Friday, October 18, 2019

Ulick O Connor – Patriot

Ulick, mise agus Paul 'ODwyer with Tom Hartley in the background

Ulick O Connor died last week in the nursing home where I last saw him in August. I intended to visit him last week when I got word of his death. I first met Ulick in the 1980s. I was scheduled to speak at a debate in Cork University on a motion along the lines of ‘This House accepts that armed struggle in the north is a legitimate response to military occupation.’ That may not be the exact words but it’s the gist of it. As the date of the debate came closer I was told that the university society involved was having difficulty getting anyone else to speak in support of the motion. Then Ulick stepped in. He was very well known by then because of his frequent appearances on the Late Late Show and his passionate republican defence of the nationalist position – a rare enough occurrence in those revisionist days.

After the debate – which we won – I got my first experience of Ulick’s legendary argumentiveness. Five or six of us were packed into a small car. Ulick was in the back with some Cork republicans. I overheard one of them saying he had no time for Tom Barry, the legendary IRA guerrilla leader.

‘Why?’ Ulick asked.

‘He took the Freestate pension’. Our unfortunate Corkonian replied.

‘He did much more than that!’ Ulick exploded before launching into a heated defence of Tom Barry and a fiery denunciation of Irish begrudgery and small mindedness.

I thought the argument was going to descend into fisticuffs. It was lucky for all involved that it didn’t. Ulick was a noted sportsman. Along with pole vaulting, soccer, rugby, cricket and running he was a British and Irish Universities Welter weight boxing champion. There are many stories of Ulick’s contrariness, his pernickety nature, his quick temper. I have to say I never had an argument with him. I also have to say that he was a great argumenter.

He was a barrister, a writer, an actor, and literary critic, a pundit, a newspaper columnist, playwright and a poet. He loved words. He was an authority on Oliver St John Gogarty, WB Yeats, Brendan Behan, James Joyce and the other greats of the Irish literary world. Celtic Dawn; A portrait of the Irish Literary Renaissance, published in 1984, took eight years for him to write and is the story of the literary revival told through the biographies of its leading lights. Ulick was on the board of the Abbey Theatre and a member of Aosdána. When he died just before his ninety first birthday, a library died with him.

He was an independent thinker.  He was proud of his great grand father, the Fenian and Parnellite MP Matt Harris. He wrote a book on Michael Collins. When the Dublin establishment, including many from the Arts, were silent on the North or tolerated censorship Ulick was outspoken.

He was a regular visitor to Belfast. On one of his first visits I took him to Springhill. By complete fluke some young boys were playing with what was probably the only rugby ball in West Belfast.  Ulick was delighted with this and often recounted that story. On another occasion he and some of his friends travelled over to hear Ian Paisley preach in East Belfast. Afterwards Ulick told Mr Paisley that he considered him to be one of the last of the great Irish orators. He was pleased that both these compliments were accepted cheerfully by the Free Presbyterian leader.

Ulick was a great supporter of Féile An Phobail. He and Tomás Mac Anna, Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre, brought one of Ulick’s plays Executions to Féile. The cast of professional and locally recruited amateur actors excelled themselves in this drama about the Irish civil war and the summary executions of four republican prisoners by the new Freestate regime following the IRA  killing of a government TD.

In an introduction to the text Ulick wrote: ‘A decolonised people inherit many confused conditioned reflexes from centuries of being governed by an imperial power. The working of these reflexes out of the national mind is a painful process and, it would seem, a long one’.

Little surprise then that Ulick supported the Blanket men and the women in Armagh. Of Bobby Sands he wrote: ‘Any man that will suffer for his principles is a person the human race needs to succeed.’

In July 1981 he was one of those who handed a petition into the British Embassy in Dublin after a march in support of the hungerstrikers.  That demo was attacked by Garda riot squads. In his introduction to Bobby Sand’s, Skylark Sing Your Lonely Song, published by Mercier, Ulick wrote that the hungerstrike; ‘brought the truth of his (Bobby Sands) people’s predicament before the world. It was the Irish mind against the English one….’

Ulick was a regular visitor to Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna. He always arrived early for the Party Presidential Address. Once he seated himself in the section reserved for the Diplomatic corps. He then refused to move despite many entreaties from the party managers. He and I met regularly over the years for lunch, especially since I was elected to Leinster House and around Dublin more often. Then when he was less well we got together in his home or later again in the hospital and in the nursing home.  We discussed politics and books in equal measure. I always enjoyed his company, his curiosity, his knowledge of writing and writers, his wisdom and insights into the Irish character, his fiery commitment to Ireland and his contempt for what he considered the hypocrisy of the ruling elites.

I am glad I knew Ulick. My condolences to his family and friends, particularly Mary his niece and Anna Harrison. After his death I read that his wish was to be remembered; ‘as having written one good poem or one good book that would outlast me’.

There are many of these.  I offer this one because I think Ulick O Connor would like me to conclude my tribute to him in this way. I think he would think it a fitting end. I certainly do. Go raibh miath agat Ulick.

Message from H-Blocks - Ulick O’Connor
Thinking of Apollo who went down among the swineherds
And of One who elected to be born in a stable,
I thought of those in Belfast who traced excrement on their cell walls
To send the world a message along the spirit’s cable.
Then the final throw, the refusal of sap to the body,
The mind roaring along swerved avenues of agony,
Bishops shanghaied to tell them their soul was in danger
As the jailers discovered the value of Catholic theology.
That they should let you die rather than wear your own jacket
Defines the jackboot under that affable decorum.
Let it not be forgotten that this summer the Teagues in Belfast,
Out of the body’s agony, made the world their forum.
(May-August 1981)

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