O'Shiel's daughter sets record straight

Although Omagh man Kevin O'Shiel was a key player in the birth of the Irish Free State, little has been written about this most remarkable of northern nationalists. Now, 43 years after his death, O'Shiel's daughter Eda Sagarra has set the record straight with a new biography. She spoke to David Roy about the project

IN THE introduction to her father's life story, Eda Sagarra remarks that writing the biography of a parent "involves meeting a stranger."

Indeed, although the broad strokes of her father Kevin O'Shiel's remarkable life were known to her - friend of Michael 'Mick' Collins, election agent to Sinn Fein founder Arthur Griffith, first judge in the Dail Courts, assistant legal advisor to the first Free State government and key player in Ireland's admission to the League of Nations - Sagarra, pictured, now in her 80s, admits that she remained ignorant of much of the finer detail involved until long after his death in 1970. "I was very close to my father when I was growing up," explains the Emeritus Professor of German at Trinity College Dublin - also her late father's alma mater - where she was also formerly a registrar and pro-chancellor. "We shared a lot of love of nature, books and so on. "But in our teens, my sister and I felt much closer to our mother - who was completely uninterested in his nationalist and political past. "So we too kind of thought of it as 'old hat'. "I didn't even bother reading his memoirs, which is absolutely disgraceful. "So this book is to some extent an attempt at earning absolution." By utilising exhaustive archival research and drawing on her father's extensive memoirs (soon to be published in full as an e-book), Sagarra easily transports readers back to early 20th century Ireland as experienced by this often overlooked yet clearly influential nationalist, who was a key player in the rise of Sinn Fein and indeed modern Ireland itself. Writing long-hand while bed-ridden toward the end of his eventful life, O'Shiel managed to capture some of the Ireland's most turbulent and transformative times with a journalist's eye for detail. However, as his daughter explains, he rarely actually discussed his past with his family.

"The Civil War in particular was a taboo subject," recalls Sagarra. "He never spoke of it. My father was disappointed not just about partition but also the kind of Ireland that the Free State and later the Republic was - inward looking. "That's why he sent us to a Church of Ireland school when we were young and then to a very open-minded convent in England."

Indeed, Eda and her sister Clodagh's unconventional education broadly mirrored their father's own schooling. Born in Tyrone in 1891, O'Shiel grew up a rare breed of Irish nationalist. Abhorring sectarianism, he looked beyond Britain to Europe and America in terms of Ireland's future. His unusually tolerant character was shaped by an education at a Jesuit-run boarding school in Derby, England, followed by enrolment at the then Protestant-dominated Trinity College in Dublin, where he read law while studying for the Irish Bar at The King's Inns. Having become disillusioned with the prominent Irish Parliamentary Party and their handling of the Third Home Rule Bill of 1914 which left his native Tyrone and five other counties adrift [a painful thorn in his northern nationalist side which he would unsuccessfully attempt to remove as head of the North Eastern Boundary Commission some years later}, the young O'Sheil quickly became an Irish Volunteer and a committed activist for the fledgling Sinn Fein - though, as Sagarra notes, her father took no part in the Easter Rising of 1916, his devout Catholic faith precluding him from joining any organisation requiring an oath to be sworn. He helped draft the first ever Irish constitution in 1922 and was a keen advocate of the new Irish Free State becoming a 'world player' via its admission to the League of Nations. Indeed, as part of the Irish delegation to Geneva in 1923, O'Shiel was one of the first men ever to travel on a Free State passport. O'Shiel also put his legal mind to good use as a Judge in the first (and technically illegal) Dail Court, preventing violent agrarian agitation regarding land rights from destabilising the nationalist/Sinn Fein movement by serving on the Land Settlement Commission of 1920. He later held the position of Irish Land Commissioner for 40 years until his retirement in 1963. Although O'Shiel's political career and nationalist 'profile' may have been overshadowed by high profile contemporaries such as Collins and Griffith, his role as legally trained and highly regarded 'backroom' man in the Sinn Fein organisation certainly meant he was ideally placed to observe and indeed influence the birth of a new independent Ireland. "My father was one of what you would call 'the second line'," Sagarra says of O'Sheil's political career, which her book is the first to cover in detail. "He wasn't one of the leading characters and people of the second line very often only get discovered after their deaths." The publication of Kevin O'Shiel: Northern Nationalist and Irish-State Builder should certainly see to that. As for what modern Irish nationalists could learn from her late father, Sagarra is quick to point to O'Sheil's broad-minded approach to politics and indeed life. "I think they could be a bit more pragmatic and also try to see things from the other side," she says. "I also think nationalists need to travel more. "There's a sort of provincialism these days and not just in geographic terms - it's mental as well. "They need to just stop and listen to people more." No doubt Sagarra's father, no longer such a 'stranger' to her or the public, would whole-heartedly agree.

? Kevin O'Shiel: Tyrone Nationalist and Irish State-Builder is out now, published by Irish Academic Press.

? ? EARLY LIFE:: Kevin O'Shiel as a young barrister in Dublin, October 1913


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