Frank Edwards 1994 Memorial Lecture

by Peter O'Connor

At the Frank Edwards Memorial Lecture delivered by Kadar Asmal, Minister for Water Affairs and Forestry in the Government of South Africa, held in the Large Room, City Hall, The Mall, Waterford on Sunday 11th December 1994, I made the following contribution:-

As the founding Chairman of the Waterford Branch of the Anti-Apartheid Movement organised here in Waterford by Ella Shanahan, Hon. Secretary, and Michael Curham, brother of Ald. Liam Curham, away back in 1964, it gives me great pleasure to be here again to-day to welcome the birth of post-apartheid South Africa, and to have the privilege of listening to Professor Kadar Asmal, Minister for Water Affairs and Forestry in the new South African Government.

I wish to pay tribute to Kadar and his wife Louise who both played such an important part - indeed the most important part in organising the great Anti-Apartheid Movement here in Ireland. I am glad, also, to have lived to see the downfall of the inhuman and degrading hated system of apartheid; and to rejoice with millions throughout the world at the birth of the new South Africa.

Now, with your permission, Comrade Chairperson, may I say a few words about Frank Edwards under whose auspices this lecture is taking place. The first inaugural memorial lecture was given by Michael O'Riordan, Chairperson of the Communist Party of Ireland, on Wednesday 22nd February 1984. It was arranged by the Waterford Labour History Group in association with the Arts for All Project.

Frank was born in Belfast in 1907, but he always looked on himself as a Waterford man as he spent most of his youth and adult life here. Frank's mother and father had no background in the national movement but his grandmother was from Limerick and she was a great nationalist. Frank told me one time that he never heard of politics until his brother Sean, or Jack as he used to call him, became involved in the Volunteers. Sean himself was murdered in Kilkenny Jail in 1922. Frank joined the Fianna in 1917, when he was 10 years of age. He was educated in Waterpark College, and afterwards in De La Salle College where he qualified as a National Teacher. He played rugby with Waterpark College. He was also a member of the Waterford Boat Club, in fact he was one of its foremost oarsmen. Frank tells a story about Peadar O'Donnell who when he came to Waterford to address a meeting on the Land Annuities made some disparaging remarks about the membership of the Boat Club. Frank said "It made me wince because I was in it; I was very glad I had not told him that I also played rugby." Frank joined the IRA in 1927 on the invitation of my brother Jimmy who at that time was OC of the Waterford Battalion. He remained a member until 1934 when he joined the Republican Congress. Bobbie Walsh was Captain of the Waterford Cumann na mBann at this time also and Frank and herself became very close friends. They got married in August 1939.

Frank was the chief organiser of the Republican Congress in Waterford and the surrounding district. He was a teacher in Mount Sion School and was sacked because he would not resign from the Congress. Frank's mother did not escape persecution either. Bobbie Edwards, Frank's wife, in a interview with Rosemary Cullen Owens, shortly before her death in 1989, records the following: "Mrs Edwards made a statement to the effect that in spite of the injustice done, the Edwards will remain good Catholics." A priest was sent to her by the Bishop of Waterford at the time - Dr Kinnane, a dyed-in-the-wool Tory as Frank described him - to say that unless she publicly withdrew that statement she would be passed at the Altar Rails. To a woman like Mrs Edwards who was a devout Catholic this was a most hurtful and cruel thing to say. The injustice of the statement is beyond comprehension. Frank himself stated, and I quote from the book "Survivors" by Uinseann MacEoin, "They would not leave even my mother alone. She had a post as a Public Health Nurse. They boycotted her and she had to resign, dying very shortly afterwards."

As I said earlier,Frank was the leader of the Republican Congress in Waterford and led the fight against the slum landlords and the Blue-Shirt fascists. He had long been an anti-fascist before he fought in the glorious struggle in Spain in 1936-39 against the fascist forces of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini and in which struggle incidentally he was wounded.

When he arrived home from Spain he went to live in Dublin, where Bobbie was at the time. A letter was sent to him from the Archbishop of Dublin saying that he would not be employed in any Catholic school in Ireland.

I merely quote the foregoing just to show the hateful things that were said and done during the period of the Republican Congress and later during the Spanish Civil War, in which Frank played an important role, a role of which he was justly proud. Frank was lucky to obtain work in his profession as a National Teacher in the Jewish School in Dublin where one of his pupils was the present minister Mervyn Taylor.

Frank was a Republican, Socialist and Communist in the James Connolly mould. He devoted his whole life in the pursuance of these principles. The story of this Waterford school teacher should prove to be particularly interesting to all history students, both young and old, and to provide a rare first-hand insight into the troubled times of Irish and international politics of the thirties.

In conclusion let me quote a statement from Lenin which sums up more accurately than I ever could the life of Frank Edwards: "Man's dearest possession is life, and since it is given to him to live but once, he must so live as to feel no torturing regrets for years without a purpose; so live as not to be seared with the shame of a cowardly and trivial past; so live, that dying he can say, 'All my life and all my strength were given to the finest cause in the world - the liberation of mankind!' "

Peter O'Connor, January 1995