Peadar O’Donnell was a major radical figure in the history of 20th century Ireland. Born on a small farm in Meenmore, near Dungloe in 1893, he attended St. Patrick’s College in Dublin, where he trained as a teacher. He then taught on Arranmore Island before spending some time in Scotland.
But Peadar’s education was broader than could be contained in a teacher training college. From an early age he was influenced by his mother Brigid, an avid supporter of Big Jim Larkin. Peadar became an organiser for the Irish Transport Workers Union, memorably leading a strike and occupation by workers in Monaghan asylum in 1919. Apart from the uniting of Catholic and Protestant workers against their common enemy, the strike was notable in demanding equal pay for women workers, a rare initiative in those days.
Peadar joined the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence, becoming a leading figure in the North West. At the commencement of the Civil War he was imprisoned in Mountjoy by the Free State and went on hunger strike for 41 days. In 1924 he became a member of the Executive and Army Council of the IRA. Escaping from the Curragh Camp in 1924,he was elected to the Dail.
Peadar published his first novel Storm in 1925. This was followed by Islanders (1928), Adrigoole (1929), The Knife (1930) and On the Edge of the Stream (1934).
Throughout his time in the leadership of the IRA during the 1920s and early 1930s, Peadar sought to convince the leadership and membership of the necessity to link up with other radical forces and adopt socialism as the ultimate objective. His efforts were not crowned with success but he remained active in politics and helped establish the Workers Revolutionary Party and edited its newspaper The Workers Voice. In 1934 he was instrumental in the foundation of the Republican Congress.
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Peadar urged the formation of volunteer regiments to support the Popular Front government against Franco’s military mutiny, which was supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Peadar and Frank Ryan establ;ished the Connolly Column (named after James Connolly) and in December 1936, Ryan and 80 volunteers left Dublin for Spain to fight in the ranks of the International Brigade.
After the Second World War Peadar edited the Irish literary journal, The Bell (1946-1954). As editor he encouraged writers to engage with social and political realities, as he did in his own writings. Other books by him include The Big Windows (1955) and Proud Island (1975). He also published two volumes of autobiography, The Gates Flew Open (1932) and There Will Be Another Day (1963)
Throughout his long career Peadar continued to agitate and campaign on behalf of emigrants, the small farm countryside and other marginalised sections of Irish society. He never forgot where he had come from nor lost his sense of identification and solidarity with the common people.
In addition to his support for the Glencolumkill Co-op and Save The West Campaign, he was involved with Dochas Co-operaative and the National Land League and Family Farm Association. On the broader political front he was a Patron of the Common Market Defence Campaign. He spoke at the foundation of Irish CND in 1958 and became its President from 1960. A sponsor of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, he also chaired the first public meeting on Vietnam in July 1966 and became Chairperson of the Irish Voice on Vietnam. After the disgraceful bestowing of an honorary degree by UCG on the war mongering US President Ronald Reagan during his visit to Ireland , in June 1985 a group of concerned staff and students of the college (led by one Michael D.Higgins) bestowed the title of Honorary Chancellor on Peadar.
Peadar O’Donnell, writer, soldier, trade unionist, revolutionary and life-long fighter for working people and for social justice died in May 1986.