Mac Giolla, Tomás (1924–2010), republican and politician, was born Thomas Gill on 25 January 1924 at Fatheen House, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, one of three children (one girl and two boys) of Robert P. Gill (d. 1928), civil engineer with Tipperary North County Council, and his second wife, Mary (née Hourigan). Robert Gill had been active in nationalist politics during the 1880s; his brother Thomas was an IPP MP. Mac Giolla remembered being 'poor', as his father had died leaving substantial debts. He was educated initially at the local Christian Brothers' national school; his brother won a scholarship to St Flannan's College in Ennis, and their mother successfully argued that Mac Giolla also be granted admission.
After his leaving certificate, Mac Giolla gained a place at UCD, aided by financial help from relatives. He recalled that during that period 'like most Irish people who say they're non-political I would have had a sort of gut-hatred of the British' (Hot Press, 18 May 1989). The 'first real political event' he attended was the protest outside TCD on VE Day in May 1945 over the flying of Allied flags. He completed his BA degree, then studied at night to gain a B.Comm., and in 1947 began work as a revenue accountant at the ESB. Influenced by the wave of emotion during 1949 around the declaration of the republic, Mac Giolla became active in the Anti-Partition League, but was one of 'a number of young people in it who continually voiced their dissatisfaction with the lack of a definite policy' (United Irishman, January 1966). In the early 1950s he joined the IRA and then Sinn Féin, being elected to the party's ard comhairle in 1956. Mac Giolla was not on active service when the IRA's border campaign began that year, but in January 1957 he was jailed for three months, and in July 1957 was one of a number of leading republicans interned in the Curragh camp. It was there that he began to use the Irish form of his name. He later described internment as 'probably the two most important years of my life … far more important than the National University' (Léargas, 16 July 2006).
Released in June 1959, he resumed republican activity and was jailed again in February 1960. He lost his job for a period and worked as a salesman before being rehired by the ESB. In September 1961 he married Máire ('May') McLaughlin, a republican activist from Dublin's East Wall area. Mac Giolla credited McLaughlin with introducing him to the city's traditions of working-class radicalism. In the October 1961 general election, he stood as Sinn Féin candidate for Tipperary North, winning 1,123 votes but finishing bottom of the poll. In December 1961 he was jailed again, this time by the recently revived special military court.
The IRA leadership agreed to end their campaign during January 1962, and Mac Giolla and other activists were released by March. Sinn Féin was then faced with a leadership crisis as several veterans resigned. Mac Giolla became acting president, and at the November 1962 ard fheis was elected to that position. The public face of Sinn Féin during the 1960s, Mac Giolla was an Irish speaker and practising catholic, a heavy smoker, but teetotaler, who contemporaries noted bore a 'marked physical resemblance' to a 'younger Eamon de Valera' (Ir. Times, 23 June 1969). He was also a member of the IRA's army council. Though different in background and temperament, Mac Giolla would work closely with IRA leader Cathal Goulding (qv) over the next decade. Mac Giolla supported the moves by Goulding to involve the IRA in social agitation but remained very much a traditional republican. On controversial issues such as abstention from parliament, Mac Giolla reiterated that 'there is no question of us entering Leinster House … until such time as we are given a mandate by the Irish people to establish a republican government legislating for the while nation' (United Irishman, ibid.). In August 1967 he told an IRA meeting that the movement's socialism should be 'based on the advanced teaching of the popes of recent times' (Hanley, Saothar (2013)). In 1968 he asserted that 'true republicanism and true socialism are identical as both are based on the brotherhood of man. Socialism has nothing to do with either atheism or totalitarianism … neither is it a philosophy which must be imported. It is part of the republican tradition since the founding of the United Irishmen [and] was the driving force behind the 1916 rebellion' (Sinn Féin (1968)). Critics later claimed that Mac Giolla maintained a deliberately ambiguous position during internal debates about these issues.
Mac Giolla was heavily involved in the day-to-day activity of Sinn Féin and was arrested on numerous occasions. Involvement in these campaigns increased Mac Giolla's visbility. In January 1969 the Irish Times named him as one of ten political figures likely to make an impact in the coming year; the article also described him as the 'most able man' in Sinn Féin (Ir. Times, 1 January 1969). Public republican optimism masked serious internal differences over the direction in which Goulding and Mac Giolla were taking the movement. In August 1969 at a rally in Dublin after violence had erupted in Belfast, Mac Giolla claimed that 'when the guns came out and people were being shot the only ones who could protect [them] were the IRA'. He challenged the 'Free State Army' to defend the people in the North, and that if they would not, then they should give their weapons 'to us' (Ir. Times, 16 August 1969). The Northern crisis intensified the political divisions within republicanism, and by January 1970 the republican movement had split, with Mac Giolla now president of Official Sinn Féin.
Initially, Mac Giolla's attitude towards his former comrades in the Provisional movement was conciliatory, though bitterness was later to emerge. He was adamant that the key factor in the Provisionals' emergence was support from elements within Fianna Fáil. As violence in the North escalated, Mac Giolla reiterated that the Official IRA (OIRA) favoured mass popular resistance but would also take 'retaliatory' military action when necessary. The Provisionals' armed struggle, on the other hand, was condemned for being both counter-productive and sectarian. At times this stance produced confusion. After the killing of Unionist NI Senator John Barnhill by the OIRA, Mac Giolla initially blamed British agents, only for the Officials to admit, and defend, the operation as a necessary retaliation for repression. After 'bloody Sunday' on 30 January 1972, the OIRA bombed the headquarters of the Parachute Regiment and killed seven people, five of them female cleaners. Mac Giolla later claimed that the attack had come as a shock to him and blamed an ineffective bomb maker. The extent to which the OIRA should engage in armed action was among the issues that eventually forced a ceasefire in May 1972, a move fully supported by Mac Giolla. Crucially, the Officials contended that violence was intensifying sectarian division and making unity between workers impossible. In a speech at Carrickmore, Co. Tyrone, during July 1972, Mac Giolla argued that 'the Irish revolution … demands the support of the protestant working class'. He claimed that the violence of August 1969 had not been carried out by ordinary 'protestant people against their catholic neighbours' but only by 'B Specials and some Orange sectarian bigots'. Instead, it was the Provisional IRA's campaign that was driving protestants towards reaction (Republican Clubs (1972)). By 1978 Mac Giolla would argue that 'the Provos are engaged in a war against the Irish people … can anyone say that the atrocities of the infamous Black and Tans were any worse?' (Sinn Féin The Workers' Party (1978)). Such virulent denunciations of the Provisional IRA became a trademark of Mac Giolla and his party.
As a member and sometimes chairman of the OIRA army council, Mac Giolla was part of debates within the movement on the future role of the 'army.' In these discussions he would side with those, such as Goulding and Seán Garland (b. 1934), who stressed the need for a new revolutionary party, with the OIRA strictly subordinate to it. These plans were interrupted by the violent feuding that followed the Officials' attempts to prevent their former comrade Séamus Costello (qv) from forming a new organisation in early 1975, and later that year by the Provisionals' onslaught on the Officials in Belfast. The Officials concluded that association with paramilitarism was harming their progress in the south. A decision was taken to maintain an armed wing but publicly to deny this – a task often left to Mac Giolla as party leader. In 1982 he told RTÉ that 'there was no reason to think that it [the OIRA] still exists' (Ir. Times, 9 March 1982). However, the issue would cause re-occurring trouble for the party.
In November 1973 Mac Giolla spoke at the World Congress of International Peace Forces in Moscow. The Officials were increasingly identified with eastern bloc socialism. Mac Giolla had been critical of the Soviet system in the past and never explained how or when he had changed his mind. (He suggested later that 'Cuba would be a much better model' for Ireland than would be the states of eastern Europe (Hot Press, 1 June 1989).) Despite his high profile, Mac Giolla was not a key driver of these ideological changes, and among some members his relatively traditional republicanism continued to arouse suspicion. As president of Official Sinn Féin he was important in the party's move towards electoral politics, aided by the addition of 'The Workers' Party' (SFWP) to their name during 1977. Mac Giolla's popularity among the movement's rank and file reassurred those who felt that the name change reflected a further shift from their roots.
In June 1976 Mac Giolla had won 1,679 votes (7 per cent of the first-preference total) for Sinn Féin in a by-election in Dublin South-West. He took early retirement from the ESB in 1977 to work fulltime for SFWP, and in 1979 became the party's first member on Dublin Corporation, holding his seat until 1998. He also ran as a candidate for Dublin in the 1979 European elections, winning 11,915 votes (4 per cent). In November 1982 he took a Dáil Éireann seat in Dublin West after a rapid series of general and by-election contests in 1981–2 in which his support had steadily grown. Though his party (now styled the Workers' Party (WP)), lost two seats in the November 1982 election, Mac Giolla and his fellow party TD, Proinsias De Rossa, punched well above their weight in the new dáil, harrying the Labour party, which was in coalition with Fine Gael. In 1986 Mac Giolla boasted that 'we have exposed the ineptness of the Labour leadership and their craven forelock-tugging attitude to Fine Gael, the political party of the bosses' (Workers' Party (1986)). In the 1987 general election, Mac Giolla was easily re-elected with 6,651 votes, while his party won four seats. However, in 1988 he announced that he was standing down as party president, citing the need for a younger party leader, and was replaced by De Rossa (Ir. Press, 14 September 1987).
The WP experienced its greatest electoral success in 1989, with seven TDs elected, Mac Giolla himself winning 8,218 votes (17 per cent) in Dublin West. However, in 1992 the party split, under the impact of the collapse of the eastern bloc and recurring allegations of illegal activity by WP members. The split pitted the majority of the party's TDs against the core leadership of the movement since the 1960s. In terms of age and background Mac Giolla was clearly one of the old guard, but both factions courted his support. Ultimately he backed his old comrades and lamented that 'it took twenty-five years to build [a] great and effective party and it has been smashed from within in a week' (Ir. Independent, 24 February 1992). In the longer run, it was De Rossa whom Mac Giolla blamed for the split, accusing him of having 'organised a campaign against me … I'll never forgive him for that' (Léargas, 16 July 2006). In the November 1992 general election Mac Giolla's vote fell to just 2,276 first-preference votes and he narrowly lost his dáil seat. He was not to regain it, despite standing for election again in 1996 (when he won 2,909 votes) and 1997 (taking just 1,135 votes). However, in July 1993 Mac Giolla defeated a Fianna Fáil candidate to become lord mayor of Dublin. He was 'deeply honoured' to become mayor of 'a city where I have lived and struggled for over fifty years' (Ir. People, September 1993). In 1994 he was the WP candidate for the European parliament, winning 15,830 votes (5.7 per cent). By the late 1990s, retirement allowed him to pay more attention to his personal interests, though he remained active in the Workers' Party. Living in Chapelizod on Dublin's southside, he regretted in 1989 that he and May had been 'unable to have children'. He described himself as 'more an agnostic' than an atheist, and while he had been a Pioneer he now 'enjoyed a few jars' (Hot Press, 1 June 1989). Mac Giolla died, aged 86, in Beaumont Hospital, Dublin, on 4 February 2010, and was the subject of tributes from, among others, old rivals in Sinn Féin and Labour. His funeral took the form of a secular ceremony at Ballyfermot Community Civic Centre, where the affection for him among the local community was evident. He was buried in Palmerstown cemetery.
A high-profile figure in Irish politics for thirty years, Mac Giolla made a political evolution from traditional republican to socialist parliamentarian that mirrored that of the Official republican movement after the split in 1970. He played a major role in the emergence of his party as a factor in Irish political life, respected even by those critical of his politics.