Century of Endeavour

Owen Sheehy-Skeffington

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

Andrée Sheehy-Skeffington, OS-S's widow, wrote a biography 'Skeff' which was published by Lilliput in 1991. She asked me for some raw material, and I obliged. What follows is a some notes on, and extracts from, the book, concentrating on his relationship with the TCD student left in the late 1940s. See also Paul O'Higgins's recollections in the 1940s political module.

The following extract from p129-130 of 'Skeff' gives something of the flavour of the situation:

"Before the end of 1945, Owen met a small group of young left- wingers who were to have a significant influence, both good and bad, on the conduct of the Trinity College Fabian Society and on college politics for the next five years. They were senior pupils of St Columba's College near Dublin and had been taught by EL Mallalleu, a former Liberal who had Joined the British Labour Party and became an MP in the 1945 Labour government. He stimulated the students' interest in political discussion. They had followed, with admiration, the successes of the Soviet armies in the last two years of the war, and had read themselves into Marxism. They had formed a group which, with youthful enthusiasm and presumption, they called the Promethean Society of Ireland.' Two of their members were due to enter Trinity College the next year and they contacted Owen, who impressed them by his analysis of capitalism in terms of greed against human needs. He advised them to join the Fabian Society. Realizing their pro-Soviet tendencies, he tried to open their eyes about Stalin. His criticism made no impact, and was in fact resented, especially his reference to communist opportunism as 'the zigs and the zags' of the Party line.

"They joined the Fabian Society, but it soon became apparent that they intended to use it as a platform for Marxist ideas and Stalinist communism propaganda. They launched a small paper, The Promethean, which claimed to be 'Socialist, Irish, Educational', all aims worthy of Owen's support. Contributors included Roy Johnston, Paul O'Higgins, RAL Stringer and Rex Cathcart, and the articles were mostly ideological. The group hoped to reach outside college and to recruit members among working-class youth (Dominic Behan's home was used occasionally as a centre). It developed contacts with IRA Curragh internees, many of whom were turning to the left, under the influence of Neill Gould, as well as with the Communist Party of Britain and international organisations of similar shade.

"Having just returned from France, Owen was asked by the Promethean Society to read a paper on 'France To-Day' in November. The Promethean gave a brief report of his talk, omitting his criticism of the French Communist Party, whose post-war programme he had analysed, and praised only in part. In a letter to the editor Owen complained about this distortion. Two issues later The Promethean published an oddly truncated apology, but not his letter. Owen's concern for accurate, truthful reporting applied to all, perhaps even more particularly to a small youthful group which he suspected of taking the road of intellectual totalitarianism. Neither his concern for truth nor his logic seemed to have any effect on his audience, although one of them, Roy Johnston, had shown an inquiring mind, questioning Owen about Trotskyism. Owen abhorred the totalitarian mind, as displayed by the young Prometheans. But he was prepared to listen to them, as long as they did not deny him the right to doubt and to question. In that spirit he agreed to take the chair at one of their meetings, addressed by Professor George Thompson on 'Marxism and Poetry'. This was to be raked up six years later as evidence of his communist leanings. In the same spirit of inquiry he went to listen to the Dean of Canterbury, the 'Red Dean', on his impressions of Soviet Russia.'..."

The foregoing was based mostly on material which the present writer supplied to AS-S, supplemented presumably by OS-S's own records. She did not acknowledge my contribution, which was given in good faith. I reproduce it below, having kept a copy. See also Paul O'Higgins's comments, and my own, in the 1940s political module, as hot-linked above. It is, on the whole, fair comment on the situation as it then was, though perhaps Paul's 'paranoia' assessment deserves some respect, based as it was on OS-S's continuing hostility, long after PO'H had evolved out of his student doctrinaire phase, and was in the running for an academic appointment in TCD, based on his status as a respected Cambridge legal academic. OS-S continued to blackball him, though he did in the end get the Chair of Legal Science in TCD, subsequent to OS-S's decease. I am inclined to to regard this episode as an indicator of the overall pathology of the Marxist evolutionary scene, and not to attribute blame to either side; both were acting according to sincerely held views. In retrospect one has, of course, to give credit to OS-S for correctly evaluating the extent to which the USSR had debased the Marxist intellectual coinage.

AS-S went on to outline how '...the Prometheans were not aware of Owen's intermittent sympathy for the republican movement and Sinn Fein... Owen still believed that Sinn Fein could be helped out of its anti-partition strait-jacket to face social problems... '. He regarded the death of Sean McCaughy '...as one of the less creditable incidents of de Valera's career..'. This if we had known it at the time might have enabled bridges to be built, although it was not 'anti-partition' which was the strait-jacket, it was militarism.

She recorded in Chapter 9 on p144 another episode, in 1950, in the TCD Fabian Society: '...Owen's liberalism was to end his relationship with (the society)... When a message of solidarity with a Stalinist-organised peace conference was pushed through without a discussion, after Owen had been voted out of the chair, he resigned from the Society. He had been a member for fifteen years and the chairman for ten. His opposition to any dogmatic authoritarianism placed him between the devil and the deep blue sea. His subsequent ironical comment was: 'there is a tendency in this country for me to be considered a communist by virtually everybody except the communists.'

Note 10 for this chapter is referenced from this passage: '...Some twenty five years later, a former member commented: 'Owen did his best to help us establish the Fabian Society as a Socialist forum. We tended to abuse that forum by packing it with mechanical majorities and forcing issues. (Roy Johnston, letter, 3.9.78).

This would have been at the height of the hysterical atmosphere engendered by the Korean War. Peer-group pressure can be very powerful. I remember that incident; I felt bad at the time, and subsequently regretted it.

On p181-182 AS-S records the onset of his heart attack; '..in April and May 1956 he did not feel well..' then later one day he cycled home and collapsed. I visited him in hospital, and according to AS-S I '...regretted the forcing of Owen's resignation from the Fabian Society. Owen appreciated this honest admission..'.

This is correct, but she omitted the background, which was an exchange of letters we had in April, on my initiative. Regrettably I do not have my own letters, but I do have his, and I think I should reproduce them, as they indicate the beginnings of critical thinking on my part about the role of the USSR, prior to the Hungarian events of the following November:

On TCD headed paper, dated 23/04/1956: Dear Roy, thank you for your letter.

I could not resist the "I told you so" and on the whole I recognise that you took it well! We had so many arguments in the past century, in my view, on the duty and the right of the individual to examine the facts; I remember so clearly your anger (alway a sign of inner insecurity) with Gluckstein about Kostov, the Jews etc, that I felt it necessary to "marquer le coup". I have never shared all the views of Gluckstein, and I argued with him at length about results achieved in the USSR etc (*) (more or less on the lines you mention) but I was prepared to examine the facts he adduced. I could not accept that a man - Kostov - could be brought to trial, be heard publicly recanting his written "confession", be at once removed from court, and be never seen again, without feeling that the whole thing stank, and that those who hushed it up for the greater glory of the socialist state were betraying socialism.

* Skeff's marginal insert: On one occasion, while addressing envelopes for my first Senate campaign, in the middle of such an argument:- "I really don't know why I am trying to get a man like you into parliament - yes I do, though: putting the bourgeois liberal politician into power is the only way to show him up!" And he went happily on with the envelopes. End of insert.

You seem to lump me in with those who admit none of the Soviet achievements, but that is pure fantasy on your part, it has no basis in my stated opinions.

You say the Soviet "leads the world" in science. Quite conceivably. I just don't know. But I believe they will go further, as, increasingly, they allow their men of science to think and to speak freely. Lysenko has now gone. Remember Huxley?

Your analogy about Boccaccio's Jew is dubious. It was made against me in the Standard in a controversy about the Catholic Church. I was asked to accept that if the Church could last 2000 years with all the corruption and time-serving and opportunism in it that I implied, it must contain the truth. I replied that one could defend the Devil by the same argument. The analogy method is often weak. One could easily argue that the S Union could have gone much further, had it not had the judicial murders and the breaking and humbling of so many free spirits, and the pact with Hitler etc. Let us not stupidly pretend that nothing has been achieved. Of course it has, plenty, but as much could have been achieved, and more, without selling the working-class movements down the river "to save Russia". Russia is now moving towards more intellectual freedom. Splendid! And what will happen to those who "played ball" - the Kruschevs and the Bulganins - while it was safer to do so? Just watch.

I think you will find that I remain a libertarian socialist, and as time goes on you will disagree less with me. I have always held that if an economy claiming to be socialist does not bring greater freedom of mind (as well as economic freedom) it will be betraying socialism. I take it you don't think I imagine the mind to be free here! But socialism must liberate man economically , politically, socially, intellectually.

I shall not tease you further. I respect your motives too much, indeed I have never been in doubt about them I realise that your re-thinking will be painful, but don't let your critical faculties ever again be frozen by any party line... yours ever Owen S-S.

PS: I am serious when I say that I am glad to note that you "trust" me. There was a time when you didn't, and you were wrong. Your failure to do so at the time seemed to me to reveal a lot about yourself.

I must have replied to him, somewhat defensively, because there is another letter, dated 25/04/56 (how good the post was in those days!), this time on Seanad headed paper:

Dear Roy / When you say that you don't want "to engage in a lengthy written debate", you really mean you don't want me to write at length... I shall try not to!

1. "Examine the facts"? I can think of a dozen cases where you people resolutely set your faces against doing just that. Symbol: your slamming the door on Gluckstein.

2. I note that you have not "followed my statements closely".

3. "Lysenko hasn't gone, Lysenko has left his administrative post and gone back to research". Noted. 4. Glad Boccaccio goes!

5. Noted Russia would have gone much further if more freedom had been allowed to develop.

6. Note you are still not clear on the Russo-German pact. It was August 1939, by the way,. not 1941. Your apology for it is the Stalinist one. As for not seeing how it could have been avoided, well!!! Think out for yourself why the Komintern was not committed at all before the signature. Not to be trusted? like Chamberlain, Daladier? I have long felt that the main disadvantage of the CP "tactics, comrade" was that it wound up by being incapable of trusting even their own. (Remember your Promethean bulletin refusing to print me on just that point?) The point at issue being: 'can you trust a man who believes that there is a "supreme good" to which he can sacrifice any principle if he deems it expedient for the cause?' You can't, of course, and the CP wound up by being unable to trust one another, and the Russian CP couldn't trust the non-Russian ones represented at Komintern, so they trusted Hitler instead! Do you now trust B and K?

7. B and K were not "weak me who 'played ball'..", they were strong men who 'played ball'. Would you trust them? Could you?

What you must try to answer for yourself is: how relatively uninformed persons outside the CP saw the glaring improbability of the Kostov trial type of incident, and the CP-er with all his "training" could not (because we had retained use of critical faculty which you had ceased to employ). When I used to argue in the Fabian, my strongest arguments were quotations of the Stalinists: a professor apologising for not voting with 698 others out of 700, a CP committee's statement for banning Leningrad review, etc etc. But you fellows couldn't see anything wrong, and talked about the "anti-Soviet band-waggon"! An abdication of intellect, that was your trouble. Atrophy of the critical faculty. I mean it, and I don't really think you have changed essentially, which makes me sorry for you. Yours Owen S-S.

Subsequent to the foregoing I went to see him in hospital. He must have had some impact because subsequent to that I increasingly distanced myself from the Irish Workers' League, sought out the Plough and the Republicans, and began to look critically at the Irish question and Partition. I must have continued the contact after his convalescence, because I have a postcard from him when in France, dated 1/09/56, as follows:

"We are about to leave for home after a very pleasant few weeks here. I have been meaning to drop you a line to tell you how much I enjoyed 'Freedom Road'. I had to limit the books I brought with me (I came alone, a week after the family) so I had to leave the other behind. I shall now read it, however. 'FR' is a quite remarkable piece of writing, with the stamp of truth and humanity on every page. It is of course the Irish peasant of the 19th century, or the Algerian, or indeed Egyptian, peasant of today. Many thanks for bringing this great book to my notice..."

Freedom Road was a book by Howard Fast who at that time was the doyen of the US Marxist literary movement. At that time he was a supporter of the USSR, and OS-S to his credit refrained from picking on this aspect. I must have been trying to make the bridge between OS-S and those aspects of Marxist orthodoxy which were positive, and in this case I succeeded. Subsequently however Howard Fast became disillusioned with the USSR, as had OS-S much earlier.

My Notes for Andrée S-S, dated 3/09/78:

re Promethean and Fabian Societies (for biography of the later Owen Sheehy-Skeffington).

Promethean Society originated in St Columba's College in 1945; it was consciously a Marxist intellectual group. Founder was Paul O'Higgins: father Leo O'Higgins, vet, had lived in Germany in 30s (whence Paul had a first-hand feel for anti-fascist struggle; Leo was in CP);...

Paul later corrected this wrong impression I had: 'My father did not travel outside these islands except during the 1st World War as a soldier. It was Peter Lisowski's parents who had contacts with German opponents to Hitler. Peter's father was one of the leaders of the Munich Soviet. Peter's mother was Dr. Kate Muller-Lisowski, a prominent Celtic scholar...'. Peter Lisowski was a student in Surgeons, a friend of Paul and an influence on the Prometheans.

...mother Bessie Deane from Ballina, TCD graduate, psychologist, authority on William Blake; 'Catholic atheist', sent to Columba's in reaction against Galway Christian Brothers; was well liked, scholarly, became prefect, but was expelled, we all thought unfairly; his communism/atheism did not help.

The group included (as well as self) Pat Bond (Longford landed gentry, related to Oliver Bond), Dick Stringer (now Chief Architect, Dublin County Council) and some others.

The PSI invited OS-S to speak to them on a Sunday afternoon in 1946 in O'Higgins' parents' flat, 104 Lr Baggot St; this was after he was expelled. We were impressed by his arguments about the nature of capitalism, analysis of profit motive in terms of human greed etc; however we were repelled by his critical attitude to the USSR, as we had all come to Marxism under the influence of the Soviet victories in the war, and felt Stalin could do no wrong. Thus there was a gulf between OS-S and us from the start.

PSI then left school, its members split up; Stringer to Liverpool, Bond to Cambridge (now a Connolly Association stalwart in London), O'Higgins and RJ to TCD. PSI continued in TCD, recruiting Rex Cathcart (a de Courcy Ireland pupil) and Justin Keating (our one UCD contact); also some British ex-servicemen (Pat Robson, Denis Farrelly etc). It set itself the Herculean tasks of:

(a) developing some influence for Marxist ideas among TCD students;

(b) establishing links with the shreds of the old CPI (J Nolan and the 'bookshop group'; also M McInerney);

(c) recruiting among working-class youth in Crumlin etc;

(d) developing contact with the IRA Curragh internees who had become left-wing under the influence of Niel Goold;

(e) developing international contacts with the CP in Britain and the World Federation of Democratic Youth, the International Union of Students etc.

During this period we published the 'Promethean' (duplicated) and later 'Young Ireland' (printed).

Only the first of these areas led us into contact with OS-S, though he volunteered his views on the other topics, which we disregarded. On (b) he hadn't a good word to say about the old CPI; he used to talk humorously but acidly about 'zigs' and 'zags' of the party line. On (c) his advice was good: he said do social survey work and publish the results, thereby getting material for agitation etc. We did a little of this, via the Fabian Society. On (d) he abhorred anything to do with the IRA and could not conceive that anything good could emerge from the 'Curragh University'. On (e) his own international contacts appeared to us to be suspect, trotskyist, reactionary, anti-soviet, imperialist agents etc. There was a Gluckstein whom we particularly abhorred, of whom OS-S thought highly (who apparently is now Tony Cliff!).

To return to the main arena (a): the DU Fabian Society was moribund; OSS was Chairman, he encouraged us to join and revive it, which we did. (Who was on the Committee should be in the Calendar)...

We put in a 'straw man' Jim Snowden as secretary, gave it marginal attention, and went on to develop the SRC with a reformed democratic constitution. Some non-communist socialists who supported the Fabian Society we encouraged to go for SRC seats, from their faculties. We developed a good 'left bloc' in the SRC; we ran the SRC in alliance with the SCM group, and did good things like organise a book-mart and mass radiography. Paul was Chairman in 1948, Barbara Thompson (also a Promethean and Paul's girl-friend) in 1949, but in 1950 there was a right-wing 'back-lash' (led by rugby and boat-club elements) and the SRC subsequently foundered until it was resurrected a decade later.

The first Irish Student Congress took place in 1949. Links with UCD SRC involved Frank Winder. An Irish Students Association was formed, but did not survive.

Our main battlefield was the SRC. The Fabian Society was a side-show, but we kept it going as an ideological battle-ground and recruiting-ground for socialists. In this we had the help and support of OS-S, as long as we kept the issues relevant to the development of socialist thought in Ireland When we tried to impose an attitude to Soviet affairs on the Fabian Society, the struggle between us and OS-S and his supporters became embittered. At one stage we voted him out of the chair.

Similarly in our handling of the SRC we devoted too much attention to the issue of IUS affiliation, on which we were defeated.

There was one memorable meeting of the Fabian Soc when Justin Keating spoke on Lysenko (defending him!) with Gatenby in the chair. Gatenby charmingly referred to how much he liked Justin's father's pictures!

OS-S failed to break through to us, over the Stalinist ideological barriers. In retrospect it is evident that his criticism of the USSR was valid, and we had been dazzled by the Stalin war epic to the extent that we were blind to the faults of the USSR. He did his best to help us establish the Fabian Society as a socialist forum. We tended to abuse that forum by packing it with mechanical majorities and forcing issues.


In the PSI, O'Higgins was the one for forcing the international issues, whereas I was the one for developing contacts with the embryonic left in Dublin and Ireland generally.

If my views had prevailed, and the attention of the Fabian Society had been kept on things Irish, I feel the gap with OS-S would have been bridged, and the sectarian leftist road of the IWL avoided. This 'generation gap' problem remains. In my own relationship with the present-day TCD Communist Society (the PSI analogue), history has repeated itself, and they have expelled me, just as we in our time forced OS-S to resign. RHWJ 3/9/78.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999