Frank Ryan

Written by Fearghal McGarry, reviewed by Robert Stradling

(Dublin: Dundalgan Press for The Historical Association of Ireland, 2002; pp 89, £5.)
English Historical Review, Sept. 2003 Vol.118 No. 478 p1,086-7

The present reviewer once referred to Frank Ryan as being, with the exception of Michael Collins, 'the most admired political figure of modern Ireland'. Near the end of his impressive biographical study (p. 74) a young Irish scholar expresses reservations on this point. Indeed, the booklet is a demolition job

which leaves hardly one aspect of Ryan's reputation intact. It charts the progress of an ambitious and ruthless desperado, whose career began with fraudulent claims of heroic exploits in the War of Independence, and ended in collaboration with Nazi Germany, as part of a team headed by a leading SS officer - a figure whose other job was to supervise the mass murder of Hungarian Jews.

Ryan's defenders have persistently argued that his work for the German National Socialists was insignificant in degree and forced upon him by circumstances. Nationalist admirers add that that it was consistent with his devotion to the cause of the Irish Republic, while socialist admirers hold that it did not imply any change in his anti-fascist commitment. This was always spurious (at best) and McGarry now demonstrates that a more revealing way of understanding Ryan's development would be to juxtapose the 'national' and 'socialist' elements. He had a belief in blood sacrifice which was mystical rather than ideological - the heritage of that sanguinary poet, Padraig Pearse. 'He saw physical force as not only necessary but morally superior to other forms of struggle' (p. 9). Ryan came from a faction (in its own discourse, a 'tradition') humiliatingly defeated during the bitter civil war over the 1922 Treaty. This faction shared a bedrock of emotion and frustration with the revengeful ex-combatant societies which provided the populist core of European Fascism.

Ryan was the most strident advocate of intimidation and murder during the IRA's campaign against the Free State government in the 1920s. He consistently

employed techniques of verbal maximalism; repeatedly leading assaults on the peaceful gatherings of opponents; approving the assassination of Justice Minister Kevin O'Higgins and others; demanding censorship of criticism of the heroes of 1916, and notably disrupting performances of Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars. It was Ryan who coined the infamous slogan 'no free speech for traitors' in justifying vicious attempts to proscribe Cumann na nGaedheal supporters after the party's loss of power to Fianna Fail in the 1932 elections. Following de Valera's victory, Ryan rhetorically asked an audience

whether they wanted two armies - in other words, questioning the need for an army to defend the hated 'Free State' when the IRA should now take over and ensure progress towards 'real' independence. His boast came home to haunt him. Ireland soon had not two but four armies, all at each other's throats - the

official army, the official IRA, the quasi-communist Congress Movement whose militant wing was led by Ryan, and the quasi-fascist Blueshirts formed in reaction against the IRA's attempt to establish a one-party state. After all this, McGarry's casual observation that Ryan was 'no admirer of parliamentary democracy' (p. 29) comes as a kind of bathos.

And then came Spain. McGarry shows how the multiple contradictions implicit in Ryan's decision to collaborate with the Comintern to the ultimate degree of volunteering to fight Franco can only be explained by the fact that he had no future at home. By 1936, as much as - if not more than - the hated General O'Duffy, who led a force of Irish Catholics to General Franco's aid, Ryan's party was over. Republican Congress had been reduced to an internally squabbling gang whose total membership would hardly have dominated a back-street snug in Dublin. Ryan had lost his IRA income and his journalistic career was in tatters. Dev and Irish democracy, and not Ryan or O'Duffy, had triumphed. In 1938, after he was captured and condemned to death by Franco, all his other enemies (Dev, O'Duffy, even the British government) joined in the amazing circus of 'Free Frank Ryan', orchestrated by the Comintern, which created the legend of the warm-hearted, intellectual freedom fighter - a martyr for democracy. In the event it was the Nazis who procured his 'escape' from Franco's clutches, with the results already touched upon. The range of evidence and maturely lucid style of exposition deployed here will convince all who are capable of reaching detached conclusions. But in writing of Ryan's 'conscious determination to collaborate' with the Nazis (p. 65 ), and entitling a chapter 'Collaboration', Dr McGarry has ensured his work a hostile reception down among the diehards.

My only personal grouse is a plaintive reminder that my book on The Irish and the Spanish Civil War spoke of Ryan as an admired figure, not as an admirable one.

Robert Stradling


For the list of general articles on Ireland and the SCW

Several documents with reviews of material on Ireland and the SCW