Frank Ryan – The street fighting years
Frank Ryan remains one of Ireland’s best-known socialist republicans, revered for membership of the Republican Congress and leading anti-Fascists to Spain. However his early political life is less well known.
Ryan was one of a generation of Irish people whose formative years coincided with the Great War and the struggle for independence. He was born in Elton, Knocklong, Co. Limerick in 1902. His upbringing was relatively privileged. Both his parents were teachers, from farming backgrounds.
Of Ryan’s nine siblings, one became a doctor, another a teacher and three of his sisters, nuns. His family had been Home Rule supporters but was not politically active. Ryan was able to attend St. Colman’s College, a boarding school in Fermoy. There he displayed a rebellious streak, getting into trouble with teachers but was enthusiastic about Irish, doing well enough to secure a scholarship to UCD.
As a teenager during the War of Independence, Ryan seems to have become involved in the IRA in 1921, shortly before the truce. In later life he remained vague about this, with one of his comrades, George Gilmore, suggesting that Ryan was sensitive about his lack of participation in the war. However when the IRA split Ryan took the Anti-Treaty side and was active in Limerick during the summer of 1922.
He was captured and jailed in Limerick and then transferred to the Curragh camp. There he displayed evidence of literary talent, editing An Giorrfhiodh an Irish-language prison journal. After the conclusion of the Civil War Ryan took up his scholarship at UCD. There he helped found a republican club and won a gold medal for oratory while head of An Cumann Gaelach. His social life revolved around Irish classes and céilithe. After graduating, Ryan briefly found work with the Irish Tourist Association and was occasionally employed as an Irish teacher. However his political activity mitigated against steady employment. By the mid 1920s Ryan was one of the best-known republican street leaders in Dublin.
He had remained active in the IRA and was now an officer in Dublin Brigade, striking the An Phoblacht journalist Geoffrey Coulter as an ‘absolutely fearless young male.’ Ryan’s reputation was built around his leadership of the IRA’s disruption of annual Armistice ceremonies in Dublin. From 1925 onwards republicans sought to deny the streets to what they saw as ‘anti-National and pro-British elements…Legion of British Ex-Servicemen, Freemason Lodges, Baden Powell Scouts, Boys Brigade, Girl Guides, British Fascisti….’
On 11th November (Armistice Day – which celebrated the end of the Great War) the IRA’s Dublin members would lead demonstrations against the British Legion’s ceremonies usually held in College Green. The IRA members would march through Grafton Street removing Union Jack bunting from shops and businesses, sometimes smashing windows and burning flags, and clashing with ex-servicemen and Gardaí. Ryan was to the fore in these clashes, being arrested and beaten up on several occasions. He was seen as a man of action, looked up to by young republicans but also an able and belligerent public speaker. At one anti-imperialist rally he warned the British Legion that “they had put them from Leeson Street to College Green, and from there to the Park, and the next place they would put them would be the bogs. Argument will be met with argument and blow with blow.”
Ryan expressed impatience with political discussion: “enough politics, I feel so mad about them I want to wear a red shirt and bomb politicians of all degrees.” While he demanded “less talk about Connolly and for more of Connolly’s methods”, he was thinking in terms of Connolly’s commitment to rebellion rather than his socialism. He was a conventional physical force IRA man.
He was also a practicing Catholic if a cynical one; his sometime lover, the Quaker Rosanna Jacob, claimed that Ryan “would like to disbelieve in God but couldn’t.” Ryan was highly critical of the Church’s role in condemning rebellions in Irish history in a pamphlet he wrote for the 100th anniversary of Catholic emancipation in 1929.
He continued to write in Irish for several journals, while also editing the IRA’s underground paper An t-Óglach. By 1928 he worked full-time for the IRA and as ‘Staff Captain O’Reilly’ travelled across Ireland as an inspection officer. Part of his role was drilling local units and encouraging recruitment. Ryan displayed bleak humour when after one visit to a unit he wrote to the IRA’s Adjutant General enclosing ‘the names of men I have inspired to die for Ireland. Trusting you can facilitate.’
In 1929 Peadar O’Donnell stepped down as editor of the Republican weekly newspaper An Phoblacht and was replaced by Ryan. O’Donnell had made An Phoblact a lively newspaper, with extensive coverage of social and economic issues. This trend continued under Ryan. In 1928 Ryan had travelled to an anti-imperialist conference in Brussels. There and from discussions with O’Donnell and George Gilmore he was exposed to socialist arguments. In 1930 he toured the United States on behalf of the IRA, restating the need for an armed uprising against both the Free State and Belfast governments. All the while he was subject to intense Garda harassment, arrested at the An Phoblacht offices and in 1931 jailed for assaulting a detective.
In October 1931 the government of W.T. Cosgrave moved decisively against the IRA, utilising the backing of the Catholic bishops in a ‘red scare.’ Ryan was captured and jailed in Arbour Hill. There he refused to wear the prison uniform and spent the winter of 1931-32 in harsh conditions with only a blanket as clothing. Health problems, exacerbated by clashes with police and earlier imprisonments, troubled him. Ryan had not been prominent in the IRA’s left-wing Saor Éire initiative but by the time of his release seems to have concluded that Saor Éire’s policies were what was needed for Republican progress.
IOn 11th March 1932 Ryan was among the speakers at a rally of 30,000 in College Green to welcome those Republican prisoners released by the new Fianna Fáil government. Amid the euphoria he sounded a note of caution, warning that republicans were now in for a “soft and easy time…maybe too soft and easy.” Renewing editorship of An Phoblacht, Ryan found that the IRA leadership was wary of publicly criticizing the new government. When he published articles denouncing de Valera he was reprimanded. Internal IRA investigations claimed that Ryan was attending meetings by a secret communist group within the Dublin Brigade, though he denied this. At the 1933 IRA convention he complained that the IRA was not becoming the type of ‘citizens army’ he had hoped. He soon resigned from An Phoblacht (along with his deputy Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington) and from the IRA executive, though his public profile was as high as ever.
At an anti-imperialist rally on Armistice Day the previous November Ryan had warned that while republicans had “fists, boots and guns if necessary” they would not allow “free speech for traitors.” This was in the context of the defeated Cosgrave party now organizing through the Army Comrades Association (ACA). By 1933 Ryan, along with Gilmore and O’Donnell, was convinced that confronting this new “fascist threat” was a central task for the IRA. Ryan had already warned of “Hitlerism in Dublin” after mobs had sacked the Communist Party’s premises. Now he clashed with the IRA’s leadership for wanting to avoid street battles.
Clashes between republicans and the ACA escalated during the winter of 1932. Armed ACA members threatened republicans, while IRA supporters disrupted Cumann na nGaedheal meetings. The general election of 1933 saw the ACA guarding Cumann na nGaedheal rallies and by that summer, under the leadership of former Garda
commissioner Eoin O’Duffy, the organization claimed 40,000 members. Now wearing blue shirts and adopting the raised right-arm salute, the Blueshirts emulated European fascists. Pitched battles took place at Blueshirt rallies in Tralee, Kilkenny and Drogheda during late 1933, with the army using tear gas and bayonet charges to separate rival crowds. Smaller localized clashes occurred regularly, with fatalities in Cork and Clare. The fusing of the Blueshirts and Cumann na nGaedheal into Fine Gael was seen by the republican left as proof of an imminent fascist threat. The IRA leadership played this down and tried to prevent their members attacking Blueshirts arguing it was a diversion from building up military strength.
Along with O’Donnell and Gilmore, Ryan became a focus for those uneasy about the IRA’s drift from openly socialist policies and who wanted more action against the Blueshirts. As a popular and respected officer he was also capable of winning over support among the IRA’s rank and file. In March 1934 the IRA split and Ryan became editor of the new Republican Congress paper.
A measure of his political evolution was provided that November when Congress organized alternative Armistice protests. Instead of clashing with ex-servicemen Ryan shared a platform with left-wing war veterans under the slogan “honour the dead by fighting for the living.” Ryan described the event as the “proudest of all Armistice Days for me” and appealed for republicans to understand how veterans had been exploited in the past but could make common cause in the struggles of the future. Unfortunately for Ryan the Congress was stillborn and the fragmented republican left was weakened further when he took many of them to Spain in 1936, a journey that for Ryan was to end under the protection of the very fascist forces he had committed himself to opposing.
Article published in LookLeft Vol.2 No.11