Hartnett, (Maurice) Noel (1909–60), political activist and broadcaster, was born 21 December 1909 in Kenmare, Co. Kerry, fourth son of William Joseph Hartnett, pharmacist and member of the IRB, and Kathleen Hartnett (née Barbery), later a member of Cumann na mBan; they had at least three other sons and two daughters. During the civil war the Hartnett home and family business were burnt down and the family subsequently moved to Dublin; this fuelled Hartnett's lifelong republicanism. Nostalgia for his Kerry childhood inspired his active membership of the Kerrymen's Association in Dublin.
He was educated at Kenmare convent national school and St Brendan's College, Killarney, where he won an intermediate scholarship (with help from his friend and contemporary P. F. Cremin (d. 2000), later a priest and professor at Maynooth) and passed the leaving certificate in third place nationally. Hartnett was offered a Dublin corporation scholarship but turned it down to attend TCD (where council scholarships were not tenable), and put himself through TCD on scholarships, winning a moderatorship and the Berkeley medal in classics.
He worked as a schoolteacher before becoming press officer to the Irish Tourist Association, when he first broadcast on Radio Éireann. He later joined RÉ as producer, commentator, scriptwriter, and announcer. In 1935–6 he conducted a popular series of radio interviews with veterans of the war of independence about prison escapes; these later formed the basis of Prison escapes (1945), edited by Hartnett with a foreword by Oscar Traynor (qv).
He was active in Fianna Fáil at TCD, and for several years represented the Dublin University dáil constituency on the Fianna Fáil national executive. He became one of the party's principal election organisers and developed a powerful, emotive style of platform speaking. Although Hartnett was physically unprepossessing (he was stout, less than five feet (1.52 m) tall, and had a noticeably ugly face), his Kerryman obituarist recalled that ‘he could sway an audience between tears and laughter, he could move them to indignation, he could play upon their minds and emotions as he willed . . . the golden age of oratory lived on in him’ (Kerryman, 15 Oct. 1960, p. 3). He was also given to vituperative personal attacks and driven by a mixture of egocentricity and social-republican zeal.
Some contemporaries thought him a potential cabinet minister (he was allegedly allowed to walk into the office of Éamon de Valera (qv) without knocking) but from the mid 1930s he grew dissatisfied; he tried to have Seán MacEntee (qv) censured for attributing positive achievements to the W. T. Cosgrave (qv) government, and unsuccessfully opposed acceptance of large donations from businessmen. In 1937 Hartnett left the Fianna Fáil executive when the Dublin University dáil constituency was abolished; the party made no particular attempt to retain him. Seán MacBride (qv) later claimed Hartnett had expected Fianna Fáil to nominate him to Seanad Éireann.
Hartnett was called to the bar at King's Inns, Dublin, in 1937. MacBride later claimed to have assisted Hartnett in developing his legal career; Hartnett appeared as his junior counsel in several cases involving IRA men, most famously the inquest on Seán McCaughey in Portlaoise prison on 11 May 1946. Hartnett's association with MacBride brought him the nickname ‘the shadow of the shadow of a gunman’, and he moved to a bungalow near Roebuck House, MacBride's residence in Clonskeagh, Dublin.
At an open-air anti-internment meeting in Dublin, Hartnett compared the government to Nazi ‘Belsen camp gaolers’ for their treatment of IRA prisoners, and was promptly removed as compère of the radio programme ‘Question time’ on the orders of P. J. Little (qv), minister for posts and telegraphs. But Hartnett was a well known and popular presenter, and the decision was criticised in the dáil on 5 June. Little replied that Radio Éireann presenters were quasi-civil servants who should not engage in politics (Hartnett later pointed out that no objection was raised to his broadcasting when a Fianna Fáil activist), and that allowing Hartnett to broadcast would give quasi-official sanction to his ‘defamatory and subversive remarks’ (Horgan, Broadcasting and public policy, 11). Hartnett's dismissal exemplifies the deferential constraints on Irish broadcasting in its first decades; he was allowed to broadcast again after the change of government in 1948.
When Clann na Poblachta was launched (6 July 1946), Hartnett was one of the few founding members who had not been in the IRA. He recruited Noel Browne (qv), whom he met while visiting a friend at Newcastle sanatorium, Co. Wicklow; Browne's zeal for action against tuberculosis combined with the Clann's call for social reform and Hartnett's own social conscience (one obituarist believed he saw the British Labour minister Aneurin Bevan as a role model). Hartnett later assisted MacBride in winning party approval for his nomination of Browne to the cabinet.
Hartnett oversaw the Clann na Poblachta campaigns in the October 1947 by-elections (winning two of three contested seats) and the 4 February 1948 general election. He deployed such innovative devices as a gramophone record, played at remote rallies, on which he and MacBride expounded the party's policies, and a nine-minute film, Our country (narrated by himself), containing interviews with Browne and MacBride and bleak images of contemporary Ireland. Hartnett spoke forcefully at meetings throughout the country, accusing Fianna Fáil of corruption and dictatorial behaviour.
In the 1948 general election Hartnett contested Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown for Clann na Poblachta (he was also considered as a possible candidate for Clare). He was defeated, although the other Clann candidate was elected with only 530 more first-preference votes than Hartnett received. Hartnett believed he might have won had he not spent so much time campaigning elsewhere, and when the inter-party government was established he believed himself entitled to one of the two Clann na Poblachta seanad nominations. MacBride, however, chose Patrick McCartan (qv) and Denis Ireland (qv), believing that northern representatives were needed in the oireachtas, and that awarding the senate seat to a party activist would attract accusations of jobbery. Hartnett never forgave MacBride for this decision. Their enmity deepened when Hartnett was summarily recalled from an anti-partition tour of America. When the Irish News Agency was founded (1950), Hartnett, whom MacBride intended as director, refused to accept the position though he served on the agency's board. By the winter of 1950/51 Hartnett and MacBride regularly exchanged insulting letters and engaged in face-to-face confrontations in Clonskeagh.
Hartnett worked closely with Noel Browne on the Clann executive and the ‘mother and child’ health scheme. His activities included clandestinely circulating an anonymous leaflet (probably co-written by Hartnett and Browne) in inner-suburban council housing estates, which attacked the medical profession in vitriolic terms; this heightened tensions within the government. Hartnett also secured legal assistance from Brian Walsh (qv) and theological advice from his old friend Fr Cremin.
Browne's presentation of Hartnett in his memoirs is now generally held to underestimate the closeness between the two men. It appears, on the basis of contemporaneous notes by MacBride of a meeting with Browne on 9 November 1950, that Hartnett and Browne wished to press MacBride into supporting them over the ‘mother and child’ scheme and collapsing the inter-party government; they anticipated this would strengthen the Clann's radical credentials and popular support and leave them dominant within the party. Their failure to achieve this reflected their egocentricity and contempt for the ‘old republican’ element of the Clann (derided as stooges of MacBride, though some might have been potential allies), and their failure to anticipate the extent and impact of the catholic hierarchy's opposition to the ‘mother and child’ scheme.
In February 1951 Hartnett resigned from the Clann, claiming its acquiescence in the ‘battle of Baltinglass’ scandal (over the appointment of a postmistress) made a mockery of its professed opposition to jobbery. His resignation became public after Browne's resignation in April. After the 1951 general election Hartnett helped negotiate Fianna Fáil's return to power with the support of independent TDs (including Browne and his allies). Hartnett was then elected to Seanad Éireann on the industrial panel, with Fianna Fáil support. He rejoined Fianna Fáil in October 1953 with Browne and his allies, working with them to form a left-wing caucus within the party. He failed to win reelection to the seanad in 1954, and in 1957 resigned from Fianna Fáil with Browne, for whom he acted as election agent in the 1957 general election. Hartnett was a founder of the 1913 Club, an organisation of Browne's supporters. He contested the 25 June 1958 Dublin South Central by-election on behalf of Browne's nascent National Progressive Democrat (NPD) party, losing his deposit. His selection as candidate by Browne and a few associates antagonised supporters of David Thornley (qv), who were then summarily purged from the NPD. Hartnett served on the NPD executive but took little further part in politics.
Hartnett's career at the bar was highly successful. Despite public perception of his changes of party as opportunistic, his bar colleagues recognised him with ‘amused tolerance’ (Irish Times, 11 Oct. 1960) as a consistent and principled believer in a vaguely defined combination of republicanism, socialism, and Christianity. He was a very effective defence counsel in criminal cases (he refused to accept prosecution briefs). His obituarist recalled that he took an interest in clients even after the verdict, helping released prisoners to find employment. After securing an acquittal for wife-beating, he lectured his client on marital duties and gave his own telephone number to the wife, with instructions to call him day or night if her husband beat her again.
From c.1950 Hartnett suffered from heart disease, which caused his final illness on 25 August 1960 and his death on 4 October 1960 at his residence, 4 Brewery Road, Stillorgan, Co. Dublin. He was married, with two sons and a daughter.
Browne, who shared many of his personality traits, noted Hartnett's dictatorial and intolerant characteristics. His Irish Times obituarist took a gentler view. ‘He was consumed by love for the poor and the weak and the hungry, and this could turn into hatred of [those] . . . who, perhaps a little too readily, he saw as Pharisees or money-changers . . . Had he been a little more cunning, a little more patient, a little more ready to conform, or a little more selfish, he could have occupied one of the highest positions in the government or on the bench’ (Irish Times, 11 Oct. 1960).