Who is Osgur Breatnach?

Author, Novelist, Poet,     Human Rights activist, Journalist, Cartoonist, Lecturer, Film and TV contributor, Business, PR and Management Consultant. 

An award winning writer when in his mid-teens, Osgur Breatnach was born into a Dublin family of writers, artists, musicians and human rights activists. 

He has variously engaged since in journalism, editing and designing periodicals; public relations; lecturing in politics and journalism; contributing to award winning television documentaries, films, radio and Irish best sellers as well as local and national community politics.

Osgur was born in 1950 in Dun Laoghaire, a coastal satellite town outside Dublin, into an Ireland cosseted from the mass deaths of WW2 but economically depressed.

With a Basque-German mother, Lucy, and Irish father, Deasún, he was nourished in a culturally rich home environment.

Reared multi-lingually he spoke Irish to his father, Spanish to his mother and learnt English while at school, playing with other children and through reading.

The home environment was one of radical Catholicism, or liberation theology as it later became to be known;  of the arts and with a world view that contrasted sharply with the post colonial, authoritarian, secretive and culturally  repressive Irish society.

The contrasting European cities of Madrid, and its forested Sierra de Guadarrama hinterland, with Dublin, and Ireland’s bare rugged West of Ireland Connemara and Aran Islands, were intellectually, visually and gastronomically rich for Osgur.

Daily engaging cross-cultural conversations and discussions were augmented by dipping in and out of hundreds of multi-language books and pamphlets, covering a wide breath of topics, that weighed down shelves in the family home.

 Multilingual education

Osgur had a full formal education from the early age of four. He attended Scoil Lorcán, Monkstown, Co. Dublin, the first all-Irish speaking primary school In Dublin co-founded by his parents.

At age eleven he progressed to attend Colaiste Cualann, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, also an all-Irish speaking secondary school, also co-founded by his parents.

When the school closed down Osgur continued his education in bi-lingual O’Connell Schools, Drumcondra, Dublin and both all–Irish schools Colaiste Iognáid in Galway  and Coláiste Íosagáin in the Baile Mhúirne Gaeltacht, in Cork.

There, as part of the school debating team, Osgur read avidly and  began writing verse and prose, winning a national essay competition, with the ironic title (considering his future traumas) of  ‘A Day in my life as a policeman’.

Community & Social Conscience

Developing a strong community and social conscience, at sixteen he helped establish, and became secretary of, the National Irish Secondary Students Union. 

Fellow committee members included Adrian Hardiman (now a Supreme Court judge), Michael McDowell (now ex-Attorney General) and Paddy Wordsworth (journalist and author), all of which helped hone his strategic thinking and debating skills.

He’s my brother

In the late sixties, Breatnach developed his world view to become active in campaigns opposing the Vietnam war through the Irish Voice on Vietnam; in support of pro-independence struggles across Africa (in Angola, Guinnea-Bisseau, Mosambique, Eritrea) and for Civil Rights  in the USA .

When he joined the Irish Anti- Apartheid Movement he befriended Kadar Asmal, later to become Minister for Housing and Water in apartheid-free South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s right-hand man.

For a short while Osgur joined the Irish Young Socialists along with (later to become a renowned Irish national TV broadcaster) Charlie Bird.

Awarded a scholarship to University College Dublin in 1968 Osgur studied for a degree in Arts but left to commit to full time community activism.

Family background

Osgur’s mother, Maria de la Piedad Lucila de Hellman Menchaca (Lucy) was born in the Basque  Country in the Iberian Peninsula and reared there and in Madrid.  

A Spanish Civil War refugee with her family  she was conscripted for service in the German women’s land army (farming) during WW2 because of her father’s German nationality.

Shortly after traumatic WW2 events in Germany in 1940, during which she witnessed the thousand plane bombing of Cologne, she orchestrated her own escape from her conscription and returned to Madrid.

Subsequently she became human-rights focused in her world view.

After the war she met and married Deasún in Madrid, and had one child (Diarmuid). The young family spent six months In Tangiers, North Africa, before moving to Ireland where, over time, Lucy gave birth to five more children, Osgur, Caoilte, Oisín, Lucilita and Cormac.

An independent minded thinker, she was often seen holding her own, along with Deasún, among Dublin’s literati in the political discussions of poets, painters, novelists, playwrights (such as Myles na gCopaleen and Brendan Behan), civil  servants and lawyers in Dublin’s Pearl Bar, famously hosted by Irish Times editor Bertie Smyllie.

A human rights outlook (a longtime supporter of Amnesty International) and support for feminism meant a radical environment for Osgur. Lucy also renewed her interest in art and writing (a posthumous book of children’s stories, illustrated by Lucy, was published in 2012).

Deasún was a prolific journalist, film and drama critic, writer (authoring ten books), poet, linguist, human rights activist, folklorist, lecturer, Irish language enthusiast, political activist, educationalist, socialist and Irish republican. He served in the war-time emergency Local Defence Corps at eighteen years of age before moving to Madrid towards the end of the war.

In the early sixties, as a member of the Irish Wolfe Tone Society, he helped radicalize Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Movement.

Writing articles, reviews, opinion pieces for most of the Irish national newspapers, as well as radio plays for Radio Éireann (Ireland’s national radio) Deasún used a variety of pen names including Mac Lir, Dara Mac Dara and  Rex Mac Gall.

Housing Crisis

In the sixties, as Dublin’s old housing stock began to literally collapse and in the face of the government’s lethargic housing policy, accompanied by aggressive landlords charging exhorborant rents, Osgur joined the local Dun Laoghaire Housing Action Committee.

Soon becoming an activist, street orator, publicist and poster designer he began to emulate the successful tactics of Martin Luther King. Osgur helped turn the center of Dun Laoghaire into a Speaker’s Corner on Saturday summer afternoons.

Later that year, he was elected secretary of the National Housing Action Groups, with branches in Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Bray, Wicklow, Wexford, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Drogheda, Sligo, Derry and Belfast (of which joint Northern Ireland First Minister Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams were, alternately, members).

In the local municipal elections of 1974 Breatnach contested and almost took the last council seat in Dun Laoghaire.

Witness to War

Television images of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) attacking  a Derry Housing Action Committee march on October 5th 1968 in the north of the island had an international impact.

The Battle of the Bogside that followed erupted as Derry’s nationalist population threw up barricades to protect themselves after the police burst into a local house and beat a father and his daughters.  The father died a few days later.

As a free lance journalist Breatnach reported from Belfast in 1969 during the greatest forced mass movement of civilians since WW2.

Unarmed, he helped defend the Falls Road from murderous sectarian gun attacks and assisted the evacuation of civilians from a fire-gutted Bombay Street. His eyewitness account was subsequently published. No one knew it was the first day of what was to be a thirty-year war.

Later that year, perceiving the need for involvement in a national organisation  he joined Sinn Féin.

Following a national political split in Sinn Féin he stayed with (Official) Sinn Féinsince amalgamated into the Irish Labour Party. Deasún, his father, went with the Provisional Sinn  Féin.

Campaigning journalism

The emerging feminist campaigns and those for traveler’s (Roma) rights in Ireland won Breatnach’s active support.

Studying journalism in the Rathmines School of Journalism he became an efficient publicist and wrote prolifically in the media, generating controversies on social issues, under his own and other names. Also, at this time he married.

Disillusioned over time with the shifting policies of Official Sinn Féin he became a founder member of a new political party in December, 1974, the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP). The party’s potential was immediately welcomed in an Irish Times editorial for its national policies for both social justice and political unification under the charismatic leadership of Seamus CostelloBernadette Devlin-McAliskey, amongst others, who began developing a fledgling Irish peace process. Osgur’s first son was born at this time.

Attacks

However, the IRSP came under physical and gun attacks from both State’s in Ireland and other political groups. Breatnach quickly became a national executive member of the IRSP and editor of the Starry Plough, the IRSP’s national newspaper, and developed a distinct journalist style for the paper.

He wrote most of the paper, drew cartoons, took some of its photography and designed and laid out all the paper. In 1978, Osgur was the last person, other than the killer, to meet with Costello on the morning of his murder and had to break the traumatic news to his bereaved family.

Kidnapped, tortured & Framed

Osgur’s journalistic career was interrupted following his kidnapping by Gardai in 1976.

He was tortured and framed in the notorious Garda Heavy Gang- Mail Train Robbery Case as the state in the south slid into recession and towards a police state.

The international campaign to clear his name was to take him over seventeen years.

Amongst the many who associated themselves with the campaign was Mick Hanley, (writer and singer of international hit Past the Point of Rescue). Hanley wrote a song motivated by a TV interview given by Breatnach on his release from jail. Open Those Gates was subsequently recorded by Moving Hearts.

Click to hear Open those Gates.

Later the song was reworded for the Release Nicky Kelly campaign and thereafter for the Birmingham Six Campaign.

International campaign

The case was notorious for being a blatant miscarriage of justice exposing garda, government and court collusion; the longest criminal trial in Irish history.

It was also a milestone for prisoner and human rights, legislative changes and the campaign became a successful organizing template.

A second son was born to Osgur shortly after he was jailed. An International campaign supported by, among other international groups, Amnesty International, secured the quashing of Osgur’s conviction and sentence, His release and that of his other co-accused followed.

Jail deaths and assassinations

With scores of thousands of citizens in the north being incarcerated for short to long periods, according to independent international reports without due process and often on perjured evidence, political and living conditions in the prisons deteriorated.

Margaret Thatcher’s decision to brand hitherto recognised ‘political status ‘ prisoners as ‘criminals’ escalated the response in the jails of Long Kesh/ The Maze (H- Blocks and Armagh Prisons).

   H-Block Hunger Strikes

A  National H-Block & Armagh Committee was formed and tasked with leading an international campaign in the prisoner’s support.

Immediately on his release from wrongful imprisonment in 1981 Osgur was elected to its executive committee and served as joint- Public Relations Officer for the 26 Counties (in the South of Ireland) and Dublin City Organiser.

A strong advocate of tactical radical parliamentary involvement he strongly advocated contesting elections and was appointed Director of Elections for the only  prisoner candidate who contested the Irish general election of 1981 in Dublin. The following year Osgur  stood as a candidate in the general election in 1982.

Ten hunger strikers died in the traumatic campaign that altered forever the face of Irish politics in Ireland, catipulting Sinn Féin internationally and to the fore as a national political force.

Osgur helped carry Bobby Sands to his final resting place. Soon thereafter he also carried those of three more hunger strikers: personal friend Patsy O’Hara and comrades Kevin Lynch and Michael Devine.

Other activist and friends were assassinated in their Belfast homes: Noel Lyttle & Ronnie Bunting and Miriam Daly, at which funeral Osgur gave the main oration.

Osgur and one of his brothers (Caoilte) headed up an international campaign to successfully secure the release of Nicky Kelly, one of Osgur’s original co-accused who, after a thirty seven days hunger strike was eventually released receiving a Presidential Pardon.

Breatnach contributed to award winning television programs and documentaries. Though the Heavens May Fall won an Irish Jacobs Award and Faoi Lámha an Stáit -at the Hands of the State won a number of awards). He also contributed to two Irish best sellers Round Up the Usual Suspects and Blind Justice) as well as local and national media on the Garda Heavy Gang- Mail Train Robbery Case.

Health challenges

In the eighties, Osgur had health challenges and withdrew from political involvement to deal with the ‘Vietnam Vets illness’, post traumatic stress.

Blacklisted from employment he became self-employed, variedly, as a free lance journalist, window  cleaner, painter and decorator, in general house maintenance and then as a restaurateur.

Breatnach also returned to writing free-lance and studied film script writing. He co- produced a film project on Bloody Sunday. However, one of those involved left to continue the project alone then teamed up with with Paul Greengrass, eventually winning the Audience Award at Sundance, the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Hitchcock d’Or best film prize at the Dinard Festival of British Cinema. 

The production of a second movie on the subject, Sunday by Jimmy McGovern,  over-crowded the field and Osgur dropped the project.

Meanwhile, quickly co-developing and selling his first successful restaurant close to the fruit and vegetable markets in the heart of Dublin, The Abbey Courtyard, Breatnach co-built a profitable chain of restaurant-salad bars in the city centre, Ensalada, which were sold on as going concerns.

Tiring of the restaurant business he then opened a public relations and business consultancy and helped found a telecom company.

   Advisor

Re-engaging with human rights issues he became a voluntary assistant to his sister, Lucilita, who was General Secretary of Sinn Féin at the time. Later she was one of the principal Irish Peace Process- Good Friday Agreement negotiators, along with Gerry Adams, Irish TD, Member of the British Parliament and president of Sinn Féin and Martin McGuiness who became Joint First- Minister in  the North of Ireland.

Osgur, occasionally, wrote speech-notes for Gerry Adams, as well as a number of strategic organisational, financial and PR related reports for Sinn Fein’s Ard Comhairle (National Executive).

Instrumental in changes to Sinn Féin’s constitution in favor of affirmative action for women’s participation-ensuring 50/50 election of women to the party’s Ard Comhairle – he also participated in a sub-committee preparing for SF entry to the North’s first post-peace agreement power sharing government in Stormont.

Co-opted as adviser to the Dublin Cúige (Dublin Regional Executive) he formally re-joined Sinn Féin and was, variedly, appointed organiser in two Dublin areas, one of which eliminated all government (Fianna Fáil) national representation as SF won break-through seats in national parliament.

Between the Dublin Mountains and the sea

In 2007 Osgur’s parents both passed away. Lucy died on October first at age 83. Deasún died on October 3rd, the day of Lucy’s burial, at age 85.

Osgur worked with SF in Dun Laoghaire town and locality, the region of his family’s historic Irish origins in 1169 (on his father’s side), between the Dublin Mountains and the sea.

Recently, he was part of the Sinn Féin team that made an historic breakthrough campaigning and taking the first Sinn Féin seats in Dun Laoghaire’s municipal government as Sinn Féin likely heads for government in the South.

   5 Star Publications

Developing his writing over the past few years Osgur is in the process of authoring and publishing a number  of literary works, via 5 Star Publications, spanning,  novels, short stories, poetry and auto-biography. He is also currently developing three scripts: Thief, comedy-thriller; Secrets, a psychological thriller, and Frontline based on his novel of the same name. 

 

© Osgur Breatnach