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“The Lives of Frank Ryan: In Green and Red”, (2004) by Adrian Hoar

The name of Frank Ryan first came onto my radar in 1987 when I bought a copy of Christy Moore’s seminal Irish folk/rock album “Ride On” in Derry Market.


Released in 1984 this wonderful and evocative record is one of my personal Christy favourites having been introduced to the great man’s work when he supported U2 at Croke Park that June.  Somewhat surreally I spent the night following the gig under a bush in Phoenix Park with a West German trainee at Krupps who was lodging with my family in Limerick as we had missed the last train home from Dublin. Moore had some dodgy views re the IRA war of worker on worker terror in the North, but he wasn’t the only one at this time. For some reason it seemed a romantic time for those viewing from afar as the idiotic blood sacrifice extolled by Padraig Pearse in 1916 was yet to fade away. He atoned for this with the 1995 song, “North and South of the River” penned with The Edge. “I’ve been doing it wrong all of my life, a young man running, oh, what he didn’t understand, There was a badness that had its way, But love wasn’t lost, love will have its day”. Fair enough, people have been profoundly wrong before and will be again. I am guilty as charged as much as anyone when it comes to politics, or indeed life. It’s about where you’re going that really matters.

Anyhow…. There is a magnificent track on “Ride On” which is all about the Spanish Civil War and the role of”La Quinte Brigada”. These were Irishmen who fought on the side of the Socialist Government in Spain as the Leftist regime, elected decisively by popular vote in the  1936 February General Election had been victim of an attempted military coup led by General Francisco Franco that July. It failed but civil war ensued. The democracies looked the other way and it was left to the Soviet Union to defend the Government. When Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy threw their weight behind the rebels the game was up and by 1939 democracy was snuffed out in Spain for the next 40 or so years.

All the western so called democratic governments abandoned Spain to her fate. But crucially the working class of Europe did not want to see the advances made by their comrades come to nought. Over 4,o00 UK and Irish citizens (according to MI5 records leaked in 1954), including George Orwell and Laurie Lee went to fight for the Republic.

Limerick man Frank Ryan was one of the most prominent members of the Irish contingent. Hoar points out that it was in fact Kit Conway who was the OC and Ryan’s “leadership” was a vague concept.

Hoar takes the story right back to Frank’s formative years. And this is very important given how matters turned out late in Ryan’s short life. He was just 40 years old when he died of pleurisy which had its genesis in Frank’s abominable treatment at the hands of Franco’s rebels who took over the government on the conclusion of hostilities in 1939. Ryan seems to have fought with courage and was injured a couple of times before his capture.

Ryan was an Irish Nationalist first and foremost. His ideology was fermented in the struggle for Irish independence which had a popular mandate following elections in 1918. Dail Eireann was convened with the legitimacy of US President Wilson’s doctrine published in 1917 behind it, and the self determination of the Treaty Of Versailles also providing a legal basis, an army to defend the fledgling Irish Republic was raised and the UK forced to the negotiating table. What happened next put Ryan on the run as he refused to accept the Treaty signed by Michael Collins in London. Churchill was standing next to the big Corkman holding a gun to his head (almost literally). Duress doesn’t do the situation justice. The Irish Civil War was the biggest tragedy to hit the Emerald Isle for all the usual depressing and predictable reasons.

Frank Ryan came relatively late to Socialism, and as editor of the IRA propaganda organ “An Poblachta” his  foray into left wing politics which eschewed hatred of Northern Protestants purely on religious grounds, saw him eased out of the ‘paper. In 1933 Frank saw the writing on the wall as Free State Party Fine Gael toyed with Fascism under the influence of notorious Police Commissioner turned Mosleyite Eoin O’Duffy who later on and with the blessing of the Bishops had led a delegation of Irish Fascists to support Franco. Ryan was narrowly defeated at the IRA Ard Fheis (Conference) with a motion to take the movement down the path of Socialism and away from the dead end of sectarianism which had, and still does doom Irish Republicanism to abject and costly failure. How different history could have been had Frank and his Comrades George Gilmore and Peadar O’Donnell prevailed.

Hoar’s strength is just facilitating the story to tell itself and Frank’s sojourn in Spain is riveting reading. The pivotal battles of the Aragon Front, brought to life on the page by Orwell (“A Homage to Catalonia” 1938)  and on the big screen by Ken Loach (“Land and Freedom” 1995) are described and the fallout of Ryan’s incarceration on Irish Government policy at home as well as in Spain are analysed.

Now comes the hard bit. In 1940 Ryan was deported to Germany as part of a deal reached between De Valera and the Nazi Government. Frank arrived in Berlin and was billeted with IRA Chief of Staff Sean Russell. The concept of My Enemy’s Enemy Is My Friend prevailed. This theory had led Sir Roger Casement to the gallows as he landed German weaponry in Ireland during World War I. Ryan and  Russell set off for Ireland in August 1940 by U Boat with the intention of “defending” the South from UK Occupation by acting as spies for the Nazi Secret Service, the Abwehr. Russell died during the voyage of a perforated ulcer and Frank balked at returning alone so went back to Germany.

Hoar ruminates on Frank’s state of mind post his Spanish involvement where he had been badly hurt and then subject to cruel punishment by the Fascists including mock executions. Did Ryan see going to Germany as a way home? Was he serious about collaborating with his erstwhile ideological enemies?

My conclusion is that Frank Ryan hatred of everything British trumped all other considerations. This is a common and depressing trait amongst a certain section of my compatriots. Working Class problems are universal. Elvis Costello brought opprobrium down on his head in the 1978 song, “Oliver’s Army” when he refers to British soldiers in Ulster as, “White N******”. He had hit the nail on the head in my view as he correctly identified these young men as economic conscripts with little or no control or choice. If only the blood soaked ghouls Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness had learnt the lessons of Frank Ryan’s life and experiences…. But as a Marxist I understand that one or two people don’t make or change history and that people are, by and large products of their environment.

Our battle must be to change the circumstances of that environment by creating a Socialist planned Society where the good of all is the watchword. Nationalism is anathema to this and the ridiculous concept of “patriotism” which has blinded so many people must be put to bed once and for all.

As for the book I would recommend it as an entertaining and informative read and many thanks to Joe Gibbins for the loan. It certainly took my mind of the disgraceful state of our NHS during a two week stay in Hull Royal Infirmary. It is being butchered and served up to private interests on a day to day basis.


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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