Brigadier General Eric Dorman O’Gowan and Ernest Hemingway
This week's Times Past column by historian Jonathan Smyth recalls the friendship between Brigadier General O'Gowan and Ernest Hemingway...
I have always thought Brigadier Eric Dorman O’Gowan to be something of a heroic genius, a military figure and friend of Ernest Hemingway, able to comfortably operate on the world stage and in Irish affairs. But, whatever the case, he was unquestionably a genius.
On April 2, 1950, Brigadier Eric Dorman O’Gowan (known as the ‘Brig’ for short), of Bellamont House, Cootehill, flew to the United States on tour to make speeches, some of which he hinted would be in opposition to views expressed by Sir Basil Brooke, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland on ‘the relation of Ulster to Eire'.
The Advocate, a New York publication stated that General O’Gowan, then known as Eric Dorman Smith, ‘was Chief of staff to Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck’ of the Eighth Army in the North African campaign during the early stages of the Second World War. He was, the paper said, ‘a vigorous advocate of the desire of Eire to take Northern Ireland’ and had changed his name from Smith to ‘the Gaelic O’Gowan'.
His purpose for visiting the USA was to deliver a series of lectures on the Second World War and, when questioned if he might broach the topic of partition, the upfront General quickly responded: ‘Yes, I am an Ulster man and if anybody wants to ask if any statements, which may be made about Ulster’s case by the other side, are right or wrong; I shall be prepared to say so.’
In New York he planned to meet Mayor O’Dwyer and other groups with an interest in the case for Ireland’s unification. His schedule included a visit to Washington and possibly travelling northwards to Ottawa. Although the full tour programme had not been finalised, he was booked to speak to a variety groups including the Knights of Equity in Pittsburgh.
At the end of the First World War, the then named Captain Eric Dorman Smith of the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers befriended Ernest Hemingway, who was with the American Red Cross; both men were steadily recovering from wounds while in Italy and it was Hemingway who may have given Eric the nickname 'Chink', and later based a character in one of his books on him. Undoubtedly, Hemingway was impressed by the intelligent and courageous young Irish soldier who had won a Military Cross three years before, at Ypres in 1915.
In 1950, O’Gowan spoke of his successor at El Alamein in the war, and told Hemingway that when Monty (General Montgomery) taught tactics at the war college ‘his only conception’ was that a hazel nut should be broken by a sledgehammer, which they agreed was an unsubtle tactic, as they preferred the option of breaking a ‘hazel nut with a hazel nut'.
Both men remained friends, with Hemingway noting that O’Gowan was one of the first buddies he liked to reconnect with when having gone through the exhausting process of completing a book. Both O’Gowan and Hemingway kept up a correspondence over the years and as an example, I quote below an extract from Hemingway’s letter, dated December 23, 1954, which gives us an indication of their friendship: ‘To General E.E. Dorman O’Gowan … Dear Chink, Am very ashamed not to have written. Was over-run by journalists, photographers and plain and fancy crazies. Was in the middle of writing a book and it is a little like being interrupted in fornication. I had no idea how bad that whole business was that ended up with you the O’Gowan. It is shocking and awful. You’d joked about it but I never knew it was that devilish. Hope this Larry Solon character won’t do you the dirty too…
Chink please remember one thing. You are always welcome here; anytime and as long as you want to stay. Please know that and that I always have the necessary to handle your transport and expenses. I’d love to come to you but right now must stay put and have it out with this book. This has been a sort of rough year…
We always had a lot of fun Chink. Do you remember beer drinking at Aigle and the horse chestnuts “like waxen candelabras” and our Bob Racing team at Les Avants? We had fun in Paris and at the sawmill too. Paris was a lovely town then. We’ll have some good fun yet.’
The letter was published in ‘Selected Letters 1917-1961’, by Ernest Hemingway.
In August 1950, Brigadier General O’Gowan’s eye turned to Korea and he suggested to the United States that an Irish contingent of volunteer soldiers should fight alongside the American troops stationed there. In his reply to O’Gowan, George Garrett, the American Ambassador to Ireland, informed the Cootehill man that his government was not yet in a position to ‘enlist aliens'.
O’Gowan may have felt a bit miffed that the idea was not adopted and informed the press: ‘I had hoped that the new treaty of friendship with America would have enabled us to create an Irish Brigade in the US forces, and I think something will come of it yet.’
He added: ‘What I really wanted was a permanent institution in the American Army.’ He expressed his opinion that the British Army at that time had enlisted 10,000 Irishmen, and expressed his fear that, ‘the next thing that will happen is that the Ulster people will claim the couple of Irish regiments that are left.’
A few months earlier, while in New York in April of the same year, O’Gowan had by chance bumped into his old pal Hemingway and,when they parted, Hemingway became despondent and noted: ‘black ass day for Hemingstein. So long, my general. See you soon some place I hope.’
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