Peadar O'Donnell and Louie Bennett

David Granville reviews Peadar O'Donnell by Donal Ó Drisceoil, and Sally Richardson reviews Louie Bennett by Rosemary Cullen Owens, Cork University Press, £11.95 pbk each

They're a funny thing, biographies. You wait an eternity for someone to take on a favourite subject and then, like the proverbial person queuing for the bus, they turn up in veritable droves.

Well, at least, that's how it appears for one of the most important left-republican figures of the last century, Peadar O'Donnell.

Despite frequently finding himself on the losing side throughout his political life, O'Donnell left a lasting mark on the history of progressive politics in Ireland due to his work as a political agitator, journalist, editor, trade-union organiser and novelist.

Donal Ó Drisceoil's book, the first in Cork University Press's new Radical Lives series, follows hot on the heels Peter Hegarty's excellent Peadar O'Donnell, published in 1999.

Like Hegarty's efforts, this work is a welcome improvement on Peadar O'Donnell, Irish Social Rebel by Michael McInerney, published in 1974, which is more a collection of interview material interspersed with extracts from O'Donnell's writings than a fully-fledged biographical study.

Rather unusually, Ó Drisceoil has relied heavily on Hegarty's research material, a fact which the author duly acknowledges, thanking Hegarty for his "extraordinary generosity" in this regard.

However, this raises the question as to what Ó Drisceoil has been able to add to Hegarty's account. Despite being arranged slightly differently, Ó Drisceoil's account is the first ever attempt to deal with O'Donnell's life in a systematically chronological fashion, the answer appears to be 'not overly much'.

More worryingly, there is evidence that some of Ó Drisceoil's analysis is seriously off the mark -- such as his reference to two other prominent left-republicans, Liam Mellows and Sean Murray, whom he describes as "narrow thinkers".

One suspects this sweeping, and widely inaccurate assertion, which the author neither backs up nor amplifies, owes more to a clear dislike of orthodox communism, and those who came under its influence, in the latter case at least, rather than the fruits of extensive and rigorous research.

This example and other key 'linguistic' signposts in the text give off a distinct whiff of ultra-leftism.

Despite these criticisms, Ó Drisceoil has not done a bad job, and anyone unfamiliar with O'Donnell's important contribution to Ireland's political and cultural life, could do a lot worse than start off with this short, highly readable account.

Born in 1870, Louie Bennett was a feminist, trade-union leader and peace campaigner. She died in 1956, having lived to witness and oppose the development of nuclear weapons.

A campaigner for women's suffrage from 1909, Bennett's interest in trade unionism began with relief work during the Dublin strike and lock-out of 1913. She helped to reorganise the Irish Women Workers' Union in 1916, becoming its honorary secretary in 1918 and continuing her involvement with it for the rest of her life.

She was a highly effective union leader; 'conciliatory rather than confrontational' and was adept at securing the co-operation of employers without compromising the interests of the workers.

The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom was set up by feminists from all over Europe, America and further afield who refused to abandon the campaign for the vote on the outbreak of war in 1914, many of whom linked the war, and militarism generally, with the fact that half the adult population were excluded from the political process because of their sex.

Bennett was prominent in the Irish section, but conflicted with colleagues such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington who opposed the First World War but maintained Ireland's right to fight for independence.

Although she did not support the republican armed struggle, Bennett was committed to Irish independence and opposed the Treaty.

Whether or not one agrees with Bennett's absolute pacifism, it is a moral position that demands respect. More problematic is her ambivalent attitude to the role of women in society.

In spite of her staunch defence of women's rights to the vote, education and equal pay and her opposition to some sections of the 1937 constitution because they discriminated against women, she believed that women's domestic role was paramount.

She even attempted to insert a 'Home Hints' column in the Irish Citizen, the feminist paper she helped to edit!

Nevertheless, Bennett's contribution to the causes of peace, internationalism and feminism is considerable, and she helped to make a material difference to the lives of many working women.

Rosemary Cullen Owens has done an excellent job with what she admits are fairly scant primary sources, and this short biography does her subject proud.

October/November 2001

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