Remembering Ernie O’Malley on his 122nd birthday—A man of action, letters, notebooks, papers and great quotes, with a keen interest in the arts and the humanity of man.

“An old woman told my fortune one day as I dried myself at her fire after I had fallen out of a punt. She looked at my feet as well as my hands and kept her hand on my head as she told me of fighting and trouble; but I do not remember the end of her tale.”—Ernie O’Malley, "On Another Man’s Wound"

Irish revolutionary Ernie O’Malley was born on May 26, 1897, in Castlebar, County Mayo, but if you search for him on the 1911 Irish Census you won’t find him. You will find an Ernest Bernard Malley at 7 Iona Road in North Dublin. He is described as a “Scholar” who can “Read and Write Irish.” That may be the biggest clue to the man who, after the Easter Rebellion, would pick up the “O” in his last name and would be remembered to the world as Ernie O’Malley.

Perhaps O’Malley didn’t want to remember what the fortuneteller told him because his life during the War of Independence—he always referred to it as the “Tan War”—was unbelievably hard. Not only was he burned, wounded on several occasions, tortured by the British and wounded again during the Irish Civil War, he was anti-Treaty, but the physical burdens put on his body as he organized IRA battalions throughout the country are not only remarkable but almost unbelievable.

He traveled by bicycle and foot while being hunted by the British. His courage in the face of daily death is stunning. The only way to describe O’Malley is that he resembles, more than any other Irish rebel, a 20th-century rapparee, a combination of revolutionary, highwayman and Robin Hood:

My spurs are trusted

My coat is rent

My plume is damp with rain

And the thistle down and the barley beard are thick on my horse’s mane.

But my rifle’s as bright as my sweetheart’s eyes

My arm is strong and free

What care have I for your king or laws?

I’m an outlawed rapparee.

 The Easter Week Transformation of Ernie Malley

At the beginning of the Easter Rising, Ernie Malley was thinking of helping to defend Trinity College from the insurgent rebels. By the end of Easter Week, he was sniping at British patrols. During the week, amazingly, he freely wandered about Dublin as havoc reigned. He got near the GPO and witnessed the poor looting wildly along O’Connell Street. His eyewitness descriptions of Easter Week as recounted in "On Another Man’s Wound"are second only to James Stephens’ "The Insurrection in Dublin," the most riveting account of Dublin City life during that fateful week.

After the Rising, he joined F Company of the First Battalion of the Irish Volunteers and engulfed himself in military training and tactics. His military expertise soon brought him to the attention of higher-ups such as Cathal Brugha, Minister for Defence; Richard Mulcahy, Chief-of-Staff of the IRA; and Michael Collins, Director of Intelligence.

Ernie Dissects the King-sized Personalities

O’Malley’s keen writer’s eye is put to good use in dissecting the personalities of the men running the guerrilla war against the British. His sense of humor is also highly prevalent when he says in "Wound" that “Mulcahy never said anything stronger than ‘bloody’; he did not smoke or drink. Cathal Brugha neither cursed, smoked nor drank. Collins was adept at all three.”

Eventually, his exploits brought him to the attention of President Eamon de Valera:

“He was tall and lean; his hair rifted onto his forehead. His face was long and sallow. He wore rimless glasses. He had a very deep voice that welled up, a fairly immobile face when he spoke, and then the muscles, to one who had watched them in repose, played tricks. On the platform, there was a hard unemotional feel to his voice and he twisted his body in emphasis…He had not the human qualities of Collins, the Big Fellow. Dev was more reserved, a scholarly type. He was cold and controlled. Collins might solve a problem boisterously, by improvisation, solve it by its own development. De Valera would find the solution mathematically, clearly with logic.”

Once he was called in to explain the military situation to Dev, who was fairly clueless about what was going on in the heartland. After de Valera left, Mulcahy and Collins mocked the President’s lack of knowledge. O’Malley was outraged: “I resented their jokes at the expense of the Long Fellow.”

His best descriptions, however, are saved for Collins, who always called him “Earnán”:

“I found Michael Collins in his office on Bachelor’s Walk in Dublin. He was pacing up and down. We shook hands. He jerked his head to a chair to indicate that I should sit; he took a chair which he tilted back against a wall…He was tall, his shoulders were broad; his energy showed through rapid movement. A curving bunch of hair fell on his forehead; he tossed it back with a vigorous head twist.”

“Collins seemed to establish his personality quickly in the mind of his visitor; he was hearty, boisterous or quiet by turn; he was uncouth, as judged by my early standards. He had a habit of baiting Tom Cullen, the assistant quartermaster, and a few of the Dublin men. That I hated…One day I told Collins I could not stand it and I left the room in a rage. He never baited anyone in my presence afterward. He always backed up an energetic man and would stand firmly by him in difficulties, especially those due to excess of zeal. I told him I was tired fiddling with files. ‘All right, Earnán, straighten out North County Dublin; it’s a hopeless area, but you won’t mind that.’ He laughed at my disgusted face. He stood to attention and clicked his heels when I saluted.”

“Collins decided to stop smoking; he smoked thirty Greencastles a day. Now he neither smoked nor drank, but later he began to drink, especially when in 1921 he lived alone. He had difficult tasks to carry out. He led a harassing life, and we who had given it up had always a soft spot for Michael’s use of drink.”

Ernie O'Malley with guard dog, Romel, Cormac O'Malley on horse, taken at Burrishoole Lodge, Newport, Co Mayo, summer 1950

Ernie O'Malley with guard dog, Romel, Cormac O'Malley on horse, taken at Burrishoole Lodge, Newport, Co Mayo, summer 1950

“Collins sent me north to Inishowen to raid for two hundred Ulster Volunteer rifles... 'Now get the rifles,' Collins said, 'and for Christ’s sake, Earnán, learn to shoot straight or I’ll lose you one of these days.'"

O’Malley happened to be in Dublin when Bloody Sunday occurred. Collins’ warning was succinct on Saturday before: “ ‘Mind yourself tomorrow Earnán.’ No other explanation.”

O’Malley, as related in "The Singing Flame," was in London buying surplus British war supplies when he ran into Collins during the Treaty negotiations and being on the anti-Treaty side he takes a final bite at the Big Fellow: “Overwork, I thought, then I smelt whiskey from his breath. ‘So that’s it!’ Good living had gone to his head also.”

Ernie O’Malley—Irish Anthropologist/Sociologist

Although O’Malley was born in Mayo, he grew up in Dublin. He was sent by Collins to organize the IRA in the countryside and for a city-boy like Ernie, it must have been a culture shock. “Ernie’s descriptions of the mentality of the rural Irish are the best I have ever read,” his son Cormac told IrishCentral, “and also how their attitudes changed over his early years from 1918 to 1921 when things were better for everyone and the IRA were held in higher regard. Ernie had an incredible power of observation and a retentive memory.”

In "On Another Man’s Wound"the title is based on an Irish proverb: “It’s easy to sleep on another man’s wound”—O’Malley noted everything from the food, local superstitions and sanitation to arranged marriages and the innate conservatism of the people. Here are some examples:

“The food was good, but rough and badly cooked. Bulk seemed to matter most. Tea, eggs, bacon, stirabout, potatoes and cabbage were the usual food; tomatoes, lettuce, celery, beans, and fruit in general were unknown. The lack of green vegetables was said to be due to the famine years when the people ate nettles and grass. Mangels and turnips went to the horses, pigs and cattle; they bubbled and smelled with cabbage in cast-iron cauldrons. Herbs—tansy, mint, and wild garlic—were used sparingly. I gave a tomato to a man I knew at a fair. He eyed the shining scarlet. ‘What kind of a thing is this?’ He bit into it, then spat out the pulp in disgust. ‘Man dear, do you want to poison me?’ ”

“There was no organized hygiene and sanitation was of the sheltered hedges. They did not take care of teeth, they were careless of health ... Hence decaying teeth, and a shame about disease as if it were a personal blemish.”

Cormac O'Malley with Ernie O'Malley at Galway Races, 1954

Cormac O'Malley with Ernie O'Malley at Galway Races, 1954

“Now and again a biting turn of phrase, for in their nature was the old Gaelic satire; sharp and direct or twisted endlessly like a súgán being made across the door into the cobbled street. Malice and spleen might burst forth suddenly or heavy hearty cursing. Words were often used as a club, a mean, not an end in themselves.”

“The countryman to himself was worth what he had in his pocket at any given moment. The land was his wealth; unlike the townsman, he had few ornate possessions.”

 “I listened to stories at the firesides. I was told again of the cóiste bodhar, the death coach with its headless horses; the drivers carried their own heads under their arms. People were strayed at night in certain places, often on the unseen paths between earthen forts, although they knew the ground as well as they knew the palm of their own hands, but they wandered around all night.”

“The girls had less say. Even their marriages were arranged. The parish matchmaker, I often listened to, as he wound his sinuous conversationalist way amongst the tussocks of the parental bog: ‘A fine upstanding man with five milch cows, two springers and ten fine head of cattle.’ The parish priest might carry out the deal. ‘It’s well to have the children settled early.’ From the fortunate that came in with a girl, the husband would be able to have his next eldest sister married off. It there was not enough to fortune her to the satisfaction of her boy’s parents, it meant a runaway match if she had spirit—and America.”

“The people were conservative; they had a hatred of change. They had been driven in on themselves too long, clinging for centuries to Gaelic usage in land and law, and suspicious of changes that had been forced on them by the conquerors. What was good enough for their fathers would be good enough for them.”

Organizing the IRA

If you ever saw "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," you know how brutal the British were to the IRA in the countryside. It is obvious from reading Ernie’s books that they were the inspiration for the film which Cormac O’Malley verified: “Director Ken Loach and scriptwriter Paul Laverty were both most impressed by Ernie’s books in their research. In Jerry O’Callaghan’s 2008 documentary on Ernie for TG4.

“Going ‘on the run’ really meant loss of all comforts,” confirmed his son Cormac. “There was the rain, the damp clothes, the crossing of fences, falling down, cycling on bad bikes on bad roads, carrying over 60 pounds of materials on one’s back. He wrote poignantly when he describes all the things he had to carry on him—as his office, munitions, etc.—and he mentions that the men would go home to sleep in their own beds, but he had none and in essence, had to forage. Yes, the years of being on the run, not to mention to tension involved in what he was doing, all added to his shortened life. He died at 59 and should have lived longer to finish the work he wanted to do (but I have tried to help do that).”

The treatment of civilians in West Cork by the British as described by O’Malley infuriate: “For long hours the people had to keep their hands up, sometimes they had to kneel or to sing ‘God Save the King.’ Tans or Auxiliaries had to teach them the words. People had been flogged with whips, belt-buckles and canes.”

Cathal, Etain, Helen. Ernie. Cormac O'Malley in the garden of their home at Clonskea, Dublin, Ireland, early summer 1947

Cathal, Etain, Helen. Ernie. Cormac O'Malley in the garden of their home at Clonskea, Dublin, Ireland, early summer 1947

O’Malley’s burning down of a RIC barracks is poignant—and yet humorous: “Séamus [Robinson] and I looked at each other. The hair was burnt off his head, his face was black, red and blistered, he had no eyebrows. My face felt strange. My eyelashes and eyebrows had gone; there were raised ridges on my face and head and on the back of my neck; my hands stung most of all. Our clothes were burnt in patches, and soaked with oil and petrol. We laughed at each other whilst we wrung our hands in pain. We had failed to capture any rifles, but we had driven in that post.”

The Torture Begins

After he was captured, O’Malley’s description of how the British tortured him are harrowing: “A few walked in their heavy boots on my stockinged feet. My toes were crushed; some stamped hard with the full weight of their legs on instep and toes. They lifted their boots again and came down on the same place; I tensed my body to stop myself from moaning. Two guards jabbed me a few times with their bayonets below my ribs on the abdominal muscles. Blood dribbled down my buttocks and legs. Other prisoners were brought in; they were kicked and beaten; some of them shouted in pain.”

To avoid being identified, O’Malley called himself Bernard (his middle name) Stewart. The British knew he was an important rebel, but they didn’t know how important since they couldn’t identify him. They didn’t know that they had the IRA Commandant-General causing all the havoc in the countryside. Since the boys in the country couldn’t get anything out of him, they sent him to Dublin to be worked over by two pros, Major King and the notorious Captain Hardy, who was unsuccessfully hunted by Collins’ Squad day and night. Here’s how the interrogation inside Dublin Castle went:

“ ‘I have a little plan,’ Hardy said. He walked in front of one to a stove and picked up a poker from the floor. He dug the poker between the bars. He pulled it out, the point was a soft crimson; he shoved it back. King looked at me, then turned to the stove. I felt a hollow in my stomach. Hardy looked at the poker; it was bent, the crimson glow ran up close to the handle. ‘Now you’ll talk.’ He held the poker in front of my face. I moved back from the hat. ‘By God, you’ll talk.’ He held one of my arms tight, then angled the point forward as if to dig it into my eyes. He swung it horizontally until it was on a level with my eyes. My eyebrows were singed; the heat made my eyes burn. He brought the poker nearer, I tried to move back, the smell made me cough dryly. My eyelashes curled up, the lids smarted. I tried to keep my eyes open. They were hurting me. My God, I thought, my eyes, if he touches them I’ll jump for his throat and tear it.”

“He [Hardy] slowly cocked the hammer. I looked along the bluish barrel, my legs twitched to shivers at the thighs. I brought my heels together with a snap…I stood stiff. He pressed the trigger; there was a bang. He had used a blank cartridge.”

Escape from Kilmainham and the Tragedy of Paddy Moran

O’Malley did not talk and the British eventually shipped him off to Kilmainham Gaol. One of the rebels he met there was Paddy Moran, an IRA man the British suspected of the Bloody Sunday killings of Secret Service officers at 38 Upper Mount Street, which he did not do (Vinny Byrne did).

Read more on Paddy Moran’s fate

Since Ernie was incognito “Moran must have guessed that there was nobody to whom I could write,” wrote O’Malley. “He asked me down to his cell one morning and I had a good feed. When I was leaving the cell he gave me a parcel of food. I did not want to take it, but he showed me a box of groceries to prove that he had plenty. A long drink of good tea in his cell was something to think about before and after.”

Ernie went on to describe Moran as “stolid and serious. There was a roll in his walk. Daily, food was brought up to the gate for him, a thermos of tea and often an apple-cake. He showed me his girl’s photo. “That’s a great girl,’ he’d say, shaking his head with a remembering smile which made his face softer and more gentle. ‘She brings the grub and the apple-cake. I wish…’ but he never spoke his wish.”

Of course, Ernie had one thing in mind as soon as he got to Kilmainham—escape! After several failed attempts the job was on.

“Paddy Moran was writing a letter. ‘Come on, Paddy, Teeling’s cut the bolt.’ He stood up. ‘God, that’s great, but…I’m not going.’ ‘You must. You’re with us, you were willing enough the other night.’ ‘No, I’m not going. I won’t let down the witnesses who gave evidence for me.’ ‘To hell with the witnesses,’ I said. ‘Come on.’ ”

But foolishly Moran stayed. “Well, Earnán,” Collins told him, “you’re born to be shot, you can’t be hanged.”

Collins, always the realist, instinctively knew Moran’s fate: “They’ll hang him as a reprisal now.” Collins, once again, was right. Moran today is remembered as one of “The Forgotten Ten,” young men who died for Ireland between Bloody Sunday and the Truce. The motive for their deaths was sheer vindictiveness on the part of the British

Occupying the Four Courts

In The Singing Flame O’Malley wrote that “Ireland was an inspiration and a curse,” but now, for Ernie, it seemed to be more curse than anything. The news of a Free State and not a Republic was a shock. “I cursed loud and long,” he wrote. “So this was what we had been fighting for, what we had worn ourselves out for during the Truce…A numbness followed my first outburst of rage. I became suddenly very tired. I sat down near the table. I felt like a man who tried to cover his head to escape blows showered on him from every side…What was the use of brooding over it? I became angry again as I thought of the men who had betrayed us.”

He started organizing again, both in Dublin and the country. He was the one to come up with the idea to kidnap General J.J. O’Connell of the pre-state National Army, and act that basically kicked-started the Irish Civil War. (It may also be the reason why he was the last anti-Treaty man released from prison by the Free State in 1924.)

His remarks on the Battle of the Four Courts are uncharacteristically muted: “To me, it savored of a demonstration, and when compared with Easter Week it appeared ludicrous, almost a gesture. A good fight would justify ourselves in our own eyes, I thought, and establish us in the minds of the people.”

After his surrender to Paddy O’Daly, a devout Collins man and the leader of the Twelve Apostles, a delusional O’Malley tried to find a comrade-in-arms: “In the enclosed note I asked Daly if at this late moment we could unite to attack the British before any further blood was spilt between us.”

But he would not be in custody for long. With the help of his friend Seán Lemass, future Taoiseach of Ireland, he would escape from the Jameson Distillery and continue to cause havoc to the Free State as Assistant Chief of Staff for the anti-Treaty forces from safe houses around Dublin. While hiding in a house owned by two of The O’Rahilly’s sisters, the Free State troops finally caught up to him and he was wounded. This began a long and painful recovery in filthy conditions at Mountjoy Gaol.

The Civil War had taken a heavy toll on his family life. “My young brother Charlie, aged seventeen, had been killed on the third day of the fighting in O’Connell Street” and “…at home I had been looked upon as a black sheep.”

In prison the food was bad and the medical treatment haphazard. O’Malley figured that the Free State was just trying to get him well enough so they could shoot him like they did to friends, like Liam Mellows and Erskine Childers, the first man who recognized his literary talent: “You can write” Childers had told him.

Eventually, he was moved back to Kilmainham. He was elected TD, which he “hated,” and decided to become an unenthusiastic hunger-striker to achieve his freedom: “I did not approve of it; I was frankly afraid…”

In Kilmainham, his battle with State and Church continued: “We had been refused the sacraments whilst on hunger strike. Church and State were united in breaking us.” But the strike caught the imagination of the people—and the screws: “The attitude of our jailers changed; they had become more kindly, the strike had affected them.”

“After forty-one days the strike had collapsed without any definite promise of release,” he wrote. “We had been defeated again…” But he had not been defeated. He had lived. As one of his fellow strikers proclaimed, “Be cripes, we bate Christ be a day.”

O’Malley ended Flame by saying “We who had been beaten in the fight, who had withstood the jail war, parted to take up the threads of inscrutable destiny; some to begin life over again.” Ernie O’Malley was ready for the next phase of his extraordinary life.

Trading in Revolution for the Arts—and Marriage

O’Malley’s first mission on being released from prison was to regain his health. This odyssey began on the European continent and continued to the United States and Mexico. It was at this time that Ernie’s interest in the arts—literature, painting, sculpture, photography—blossomed. (It should be noted that O’Malley was probably the only Irish revolutionary during battle who kept a volume of Baudelaire around for good measure.) It was also during this period as an expatriate that he met his wife, Helen Hooker.

“I think it is fair to say about both of my parents,” said Cormac O’Malley, “that they were not well matched in personality even though they had significant mutual interests, which is what brought them together in the first instance—the arts. Helen was not Irish and therefore did not have views of what went on in the Troubles other than the stories she heard. I have always felt that Ernie must have been relieved at this aspect of her limited knowledge as it helped him distance himself from that period. Had he married a former Cumann na mBan girl, they would have been reliving history all the time. Helen was an active artist and not one especially interested in the history of art, as she concentrated on form, color and subject. Ernie was able to speak (and write) about art in a humanistic manner, and that was the original attraction.

“I think that by the early 1940s,” Cormac continued, “there appeared to be significant differences in how Ernie and Helen looked at things. The ascetic intellectual life, which Ernie enjoyed in reading, researching and writing, was not sufficiently social for Helen. She had made close friends in Dublin for her first three years in Ireland (1935-38), and she missed them terribly while she was down the country in Mayo during the Emergency years. She longed to return to Dublin whenever she could for as long as she could. Indeed she rented a studio there so she could ‘get away’ and live there for periods.”

When Cormac and his brother Cathal were diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1948 the parents reunited to fight the disease, but as Cormac recalls, “But that too led to further conflicts. Ernie felt that the Irish medical system was capable of handling the TB crisis whereas Helen was thinking about treatment in Switzerland or America. No doubt, Ernie also felt that his children in part should be treated as other Irish children were treated, even though that was never quite the case. Ernie probably feared that if his children left Ireland, he might not see them again.”

The marriage continued to disintegrate as Cormac recalls: “In March 1950 Helen returned to Ireland, took both Cathal (13) and Etain (9) out of Ring College, and flew them to New York. [Cormac stayed behind in Ireland with Ernie.] At that time, with the concurrence of her American family, she decided to seek residence in a state which would be good for a recovering TB patient and allow for long-arm jurisdiction for divorce proceedings. Colorado was selected, and after she obtained residence there in 1951, she filed for divorce and that was approved in 1952.” Ernie never accepted the divorce.

Returning to Ireland to Boister the Arts

After his marriage to Helen in 1935 in London, they returned to Ireland, first living in Dublin, then in the West. Ernie was appalled about how the de Valera government treated the arts. In 1946 he wrote that “This government as a whole has no understanding of or feeling for creative work; nor is it inclined to consult people of vitality… Generally, they get their ideas through the School of Art, a reactionary (not politically) close-minded group of workers, etc. etc.”

“Ernie also went deep into his artistic endeavors,” recalls Cormac, “in doing significant research on over 40 artists, and compiling biographical information as well as interviews which he wrote up but never published. He wrote the 1940 review of Francoise Henri’s medieval sculpture book for the first edition of the Bell. In 1945 he applied his lyrical sensitive writing to his long introduction to the Jack B. Yeats National Loan Exhibition. For the Bell, he wrote on modern Mexican art, London School of Art. For the BBC he did ancient Mexican art. He lectured on modern Irish art. (He had lectured on Modern Art at NYU in 1934, and so was knowledgeable in the field as early as that).”

It was during this period that his interest in photography grew. “Helen and Ernie did have a strong common bond in photographing Ireland,” Cormac told IrishCentral. “It was a real bond for them as he could show her the places he had heard of or seen while on the run and she would capture them in photographs. His photographic interest was more in capture the medieval sculpture, some of which is amazingly modern. They spent three-four years taking photographs around Ireland, North, South, East and West, and that was a great time for them, but they never produced the book they had hoped to despite their aspirations.”

Friendships: Jack B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Thomas MacGreevy

Cormac O’Malley was kind enough to write capsule summaries of Ernie’s friendships with three legendary Irishmen:

Jack B. Yeats. Ernie would have been familiar with JBY’s drawings, art generally, plays, etc., but I have no confirmation of their meeting prior to August 1937, when he notes in his diary that they met at Con Cremin’s Wednesday’s Open House. In writing to MacGreevy on May 1, 1939, (Broken Landscapes, p.165), Ernie notes “I saw Jack Yeats, fell clear in love with a picture and felt.” JBYeats was in his circle of friendship. Then in 1944, he was a member of the Yeats National Loan Exhibition Committee and by working over lists of purchasers with JBY and Waddington he was able to identify and then recommend many paintings to be included in the 1945 exhibition. JBY and Ernie corresponded when Ernie sent in his monthly checks to pay for the paintings he was purchasing on installments. I would say they were close friends, kindred spirits. It is ironic that JBY died two days after Ernie in 1957.

Samuel Beckett. It is hard to pin down when Beckett and Ernie first met. I have noted in a reflective poem written by Helen in 1973 that she recalled meeting Beckett when she and Ernie visited Paris in 1936. I have never been able to pin down Ernie meeting Beckett in Paris or London during his various visits there in 1925-26 (visiting Sean MacBride, etc.). Ernie asked Beckett to review a book for him when he was Books Editor of the Bell in about 1947 but Beckett—with regrets—did not have the time. When Ernie and I visited Paris in 1955 we stopped by Beckett’s apartment, which again proves they stayed in touch.

Thomas MacGreevy. Ernie first met MacGreevy on Bloody Sunday, November 1920, when he and Sean MacBride hid in an apartment where MacGreevy and Lennox Robinson were staying. (See Wound, p. 271-2). I have no doubt that Ernie looked up MacGreevy as he passed through London in 1925 on his way to Europe. MacGreevy may have attended the wedding of Ernie and Helen in 1935 in London, as MacGreevy mentions Helen in his letters to Ernie in 1939. MacGreevy told me that he was extremely fond of Ernie. When I helped organize an exhibition of JBYeats paintings in Sligo in 1963 (when I was 21), I went to MacGreevy, then Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, and he wrote a beautiful Introduction to the catalog and after he had climbed four flights of stairs to view the paintings to be exhibited he said, that he would only have undertaken such a physical strain on his heart because of his love for Ernie, and he died six months later of heart failure!

John Ford and The Quiet Man

One of the most beloved Irish films—among Irish-Americans, anyway—is John Ford’s The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald.

Read more on The Quiet Man and its Irish stars

The peripheric Ernie O’Malley was a technical advisor to Ford on that film and also on The Rising of the Moon, which premiered in 1957.

The beginning of the Ford-O’Malley friendship and collaboration is a bit of a mystery. “I have always assumed that Ernie met John Ford in Los Angeles when he was visiting there in April-August 1929,” says Cormac O’Malley. “I have no written evidence of that. Ernie would have ‘played the Irish circuit’ in raising funds for the Irish Press (the whole purpose of his U.S. visit in October 1928-June 1929). Ford was most interested in Irish affairs and had gone to Dublin in the middle of the Civil War. Some have suggested that they met there, but Ford was there so briefly that it is unlikely. Ford wrote Ernie in 1950 (in Mayo) telling him that he was coming to Ireland to make a film. How did Ford know his address? There is no evidence of other correspondence, but clearly, Ford’s advance man (such as Maureen O’Hara’s brother, Charlie Fitzsimons [who played one of the IRA men, Hugh Forbes, in the film]) could have found out Ernie’s address.

“Ford hired Ernie as a technical adviser,” continued Cormac. “I have never seen any documentary evidence of this other than on the film credits. I have seen no evidence of any payment to Ernie for his services. I do recall that during the early summer of 1951 when I got out of boarding school, I would drive with Ernie from Burrishoole Lodge to the TQM set for the day and return home in the evening. Ernie went most days, but I went only occasionally. I remember when Maureen O’Hara came to Burrishoole, but can’t recall if Ford was with her.”

What sort of technical adviser was Ernie on the TQM? “That film in its original story form had a role for the local IRA,” remembered Cormac, “but Hollywood did not want the IRA element involved and so it was played down. I am sure that Ernie must have been embarrassed to have been an adviser on the final credits and he would not have approved of the image, dress and language used about the IRA in the film.”

Although "The Quiet Man" is Ford’s most remembered Irish film (he also did "The Informer" and the film version of O’Casey’s "The Plough and the Stars") most forget his wonderful three-vignette masterpiece called "The Rising of the Moon." The film, says Cormac O’Malley “involved the IRA, and there was a more direct connection back to the Tan War days as the IRA man who was sentenced to death was visited by his sister, a nun, who replaced him in his cell and your man stepped away in the nun’s dress. Ernie describes a most interesting version of John Ford in his letter of 27 May1956 (Broken Landscapes, p. 364) written just after the filming.”

In that letter, Ernie gives a great description of John Ford, the director, in action: “I went off at once to Ford as soon as I had tried to tidy up my papers. That meant work in Limerick city and in Kilkee, beside the western sea. I was Ford’s assistant, I understand. I like Ford. He is difficult to work with and fun at times as he has a cyclonic temper, but as he carries all the burden of thought, he can stand inefficiency patiently enough before he explodes. In that he is like my former self, who learned to take life easier. My function, among others, seemed to be to get him up in the morning, stay by him until he was on the set, smooth him down and break the storm if it threatened to break. He is a fine worker, but as he works almost by intuition you never know what he intends to do, what he wants to do and so you cannot help him as you would if he would open his grim mouth. I find that difficult to be intuitive about intuition. Also, I expect being too proud, I find it hard to be bawled out when I am not in error. It seems futile at times, and I stiffen and feel as if I could have thrown him under the railway engine. That happened once. I clicked my heels sharply to attention, turned around, walked away for about 100 yards. Then I thought: ‘Don’t be a damn fool, he’s worried; go back.’ Back I went. ‘I’m sorry, my temper is bad.’ ‘So is mine,’ he said, ‘but I expect people to take it.’ ‘As you know I don’t at times.’ He does everything from A to Z, and it must be agony for him to work with stupid or inefficient people, to find that he cannot put over sufficiently well what he intends the words should convey. I hope the three short movies will be a success as they will be the first Irish movies.”

Ernie O’Malley’s Legacy

Ernie O’Malley died on March 25, 1957, age 59, in Howth, Dublin. Since the final breakup with his wife, his health had suffered. “Due to Ernie’s declining health after his minor heart problem in 1952 and his massive attack in 1953,” said Cormac O’Malley, “when he stayed in St Bricin’s Military Hospital, he found refuge for the winter months with close friends, the Walstons, in Cambridge. I would then join him and their family of six children for Christmas.

“Many elements over the years affected his early death,” continued Cormac, “the living conditions while on the run, the impact of the tortures, the wounds received from bullets and bayonets, the feet that were trampled on, and the effects of the 41-day hunger strike. The heart attacks in 1952 and 1953 left his heart in a serious condition. No doubt the fact that he took care of himself for meals for half the time between 1950 and 1957 took its toll as he was not a good, diligent cook. In Burrishoole we simplified life by eating only twice a day and given the lack of funds, it was quite often spaghetti and meatballs; we would buy the meat once a week after Mass in Newport.”

But in those 59 years, O’Malley packed enough action to fill two lives. In fact, a good title for an Ernie O’Malley biography might be A Tale of Two Lives. He went from revolutionary to patron of the arts. He knew there is more to a country than its politics and that culture was just as important, if not more so, than electioneering.

“Ernie will become known again as a superb writer,” says his son Cormac, “even if only for the one book. He had a modernist view which is that one does not need to tell everything to tell the history of a period. It is sufficient to convey a series of personal experiences to which people can relate. Ernie uses dialog to heighten the reader’s involvement is a situation which a historian would describe in a much briefer terse passage.”

Ernie O’Malley can be defined by many adjectives—rebel, writer, art lover. But one word will suffice— a patriot.

For more information on Ernie and Cormac O’Malley visit:


Dermot McEvoy is the author of the "The 13th Apostle: A Novel of Michael Collins and the Irish Uprising" and "Our Lady of Greenwich Village," both now available in paperback, Kindle and Audio from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him at Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook.

*Originally published in 2016.