Cormac O'Malley: Revolutionary's Son Helps NYU Focus on the 'Possibilities'

Originally published on November 01, 2006.

Former IRA commander and author Ernie O'Malley left the people of Ireland, indeed the world, a rich legacy, in political conviction, principled action, recorded memory, and commitment to the arts. His widely heralded books include "On Another Man's Wound," "The Singing Flame" and "Raids and Rallies," collectively recalling his experience and those of others in the ranks of the IRA during Ireland's War of Independence and Civil War.

(Above: Ernie O'Malley, a leading figure of the IRA during Ireland's Civil War, memoirist, and a man who, according to his son Cormac, urged people "to open their minds.")

In his 59 years (1897-1957), spanning a number of defining epochs in the history of the Irish state, the Mayo native traveled widely and befriended or otherwise encouraged many figures in the arts in the United States and Europe. These include the American poet Hart Crane, photographer Paul Strand, and artist Georgia O'Keefe, Irish artists Evie Hone and Jack Yeats, poet Louis MacNeice, writers Sean O'Faolain and Graham Greene, and American film director John Ford and actors John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. He also encountered virtually all the major Irish political figures that emerged from the ferment of the years 1916-1923.

For Irish America, and certainly for NYU's Glucksman Ireland House, another legacy of O'Malley's has been his son Cormac, who was born in Dublin in 1942. Cormac O'Malley serves on Ireland House's board of advisors, where he also served a stint as advisory board president.

(Right: Cormac O'Malley, advisor and key supporter of the innovative programs at NYU's Glucksman Ireland House)

Cormac is the third child of Ernie and Ernie's wife, Helen Huntington Hooker, daughter of a wealthy Connecticut businessman. He spent his first eight years in Mayo, and was educated in Dublin. He came to the United States as a teenager and later studied history at Harvard University and law at Columbia University. Married, with two children, he works as an international legal consultant, living in New York City and Stonington, Conn.

Cormac spends time each month in Ireland working and doing research, and over the years has been involved with many Irish and Irish-American charitable and arts-related organizations. He has taken a keen interest in having the role his father played in Irish national, military and cultural history better understood, and to this end he has lectured and published. He recently presented the second annual Heinrich Boll lecture in Achill, County Mayo, titled "Ernie O'Malley's County Mayo: Perceptions, Reflections and Friendships."

On Monday, three days before Ireland House's annual Ernie O'Malley Lecture, WGT Producer Gerry Regan interviewed Cormac via e-mail.

The Wild Geese: Cormac, this Thursday Glucksman Ireland House is presenting the 8th annual lecture in its series named after your father, famed 1920s IRA leader and author Ernie O'Malley. It seems an appropriate time to catch up a bit with you. First off, you seem much too young to be the son of a veteran of the Irish war of independence. Did Ernie O'Malley start his family late in life? At the risk of seeming impudent, how old are you? Are you Ernie's first-born? How many other kids did he and your mother have?

Cormac O'Malley: Many veterans of the War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Civil War (1922-1924) postponed the social aspect of their lives until after the end of their young military careers. Those veterans who had been interned during the Civil War were not released until after the end of the hunger-strike in November 1923. My father, then the most senior surviving anti-Treaty Republican, was not released until July 1924. Given the poor state of his health, he recovered in southern Europe for two years, returned to medical school in Dublin, 1926-28, and then spent seven years in the United States. He did not marry my American mother, Helen Hooker, until September 1935 -- in London. They had three children ( Cathal, Etain and Cormac, and I am the youngest.

The Wild Geese: Ernie is sometimes called "The Intellectual of the IRA." Did he encourage in his children, and especially in you, a passion for the life of the mind?

O'Malley: I have always disagreed with the concept of my father being “the intellectual of the IRA." There were many other university students and writers who joined the Irish independence movement in one way or another, who certainly were intellectuals, and many of them had a great impact on Irish society through their writings.

(Right: Ernie O'Malley and Cormac in 1951, at the family's home at Burrishoole, County Mayo.)

From an early age my father encouraged his children to be broadminded and to read. He prepared an extensive list of books which he wanted to read to us jointly and individually. I know that my brother and sister have always had a great interest in reading. I perhaps am not nearly as broadly read as they.

The Wild Geese: To the business at hand: What inspired you to endow this lecture series?

O'Malley: Upon our return to New York in 1992 after 12 years in Europe, I had heard of the start of Glucksman Ireland House and its ambition to create a center for Irish studies at New York University. Because of my extensive international business travels, I could not become involved with Ireland House until the late 1990s. When I joined their board of advisors, we asked the question whether we should expand our efforts to include Irish-American studies, and the answer was definitely affirmative. Though my own interests lie more in the Irish historical field as a board member I felt a responsibility to encourage this new field of studies and so suggested that we have a lecture series specifically devoted to Irish-American topics. Since my father was a man who encouraged people to open their minds and think of new possibilities of independence, I thought it fitting to have the series named in his honor.

The Wild Geese:The lecture series continues this week with a presentation by Professor William Mulligan titled "From the Emerald Isle to the Copper Island: The Irish in Michigan Copper Country, 1845-1920." Not exactly the stuff of revolution, with all its attendant high drama. What would your Dad make of a topic like this?

O'Malley: My father would have greatly encouraged the presentation of lectures such as the Irish in the copper mines of Michigan or the impact of Irish immigrants in the Chicago educational system, last year’s topic by Professor Janet Nolan. He would have been the first to recognize that the development of a new field of studies depends on the exploration of local possibilities. We need to encourage American academics to delve into the field of Irish-American studies with their own particular academic training, and it will only be after some years of these types of studies that we will have a better understanding of the greater participation of the Irish and their descendants in the history of these United States.

The Wild Geese: As a devotee of the history of the Irish yourself, what would be your dream lecture for this series? That is, if money, practicality, scheduling conflicts and even death were disregarded, who would you like to see come to present next year's O'Malley Lecture?

O'Malley: Given that this series of lectures is intended to stimulate further serious academic writing on Irish American topics rather than Irish history, I hope that on a regular basis a lecture should be devoted to an analysis of the areas or topics in this field which have not been adequately covered or explore. Such a lecture would help stimulate discussion as to what further work is needed and hopefully in response to that impetus more work would get written up. There are plenty of people who have individual ideas, but we need the soldiers of history -- the academics on the ground -- to do the slog work to write up their analysis of those historical areas. An important complementary effort at Ireland House has been the establish of "Radharc" as its annual academic journal for the publication of the O’Malley Lectures as well as other presentations made at Ireland House.

Since the selection process for each lecture -- including that for next year -- is an academic matter, I will defer to the selection process already established at Ireland House and will not attempt to influence their decision. It is important that the academic world have the freedom to make their choices and to say or have said what they wish.

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Tags: Irish Freedom Struggle, Military History, Preservation

Comment by Richard Strathern on February 8, 2014 at 3:07pm

Is it true in County Derry/Northern Ireland, that after the treaty many parish priest at Sunday Mass told the members of the IRA that if they did not accept the treaty and continued the fight they would be subject to excommunication from the Catholic Church?


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