Charlie O’Neill, socialist-republican, 1937-2016

by Mick Healy

Thomas (Charlie) O’Neill was born in Drimnagh in Dublin on 20th December 1937 and was a dyer by trade. His family had fought with the United Irishman and the Fenians. He was a Socialist Republican with a sharp wit who loved classical music, the Irish Times, a glass of wine and, especially, his family. 

As a young man, Charlie joined the Irish Republican Army where, with a large number of Dublin volunteers, he became involved with the breakaway Joe Christle group.  In 1956 they joined forces with Liam Kelly’s organisation Saor Uladh in Co. Tyrone.  Christle and Kelly were annoyed at the lack of action by the IRA, although the IRA leadership were actually putting together plans for Operation Harvest aka “the border campaign”. 

Saor Uladh went on the offensive and attacked the RUC barracks in Roslea, Co. Fermanagh in 1955, custom post telephone exchanges, bridges, B-Special drill halls as well as demolishing lough gates at Newry.  When the IRA began its own campaign in 1956, Saor Uladh was subsumed back into it.

Charlie (on left) with folk musician Luke Kelly (on right) and others

With the failure of Operation Harvest, Charlie moved to Cork.  He worked in a shoe factory there during the early 1960s and eventually bought a cottage in Crosshaven.  He became good friends with many of the University College Cork socialists as well as Jim Lane and Gerry Higgins from Irish Revolutionary Forces. Charlie, Gerry and Jim attended an anti-Vietnam War protest, organised by the Cork Vietnamese Freedom Association, during the berthing of USS Courtyney in Cork harbour in 1967.

At this time Charlie also became good friends with the legendary Tom Barry who had commanded the IRA’s Third West Cork Flying Column during the Irish War of Independence, fought on the anti-Treaty side in the civil war and briefly became IRA chief-of-staff in 1937.

(Left to Right) Lucille Redmond with Republicans Charlie O’Neill, Simon O’Donnell and Bryan McNally.

Upon his return to Dublin, Charlie was associated with the radical National Civil Liberties League.  The NCLL agitated around industrial disputes and tenant and traveller rights.  Later he became involved in the Saor Éire Action Group, a militant Marxist-republican group which included prominent former members of the IRA like Frank Keane and Liam Sutcliffe and Trotskyist activists associated with the Fourth International.

On October 3, 1968, shots were fired in a failed attempt to raid the Munster and Leinster Bank in Ballyfermot. Unfortunately the getaway-car crashed at Drimnagh and four activists were arrested by armed Special Branch officers. Charlie, Sean (Ructions) Doyle, Padraig Dwyer and Simon O’Donnell were charged with possession of firearms – four rifles, six automatic pistols and two revolvers – and with shooting with intent to endanger life when they appeared in Dublin’s Central Criminal Court.  

After several adjournments the case against Charlie and Sean Doyle was finally heard on January 21, 1970. But when the counsel for the prosecution applied for a further adjournment, Justice Murnaghan refused to grant it. The prosecution fell back on a nolle prosequI, a tactic that allows the prosecutor to re-file the same charges at a later date.  When the judge released the two men the state’s plan was to have them re-arrested outside the court.  However, a waiting getaway car sped them away. 

When the North of Ireland erupted in 1969 Charlie, being an active militant, volunteered to defend the besieged people in the Bogside of Derry. He, along with Liam Walsh, Peter Graham and other Saor Eire activists, provided aid of all forms to the Nationalist people.

In April 1970, Garda Richard Fallon was shot dead after a bank raid at Arran Quay in Dublin. The Special Branch released to the newspapers the names of seven men connected with Saor Eire who they wanted to question; among them was Charlie. Three of those named would eventually stand trial in Dublin and be acquitted.

Some time later, Charlie and Sean Doyle were detained at a Garda roadblock in Cork. One of the gardai, an inspector, was late for an important engagement in Dublin as his transport had broken down. The two fugitives, in their stolen car, helped out by giving him a lift. Unaware they were fugitives, the gardai were instructed to wave them through the roadblocks to Dublin. The inspector told them to “enjoy the rest of their night” after they arrived at his destination which was a Garda station. A furious row broke out when the police learned that the good samaritans were two of the seven men connected with Saor Eire who were wanted for questioning.

On the run, Charlie moved to London and while there gave an interview to a London Times reporter about Saor Eire. He was eventually captured, however, and received two concurrent sentences of one-and-a-half years each which he served in Portlaoise Prison.

Right up until his untimely death on 17, February 2016, he was still committed to the people’s struggle. Therefore it was not a surprise when he took part in the anti-water tax demonstrations or when he was part of the Turfcutters’ resistance in Wicklow to the EU directive that banned turf-cutting.

Charlie was buried at Bohernabreena Cemetery in south Co. Dublin. Jim Lane records, “Despite the constant rain fall, there was a mighty turnout.”

It is important that new generations of socialist-republicans are made aware of the lives of activists like Charlie, Liam Sutcliffe, Peter Graham, Mairin Keegan and other members of Saor Eire in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  There is much to be inspired by and much to learn from them. 

As well as contributing regularly to this site, Mick runs the Irish Republican & Marxist History Project site, here.

Posted on May 6, 2018, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, Anti-household and anti-water tax, Border Campaign/Operation Harvest, Commemorations, Democratic rights - general, Economy and workers' resistance, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish politics today, Partition, Prisoners - past, Repression and resistance in 1970s and 1980s, Repression in 26-county state, Republicanism 1960s, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, Saor Eire, six counties, twenty-six counties, Workers rights. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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