Wednesday, February 24, 2016


Eoin Mac Neill 1932
Click any image for a larger version

You could say that attitudes to Eoin Mac Neill are a good indicator of the extent to which the public are coming to terms with the complexities of the Revolutionary Period.

When I was growing up, he was the villain of the piece and was written out of the narrative as fast as humanly possible. He couldn't be completely ignored. He had set up the Irish Volunteers and after independence he was a minister in the Free State Government. But he had tried, unsuccessfully, to subvert the glorious revolution, the 1916 Rising, which went on to become the inflection point in the fight for Irish Freedom. And later, as a member of the Boundary Commission, hadn't he given away a couple of southern counties to those northern bastards. Best forget about him.

Well, that was most certainly not the attitude of his grandson, Michael McDowell, who held a packed audience spellbound in the Howth Angling Centre as he presented the man in all his complexity. He had been invited by the Howth Peninsula Heritage Society as part of their Decade of Commmorations Programme.

In his dissection he shattered myth after popular myth, revealing Mac Neill as no pacifist surrender monkey but rather a man of steel who could be absolutely ruthless when his rigorous logic demanded it.

Mac Neill was basically in favour of a rising, but would only support it under one of two conditions: (i) if it had a chance of success, or (ii) if the British attempted to disarm the volunteers. His prospective view at the time was that there was little chance of the Volunteers, in their then state of armed unpreparedness, particularly outside Dublin, winning out against the might of the British Empire, even when that empire was at war with an external enemy.

However, his second condition presented the plotters within the plotters with an opportunity to get his support by deception. They forged a document which gave to understand that the British were about to attempt to disarm the Volunteers and arrest their leaders. This ensured Mac Neill's support for the Rising, but only briefly, until he found out that the document was a forgery. It was at that point that he attempted to countermand the order for the imminent rising.

This was not held against him in the War of Independence, which he supported, particularly after the 1918 election. When, after independence, the Free State executed irregulars in repraisal for their various assasinations of Free State functionaries, Mac Neill was fully behind this action. And it could well be argued that it was necessary at the time and there is no doubt that it was successful in defeating armed efforts to subvert the new Free State. Or as Cicero put it: salus populi suprema lex

I think everyone was disappointed when McDowell's talk drew to a close. Most of us could have stayed and listened all night.

Fortunately it was followed by a lively Q&A where he chose to give long and considered answers to the questions posed.

It was in the course of this module that he revealed that he is blogging for Paddy Power in the run up to the election. If you want to know the real story behind this, you'll either have to go to his next talk and ask, or await his autobiography. I am sworn to secrecy.

Governor General James Mac Neill (left) arriving at the
Pro Cathedral for the opening mass of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress.

There was mention in passing of Eoin's brother James, who eventually became Ireland's second Governor General after independence. I couldn't resist including the above photo from my Granny's commmorative volume on the 1932 Eucharistic Congress. The fella on the right, who I initially thought was was a permanent reminder that we hadn't finally cut the painter with the Empire, turns out to be Count John McCormack in his papal knighthood gear.

Mac Neill family tombstone in Kilbarrack cemetery
(horizontal slab in front of railings)

My interest in the Mac Neills comes from my being related to them. A second cousin is married to a grandson of Eoin Mac Neill. The Mac Neills are buried in Kilbarrack cemetery down the road from where I live. And just in passing, this is also where Gordon Brewster is buried.

Mac Neill family tombstone in Kilbarrack cemetery (detail)


Póló said...
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Póló said...

Michael McDowell gave a paper to an NUI Mac Neill Seminar on 28/6/2016. It covers much of what he dealt with above and can be read here.


[This is a re-post of an earlier comment of 1 July 2016 with the link updated to correspond with Michael McDowell's since revamped but not backward compatible site.]