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How Éamonn Mac Thomáis inspired a new generation of historians


Published 16 August 2022

Éamonn Mac Thomáis signing copies of one of his books in Easons. Image via Eamonn Mac Thomais, A legendary Dubliner

His videos have hundreds of thousands of views across YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, though he had never heard of any of them. He has inspired a whole new generation of social historians that were born after he died.

It is the 20th anniversary of the passing of Éamonn Mac Thomáis, Historian, Broadcaster, Author, Gaeilgeoir, Irish Republican, lecturer and bicycle messenger boy with Switzer's department store, Grafton St but most important of all, a Dubliner.

Éamonn was a man who knew Dublin and its people intimately and he shared that knowledge through his books Gur Cake & Coal Blocks, Me Jewel and Darlin' Dublin and the TV show Dublin: A Personal View. Although dated, they offer significant insight into the streets and buildings and the people who called these places home.

Eamonn’s films are widely shared across social media by social historians, accounts who share lost history and across the myriad of Dublin nostalgia Facebook Groups and pages that continue to be popular. Each vignette prompts a flurry of comments, from remembering old Dublin characters or long-closed shops to comments on accents, outfits or idioms.

Below, Dublin City Council’s Historians in Residence pay tribute to Éamonn. At 14 Henrietta Street, the social history museum of Dublin life, Éamonn’s passing will be remembered at their Heritage Week events this week.

Donal Fallon
Historian in residence 14 Henrietta Street

“The furniture van was gone and I remember standing in the hallway of the empty house with a small green vase in my hands. I noticed that the wallpaper was cleaner in those places which had been covered by pictures. At that moment the Rathmines Town Hall clock rang out and I nearly let the vase fall. It was the first and the last time I heard it strike.”

These words are from the recollections of Edward Thomas, son of the Rathmines Fire Brigade Chief James Heather Thomas, on the passing of his father in the 1930s. In time, Edward Thomas would become Éamonn Mac Thomáis, prolific chronicler of an ever- changing city. There was not a shop front, town hall clock or alleyway which did not fascinate him in trying to tell the development of a city.

It is a fitting time to reflect on the contributions of Éamonn to popular history in Dublin, as we mourn the passing of publisher Michael O’Brien of the O’Brien Press. It was a source of endless pride to O’Brien that the first book to carry the imprint of the O’Brien Press was Me Jewel And Darlin; Dublin. In many ways the story of Mac Thomáis is the story not just of a brilliantly inquisitive historian but of others who collaborated with him, seeing opportunities to bring history to larger audiences.

The popularity of Mac Thomáis clips in recent times reminds me also of David Shaw-Smith, a television producer who gave us not only Dublin: A Personal View but also Hands. These programmes represented a brave new approach to fusing entertainment and education. Both are very fondly recalled. Who could have imagined TikTok then?

History exists in the oral tradition, in the physical landscape and in the collective memory of a people. The legacy of Éamonn Mac Thomáis is in the widespread engagement of Dubliners with the past today. While I did not know him personally it was a great privilege to know Shane Mac Thomáis, who shared a broad worldview and fine sartorial approach with his beloved father.

‘Speak Up’ - Éamonn’s legacy
Cathy Scuffil, Historian in Residence, Dublin South City Areas August 2022

“Speak up young lady, we can’t hear what you have to say above the noise” called a pure Dublin accent from the back of the room.

It was 1973 at a meeting of the Old Dublin Society in the City Assembly Rooms in South William Street. The occasion was the presentation of prizes for a children’s essay competition and the winners were required to do a short presentation on their essay to the assembled crowd. The topic was The Old City Watercourse and the eleven-year-old me had won 3rd prize. I had a big advantage - the City Watercourse ran through our back garden by The Back of the Pipes in Dolphin’s Barn was a big part of my world growing up.

My talk that evening in South William Street, in the asked for loud - but somewhat shaky - voice was my first public presentation on Dublin local history.

The man at the back of the room who wanted to hear more of what I had to say was none other than Éamonn MacThomais.

Every Christmas from that time on, presents from doting parents always included a book on Dublin. I treasure to this day Me Jewel and Darlin’ Dublin, Gur Cakes and Coal Blocks and others by Éamonn. His story-telling style touching on places you know, whilst telling you something you don’t know, are staples for understanding our city, the communities of people that live there and the place it holds in the wider world. When working with historical societies, local community groups and school children, I regularly include a quote or reference from Éamonn which never fails to please. Through his books, memories, recordings and talks, he has left a huge legacy for Dubliners, about Dubliners.

Today, when I speak now on various topics about Dublin and the history of this special place, my voice, and his take on things can still be heard above the noise.

His advice to eleven-year-old me!

Dr James Curry
Dublin City Council Historian in Residence (North West Area)

“Summon the local historian in him and the man takes off”, it was once said of Éamonn Mac Thomáis. Anybody who has seen footage of Mac Thomáis’s many RTÉ television appearances or read his books dealing with Dublin will invariably agree.

To mark the twentieth anniversary of his passing, I have recorded a short talk about Mac Thomáis’s The Labour and the Royal for my History of Dublin YouTube channel. This was the first book by the author that I read and is reminiscent of three other autobiographical titles: Me Jewel and Darlin’ Dublin (1974), Gur Cakes and Coal Blocks (1976), and Janey Mack, me shirt is black (1982).

Dedicated to the author’s wife Rosaleen, The Labour and the Royal was first published in 1979. The book was launched during Listowel Writers’ Week in late June, with Mac Thomáis then returning home to Dublin and signing copies of his new publication at Greene’s Bookshop, Clare Street, where a banner advertising the book hung for several months.

The Labour and the Royal, which chronicles Mac Thomáis’s early working life from 1942-52, was an immediate bestseller, described by one contemporary reviewer as a volume that ‘makes one want to laugh and cry at the same time’, and another as ‘a love story of a city’s people who made poverty and near destitution into a life worth living’. Similar comments were made during reviews of the author’s other autobiographical books.

Mac Thomáis, who from an early age felt that ‘knowledge of Dublin was like a drink of water to me’, has been criticised by some critics and historians for concentrating ‘in both tone and selection of material on the colourful, communal, and convivial aspects of inner-city poverty’ at the expense of discussing less savoury aspects. Others, however, have admired him as a pioneering writer who celebrated the people, history, customs, and traditions of his native City.

For those who fall into the latter category, as well as the knowledge that he left behind, Éamonn Mac Thomáis’s legacy, to quote one 1979 reviewer, is that he captured for posterity a city which may have been ‘poorer indeed in ready cash but so much richer in what money
cannot buy’.

Dr. Mary Muldowney
Dublin City Council Historian in Residence - Dublin Central

Eamonn Mac Thomáis was a man of principle, as well as being a talented broadcaster, historian, with an incomparable knowledge of Dublin topography, much of which he had gained in early jobs as a delivery boy. Although he had left school at the age of thirteen, in order to contribute to the family income, he rose through many promotions to become credit controller in an engineering company.

He is mainly remembered for his presentations on the history of Dublin and his popular books on different aspects of a ‘people’s history’ of the city. My clearest memories of him were connected to his voice, which enticed his listeners to pay the closest attention to his imaginative and vibrant versions of Dublin life and lore. My father was a fan of all Eamonn Mac Thomáis’ work and he encouraged me to read the books but I confess that I didn’t get around to that until his death in 2002, when I first found out about his political activities. He had joined the IRA in the early 1950s and had been involved in the Border Campaign, for which he was interned in the Curragh camp from 1957 to 1959.

A few years later I was introduced to his son Shane, who had all his father’s talent and integrity. He told me about his father’s reasons for taking the Provisional side in the split in Sinn Féin in 1969. When Eamonn Mac Thomáis took over as Editor of An Phoblacht, he became a victim of the Special Criminal Court when he was found guilty of being a member of the IRA under the Offences Against the State Act. He was given a fifteen-month sentence and two weeks after completing that, he was arrested again and charged with the same offence. Despite Mac Thomáis’ passionate speech from the dock and widespread protests by journalists and others concerned about the State’s attack on freedom of the press, he was sentenced to another fifteen months, which he served in full.

Shane Mac Thomáis was also a historian, who guided visitors through the history of Glasnevin Cemetery. He was also a gifted communicator, who sadly took his own life in 2014, not long after the completion of the wonderful documentary One Million Dubliners, to which he was such a marvellous contributor. Both Shane and Eamonn Mac Thomáis are buried in Glasnevin Cemetery where they are honoured and remembered by Dubliners and visitors from Ireland and the world.

Dublin City Council's Historian-in-Residence programme is created by Dublin City Libraries, and is delivered in partnership with Dublin City Libraries and Dublin City Council Culture Company.