1004a. Professor Alfred O'Rahilly, circa 1944 as President of University College Cork, now on display in the Aula Maxima in the college. (picture: Kieran McCarthy)

UCC professor Alfred O’Rahilly’s interventions

In late June and early July 1919, the Cork Sinn Féin executive arranged a series of public lectures aimed at increasing local activism whilst critiquing Westminster social policies in Ireland.

The lectures were delivered by Professor Alfred O’Rahilly (1884-1969) to an interested audience, in the council chamber of Cork City Hall.

Obituaries across various national newspapers for the professor in 1969 detail that he was a native of Listowel and was educated by the Holy Ghost Fathers at Blackrock College, south of Dublin. Eamon de Valera was one of his contemporaries in the college.

Having an obvious vocation for the priesthood, Alfred chose to join the Jesuits on leaving school and after the usual period of novitiate, he went to Stonyhurst.

His studies in philosophy there resulted in the award of a Roman Doctor of Philosophy. He was still with the Jesuits when he entered the old university college conducted by them in Dublin under the Royal University.

There Alfred widened his earlier courses in modern languages to concentrate on science. Before long he was to receive a Doctor of Science for his large project on electro magnetics. However, he left the Jesuits to form a new career as a militant layman.

In 1914 a vacancy arose as a lecturer in mathematics in University College Cork under Bertram Windle's presidency. Professor Windle welcomed Alfred and his ability and training. In a few years, Alfred had become Professor of Mathematical Physics.

He was elected registrar of the college in 1920, and much of his constructive work within the college was pursued during the ensuing 30 years under the presidency of Dr Merriman (whom he succeeded as president in 1943).

In the late 1910s Alfred became intensely concerned with social reform and economics and with the ardent narrative of younger nationalists. His theological and philosophical training enabled him to become a spokesman for Sinn Féin when ecclesiastical censure was threatened.

He was always prepared to challenge authority and military repression in Ireland when he disagreed with it. He was elected to the Cork Corporation, and as a member of it in 1920 he proposed the election of lord mayor MacCurtain and afterwards of lord mayor MacSwiney (to replace him). Alfred took charge of the public funerals for both lord mayors, in defiance of all forms of British intimidation.

Professor Alfred O’Rahilly’s lecture on 27 June 1919 at Cork City Hall was written up in the Cork Examiner and focused on the topic of Co-operation in a Republic.

He pointed out that the ideal of a republic was very vague and negative, and that there was great need for constructive and positive aims. In his personal view was that the “Irish Ireland” had been lacking in social and economic thought – that what confronted Ireland’s future was a lack of trained ability and competence and business knowledge and organising ability. Co-operative thinking and bringing people together in business and enact a form of “democratic control”.

On Tuesday 1 July 1919, Professor O’Rahilly’s lecture was entitled Some Suggestions for a Sinn Féin Labour Policy. He pointed out that there was really no labour programme policy in Ireland, and, except as regards the land, there never was. For many reasons, it was high time to produce a coherent policy.

He outlined that Ireland was the victim of centralisation policy with powers taken away from counties, towns and cities. As a contrast to the English system, he gave the example of Switzerland, whose area was half that of Ireland, whose population in 1919 was half a million less.

Professor O’Rahilly outlined that Switzerland was a federal republic and consisted of twenty-two sovereign states. He suggested that Ireland should have a federalism system at work. “Each county and each large county borough should be autonomous. We in the rest of Ireland should make it clear that we have no desire whatever to interfere with, say, Belfast and its prosperity. Similarly, Cork is quite competent to manage its own affairs, and has as much right to independence as Antrim.”

The ideal should be not be a bureaucracy in Dublin, but “ample local liberty, and in the Irish capital (a) a national council elected by adult suffrage, and (b) a council of states or counties with, say, two deputies from each”.

Professor O’Rahilly’s second focus at his July lecture was the quest for sovereignty of the people. He proposed that a referendum should be held, whereby, for example, eight counties, or 30,000 voters, could insist that any legislative act passed by the national assembly must be submitted to the direct vote of the people for ratification or rejection. The power of such an initiative, for example, would mean that the transport Workers could draft a bill, without consulting the government.

Professor O’Rahilly also dealt with some social and industrial projects, in particular with housing, drink control, and education. He noted that one of the most pressing needs in Ireland’s future would be the organisation of a system of national credit for the financing of now or neglected industries, and the utilisation of Irish resources.

He considered that foreign capital constituted a danger, “as Irish capital was being artificially drained out of the country”.

Next walking tours:

Saturday 6 July, The City Workhouse: Historical walking tour with Kieran; learn about Cork city’s workhouse created for 2,000 impoverished people in 1841. Meet just inside the gates of St Finbarr’s Hospital, Douglas Road at 12 noon. Free, duration is two hours - on site tour, part of Friends of St Finbarr’s Hospital garden fete.

Saturday 13 July, The Victorian Quarter: Historical walking tour with Kieran of the area around St Patrick’s Hill – Wellington Road and McCurtain Street. Meet on the green at Audley Place, top of St Patrick’s Hill at 11am. Free and duration is two hours.

Sunday 14 July, Sunday’s Well: Historical walking tour with Kieran; discover the original well and the eighteenth-century origins of the suburb. Meet at St Vincent’s Bridge, North Mall end at 2.30pm. Free and duration is two hours.