Mick O'Riordan - 1939 Letter


Mick O'Riordan on Irish history and politics:

a recently uncovered 1939 letter

This letter to New York brigadista Bill Gandall has received its first publication in the July 2007 issue of Irish Political Review, with kind permission of Gail Malmgreen of the Wagner Labor Archives of New York University. Manus O'Riordan's explanatory article is available here...

37 Pope's Quay,
Cork City,
April 23rd, 24th, 25-26, 1939

Dear Bill,

I was ever so glad to receive, via Tom [O'Brien] a few days ago, your letter, and also the parcel of literature. Muchas Gracias. [many thanks, Sp.] Well, I was beginning to think that you had forgotten all about the guy who used, once upon a time, eat all your bread rations etc. Your letters and literature mean a lot to me, isolated now as I am from 100% Party Activity, even from the activity of a tiny Party here in Ireland [the Communist Party of Ireland] which, because of its numerical strength and the lethargy prevailing here, cannot be up and doing as it should be. Still, I suppose there is no unit of the Party but had to undergo the same difficulties and misunderstandings in their beginnings.

I am so glad that you like my letters and find them interesting. I hope I will be fully capable of conveying to you the situation here in Ireland in regards to the Opinion of the Irish People to the Class Struggle, relations with Britain, the International Situation etc. You asked me about Partition and Ireland's position if England goes to War against Hitler aggression. You have no doubt read of the sabotaging which is being done in Britain by Irishmen, members of the I.R.A. [the Irish Republican Army]. (No doubt you will remember I told you that on the Party's Instruction I had rejoined the I.R.A.). The tactics of sabotage which are now being used in Britain are an attempt at the present time of Tension, Crisis and War-preparedness, to intimidate or force the British Government to withdraw the British Troops from 6 of the 32 Irish Counties. (Roughly they hold a quarter of the area of Ireland still).

Well, for you to understand all about the action taken by the I.R.A. in that respect, it would be necessary for you to know a little bit of Irish History, so I am going to give you a concise review of Irish History:

Ever since away back in the 12th century when Britain conquered Ireland "for to civilize it and restore peace there", (Sounds familiar; a de la [sic] Hitler style, doesn't it?) there has been in every generation of Irishmen an armed attempt to fling aside the yoke of British Imperialism and Domination in our country. Always it has been a solely national effort and always has been an abortive one, but has been of a sufficient determined type to focus the attention of even Marx - who was in his period busily writing his 'Das Capital' - but had time to comment on the "Irish Question": in the style that an armed Rising of the Irish People for National Freedom, which if it could develop into a fight for Proletarian Freedom, would be the salvation of the British Working Class who were also oppressed by the enemies of Ireland and the Irish people - British Imperialistic Feudalism.

The French Revolution had its re-action in the Rising of 1798 here; again in 1847, '67; and then a newer generation was born which was to rise in Revolt in 1916. The Easter Rebellion of 1916 was a little bit more than a National Rising. Three years previous, the capital of Ireland, Dublin, had experienced the greatest battle in its Trade Union History. The Irish T.G.W. Union [the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union] went about to organise the workers of Dublin in the Transport System (which was owned by a Single Family who controlled and still does the most important Industries in Ireland). The Bosses of the Tramway Coy. undertook it to make it a test case of the strength of Ireland's Union which had just been founded, and to do so organised a "Lock Out" of all their Workers. The Union took up the challenge, and the Bosses resorted to the usual tricks, Military and Police (native) smashed up the Union meetings, batoned the pickets, arrested the Union Leaders; and even murdered some workers in their assaults with loaded rifles and batons on the Workers meetings. (The old usual story etc.).

The Union was then led by two leaders, Jim Connolly and Jim Larkin. The latter was a determined Agitator for the Workers' Rights in Ireland and in his day rendered invaluable help in organising the working class here and is still in public life here, but is not the "Old Firebrand" that he was. But it is the former whom the credit of inspiring and leading the workers goes to. He had spent many years in U.S.A.; joined, organised with the Socialist Party and the I.W.W.[the Industrial Workers of the World], and came back to Ireland a Socialist and Marxist. He wrote many books on the economic causes of the previous Rebellions and worked also to secure coordination with the purely National Leaders, Pearse and others. (I have just run out of ink, so must continue in pencil). Connolly, seeing that the Union and the workers could not secure any redress against the Brutality of the Military and Police, decided to place the workers in a position that they could forge the weapon of Resistance - armed Military Resistance; so he founded the Irish Citizen Army who had as their objective the "Irish Workers' Republic". Sometimes it was called just the Republic; other times the Cooperative Commonwealth. The I.C.A. was confined to Dublin and was a little active in the North of Ireland (still at present under British control) and did not spread to the other parts of Ireland because of absence of an intensified Class Struggle such as they had in Dublin. Then came the World War of 1914. Britain introduced conscription in Ireland, but that was resisted and opposed by the people, so they dropped it. Then they gave out a half promise that with the participation of Irishmen as volunteers for the British forces fighting in France, Ireland would be granted Home Rule (a form of constitutional government within the British Empire). Thousands of Irishmen joined the British Forces and Native Irish Regiments were formed in them. Some went because of the lure of the pay, others of a hatred of the Kaiser, who they believed was torturing the people of "Poor Catholic Belgium", others because the uniform and gallant marches the British recruiting bands used to play etc. When the half promise of Home Rule was given, the British Officers in Ireland threatened to revolt against the Government of Britain and that they would hold Ireland in the Empire whether the Empire liked it or not! They were members of the Orange Order, which is the Irish equivalent of the Klan, Silver Shirts, Black Legion etc.. They formed in the North an Orange Army and ran guns openly to supply and drill that Army. Connolly and the National Leaders then saw the possibility of arming and then began the equipping of the Citizen Army and of a new body, the Irish Volunteers, who were simply concerned with National Freedom.

Connolly was not only a brilliant socialist and Marxist, and author, but developed himself into an efficient Military Commander. He studied in his own time and way the technique of street fighting and openly declared that, with or without the help of the Irish Volunteers, the I.C.A. would rise and fight. The Irish Volunteers had in the meantime become a nationwide organisation and was much stronger than the I.C.A. They were negotiating with Germany for arms, for the projected Rising in Ireland, and plans were made for the assistance of German guns (Back again in Ink) but the German Submarine bringing the guns was discovered and the Rising, which was to be an all-Ireland one, was confined mainly to Dublin and was not so much an attempt at military success as it was a to be a sacrifice of the men of the I.C.A. and of Volunteers to re-awaken by their deaths the feeling of national resurgence of the Irish People: a Provisional Government with Pearse the National Leader as President and Connolly and 6 others as members. Connolly was General Officer commanding the Dublin area. They issued a Proclamation proclaiming "the right of the Irish people to National Freedom, equal rights and opportunities for all Irish Citizens - the Wealth of Ireland belonging to the people of Ireland".

Connolly himself was responsible for the clauses which were inserted in their Declaration guaranteeing Social Justice for the Irish People. He did not suffer from the illusion that a free Ireland would be sufficient. He coined a slogan for all those who believed National Freedom was incomplete without freedom for the Workers. His slogan was "The Cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour, so the Cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland".

The Rebellion was a failure in a military sense, owing to the overwhelming superiority of the British Troops. Connolly was wounded during the course of the fighting; badly wounded. The British Court Martial sentenced him to death. He was taken in a bath-chair, wheeled out in front of the Firing Squad and then shot as he sat in the chair. ("God Save the King"!).

Well, the British thought that by shooting all the leaders of the Rising, imprisoning the participants, establishing Martial Law, they had pacified the Irish people. But then they found the more they coerced the Irish people the more they resisted. Then "Sinn Féin", a new organisation, began to forge ahead, uniting all the people in a drive for National Freedom and was able to organise to such a pitch that it set up its own Parliament or Dáil, with its various Departments including "Sinn Féin Courts". The I.C.A. and Irish Volunteers were more or less amalgamated in a new body, the Irish Republican Army. They, by the tactics of guerrilla warfare, disarmed the Police and Military Patrols, harassed them, burned their barracks and took over their duties as Police etc..

Then England (British Government) hit on a new plan. It recruited as an Auxiliary Force to the British Military in Ireland a body which, because of their Police-cum-Military duties and uniform, were nicknamed as the "Black and Tans". They were mostly comprised of the Scum of English Jails, the Lumpen-Proletariat and Professional Thug, and were let loose on the Irish People to murder, burn and destroy in a campaign of Terrorism. They were just about equal in ruffianism and murder to Franco's Moors. The I.R.A. met them and, in the course of the war which then ensued, developed into a Military Body capable, by the use of the tactics of "Hit and Run", to harass the "Black and Tans", so that eventually the British "condescended" to have truce parleys. Delegates went from Ireland to London to agree as to a truce or treaty. Lloyd George and the then British Cabinet presented their terms with an Ultimatum - that if the Treaty of theirs was not signed by the Irish Delegates, Ireland would become subject to "an immediate and more terrible War" (Note again the Hitler Style). The Irish Delegates weakened in the face of such threats and the Treaty (which partitioned Ireland, kept her in the British Empire, created Two Puppet Parliaments subject to the British Privy Council etc) was signed. The Delegates returned to Ireland and laid the Treaty before the Dáil (Parliament). The Dáil split on the issue of the Treaty, so likewise the I.R.A..

The "Treatyites" believed that such a measure of freedom was good and could be used as a stepping stone to 100% National Freedom. The "Anti-Treatyites" looked upon it as a sign of National Surrender and was not a victory but a defeat for the Irish people. Gradually the rift grew wider and then a series of incidents began which led up to a Civil War. Irishmen fought against Irishmen. The British were gleeful and supplied the "Treatyites" with guns and assistance and said that the "Free-Staters (the Treatyites) were keeping Ireland for the Empire with an economy of English lives". The reason, I believe, for the Civil War was because the Irish people in one way wished to finish with war; and Sinn Féin and the I.R.A. did not see the advantage of reviving the ideals of Connolly in regard to Social Freedom; they were too busy in the matter of National Freedom. But it is worthy to mention a young leader of the "Republican" (the anti-Treatyites) who, before he was executed, drew up some notes defining the Freedom of Ireland (He was Liam Mellows, after whom I believe there is an Irish Workers' Club named in U.S.A.) as Working Class Freedom, and urging that if the Republicans were victorious that they should set up a "Workers' and Working Farmers' Republic".

The Republicans were defeated and a "cease fire" order was issued by De Valera (the present Premier), who led the Republicans. He ordered them to "dump their guns but to hold them again for another day when the fight would re-commence".

Jailing and Coercion were the rule by which the "Free-State" Justice enforced the King's Law in Ireland; a Free State Parliament proper was established and all Deputies and Members had to subscribe to an Oath of Allegiance to the British King on admittance and when taking their seats.

The Republicans believed in resistance and opposition to the working of the Free State Government, resistance which was passive and otherwise militant. De Valera and some of his followers broke away from the I.R.A. to enter the Free State Parliament in 1925; the I.R.A. continued to drill and arm, be jailed and hunted; until, with the pressure of some Left-Wing Leaders, the IRA in 1930 embarked upon a political venture in the nature of a program based on Connolly's teachings and the recognition of Working Class Freedom as the only freedom worthwhile. They called their organisation Saor Éire ("Free Ireland") and went about to organise the Broad Masses of the people in opposition to National Surrender by the Free State Government and to the economic slavery etc of the present Social System. They continued active in this line, even in face of a Rigid Coercion Bill which was then in force. But that program had not the support of all the I.R.A., those who were not politically developed enough to perceive that only on those lines could the I.R.A. awaken the people from their lethargy in which they now slept and secure their confidence for a militant effort to overthrow the Free State Government; so, as it had not the support it should have, and to avoid a split at the time, the promoters dropped it.

Even though the Irish people voted again, at an Election, the Free State Government back into power, they detested the Coercion Bills of the Government. De Valera with his new Political Party (Fianna Fáil) went to the country during the 1932 Election and on the promise of abolishing Coercion, Partition and the declaring the Republic for the entire portion of Ireland, also by the introduction of his Economic Policy (i.e. a system of Tariffs on Foreign Goods, so enabling the people to manufacture goods in Ireland which they needed and, owing to the tax on foreign goods, Irish would be cheaper - so creating a false short lived circulation of currency etc.). De Valera got into power and is still there; conditions in Ireland have not improved under his Government, as naturally they cannot, owing to the same rotten social system, which is here as elsewhere.

1939 finds the Irish political situation thus, under the heading of the various Movements.

[1] The Government Party (Fianna Fáil) under De Valera - who believe that De Valera is a Superman destined by God to save the Irish people from Foreign Domination and give them, by his policy of Self-Sufficiency for Ireland, a comfortable social existence; false ideas which they will soon lose.

[2] The Parliamentary Opposition Party (Fine Gael) - is the Old "Free State" Party, which in 1936 sponsored the Blueshirt Fascist Movement led by General O'Duffy (who went to "aid" Franco you remember). That Party is now secured by good jobs and pensions to work with de Valera and his Government on anything. O'Duffy, of course, is a potential "El Caudillo" [the Leader, Sp., Führer or Duce - Franco's self-styled title]. So, although he has a fat pension, he cannot be trusted. At present is quiet, but only waiting for his opportunity, I believe, to make a comeback.

[3] The Labour Party - as a working class organisation very bad, is just composed of mild Reformers and opportunists. Its policy is mild, and any attempt to "left" it a bit is opposed by the Church in Ireland. When they speak the rabbits run back into their holes, and pass resolutions condemning Fascism and Communism as twin evils! They follow the social policy of "Our Holy Father", the Pope's, and pledge their allegiance to Connolly's!

The Non-Parliamentary Portion.

[4] The I.R.A. - is composed of those who believe that only by armed force can the British be forced to evacuate Ireland; tastes a little of "Direct Actionism", and a bit Anarchist in the National Sense. Can be a great force for Good or Evil, in the sense that it is the major Revolutionary Force in the country. Organised in the Military style and has its units all over Ireland, even in England. Is responsible for the sabotage in England at present. Such sabotage is alleged to be financed and directed with Nazi help. This sabotage is being very effective in creating a panic amongst the English people, and they regard the Irish as "terrorists". It can be stopped by Britain withdrawing her troops from the North of Ireland and respecting Ireland's Independence and Neutrality in the next War. I think it is up to Britain to do this, because an unfree and unfriendly portion of the population will continue to sabotage and can do great damage to England during the next War. A free Ireland would be quite the reverse, as it would then take its stand against Hitler aggression.

[5] The C.P. - is only confined to Dublin and Belfast and has isolated members like myself throughout the other parts of Ireland. As yet is almost a negligible factor as a Party, and is going through the same difficulties as all new units of the Party had to go through when working in a country which is 96% Catholic, do you understand. It has yet, of course, to be given a chance to lead the people on the right lines towards Economic Freedom and - although when the time comes - although it may be small in number, it will I am sure have a big influence in the political situation which has yet to develop here.

[6] Republican Congress - is "left" of the I.R.A. and is now almost negligible except in Dublin. Sponsored the "United Front" Movement in Ireland and, by doing so, was disowned by the I.R.A.. The 'UF' was a failure but, like the C.P., has yet to get the real chance.

So, you see how things stand in Ireland now; how little chance we have of doing real Party work, as I believe you do in the States. The Party directed me to go back into the I.R.A. and do my best to contact with the lads there and so show them that National Freedom may be all very fine, but also there is another struggle just as important - the changing of the entire social system and, at the proper time, the setting up of a "Workers' Republic" here in Ireland.

There are many things that I as a C.P. member disagree with in the I.R.A., but I cannot afford to say so there. British Imperialism is as hateful, and more so, to me as a German and Italian Fascism. Britain holds Ireland, India, Egypt etc against the will of the natives of these places, as Spain, Austria, Albania etc are held by the Fascists.

Partition is being enforced in Ireland by a type of Fascism which is England's Own. In the North of Ireland, Irishmen are being interned and imprisoned for being Republicans. The Orange Order, like the Nazi Brownshirts, are the Storm-Troops who enforce the Laws of Imperial Britain, shoot and terrorise the Catholic minority, break up Republican and C. Party meetings alike, keep alive the greatest curse of all, religious sectarianism, so splitting the Catholic and Protestant workers.

Some people in England, sincere and all as they are, (but whom I simply regard as "Armchair Revolutionaries"), think that only Germany and Italy practice Fascism. But here in Ireland, in the portion which is still under the control of Britain, the Fascism of Imperialism is being enforced to make Irishmen foreigners in their own land, bans free speech, victimises the minority because they are Catholics, in the same way as the Jews and Negroes are being treated throughout some parts of the world.

The Anti-Fascist movement here in Ireland prevailed on the I.R.A. to drop the campaign of Sabotage in England, because they did not want anything to happen which "might obstruct the Democratic Front in Europe and to prevent the I.R.A. from maybe becoming the tools for the Nazis in England". BUT, can we honestly call Britain democratic when she has sold Spain the way we saw it being sold; also that goes for Austria, Czechoslovakia etc? Britain is continually allowing Hitler to go eastwards because she wants, if possible, to see the Soviet Union smashed (She thinks it can be) and now, as I see by this evening's papers, 'La Populaire' says that if Hitler makes just a tame Reichstag speech, the British propose to drop "negotiations" with the Soviets. This. of course, is only a rumour; but it will be proved by the time you get my letter.

Now to skip a little from the line I have given about Ireland - How do you find things in the States? Glad to see you are doing some concrete work as you informed me. I can tell you I was delighted to receive that note from Loretta, glad to see she is back again in the "Line". I am sure she will find plenty of work looking after the C.P. work and also after you. I am glad to hear Amparo is safe and sound (I will write her today), even though they are being treated like dogs in the Refugee Camps. I sent you a few papers showing the farewell of the Brigade and pictures of the Refugee Camps. They stand out today as eloquent testimony to the fact that Spaniards who wish to be free would rather live in sand holes rather than under Franco.

I got a few letters from Jeanne in Paris and she told me you have written her also. She is a very good comrade and her letters are most interesting. You remember that I gave Amparo her address for to send some propaganda to her. She informed me that a Spanish comrade, to whom Amparo had given her address, called to see her in Paris after the capture of Barcelona.

I am entertaining great hopes of going some way or another to N.Y.C. [New York City] for the World Fair. I have no proposals but great hopes. I wrote an Uncle of mine in Boston whom I thought had some dinero [money, Sp.], but it was no good; either he is as broke as myself - or else he thinks there are at present sufficient "Radicals and Reds" in the States. - BUT - Today I bought a Sweepstake ticket for both of us and if we win I will be travelling over a de la [sic] "Royal Suite". Here's suerte [luck, Sp.] to both of us. By the way, I think you would be able to get rid of some of those tickets over there in N.Y.C. at a profit; they are in Books of 12 - 2 tickets commission, or else 4 dollars. If you want some I will get them sent to you from Dublin.

My greetings to [Mike] Quill, [Austin] Hogan and all over in the Union [the Transport Workers' Union of America], and in the Party [the Communist Party, USA].

Do you ever knock across Jack Yellin? if so give him my warmest regards.

Thank Loretta for the note she enclosed in your letter; give her my best fraternal and revolutionary greetings.

Well I did prove a better judge of women than you, Bill; you can see this by now. Someday I will tell you the secret. (Tell her to write to me again with the latest line on you; confidential, of course).

Well you asked for a detailed letter from me - here it is. Excuse my writing and my bad knack of putting things. I hope I have not proved too chauvinistic in my little information as regards my country and Great Britain.

Revolutionary Greetings for May.


PS: As regards the articles for 'D.W.' [the Daily Worker, organ of the CPUSA], I was thinking of settling down to do some serious writing for them. I want your candid opinion of my letter, viz. my style. It's OK to write to the Pope's Quay address now, I think.

PPS: How do you like the Irish stamp which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution? The translation of the Irish message is "The People of Ireland congratulate the people of the U.S. on their Constitution".

Michael O'Riordan

(12 November 1917 - 18 May 2006)

For more on Michael O'Riordan and Ireland and the Spanish Civil War see here...