James Daly: Philosopher who strove to connect the lecture theatre to the war-torn streets
JAMES Daly came with his wife Miriam to live in Belfast in 1968, the year, he often wryly remarked, associated with both Humanae Vitae and Ireland’s civil rights movement.
Born to Irish emigrants in Cheshire in 1937, he was the youngest of six children. Their father, who had been on the ‘wrong’ side in the Civil War, died when James was four, their mother when he was eight.
Following that bitter loss, James was separated from his siblings and came to live with his aunt Mary and her family, near Dromintee in south Armagh. He would retain a great love for Sliabh Gullion and the Cooley Peninsula. Indeed, as a young child, he informed his uncle that he loved everything about Ireland except the nettles.
He went to the Vincentian school, St Patrick’s, Armagh, then spent some years as a seminarian in Maynooth. Leaving before ordination, he took with him an immense, excited interest in philosophy, and this was to be the subject he would teach at university level throughout his career, in Southampton and Reading, and then, for some 30 years, in Queen’s, Belfast.
It was in Southampton that James met Miriam O’Donnell, a Dubliner and also a university teacher. Theologian Noel Dermot O’Donoghue introduced them, describing her as a saint. James was spellbound, and, some years later, Miriam told him that she had felt likewise.
They were married in 1965 and subsequently secured lectureships at Queen’s in Scholastic Philosophy, and Economic and Social History.
The Department of Scholastic Philosophy was a product of the north’s Kulturkampf; it had been established, at the insistence of the Catholic bishops, as an alternative to the arid Anglo-Saxon philosophy taught in the ‘main’ philosophy department. In the 1970s, it was an extraordinarily stimulating environment, staffed by some brilliant and committed teachers.
For many of those who taught and studied there, the deep, multifaceted conflict gathering momentum in Belfast provided an edge of urgency to the task of thinking. Of none of them was that more true than of James Daly.
Convinced of the truth of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach – ‘Up until now, the philosophers have only interpreted reality; the point, though, is to change it’ – James strove to connect the philosophy lecture theatre with the war-torn streets.
A socialist in the tradition of James Connolly, he believed in the cause of Ireland, the cause of labour and the inseparability of the two. He decried the historic injustice of partition.
In the midst of those turbulent years, he and Miriam became founder members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP).
The price they paid for their activism was high indeed. On a sunny afternoon in June 1980, while James was briefly in Dublin studying German, intruders broke into their home. Miriam was tied up and, after some hours, shot dead in the hall.
In a scenario she must have anticipated, and which would have tormented her in her final hours, she was found by her little girl, Marie, returning from school.
No-one was ever charged with her murder. Few who were around then will forget the indescribable horror of those days.
Celebrating her funeral Mass, the late Fr James McEvoy, Professor of Scholastic Philosophy and a close friend of James, commented that James and Miriam could have had it so easy. They could have claimed membership of the professional middle class, remained in the safe suburbs of human experience. It was not in the nature of either so to do.
Dazed and sick with grief, and fearful for his own life, James was now left single-handedly to guide his twin son and daughter, then 10 years old, through adolescence. This he did with exemplary courage and dedication, and both Marie and Donal now attest that he was a great father.
He withdrew from political activism and embarked on a period of renewed intellectual activity, while continuing to teach at Queen’s.
James’s intellectual modus operandi was to push towards synthesis, rather than to remain in the minutiae of historical scholarship. Latterly, his central objective was to demonstrate the continuity of Marxism, properly understood, with classical and medieval thought, particularly the thought of Thomas Aquinas.
This meant that Marx had to be rescued from some of his interpreters, especially those who, in James’s view, wrongly attributed to him a materialist understanding of man. It is this project which James undertakes in the second of his two published books, Deals and Ideals.
James accepted Marx’s critique of the capitalist socio-economic system, arguing that it is cynical, exploitative and profoundly dehumanising, turning human existence itself into a commodity. To this deformation of reality he opposed the politics of resistance.
He found in Marx the outworking of his own belief that our life is spiritual. For James did not repudiate the Catholic faith of his upbringing. He believed in God and in God’s act of creation. He believed that human beings have souls created by God. He believed in the presence of Christ in the Sacrament. As he slipped into septic shock in the Royal Victoria Hospital some weeks ago, he was praying the Our Father.
He was scornful, though, of feel-good, anything-goes religion, which he did not confuse with a true theology of liberation.
A believer in moral absolutes, he was as rigorous with himself as he was with others. One of the most memorable comments he made to the present writer was that he hoped to meet the UDA in heaven – when both they and he were purified.
And he had the intellectual and moral humility to entertain the troubling thought that he might, after all, have got everything wrong.
On a personal level, James was witty, charming and profoundly courteous; he was also the least phoney person you could ever meet.
He loved dolphins and elephants, trees and music, particularly Mahler. In his final years, though shy about speaking Irish, he was quietly proud of having gained a gold fáinne.
He had a diffident and self-deprecating manner, but to the people he was fond of he showed great warmth and affection.
James Daly died on October 12, after a short and devastating period of illness. To his family and friends, whose lives are diminished by his death, he was a singularly dear and lovable human being. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.