A first citizen of Dublin

Patriot and Man of Peace

Peter Costello

The approaching election of an executive Lord Mayor of Dublin has focused a lot of attention on this ancient office, which dates back to the Middle Ages. However, as the office has usually been for only a single year, few figures in the past made any really great impression on the country or the wider world.

There was Daniel O’Connell, of course, who brought the office into the hands of Catholics  for the first time; the legendary Alfie Byrne, who served for nearly a decade after 1930; and Bob Briscoe, who amazed Americans in the 1950s by being the Jewish mayor of a Catholic city – how perceptions change.

Another, but perhaps less known figure, was Laurence O’Neill, a national minded mayor who (like Alfie Byrne) served a series of terms as mayor of Dublin in the difficult years of 1917 to 1924.

To students of the Irish revolution his name is a familiar one – certainly he was greatly appreciated for his help to them by prisoners of the day, especially those held by the new Irish government during the civil war.

He has long deserved a biography and at long last the experienced historian of this period, the Jesuit Fr Thomas Morrissey, has provided it.

His account of O’Neill’s career falls into three parts. The first part deals with his early life and emergence as a public figure in Dublin down to 1916. O’Neill was interesting as an early cycling enthusiast – a hobby or outside interest is certainly a feature to be looked for in a public official, so few of them having one aside from golf.

Local politician

Fr Morrissey describes the circumstances in which O’Neill found himself as an administrator, given the cruel social divisions of the city,  the nature of Dublin Corporation as it then was run largely by business interests,  and the upheavals that were involved in the great Lock Out, the nascent revolutionary movement, and the outbreak of the Great War.

The central part of the book covers his years as lord mayor from 1917 onwards. The general story of events here is familiar, perhaps too familiar, but it is interesting to see them for once from a new angle, that of a local rather than a national politician. The author provides a rich fund of new insights. (The forthcoming biography of W. T. Cosgrave by Michael Laffin will enlarge on this background.)

What stands out, and what was appreciated by both sides to a great extent was O’Neill’s independence of mind. The characterisation of him as a ‘patriot and peacemaker’ gives him a distinction at a time when the various factions in Ireland were only too happy to wage war, thus endangering the people they claimed to serve.


But these were also years of personal loss for O’Neill in his private life. Nor should it be forgotten that one of the first acts of the Free State government was to abolish the corporation, running Dublin with a commission.

The corporation was, of course, a hot-bed of republican opinions, and the outspokenness that had served well in the struggle against the British was not always appreciated by the new regime when it was turned on their own activities. There was talk, too, of corruption in local administration – surprise, surprise.

From these difficulties O’Neill emerged eventually as an effective senator – another lesson to be learned here for today many would think. But the years after the abolition to the old senate (and its replacement by the present day poodle of the government in power) marks the dying fall of O’Neill’s life.

I suspect that O’Neill has been totally eclipsed by many more voluble, but less effective, figures on that national stage. But Tom Morrissey has paid an historian’s tribute to a true tribune of the people.


That there are lessons to be learned is obvious enough. Whether in the new circumstances that face the city they will be learnt remains to be seen. The publication of this book at this moment in time will help to inform voters on what is sometimes involved in the administration of a great city, one which has become infinitely more complicated to run in modern times than it was a century ago.

In considering a new style of Lord Mayor of Dublin electors ought to reflect on these earlier holders of the office, and perhaps especially on the significance of the role played by Laurence O’Neill at a very difficult time in the city’s history. Holding the middle ground between conflicting parties is not always an easy situation.

It is an office that requires something more than the usual attributes of the career politician, especially nowadays when a sense of true patriotism is really called for. In preparing to vote on the future of Dublin everyone should look into this book.

This book is published by the city council itself, as a contribution to a series they are sponsoring called A Decade of Commemoration. If all the publications to come are the quality of this one it will be a well appreciated contribution. 

The emphasis laid here on disinterested patriotism and on peace-making — ‘blessed are the peace makers’ – ought to set the tone for the next decade.