Oration for Frank Ryan

delivered by Manus O'Riordan

This oration was delivered on the occasion of the International Brigade Memorial Trust commemoration at the graveside of Irish International Brigade leader Frank Ryan, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, 12.30 pm, Sunday, October 16, 2005


Situated only two graves in front of Frank Ryan's own final resting place is that of Father Michael O'Flanagan, Irish Republican priest and Vice-President of Sinn Fein, who had been chosen to recite the invocation at the first meeting of the newly-proclaimed Irish Parliament in January 1919, following the Irish people's vote for independence in the November 1918 General Election. He went on to be the only Irish Catholic priest who had the courage to defend the Spanish Republic in the years 1936 to 1939. On the morning of the Frank Ryan commemoration itself, a floral wreath - in the red, yellow and purple colours of the Spanish Republican flag - was also placed on O'Flanagan's grave, with the dedication: "In loving memory of Father Michael O'Flanagan, true friend of the Spanish Republic, from Veterans of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War and the International Brigade Memorial Trust".

The colour party for the Frank Ryan commemoration was formed by grandchildren of International Brigader Michael O'Riordan. The Irish tricolour was carried by Luke O'Riordan, the flag of the Spanish Republic by Neil O'Riordan, and the memorial banner of the Connolly Column, 15th Brigada Internacional, by Jessica O'Riordan and Dara McGaley. They were followed by the three surviving International Brigade veterans present: Dubliner Bob Doyle (89), veteran of the battle of Belchite and former inmate of the San Pedro concentration camp; and Liverpool's Jack James Larkin Jones (92) and Cork's Michael O'Riordan (88), both veterans of the battle of the Ebro.

The Irish language inscription on Ryan's tombstone reads in English language translation:

"Frank Ryan. Born in Elton, County Limerick 1902. Died in Dresden 1944. His body was brought back to his native country 22-6-1979. He fought for freedom in this country and in Spain. May God grant him the reward of his life's labour."

The dedication of the Spanish Republican floral wreath placed on his grave reads:

"In loving memory of our comrade-in-arms Frank Ryan, from Veterans of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War and the International Brigade Memorial Trust."

The following is the text of the graveside oration given by Manus O'Riordan, IBMT Executive Committee member for Ireland:

Manus O'Riordan delivers the oration at Ryans grave, 16th Oct. 2005


Si me quieres escribir
ya sabes mi paradero
en el frente de Gandesa
primera linea de fuego.

In translation: "If you wish to write to me, you already know my address. It's on the Gandesa front, in the first line of fire."


It was on that same Gandesa front that Frank Ryan was captured by Italian Fascists in March 1938, along with Bob Doyle. Bob is present with us here today, in the company of his fellow International Brigade veterans Jack James Larkin Jones and Michael O'Riordan, in order to pay tribute to a man who gave such inspirational leadership to all International Brigaders during the Spanish Anti-Fascist War.

We also have a Second World War veteran present, former Irish Labour Senator Jack Harte who, serving in the British army, fought against the Nazis in Greece. He subsequently became their prisoner-of-war, being transported from Greece to Italy, and then to Germany itself. As a Federated Workers' Union of Ireland official, Jack Harte served for many years as Chairman of the James Larkin Commemoration Committee, and he is here today in order to pay his respects to the memory of Frank Ryan, whom Big Jim Larkin himself had held in such high esteem.

Following his capture on the Gandesa front, Frank Ryan had initially been sentenced to death by the Fascists. This was later commuted to a life sentence, in response to a wave of international pressure led by the Irish Prime Minister, Eamon de Valera himself. But the severity of the penal servitude that Frank Ryan was to endure at the hands of the Spanish Fascists for the two years and four months that followed, was itself a threat to his very life. The last four years of that life would be spent in Germany, well cared for by friends, but with his health irreparably damaged as a result of what he had previously suffered. He eventually died in Dresden on June 10, 1944. A cross was placed on Frank Ryan's grave by his fellow Irish national, Mrs. Budge Mulcahy Clissmann, who attended to that final act upon Frank's death with the same loving care that she had shown him in life, and who is present today in memory of that friendship.

Thirty five years later, from that Dresden grave still marked by the self-same cross, Frank Ryan's remains were accompanied back to Ireland by three of his International Brigade comrades-in-arms: Frank Edwards and Peter O'Connor, since deceased, and my father Michael O'Riordan, present here today. So it was that on June 22, 1979, Frank Ryan was finally laid to rest in his native land in this Glasnevin Republican grave. And as today we once again approached Frank's graveside for this commemoration, it was particularly fitting that the tune played by piper Noel Pocock was that North Dublin anthem of homecoming, "Return to Fingal".

Frank Ryan had not yet reached his 42nd birthday by the time of his death. Born in Elton, near Knocklong, County Limerick, on September 11, 1902, it is also particularly appropriate that today's commemoration will end with Noel playing the tune that had previously been played on the occasion of Frank's re-burial here in 1979, "Limerick's Lamentation".


When the Irish International Brigade poet Charlie Donnelly was killed in the battle of Jarama in February 1937, two unpublished poems were found among his personal effects. The first, entitled "The Tolerance of Crows", was published a year later by Frank Ryan in "The Book of the Fifteenth Brigade". The second, which was simply entitled "Poem", had been inspired by the integrity of their mutual friend, Republican Congress leader George Gilmore. This Charlie Donnelly poem has much to say to us as to the challenge of setting the record straight, not least in respect of the life of Frank Ryan himself.

Between rebellion as a private study and the public
Defiance, is simple action only on which will flickers
Catlike, for spring. Whether at nerve-roots is secret
Iron, there's no diviner can tell, only the moment can show.
Simple and unclear moment, on a morning utterly different
And under circumstances different from what you'd expected.

Your flag is public over granite. Gulls fly above it.
Whatever the issue of the battle is, your memory
Is public, for them to pull awry with crooked hands,
Moist eyes. And village reputations will be built on
Inaccurate accounts of your campaign. You're name for orators,
Figure stone-struck beneath damp Dublin sky.

In a delaying action, perhaps, on hillside in remote parish,
Outposts correctly placed, retreat secured to wood, bridge mined
Against pursuit, sniper may sight you carelessly contoured.
Or death my follow years in strait confinement, where diet
Is uniform as ceremony, lacking only fruit.
Or on the barrack square before the sun casts shadow.

Name, subject of all-considered words, praise and blame Irrelevant, the public talk which sounds the same on hollow Tongue as true, you'll be with Parnell and with Pearse. Name aldermen will raise a cheer with, teachers make reference Oblique in class, and boys and women spin gum of sentiment On qualities attributed in error.

Man, dweller in mountain huts, possessor of coloured mice, Skilful in minor manual turns, patron of obscure subjects, of Gaelic swordsmanship and mediaeval armoury. The technique of the public man, the masked servilities are Not for you. Master of military trade, you give Like Raleigh, Lawrence, Childers, your services but not yourself.

Frank Ryan was well served by his first biographer, Sean Cronin. That unsurpassed 1980 biography has, unfortunately, been long out of print. It has been followed by two more. The more recent is indeed both fair minded and well researched, but lacking Cronin's sharpness of exposition, it has not received the media approval given to another poorly researched one, in an era when the soundbite appeal of the superficial, sensation-seeking chapter-heading of "Collaborator" calls to mind Yeats's lines about "the clever man who cries the catch cries of the clown".

Having his memory pulled awry, as anticipated in Charlie Donnelly's poem, is indeed a long-standing experience in the case of Frank Ryan. In June 1958 the "Irish Times" published a sensationalist denunciation of Ryan by the former second-in-command of the Third Reich's Abwehr Intelligence agency, Erwin Lahousen, in which he pilloried Ryan as "the Irish Communist", "a wild Irishman ... of a distinctly Red complexion", "a ruffian" and "nothing but a gangster". And last week it was again the Irish Times that published the sneering reference by Newfoundland academic Peter Hart to "Frank Ryan, the Republican saint/Nazi collaborator".

Frank Ryan was none of these things. A life-long Catholic, he was in fact a James Connolly Republican Socialist. His Republicanism was that of Wolfe Tone, with the objective of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman. He denounced Catholic sectarianism no less than he did Protestant sectarianism. Frank warned against the development in Ireland of any sympathy for what he called the "disease" and "plague" of Hitlerism, and he specifically denounced any anti-Semitic hostility towards Dublin's Jewish community. Frank Ryan's internationalist solidarity with the Spanish Republic was also of a kind that brought together volunteers from all over Ireland, both North and South, and from the best of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish working class traditions in this island. He proclaimed that he was fighting against Fascism in Spain in order to prevent its triumph in Ireland. And there was none braver in that good fight.

Following his brutal incarceration by Spanish Fascism for over two years, Frank's life was to be saved in July 1940 by the combined efforts of the Irish Minister to Spain, Leopold Kerney, and two members of Abwehr intelligence in Germany, Jupp Hoven and Helmut Clissmann, who, as former members of a left-wing National Bolshevist organisation - the Young Prussian League - had formed a friendship with Ryan on visiting Ireland a decade previously. And this action to save Frank's life was sanctioned by none other than the Irish Prime Minister, Eamon de Valera himself.

Ryan was to go to Germany neither as a prisoner nor as a Nazi collaborator. Britain and France had already sacrificed Spain to Fascism, and in the subsequent World War that had been inevitably facilitated by such appeasement, Ryan came to wholeheartedly support de Valera's strategy of saving Ireland from the horrors of both war and Fascism through a policy of neutrality. In pursuit of this strategy Ryan became de Valera's de facto political representative in Berlin, reporting back through Minister Leopold Kerney. And it was in such a capacity that he was accorded diplomatic status by the Germans, to whom he fearlessly pointed out that they had lost the War by their invasion of the Soviet Union. Throughout his stay in Germany, as in Ireland and Spain previously, Ryan remained a Connolly Socialist. Indeed, the Spanish Anti-Fascist War never left his thoughts, for in the delirium of his last day on earth he was heard to issue orders in Spanish, as if once more back on the Jarama battlefield. As regards Ryan's services to his native country, shortly before his own death in 1975, Eamon de Valera praised him as "this great Irishman", and stated that "Frank Ryan always put Ireland first in everything he did or said, at home or abroad. He has earned his place in history".

In his own November 1941 pledge to Irish Minister Kerney - wherein he proclaimed 100 percent patriotic loyalty and support for de Valera's wartime strategy - Ryan himself had written:

"There might be also a situation (I was always a pessimist) in which I might be asked to do something I don't like. Such situation is - soberly speaking - highly improbable. But if the unlikely should ever happen, sit yez down aisy! For - I won't do the dirty. And when you plant my tombstone let it be of granite - like my stubborn cranium".

And so, fittingly, this tombstone of Frank Ryan's is indeed made of granite.

This is not an occasion for further polemic in vindication of Frank Ryan. I will in fact address the issue in greater detail next Saturday afternoon at the Annual Roger Casement Symposium, when speaking on the theme of "Casement and Frank Ryan - Parallels?"

Today, in the spirit of Charlie Donnelly's poem, it is more appropriate to let Ryan speak for himself, beside a grave that contains not only Irish, but also Spanish soil. Frank Ryan's great rally at the battle of Jarama was powerfully inspirational as a deed in itself. But it was no less inspirational in the way that he himself went on to recount it in "The Book of the Fifteenth Brigade". All the more reason, therefore, that when we visited Jarama in 1994 for the unveiling of a tombstone over the mass grave of 5,000 of its martyred dead, I should bring home some soil and an olive branch from that self-same Jarama battlefield, and bury both here in Frank's grave. Here, then, are Frank Ryan's own words:

"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.

Some were still straggling down the slopes from what had been, up to an hour ago, the front line. And now, there was no line, nothing between the Madrid road and the Fascists but disorganised groups of weary, war-wrecked men. After three days of terrific struggle, the superior numbers, the superior armament of the Fascists had routed them. All, as they came back, had similar stories to tell: of comrades dead, of conditions that were more than flesh and blood could stand, of weariness they found hard to resist.

I recognised the young Commissar of the Spanish Company. His hand bloody where a bullet had grazed the palm, he was fumbling nevertheless with his automatic, in turn threatening and pleading with his men. I got Manuel to calm him, and to tell him we would rally everybody in a moment. As I walked along the road to see how many men we had, I found myself deciding that we should go back up the line of the road to San Martin de la Vega, and take the Moors on their left flank.

Groups were lying about on the roadside, hungrily eating oranges that had been thrown to them by a passing lorry. This was no time to sort them into units. I noted with satisfaction that some had brought down spare rifles. I found my eyes straying always to the hills we had vacated. I hitched a rifle on my shoulder.

They stumbled to their feet. No time for barrack-square drill. One line of four. "Fall in behind us". A few were still on the grass bank beside the road, adjusting helmets and rifles. "Hurry up!" came the cry to the ranks.

Up the road towards the Cook-House I saw Jock Cunningham assembling another crowd. We hurried up, joined forces. Together we two marched at the head. Whatever popular writers may say, neither your Briton nor your Irishman is an exuberant type. Demonstrativeness is not his dominating trait. 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 backs 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 night let us face;
The Internationale
Unites the human race".

On 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, and marching on the road back.

Beside the road stood our Brigade Commander, General Gall. We had quitted; he had stood his ground. Was it that, or fear of his reprimands, that made us give three cheers for him? Briefly, tersely, he spoke to us. We had one and a half hours of daylight in which to recapture our lost positions. "That gap on our right?" A Spanish Battalion was coming up with us to occupy it.

Again the "International" arose. It was being sung in French too. Our column had swelled in size during the halt; a group of Franco-Belge had joined us. We passed the Spanish Battalion. They caught the infection; they were singing too as they deployed to the right. Jock Cunningham seemed to be the only man who was not singing. Hands thrust into his great-coat pockets, he trudged along at the head of his men ... We were singing; he was planning.

As the olives groves loom in sight, we deploy to the left. At last, we are on the ridge, the ridge which we must never again desert. For while we hold the ridge the Madrid-Valencia road is free ...

And thus the men who had been broken and routed a few hours before settled down for the night on the ground they had reconquered. They had dashed Fascist hopes, smashed Fascist plans. Thenceforward, for more than four months, they were to fight, and many of them to die, in these olive groves. But never again were the Fascists to rout them. They were to hold that line, and save Madrid; fighting in the dauntless spirit of the great rally of that afternoon, fighting too, in the spirit of those reckless roars of laughter that night in the Wood of Death".

A year after that great rally, Frank Ryan told his fellow prisoner Bob Doyle, as they were being marched away by their Fascist captors near Gandesa: "They published my book today". Some book launch! It was in fact his fellow Irish volunteers Bob Doyle and Jackie Lemon who saved Frank's life on that particular occasion, by restraining him as he was about to launch back at an Italian Fascist officer who had hit him a punch on the jaw with all of his might. The New York Jewish International Brigader Max Parker, who was captured that same day, was to testify on several occasions of how great an inspiration Frank Ryan had been to all his fellow prisoners. A German Gestapo officer asked Ryan why he was fighting in Spain and not in Ireland, to which Frank replied that it was the same fight. Frank asked him in turn what he as a Gestapo officer was doing in Spain. The same officer told Ryan that he was a brave man and wished him luck.

And a brave man he most certainly was. Bob Doyle recalls the argument about the anti-fascist prisoners' right to refuse to give the Fascist salute, but, as Bob also says, "the threat that we would be shot for refusal to comply with the order quickly changed our minds. We gave the salute. Only Frank Ryan refused, stating 'only when a pistol is placed against my forehead' would he obey".

Bob Doyle is one of the most compelling eye witnesses to Frank Ryan's outstanding integrity. Before we now conclude this ceremony with Noel Pocock on the pipes playing "Limerick's Lamentation" it is particularly appropriate that the person chosen on behalf of all of us to lay a wreath on Frank Ryan's grave should be his fellow inmate of the Spanish Fascist concentration camp of San Pedro de Cardena, and now its last surviving Irish ex-prisoner, the self-same Bob Doyle.

Thank you all for your participation in this commemoration.

After the AGM there was a social event and then on the Sunday an oration was delivered at the grave of Frank Ryan, commander of the Irish volunteers in Spain. The oration was delivered by Manus O'Riordan, a member of the IBMT Executive and the son of Mick O'Riordan, an IB veteran.

Photographs from the AGM are available here More photographs from the Glasnevin Ceremony are available here A delegation from the IBMT met with Mary McAleese on the morning of the AGM. Here are her comments. The Irish Times carried a brief report of the AGM. This was followed by a sharp piece by Kevin Myers which was replied to by the IBMT President, Jack Jones on Nov. 9th. Here's all those 3 articles/letters.

More articles on Ireland and the SCW are available here.