Warrior of Wood Quay

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1997), Medieval History (pre-1500), Pre-Norman History, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 5

DK: Tell us about your background and early interest in history.

FXM: I was born in Ballylongford in north Kerry. It was the height of the Civil War and my father was acting as a doctor with IRA flying columns. Free State soldiers arrived at the house, searching for my father. My mother was eight months pregnant at the time, but the troops put her up against the wall demanding to know where her husband was. She defied them; naturally they didn’t harm her, but as soon as they left she went into labour and I arrived a month ahead of my time!
We moved to Dublin in 1927 and my father sent us to Belvedere; I spent one year in Ring College, which was a great experience and asset later on. Of my teachers in Belvedere I am eternally indebted to Mr Bodkin. He was our English teacher, but in reality he taught us history for which he had a great sense. I was intended for medicine; my three living brothers had all gone into the church and I was destined to succeed my father. However, I enjoyed rugby, got a trial for the senior schoolboys and was picked for the team. I was enrolled for medicine at UCD but an accident on the football field put paid to that!
After school I joined the Augustinians. You might ask why not the Jesuits? I admired their system, but it didn’t appeal to me. I am a great believer in family and chose the atmosphere of the Augustinians rather than the militarism of the Jesuits, whose official title is the Compagnia di Gesù, or the regiment of Jesus.

DK:    What about your studies at UCD?

FXM:    I was there less than a month when I began feeling unwell; it was lung trouble. My father cared for me, but I was in the Richmond Hospital, right in the basin of the city, the worst possible place for somebody with TB! I recovered and went back to UCD. Of the professors I particularly remember the Jesuit Aubrey Gwynne and Dudley Edwards. From then it was on to Rome and theology, but I returned to history, to Cambridge, to complete a thesis on a Capuchin friar, Francis Lavalin Nugent (d. 1635), great agent of the  Counter-Reformation.

DK:    How did you find Cambridge?

FXM:    The most notable professor was the Benedictine David Knowles. He was a very stubborn man, compared by a witty friend of his to Angélique Arnauld, the abbess of Port Royal, whom they said was pure as an angel, but as proud as Lucifer! He was the same. He fought with his Abbey of Douai and refused to submit. He was cautioned by the bishop: again he would not budge, but this time he was ex-communicated. It was stupid decision; they would never do it now. He had become so well known in Cambridge and he was helped by its somewhat anti-Catholic tradition which, incidentally, supplied Dublin with its first Protestant archbishop, the Augustinian George Browne.

DK:    Is it true that the Department of Medieval History at UCD was your creation?

FXM:    Yes. I returned to Dublin in 1959 and was appointed Professor of History. There were no individual specialised departments then, we were all grouped together. But I immediately checked the statutes and found that as a professor I was entitled to a separate department. I was fortunate in being friendly with the college bursar, Joe MacHale, an outstanding man. With his help, I built the department. I then had to find good staff. I got in touch with Queen’s University in Belfast where Professor Gray recommended ‘a very outstanding young graduate’, Art Cosgrove. He is now of course President of UCD, not to mention a patron of History Ireland. Mind you, it’s a tribute to him that he stuck with me. Gradually, I expanded my department, acquiring some very remarkable men, including the late Denis Bethal, from the expanding English universities.

DK: How did your colleagues react to this creation of a medieval history department?

FXM    They were stunned, but could do nothing about it! In time, every university in Ireland followed our lead. Medieval history was the in-thing—in Trinity there was Otway-Ruthven, Gearóid MacNiocaill in Galway and that brilliant devil, Donnchadh Ó Corráin in Cork.

DK:    The irony is that you are perhaps better known for your writing on modern history.

FXM:    Yes. While I am very much a medievalist I’ve had to publish more on modern history simply because of the demand from the public. It began when I discovered two important documents amongst the papers of Eoin McNeill in the National Library. One was written a week before the 1916 Rising, the other immediately after it. Together they gave factual accounts of the development of the Volunteers. I went to Theo Moody, professor at Trinity and editor of Irish Historical Studies. He agreed that by providing the inside story these accounts would change the accepted interpretation of 1916. So out of this came a series of articles, books and collaborative ventures on the Easter Rising which justified Moody’s initial confidence.

DK:    How influential was your friendship with Theo Moody?

FXM:    That was all important for me and, perhaps, for Irish history. Moody was the great planner. We got on exceptionally and our friendship was regarded as a great union. He was born in Belfast but went to London where he became a free thinker and later, a Quaker. His father worked in Belfast’s shipyards, and as a boy Theo witnessed the pogroms and the burning of Catholic homes. This made an indelible impression on him and, I believe, influenced his conversion to the Society of Friends. We worked together in great harmony; so in that sense my contribution to Irish history owes a great deal to Moody. He was logical, a great organiser and it was he who initiated the series of radio talks which we edited as The Course of Irish History, which has often jokingly been referred to as ‘the curse of Irish history’. It was he, too, who devised the plan for a great ten-volume enterprise, which would chart the history of Ireland from prehistoric times to 1974.

DK:    This was The New History of Ireland?

FXM:    Yes and it has been a great venture. Initially, people scoffed at the idea and thought it was a ridiculous plan, but seven volumes have been published and the remaining three will appear over the next two or three years. Critics argued that the plan was over-ambitious or dated. Yet the success of the project is reflected in Oxford University Press’s decision to reprint earlier volumes—in fact, plans are well advanced to publish a second edition.

DK:    You are probably best known for your association with Wood Quay.

FXM:    Wood Quay became a major part of my life. It was a great adventure which we organised very successfully, gathering a crowd of 20,000 to the march in September 1978. We sent out word to the public and people came dressed appropriately; academics in their gowns and many young people dressed as Vikings with horns on! We marched outside the Dáil to show our defiance of authority, but it was all peaceful. We marched ten abreast marshalled by an ex-army captain, J.P. Duggan. He was given authority to give orders to people. Of course the snag was that he gave the orders in Irish and practically nobody understood what he was talking about! As we moved on we picked up all sorts. I was leading the first group; as we turned the corner in Stephen’s Green a young chap fell in beside me and said, ‘I’m from the Irish Times, I’m a cub reporter, my name is Frank McDonald’. Of course, he’s now their environment correspondent.
We decided the only way to stop the Corporation was to seize the site. That was a very tricky, because technically by seizing the site we were breaking the law. Nevertheless, I decided without consultation with anybody else, that we would take twenty hostages, prominent people who would become our voluntary captives. At that stage women were not so prominent in Irish public life but we got five or six women including Mary Lavin, a great soul who has gone to her reward, the sculptress Imogen Stewart, Gemma Hussey who has now lapsed into a kind of politics, the poet Eavan Boland and Rita Childers. The others included the outstanding architect Michael Scott and the Lord Mayor of Dublin! It was a very successful demonstration, which also showed that we were not just a hard-nosed male lot.
For better or for worse, I became known as ‘the Wood Quay priest’. The big question was whether I would get into legal trouble. I was saved from the danger of arrest by Mary Robinson, who would say things like, ‘F.X. don’t do that. That’ll be contempt of court’! Finally, the courts ruled that ‘Father Martin and his gang’ were to be off the site or else we would face the consequences of going to prison. Mind you it would have been a sardonic joke if they had tried arresting us. Still, I remember Mary Robinson running over from the Four Courts, holding her wig in one hand and her gown flapping around her shoulders warning us to us get off the site immediately.

DK:    What do you think you achieved by the whole enterprise?

FXM:    I have no personal regrets about seizing the site. We made Dublin, but also Ireland, conscious of its heritage. Personally I regret not being imprisoned, even for a night. It was a great opportunity for me because if you want to be famous, really famous, in Ireland you have to go to prison like de Valera and Michael Collins did in their time! You’re not fully honoured unless you’ve spent some time behind bars.

DK:    What about your current projects?

FXM:    I have  to complete a biography which I began in a succession of articles. It is the life of a Cork Augustinian, James Aloysius Goold (1812-86) archbishop of Melbourne and one of the founders of the church in Australia. Goold was invited to Australia following a chance meeting with Dr William Ullathorne at the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Goold was tough; alone amongst the Catholic bishops in Australia he fought with courage and persistence for the right to government financial support for Catholic schools. He was undeterred by the virulent anti-Catholic sentiment of the time.

DK:    How would you like to be remembered?

FXM:    I would like to be remembered as somebody who was never daunted by threats. I’m very fortunate, too, that I am a member of a religious order which is rather elastic in their interpretation of things. I am very glad that I have never embarrassed them by doing something which would bring ill-repute on my order. Of course, the favourite response to that one has always been, ‘sure wasn’t Martin Luther an Augustinian’.

Dáire Keogh lectures in the history at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.


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