Eoin Neeson

Life
1927-2011; b. Cork; son of Seán Neeson (1891-1964), who was Dir. of Radio Éireann in Cork 1927-31; appt. Director of Government Information Bureau and later held Civil Service posts before joining RTE (Dublin) as a news journalist; he published fiction including Life Has No Price (1960), a novel, while his plays include The Face of Treason (RE & RTV); issued The Civil War in Ireland, 1922-23 (1966); and The Life and Death of Michael Collins (1968), a biography; also issued Birth of a Republic (1998), at pains to distinguish 1916 physical-force Republicanism from PIRA terror, while strenuously opposing revisionist historiography of 1916 and rebutting charges of homosexuality against Roger Casement; also wrote folklore in First Book of Irish Myths and Legends (Mercier n.d.) and Book of Irish Saints (1967), &c.; lived in Blackrock; d. after long illness, 2 Jan. 2011; author of ten plays and fourteen books; cremated at Mount Jerome [Cem.], Dublin. DIW

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Works
Mythology
  • The Book of Irish Saints (Cork, [1967]), 238pp.;
  • The First Book of Irish Myths and Legends (Cork: Mercier Press [1965]), 126pp.;
  • The Second Book of Irish Legends (Cork: Mercier Press 1966), [q.p]];
  • Celtic Myths and Legends (Cork: Mercier Press 1998), 238, [2]pp.
  • Deirdre and Other Great Stories from Celtic Mythology (Mainstream 1998), 287pp.
History
  • The Civil War in Ireland, 1922-23 (Cork Mercier 1966, 1969; Dublin: Poolbeg 1989), 352pp. [see extract];
  • The Life and Death of Michael Collins (Cork, [1968]), 163pp.;
  • Birth of a Republic (Dublin: Prestige 1998), vii, 427pp. [publ. from his home address];
  • Myths of 1916 (Aubane Hist. Soc. 2007), 222pp.;
  • The Battle of Crossbarry (Aubane Hist. Soc. 2008), 70pp.
Miscellaneous
  • A History of Irish Forestry (Dublin: Lilliput Press 1991), 398pp.;
  • Aspects of Parallelism in Japanese and Irish Character and Culture [Hosei Daigaku, Inst. of Comp. Econ. Studies; No. 29: Ireland-Japan papers, No. 8] (Tokyo: Hosei UP 1992), 60pp.

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Commentary
Peter Costello, The Heart Grown Brutal (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1977): ‘One recent historian of the Civil War, Eoin Neeson, gives a conservative account of these “communists” [who established the ‘soviet’ in Limerick by taking over the running of a the Cleeve creamery factory at knocklong, Co. Limerick] as being “mostly irresponsible and disaffected individuals, as great a danger to themselves as to the community”.’ (Costello, p.190).

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Quotations
Civil War
in Ireland (Dublin: Poolbeg 1989) [rep. edn. with new preface], on Unionists and the PIRA: ‘[...] These people, originally of the same ethnic stock [...] and with similar traditions were, nevertheless, ‘Planter’ both alien and privileged in the land, homes, and territories of those they had dispossessed and persecuted. Moreover they subscribed to a variant sect. Throughout the succeeding centuries they preserved and developed an artificial sense of identity, redolent of 16th and 17th century Europe, conferred by these sectarian and ‘acquired rights’ differences. They maintained power and privilege (though admittedly at second-hand through the great Unionist landowners, professional classes, and industrialists who exploited their unthinking allegiance and commitment as of right) until the 1974 Strike ... It is little secret that, leaving aside strategic and economic questions, the social problems of Northern Ireland derive essentially [...] from Ulster Protestant loathing, fear, and misunderstanding of Catholicism, and their refusal to associate with their Catholic neighbours on an equal footing. If they did so then they could address the question of their identity in logical and modern terms.’ Further, on ‘despicable actions’ of IRA Provisionals, ‘a kind of self-perpetuating psychotic multicamerate viviparious and uncontrollable Frankenstein’. (pp.2-3).

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Richard Kearney, ‘Myth and Matyrdom’ [chap.], in Transitions: Narratives in Modern Irish Culture (Dublin: Wolfhound Press 1987): ‘Eoin Neeson’s biography of Michael Collins we hear this Republican hero praised as one “who has been admitted to the company of heroes stretching from Cuchulain to Hugh O’Neill and Parnell.”’ (p.310;, n.15.)

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Brian Maye, ‘The Republican Ideal’ [review of The Birth of a Republic], in The Irish Times ([Thursday] 12 Nov. 1998)
"A fundamental but dubious assumption underlies this book: “Constitutional progress and reverses notwithstanding, it is all but incontrovertible that after 1798 and 1803, the only form of independence which would have been both acceptable to, and enduring for, a majority of the Irish people was a republic.” The history of Irish nationalism from 1800 to 1922, when neither of the major movements, Repeal or Home Rule, was republican, contradicts this. 
 Eoin Neeson denigrates the constitutional and elevates the physical-force efforts of the 19th century. Separatism was a “reality” worth fighting for, constitutionalism a mere “image”. He insists that by 1916 the “mechanisms of constitutionalism” were “discredited”. Mr Neeson completely distorts what happened in Ireland in 1917 by portraying it as some sort of extraordinary and widespread adaptation of republicanism as the only possible political goal for Ireland from then on. He asserts that the 1918 general election showed that “the people as a nation were on the move towards independence and a republic”. While they were certainly on the move towards independence, that the form it would or must take was a republic is by no means as clear. Concerning Sinn Féin’s position following the truce of July 1921, he writes: “The Irish did not accept the reality - much less the validity - of partition and, supported by conviction and the mandate of the people of Ireland as a whole, sought a republic.” Sinn Féin did not have “the mandate of the people of Ireland as a whole” to seek a republic. Patently, they did not have the mandate of a million or more unionists who had fiercely resisted Home Rule, let alone the larger measure of independence represented by a republic. 
 Neeson’s attitude to unionism is somewhat chilling: “The argument that a modest local majority, a minority of the total, has rights of autonomy and of self determination based on sectarian grounds in an ancient and established nation is so fallacious as to need no further comment.” In other words, the unionist minority must accept (be made to accept?) the will of the majority. What about the anti-Treaty minority accepting majority will? That majority is vitiated, according to Neeson, because of the pressure exerted by the British, the churches, the press, various vested interests, the war-weariness of the people, even “the rump of the defunct Irish Parliamentary Party”(!). The majority who voted for the Treaty in June 1922 probably did not know what they were voting for. Quite. The account of the Treaty negotiations, the split that followed and the Civil War is one-sided. Read Dorothy Macardle’s The Irish Republic, published 60 years ago, on which Neeson relies heavily, if one wants the anti-Treaty version. It is better written, although it contains the same mistakes. 
 To take two examples: first, Griffith did not support de Valera’s decision not to lead the delegation to London; he voted against it in Cabinet, along with Collins and Cosgrave; Brugha, Stack and Barton supported de Valera, who used his casting vote to settle the matter; second, during the London talks, the Sinn Féin offer of local autonomy to Northern Ireland, subordinate to an all-Ireland parliament, was not “unacceptable to the British”; they accepted it and tried to persuade the unionists to do the same, but to no avail; that Lloyd George put the proposal to Craig “clearly tongue-in-cheek” reveals Neeson’s attitude. 
 Neeson does not mince his words. For example, the Conservatives used the “barbaric bigotry” of unionists to defeat the Liberals and Home Rule; unionists displayed a “reckless and despotic attitude” in the 1912-14 period; doubts about the Rising are “contemptible”, “preposterous”, “nonsensical” and “prejudiced”. The book would have benefited from a good editor - there is too much repetition. The method of indicating sources is confusing. The abbreviation “op. cit.” appears on most pages, but the work being cited is not clear. There is some confused expression and a liberal sprinkling of misprints, misspellings, omissions and grammatical errors. In his introduction, Neeson wonders if the young are still learning about Irish history from 1910 to 1923. Yes, they are, but not from this book, I hope.
 
Neeson’s reponse in The Irish Times ([Friday] 20 Nov. 1998), “Opinion” [column]

 Brian Maye’s review of my book Birth of a Republic on November 11th was surprising and amusing - such perverse verbal contortions are rare in a respected journal. But this was not a critique. Rather an exercise in prejudice and spleen.
 I won’t respond to Mr Maye’s distortions, misrepresentations and mis-statements of fact - a lot in quite a short article - at that level. But I have a responsibility to draw attention to these falsehoods.
 In order to damn it, Mr Maye took points in Birth of a Republic out of context (sometimes quoting only single words), elaborated on these improperly, misrepresenting what I wrote, and claimed that his resulting distortions were mine. A particular example relates to a statement of mine in the context (1886-1920) of the gradual development of the idea of partition for this country on a sectarian basis. I wrote:
 “The argument that a modest local majority, a minority of the total, has rights of autonomy and of self-determination based on sectarian grounds in an ancient and established nation, is so fallacious as to need no further comment”. Mr Maye contorts this into: “In other words the unionist minority must accept (be made to accept?) the will of the majority”, (throwing in an utter non-sequitur concerning the Civil War). Pluralism, Mr Maye, is a foundation stone of democracy.
 He states: “a fundamental but dubious assumption underlies this book ...” Yet the book is a narrative of the republican thrust, sans assumptions, dubious or otherwise. He makes the claim that “Eoin Neeson denigrates the constitutional and elevates the physical force efforts of the 19th century”. If Mr Maye had read the book he would be aware of the falseness of that statement. Mr Maye goes on to announce that: “Mr Neeson completely distorts what happened in 1917”, but it is he who is guilty not just of distortion, but of misrepresentation too.
 The reason (which Mr Maye ignores) for Birth of a Republic is to provide a narrative, sequential account of the “republican thrust” from the first extraordinary impact of that “new” political dynamic on the people of this country in the last quarter of the 18th century, its persistence and its consequences, to 1923. It is not anything else and for Mr Maye to rubbish it for not being something else is futile and idiotic.
 Mr Maye’s approach (no less than his failure to understand a clear statement) may be judged from the following; I wrote: “Constitutional progress and reverses notwithstanding, it is all but incontrovertible that after 1798 and 1803 the only form of independence which would have been both acceptable to, and enduring for, a majority of the Irish people was a republic”. (It did not seem necessary to include the emphasis in the original.) That is a statement open to challenge, but not distortion.
 What Mr Maye, ignoring the Young Irelanders, the entire Fenian movement from mid-19th century onwards, the self-evident voice of republicanism that was manifest throughout, and the clear purpose of the book, says is: “The history of Irish nationalism from 1800 to 1922, when neither of the major movements, Repeal or Home Rule, was republican, contradicts this.”
 Birth of a Republic is not a history of Home Rule or of the Repeal movement, though constitutionalism is given proper recognition throughout. For instance: “It is to the credit of the Irish professional and middle-classes throughout the 19th century that ... they remained supporters of constitutional nationalism ... All the concessions won in the 19th century were, without exception ... achieved by the constitutionalists” (p.50); “By the end of the 19th century it seemed as if some form of constitutional Home Rule within the union was most likely to prevail” (p.4).
 It seems that Mr Maye holds the credulous view that people could not be both Home Rulers (Repealers) and republicans; that these were fast, rigid, mutually exclusive and unchanging commitments. This notion is astonishing in a biographer of Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin. If there was substance in such a ridiculous idea the Sinn Féin movement, with support from right across the political spectrum, could not have succeeded.
 One can respect justified criticism, however harsh. There can be no respect for sustained distortion and misrepresentation such as Mr Maye’s. To be fair to Mr Maye, his views and attitude are presumably known. One must assume that in selecting him to review this particular book it was entirely predictable that the result would be as it was.
 One wishes to be as courteous, generous and encouraging as possible and it may be that Mr Maye will yet learn to comment with more detachment and less spleen.
 He is evidently one of those pedantic people who genuinely believes that because he thinks something is right, it is. Clearly he would, if he could, change the fundamental facts, the building blocks, of history and distort them into something closer to some theory of his own.
 That is not history. If it were, like Macauley, I would cheerfully bear the reproach of having descended below the dignity of history.
 Contradicting other authorities, Mr Maye states, categorically, that Griffith did not support de Valera’s decision not to lead the delegation to London (1921). The question of Griffith’s support, or not, at that time is an interesting footnote, hardly vital. But Mr Maye makes a meal of it. He does not say which of the several cabinet meetings at which this was discussed he refers to and I am disinclined to accept his unadorned word alone on this point - or, indeed, on any other.
 As is clearly acknowledged in it, Birth of a Republic was, of course, edited by a professional editor.
 Nought out of 10, Mr Maye. 

 
[Foregoing review and response are available at Archive Today [online] with links to Université de Rennes [online].

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Notes
Objectionable: Neeson writes to The Irish Times (8 March 2003), styling ‘Fintan O’Toole’s dancing on the new grave of Tom O’Higgins’ (“Opinion”, 4 March) as ‘one of the most objectionable pieces of writing I have ever seen in this newspaper’, adding that ‘the political traditions of Tom O’Higgins and my own family were different’.

Note that a Ciaran McCourt, writing to the same column, defends Justice O’Higgins judgement that David Norris’s case for liberalisation of laws against homosexuality in Ireland failed in the light of the preamble and ethos of the Constitution.

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