Diary of a Dissenter

Against the Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner

By J. A. O’Brien

Reviewed by Fergus Whelan

This is a memoir of a working-class writer, bricklayer, and member of the republican movement.  O’Brien grew up in the Dublin of the 1940s and 50s and worked intermittently in Britain before finally emigrating to Australia in 1968.

The book opens in 1941 with the author as a small child, his face pressed into his mother’s skirt, as a group of families stand on the steps of their south side Dublin tenement listening to the thud of Luftwaffe bombs dropping on the North Strand.  As the bombs fall, his father and uncle discuss what must have been a most controversial question for Irish democrats, socialists, and republicans of the era.  Should they support Ireland’s neutrality or should they join in the fight to defeat fascism?

The author was too young to understand it all.

O’Brien grew up in the south inner-city and went to St. Louis’ School in Rathmines in the period quaintly referred to as the “Emergency”.  His father was a bricklayer his mother worked in domestic service and he tells a colourful and sometimes heartrending tale of the difficulties faced by working class families just to survive.

He also tells of the bullying brutality of teachers.  The sadistic Mr Rafferty who would ‘crash his cane down on the desk’ to ‘hammer religion into them for their own good’ is a familiar figure to any Irish male born before 1972.  (Corporal punishment was abolished in 1982).

However, O’Brien was fortunate in his home life.  In particular, he was a lucky enough to be raised by strong, loving but, above all, independent and left-wing parents who were not afraid to think for themselves or stand up for their rights.

Leaving school, he became an apprentice bricklayer and there is a wonderful chapter on his initiation into the trade and into the union, called “Before the Green Cloth”. Like the author, this reviewer went before the ‘Green Cloth’ of the Ancient Guild of Incorporated Brick and Stone layers in 1970, two years after O’Brien left for Australia. O’Brien’s account certainly resonated with this once-proud apprentice of the Ancient Guild.

O’Brien gives a vivid portrayal of the lot of skilled Dublin tradesmen in the 1950s as they crossed the Irish Sea seeking employment.  In England, he rubbed shoulders with socialists and Spanish Civil War veterans and he greatly admired the class consciousness of the English working class. After a visit to a Yorkshire coal mine, he pithily observed ‘I will never waste the smallest bit of coal again’.

Unlike most Southern Irish Republicans of his era, or perhaps any era, O’Brien took the time to visit Northern Ireland, going to see conditions there for himself in August 1954. His sympathy for the oppressed nationalist population in what he described as a ‘closed society’ is palpable.  However, he has an interesting exchange with his ‘Da’. “They are surrounded by hostile forces, where it is well known and asserted that it is ‘A Protestant government for a Protestant people.”

The elder O’Brien replied, “If they feel oppressed they should try living in a Catholic-dominated system like we have down here. The Prods were right about Home Rule being Rome Rule, that’s for sure.”

O’Brien joined Sinn Fein and the IRA in the late 1950s, towards the end of ‘Operation Harvest’ otherwise known as the Border campaign. At a time when the Irish Labour Party was afraid to describe itself as socialist for fear of the wrath of the Catholic Church, he tried to influence his comrades to move to the left. He found that most IRA members were good potential soldiers but not political animals. It is clear that O’Brien greatly admired Sean Garland, Tomas MacGiolla and Cathal Goulding who, would succeed in moving the Republican Movement in a direction O’Brien would have applauded.

O’Brien left Ireland in 1968 and moved to Australia to find regular employment. It appears his main reason for leaving was his rejection of a narrow-minded and bigoted society, writing that he ’found life in the stifling social and cultural conditions of Ireland hard to tolerate’.

The most pleasing thing about this readable, amusing and perceptive memoir is that O’Brien, who is clearly a scholar of literature, drama and history weaves his erudition seamlessly into his life-affirming tale of working class life.  In particular, his use of poetry and song is moving, never more so than when gathered with his fellow Dublin bricklayer republicans at the funeral of Sean South, he quotes Dominic Behan:

They told me how Connolly was shot in a chair

His wounds from the battle all bleeding and bare

His fine body twisted all battered and lame

That soon made me part of the Patriot game.

Fergus Whelan


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Award-winning Radio Play

One of the many events held during 2016 to honour those who took part in the Easter Rising one hundred years before, was a stage play From the Backbone Out which told the story of Richard O’Carroll a labour leader and a member of the Irish Volunteers

O’Carroll who commanded an outpost in Camden Street was fatally shot after he was captured by the infamous Captain Bowen-Colthurst who would murder the pacifist, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and two journalists on the same day.

When he came face to face with Bowen-Colthurst he asked O’Carroll if he was a “Shinner’? O’Carroll’s response was unequivocal, he replied… “From the backbone out”. Hence the title of the play which premiered in Dublin’s Liberty Hall to a packed audience of 400 people in April last year. The play is the work of two young Dublin men, Alan O’Brien and Patrick Ferris and marks their debut into playwriting.

Alan is a poet, writer and part-time actor and has won a Slam Sunday event as well as being shortlisted for the Maeve Binchey Travel Award in 2015. Co-writer Patrick Ferris has a degree in History and Classics and has written ‘as far back as he can recall’.

Now this dynamic duo has written (Alan) and directed (Patrick) an award-winning radio play Snow Falls and So Do We. Winner of the P J O’Connor Award 2016 (RTE) the play has been independently produced for the internet. It has received wide acclaim described by one listener as “Very Beckett. Kept me totally enthralled”. Other comments can be viewed on the link below.

Link to the play on soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/greenember/snow-falls-and-so-do-we


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Extracts from reviews of ‘Against the Wind’

The most pleasing thing about this readable, amusing and perceptive memoir is that O’Brien, who is clearly a scholar of literature, drama and history, weaves his erudition seamlessly into his life-affirming tale of working class life.

 Fergus Whelan,


  Ah, yes, the Irish sure do have a way with words – a very entertaining, humorous, intelligent, loving and proud memoir. More literary gold from the “Emerald Isle”.


                                                                                                                                Wendy O’Hanlon,

                                                                Acres Australia

  I loved this little bit of history about a big period of sadness that happened in a proud country where people stood solid for what they believed to be right and just. A powerful story written from a heart that witnessed the country he loved torn in two.


                                                                            John Morrow,

Pick of the Week


 O’Brien weaves together the many threads of history and his own life to produce an informed tale that will interest many readers well beyond the globe’s enormous Irish Diaspora.


                                                                             Robin Osborne,

Media Adviser


 The book will also appeal to the Irish Diaspora, as O’Brien’s memories of migration to and from England for work in the lean years of 1950s Ireland will resonate with many. As thousands continue to emigrate every week for places like Australia, O’Brien reminds us in his closing lines, ‘There are Irishmen and there are men from Ireland… I am as Ireland made me. Intentionally or not’.


Dr Sarah Campbell, 

Modern Irish History  

 While his later life took him to Australia, this memoir stands out among those which tell a wider tale than interesting anecdotes about growing up in Dublin or other places in the “Rare Oul’ Times”. It looks into the developing mind of a young person who is not only intensely observant of the world but conscious of their class and the challenges before it, and most critically, can convey it to the reader.


Michael Halpenny,


 O’Brien’s long held view is that it was necessary to remove the gun from Irish politics. Some years later the IRA came to the same conclusion. An erudite and entertaining read.

                                                                              Bendigo Weekly


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Two little “Aussies”

A short extract from Against the Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner

At the end of the war Da was home once again from England. He had got a job with a small builder doing mainly repair and maintenance work on some older houses in New Street.

Ma was very happy to have him home once more and sang as she went about her housework. She could even laugh when the clothesline broke and the clean washing fell to the ground. “Blast it, the bloody nuisance of a thing,” she said under her breath. “Ah sure Pat will fix up a new line when he gets in.”

Nothing was a worry to her then. “And it’s great to be living a natural married life again,” she confided in Mrs Foley across the fence as they both hung out the Monday wash. Mrs Foley laughed and said, “Now Kath, just remember what they say, ‘If you can’t be good, be careful.”’ And they both laughed together as women do in each others company when there are no men to overhear.

But though Da was happy enough to be working steadily he was thinking of the uncertainty of the ups and downs of the building industry and wondered if it would always be so in Ireland. He read the newspapers avidly to keep informed of the trends that were possible indicators to the economy and the foreseeable future for tradesmen like him.

“How would you like to go out to Australia, Kath,” he asked my mother one Sunday, as he looked up from reading one of the English Sunday papers. For the next few days the talk was all about Australia and we kids got in on the discussions and dragged out our school atlases to look at where Australia was in the world.

On the way to school as we walked up the Rathmines Road my younger sisters Mae and Doris and I chatted about “being Australians” and were overheard by a young woman walking with her newly commissioned soldier fiancé. “Oh are you little Australians?” she stopped to ask the girls.

“No. Not yet anyway. But we might be someday. If our Da can stay home from England and save enough money for us to go there,” Mae said innocently.

“So your Daddy can save more money here than he can when he works in England?” she asked. “I thought there was great money to be made in England the way everybody goes there.” She looked at her officer and smiled smugly. “So the streets are not paved with gold in London after all, darling,” she smirked.

Even at our childhood stage we had an understanding of the economic conditions that prevailed in the Ireland of the forties and fifties. We had heard Ma talk of how when men were away they had to keep “two homes” on one wage. I wanted to tell this smug bitch some of the realities of life and how the country could never survive without the emigrants remittances that came back delivered by the telegram boys each week.
I had heard the discussions in our house and in the homes of our relatives many times and over the years had come to understand more of the “grown-ups” talk. I looked up words like “emigrants” and “remittances” in the big dictionary that had been in our family “for generations” Ma had said when I asked where the “big book” came from.

But instead of confronting this woman who was after all only a few years younger than my parents I took my sister’s hands and walked away. When I told Ma what had happened and what I had wanted to say to the couple she just smiled and said, “One half of the country doesn’t know how the other half lives. Probably her officer fella is just back from Sandhurst”. This made my Da laugh and he explained that even those that managed to stay at home and did not have to “take the boat” would have relatives in England or America or Australia. That emigration was “a curse for some and a safety valve for others.”

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Milestones for this site

An overdue update for all followers of this site:-

Visitors from 89 countries as at 22 May 2017.

Views – 3545

Book Against the Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner. ISBN: 1-922086-53-3. The book is available at  many public libraries in Australia, but is no longer distributed by Dennis Jones & Associates. However, a limited number of signed copies are available direct from the author and are also available on Amazon POD or as an ebook.

In Ireland the book may be purchased through visiting the Facebook pages of Liam and Alan O’Brien who are the agents for the book in Dublin.

Apart from this site many of my articles may be viewed on http://www.thewildgeese.irish

Thanks to all fans and followers of Being Bookish.

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Jeremy Corbyn’s win is relevant to Anglo-Irish relations

In Against the Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner, I postulated on the commonality that exists between the plain people of Britain and Ireland. Below are some extracts to ponder as we witness a dramatic change in British politics.

“Often throughout history it has not been the people themselves but the arrogant and superior attitudes foisted upon them by monarchy, religion and class that has led to an unfortunate enmity between the plain people of both countries who otherwise have much in common and could, if allowed, get on quite well together. I believe that both countries have dissidents who recognise there has always been as much connection as separation between the ordinary people of Ireland and England”.

Page 4.

“In England, there was a crop of younger writers and playwrights who were challenging the established order of things. John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delaney were making names for themselves in the theatre. As were John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and later Lynn Reid Banks in literature; all writing stories with working-class heroes as in turn the Beatles would recognise in a song ‘A working class hero is something to be’. The media dubbed them ‘The Angry Young Men’. When I had told Fred I was pleasantly surprised to find so many dissidents in his country, ‘Not nearly enough,’ was his caustic reply”.

Pages 148-149.

“It amused me to hear a Ganger man yell, ‘Tear it out of it, lads. Sure, it’s not our country,’ to a gang of Irish navvies wielding picks and shovels in a trench. But I did not appreciate that they knew nothing of the Irish Chartists and their struggle to better working class lives in this very city. This separatism and lack of integration worked against not only the Irish but also the other immigrant communities from all parts of the Commonwealth. West Indians did not sit with Pakistanis or Indians in the site canteens, nor did their communities mix well in the rundown areas where they could afford to live. And though there was no organised policy of discrimination like there existed in Northern Ireland, the lack of assimilation was not an evident concern of those that ran the major cities of Britain at the time”.

Page 171.

Now a dissident English republican will surely find common ground with those who in George Bernard Shaw’s phrase live on John Bull’s Other Island to the west. And hopefully those that live on that island will find common cause with him.

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Irishman who became the ‘Bard’ of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Songs of the Snowy Mountains
The Settlers
Editor: Shannon O’Boyle

Reviewer: J.A. O’Brien

An important new contribution to the history of Australian folk music and to Australian folklore generally, “Songs of the Snowy Mountains: The Settlers”, tells the story of Ulick O’Boyle a prolific writer of songs poems and ballads. Compiled and edited by his daughter Shannon O’Boyle the handsome book tells the history of the man and his times and includes pages of the words and music of 24 songs together with a superb collage of photographs.

The huge Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme was started in 1949 and completed in 1974. Covering more than 5000 square kilometres it has been described as ‘one of the modern wonders of the world’ –there is only two per cent of the massive project above ground. It was an enormous undertaking that would change not only the landscape of the Snowy Mountains but the very culture of Australia forever.

During its construction, more than 100,000 people from 30 different countries including Australians, worked on its 90 miles of tunnels; drilled and blasted through granite rock. Towns were moved or submerged beneath sixteen large dams and seven power stations; two of which were underground; together with a pumping station were all part of the infrastructure. The project diverted the waters of the Murrumbidgee, the Snowy and the Tumut rivers, to provide irrigation water west of the Great Dividing Range, and to generate hydro-electric power for use in New South Wales, Victoria and the national capital Canberra.

Into this feverish activity in 1962, came a young Irishman, Ulick O’Boyle, from County Roscommon, to work as a concrete worker. During the five years he worked on the scheme, O’Boyle observed the interaction of people from many nationalities that lived in the construction camps and nearby small towns. Working and living together in the freezing cold or stifling heat of the capricious mountain climate these ‘New Australians’ forged a vibrant multiculturalism.

O’Boyle was a very talented man with the heart and mind of a poet. In poetry, ballad and song he wrote his impressions of the places, the people and the work that was being done. His fellow Settler, Paul Davey, says, “Ulick captured the atmosphere of the life of Snowy workers, the diverse nationalities, the loves and heartaches, the dangers and terrors, the comedies and tragedies.”

To perform the songs he had written, together with his wife, Anne Rutherford, and a fellow worker, Peter Barry, they formed a group, The Immigrants, that later became The Settlers. They released their first album on the RCA label in 1966, followed by five more over the next thirty years.

The songs tell the stories of The Big Construction Game, the fate of The Dozer Driver Man, Olaf, and the tragedy of The Ballad of Big Pedro. Interspersed with these gripping tales of the lives of workers are songs of young love, Old Talbingo and the pain of parting/renewing Winter Back in My Heart. Then a change of mood to the ‘colour life and laughter’ of the times with The Cooma Cavaliers, The Thredbo Slop and Friday Night – Long Weekend.

But O’Boyle also reminds us of the price of progress with touching songs and poems like Jindabyne Farewell (one of the old towns submerged) and Jack Bridle’s Farewell to a way of life on the land. A well-informed man he comments on life and social issues with wry humour in Long Gone Pom and Dear Hoffman and poignantly in Paddy Went Home in the Rain, Young Jack Frost-Texan and Hard Rock Drilling-I’ve Done It. There are 24 songs on a CD that comes with the book, or it can be purchased separately.

Ably accompanied by Anne Rutherford, Peter Barry and later Paul Davey, O’Boyle’s instrumental skills match his lyrics to perfection. Behind it all is the admiration he felt for those who came together from so many countries to build the wondrous Snowy Mountains Scheme. The last lines from the song 1949 say it all:

There is something of value left behind
When you come from the breed of the building kind
That built and worked and made the Snowy Scheme

His daughter, Shannon, has made a fitting tribute to her father and has ensured due recognition of a man who in the words of Paul Davey, “will stand in history as one of Australia’s foremost song writers and balladeers.” Ulick O’Boyle’s songs and ballads have become part of the Snowy legend and as such are a significant contribution to the story of Australia. Click on http://www.songsofthesnowy.com.au for the full story.

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A tale for Bloomsday – June 16, 2015


By J. A. O’Brien

“A nice thing to find in one of the largest bookshops in the city. And in one of the main streets of Dublin no less,” Dan slammed the book on the manager’s desk.

Mr Molloy looked at the book. “My good man there is no way we would have that book for sale,” he said.

“It was with the Greek literature. Any young student could have picked it out thinking it was by Homer,” Dan snorted. “Disgraceful. Absolutely disgraceful. Ulysses indeed.”

“I assure you there has been a mistake. We have never ever stocked that man Joyce’s book in our store. We have very strict rules.” Mr Molloy wiped sweat from his forehead.

“It’s a banned book.” Dan pointed to the notice that was prominently displayed around the shop and could be seen through the glass panel of the office. It read:


“So much for that indeed,” Dan snorted. “Not only banned by our own Irish censors but I believe it is on the Index too.”

Mr Molloy went white. “Not the Index. Oh my God, not that.” The Church’s Index of Forbidden Books, carried more weight than the censors’ list so far as he was concerned.

“The same.”

“A filthy piece of work. And it gets worse at the end. A married woman languishing in her bed recounting her escapades and indulging her fantasies. A disgusting soliloquy.” Dan said.

Mr Molloy reached for the book. “As bad as that?” he asked.

Dan detected more eagerness than shock in his tone. “I’ll show you,” he said and opened the book. “Forty-five pages.” He held the last chapter between his fingers.

Mr Molloy licked his lips. He leaned forward as if to try to read the vertically held pages.

“Will I read some of it to you?” Dan asked.

“Yes. Yes of course.”

Still holding the pages together, Dan turned to the last page of the chapter and read:

I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

“My God,” Mr Molloy said. “What a wanton hussy. How could any man write it?”

Dan looked him in the eyes, “A dirty mind, Mr Molloy?”

Mr Molloy’s eyes were wide, his breathing heavy. “Leave it with me then. I’ll burn it this very day. It shouldn’t be held with the tongs.”

“Ah now I think that I had better take care of it. After all you didn’t even know it was on your shelf.”

“It’s just that I wouldn’t want it to be an occasion of sin for any young man. You know what I mean.”

“Or any young woman for that matter,” Dan said, with just the right touch of innuendo.

Mr Molloy flushed a bright red. He licked his lips again. “God forbid and may He keep the women of Ireland pure,” he said. By now he was almost panting.

“I’ll take care of it for you,” Dan said. “After all there is your reputation and that of your store to be considered. You supply most of the schools in the city. And it would never do for this to get out.”

Mr Molloy sought to recover himself. “Perhaps we can come to some arrangement then.”

Afterwards Dan told his delighted friend, Mick, “Brother, I got all the books the kids need at school this year. All free of charge. A very nice little deal, Mick. We can always benefit from the influence of the obscurants in this country.”

“Yeh turned the tables there alright. But I’m glad you didn’t let him keep me book,” Mick laughed. “Brand new and smuggled across the border via Belfast. From one peculiar and closed society to another. Jayus! The bould Joyce himself would be tickled pink at it all.”

This story is based on an incident that occurred in 1950s Dublin that involved two friends of our family. They did not live to see a statue of James Joyce erected close to where the bookshop with the sign once stood. Acknowledgements to the James Joyce Estate for the lines from Ulysses. ©

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Extract from “Against the Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner”

The political and the personal

Truth to tell, it was not economic reasons alone that concerned me. After living in England I found that life in the stifling social and cultural conditions of Ireland was hard to tolerate. I missed newspapers of the quality of the Guardian and although it had dropped the prefix Manchester in 1959 it had not lost its reputation as a quality read. For a weekend treat I had ordered the Sunday Observer from our local paper seller who delivered newspapers door to door. He informed me in tones of disapproval; ‘You’re the only one in the district who reads a paper like that’. In Ireland there were no weekend papers of the quality of the British Sunday paper The Observer at the time.

Throughout the week, of the three biggest Irish morning papers the Irish Times was streets ahead of the other two that were both subservient mouthpieces of the major political parties – The Irish Press to Fianna Fail and the Irish Independent to Fine Gael. On Monday mornings, Da would snort, ‘The Irish Press and the Independent vie with each other to see who can report and publish the most pictures of fawning politicians kissing the ring of some bishop or other’. And for the seven weeks of Lent they would publish verbatim, pages of the pastoral letters of every bishop in the country.

One Sunday morning the paper seller was delighted to tell me, ‘There’s no Observer this week. Banned because of an article on birth control. And rightly so’. This from a father of seven kids was both amusing and at the same time dismaying. I watched as he walked away pushing his small box-cart of newspapers before him and trying to protect them from the gusts of cold wind that was blowing. My father’s words ‘pissing against the wind,’ came to my mind. Christ! The paper seller is not the only one, I thought. He is pushing against the wind. While I am in effect pissing against the wind in this damned country. What chance for my daughters growing up in this bloody place? I asked myself.

True, winds of change were gradually blowing away the crud that had encrusted Irish society for so long and English television was slowly breaking through the customs barrier. But not fast enough for me.

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Taking a stand against the slaughter

The Irish Neutrality League
and the Imperialist War
Published by PANA

Reviewer: Michael Halpenny

In the present commemoration-fest around the First World War you could be forgiven for thinking that no one ever asked the question at the time – “Why should we be involved in this imperialist conflict?”

Yet to their undying credit some, a minority admittedly, including our own union did, and decided to march to a different drumbeat – that of opposition to the war.

This recent publication by the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA) tells their story.

Some in Europe opposed the war because of their strongly-held Christian values: some because they were pacifists. Others, many of them from the left were not pacifists, and viewed the war as a contest between competing imperial powers in which they and workers generally should play no part.

In Dublin, the banner over Liberty Hall in that autumn of 1914 said it all: “We Serve Neither King Nor Kaiser, But Ireland”

In England socialists such as Keir Hardie, George Lansbury (grandfather of actor Angela) and the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst campaigned against the war, while thousands of “conscientious objectors were later jailed or forced into uniform at the front. (Though not a pacifist, one of those was war resister and Irish trade unionist, John Swift senior).

In Germany one pacifist, Otto Umfrid, described their endeavours as akin to “fixing a truck rolling into a precipice with a thread of silk”. Other Germans, such as socialists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, were jailed for treason.

Ireland saw the coming together of a broad but disparate group of socialists, trade unionists, pacifists, feminists, republicans and nationalists under the banner of the short-lived Irish Neutrality League (INL). Its initial meeting, chaired by James Connolly, resolved to respond to John Redmond’s recruitment drive for the British Army and the tsunami of jingoism and war hysteria.

As the editor Roger Cole of Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA) notes “… its core ideology was to unite all of those opposed to the imperial war and to promote Irish independence and neutrality”.

Writer, Francis Devine, gives an extensive history of the INL, and notes that in a circular of October 5, 1914, the League warned that efforts were being made by the British government and employers to force young male workers into the army – what they termed “commercial conscription”.

Historian, Margaret Ward deals with the contribution of Countess Markievicz to the INL’s activities. Aidan Lloyd with that of pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington’s while Jack O’Connor points to the relevance of the League’s core principles today as Europe’s ruling elites flex their muscles on both the economic and military fronts.

He argues: “We must hold firm to our union’s traditional policy of support for Irish neutrality and non-alignment…”

This publication shines a light on a little discussed and unfashionable aspect of our history, that of neutrality, but one which in the words of Francis Devine “should not be obscured”, not least because it is certain where Connolly would stand on those same issues today.

Available from PANA at http://www.pana.ie : email info@pana.ie

This review is posted courtesy of Liberty Magazine and PANA and with acknowledgement to the reviewer Michael Halpenny.

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