With the cinema release and hugely popular RTE screening of documentary ‘One Million Dubliners’, which tells the story of Glasnevin Cemetery, there has been very considerable media coverage of both the cemetery and its late resident historian, Shane MacThomáis. One of the most moving moments of the documentary focuses on Shane’s father, Eamonn MacThomáis, the well-known historian and television presenter. Eamonn is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery right beside Frank Ryan, fitting as both men were editors of republican newspaper An Phoblacht.
While Ryan contended with state repression of the newspaper in the 1930s, MacThomáis was himself jailed for his editing of the publication in the 1970s, which raised considerable controversy at the time, and led to a debate on the rights of journalists in political spheres. MacThomáis had transformed the Sinn Féin newspaper having assumed editorial duties in October 1972, not long after the publication took up residence in 44 Parnell Square. The paper became a weekly from March 1973, and boasted a circulation of 40,000 copies per issue.While imprisoned for his editing of the newspaper, he would produce ‘Me Jewel and Darlin’ Dublin’, a classic work of Dublin folklore and history.
In July 1973, following Garda raids on the Sinn Féin premises at 44 Parnell Square, MacThomás was arrested at home in Ballymun and charged with being a member of the IRA. A newspaper report from the time noted that “when asked if he was seeking bail, MacThomáis said he refused to recognise the court. The only thing he did recognise was that the court in which he now found himself was the same court in the Sheares Brothers, Robert Emmet, O’Donovan Rossa, the Invincibles, Sean MacStiofain and Joe Cahill had been convicted. If it was a court of justice, let justice be done.”
The evidence to try MacThomáis included the fact he has taken part in a press conference on 13 July 1973, where leading members of the Provisional IRA were present to launch a pamphlet which claimed that the organisation was in a strong fighting position in the North and not crippled as some were claiming. Among those who spoke at the press conference was Seamus Twomey, who would later escape from Mountjoy Prison by helicopter in October 1973. An image of MacThomáis speaking at this press conference, which appeared in the Irish Press, was produced in court. While the Special Criminal Court felt that the caption and article in the Irish Press were not strong enough to “prove the guilt of the accused”, the evidence of a Garda Chief Superintendent, and MacThomaís’ own address from the dock in which he did not deny the charges before him, were deemed enough to convict him to 15 months imprisonment. In the courts, there was some jeering of the Judge from the public gallery, leading to men being hauled before him by Gardaí and being given the option of either apologising for their behavior or accepting fines!
The responses from journalists in Ireland varied, with some calling for immediate condemnation of the arrest and conviction of the editor of a publication. The journalist Seamus O’Kelly was one of the most vocal, writing to the Irish Press that:
The State had again interfered with the right of a journalist to put forward the editorial policy of the paper of which he is the editor….. It is time for all members of the profession to stand up and be counted, if we are not to become the slaves of any political hack who dares to tell us how to carry out our duties as members of the Fourth Estate.
In prison, MacThomáis would begin work on his study of Dublin, which would become the first book to carry the O’Brien Press imprint. In a letter to Tom O’Brien, founder of the O’Brien Press and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, MacThomáis joked that “James Joyce locked himself in the tower at Sandycove for twelve months to write his book – I don’t see much difference between the tower and Mountjoy.” O’Brien was eager to bring MacThomáis book to the public, telling him in his first letter to the imprisoned writer that “I can see it now. I can feel it now. It’s a book that will live forever. People won’t want to read it, they’ll be satisfied just to read the chapter titles.” The book was collected from Mountjoy Prison by Michael O’Brien, son of Tom, who recalled twenty years later that “I collected the book, hand-written in a series of ‘ledgers’ when I visited Eamonn in the ‘Joy’ – what a start to a publishing career!” Having served his time for his 1973 conviction,MacThomáis was again jailed for fifteen months in October 1974, after less than two weeks out of prison, this time for possession of IRA documents. On this occasion he was sent to Portlaoise, which ensured he would miss his own book launch. In his absence, the book was launched by his wife Rosaleen in The Stag’s Head on 15 November 1974. It became an instant success, despite the refusal of one major distributor to supply the work owing to MacThomáis’ conviction. Hundreds of copies flew off the shelves of the O’Connell Street Easons in days.
An interesting dimension of the story regarding the documents that were in Eamonn’s possession comes from Osgur Breathnach, whose father Deasún was working as a sub-editor and journalist at the time.
In the mid seventies, in the war years, Eamonn was the part-time editor of An Phoblacht, the official organ of Sinn Féin. My father, Deasún, a journalistic contributor, was a sub-editor in the Irish Independent, an Irish national daily newspaper.
Once a month Deasún received by post a copy of a monthly litany of all the press releases issued by the IRA. Nothing unusual in that as all Irish and some international media, foreign embassies and many journalists also received the same document.
My father handed his copy to Eamonn, who unfortunately was stopped shortly thereafter by the Special Branch, searched and arrested The document was used as evidence against Eamonn to sustain a charge of Irish Republican Army membership.
In the Special Criminal Court, which sits without a jury, Eamonn refused to recognise the authority of the court, as was the want of many republicans at the time.
My father, Deasún, wrote to the court explaining his original possession of the document, how he had received it and that he had handed it to Eamonn and that it could not, therefore, constitute proof of IRA membership.
The Dublin Branch of the National Union of Journalists at first voted by 50 votes to 37 not to offer support to MacThomáis during his imprisonment, though MacThomáis himself held membership of the NUJ. Niall Connolly, chairman of the Dublin Branch, complained that “I attempted to visit this journalist in Portlaoise Prison while he was on remand. The governor of the prison refused me permission to visit Mr. MacThomáis. No reason for the refusal was given.”Reviews of his book were hugely favourable, with the Irish Press going as far as to say “Only James Joyce and Flann O’Brien have caught the mood of Dublin as well as Eamonn MacThomáis.” When MacThomáis was granted parole to visit his wife in hospital, the media noted that “MacThomáis, author of the current best-selling non-fiction book in the country, Me Jewel and Darlin’ Dublin, is due to return to Portlaoise next Saturday morning.”
The book detailed Dublin characters like the nineteenth century street poet Zozimus, places of interest like the Liberties and detailed old customs and trades in the city. He detailed great Dublin stories with great Dublin wit, ensuring that the book would go on to see a remarkable ten reprints.
Following his release from prison, MacThomáis went on to produce a number of further works on the city of Dublin. His next release was ‘Gur Cake & Coal Blocks’ in 1976. Despite the controversies that surrounded him as editor of An Phoblacht, he became a hugely popular figure in the city of Dublin, with his walking tours of the city becoming legendary. He was frequently to be found also in the Bank of Ireland on College Green, showing visitors around the Old Irish House of Lords. In tribute to him, his picture is displayed in the eighteenth century parliament today, which is open to visitors. Much of his televised output is today available on YouTube, for example this episode of his popular ‘Dublin: A Personal View’ which examined the Liberties. He died in 2002. Speaking of his funeral, his son Shane recalled that “lollypop women stood beside Trinity professors, while balladeers and newsreaders looked at each other’s shoes.”
‘Me Jewel And Darlin’ Dublin’ remains a classic study of the city of Dublin, written in the most unusual of circumstances.