Eamon Donnelly: Nationalist MP's family donates private collection to museum
- 12 November 2013
- From the section Northern Ireland
A private collection of documents kept by the family of a man who was heavily involved in the struggle for Irish independence from 1916 onwards has gone on public display for the first time.
The archive belonged to Eamon Donnelly, a nationalist MP and a founding member of the Fianna Fáil political party.
Donnelly, who was born in Middletown, County Armagh, in 1877 fought and won elections on both sides of the Irish border.
He was also an election agent for both IRA leader Michael Collins and former Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera.
Donnelly's grandchildren have donated their family archive to the Newry and Mourne museum, in the hope that it will raise greater awareness of his role in Irish history throughout the early half of the 20th Century.
The former MP's grandson, Donal Donnelly-Wood, said: "My mother used to describe him as being an Ulsterman first and an Irishman second. He was, for all his political life, very much opposed to partition but he always dealt with it in a political way."
He credits his grandfather's organisational skills for Fianna Fáil's rapid rise to electoral dominance in the Republic of Ireland.
"The great tragedy is that he is now largely forgotten. He is a footnote really, in a lot of the history books," Mr Donnelly-Wood added.
"One of the things that we're trying to do is to get him acknowledged for his contribution."
The current Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, attended a reception at the museum on Tuesday to launch the collection.
It consists of more than 400 documents, including photographs and personal correspondence with leading figures in Irish nationalism, including de Valera, Collins and Maud Gonne, the unrequited love and muse of the poet, WB Yeats.
In her letters, Gonne invites Donnelly to dine with her at home in Dublin and asks for news of political prisoners held at Crumlin Road jail in Belfast, where Donnelly himself served time for illegally entering Northern Ireland.
"Your arrest, though horrid for yourself, did a lot of good but was not half used as it should have been by your own political friends," Gonne wrote to him in August 1938.
Eamon Donnelly was a lifelong Irish nationalist who first became involved in politics in the run up to the Home Rule crisis of 1912, when nationalists campaigned for greater independence from Britain.
He joined the Irish Volunteers in Armagh, while working as a store manager in an asylum in the city, but in 1916, Donnelly left the Home Rule party and became involved with Sinn Féin.
After the partition of Ireland in 1921, Donnelly was instrumental in helping de Valera and Collins win seats north of the border. The pair were elected to seats in Newry and Armagh respectively, in the first general elections to the newly-formed Northern Ireland House of Commons.
Michael Collins was assassinated during the Irish Civil War, and in 1925 Donnelly replaced him as the abstentionist MP for Armagh.
Donnelly won the seat despite being officially banned from entering Northern Ireland, where his wife and family still lived, because of his political activities.
The exclusion order, which led to a number of spells in jail, forms part of the family's collection.
In 1926, when Eamon de Valera resigned as leader of Sinn Féin due to a split in the party, Donnelly helped him to establish a new republican party - Fianna Fáil.
The Armagh native became a national director of elections for Fianna Fáil and was personally elected to the Irish parliament in Dublin in the 1933 general election, this time representing the Leix-Offaly constituency.
De Valera went on to become Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) and although they remained friends, Donnelly remained fiercely opposed to partition and increasingly disagreed with Fianna Fáil's northern strategy.
He continued to fight elections both north and south of the border, and at the time of his death in 1944, Donnelly was the absentionist MP for the Falls area of west Belfast.
Donal Donnelly-Wood said that although his grandfather worked in Armagh and had an office in Dublin, their family home was always Courtney Hill, Newry, and its seemed fitting that their private archive should go on display in their home city.
The MP was given a large funeral through the main streets of the Newry and is buried in an engraved tomb in St Mary's cemetery in the city.
At the time, the Newry Reporter newspaper said that Donnelly "was accorded the greatest public tribute ever in the history of the town, when the highest ecclesiastical, governmental and municipal authorities in the land, north and south were represented, including the Bishops of Down and Connor, Dromore, and Clogher; An Taoiseach, Mr Eamon de Valera, members of the Eire government, and members of the Dail and Northern Ireland House of Commons and Senate".
The curator of Newry and Mourne museum, Noreen Cunningham, said the family's donation of the collection was a "godsend" ahead of a number of significant centenary events.
"Really, he was quite an important figure and what the donated collection does is throw a lot of new light on his career and what it was to be a northern nationalist involved in politics at that time," she said.
"It's fantastic for us in the museum to have the material because we can use that in a number of exhibitions," Ms Cunningham added.
Mr Donnelly-Wood said the letters Maud Gonne wrote to his grandfather are among his favourites in the collection, but said the most poignant and most treasured is a personal letter Eamon Donnelly wrote to his daughter Elenor, who was known as Nel.
Nel was Donal Donnelly-Wood's mother and also the person responsible for retaining and protecting the collection of family documents.
Eamon Donnelly wrote the letter to Nel from his Crumlin Road prison cell one New Year's Eve, after he had been jailed again for illegally entering Northern Ireland.
"It is of its time, in the sense of how he writes and how he addresses her, but there is just so much humanity, so much family love behind it, that it's beautiful," Donal said.
"Certainly, at least in Newry now, he will be better remembered."