The Woman and her Cursade
My aunt, Eily McAdam, was the eldest of Pa's three daughters by his second
wife. I knew her well when she was living in Dublin, a little blue eyed lady
with a family of four, two boys and two girls, Austin, Paddy, Una, young Eily,
and a husband, Jim, a lovable eccentric in the guise of a latter-day Micawber
and Gully Jimson combined, but with the addition of Irish wit and wits. She had
a shock of unruly white hair in those days, and according to a family photograph
of the five McAdam daughters, a shock of unruly hair of a different hue as a
young woman. It is with Eily herself and her link with the "Vindicator"
that the story is carried forward.
If I may indulge in one personal memory, it is of Eily in her later years,
with lively blue, blue eyes, shrunken of frame, cardigan, and skirt covering a
tummy that bounced with jollity, laughing at one of the unending stream of
stories of days past told by her husband, Jim Walsh. Sitting at either side of a
miserable grate fire on a cold November night, in their flat in Upper Mount
Street, Dublin, they were two of the most memorable people I have ever met. May
the snows rest lightly on them.
Pa McAdam's daughters, with Eily in the foreground, are shown in this picture,
taken at the rear
of the "Vindicator" premises. The Erne river runs just behind the group.
Click for larger image
Central to the story is Eily's experience as a young university undergraduate
living in Dublin during the 1916 Rising and her acquaintance with one of its
leaders, the third signator to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, Thomas
MacDonagh. I am deeply grateful to Cristín Leach, a great grandniece of Eily
McAdam, for allowing me to quote freely from her research into the public life
of Eily McAdam which formed the basis of her thesis when acquiring her Masters
of Arts Degree in Journalism at Dublin City University in 1998. It is my hope
that her study, combined with the familial recollections contained in this story
of the "Vindicator", will add more to the knowledge of a remarkable
woman, one who for a time was lost in the shuffle of political life in Ireland.
I bring the 1916 Rising to the forefront so that readers may judge its impact
on the formation of Eily's political views, and on her life in general.
Writing in the "Catholic Standard" of May 21, 1943, a paper to which
she was a regular contributor for many years, Eily recalled:
Once, long ago, I sat in a College classroom and listened to the teaching of
a man. The man afterwards went down gloriously in history as one of those who
paid the price for the "glorious folly" of Easter week. But I, sitting at class,
had no prophetic vision to see that end. His words impressed me of themselves.
The talk had turned on happiness. This man's classes were like that. He
educated, and the meaning of that word is in its Latin derivation--"e" or "ex",
out of, and "duco", I lead--to lead forth, to draw out character, knowledge,
wisdom, not to cram it in, which is real education.....The discussion went back
and forward round the table and then our teacher spoke:
"Anyhow, who ever told us to expect happiness in this world?" he said.
"That phrase has often come into my mind since he spoke it. Truly it is only
the fairy-tale which arranges for people to live happily ever after...."
Cristín Leach went on to record another instance when Eily referred back to
For the Easter edition of the Standard in 1953 Eily wrote an extremely
personal account of her experience of the 1916 Rising and the news of
"Easter Week, 1916, is passing into the region of history. It is thirty-seven
years ago, and yet, to those who were then young, when old heroic days seemed to
have come back again, it does not seem so long ago. Odd to think that, with
teenage eyes, some of us looked at the blackened ruins of the General Post
Office, and saw rubble heaped up in the middle of O'Connell street....Vivid
still the memory of those heart-hurting moments when news came of execution
after execution. Most vivid, of course, the memory of the moment when the news
was of the death by execution of one's own particular hero--reading in a brief
newspaper paragraph the name of Thomas McDonagh, crumpling the paper to a ball
as if, by crushing it, one could destroy the reality of what had been announced.
And yet it was not a sad time. They had failed. Very well, they failed. But one
had a sort of defiant pride in the fact that they had
"Defiant pride." Those two words defined the young and the mature Eily
McAdam. In her fiery days as a young crusading newspaperwoman in the Ireland of
the 1920s, and in her later years as a young-at-heart crusading Catholic
journalist with a family to raise, she defied hypocrisy wherever she met it, and
depended on an unspoken pride to meet and overcome the vicissitudes of material
By the time Eily graduated from Dublin University, Pa McAdam had found the
task of running three newspapers a burdensome one. The "Herald" was the
first to go under some years previously. Perhaps it was the death of his first
wife and her burial in Strabane that persuded him to concentrate his energies on
Derry City, then the commercial mecca for a very large portion of the population
of Donegal, but the constant travelling by rail between Derry and Ballyshannon
began to exert a toll. [Isn't it wonderful the way the old newspaper cliches
still perform their job?] Then came Partition, the artificial sundering of six
counties from what Behan in a later age called "the three-quarters Republic",
the inauguration of what was triumphantly called "a Protestant parliament for a
Protestant people", followed by the inevitable economic downturn. Faced with a
political maelstrom in the south, in December 1921 he turned over management of
the "Vindicator" to his then twenty-four year old daughter, Eily, whose
credentials as an out and out Republican could not be challenged.
The story of Eily's earlier attempt surreptitiously to publish An Dáil has
been previously mentioned. At this late date one wonders how surreptitious it
really was. Pa was by no means a man to be easily hoodwinked, and as a Scot by
birth he could hardly fail to notice any increases in the consumption of
newsprint and printer's ink. As revealed in Cristín Leach's research, he was
able to put a figure on the financial losses incurred by Eily (and her sisters)
in her first newspaper venture, "a loss of at least two hundred pounds".
Translated into present terms the loss was well over five thousand pounds.
One family story of Eily's days as publisher of An Dáil concerns her arrest
and conveyance by army vehicle to Finner Camp, the British army base located
halfway between Ballyshannon and Bundoran. Her brother John, who had been with
her at the time of her arrest, was bundled into the same vehicle. They were in
the back seat. Using John to draw attention from her escort, Eily began tearing
up papers she had in her handbag, swallowing some, and leaving the rest in tiny
Under search at the camp the pieces were found, and an attempt was made to
piece them together. It failed. Eily had successfully made the rebel dispatches,
for that is what they were, undecipherable. The British officer, as she recalled
with merriment, had to be content with the papers her brother John was carrying,
a series of love letters! Eily was trucked off to jail, and John lost his
letters. He, by the way, remained a lifelong bachelor.
On December 2, 1921, two signed notices appeared in the "Vindicator",
the first over Pa's name, handing
"complete control, the editorship and management of the "Donegal
Vindicator" to my daughter Miss E. Dalton McAdam BA who proved her journalistic
capacity in her first venture "An Dáil" which came to an abrupt end when the far
flung power of the British Empire clanged the gates of Armagh Jail behind her."
The sarcasm behind the words was delicious: All the power of the British
Empire brought to bear against a diminutive "five-foot two, eyes of blue" rebel
from--literally--the winding banks of Erne!
In the second notice Eily "accepted the trust and responsibilty which is thus
imposed on me," and went on to assert:
"I shall preach the thing that is in my heart in the hope of
inspiring the men of the North to new efforts in the ancient cause that is ever
young. My belief being what we call today Sinn Fein, the policy of the paper
shall be likewise....sincerity is always valuable and truth will
Eily was twenty-four at the time she assumed editorship. By coincidence, when
my turn came I was the same age, and in retrospect have come to understand more
fully what she undertook at an historic time in the fight for Irish unity.
Students of Irish history will be well aware of the events which then were
rapidly unfolding. The Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland was signed just
three days after she became editor, under the threat of "immediate and terrible
war" from then British Prime Minister, Welshman Lloyd George. To some extent the
subject has been treated with in the recent film "Michael Collins", but what
transpired in reality was more exciting, more chilling, more horrific in its
aftermath than anything which followed the signing of an earlier treaty, the
Treaty of Limerick, remembered for being broken by England "before the ink was
dry on the paper".
Debated in Dáil Éireann, the treaty was carried by a vote of 64 to 57. Its
main opponents, Eamon de Valera, and his supporters, were venemous in their
opposition. Anyone who doubts this analysis has only to read the Dáil Debates of
the time to see how visceral were the exchanges, and in those exchanges the
women members surprisingly were at times the most vocal. As a lifelong believer
in the value of contemporary records, I strongly urge a re-reading of those
debates. And, as an aside, I may mention that the memory of one official Dáil
reporter, a member of the shorthand team who helped transcribe and preserve
those debates, was alive, at least in the institutional sense, among his
successors, until the 1950s.
Not to belabour the matter, civil war followed, a precursor of the Spanish
Civil War, and Irish politics was polarised for generations to come.
Through the two years, 1921 to 1923, Eily steered the "Vindicator's"
fortunes, a rebel battered by those who had formerly been comrades, trying to
see the good in both sides, and "preaching the thing that is in my heart". One
can trace in her editorials the pressures which she felt. The young girl who had
experienced firsthand the events of the Easter Rising and the executions of its
leaders, in particular that of her gallant professor, Thomas MacDonagh, now saw
Irishmen killing Irishmen.
She had the task of writing her first editorial for the issue of December 9,
1921, three days after the signing of the Treaty, and in her initial euphoria
she did not see the oath it contained, to quote Cristín Leach, "as a problem".
"It is but a phrase and British royalty only a figurehead".
Between the signing of the Treaty and its passage by Dáil Éireann on January
7, 1922, positions harded throughout the country. On January 13 Eily was
"The Peace treaty has been ratified and now the country must be asked if it
will have a Free State....It must be evident that there is something wrong with
the terms when England handed them to the plenipotentiaries with the words "sign
or we shoot". This is not rhetoric but plain fact. The only excuse any one of
them gave for signing is that to refuse meant immediate war. Is that how
treaties are usually made?"
But partition remained her main cause for concern. On February 24 she
"While Ireland is still sizzling on the political frying pan it would be well
for the businessmen of the North to lay aside their ledgers and give some time
to deep thought....for a time at least Ireland will be a divided country and as
such its temper will be none of the best....the Free State is not prepared to
fight Derry's battle for inclusion with Southern Ireland. Let the significance
of that last sentence be grasped...."
Eily never penned a more significant sentence in her entire political career.
The Free State stood idly by during the pogroms of the 1930s in the Six Counties
when Catholics were targetted for killing by Unionist upholders of Stormont's
openly professed claim to govern for only one class, one creed. The selection of
those targetted was made by consensus, or what can be described as "by
committee", to use a phrase applied to similar killings in more recent times.
Its successor, the Twenty-Six county Republic, also was not prepared to seek
Derry's inclusion with "Southern" Ireland, and over the decades Dublin's
reluctance to press for the inclusion of the severed Six Counties in a complete
Irish framework led to the I.R.A. once more coming to the fore in open defence
of civil rights for all.
Eily continued her support for de Valera and his supporters in the period
before the actual commencement of hostilities, and once more, as with An Dáil,
the "Vindicator" suffered economic consequences. On May 22, 1922, she
"We have been bitterly criticised for taking the stand we have taken in this
unfortunate difference of opinion. We have been warned that a newspaper
championing the Republic will not have the support of the moneyed people who are
commonly supposed to keep the earth in motion. We reply that we realised all
that in June 1920 when we launched "An Dáil" as a Republican organ, and realised
it even more vividly when after suppression by British forces we could not find
funds to recommence the work. Republicanism does not pay. Take that as a
Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Eily remained steadfast in her
republicanism, but the horrors that it inflicted on the population at large
troubled her greatly. One item which drew her condemnation was the alleged theft
from those killed in what was termed "the Donegal ambush".
She commented with innate Christian charity on the death of Arthur Griffith
and on the assassination of Michael Collins, the two foremost Treaty supporters,
in August 1922. She asked:
"When will this chain of tragedies end? Is there no basis for conciliation?
There can be no progress either way by the shooting of Irish leaders no matter
what their political opinions are."
On September 23 she described a raid on the "Vindicator" offices by
members of the National Army of the new Free State, accompanied by an unnamed
"We...expressed some surprise at his presence, the manner of his entry [by
climbing a wall at the rear of the premises] and the fact that he seemed to be
acting as guide for the party, and wish to enter a strong protest against the
presence of an armed civilian, the hour [midnight] at which the raid was carried
out and the manner of entering. The soldiers were courteous, as were the Black
and Tans and the British Tommies on the occasions of their numerous raids."
This, to my own belief, is the only time the word "courteous" was applied to
the Black and Tans in Ireland.
A week later Eily suffered another raid, this time, it was believed, by the
IRA, and led her to write that it had "the merit of having been undertaken in
On November 11th she returned to one of her principal themes:
"The plight of the Northern Nationalists is pitiable but the South is too
busy ensuring acceptance of the Treaty to bother about them."
As a Christmas wish she pleaded on December 23, 1922:
"....Irishmen loving this little island, forgive, forget, draw together
before the cradle of Christ."
She displayed an increasing reliance on the intervention of a divine grace to
end the killing of brother by brother, and in her last editorial signed Eily
Dalton McAdam on, appropriately, March 17, 1923, dealing with proposals for
peace put forward by the Archbishop of Cashel, she wrote:
"We are profoundly grateful as lovers of our country for the Archbishop's
proposals. Even though they have failed at the moment, they will have their
Collins had viewed the Treaty as "the freedom to achieve freedom" for all of
Ireland. de Valera rejected it, one of his grounds being that it retained an
oath of allegiance, primarily to the "constitution of the Irish Free State" but
secondarily to be faithful to "H.M. King George V, his heirs and successors". It
was a supreme irony that five years later, and following a civil war, de Valera
substituted "empty formula" for Eily's "but a phrase" and said he took the oath
"with mental reservations". Men had died for "an empty formula". This was the
final disillusionment for Eily McAdam, and in 1926 she went to live in
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