Ever yours, Ernie

The Papers of Desmond and Mabel FitzGerald (UCDA P80) include letters from Ernie O’Malley to Mabel FitzGerald, which evince a warm personal friendship between them, in addition to a shared political philosophy. 

Mabel Washington McConnell, a Belfast Presbyterian and nationalist, met Desmond FitzGerald, born in London of Irish parents, at Gaelic League classes where he was learning Irish. They married in 1911 and lived in Brittany for two years in the company of writers and artists. They moved to Kerry in 1913 and became involved in nationalist politics. Mabel was a fervent nationalist and while Desmond was pro-Treaty, Mabel’s correspondence with Ernie O’Malley, outlines an anti-Treaty position.

Ernie O’Malley was a leading figure in the IRA and took command of the IRA’s 2nd Southern Division in 1921. He was a leading anti-Treaty figure in the Civil War. He was captured by Free State forces in November 1922 and imprisoned until 1924. He went on hunger strike for forty-one days in 1923.

In the sequence of letters selected below, Ernie writes from Mountjoy, thanking Mabel for the letters, cards and list of French books she sent (P80/1648); from the Detention Ward, St Bricín’s Hospital, with details of the deterioration of his physical condition throughout his hunger strike and the appalling conditions at Mountjoy for the men coming off hunger strike (P80/1649); concerning his weak physical condition and including detailed references to his reading material and belief that he must continue to educate his mind since he will no longer be able to serve his country in a physical manner as a Republican should the need arise, due to the harm to his body caused by his hunger strike and treatment in prison.

P80/1648

5 January 1923

Dear Mabel

I have now a gaol to myself: I wish however they had left one of our people to see to my food, however one cannot have everything one’s own way. This is a “scrappy” note but I may be moved any second. I read your “underground” letters and your p. cards. They were nice.

I think that you should not worry in the least. You did the right thing and anyone who knows you would realise that. The first thing is to keep the home from being broken up, the second to see to the boys. Seoirse Plunkett and I had a chat about you on Thursday night before he left and he wishes to be very sincerely remembered to you.

I hope you enjoyed yourself abroad. It must have been nice. Really sunshine is the proper cure for me according to myself as when I lay in the sun for even half an hour a day in the ‘Joy I felt much better. Always I believe in sunshine unprotected under the rays. I believe it cures most ills.

Thanks so much for French list. I will really have little time for French or for reading even French translations. I read very little fiction and what I have on hand of it will suffice until the middle of February. If I can get through Greek literature and what I have mapped out for myself in English lit. I would be nearly satisfied with my stay here.

I expect I may be able to work a line from my next resting place. Generally I am able to do so. I hope the boys are well and that they enjoyed the holidays. I am allowed one letter each week that is the reason I could not reply through the post.

Ever yours

Ernie

P80/1649

24/11/23

Dear Mabel

I was starting to write to you when your parcel of books arrived; thanks awfully especially for the poetry. I asked mother to tell you to write to me via the “underground” also, on their paper. For the past two hours I have had sudden spasm of strength so I am utilising my time in writing notes. I hope you are well; how is Desmond these times? I do not know what condition I am in as  yet. I am very weak but it will be nearly a week I am sure before I know whether I am badly weakened or not; anyhow it was worth it even though the finish was rather tame.

Frank Gallagher is here also. I wonder could anything be done about the ‘Joy so the men who came off hunger-strike receive decent treatment. The tradition of the place is a particularly rotten one and an O.C to fit it has always been provided. Macmanus is directly responsible for the cruellest portion of the ill-treatment ordered by the now Governor Fitzpatrick. He is an ignorant bully and I know that conditions there during the strike were horrible and they will be more so now. Could any move be made to have him removed and a decent man replace him. 

I am worried about the men there and if I knew that they were being properly looked after my mind would be at rest. Men need to be looked after just now as the week subsequent to such a strike tells heavily even on the strongest. We are to go back to the ‘Joy as soon as we are fit to do so. We are being looked after alright here. The first bunch of “white” officers I have me so far; I do not look forward to a return to the ‘Joy, but there is a certain amount of pleasure even in suffering. 

How are the boys; I suppose they are quite grown up now? Please remember me to my friends, 

Yours very sincerely,

Ernie

P80/1650

6 A.M. 1/12/23

Dear Mabel

I received your welcome letter of 29th and the photo for which thanks. I was very glad indeed to get your letter and I hope you will continue to write regularly: most of all I was delighted to have a “booky” letter as I love such and I receive them so seldom. If writing through the post, please tell me how well my friends are when writing “underground”, please write at length and “booky”. My brother Kevin can get in touch alright; it would be best if you kept letters over til the week and forward them to K on Saturday, but you can settle that between you) as Sunday is my best day for bulky letters. The photo was charming; I am sorry you did not forward your own.

I have thought of you often during the past year and sympathized with you in your very difficult position; it must have been very trying for you indeed. The last year has been pretty “tough” on me; I did not expect to live beyond Feb as I was dying slowly in the ‘Joy though I never told anyone, but I felt it only too well and [?] [unconsciously] always keep a grip on life, was not eager to live; I would have had been very glad to die. I thought I would have been one of the first to die on strike and was so happy and thankful that I had at last the opportunity of saving my comrades’ lives by dying, but I was denied that and now I am “crocked”, but God’s wonderful equity has balanced my loss of bodily with an increase of spiritual force.

Whatever the result to me personally I am glad I went on strike; it was a wonderful experience and some day [le cúnamh Dé] I will tell you of it.

All here are pretty well with the exception of a few the others are able to be up and about. All you enquire for are well. Frank G[allagher] is here and wishes to be very kindly remembered to you. I am very weak, weaker than the doctors or even I myself thought. Towards the end of the strike my body was used up and I was living on my spirit as I well know how to by this, so that the latter has suffered a little and I am feeling low as when the fight is over one find it hard to keep the spirit “toned up”. The doctors could not understand my case as by right I should have been dead but I received so many notes from my Chief of Staff to exert every effort to live rather than to make the State shoulder the responsibility of my death and the subsequent campaign of hatred, which it would provoke amongst my friends, that I did hang on and refused to die.

Last night for the first time in three weeks I had two hours sleep; my total sleep for those three weeks having been five hours, so I feel refreshed and am writing this while my strength lasts. My sight was going fast and my brain was affected towards the end, the latter now, thank God, is coming back to normal, the former is still bad and I am afraid to read. I just look at some illustrated books on art and read odd reviews etc. The people here meant well but as there would be no such thing as individual attention, I got one of our own people to appoint himself “nurse” so now I do not have anything whatever to do with the medical staff here and all my food is prepared by my “nurse” so that I have a reasonable chance of improvement. I estimate 1 ½ years before I am back to normal, ie bullets removed also, but the doctors say I can never hope to be strong again. I am quite resigned to this and quite happy about it though during the strike my own dread was that I would be allowed to live and be “crocked”.

Now I think I have talked sufficiently about myself I have read quite a bit in gaol, read the books I had always endeavoured to make time for. I like Blake; on active service I generally carried “Songs of Innocence” & of Experience”; the “Hound of Heaven”, Marcus Aurelius and some others in a good pocket edition round with me and as I have not a copy of the two you sent it meant that I am again with my old friends. I had a very good bulky and very interesting book—“William Blake, Poet and Mystic” by P. Berger. I lent it to Tom Derrig and when I get it back I will send it out to you as I am sure you will like it. I had the illustrations of his Book of Job outside with very good notes.

Reading has helped me to kill pain and I read practically all day when in the ‘Joy. I worked out a course which would require little mental effort with refreshing variety—thus each day I did some philosophy, poetry, prose fiction, history and languages. I began Greek and Spanish; I did not very far with either as my head would not permit it but I am very fond of both languages. I will give you an idea of what I like and what I have read as I would like you, please, to give advice and assistance. In verse I have done Chaucer, Milton, a little of Pope, Blake, Wordsworth (not the longer poems), Shelly, Keats, Tennyson, Coleridge, Longfellow (about half), Browning (“Ring and the Book” and plays), a little Scott, some of Lowell and Whitman, and some moderns—Brooke, Ledwidge, some of Masefield. Yeats (poems and “Later poems”) and a few more; also some of W. Morris.

I have done all Shakespeare and I love him. In criticism I have read Hazlitt, Masfield and Coleridge on him and expect Bradley’s “Shakespearean Tragedy” and Swinburn’s Essays as I have ordered them. […], Morte d’Arthur, Bunyan, Lamb, Montaigne, Coleridge, a little of Ruskin (I always loved him), and Pater, Swift, very little in prose.

History—Prescott, Motley, Carlysle, Roscoe, W. Irving, Sir G.O. Trevelyan, Froissart, a little of all. Irving is very easy for me to read.

Classical: Hoe, a little of Aristophanes, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Sophocles and Aeschylus, Plato (whom I love with exception of Republic which I have outside), Virgil (which I love in the original), Plutarch. I will start Herodotus in a few days time.

Fiction: A deal of Contad, Twain, R.L. Stevenson, some of Jane Austen, Hawthorne, Melville. I have Turgenev, Anatole France and various odds and ends.

Foreign: Don Quixote, Dante, Schiller, Tagore, Papini, Tolstroy.

I love Shakespeare best and would like your ideas on the best criticisms to read on him on Chaucer, Milton, Spencer, Browning, Blake, I intend to study the other Elizabethans as it is a very interesting period so I would also like the best crits on them and in all cases names of well annotated editions as my general knowledge is scanty. I love Shelly, W. de la Mare, Davies (I have often asked Eileen to forward me works of the two latter but I suspect she could not get any). Of Tagore I have read “Gitanjali” and Fruit Gathering—both very beautiful; I simply had to read them aloud and at night, to Paddy Fleming, through a wee hole in the wall which he had made; he was equally charmed. The edition was the Tauchnitz one, could you, please, find when they might be procurable as the print is very good and as my sight is bad I will find it difficult to get back to “The World’s Classics”, “Everyman” and the “Globe” editions which I generally use; besides Tauch would be much cheaper and if it would be possible to get them in a stiff cover or well bound, no matter what the cost it would pay to save my eyes.

I like Lamb, Hazlitt, Johnson, and the others I mention in prose; I have not done much on account of my head.

In history I like Irving, Prescott, Motley and Roscoe best. Classical authors I love them all especially Homer, Plato and Virgil. I have not read much fiction. I like Thackeray, have done little Dickens but have been reading “Pickwick” during the strike, love Stevenson, Turgenev, Tolstoy. I have read A. France’s “Penguin Island”—(the work either of bitter cynic or of a disillusioned man or of a straight man thinking it hopeless to see good in anything). I know nothing of A. France, but I certainly enjoyed the “Crime of Sylvester Bonnard”; I like all the others mentioned on list. I intend to read Flaubert and Pierre Loti also some of Meredith, Hardy, and some of the first novelists up to the Victorians. Would you, please, give me an idea of the best French people. When I left school I could read Rene Bazin’s “La Douce France” and Erckmann-Chatrian, but I am “rusty” now as constant “knocking around” has knocked the edge off things, but I intend to read a little French daily when my head gets properly back to normal—say in six weeks time. Perhaps you could forward me a catalogue of French books—the French, I think, go in quite a lot for good cheap editions or if the people I ask for, or you suggest, are not too difficult I would like to read them in the original. At school I read a little of Le Musset’s and of Hugo’s verse in French and I liked them well.

In modern fiction I read a few books of Wells. I liked “Mr Polly” and Mr Britling sees it through, the Chinese tales of Ernest Bramah, Snaith’s “Sailor”, Philip Gibb’s “Street of Adventure”, Frankau’s “Peter Jackson” “Cigar Merchant”, Henry Sydnor Harrison’s “Queed”, Bennett’s “Anna of the 5 towns”, Stephens’ “Crock of Gold”, Shaw’s “Unsocial Socialist” Buchan;s “Greenmantle”, Galsworthy’s “In Chancery”, Walpole’s “Jeremy” and “Fortitude”, Booth Tarkington’s “Penod”, Ole Luk Oies “The Green Curve”, Lafcadio Hern’s two studies of Japanese Life, Masefields “Lost Endeavour”, “Cardigan”, “Eric Brighteyes” by H.R. Haggard, Farnol “Beltane the Smith”, “The Sheriff of Dyke Hole” by Colum, Morley Roberts “Sea Dogs” (I hurt myself laughing during the strike with this). I will tell you what I think of MacKenzie when I read your books. Already I have read Carnival, The Vanity Girl, but so far would much prefer Conrad’s Set of Sic, Walpole, Stevenson’s “Master of Ballantrae”, Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Diamond Lens” (a glorious book, not as ghoulish as Poe, but excellent). This is the list of books I recommended to lads in the ‘Joy who wished to read modern stuff. I do not know if the selection is a careful one—all I know is all the above gave me pleasure. Are there any modern works by the above authors or of others which you could recommend as it would help to fill in the programme and relax my mind after reading heavier stuff. This letter has been quite a budget and I am dreadfully tired over it but I’m going to see it through as I came this far and I hope it will give you anything like the pleasure it gives me.

I love Art and Architecture I have a rather good supply of books on Art.

Have you any old catalogues; if so please forward them as I love looking through them and I can do this when I cannot read. I hope you will pardon me if I weary you, but it is now more than ever necessary that I train my brain as best I can; the question of release never troubles me (I know I will be in the last batch and do not think I will be released before March); if I do not go to the ‘Joy I have a chance of regaining a little strength, but if I am moved it means good-bye. I forsee that my body cannot be utilized as it has been in the past as fighting is now out of the question and I wish to place at my country’s service what training I can achieve by reading or think[ing] and you will, please, help in the good work and if I ever give you too much to do, please, tell me. I have a little money outside & can I thin raise more; I have appointed Kevin my librarian & am making him responsible for the forwarding of books I want; I want him to read my books and to get to like them. Do you know each other? I do not know him and always look upon him as a kid but I believe he is quite grown up. You could meet and hold a council of war. I will remember you and your intentions in Holy Communion each weekend (unfortunately we can only receive once per week), also all the family. And I will remember you particularly in the present Novena of the 8th so don’t forget to ask for some favour. I thought it best to go into detail as the “line” may break any day. Please give my love to the boys and to yourself.

Ever yours, 

Ernie

This post was written and researched by Kate Manning, Principal Archive, UCD Archives.

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