FIERCE REBEL WITHOUT A PAUSE
The News of the World, November 28, 2004, Danny Conlon
FROM TROUBLED SCHOOLDAYS TO IRISH CIVIL WAR AND BATTLEFIELDS OF SPAIN, FRANK RYAN FOUGHT FOR WHAT HE BELIEVED IN. A SPANISH beauty paid a loving tribute to a small band of brave Irishmen. They had shed blood for the cause of freedom in her beloved land.
Sultry Dolores Ibarruri, known as Pasionaria (passion flower), told the men of the 15th International Brigade in the port of Barcelona: "We shall not forget you and, when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves again, come back."
But their charismatic leader, Co Limerick-born Frank Ryan, who had led 145
Irish rebels in the first epic struggle against the scourge of fascism in the
20th century, was not among them. The old IRA veteran and lifelong rebel was in a fascist prison awaiting death by firing squad. He had been captured while fighting near Gandesa on March
26, 1938. And 60 of his gallant comrades lay dead. Of those who survived, many had
It was December 1938 and the Republican Spanish government was sending the last of the International Brigades home in the vain hope that this would lead to the withdrawal of the German, Italian and Portuguese troops fighting for the insurgents' leader, General Franco. Ryan had been wounded in the Battle of Gandesa nine months earlier. The International Brigade major had been in the thick of the action since arriving in Spain during the long, hot summer of 1937.
But he missed the final horrific battle of his Irish comrades at Ebro in July 1938. Three quarters of the International Brigade soldiers who crossed the Ebro River were killed. Ryan was sorely missed. His leadership qualities were already legendary from his exploits as an officer on the Republican side in the Irish Civil War. He was no stranger to prison, having been jailed in Ireland during the Civil War.
A bullet grazed his head when the unit he commanded was surrounded by Free State Troops in a field near his home village of Elton, where his father was the local schoolmaster. And he had also spent time in jail in 1931 for seditious articles in republican newspaper An Phoblacht which he edited.
He was a lifetime seditionist, having his first run-in with authority at St Colman's College in Fermoy, Co Cork, where he had what he called "a rich and varied experience of flogging". Later, in Rockwell College, near Cashel, Co Tipperary, he was expelled for leading a protest against the poor quality of food. Taken back, he was almost expelled again for bringing a revolver into the college when he joined the Irish Volunteers during the War of Independence.
In Spain he became the foremost Irishman fighting for the cause of the democratically elected government which army generals, led by Franco, tried to usurp. He had a major role during fierce fighting on the infamous Jarama front in protecting Republican-held Madrid against the fascist onslaught.
As he recalled in his 1938 autobiography The Book Of The 15th Brigade: "On the road from Chinchon to Madrid, the road along which we had marched to the attack three days before, were now scattered all who survived - a few hundred Britons, Irish and Spaniards.
"Dispirited by heavy casualties, by defeat, by lack of food, worn out by three days of gruelling fighting, our men appeared to have reached the end of their resistance." Taking charge, he ordered the men to their feet and told them to fall in behind him. He saw another officer, Jock Cunningham, assembling a group further up the road and hurried his party to join forces with them. Ryan recalled: "Together we two marched at the head. The crowd behind us was marching silently. The thoughts in their minds could not be inspiring ones.
"I remembered a trick of the old days when we were holding banned demonstrations. I jerked my head back: 'Sing up, ye sons o'guns!' Quaveringly at first, then more lustily, then in one resounding chant, the song rose from the ranks. Bent heads straightened, tired legs thumped sturdily, what had been a routed rabble marched to battle again as proudly as they had done three days before. And the valley resounded to their singing:
"Then comrades, come rally,
And the last fight let us face;
United the human race.
"We marched back up the road, nearer and nearer to the front. Stragglers, still in retreat down the slopes, stopped in amazement, changed direction and ran to join us. Men lying exhausted on the roadside jumped up, cheered and joined the ranks. I looked back. Beneath the forest of upraised fists, what a strange band. Unshaven, unkempt, bloodstained, grimy. But full of fight again."
He fooled Franco's forces into believing they were fresh reinforcements, forcing them to retreat, buying time for real reinforcements to arrive.
Back in Ireland, the pro-fascist Irish Independent, which had dubbed the leftist Spanish Popular Front Coalition's overwhelming election victory 'Red Rule In Spain', was publishing black propaganda. They ran false stories that Spanish Republicans burned churches, killed priests and raped nuns.
But it was publicity that finally got Ryan's death sentence commuted to 30 years' imprisonment in 1942. Famed journalist and author Ernest Hemingway, Ryan 's drinking friend when the US pressman was covering the Spanish Civil War, was one of his champions. And Franco said: "Frank Ryan is the most important prisoner we have."
But he wasn't a prisoner for much longer. The German army's high command,
with Franco's approval, effected his escape and took him to Germany.
They thought the top Republican - a member of the IRA's Army Council - would be helpful against Britain in the Second World War. But he hated the Nazis and became Irish Taoiseach Eamon de Valera's agent in Berlin. He successfully pursued Dev's strategy of safeguarding Ireland from both war and fascism. He died in Dresden in the summer of 1944, seven months after suffering a stroke. His remains were returned to Ireland in 1979 and reinterred in Dublin's Glanevin Cemetery.
Dev said of Ryan: "This great Irishman always put Ireland first in everything he did or said, at home or abroad. He has earned his place in history." Another tribute came from a Spanish commentator at a commemoration to Irishmen and their fellow internationalists who responded to Pasionata's call to return. He said: "Don't allow anybody to say we Spaniards, even the youngest, don't remember and are not grateful."
A book about Ryan, In Green And Red by Adrian Hoar, is published by Brandon
Books at 24.99.
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