9 December 2004 Edition
Frank Ryan re-examined
On 11 December 1936, 68 years ago, Frank Ryan led 40 Socialist Republicans to Spain to fight Franco's fascists.
In Green and Red;
The lives of Frank Ryan
By Adrian Hoar
Frank Ryan first came to my attention in the 1950s when, outside our local church after Mass, my father explained to me that a man I had just spoken to and I was asking after was 'Mack of the Lawn', who had fought with Frank Ryan in Spain. He also explained that this was a complicated man who was a communist that did not believe in God and why this was so, how the Bishops had backed the Blueshirts, our local fascists. This is one of the many learned and half learned lessons that I am grateful for 50 years on.
Enough of my personal reminiscing, on to the task in hand reviewing In Green and Red‚ the Lives of Frank Ryan. A very pleasant task this turned out to be, as I moved from well researched and well written chapter after chapter.
Frank Ryan was born in Elton, County Limerick, and was the seventh of nine children and the fifth son of Vere Ryan and his wife Ann, both schoolteachers. Young Francis Richard's upbringing was strict; his father was a teetotal non-smoking schoolteacher orientated towards progressive ideas about education.
"He enjoyed the reputation as an excellent teacher which was surpassed only by his renown for severity and unencumbered by any tolerance for what he considered to be the flaws of his pupils or their parents; he was remembered for years afterwards as a classroom tyrant. Pupils were beaten and parents were harangued."
Frank's early education was in his father's school. In 1916, aged 14, he was sent to St Colman's College in Fermoy, where he was described as "a student of more than average ability", despite acquiring "a rich and varied experience of flogging" for fighting, smoking and truancy. He became a frequent escapee from St Colman's, but he was sufficiently in attendance to gain honours at Junior and Intermediate Grades, winning a First Class Prize in the latter, as well as coming first in English and French in a class of 44 students.
Frank then moved to Rockwell College near Cashel, where young men were prepared for the priesthood. His time there was brief. Apparently expelled for leading a protest against poor quality of food, it was the Church's loss, Ireland's and history's gain. He returned to St Coleman's where, in senior grade in 1920 he passed his matriculation but with no distinction.
Extracurricular activities were now taking their toll; he was by then an active member of the local battalion of the IRA in an active area. At this time, he was all things to all those who new him "academic, a schoolboy Spartacus and valued sportsman, towering over his classmates and brimming with vigour".
He was passionate for Gaelic Games and played on the winning team for St Coleman's against North Monastery in the Junior Cup. A sociable, charismatic and contemplative youth, also a voracious reader, he must have been a godsend to those who were fortunate enough to have the use of his services.
In 1920, and 18 years of age, he was back with his home Battalion of the IRA in East Limerick, possibly as a staff officer. We find at this time emerging one of those fine minds that emerged from a time of revolution and war — an ideological, well balanced political mind capable of drawing from the best of Irish republicanism, the socialism of James Connolly and the analytical romanticism of Pádraic Pearse.
And yet at this time we find the first emergence of the many contradictions that was to be Frank Ryan for the remainder of his life. His involvement in the suppression of the factory soviet/strike in Knocklong, to some reflecting a weakness in his make up, though not to most of those who were to make contact with him then and over the next 20 years. It reflected his ability to analyse and take the necessary pragmatic decisions for the cause he found himself serving, that of Irish independence.
With the signing of the truce in 1921 we find him recommencing his education in UCD where he became a prominent member of the Gaelic League and the new IRA officer Training Corp. Ryan opposed the Treaty and returned to the East Limerick Brigade of the IRA in 1922. He fought on the side of the Republic until June 1923, when he was wounded and interned in Hare Park Camp, where he edited An Giorrfhiodh, the voice of the prisoners. He was released in November 1923 and returned to his studies in UCD. Here he gave the impression that the only thing that interested him was the language movement, spending his weekends in the company of Gaeilgeoirí. During this time he was editor of the Gaelic League magazine An Réult. Also at this time we find him active in his secret role that of editor of the IRA's internal journal An t-Óglach. In 1925 he graduated from UCD with a Honours BA in Celtic Studies.
Then in 1926 he became Adjutant of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA at which time we find him becoming involved in the International aspect of his life, when he represented the IRA at the Anti-Imperialist Congress in Paris. In 1929, he became Editor of the broadsheet An Phoblacht and was elected to the Army Council.
In the following year, we find him representing the IRA at a Clan na Gael Convention in the Hamden Theatre, Broadway, New York, as the main support from home for Joseph MacGarity, now engaged in a deadly struggle to maintain American support for the IRA in the face of an onslaught for funds from the emerging Fianna Fáil. The bulk of his speech was directed against "those renegades who hold Ireland for the British Empire".
In 1931, Frank was imprisoned for two months for publishing 'seditious' articles in An Phoblacht and in the same year received three months for contempt of court at his trial on charges of IRA membership, of which he was acquitted.
In 1933 he acquired the additional responsibility of National Organiser of Fianna Éireann.
Then in 1934, an IRA convention was held which resulted in a split engineered by those who saw the Army as an organisation that should remain non-political, who indeed saw no problem in supporting Fianna Fáil's election efforts at the expense of anti-treaty republicans and in contravention of Army orders. The split developed between the non-socialist and socialist republicans after which Frank Ryan, Peadar O'Donnell and George Gilmore (The Galtee Mountain boy) founded the Republican Congress.
In 1935 he was one of the driving forces in the establishment of Co-Op Press and the Liberty Press in order to overcome the increasing force of state censorship, in order to facilitate the publication of left-wing periodicals and newspapers in Ireland.
As the dark clouds of fascism rolled on to the horizons of Europe, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, with his new partner Adolf Hitler in Germany, cast around for a theatre in which to test their military muscle for greater designs on the reins of power in Europe. A would be fellow dictator in the form of a disgruntled Spanish general Francisco Franco attacked the democratically-elected government of the Spanish Republic. The European powers on the democratic side dithered and procrastinated; indeed they became obstructive, with sanctions and blockades against the democratically-elected government in Madrid. Civil war raged on the Iberian Peninsula, where no such delicate requirements encumbered the fascist powers, as they flung their Condor Legions of land, sea and air against the Spanish People and Government of the Spanish Republic.
Frank Ryan emerged as the commander of the Connolly Column (Irish section) of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (International Brigade). This was a role that he was to hold until March 1937, when he returned to Ireland briefly and founded the Irish Democrat and helped re-launch a new edition of An Phoblacht. Later that year, Frank returned to Spain where, on 31 March 1938, he was captured by Italian fascists at Calaceite. He was court-martialled 15 June 1938, when he was found guilty of alleged war crimes and sentenced to death. For some unbeknown reason, Frank Ryan was not treated as most prisoners in this circumstance. Instead of the local Olive Grove, the Firing Squad and Mass Grave, he was imprisoned in Burgos Prison to await execution.
This delay was to save Frank Ryan's life and to allow, for some reason, to this day buried in the files of the Dublin's Iveagh House, for de Valera to intercede with the Franco regime, perhaps at the request of Vere Ryan, a now retired teacher living in de Valera's constituency of Clare. In January 1940 he was informed that his sentence had been commuted to 30 years penal servitude.
Then, on 14 July 1940, his prison escape was effected by German Intelligence (The Abwehr) who believed that his IRA connections would make him useful to the German war effort.
While in Germany, he met with fellow Irish republicans Francis Stuart and Seán Russell.
Russell and Ryan attempted to return to Ireland by U-Boat but Russell died of a perforated ulcer during the journey, at which time the mission was abandoned. Ryan was returned to Germany, a virtual prisoner of Hitler's Reich. In January, 1943, Ryan suffered a stroke and died in Dresden on 10 June 1944. He was buried in Loschwitz and his remains were re-interred in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, in 1979.
This extract is from one of Ryan's works. I include it to give a taste of the man that was Francis (Frank) Richard Ryan.
The Book of the 15th Brigade (1938). The Battle of Jarama
"On the road from Chinchón to Madrid, the road along which we had marched to the attack three days before, were now scattered all who survived - a few hundred Britons, Irish and Spaniards. Dispirited by heavy casualties, by defeat, by lack of food, worn out by three days of gruelling fighting, our men appeared to have reached the end of their resistance.
Some were still straggling down the slopes from what had been up to an hour ago, the front line. And now, there was no line, nothing between the Madrid road and the Fascists but disorganised groups, of weary, war-wrecked men. After three days of terrific struggle, the superior numbers, the superior armament of the Fascists had routed them. All, as they came back, had similar stories to tell: of comrades dead, of conditions that were more than flesh and blood could stand, of weariness they found hard to resist.
I recognised the young Commissar of the Spanish Company. His hand bloody where a bullet had grazed the palm, he was fumbling nevertheless with his automatic, in turn threatening and pleading with his men. I got Manuel to calm him, and to tell him we would rally everyone in a moment. As I walked along the road to see how many men we had, I found myself deciding that we should go back up the line of the road to San Martín de la Vega, and take the Moors on their left flank. Groups were lying about on the roadside, hungrily eating oranges that had been thrown to them by a passing lorry. This was no time to sort them into units. I noted with satisfaction that some had brought down spare rifles. I found my eyes straying always to the hills we had vacated. I hitched a rifle to my shoulder.
They stumbled to their feet. No time for barrack-square drill. One line of four. 'Fall in behind us.' A few were still on the grass bank beside the road, adjusting helmets and rifles. 'Hurry up!' came the cry from the ranks. Up the road towards the Cook-House I saw Jock Cunningham assembling another crowd. We hurried up, joined forces. Together we two marched at the head. Whatever popular writers may say, neither your Briton nor your Irishman is an exuberant type. Demonstrativeness is not his dominating trait. The crowd behind us was marching silently. The thoughts in their minds could not be inspiring ones. I remembered a trick of the old days when we were holding banned demonstrations. I jerked my head back: 'Sing up, ye sons o'guns!'
Quaveringly at first, then more lustily, then in one resounding chant the song rose from the ranks. Bent heads straightened; tired legs thumped sturdily: what had been a routed rabble marched to battle again as proudly as they had done three days before.
And the valley resounded to their singing:
Then comrades, come rally,
And the last fight let us face;
United the human race.
On we marched, back up the road, nearer and nearer to the front. Stragglers still in retreat down the slopes stopped in amazement, changed direction and ran to join us; men lying exhausted on the roadside jumped up, cheered, and joined the ranks. I looked back. Beneath the forest of upraised fists, what a strange band. Unshaven, unkempt; bloodstained, grimy. But, full of fight again, and 'marching on the road back."
The withdrawal of the International Brigades in September 1938 ended the period of service of the Irish anti-fascists in the ranks of the Spanish People's Army. In December they set out for home. They had, by their sacrifices, counteracted the Irish Fascist Blueshirts' contribution to Franco's forces. The Irish fascists, led by Eoin O'Duffy, had travelled to Spain, stayed for six months, seen little or no combat and made military history by leaving for war with 700 men and returning with 703.
Of the 145 Irish Socialist Republican Volunteers who went to Spain, 63 laid down their lives fighting the forces of fascism.
Salud y victoria!
This book one of the best researched and notated works that I have found on this most complex of figures from the history of Irish republicanism in the first half of the 20th Century. It's well written and should whet the appetite of those who take the bother to pick it up.
BY EDDIE MacMANUS with SHANE Mac THOMÁIS
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.