Memories of a veteran communist

Kildare Nationalist, Thursday, May 25, 2006

A constant search for books, out of print or otherwise, has brought me to many parts and to many places, some well known and well frequented, others little noticed or visited. The latter must surely have included what was a small, somewhat untidy and not very well lit, shop in Essex Street, Dublin, presided over by a thickset man of somewhat indeterminate years.

It was a shop I tried to include in my book shop rounds, even if I only managed to drop into Connolly Books every few months or so. More frequent visits were unnecessary given that the book stock consisted of pamphlets and tomes that “shifted”, if that is an appropriate word for book selling, with a slowness that bordered on reluctance.

Presiding over the book shop was a man who, on my first visit, seemed to eye me with some suspicion. Perhaps it was understandable for, judged by any appropriate yardstick, I did not seem the type who would be calling to Connolly Books to peruse and hopefully buy books dealing with the class struggle or the multi-volumned didactical tomes published in Moscow which graced the shelves of the Essex Street book shop.

When I go into a book shop, the books are the focus of my attention and I am told I adopt the taciturnity of a monk, which I suppose may have been somewhat of a change for the man behind the counter. For you see, Connolly Books was a socialist book shop whose clientele, aiming as they did to change the world, were usually the type whose energetic flag-waving and persistent preaching for the cause was matched by a vocabulary of anarchy that seemed forever to be on vocal display, even within the confines of a book shop where silence is usually the norm.

Michael O’Riordan, a Cork man from Inchigeelagh, was the man who with apparent infinite patience manned Connolly Books over many years. We never got beyond an exchange of pleasantries over the many visits I paid to the shop, even when I later discovered the background to the man who at the time was general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland. He died last week at 88 years of age, and the national newspapers headlined the announcement of his passing with descriptions such as “Veteran Communist dedicated to his Cause” and “Irish Communist and Veteran of Spanish Civil War dies at 88”.

Irish radicals O’Riordan was in the grand tradition of Irish radicals stretching back to the likes of fellow Corkman William Thompson, Donegal man John Doherty and our own William Conner of Inch. They were all in their own way labour movement activists who sought to create a society in which the workers would have a greater share of the wealth they created.

O’Riordan’s radicalism saw him join the International Brigade in 1936 to fight for the Spanish Republic against Franco’s forces, which, in the rather strange alliances formed in the pre-World War II period, were supported by the Catholic Church as well as the Fascist governments of Italy and Germany. Irishmen fought on opposite sides in the Spanish Civil War.

Republicans, Socialists and Communists were on the side of the Spanish Republic, while the Fascist Catholic alliance saw the Irish Blueshirt movement in the guise of the O’Duffy Brigade and the Christian Front supporting Franco.

In a way, the opposing sides from Ireland mirrored the situation which applied just over a decade earlier during our own civil war, when two factions of the Republican movement fought for almost 11 months over the Anglo- Irish Treaty.

It is only in recent weeks that the last lingering fallout from the Spanish civil war has been resolved, with the guerrilla movement ETA calling a ceasefire in its struggle for independence for the Basque “country”. It was a struggle that was highlighted in 1937 when, at the request of the Catholic General Franco, the German Luftwaffe bombed the Spanish town of Guernica in a vain attempt to force the Basques into submission.

Michael O’Riordan was wounded during the Spanish civil war and he returned home in 1939, only to be interned by the de Valera government for almost four years, presumably because of his IRA connections, if not his communist links. Social activists were never favoured by governments led by de Valera, as evidenced by the scandalous deportation order imposed in the case of Jimmy Gralton of County Leitrim in 1933.

Gralton, like Michael O’Riordan, was a workers’ activist (I prefer the term ‘social activist’), who fell foul of both the all-powerful Catholic Church and the government of the day because of his “communist tendencies”.

Gralton, an Irishman who had taken out American citizenship during an earlier sojourn in America, was forced out of his own country as “an undesirable alien”. It was – and remains – a shameful incident in the more recent history of our country.

Michael O’Riordan was released from the Curragh Prison Camp in 1943 and after a few years moved to Dublin where, in 1948, he helped found the Irish Workers Party. This was almost similar in name to the Irish Workers League that Jim Larkin had founded in 1924 to replace the Irish Communist Party, which had been established three years earlier.

Larkin’s League was largely inactive, and the Workers Party a little more so, but as a rival of the Communist Party it managed to stay in existence until 1970 when it became officially the Communist Party of Ireland. Michael O’Riordan was appointed general secretary of the organisation that same year and remained so for 14 years until he became its chairman.

Fearless fighter

I last met Michael O’Riordan in July 2004, when with a friend I attended the unveiling of a memorial in Waterford to 11 local men who had fought as members of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

The ceremonial unveiling was performed by O’Riordan and Jack Jones, the former general secretary of the British-based Transport and General Workers’ Union, both of whom had fought side-by-side in the Spanish civil war. I travelled to O’Riordan’s funeral last week with the same friend, an avowed socialist and probably a true fellow traveller of Michael O’Riordan in terms of ideology. My respect for Michael O’Riordan was borne out of his lifelong pursuit of social justice, for as Bertie Ahern described him he was “a fearless fighter for the labour movement”.

He was a communist of the old school, whose support of communist ideology never wavered, despite the many unacceptable civil and military outrages perpetrated by the Soviet Union in the name of communist socialism. Left wing politics throughout Ireland is bedevilled by dogmatic communist rhetoric and Ireland is no better off in that regard than our island neighbours.

Watching the red flags held aloft at the top of the funeral procession as it neared Glasnevin Cemetery, I could not but wonder how it is that workers’ movements stretching back to the Chartists have always been bedevilled by a lack of unity. The fragmentation of the working class (a term I dislike using) in terms of political allegiance is perhaps best exemplified in the success of the Fianna Fáil party, which always seems to secure a large part of the vote of the urban worker and the rural poor. One would normally expect that vote to go to a party which, in name at least, ought to reflect the workers’ views and aspirations.

However, the Labour Party has never been a radical party or indeed a socialist party in the sense of promoting the ideals expounded by Marx, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”.

The perfunctory lip service paid by the red flag waving socialists to the true ideals of equality in Irish society is a sad reminder of the great men and women who in times past gave of their abilities in espousing the cause of a better and more just society.

Irishmen like Michael O’Riordan back to Fergus O’Connor, Bronterre O’Brien, John Doherty, Jim Gralton of Leitrim, Padraig MacGamhna of Carlow and Jim Larkin, to mention but a few. The ideologies which drove some of these men would not, and could not, always find popular favour, and certainly not with me. Despite the sometimes stupefying adherence to a barely comprehensive vocabulary of anarchy and an unacceptable rhetoric common to such activists, both owing much to the writings of Marx and Engels, it is nevertheless inconceivable that we should not recognise the achievements of the great socialist activists of the past.

Included amongst their numbers must rank Michael O’Riordan, the man whom I knew as the proprietor of a small book shop where I could always be guaranteed to come across some book or other unlikely to be found in the main street bookshops.