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Who Was David Thornley? Joe Ambrose gets back to the books, unearthing an sweet paean to an otherwise rarely lamented David Thornley...

Who Was David Thornley?

Joe Ambrose gets back to the books, unearthing an sweet paean to an otherwise rarely lamented David Thornley...

by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor (2005-2018)
first published: March, 2009

approximate reading time: minutes

Who was David Thornley? He is a virtually forgotten figure even in his native Ireland where he was once a force to be reckoned with in diverse fields such as boxing, broadcasting, scholarship, and parliamentary politics.

Does David Thornley deserve to have a book written about him? He certainly does. Is Unquiet Spirit; Essays in Memory of David Thornley, a collection of articles and recollections edited by his daughter Yseult, the right book? It is.

Who was David Thornley? He is a virtually forgotten figure even in his native Ireland where he was once a force to be reckoned with in diverse fields such as boxing, broadcasting, scholarship, and parliamentary politics. Born into an Anglo Irish background, his first came to attention in late Fifties Dublin as a charismatic young academic, the author of a classic biography of Isaac Butt, a founding father of parliamentary Irish separatism. In the pleasant gossipy backwater which Sixties Dublin developed into, Thornley came to the attention of both the political elite and the local media bosses. Dazzling but notorious Charles Haughey, the dominant Irish political figure of his era, enjoyed Thornley's company although they saw things differently. The nascent national TV station, RTE, was hiring the brightest and the best so Thornley was soon recruited onto the team presenting Seven Days, a pioneering politics show which, under various monikers, survives to this day. He made a very big splash - I remember him with respect as a trenchant, stimulating, interviewer. Handsome, intellectual, and forthright, he became, before long, an improbable TV star.

Recruited into Ireland's minority Labour Party, he was in 1969 elected to the Irish parliament. This was perhaps a tragic mistake because Thornley was too cerebral, too honest, and too well meaning for Irish political life, always something of a gladiatorial affair. When Labour joined a 1973 coalition government with the right wing Fine Gael party, which had roots in the fascist Blueshirt movement, Thornley was undiplomatically sidelined while his celebrated Labour comrade and nemesis, the wily Conor Cruise O'Brien, got to sit as the cabinet table where he exerted a malign influence out of all proportion to his mandate or political experience.

Ironically Cruise O'Brien (known as the Cruiser) had enjoyed a somewhat parallel - though dissimilar - career to Thornley's. Like Thornley he'd written a formidable historical study of an Irish parliamentarian. In the Cruiser's case it was a book on Parnell. Like many Irishmen, they both enjoyed a drink and a good argument. Compelling individualists, they straddled the worlds of journalism, academe, and politics. Unlike Thornley, the Cruiser was a darling of the international left intelligentsia, a vaguely Maileresque belligerent force. Whereas Thornley was sensitive, cultured, and principled, the Cruiser - an utterly charming man on a personal basis - turned out to be an elegant thug condoning state violence and undermining freedom of speech. When he died late in 2008, the Cruiser's intellectually corrupt supporters penned well-place obituaries which, laughably, compared him with Sartre and Yeats. More accurate comparisons might have been with Mussolini or Stalin.

Thornley, who died aged 42 in 1978, disappeared without a trace, his dignified spirit uncelebrated and unrecollected. Until Unquiet Spirit came out, he seemed doomed to obscurity and to the vast shadowlands of Irish history. His membership of the '73 coalition which boasted Cruise O'Brien and future Prime Minister Garrett Fitzgerald (a contributor to this book) amongst its members, was one of the catalysts which brought about his destruction. A neurotic, repressive, paranoid government in the style of the recently departed Bush administration, it undermined, rather than bolstered, everything that Thornley believed in.

He took to drinking heavily, grew bloated as a result of undiagnosed diabetes, and became something of a loose cannon. He seriously blotted his copybook when, in the interests of free speech, he shared a political platform with Provisional IRA fellow travellers.

He died 30 years ago and that anniversary is marked by this deserved festschrift of sorts. A festschrift is usually an academic-style book wherein a scholar is honoured by colleagues and peers with a collection of essays which hover around the honoured one's areas of interest.

In this case the mixture varies from personal reminiscences to political commentaries to Thornley's previously uncollected historical writings. Garrett Fitzgerald's contribution is utterly superfluous. I once dined late night with Fitzgerald whom I found to be a pompous two-faced windbag. He was the partial architect of the repressive government which helped drive Thornley over the edge, and his decision to contribute to this book reeks of self-serving egotism.

Thornley's brother Edward writes a biting attack on the personality of Noel Browne, an iconic left-wing politician. Things said here about Browne will come as a surprise to many in Ireland who regard him as a hero of the left. I also dined with Browne one night and I feel that Edward Thornley gets him just about right. I thought Browne was extraordinarily vain, arrogant, and self- obsessed. It comes as no surprise to read that he was also treacherous.

Muiris Mac Conghail contributes the warmest recollection of the dead intellectual, chronicling his successful efforts to cajole Thornley into the world of TV

In impoverished circles in the Third World, people have children so that they'll have someone to look after them when they grow old. Sometimes people need children to look after them when they're dead too. Yseult Thornley has surely fulfilled this filial duty.

Unquiet Spirit: Essays in memory of David Thornley. Edited by Yseult Thornley (Liberties Press)

Joe Ambrose
Literary Editor (2005-2018)

Joe Ambrose wrote 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe sadly passed away in 2018. Visit Joe's website which was completed just before his passing, for more info:
about Joe Ambrose »»



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