Ó Conaill, Daithi (1938–91), republican activist, was born 17/20 May 1938 at 26 Lough Road, Cork city, son of Eugene O'Connell, carpenter, and Emma O'Connell (née O'Sullivan). One of his uncles, Michael O'Sullivan, was an Irish Republican Army (IRA) memberman killed by Black and Tans in 1921; Michael's brother David also fought in the war of independence and emigrated to the USA (1925), where he was an active trade unionist. Ó Conaill joined Sinn Féin and the IRA as a seventeen-year-old apprentice carpenter in 1955. On 1 January 1957 he was second-in-command of the raid on Brookeborough Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) barracks in which Sean South (qv) and Fergal O'Hanlon died. He was subsequently interned in Mountjoy jail and the Curragh, escaping in September 1958; he then became IRA director of operations, with his fellow escaper and lifelong ally Ruairí Ó Brádaigh as chief of staff. In November 1959 Ó Conaill was shot six times at Ardboe, Co. Tyrone imprisoned, and released in September 1963.
During the 1960s Ó Conaill was active in the Sinn Féin-supported Wolfe Tone Society in Cork while training as a teacher of construction technology. Though initially supportive of the Cathal Goulding (qv) leadership's attempt to broaden the movement's social base, he came to believe that their emphasis on class politics was overshadowing the national question, and he became associated with the internal opposition around the Committee for Revolutionary Action in the late 1960s. In 1969 Ó Conaill moved to Glencolumbkille, Co. Donegal, where he worked as a vocational teacher and took part in the local cooperative development project overseen by Fr James McDyer (qv). In July 1969 he became IRA officer commanding (OC) in Donegal, Londonderry, Tyrone, and Fermanagh.
Ó Conaill was one of the leaders of the group that formed Provisional Sinn Féin/IRA in January 1970, and a founding member of the Provisional IRA army council. He travelled to New York in 1970, organising Provisional support networks in America and encouraging the formation of the Irish Northern Aid Committee (Noraid). In 1971 Ó Conaill became vice-president of Provisional Sinn Féin and co-authored Éire Nua, which proposed four provincial parliaments in a united Ireland. For most of the 1970s he was regarded as the Provisionals’ main political theoretician; his strategy was based on the belief that ‘one big push’ could force the British to the negotiating table, leading to withdrawal. As part of his attempt to ‘bomb them to the table’ he promoted the car-bomb as a weapon. Late in 1971 Ó Conaill travelled on the Continent, arranging an arms shipment from Czechoslovakia via Holland. He was accompanied by Maria McGuire, a radical university graduate, as interpreter. The arms were seized at Schiphol airport, Amsterdam, and although Ó Conaill and McGuire escaped arrest they received extensive publicity. In 1973 McGuire published a memoir describing divisions between the militaristic Mac Stiofáin (qv) and the ‘moderate’ Ó Conaill–Ó Brádaigh group. McGuire claimed she and Ó Conaill had been lovers; his reputation never fully recovered from the misjudgement shown by trusting her. In June 1972 he played a leading role in negotiating a truce, during which an IRA delegation (including Ó Conaill) met cabinet ministers in Chelsea on 7 July. The meeting ended in deadlock and the truce broke down on 9 July.
Ó Conaill continued to advocate increased military pressure and negotiations; he was widely criticised when his televised threat to bring the conflict to the British people was followed by the Birmingham bombings of 21 November 1974, which killed twenty-one people and injured more than 160. On 10 December 1974 Ó Conaill led an IRA delegation that met protestant clergymen at Feakle, Co. Clare. He negotiated the terms of a bilateral ceasefire in February 1975, assuming the British were virtually defeated; instead, the IRA were politically isolated (partly because of refusal to participate in elections), while the ceasefire weakened the IRA, improved British intelligence, brought attacks from loyalist paramilitaries, and encouraged republican splinter groups. Ó Conaill is said to have been preparing to call off the truce when arrested by the gardaí in July 1975 and imprisoned for IRA membership. After the ceasefire broke down early in 1976 and the IRA reorganised for a ‘long war’, a group of younger northerners, politicised internees, challenged the older leadership.
In 1977 Ó Conaill joined nineteen other IRA prisoners on a forty-seven-day hunger strike in protest at conditions in Portlaoise prison. He was released in August 1977 and resumed his activities, but found himself increasingly isolated by the dominant northerners within the IRA. Ó Conaill was active in the national H-block and Armagh committee, and played a significant role in the candidacy of Bobby Sands (qv) in the 1981 Fermanagh–South Tyrone by-election. He was director of elections for H-block dáil candidates in the 1981 general election. At the 1983 ard-fheis Ó Conaill resigned as vice-president of Sinn Féin after it abandoned Éire Nua. In 1986 Ó Conaill left Sinn Féin when it abandoned abstentionism, and co-founded Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), becoming its first vice-president. RSF could not support him as a full-time revolutionary; he taught technical drawing and woodwork at Old Bawn community school, Tallaght. He died suddenly on 1 January 1991 at his home in Raheny, Dublin.
He married (1964) Deirdre Caffrey from Donegal, first cousin of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and sister-in-law of another prominent republican, Kevin Mallon. They had a son and two daughters. Republican Sinn Féin offices in Parnell St., Dublin, were christened Teach Daithi Ó Conaill. In Eugene McCabe's novella Victims (1976) the IRA leftist Isabella Lynam and the ‘gravel-voiced’ IRA leader Burke are based on McGuire and Ó Conaill. A quiet, intense figure, resembling the mid-century stereotype of the secretive IRA man, Ó Conaill was the most talented of his generation of Sinn Féin/IRA leaders.