current affairs, Thornley had worked on RTÉ’s Seven Days political programme since 1963. His interview style when at RTÉ was described as follows: ‘in the gentlest, kindliest way he would put the most awkward questions to people’. A defining moment, according to his biographer, was a 1967 exchange with Fianna Fáil leader Jack Lynch in which Thornley presented carefully prepared evidence showing that the proposed abolition of proportional representation would result in one of the natural parties of government becoming its sole arbiter.
On joining the Labour Party in 1969, Thornley found himself vying with the forceful and talented Cruise O’Brien, whose rise to prominence in the party, according to the author, was eased by the presence of a ‘weak leader’, Brendan Corish. With the Troubles reverting to furious conflict, Thornley’s sense of justice was not, it is contended, a popular position in the then opposition party. The book contains Thornley’s motives for dropping out of a fact-finding tour of Belfast led by Cruise O’Brien and provides background for his December 1972 trip to the Mater Hospital to encourage IRA leader Seán MacStiofáin to abandon his hunger strike. He was initially uncertain, to say the least, about the configuration of the Fine Gael–Labour coalition headed by Liam Cosgrave. At no time is Thornley’s political impact overstated.
Such episodes are covered in the manner of an informal political memoir, moving from incident to incident quickly, leaving gaps in chronology and, on occasion, omitting important background information. No attempt is made to furnish either a biographical tome or detailed explanation of major life choices. There is, however, momentum and memorable prose, impelled by the writer’s numerous interventions and rhetorical questions. The author evidently shares his late brother’s desire to confront hypocrisy within the self-perpetuating Irish establishment, not least regarding the actions of supposed progressives in response to the crisis in the North: ‘Any foreigner relying on our contemporary history books for illumination would think the Heavy Gang never existed because it is hardly ever even mentioned’.
David Thornley opposed the operation of the Special Criminal Court and Section 31 and bridled when obliged to follow party discipline in support of what became the Criminal Law (Jurisdiction) Act in 1976. His Dáil contributions are among the best-sourced and analysed in the book, no doubt owing to the availability of copious direct testimony culled from an estimated 350 statements on the record of the Oireachtas.
If harsh in places regarding rivals, the book is by no means a shallow, family-produced hagiography. Thornley’s demise from health problems exacerbated by alcohol is not suppressed, and aspects of his personality that some found off-putting or misunderstood are included in the overall assessment of his character. In the absence of a substantial autobiography of such an independent-minded man, the insights provided by this stimulating and highly provocative work are immensely valuable. Thornley’s absence from the national discourse of the 1980s and 1990s is to be regretted. HI

Ruan O’Donnell is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Limerick.


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