Socialist View no.14 Spring 2005:
Review: In Green and Red, the lives of Frank Ryan
written by Adrian Hoar and reviewed by Matt Waine
OF ALL THE political leaders of the post civil war era, Frank Ryan is probably the most controversial and interesting. His life, or certainly how it has been reported, was one of many contradictions and this has been used by some to write Ryan off as politically confused and more of a loose cannon than a shrewd leader. For this reason, Adrian Hoar's book is to be welcomed as a fresh account of Frank Ryan's life.
From relative obscurity, and at a young age, he emerged as a leading figure in the republican movement and played a leading role in the War of Independence and the ensuing Civil War. To him, the signing of the Treaty was nothing short of treachery. The republic he envisaged was in line with that which James Connolly struggled for - a socialist Ireland that united Catholic and Protestant workers. Although a fervent nationalist and Irish speaker, he consistently opposed those who whipped up sectarianism. Under his editorship, An Phoblacht, the unofficial organ of the old IRA, moved decisively to the left and as Hoar's book reveals, Ryan's political evolution, if somewhat confused, developed in a socialist direction until his death.
The book paints a vivid picture of the type of man Ryan was. A natural leader and a very capable organiser, he was a man motivated by a searing hatred of imperialism and its Irish capitalist counterparts and willing to endure personal suffering to fight against injustice. He was unbending in his ideas and never lost sight of the ultimate goal of a socialist Ireland. He was often referred to as extremely dogmatic by friends and enemies alike. However, he also showed a unique ability to recognise a changed situation and to alter tactics and approach. Ryan recognised the dead end of the tactic of individual terrorism (the armed struggle) and broke with the old conservative leadership of the IRA and along with George Gilmore and Peadar O'Donnell launched the socialist Republican Congress in 1934 that united Catholic and Protestant working class activists.
Whilst the Republican Congress was a short-lived experiment, it was, for a period, successful in attracting an important layer of militant workers and small left groups. Branches sprung up over night and in the North was successful in bridging the sectarian divide. Trade union branches affiliated and at the Bodenstown Wolfe Tone commemoration in 1934 Congress' contingent numbered over 2,000 including workers from the protestant Shankill Road. At the founding conference, it was declared that Republican Congress was a "workers' revolutionary party" and that its goal "was a workers' republic."
The book gives an accurate and lengthy account of Ryan's involvement in the Spanish Civil War that broke out in 1936 with the Fascist uprising in Morocco. Spain was the battlefield for the contending ideologies of the 1930s where the Spanish working class took up arms against the fascist menace. The Catholic Church in Ireland gave wholehearted support to Franco's fascist legions backed up by Hitler and Mussolini, while the so-called democracies of France and Britain turned their back on the Spanish people. To them, a fascist Spain was a small price to pay to stop a socialist Spain. For Ryan and the small band of men he mobilised, this was a must win battle.
Despite their small numbers the Irish section of the International Brigade played a very active role in Spain. Hoar recounts a particularly heroic event during the battle of Jarama. The fascists had inflicted serious losses on the republican forces who were tired, wounded, hungry and poorly equipped. The forces withdrew defeated and dejected. Ryan got to his feet and rallied hundreds of men with a rendition of the Internationale. Before long the republican counter-attack had captured the enemy positions in what was an important victory in the Battle of Jarama.
His embracing of socialism and internationalism continued to develop in the highly charged political climate of Spain. After being captured at Gandesa by Italian forces, a fascist officer demanded that Ryan give the fascist salute in front of his men. He refused and the officer lined up a firing squad and again demanded that he give the salute. Still Ryan refused, calling the fascists' bluff.
Much attention has been given to Ryan's last years spent in Germany. Franco, who referred to Ryan as "my most important prisoner", handed him over to the Nazis in 1940 and was subsequently brought to Berlin where he met Sean Russell. The Nazis hoped that by returning the two to Ireland, they would ensure that Ireland's ports were not opened to Allied forces. While Ryan was prepared to accept Nazi help in returning home, Francis Stuart, who himself played a less than glorious role as assistant to Lord Haw Haw, recalls Ryan's bitter hatred of the Nazi regime. Despite many attempts to convince the Germans to assist him in returning home, Ryan died in Dresden in 1944.
Hoar's book is sympathetic account of Ryan's life. However, the mistakes of Frank Ryan are not analysed, nor are any of the lessons of his life for the struggle against imperialism and capitalism today. However, Ryan's life remains an inspiration to those today who wish to struggle for a socialist Ireland and a socialist world. His determination and willingness to sacrifice, to not shy away from a fight and his refusal to abandon the ideas and principles he held stand tall against the opportunism and abandonment of the struggle for socialism by today's trade union, labour and republican leaders.