An excerpt from “Echoes of Their Footsteps Volume III” by Kathleen Hegarty Thorne and Patrick Flanagan
Born in the Sperrin Mountains to a family of modest means, Eoin McNamee received very little formal education, yet he developed into a man of a keen mind.
He joined the IRA in 1934 in Greencastle parish. After a few months, he emigrated to London, where he became involved with the Republican Congress movement.
Following the bombing campaign, he returned to the North, where he was arrested 11 June 1939, and charged with membership of an illegal organization. A six-month sentence inside Crumlin Road prison awaited him. When he returned to Tyrone, he was appointed Adjutant General of West Tyrone. He went on the run and spent his time organizing the various units in his district. After several key men were arrested by the RUC at Carrickmore, McNamee moved up to become Brigade O/C, a position he used to reshuffle the staff.
After the court-martial of Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes, a series of provincial mini-conventions took place during which the position of the IRA was reiterated and future plans explained. McNamee was in charge of the Connaught gathering. While attending Skerry’s College in St. Stephen’s Green under the name of Diamond (it was to be his cover for being in Dublin), he was arrested and subsequently confined to the Curragh.
The three years spent on the Kildare plains were not wasted on him. He took the time to become a fluent Irish speaker and to learn a more contemporary language, Spanish. But when he was released, jobs were scarce and IRA activity was even scarcer, so he looked to the sea to earn his daily bread. Qualifying as a ship’s engineer, even though he had very little formal schooling, he sailed the oceans, not being allowed to disembark in the United States until the mid-1950s. When he finally walked the gangplank down to a New York dock, he found his place of exile.
McNamee had been the man who moved up the chain of command when his superiors relocated or were arrested. His experience within the Army was broadly based. Long journeys by bicycle, often over the narrow mountainous roads of Tyrone and Donegal, resulted in a mass of recruits for the IRA. McNamee even organized a special unit of IRA Protestant men in Belfast to serve the cause.
He had participated in the English Campaign over a three-year period. First working as a labourer on building sites, he was eventually taken into the inner circle of England’s IRA. He “was a solid man, though a bit to the Left of the usually apolitical Belfast people.”
When living in England in Roseken Road, Fulham, he tested balloons in his fireplace “timing how long it would take for the acid to eat through the rubber and ignite the iron oxide.”
In August 1937 McNamee worked as the intelligence officer in the London Battalion. In March 1938 he served as chief spokesperson for the Russell faction at a meeting preceding the convention. McNamee was in favour of such a scheme because he thought it would be accompanied by an assault on the North.
He was present at the 1938 April Convention at which Sean Russell was voted the Chief of Staff. He attended the training course in explosives held at the back of Lucas’s shop, the Home Market, on St. Stephen’s Green. Classes were conducted by Seamus O’Donovan and Paddy McGrath—two-week sessions that McNamee considered not nearly long enough to train a guerilla army set to begin a serious English Campaign in 1939. Groups of hand-picked men from England were brought back to Dublin to attend these classes.
During his absence from London in 1937, the O/C of the London unit had been arrested and Jimmy Joe Reynolds appointed to take his place. Appointed by Peadar O’Flaherty, Reynolds proceeded to dismiss all the Battalion staff. Pearse McLaughlin, Mick Ferguson, and Michael Welsh were brought in to replace them.
In 1937 when McNamee returned to England, he lived in Coventry and then Birmingham, where he stayed with Sean Fuller, the brother of Stephen Fuller, the lad the Free State soldiers thought they had blown to pieces at Ballyseedy during the Civil War. (Sean had gone to Birmingham with Jackie Kearns during Christmas week of 1938.
During Lent of 1939, McNamee was re-called to Dublin to clear up the confusion about where the “stuff” was stored in England. He explained to Sean Russell that he had told the O/Cs of various units where the dumps were located, but now most of those men had been picked up by Scotland Yard and were cooling their heels in various jails.
Returning to Ireland in April 1939, he was assigned to help patch together the isolated units in the North. His activities did not go undetected by the authorities. He was arrested on 11 June. Released in May 1940, he served as O/C Tyrone/Donegal and Fermanagh and was eventually appointed O/C Northern Command when Sean McCaughey moved to Dublin.
He worked with GHQ as the Quartermaster General under Sean Harrington and served as Adjutant General under Sean McCool. With McCool’s arrest in March 1942, McNamee assumed the responsibilities of the top job.
He hadn’t time to accumulate many communiques on his desk before he too was arrested on 23 May 1942 and sent to Mountjoy and then the Curragh.
“A little shy and often quiet” were phrases used to describe his personality. “He shunned publicity, always working behind the scenes.”
Pearse Kelly, who first saw him at McNamee’s court hearing, remembers him as being “a solid indestructible man who seemed to have a rock-like tenacity.”
His time with his fellow internees was spent analysing others and sizing up the situation rather than expounding on his own philosophical tenets. His friend, Frank Morris, explained in his oration given at McNamee’s death that at times this pattern was broken: “I clearly remember back many years ago in a Dublin pub Eoin explaining Christ as a revolutionary and socialist to some old comrades.”
McNamee was another Irish man who took no time away from Army duties to marry. Even after he had established himself in the United States, first in Philadelphia and finally in Chicago, he surrounded himself not with children and toys but with fellow Irishmen and women whose devotion to Ireland’s full freedom equalled his own. He had joined the IRA in 1932 and remained a faithful son until his last breath.
Where English guns and Irish Republican responsibilities had failed, Mother Nature succeeded. On 9 August 1986 cancer claimed him in New York.
“The world and especially the Republican Movement is poorer as a result of Eoin’s death . . . a man of high principle and integrity . . .”
- An Appreciation,” written by Seósamh Ó Bré.
“A scholarly, astute, and sane man, with clear perception he saw that a successful revolutionary effort had to be fought on all levels, including political and agitation, but he remained totally committed to the view that armed struggle was the cutting edge or the spear of efforts, the key to victory.”
- An Appreciation, written by George Harrison included in In Memoriam Eoin McNamee. Harrison was an American fundraiser and close confidant of McNamee’s.
Do you have a remarkable piece of Irish history that has been forgotten for too long? Why not join IrishCentral's contributor's platform Irish Voices? You can learn more about it here and sign up here.
This article was submitted to the IrishCentral contributors network by a member of the global Irish community. To become an IrishCentral contributor click here.