Frank Ryan: patriot or collaborator?

Irish trade union official Manus O’Riordan takes issue with Feargal McGarry’s recent biographical study of anti-fascist Irish patriot Frank Ryan, whose final years in Nazi Germany have long been the subject of debate and controversy

FRANK RYAN, a biography by Fearghal McGarry, follows the author’s first book, Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War (1999), a work of such comprehensive objectivity that it deserves to achieve much wider recognition as the definitive book on the subject.

By contrast, the limitations of McGarry’s second book are only partly related to its slim size of 90-odd pages.

The chapter headings label successive phases of Ryan’s political life as ‘Republican’, ‘Social Republican’, ‘Anti-Fascist’ and ‘Collaborator’. The overall approach itself proves defective, with a compartmentalisation that chokes off thematic continuity between one phase and the next.

Accordingly, while McGarry uses the diaries of Rosamund Jacob to give us new and very vivid insights into how Ryan responded to Armistice Day as ‘republican’ pure-and-simple, he tells us nothing at all about Ryan’s radically different response as ‘social republican’.

The ‘Anti-Fascist’ chapter dealing with Ryan’s role in the Spanish civil war is, for the most part, the most solidly based, given the achievement of McGarry’s earlier work. But there is one area where he seriously undermines his own previous high standards as a painstakingly objective historian.

He now writes that “volunteers who clashed with the communists -- some in good conscience” had been “in some cases (including Irishmen) executed”.

There was, in fact, only one Irishman ever executed by the International Brigades. (Suggestions that there was one other result from a misreading of the evidence by McGarry’s British source, James K. Hopkins).

Maurice Ryan (no relation) had been executed for shooting at his own men while drunk in charge of a machine-gun.

In his earlier book McGarry carefully presented and conscientiously weighed all the evidence, and quite reasonably concluded that “some form of personality dysfunction rather than fascism was the cause of Ryan’s behaviour”. All a far cry from now suggesting that Maurice Ryan had instead been shot for holding non-communist beliefs “in good conscience”.

The greatest problem, however, lies with McGarry’s ‘Collaborator’ chapter, where previous problems of compartmentalisation are compounded by a teleological approach that dismisses out-of-hand all evidence challenging such a categorisation of Frank Ryan’s German years.

McGarry quotes Ryan the “pure-and-simple” republican as saying in 1931 that in another great war England’s difficulty would once again be Ireland’s opportunity, and then proceeds to the sweeping statement that there is little reason to think that Ryan’s views in this regard changed significantly over the course of the remaining years of his life.

In one fell swoop McGarry abandons any responsibility of even alluding to, not to mind evaluating, the increasingly sophisticated analyses of foreign policy that Ryan actually wrote throughout the 1930s, not least his specific disavowal of his own earlier simplistic sloganeering now used to damn him.

For damnation it most certainly is, with McGarry’s choice of the label ‘collaborator’, a political term with a specific dictionary definition, one who co-operates traitorously with an enemy of one’s own country.

Such Irish collaborators did, of course, exist -- principally the former Irish minister in Berlin, Charles Bewley, sacked by de Valera on the eve of second world war and conspiring thereafter to try to bring about a Nazi coup d’etat against him.

The same charge was explicitly made against Ryan by David O’Donoghue in Hitler’s Irish Voices (1998), as a result of Francis Stuart’s 1989 claim to have been horrified at Ryan supposedly speaking to him in 1940 of German victory.

That claim, however, is devoid of credibility, not least because O’Donoghue’s soft interview failed to confront Stuart with the fact that he was contradicting everything else he had ever written on Ryan over the previous 40 years, not to mention the documentary evidence that it had been none other than Stuart himself who had been triumphantly writing in 1940 of such a German victory.

McGarry quotes Stuart’s slander of Ryan, having himself charged Ryan with promptly responding to the August 1940 submarine death of IRA leader Seán Russell with “a conscious determination to collaborate with Nazi Germany”.

He neglects his responsibilities as a biographer to even refer to the most pertinent eye-witness account of the complete collapse of Ryan’s health in the wake of Russell’s death.

In her memoirs ,Cé Hé Seo Amugh? (1992), Stuart’s Berlin mistress during 1940, the unreconstructed Nazi Róisín Ní Mheara, describes how, in the months that followed, Ryan was refusing to eat, barely deigned to converse with Stuart, manifested total distrust of any Germans who came near him and in fact used his deafness to avoid communication with them.

By the end of 1940 Ryan’s health had recovered for him to become functional again. In a review I wrote at the time of the 1980 pioneering biography by Seán Cronin I disputed the left-wing mythology that Ryan was part of some mysterious anti-fascist conspiracy in Germany. His role was much more specifically Irish. He was not the ‘collaborator’ of McGarry’s contention but made himself de Valera’s de facto and most effective representative in Germany.

McGarry refers to recently-released British intelligence material on the interrogation of Kurt Haller but makes poor use of it. Quite apart from checkmating Bewley in Berlin, Ryan also subverted the original Russell plan by assigning to de Valera a veto on any proposed German arms assistance in the event of an Anglo-Irish conflict.

Acting as such an Irish agent Ryan inevitably supped with the Devil but, as a British intelligence evaluation concluded: “Regarding himself as an Irish patriot and not a creature of the Germans, he refused to associate himself in any way with Hartmann’s Irish broadcasts”.

‘Patriot’ would indeed have been the more appropriate chapter heading for McGarry to use in respect of Ryan’s final years. In an interview with Michael McInerney shortly before his own death, de Valera himself spoke of “this great Irishman”. He continued: “Frank Ryan always put Ireland first in everything he did or said, at home or abroad. He has earned his place in history”.

Dev knew how vitally important Ryan’s role had been in successfully pursuing his own strategy of safeguarding Ireland from both war and fascism. McGarry’s silence on that de Valera interview, notwithstanding a passing dismissive reference to McInerney, is one final omission from this disappointingly flawed biography.

Hopefully, his next book, a biography of Eoin O’Duffy, will see him return to the high standards of the fine historian he previously proved himself to be.

Frank Ryan by Feargal McGarry is published in paperback by Dundalgan Press, price £4.20 (6 euros) pbk. Manus O’Riordan is head of research for SIPTU and this review originally appeared in History Ireland

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