The Irish Times, April 15, 1999

Untouched by the Tiger

Michael O'Riordan fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. A lifelong communist, he sees the Irish left as 'pathetic', but believes our current obsession with consumerism will soon be pushed aside by issue-led politics. He talks to Eileen Battersby

True, the great communist revolution ended after 70 years with more a whimper than a bang. But Michael O'Riordan, widower, father of two, founder of the Irish Workers' Party and former general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, believes communism will rise again and blames its fall on Gorbachev, "who created the conditions for destroying it".

Now 81, O'Riordan - who looks younger and has never been given to living in the past ("but you can't get away from it") - has earned the description political survivor and is as loved in some quarters as he is disliked in others - particularly by opponents who dismiss him as an unrepentant Stalinist.

It is more than 60 years since he joined the International Brigade and went off to Spain, intent on defeating Franco but as aware as all who fought with him that there was no hope of victory. His admiration for James Connolly, whose Labour in Irish History formed his political thinking and ultimately shaped his life, has remained his guiding force, while Connolly's famous dictum "only the working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the struggle for freedom in Ireland" could easily be his own.

Although he has lived in Dublin for more than 30 years, he is still a Cork-man, with an accent attributable to no other place on earth. He has no difficulty in agreeing that the vindication of the late Frank Ryan, republican and socialist, who died in Dresden in 1944 has become his major preoccupation. "He was a great man; he never collaborated with the Nazis, we know this." O'Riordan accompanied Ryan's body back to Ireland in 1979.

Educated by the Christian Brothers, in North Monastery - "I went to school with Jack Lynch, but he was a lot brighter" - he matter-of-factly describes himself as an atheist: there is no defiance and even less bravado. Alert and forthright, his demeanour is one of benign ease. Ask him did he kill anyone in Spain and he replies, good-naturedly: "You never answer questions like that. You admit to fear - and we were bloody terrified - but nothing else."

Another query which remains uppermost in the mind on meeting him is, with the realities of Russian history laid bare before us, how does he feel about Stalin now? "I think he wasn't all bad, not compared with Hitler, Mussolini or Franco." With hindsight, it is easy to debate how any society could possibly tolerate the rise of a dictator. O'Riordan smiles as he recites another of history's many ironies: "Well, of course Hitler was democratically elected by the German people."

O'Riordan sits upstairs in the place he regards as a second home, Connolly Books in Temple Bar, which is also the headquarters of the Irish Communist Party. The shop is run as a co-operative effort and the staff members volunteer their time. The stock is standard and the range of titles goes well beyond political tracts. On the floor beside him is an electric fire. A walking stick rests against the wall.

As NATO continues its air raids, O'Riordan's attitude about the situation there are more neutral than might be expected - "I'm against the bombing - the bombing should stop, it should never have begun." On the wider question of the crisis, he says, "it's a very complicated issue that can only be solved by political negotiation," and he refers to the layers of political and cultural diversity. He has never forgotten that one of his comrades in the International Brigade was none other than a Croatian communist named Josip Broz, who became better known by the name Tito.

"He succeeded in keeping the whole of Yugoslavia together by granting equal rights to all the nationalities who participated by rotation in the Council of State of Yugoslavia. The division that followed Tito's death was the recognition of the predominately Catholic Croatia by the Vatican and the German Federal Republic." It annoys him to see no mention of Tito's achievement in the context of the present Yugoslav crisis.

While one respects the beliefs and political legacy which drew O'Riordan to communism, it is difficult to discuss socialism in the context of a society in which the left - never mind communism - does not exist. It is difficult to take Irish communism seriously. "Obviously I take it very seriously." Mention of the recent merging of the Labour Party with Democratic Left causes O'Riordan to remark: "That's not so much a marriage of convenience as of desperation. The Irish left is pathetic. But I do think a revival of issues is on the way back."

For now, however, Ireland Inc is a place where political ideology has been replaced by ultra-consumerism. "All the talk is about this damn Celtic Tiger. It is as if no one has realised this tiger is Asian and that it has already begun to collapse.

"The poor have become invisible in this current obsession with money and getting on. The major problem in Ireland is unemployment. Many people are still without work regardless of how well the better-off are doing."

Born in 1917, the last of five city children of country parents who were both native Irish speakers and devout Catholics, O'Riordan delights in reminding listeners his birth took place only five days after the Bolshevik Revolution - just as he enjoys pointing out he celebrated his 70th birthday in Moscow. His political birthright was obviously that of nationalist republicanism but, he points out, "I'm uneasy with that word 'nationalism' - it has caused so much trouble all over the world. I prefer 'republican' ". At school, he quickly developed a liking for history and was surprised recently, when sorting through old papers, to discover he had fared poorly in that subject in a Certificate exam. "Then I remembered that my interpretation of 1916 was not exactly the prescribed one."

On leaving school at 15, he says, he began a period of "not doing much. Ireland was a very depressed place in the 1930s and there was very little for working-class people." He joined the Fianna at 16 - "even at that stage I was Republican-orientated."

In those years, Republicans were confronting a new challenge in the emerging Blueshirt movement. Even now, O'Riordan makes no attempt to conceal his contempt for the movement - "a band of failed politicians and priests, they all went charging off to Spain to support Franco chanting 'long live Christ the King'. It was in keeping with the religious hysteria and anti-communism prevailing in Ireland at the time." As for the Blueshirt leader, General Eoin O'Duffy, O'Riordan despised him. "He was a dangerous but ineffectual character." But the idea of going to Spain himself certainly appealed to the young O'Riordan.

Was it a sense of adventure which lured him? "Adventure? Yes - well, when you're that age . . . but it was also idealism. We knew we hadn't a hope of winning, but it was important to make a stand."

By the time he was on his way to Spain, his father, having worked as a tram driver and a docker, had acquired a small shop, paid for through compensation for a work injury. At times, O'Riordan helped out, but when Spain called, and the chief scout in the Fianna announced he was going, O'Riordan made up his mind very quickly.

His journey to battle is the stuff of Hollywood. He went from Cork to Dublin, to Liverpool, to London, to Paris - having borrowed a birth certificate and an English identity to enlist. "I needed the birth cert. because I was under-age, and the English identity and address to avail of the weekend ticket to enable me to travel to France as an Englishman. If they'd known I was Irish I would have needed a passport."

In Paris, the volunteers were presented with the reality of the war. "They wanted to make sure we knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into. We were briefed by a number of men who had returned from the Spanish front. They told us conditions were appalling."

There were no weapons, no food, no medicine. "It gave us all a chance to drop out if we wanted to, and some did."

In order to get into Spain without attracting the attention of the French military and police, the volunteers were led through the Pyrenees to the border. It took 12 hours to cross the mountains. "Tito was in charge of transporting all the International Brigade members from Paris to Spain." Once on Spanish soil, they were given basic training and supplied with Russian rifles far inferior to the weapons, including artillery, Hitler had donated to Franco.

Among O'Riordan's comrades was the poet Charles Donnelly who, moments before he died in the Battle of Jarma, spoke the famous words "even the olives are dying".

Within weeks, O'Riordan was wounded. It took him a long time to recover - "bits of shrapnel kept coming to the surface". Aware its position was hopeless, the Republican government felt obliged to disband the International Brigade. O'Riordan speaks of the sadness at leaving Spain. "It was very moving. We had a love and admiration for the Spanish, I still do. They were the first and only people in Europe to stand up and oppose Fascism. That took courage and we were proud to be there."

Coming back to Ireland was less inspiring. O'Riordan was interned as a security risk and spent "three years, 10 months and four days" in the Curragh in Co Kildare. He didn't much like it - "the food wasn't good" - but at least he received adequate medical treatment. He also learnt Irish which, as a boy, "I had taken against for a while."

"In the Curragh, I was very lucky. I had a great teacher - Mairtin O Cadhain". The novelist and folklorist (1906-1970) and author of Cre Na Cille (1949) had joined the IRA in the 1930s and as a result spent five years in the Curragh camp where he was recognised as a teacher of genius and inspired many of his fellow internees with his Irish-language classes.

O'Riordan also learnt "sufficient Russian to get around in Russia" at the Curragh. On his release at Christmas 1943, he returned to Cork and was involved in founding the Cork Socialist Party. He also began working as a bus conductor. Politics was still important. In 1945 he contested the local elections in Cork, "without disgracing myself" and the following year was third in a Dail by-election, securing in the process more votes than a man he had always admired, General Tom Barry. But at no time did he need reminding that Communists were not popular in Ireland.

O'Riordan married Kay Keohane, a civil servant working in Dublin, in late 1946. Under the then regulations she had to resign her post at the civil aviation department. In February 1947, "on the day Jim Larkin was buried", he joined her in Dublin where they settled together until her death in 1990. Within a year of arriving in the capital he was one of a group which formed the Irish Workers' League, soon to be known as Party, "which was, and is, a Communist party", he says.

It was then, he believes, the Catholic Standard - "that vile journal" - began what he describes as an Irish version of McCarthyism. "It was a witch-hunt - was an open season - it published a list of our party members, complete with addresses, photographs and places of work." Many party members lost their jobs. In 1961, many voters in the Dublin South West consistency attending Mass heard O'Riordan denounced from the pulpits. "McQuaid informed them that voting for Red O'Riordan amounted to a mortal sin."

In the 1960s, radicalism became fashionable "'particularly among middle-class university students". While he was not convinced by the new extremism, he does concede it made leftist politics more palatable. He resigned from CIE, where he had been an active trade unionist, in 1965, and became general secretary of the Irish Workers' Party, then bitterly contesting entry to the Common Market.

In 1970 came the reconstituting, after a 37-year spilt into North and South factions, of the Communist Party of Ireland. O'Riordan introduced the draft manifesto "as a monument to the working men of Belfast, Dublin, Cork and Wexford who fought the grim fight with Larkin".

In 1976, in Berlin, he presided at the closing session of the 29th conference of the Communist and Workers' Parties of Europe.

The year before, he spoke in Havana, at the first congress of the Communist Party of Cuba. Then, O'Riordan compared Cuba with Ireland, saying the British ruling class had dominated and exploited Ireland, and congratulated the Cuban people on their defeat of American imperialism. The sole remaining communist success story remains important to him - not least because "the language is Spanish".

"It is an island like Ireland and there is tremendous enthusiasm there for facing up to the bullying tactics of the Yankee government." In Cuba in 1989, "I was pleasantly surprised to discover, on a house-front on O'Rahilly Street, a plaque inscribed in Spanish, English and Irish and depicting two islands - Cuba and Ireland - "two islands that are fighting in the angry sea of imperialism".

More recently, he was there last summer as a participant on the US Pastors for Peace 8th Friendship Caravan, protesting against the blockade of Cuba. The 200-strong group, consisting of pastors and lay people, brought in embargoed medicine, food and other supplies. "The Americans tried to stop us by isolating the caravans in Texas. Eventually, after some days, they had to give way because they said they would allow 12 people to enter Cuba, if the people gave their names and addresses." The pastors refused to give their names, aware they would be subjected to persecution and possible prosecution by the US police and CIA. However, the following day, they agreed to supply 12 names including those of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Dorothy Day - a Catholic and a Communist for whom admirers are currently seeking canonisation - and others well-known as campaigners in non-violent forms of struggle.

Describing himself as an internationalist, O'Riordan says he wants peace in the world and particularly in Northern Ireland "and I'd like to see a proper social system with social justice for everybody. And that's enough to wish for isn't it?"

While reluctant to offer sweepingly general solutions to end the conflict in the Balkans, O'Riordan is adamantly in favour of the probable extradition to Spain, despite age and ill health, of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. "Why on earth not? So he's 83, I'm 81 and I've a rake of things wrong with me. Of course he should be brought to justice."

More material on O'Riordan is available here.