Ruairi O'Donnell reviews In Green and Red: the lives of Frank Ryan by Adrian Hoar, Brandon, ISBN 0-86322-332X, £16.99, €24.99 hbk
THE AUTHOR'S literary skills are amply demonstrated in his account of the Spanish Civil War and in his poignant description of Frank Ryan's decline and death.
His mention of "ordinary" men is welcome. They include Kit Conway, a builder's labourer who was chosen as Section Commander in preference to Frank Ryan, graduate, political organiser and IRA veteran. An inspirational leader, Conway was killed commanding XIV Brigade of the Spanish Army. Inexplicably, he is not included in the vast Encyclopaedia of Ireland, which celebrates both Ruby Murray and George Best.
Hoar's work presents the testimony of Ryan's comrades and, paradoxically, of some of his enemies, to the effect that throughout his political life, he was devoted to his comrades, republicanism and, once adopted, to socialism.
In the war against fascism, he served the legitimate Spanish government with distinction. At the Battle of Jarama, he rallied the mauled International Brigaders for a gallant counter-attack. Ryan's account was self-effacing. As the Brigaders retook lost positions, they discovered their brigade commander had stood his ground - alone!
Seriously wounded and repatriated, Frank Ryan characteristically returned to lead his comrades to the bitter conclusion of the Civil War.
Captured on 30 March 1938, there followed for Ryan two years' physical and psychological torture, at the end of which Franco passed him to the Abwehr, an organisation with very little idea of conditions in Ireland and consequently, how it might employ an unmanageable socialist republican. The Germans eventually lost interest in Ireland, but never allowed Ryan to return home.
In his Prologue, Adrian Hoar asserts:
"To point out that the label 'collaborator' does not discriminate between those who worked for a Nazi victory and those who foresaw in it primarily the advancement of their own cause is not to exonerate Ryan of an ethically dubious opportunism. Of that Ryan was certainly guilty."
'Collaboration' was originally defined as working together Later, possibly after 1939, it acquired an additional meaning: to co-operate as a traitor, especially with an enemy occupying one's own country.
What or whom did Frank Ryan betray?
In the chapter 'An Irish Republican Socialist in Nazi Germany' there is no support from the primary sources cited, for the author's thesis. But, there appears to be a fair - to use Marwick's expression - deployment of personal interpretation.
History has been kinder to Parnell who was also torn apart by his compatriots. Frank Ryan continues to be misunderstood or misrepresented:
"… people, who have a murky past and co-operated enthusiastically with the Gestapo in the 1940s. Seán Russell died in a German submarine and Frank Ryan in Berlin." (Seanad Éireann, 3rd May 2001).
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2005 Ruairi O'Donnell