Meeting the IRA chief of staff on the steps of a New York library

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New York Library’s ornate limestone building – an unlikely place to to meet the IRA’s former chief of staff.

Standing on the broad steps of the New York Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street awaiting the arrival of the IRA’s former chief of staff was quite an exciting experience, especially for a naïve teenage undergraduate such as I was then.

Living in west Belfast in the midst of ‘The Troubles,’ I imagined it could conceivably have been a key scene from a movie about a clandestine guerrilla operation.

But it was nothing like that.

By then, Seán Cronin, the IRA’s former chief of staff and mastermind of Operation Harvest, a campaign that carried out military operations on British security installations, was a well-respected author, academic and US correspondent for The Irish Times. In contrast, I was a humble humanities student at the Ulster Polytechnic, now the University of Ulster, working part-time in the Celtic Bar on the Falls Road for disco money.

Seán Cronin

Dungloe-born social activist Peadar O’Donnell – about whose  life a conference was held this week (see news story below) – had brought us together.

Months before, I had – by chance, for an undergraduate thesis – become one of the last persons to interview Peadar in Dublin just before his death. And Seán was writing a book about the 1930s, a tumultuous period in Irish history when Peadar with Frank Ryan, George Gilmore and others had launched the Irish Republican Congress (the subject of my thesis).

It being a time before Google, Facebook or e-mail – in fact, fax was a new-fangled machine I had only vaguely heard of – neither Seán nor I knew what each other looked like. And as there were scores of people lingering on those broad library steps that sunny summer’s day so many years ago, meeting up wasn’t so easy.

But eventually we did, Seán saying later – half-jokingly – that his past training had helped him scope out the situation and pick me out as “the Belfast boy among the Yanks.’

After introductory formalities including my proudly handing over my thesis (part of which he later published in his book), we retreated out of the hot sun into a nearby coffee house. There we spent some time chatting about this and that – his days in the IRA, his arrest and imprisonment, his work as a journalist and not least, the man who had brought us both together, Peadar O’Donnell. Little did I know then, of course, that I too would become an international journalist and live and work in west Donegal as Peadar had.

 

Peadar O’Donnell

Teacher, social activist, soldier, author

As people attending this past weekend’s annual conference in Dungloe learned, Peadar was one of the foremost radicals of twentieth-century Ireland. Born in that town into an Irish-speaking family, he was a teacher on Arranmore Island but by 1919 was a leading organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and had also attempted in Derry to set up a unit of the Irish Citizens Army. Later he joined the IRA and remained active during the Irish War of Independence, leading guerrilla activities in the border area, becoming commander of the IRA’s Donegal Brigade in 1921. He gained a reputation as being headstrong, and sometimes launching operations without orders. Summing up aspects of his character, a speaker at the conference this week said if at a wedding Peadar wanted to be the groom and if at a funeral, the corpse.

Opposing the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty, Peadar was among the IRA leaders who took over the Four Courts in Dublin and helped spark the outbreak of civil war. Imprisoned in Mountjoy, he participated in a mass Republican hunger strike, resisting for 41 days.

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Turbulent times in Ireland’s revolutionary history – radical changes that deeply affected leaders like Peadar O’Donnell and Sean Cronin.

Through it all, the west Donegal man saw himself as closely following the principals of James Connolly, seeing the republican cause not solely in Irish nationalist terms. In 1923, while still in prison, he was elected as a Sinn Féin TD for Donegal and after his release took over as the editor of the republican newspaper, An Phoblacht. He did not take his seat in the Dáil and did not stand at the 1927 general election. He tried to steer the IRA in a left-wing direction and founded organisations such as the Irish Working Farmers’ Committee and the Anti-Tribute League, which opposed the repaying of annuities to the British government owed since the Irish Land Acts. He also founded the short-lived socialist republican party, Saor Éire.

The Irish Republic Congress that he helped establish was a left-wing movement that met with success in organising Belfast Protestants under the Republican Congress banner, leading to a march by the Shankill Road branch to Bodenstown churchyard in June 1934 to honour Theobald Wolfe Tone. The Congress ultimately split, however, on a proposal to turn it into a political party, O’Donnell rejecting this idea, arguing that it had more power as a united front. Like Gilmore and other Irish Republicans, he ended up fighting in the Spanish Civil War for the International Brigade against Franco.

After the 1940s, O’Donnell devoted more of his time to writing and less to politics, publishing his first novel, Storm, in 1925. This was followed by Islanders (1928), which received national and international acclaim, The New York Times describing it as a novel of ‘quiet brilliance and power’, the London Spectator ‘an intensely beautiful picture of peasant life.’ Other books followed – Adrigoole (1929), The Knife (1930); On the Edge of the Stream (1934); The Big Windows (1955) and Proud Island (1975). He also edited the Irish literary journal, The Bell, having founded it with well-known writer, Seán Ó Faoláin.

Peadar married Lile O’Donel in 1924, even though they had never met before. But they had communicated extensively during his time in prison. They began their honeymoon in a Dublin hotel that evening but by the following morning he was on the run once again as he had been identified.

Dying at the tender age of 93, he left strict instructions –  ‘no priests, no politicians and no pomp.’ His wishes were granted.

Looking back down the years, remembering my discussions on this larger-than-life character over a cup of tea in a downtown Manhattan café with someone as distinguished as Seán Cronin, whose own life was every bit as colorful and adventurous, seems now to have been a figment of a lively imagination.

I probably didn’t fully appreciate then the incredible opportunity that had been presented to me to turn the pages of history in the company of great men who wrote them. Now, with the wisdom of age and hindsight, I think I do.

 

Conference celebrating life of Peadar O’Donnell highlights key social issues

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(l to r) Clare Daly TD for Kerry and social activists Paula Leonard and Clarrie Pringle describe the struggle by women in Irish society to gain recognition.

Analysis of a women’s co-operative in the Rosses that attracted over 200 knitters and of a left-wing movement, the Irish Republican Congress, were elements of a three-day conference this week celebrating the life of Dungloe-born socialist, teacher and author, Peadar O’Donnell.

At a panel chaired by community leader, Paula Leonard, social activist Clarrie Pringle described how collective efforts “cut out greedy middlemen who took hefty profits from the hard work and knitting skills of local women.”

“Knitting needles were known as ‘poverty sticks’ then as Donegal women attempted to stave off hardship,” she said. “So successful was the co-operative that not only did women get more money for their work but greater independence by learning business skills, including working with banks and statutory bodies.” Later still, some women started their own small companies, quite unusual for the time, she added.

Also speaking on the panel entitled ‘Women in Struggle’ held at Ionad Teampaill Chroine in Dungloe, Clare Daly TD in Kerry, praised the efforts of Pringle and her colleagues “as showing what women can achieve if given a fair chance.” Daly said the key role women have played in Irish history, including the Ladies’ Land League, has been “skewed or silenced by certain bodies for political and social purposes, but now thinking must change to meet modern reality.”

The two speakers agreed that difficulty of divorce and restricted access to contraception in the emerging Irish state made it hard for women to progress socially and politically.

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( l to r) Author and Dublin Sinn Fein councillor, Eoin O’Broin, TD Thomas Pringle and Eugene McCartan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, analyze the success and failure of the Irish Republican Congress.

Both Daly and Pringle blamed the Catholic Church for “holding back the progress of women in Irish society.” Daly said, “There is no place for the church in political life, in selecting core curriculum in schools nor in governing women’s bodies” while Pringle added, “When we look back on the oppression of women and children in Ireland, we must inevitably view the Catholic church as a predominant influence. Shame of sexuality was bred into women for over a hundred years.”

They both called for a human rights module to be introduced into the national school curriculum,

In a second panel chaired by TD Thomas Pringle, Dublin Sinn Fein councillor, Eoin O’Broin, and Eugene McCartan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, discussed the merits of the 1934 Irish Republican Congress, an effort by Peadar O’Donnell and others to create a stronger left-wing republican base to combat poverty and inequality.

“In many ways, the Congress, though short-lived, was a high point of left-leaning Republicanism of that era but it was also a lesson in abject failure,” said O’Broin. “It showed the immense challenges involved in linking nationalist and socialist traditions then and building socio-economic bridges, especially in northern Ireland.”

He added, “With the IRA’s ambivalence towards such a radical movement, Fianna Fail’s continued platform building then and the inability of Congress leaders to read the political situation and devise proper strategies, it, in effect, helped result in sixty years of Fianna Fail rule.” Saying there are “many lessons to be learned from the Congress,” McCartan added, “Greater appreciation of working-class issues is key to a fairer society as is the building of a common consciousness and a confidence in ordinary people that they can change things.”

John Crowley, who travelled from Scotland to attend the conference, said, “Overall, there were some very interesting analyses and from diverse viewpoints with many of the issues still relevant in today’s society.”

 

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West Donegal whale protection group formed as threats to human health resurface

Following an often emotional public meeting held at Teac Jack in Glassagh earlier this week, a wildlife protection group has been formed in west Donegal to lobby for government policy changes towards stranded marine animals and to promote specialized training.

The ‘North West Whale & Dolphin Support Group,’ which was established at the Tuesday evening meeting, follows concerns by many local people about the treatment of a pod of 13 pilot whales that were left stranded on Ballyness beach near Falcarragh, which all died of slow suffocation after five days. It is the 13th such stranding this year in Donegal, including a sperm whale stranded off Machaire Rabhartaigh beach. Around 32 other whales died off Rutland Island two years ago and were cut up and transported to Cavan where they were incinerated.

Meanwhile, concerns have arisen as to what caused the mysterious deaths of all the whales amid a recent rise in the numbers of marine animals being stranded off Donegal’s coast.  And that, whatever it is, may also be a hazard to human health.

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A stranded pilot whale struggles for life at Ballyness beach near Falcarragh, west Donegal. (Photo by Antonia Leitner).

Chairperson of the meeting, Amanda Doherty, with Selkie Sailing, who has also launched a petition that has attracted more than 230 signatures on the issue, said she was pleased by decisions those attending had made together.

“We want to raise community awareness and have the current policy regarding cetacean strandings in the area reviewed,” she said. “It should be a more flexible policy to allow for the particulars of different situations that occur. This is best practice according international standards and Ireland should follow it.”

Some people at the meeting – many of whom tried their best to save the dying whales – became emotional as they described the traumatic situation at Ballyness beach and the agony of the cetaceans as they slowly died of suffocation in shallow water.

Members of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), led by Dave Duggan and Pat Vaughan, decided “to let nature takes its course” rather than try to save the whales or apply euthanasia to reduce the whales’ suffering. They also did not ask the coastguard for assistance to bring the whales out to sea, as has happened in other parts of Ireland. The state-funded Donegal county veterinary office under the leadership of Charles Kealey, chief veterinary officer, has also come under criticism for refusing to get involved in any way to help the whales, including making sure the mammals were dead before they were buried. (In contrast, see photo below of a cetacean (dolphin) being treated more humanely in another part of Ireland, with vets and the coastguard involved).

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Westport-based Irish Coastguard assist with a stranded Common Dolphin which could not be refloated. A Mayo vet administered an injection to humanely end its suffering. Photo by Shay Fennelly

Pearse Doherty Sinn Fein TD for west Donegal, who has submitted a number of formal questions over the last week in the Dail to Ministers regarding the treatment of stranded whales and other cetaceans, attended the meeting and gave his advice on the best way forward for the group. Doherty said it was important the new group work with current organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and suggested a two-pronged approach – making sure policy at the IWDG matched international standards, and the establishment of  ‘first responders’ in the local area, recognized by the NPWS and IWDG – people who could take the lead in developing situations.

The newly-formed ‘North West Whale & Dolphin Support Group’ decided to hold monthly meetings and invite Simon Berrow, founder of the IWDG, to provide specialized training for members on how to best help stranded whales and other cetaceans and to meet with a small working group on the same day to discuss further action. Clare-based Berrow is a full-time lecturer at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology teaching on the Applied Freshwater and Marine degree course and project manager of the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation.

After being contacted about the meeting, Berrow told the author of this blog, “We are delighted to hear of the formation of a local group. We look forward to working closely with them to prepare a better response to stranded cetaceans in the future and also to encourage local recording.”

Offshore toxic waste dumping? Military submarine activity?

At the same time, concerns regarding the health hazards to human life – as well as marine – from toxic dumping at sea and military submarine activity and experiments that may have caused the strandings have resurfaced locally.

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Oceans that become graveyards for poisonous debris that pose dangers to human as well as marine life.

International regulations state that discharges of waste material – often poisonous by nature – should not be made within a certain distance of any landmass, according to the Seas at Risk. But who’s watching? Some major ports have cleaning facilities such as Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin, but this costs money so some incorrigible corporations say ‘why bother’? As the coast of Donegal is in direct line of most transAtlantic ocean traffic between Europe and the Americas, the amount of waste dumped offshore is probably immense, one respected scientist saying ‘enough to create mountains under the sea.’ Much of this material contains cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens) such as manganese, benzene, coal-tar, radium, petrolatum, parabens, vinyl chloride lead and zinc. With recent technological developments, many of these chemicals are in the form of deadly nanoparticles (particles less than the size of a human or animal cell) which, airborne, can then penetrate the cells, causing untold damage.

Nanoparticles: Technological and industrial development has outstripped health research into their potential dangers in everyday foods and consumer products.

Nanoparticles: Technological and industrial development has outstripped health research into their potential dangers in everyday foods and consumer products.

Could this be the cause or partial cause of disease in whales and other marine animals? Researchers say they have found large quantities of these chemicals in the whale tissue samples taken and tested. And doctors report larger than normal incidences of human cancer in local people.

In addition, some of the waste is in the form of non-biogradable plastics. Because they don’t dissolve but break up into smaller elements, these plastics have formed what scientists now call ‘plastic islands’ – often the size of countries, one is larger than the US state of Texas, which in itself is 17 times larger than Ireland – that float in our seas, causing disruption to the normal flow of currents. Consequently, the dangers to both human as well as marine animal health is high. For a long time, many people in northwest Donegal have suspected such dumping to have taken place offshore, with menacing results (see further information here).

A special group was established within the last two years at Ionad Naomh Pádraig in Dore by Freddie O’Donnell and Aodán Ó’Gallchoir to examine correlations between high levels of cancer in the Gaeltacht area and dumping of waste in coastal waters nearby. Known as ‘Scaoil Saor ó Ailse’ (Break Free from Cancer’), the group’s public relations officer, Joe Diver, said former local doctor Paddy Delap, said such waste was affecting peoples’ health, particularly cancers of the skin, lung and brain, with an abnormally high level of fatalities. A deep-sea diver then broke his decades-old silence on Raidó na Gaeltachta, describing how he found a large area of the sea bed littered with large black drums with hazardous signage on them in the waters off Tory Island, adding, “We were looking for shipwrecks, went down 40 to 45 metres and came across black drums with green stuff growing on them. There were a few thousand of them. They were heaped in a hill-like structure and had skull and crossbones on them. The diver said the drums would have since disintegrated and their hazardous material dissolved into the ocean off the Gaeltacht coast.”

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Military submarine activity and experiments at sea: what are the hazards for Man, Plant and Animal?

Areas affected could include Gaoth Dobhair, Cloughaneely and The Rosses. Calls for greater funding for a more comprehensive analysis were ignored by the relevant authorities, mainly on the instructions of Dublin, some say for economic and political reasons. Further, fearing such research could stir up waves of protest if the result became known, efforts were made by authorities, mainly Fianna Fail, then in power, to trivialize what little had become known. Politics and money trumped peoples’ health and once again the ‘Forgotten County’ was forced to live up to its unfortunate title.

Damage control became main concern for a certain cadre of elite: the party in power in the Dail and its big-business supporters. “This situation has been going on for far too long,” said one medical practitioner who has treated cancer patients in the area. “It is long past time national funding was made available to investigate this situation thoroughly. If it happened in certain other parts of the country, it probably would already have taken place long ago. Surely the deaths of so many marine animals and the high number of cancers affecting people means the issue should be looked at very closely.  To some extent, it’s in the hands of ordinary people. They should be lobbying their government representatives by e-mail, phone and letter. If not, nothing will be done.”

Several of the whales at Ballyness beach were found to have lesions, blemishes and lumps on its skin, but National Parks and Wildlife Service officials declined to say where any disease may have originated. As whales are highly social creatures that travel in communities, some say healthy whales may have refused to abandon sick or injured pod members and followed them into shallow water. “We can’t say for certain,” said Pat Vaughan, district conservation officer for the NPWS. “What we do know is that whales and other marine animals can have high levels of certain toxic elements in their bodies.”