Friday, 10 July 2015

A man who stuck to his guns.

The Devil’s Deal – the IRA, Nazi  Germany and the double life of Jim O’Donovan. David O’Donoghue. New Ireland 2010. 

This review was written November 30th 2010

O’Donovan was born in Roscommon in 1896 and died in Dublin at the age of 82. A chemistry graduate in UCD, he joined the GHQ of the Irish Volunteers as Director of Chemicals about six months before the Truce. He was passionately opposed to the Treaty and was on hunger strike for some time during the Civil War. Later, after a long period in civil life, he became active in the IRA when he spearheaded the bombing campaign in  Britain in 1939, the  S-Plan.  He became the link between the IRA and Nazi Germany just before the 2nd World War, having made four visits to the country at the time. He spent two years during the war interned in the Curragh with about 200 other dissidents. He remained bitterly opposed to those who supported the Treaty and later to Dev because of the latter’s later entering the Dáil. As is recorded in the biography, I paid him two visits in Dalkey Manor shortly before his death. He had had a turbulent if somewhat episodic life which is best summarised in the introduction of the book by the historian Diarmaid Ferriter:

Jim O’Donovan lived a long, eventful and in many ways difficult life. David O’Donoghue’s vivid exploration of that life has resulted in an absorbing and well-researched account of O’Donovan’s preoccupations and prejudices, his dreams and delusions, and the Ireland that produced him.

--- he became the IRA’s leading explosives expert during the war of independence and was a member of the General HQ staff of the pre-treaty IRA. As David O’Donoghue has observed  he was ‘not someone to standstill for very long’, After enduring periods of imprisonment during the civil war, during which he boasted of outdoing Christ by fasting for forty days, he unsuccessfully attempted to establish a paint manufacturing business, eventually began working for the ESB, published the innovative and radical Ireland To-day magazine, retained his belief in violent Irish republicanism, and under the influence of Seán Russell, drew up the notorious and disastrous  S (Sabotage) Plan, the basis of a bombing campaign in Britain, which originated in ideas he had formulated during his civil war imprisonment.

Never one to shirk confrontation with those in power, he rebutted Episcopal pronouncements, remained preoccupied with the civil war period and those he regarded as treacherous, and eventually became the IRA chief liaison officer with the Nazis, ------.  O’Donovan exaggerated the strength of the IRA and indulged in fanciful projections suggesting that a German victory in World War II would result in Ireland becoming ‘ a virile entity, freely functioning in a noble European federation, instead of the miserable, misshapen land of decadent hopelessness’.

--- (while confined in the Curragh during the World War) suggesting to Gerard Boland, the minister for justice, ‘Your government should with greater justice occupy my position’. As the author notes, in one of the wry observations he makes on O’Donovan’s stance, ‘O’Donovan’s lack of subtlety proved to be his undoing.’

Coventry bombing by IRA in 1939. 5 dead, 70 injured.
This was true of much of his life. As one of his fellow internees commented ‘he just carried on in his own way’. One of the values of this book is that it underlines the human consequences ‘of O’Donovan’s refusal to compromise’ The toll it took on his wife and his children, and the dilemma of being unable to repair ruptured family relationships was clearly evident. In untangling the web of his career with insight and clarity, David O’Donoghue has revealed the picture of an individual who ‘nailed his colours to the mast early on and remained steadfast’, despite the formidable odds against success. When newspaper articles began to appear in the 1960s exposing his links to German military intelligence he was unrepentant: ‘Link in any way with Germany might now seem remote, foolish and in some vague way treacherous --- but in essence it was not a crazy scheme’.

It would be easy, from an early perspective, to discuss him as dangerous and delusional. He could have taken an easier and eminently more respectable post-civil war route, like his brother Dan, who became secretary of the Department of Social Welfare, or his brother Colman, who became a diplomat. What he became instead was a man whose whole life and loyalties were shaped by the Irish war of independence and civil war and the difficulties of dealing with the legacies of these conflicts. In documenting his experiences, in chronicling his voice and thoughts and those of his contemporise, David O’Donoghue has illuminated many aspects of the difficult and often tortuous experiences and attitudes of an important generation of Irish republicans.

We think of O’Donovan as one of those Irish patriots of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were so obsessed by extreme Irish nationalism that they were incapable of compromise and of seeing the harm they caused by their failure to realise the triumph modern politics achieved by compromise and the democratic process. Tom Clarke set the extreme example by his bombing campaign in the 1880s and his pushing for insurrection; Padraig Pearse by his blood sacrifice  and Liam Lynch by leading  and prolonging the civil war which after a few months had degenerated into vandalism, recession and humiliation for our country, and a lasting bitterness among ourselves and with our northern brethren.

He was close to my father, the chief of staff, during the last six months of the War of Independence but they differed widely in every other respect afterwards.  O’Donovan lived to a good age and died in a nursing home in Dalkey. I was informed by one of his family about his illness and poor prognosis. This prompted me to call on him which I did a day or two later. When I entered his room and introduced myself he was overcome by emotion. He wept for several moments as he continued to grip my hand in apparent gratitude.

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