Neeson, Eoin Francis (1927–2011), writer, journalist and civil servant, was born on 13 September 1927 in the family home at 10 Charlemont Terrace, Cork city, the elder of a son and daughter of Sean Neeson and his wife Geraldine (née Sullivan). A secondary school teacher, Sean Neeson (1891–1964) helped found the Irish Volunteers in his native Belfast and was interned after the 1916 rising. He moved in 1918 to Cork city, where he was the IRA's intelligence officer during the war of independence (1919–21). Interned during the civil war (1922–3) as an anti-treatyite, he became director of the Cork radio service (1927–31), before working for the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes while lecturing on Irish music at UCC and writing Irish Times arts reviews. His wife, Geraldine Neeson (1895–1980), hailed from a wealthy Cork merchant family and achieved local renown as a concert pianist, music and elocution teacher, theatre performer and impresario, and newspaper arts critic.
Raised in a house at Wellington Place that was a fulcrum for musical, literary and theatrical activities within Cork city, Eoin imbibed his parents' cultural and nationalist inclinations. A schoolboy boxer and champion swimmer, he attended Scoil Íte, Cork, and CBC Cork, then boarded at Newbridge College, Co. Kildare. Following service in the Irish Air Corps (1944–6), he acted in productions at the Cork Opera House and was involved in creative writing groups, his output reflecting an interest in Irish history and mythology. During the 1940s and 1950s he had various short stories and poems published, and wrote three plays that were staged in public, two in Cork and one in the Studio Theatre, Dublin. The short stories mimicked Frank O'Connor (qv) and Sean O'Faolain (qv), both whom he knew.
In 1952 he married Mary Keating, who was originally from Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary; they would have six sons and two daughters. Becoming a journalist, Neeson joined the Irish Times in Dublin in 1953, writing features and also radio and theatre reviews for its weekly pictorial. After spells as editor of the Kerryman (1956) and managing editor of the Munster Tribune (1958), he became features editor of the Sunday Review (1959), the Sunday paper of the Irish Times. Using the pseudonym 'Desmond O'Neill', he published Life has no price (1959) with the major British publishing house Gollancz. This competently paced and plotted thriller was undone by his ungainly mingling of tough-guy dialogue with affected prose. Moreover, the unaccustomed Irish setting left reviewers unwilling to suspend their disbelief, with one proposing 'The teddy boy of the western world' as an alternative title.
In summer 1961 Neeson was recruited by an old friend of his parents, Hilton Edwards (qv), for the drama department of the nascent national television service, Telefís Éireann (renamed RTÉ in 1966). His bold adaptation of Ibsen's 'Enemy of the people' to a modern Irish setting became the channel's first full-length play and divided viewers when broadcast as 'Public enemy' in 1962. Before Telefís Éireann went on air, Neeson transferred to its main public affairs programme, Broadsheet, acting as a reporter and scriptwriter. In this exciting and chaotic workplace, he rapidly conceived and shot documentaries for transmission, once ad-libbing live to camera for twenty minutes after a prepared segment vanished.
He co-wrote 'The face of treason' (1965), a sophisticated Abbey Theatre production about a communist agent within the Irish government, and published six non-fiction books with Mercier Press (1965–8), including two collections from Irish mythology, a selection of medieval Irish poetry, and a compendium of Irish saints. The poetry book was withdrawn for including without acknowledgement already published translations. In 1976 Neeson blamed Mercier for deleting his acknowledgement and neglecting to obtain legal permission. Although the books sold well, his relationship with Mercier Press ceased (reissues aside) upon expiration of his first contract in 1968.
This publishing spurt further comprised a book on the Irish civil war, which he began researching while writing a series on the conflict for the Sunday Review during 1958–9, and a biography of Michael Collins (qv). Benefiting from interviews with veterans, mainly from the anti-treaty side, The civil war in Ireland (1966) was the most lucid and objective account produced of this still-sensitive topic, quickly selling out its first edition. Its anti-treaty slant elicited a gracious rebuttal from surviving civil war protagonist Ernest Blythe (qv). Along with Calton Younger's pro-treaty account (Ireland's civil war (1968)), Neeson's book remained the standard text until the late 1980s.
His more impressionistic The life and death of Michael Collins (1968) fleshes out arguments implicit in his earlier book, being notable for stressing the importance of the IRB in Collins's career, for implying that his death occured because his movements were betrayed by an ostensibly neutral peace mediator and for presenting evidence that Éamon de Valera (qv) intended eventually participating in the 1921 treaty negotiations. Yet it is characterised by amateur psychoanalysis and fanciful speculation, as he transmutes the anti-treaty forces into romantic social revolutionaries and Collins into a tormented hero, driven unwillingly by circumstance and his own miscalculations into an alliance with bourgeois catholic reactionaries. (Neeson's anti-clericalism likely derived from the distress caused to his father by the catholic church's excommunication of all anti-treaty IRA volunteers in 1922.)
Neeson excelled at composing vivid, historically worthwhile accounts of military engagements, but reached conclusions that advanced a current agenda. By amply acknowledging Collins's achievements while burnishing physical-force republicanism with a fashionably leftist gloss, he shaped a unifying narrative that gratified a new generation of Fianna Fáil leaders keen to move beyond past bitterness. His myth-making, however, was rapidly overtaken by events in Northern Ireland, which tarnished revolutionary nationalism.
Leaving RTÉ in December 1967, after serving briefly as chief press officer for the national bus and train authority, CIÉ, in March 1968 Neeson became head of the Government Information Bureau (GIB) at the invitation of a fellow Corkman, Taoiseach Jack Lynch (qv). Underfunded and staffed by transient civil servants rather than trained press officers, the GIB was notorious for responding to media queries in a tardy, unforthcoming manner. Recruited to remedy this, Neeson received extra resources, but not enough to satisfy the rapidly growing demand. Moreover, Lynch's political weakness undermined Neeson, as various over-mighty cabinet ministers, who preferred to manipulate the flow of news through their own channels, encouraged a civil service averse to transparency.
As Northern Ireland plunged into inter-communal warfare in August 1969, Neeson was given charge of an international propaganda campaign aimed at disseminating the Irish perspective on events. Most of the twenty publicity experts seconded to him were dispatched to Irish embassies, where resentful diplomats hindered their efforts. The emotive nature of the material produced by the GIB caused such unease within the Irish media and civil service that Lynch restricted and moderated the campaign after a week, and ended it in late October.
In 1971 the nationalist journalist Seamus Brady accused Neeson of reneging on verbal assurances made in September 1969 that the GIB would covertly finance the Voice of the North, a hardline republican newspaper published by Brady (1969–70). Neeson asserted that there had merely been a vague, inconclusive discussion and seemingly distanced himself from attempts by certain government ministers associated with Brady to funnel state funds towards militant republicans. Years later, he denied allegations that the Lynch government helped establish the Provisional IRA and condemned the tactics of the post-1969 IRA, stressing the 'unbridgeable gulf of honour' distinguishing it from the IRA of 1919–23.
Lynch still relied on Neeson for media advice during the May 1970 arms crisis, but subsequently lost confidence in him. Neeson's cause was not helped when in November 1971 gardaí found an unlicensed pistol in his car. He was charged with illegal possession that July in Dublin district court, where the judge accepted his explanation that he collected antique weapons. (He also collected model soldiers; other hobbies included swimming, shooting and golf.)
Following the election of the Fine Gael–Labour coalition in 1973, Neeson was transferred to the Department of Lands as information and publicity officer with the rank of assistant secretary. Retrieved from limbo upon Fianna Fáil's return to power in 1977, he became special adviser to Brian Lenihan (qv) (1930–95) during Lenihan's terms as minister for fisheries (1977–8), fisheries and forestry (1978–9), foreign affairs (1979–81) and agriculture (1982). Based thereafter in various departments, but always in the forestry division, and latterly with the title of director of special projects, he had time to lecture on Irish folklore and pursue his writing.
From 1986 to 1988 he published three historical novels under the pseudonym 'Donal O'Neill', dealing successively with the prehistoric invasions of Ireland, the coming of Christianity, and the battle of Clontarf. Involving tedious exposition punctuated by spectacular effusions of gore, they illustrate his fascination with hero figures capable of single-handedly altering a nation's destiny. Shortly before retiring from the civil service, he completed A history of Irish forestry (1991), which is useful for efficiently covering the ground up to 1922 and for his informed analysis of the modern, largely state-driven efforts to encourage reafforestation.
He kept writing in retirement, reproducing the verbose whimsicality of medieval Irish in two collections of myths that exhibited his fluent storytelling while judiciously alternating a modern idiom with archaic diction. Like his previous such collections, these somewhat twee translations proved popular and were aimed at adults rather than children or scholars. Convinced that mythology shed light on prehistory, he drew upon tales of ancient Spanish conquerors to argue for the Irish being racially distinct from their north European neighbours. Similarly, he published a pamphlet exploring the similarities between Ireland and Japan, as unusually insular and homogenous island nations.
Neeson reiterated his unreconstructed nationalism, by then purged of socialism and augmented by an affinity with Christianity, in newspaper articles and correspondence, and in history books entitled Birth of a Republic (1998), Myths from Easter 1916 (2007) and The battle of Crossbarry (2008). The influence of what he termed 'the awful cult of revisionism' obliged him to self-publish for a time before publishing latterly with the Aubane Historical Society. Displaying little engagement with archival sources, he mounted some effective critiques of revisionism, but the metaphysical allure of the 32-county republic proclaimed in 1916 warped his analysis, which variously blamed all on the British, dismissed unionists as bigots in thrall to a false national consciousness, and treated Irish politics in 1922 as the rightful preserve of a revolutionary elite.
Disdained by academics, he responded sharply to critical book reviews and revelled in assorted historical controversies. (He was correspondingly assertive, even litigious, in his private financial affairs.) From the mid 1990s he was to the fore in claiming that the Roger Casement (qv) 'black diaries' were forged by British agents, and betrayed his weakness for conspiracy theories by citing fabricated evidence published in a journal dedicated principally to denying the Holocaust. In 2002, he acknowledged forensic tests substantiating the diaries' authenticity, lamenting that Casement had become a gay, rather than a nationalist, martyr.
After separating from his wife, he lived at various Dublin addresses, also spending a period in Enfield, Co. Meath, in the early 1990s. Following his death in St Vincent's University Hospital, Dublin, on 2 January 2011, his remains were cremated at Mount Jerome crematorium, Dublin. He left an estate worth €480,291 and an unpublished corpus that included a thriller, a children's book, a second biography of Michael Collins and a historical novel about Hugh O'Neill (qv) (c.1550–1616).