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Reading the Irish Left: The Bell part 1. July 20, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Irish Politics, Marxism, Media and Journalism.


Thinking about BICO has sent me scurrying back to what little constitutes my archives of political material. Some of this is inherited, some borrowed and somehow never returned (I don’t think WP Youth will miss Working Class USA by that old Stalinist Gus Hall but if they do they can email me here), quite a bit stolen, but what I find most fascinating is the way in which the same issues reappear.

Take, for example, the Bell, the ‘literary’ magazine founded and edited by Peadar O’Donnell and Sean Ó Faoláin. O’Donnell is a remarkable character and a brief overview of his life hardly does him justice. Born in County Donegal he lived and worked in Dublin and Scotland, came from the ITGWU into the Irish Citizens Army, then onto the IRA. He was very active during the War of Independence but after the Treaty went with the Republican side, being a representative on the army executive.

After the defeat of the Republican side in the Civil War he attempted to shift the remnants of that grouping towards a more socialist position, but met with little success and it became clear that no progress would be made within the IRA. He co-founded Saor Éire and the Republican Congress. Neither made a significant impact, although all are touchstones of the Republican Socialist tradition.

Remarkably he was in Barcelona when the Spanish Civil War broke out and he was pivotal in encouraging others from the left Republican side to join the International Brigades.

But, perhaps inevitably, an active engagement with politics began to diminish as he got older. He turned to the cultural and the literary, as exemplified by The Bell.

That is the broad understanding of O’Donnell’s career. Problem is that with regard to his later years that account is somewhat incorrect.

While it is true that O’Donnell was not active in terms of a strong political engagement if one actually reads The Bell it is very clear that this journal was a vehicle for ideas that we would recognise immediately as belonging to left progressive area.

Ó Faoláin who is better known as a short story writer and a novelist also fought in the War of Independence and later in the Civil War on the Republican side. In some respects it was his vision which informed the cultural side of The Bell, in particular an aversion to censorship and the reductionist nature of then existing Irish Catholicism.

In format, an A5 book, generally about 72 pages long, it contained short stories, book and music reviews, reflections upon authors, and political pieces. One very telling omission was the absence of visual imagery. It is difficult not to see that as reflective of a disinterest in the visual area in Irish culture then, and perhaps now.

Take the May 1951 issue. This had a long article that dealt with “Auto-anti-americanism”, and the use of that term by Ó Faoláin in a previous piece warning against a reflexive anti-Americanism and for an engagement with the “Atlantic Pact”. In response were four separate articles by “A Trade Union Leader”, “A Writer”, “A Housewife” and “An Exile”. The genesis of Ó Faoláin’s article was the antagonism to the ECA, an element of the Marshall plan. The responses are illuminating. Louie Bennett (The TU Leader) pointed to the ‘defence campaign’, a precursor of the military/industrial complex, and the dangers of being enmeshed in it. He also noted how:

‘I drove down with friends along the valley of Glencree. It was dusk…the solemn, secret essence of it swept us into silence…what, after all can Ireland contribute to creative civilisation? I think of Muintir na Tire, the Young Farmers, the CountryWomen, the co-operative idea slowly growing and fructifying, the theory of Vocational Organisation whose value for our economic life has yet to be fully understood….And so thinking I am satisfied that the Irish people, left free to follow their own way of life, may make a valuable contribution to civilisation…’

A strange, no doubt heady, mix of modernity and…er…Vocational Organisation. And yet one that is remarkably contemporary. He also asked:

“How many of us really believe that a war such as now devastates Korea will defeat communism?… A Third Force is now definitely emerging, a force not dependent on armaments, free of imperialism, not yet adequately co-ordinated, but nevertheless at work ‘to avert a world war by getting in between the rival pressure groups of world revolution and world capitalism”.

Remove the references to communism, replace them with Islamism, and the discourse is almost entirely contemporary.

No less so is the contribution from Hubert Butler (the Writer) who argues that the US was trying to use ‘dissident’ communists of the Titoist strain to build tensions within the Eastern Bloc, and asked:

‘…what would the realist policy be in regard to the European countries, over which America and England exercise influence? Would not the Americans be obliged, by force of circumstance to resurrect the Nazis and Fascists, who have had over ten years’ experience in fighting Communism?’.

Perhaps superheated, but again certain contemporary resonances are unavoidable. He makes an interesting point about being in Vienna in 1938 after a street had been wrecked by the Nazis…

‘you could still see the foul inscriptions on the broken Jewish shop fonts…’Verholung nach Dachau’ ‘On a Rest-cure at Dachau!’ was the mildest of them…I have never before, in any communist country, and I have visited several, felt myself enveloped by such an emanation of evil’. He continues, and remember the context of this, 1951, ‘…then I saw pasted on the wall…the manifesto of the Austrian Catholic bishops applauding Hitler, and I heard how the leaders of the Austrian Evangelical Church had sent him an even more fulsome address, signing it, as did Cardinal Innitzer, with Heil Hitler’.

Brave stuff for 1951.
The piece from the ‘Housewife’ Brigid Lalor is interesting. “I want peace, not war. Then, I hate to see our people take alms. This attitude could be an outcrop of racial pride. God knows it is a poor return for all the proud blood that was spilled to fertilize our soil if we, in this generation, can only produce a crop of beggars”

She continues:

‘I am anti-British, anti-American, anti-Russian and pro-Irish. With Connolly I ‘serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland.’ I, as an Irish Christian mother, do not feel I should expose my children or Mrs. O’Faolain’s children, or any Irishwoman’s children to the horrors of an atomic war. If killed they must be, let them die because society to-day would not let them live full, Christian, civilised lives’.

Here the shift in the discourse is pronounced. Outside of a very small segment of the population it is difficult to envisage such an emphasis on the ‘Christian’, particularly juxtaposed with the Marxist Connolly.

Yet again, although the terminology is slightly different, it remains recognisable. ‘General Eisenhower has let the cat out of the bag as to what America gets out of all this. He said ‘We must give Europe assistance because…if not, our system will wither away.’ The system he refers to is the American Tory system, and we pro-Irish are not prepared to sacrifice Ireland or Europe to support an American Tory Government. I hope I am making my grounds for suspicion and unbelief fairly clear. I have few other reasons.’

Still, there are elements of the self-identity which now seem remarkably different:

‘…we pro-Irish value the way of life that we hold. Its standard is not high culturally or economically. We have failed our great dead leader so often, that it looks now as if history is taking her revenge on us for our careless waste of their blood and teaching. We have not a leader on our horizon in these fateful days. We have consistently refused to do what Tone and Connolly would have us do for our own people. If we believe the propaganda of Mr. O’Faolain I can see us arriving in the other world en masse from an atomic bomb, carrying the banner (the Tricolour, with the Stars and Stripes in one corner, and the Union Jack in the other) of our new Banana Republic.’

I can’t help reading that almost defeatist and beaten paragraph and think that it was no great surprise that within a generation the touchstones of identity, Connolly, Tone, Catholic Christianity and so forth would themselves be discarded. A shell of patriotism that surrounded a void, the contradictions too great to be painted over when the absolute failure of the state building project – and the reductionism to a sort of 26 county, Catholic, Nationalist identity fractured under the pressure of modernity – became apparent in the 1980s.

The ‘Exile’ responds by pointing to another fear of Marshall Aid:

“Sean O’Faolain would have us believe that the 16 million dollars from the USA to the Irish Government is given without any strings, without any expectations from Ireland and that Irish people will not have to work, arm, fight or die for these dollars. If he expects us to believe that, he underestimates the native intelligence of the people and the deep rooted Irish suspicions of Imperialism whether it is the British or American variety’

[On a point of historical accuracy, the Irish government in the 1948-51 period lobbied long and hard under the Minister for External Affairs, Sean MacBride, for Marshall Aid. Problem was the US wasn’t hugely interested in giving any, not least because of Irish neutrality in the Second World War. Joseph Lee has noted that the previous Fianna Fáil government had given control of Irish participation in the scheme to the Department of External Affairs. Sean MacBride, as Minister in the department was to oversee the disbursement of $18 million in grants and $128 million in loans. While a significant figure, and a substantial investment it fell far short of the £150 million that he had sought. To give an insight as to how contentious this aid was we don’t need to just look at the articles in the Bell. One Clann na Poblachta TD resigned over the acceptance of the aid.]

‘Recently American bombers landed at Dublin Airport. Were they uninvited guests…is it not more likely that they were having a reconnaissance of Collinstown for future possiblities? No, Mr. O’Faolain, it won’t do. America wants to involve Ireland in her plans for conquering the world. She needs Ireland’s ports and fields for naval and air bases: she would like to transform Ireland into an unsinkable aircraft carrier for her atomic warfare against Russia and Eastern Europe just as she has done or is in the process of doing in Britain, France, Western Germany, Italy….’

For all that it is anchored in it’s time, and an amazing mass of contradictory influences, there is something refreshing about the approach taken in the Bell to these issues. At least it is willing to engage with the issue.

But there was another issue of that year which resonated more strongly in our recollection of that period which will be returned to in the next post on the Bell.


1. Grendel - August 6, 2007

“I am anti-British, anti-American, anti-Russian and pro-Irish”….
That sounds a little like the “neither Washington Nor Moscow” advocated
by independent socialists in the Cold War era. Maybe in an Irish Context
it should have said…”Neither Washington,Moscow,London or the


2. WorldbyStorm - August 6, 2007

Very true. But lashings of religiosity, which is not quite the same thing as religion.


3. Peadar O’Donnell Weekend 2007 « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - October 14, 2007

[…] discourse. The Bell provided him (and Sean Ó Faoláin) with a vehicle, as I’ve argued here that would attempt some limited expansion of the cultural and socio-political area in a progressive […]


4. Ian Hassett - August 25, 2009

Where can I find archived issues of The Bell? I’m looking for issues from 1954; and more specifically, a Flann O’Brien short entitled, “Two in One.”


5. WorldbyStorm - August 25, 2009

I only have one copy, the one above which I got at the Peadar O’Donnell Summer School in Donegal some years back. I’m not sure there are any archived as such, however I’d be interesting in putting some issues up on the net.


EamonnCork - August 25, 2009

I have the Best of The Bell compilation which was published in the eighties. it’s got a bias towards the literary end of things but there is still some very interesting stuff there (everyone should read Flann O’Brien on the dancehall scene). If you wanted to put stuff up on the web from it, I could post it to you.


6. John O'Neill - August 25, 2009

Gerry Doherty told me a yarn that a banner was placed across the OSF office in Gardiner Place in the 1970’s proclaiming “We Serve Neither Queen nor Kremlin but Ireland”. A B+B nearby put up a banner stating “We serve Soup”


7. Garibaldy - August 25, 2009

Isn;t the Bell in Trinity Library, or the NLI?


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