De Blacam, Aodh (Hugh Saunders Blackham, Aodh Sandrach de Blacam) (1891–1951), journalist and politician, was born Hugh Saunders Blackham in London on 11 December 1891, son of William George Blackham, a Newry-born apothecary, and his English wife Elizabeth (née Saunders). He was descended from a long-established protestant family in Newry; a cousin, Robert James Blackham, was surgeon general to the British forces in Ireland during the war of independence and later financed de Blacam's edition (1932) of verse by a shared ancestor, Henry Hamilton Blackham. Another cousin, John Heron Lepper (to whom de Blacam dedicated his 1935 biography of Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv)), was a romantic novelist, genealogist, and freemason who lived in Carrickfergus.
De Blacam was brought up as an evangelical protestant (though his father discouraged him from developing anti-catholic prejudice); he experienced a religious crisis on discovering that his schoolmasters were not biblical literalists. (De Blacam's 1920 Bildungsroman Holy Romans combines a hostile account of a protestant fundamentalist upbringing with an apocalyptic sensibility that presents the first world war as divine judgment on an unjust society and portrays St John the Evangelist watching over the Easter rising.) Although well-educated, de Blacam found himself in straitened circumstances after his father's early death. A painful experience of working in a factory under an exploitative Jewish employer left him with a lasting hostility to urban industrial society, as well as a certain degree of anti-Semitism (he regularly made pejorative remarks associating Jewish people with exploitation, mass culture, and other undesirable features of modernity).
For a time de Blacam was active in socialist politics; then the influence of Robert Lynd (qv), and the discovery that as a young man his father had been a protestant home-ruler with republican sympathies led him to embrace Irish nationalism and to become active in Sinn Féin and the London branch of the Gaelic League. (His first visit to Dublin was made in 1910 for the opening of a new Sinn Féin headquarters.) De Blacam's desire to reclaim his Irishness, and the writings of G. K. Chesterton (which combine anglo-catholic apologetics with advocacy of a society made up of small landholders) brought about his conversion to catholicism in 1913; he believed he had found the answer to contemporary social problems in Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum.
In May 1914 de Blacam moved to Ireland, where he made his living as a freelance journalist – he worked for a time on the Enniscorthy Echo – and Sinn Féin publicist. During the war of independence he worked as a propagandist with Arthur Griffith (qv) and Herbert Moore Pim (qv); he took over the editorship of the weekly Young Ireland from Pim in 1918. For a time he lived in Donegal, attempting to encourage local literary activity till he was interned by the British. At this time he produced two political manifestoes, Towards the republic (1919) and What Sinn Féin stands for (1921). These books, frequently cited by critics of Sinn Féin as proof of its impracticability, argue that Bolshevism and catholic social teaching are essentially the same thing and that Ireland, having experienced feudalism and capitalism only as impositions by external forces, could move straight to a soviet society (imagined as a decentralised, rural, cooperative commonwealth) by reviving its Gaelic traditions.
De Blacam opposed the treaty and participated in republican propaganda activities during the civil war; he was interned in 1922. For the next quarter-century his fortunes would be linked closely to those of Éamon de Valera (qv), whom he regarded as the incarnation of his social and political ideals. In the 1920s he worked for a while as a book reviewer and leader writer on the Irish Times; he also contributed regularly to the Irish Independent, and to Australian and American catholic papers, and he was briefly editor of the catholic weekly The Standard. He moved in Dublin literary circles in the early 1920s, occasionally writing for the Irish Statesman; it was his hope that George Bernard Shaw (qv), George Russell (qv) (‘AE’), and W. B. Yeats (qv) might convert to catholicism, and he was appalled by the paths that each of them took – on Yeats's death he denounced the poet's later works as demonic. His relations with Peadar O'Donnell (qv) (who may have inspired the character of the cooperative organiser Faragal Faal in Holy Romans) followed a similar trajectory.
De Blacam eventually settled in Ravensdale, Co. Louth, where he kept a small farm which he subsidised by his journalism. He regularly celebrated the peasantry of the border country between north Louth and south Armagh as custodians of unbroken Irish rural tradition; this type is represented by the figures of Redmond O'Hanlon (qv) and Oliver Plunkett (qv) in his play Golden priest (1937). In private, however, he expressed disquiet about his countrymen's penchant for cattle-smuggling and other forms of lawbreaking, and some of his journalism laments Irish farmers’ cruelty to animals. His vision of a rural Irish catholic civilisation, which holds up both Canon Sheehan (qv) and Daniel Corkery (qv), whose Hidden Ireland he profoundly admired, as antidotes to the ‘morbidity’ and ‘pessimism’ of modern literature, is set out in Gentle Ireland (1935) written for American readers.
De Blacam was a genuinely cultivated man; his writings include direct translations from Italian and Spanish (which he learned in order to be able to read Don Quixote in the original). His Gaelic literature surveyed (1929), which displays extensive knowledge of manuscript as well as printed sources, remained the only one-volume history of Irish-language literature until the end of the twentieth century; it is marred, however, by a belief that Irish literature throughout the centuries reflects an unchanging ‘Gaelic spirit’, and by injudicious praise of Mussolini as an apostle of national renewal (elsewhere de Blacam deprecates Mussolini as insufficiently catholic.) He is best remembered, however, for his ‘Roddy the Rover’ column which appeared in the Irish Press from 1931 to 1947. This combined a literary-historical causerie with self-consciously droll accounts of ‘Roddy's’ country ramblings and quaint rural relatives; it was particularly popular with children – de Blacam published several boys’ stories.
De Blacam also wrote extensively for catholic periodicals, including The Standard, the Irish Rosary, and the Irish Monthly. He idealised the regimes of Dollfuss in Austria and Salazar in Portugal as upholders of catholic social justice. In 1936 he was an outspoken supporter of the nationalist cause in the Spanish civil war, helping Cardinal MacRory (qv) to organise assistance for Franco and a boycott of publications that supported the Spanish republicans; he was horrified to find many old friends on the opposite side in what he considered a clear-cut conflict between Christ and Antichrist.
A major theme of de Blacam's writing is an attempt to argue that Ulster protestants are ‘really’ Irish – that is, Gaelic and catholic – without recognising it. His major statement of this view appears in The black north (1938), which carries an introduction by de Valera. The work argues, inter alia, that presbyterian emphasis on self-government derives from the Gaelic clan tradition, that the rural south is the ‘natural’ market for northern industries, that presbyterian ‘kailyard’ writers of rural nostalgia such as Lydia M. Foster exemplify the naturally Irish piety and purity of her co-religionists, and that the fact that some workers commuted from the Armagh borderland to work in Dundalk factories proved that the south was better off economically than the north.
De Blacam allegedly influenced de Valera's ‘dancing at the crossroads’ broadcast of 1943, which can be seen as an attempt to address complaints by Fianna Fáil traditionalists and rural protest groups that de Valera's government had failed to address the decline in the Irish rural population. De Blacam shared these concerns. In 1946 he co-founded the Mellifont Conference on Depopulation and Council of National Action (chaired by Joseph Hanly), which advocated drastic measures of economic autarky and cultural protectionism to halt rural depopulation. He lamented that factory employment in Dundalk was encouraging emigration by habituating young people to regular wage packets and urban amenities, and thus making them discontented with the small-farm lifestyle. De Blacam tried to persuade the Fianna Fáil national executive to adopt a ban on female emigration, a ban on women being employed in factories, and an end to commercially sponsored programmes on Radio Éireann, which he accused of promoting ‘debased and commercialised food habits’. These proposals were shelved by the executive; de Blacam engaged in heated controversies with Seán MacEntee (qv), responding to accusations that his proposals violated individual freedom by protesting that some people were extending a legitimate reaction against totalitarianism to the point of embracing liberal heresies condemned by catholicism. In December 1947 de Blacam left Fianna Fáil for Clann na Poblachta, and was immediately sacked from the Irish Press. At the 1948 general election he was an unsuccessful candidate in Louth, polling 4.89 per cent of the vote.
On the formation of the 1948–51 inter-party government de Blacam became official spokesman for the Department of Health and speech-writer to Noel Browne (qv) (whom he supplied with copious quotations in church Latin). He expressed some sympathy for the Mother and Child Scheme (which was not inconsistent with his earlier views, given his low esteem for individual autonomy and the fact that the scheme's promoters originally presented it as implementing catholic social teaching). De Blacam served on the commission on emigration, where he argued that to attribute emigration to economic factors was fundamentally materialistic and Marxist, and declared that the problem was a spiritual one, which could be resolved by fostering an appropriate mentality.
De Blacam married Mary McCarville, who came from Co. Monaghan; they had two sons. De Blacam died 13 January 1951. One of his wife's brothers, Dr Patrick McCarville (1893–1955), was active in the war of independence, and was successively a Fianna Fáil TD, an unsuccessful Clann na Poblachta candidate, and chairman of the Irish nursing board.
De Blacam was a sincere seeker after religious faith and social justice, prepared to sacrifice his own interests for the sake of his beliefs; but the image of Ireland he propagated can only be described as delusional on an epic scale. While he was aware of the difference between the sunny Ireland celebrated by ‘Roddy the Rover’ and the society around him, he apparently convinced himself that the shortcomings of the real world could be made to disappear through silence and coercion. He is best summed up in the jibe of Sean O'Faolain (qv) that the most fervent Gaelic chauvinists were ‘the Cunninghams [a reference to Gearóid Ó Cuinneagáin (qv)] and Blackhams’ (‘That typical Irishman’, The Bell, Nov. 1942).
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).