May 21, 2006 Sunday Independent


THE death, at the age of 88, of Michael O'Riordan marks the end of an era and the passing of one of the most consistent and dedicated Irish Communists in the 20th century. O'Riordan maintained his defence of the Soviet Revolution and the Stalinist system throughout his life and long after many fellow travellers deviated or simply went to ground after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Mr O'Riordan was an "Orthodox Communist" in the same way that his close relative, the former Bishop of Cork and Ross, Dr Cornelius Lucey was described by fashionable media as "an Orthodox Catholic". In other words, they both believed in what they said and tried as far as possible to live up to the hardships of their calling in allcircumstances.

A native of the Irish-speaking Inchegeelan district in County Cork, O'Riordan possessed many of the characteristics of the Irish revolutionary generation to which he belonged - Irish-speaking, belief in the use of force and total dedication to the concept of a 32-county Ireland - but at an early age came to be converted also to the Marxist doctrine of world revolution and international solidarity in what he would describe as the anti-imperialist struggle.

His main claim to fame came because of his participation in the Connolly Column of the International Brigade which was recruited by the Left to fight in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. General Franco's Fascists won control from the democratically elected government of Spain with the assistance of Hitler and Mussolini.

O'Riordan and his men were of the broad left republican view and included former IRA leaders such as Frank Ryan. O'Riordan spent a considerable part of his efforts in the second half of the 20th century trying to ensure that the participation of his Connolly Column would be assessed in a proper historical context. This was despite the huge changes in loyalties that had taken place as a result of World War II and the fact that the Irish people in general, both before and after the Cold War, always totally rejected the Stalinist doctrines. This did not prevent Mr O'Riordan from gaining some 3,000 votes in an election in his native Cork at the end of World War II even though his cousin the bishop had declared that each vote cast for O'Riordan would be a Matter of Sin.

Michael O'Riordan was a personable, intelligent and talented man whose political endeavours came to very little in spite of the efforts and sacrifices he made. But he did keep the Red Flag flying throughout the Cold War and other oppressive eras in Ireland and was regarded by many who were totally opposed to him as something of a necessary irritant that always made sure the establishment did not get away with any short cuts. But even his Connolly Column book, which was published in 1979, does not give the full story of the Spanish Civil War nor does it clarify for historians his role and the role of his comrades in the bloody conflict. The fact that the book was published in the then German Democratic Republic (GDR), communist East Germany, tells its own tale. O'Riordan while championing the "cause of the oppressed" in Cuba, Vietnam and all other communist hotspots, was genuinely blind to the shortcomings of the Stalinist system and to the form of communist imperialism that Stalin had imposed on several European nations at the end of World War II, albeit with the connivance of the 'Western Allies'.

O'Riordan was a centralist state communist of the Stalinist variety and therefore came into conflict also with some of his socialist cousins in Ireland and Britain who ignored demands for Welsh and Scottish self-determination and who accepted the right of the unionist minority in the highly industrialised area around Belfast to opt out of the Irish nation.

But he maintained a wide range of generally left-leaning books in the New Bookshop in Essex St in Dublin and always participated in debate and dialogue with other groups even when they made very derogatory remarks about himself.

The greatest political showdown came in the Sixties when Sinn Fein drifted towards communism and some of the new leadership in what became known as Sinn Fein, The Workers Party, began to court Moscow for assistance with their Irish revolution. This was further complicated when the new Official Sinn Fein leadership persuaded their section of the IRA to call off the war in the North after Bloody Sunday in 1972 while O'Riordan continued to support the case for full Irish independence while insisting the time for resistance in the North was not appropriate.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the entire Soviet communist system under Gorbachev in the late Eighties must have come as a great shock to O'Riordan and his small band of comrades in the Irish Communist Party. But unlike most Western Communist parties, he did not compromise nor did he simply 'forget' all that had gone before. In fact, he maintained that the setback was only a temporary one and began to sell and distribute a new series of pamphlets that sort to analyse 'the betrayal' in a way that was at least loyal to the fundamentals of Marxist teachings.

An indication of the way in which O'Riordan's Irish cultural background and genteel Cork personality influenced his ongoing advocacy of hardline Stalinism can be found in the dedication of his book on the Spanish Civil War. "To the memory of my father who because of the propaganda against the Spanish Republic in Ireland did not agree with my going to Spain, but who disagreed more with our coming back leaving 'your commander Frank Ryan behind'."

Nollaig O Gadhra

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