The papers of Ernie O’Malley, the Irish revolutionary and writer who immortalised the tumultuous Irish period of 1916–21 in his book On Another Man’s Wound, have been deposited in UCD Archives for well over forty years. Cormac O’Malley, Ernie’s son, initially transferred these papers under the terms of the O’Malley Trust, established in September 1974. This collection of remarkable historical documents has since become one of our most heavily used collections, being one of the most significant primary sources for the War of Independence and the Civil War (specifically, the anti-Treaty position).
To understand why this collection is so significant, we should look first to Ernie O’Malley’s background. Born Ernest Bernard O’Malley in Castlebar, county Mayo, he moved to Dublin with his family in 1906 and was educated at the O’Connell Schools, North Richmond Street. He was a medical student at UCD at Easter 1916 and fought on the periphery of the GPO. Ernie worked as a full-time organiser for the IRA from 1918, commanded the Second Southern Division, was captured in December 1920 but escaped in February 1921 without having revealed his true identity. Strongly anti-Treaty, he fought in the Four Courts and was among the last to vacate the building, directing the garrison’s surrender. He was Director of Organisation and Acting Assistant Chief of Staff for the anti-Treaty forces, and was captured during a raid on the O’Rahilly house in Ailesbury Road in November 1922.
Ernie was one of the last prisoners to be released in July 1924 after an imprisonment that had included a forty one day hunger strike and his election as Sinn Féin TD for North Dublin in the 1923 general election. At Frank Aiken’s invitation, Ernie accompanied him on the 1927 trip to the United States to raise funds to establish the Irish Press, and On Another Man’s Wound, his account of the War of Independence, was published in 1936. Much of the rest of his life was taken up with travelling, journalism and broadcasting, and with recording the experiences of former colleagues in a series of interviews which form the O’Malley notebooks.
It is these notebooks especially that provide an unparalleled source for the revolutionary period. There are fifty three notebooks containing handwritten transcripts of interviews – conducted by Ernie – with around four hundred of his former colleagues. The interviewees speak about their memories of the time and their personal experiences of same. Interviews were conducted between 1948 and 1954. While they echo the statements collected by the Bureau of Military History, they actually encompass the entire period including the Civil War, while the BMH interviews cease at the Truce of 1921.
Such a vivid and interesting character as Ernie O’Malley deserves an in-depth biography – and that is what the English writer Frances-Mary Blake aimed to complete. She became interested in O’Malley in the early 1970s and, after contacting Cormac O’Malley, was given access to Ernie’s papers for her research. She assisted with the initial sorting of the papers and ultimately edited the posthumous publication of his second book, The Singing Flame, which dealt with the Civil War period. In the course of her research she also interviewed and corresponded with many figures from the Irish republican struggle, such as Máire Comerford, Peadar O’Donnell, Liam Deasy, Kathleen Barry Moloney and Sighle Humphreys. Frances-Mary never wrote the definitive biography of Ernie O’Malley that she set out to, but her family donated her own personal papers and research materials to UCD Archives to complement the O’Malley papers.
Frances-Mary’s papers were launched here at UCD Archives on 20 September of this year. Also launched at the same event was a new tranche of Ernie O’Malley papers (UCDA P17a). Both collections are now catalogued and available to researchers, and the finding aids can be viewed on our website.