Despite his success as a judge and the energy he has devoted to keeping politics out of jurisprudence, Judge O’Scannlain expressed little interest in a judicial career as a young lawyer and instead gravitated toward politics and policymaking. But, as his oral history reveals, there are many surprises in his life before the court.
An Irish Heritage
As one might surmise from his thoroughly Gaelic name, Diarmuid Fionntain O’Scannlain boasts a strong and storied Irish heritage. His father, Sean, was born in 1900 in County Sligo in western Ireland. He grew up on the family farm speaking Gaelic and was very active from a young age in the Irish quest for independence. (Perhaps these paternal yearnings spurred the judge’s habit, many decades later, of reciting the Declaration of Independence for his family every Fourth of July.) As it happened, Sean eventually became a cadre of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the secret revolutionary group that predated and eventually merged into the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
In his oral history, Judge O’Scannlain reports that, as a cadre, his father had the task of “obtaining arms for the movement.” He found a potential source in German weapons-dealers operating out of Manchester after the Great War but negotiating with them was—as the judge euphemistically phrases it—a “high-risk occupation.” Sean was arrested in England, returned to Ireland, and jailed in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison. It didn’t hold him. “He and a cell mate were able to tunnel out, and went up to the north of Ireland to Derry City—at that time it was called Londonderry.”
The fugitives were taken in by Padraig Hegarty, head of the IRA in Derry. They hid out in the attic of the Hegarty home until the situation “cooled down,” receiving meals from Mr. Hegarty’s young Gaelic-speaking daughter, Moira Hegarty. Those days on the lam proved providential. Some 15 years later—after fighting on the losing side of the Irish Civil War, being imprisoned once again by the new Irish government, and emigrating to America to work as a carpenter—Sean returned to Derry to “renew his acquaintanceship” with Moira, who was by then a schoolteacher. They were married in Belfast in 1936, and then the couple emigrated to New York City. It was there that Diarmuid was born in 1937.
But he wasn’t born Diarmuid O’Scannlain. Sean O’Scannlain, much to his own chagrin, had grown up with the anglicized name John Scanlon, and so his eldest son, in turn, was born Diarmuid Scanlon. It was not until the late 1930s that John formally changed his own name to Sean and the surname of his young American family to the Gaelic spelling: O’Scannlain. The O’Scannlains spoke only Gaelic at home: “[T]hat was the language I was brought up on until about the age of, what, four or five, I suppose, when I started to mix with other children and had to do something about communicating with them.” He recalls his first of many appearances in the New York Times came in the early 1940s after he had decided to wander out of his backyard toward Queens Boulevard and into the subway station. The Times reported that the police had been flummoxed by the incomprehensible tongue spoken by a young boy found wandering there.