Sean Moylan: soldier, politician and independent spirit

Spanish Civil War veteran Micheál O'Riordan welcomes the publication of Sean Moylan's Irish War of Independence memoir

Sean Moylan memoirs

ON BODENSTOWN Sunday in late June 1938, a rather unique Wolfe Tone commemoration took place. Following a toast to Tone as the 'father of Irish republicanism', proposed by a British Battalion officer, the concert commenced. Belfastman Jim Straney sang The Four Flags of Ireland, Jewish Londoner Max Nash performed a Russian dance learned from his immigrant parents, and Domingo Morales sang a revolutionary song from his native Cuba.

A month later all three performers would be killed in action. For that Wolfe Tone commemoration had taken place behind the front lines of the Spanish anti-fascist war, a month before the Battle of the Ebro, during which two other performers would be wounded, Michael Lehane and myself.

Michael Lehane, who had given us sean nós renditions of Róisin Dubh and An tSean Bhean Bhocht, hailed from the Kerry village of Kilgarvan, literally the other side of the mountain from the Cork Gaeltacht village of Ballingeary where my own parents - Micheál Ó Ríordáin, son of Jer Mór Inse 'n Fhosaigh, and Julia Creed, daughter of Maidhc Mhicíl Oileáin Eidhnigh - had been born and reared

At first sight my own contribution to that Spanish-Irish international fiesta might appear to have expressed exaggerated pride in my native county. The song I sang was The Boys who Bate the Black and Tans were the Boys of County Cork. Yet this memoir from Seán Moylan provides still more evidence that such pride was certainly not misplaced, but had been hard-earned with blood, sweat and tears. As Moylan himself put it:

"My only memory of association with or direction from GHQ in the months from November 1920 to April 1921 was the constant appeal to take the pressure off Dublin. We knew how terrible that pressure was and I think the record will show that we did not fail in our efforts to ease it."

But we badly needed this personal account from Moylan himself in order to fully appreciate those efforts. In 1949 Tom Barry's Guerilla Days in Ireland gave us the story of west Cork's No 3 Brigade and the decisive turn in the history of the War of Independence represented by Barry's own leadership of the Kilmichael ambush and the Battle of Crossbarry.

In 1965 Micheál Ó Súilleabháin, veteran leader of that war in the Gaeltacht area of the Cork No 1 Brigade, gave us his story in Where Mountainy Men have Sown, including an account of the Tureenduff ambush in which several of my mother's first cousins participated. This took place at the self-same spot that a century previously had witnessed the Battle of Keimaneigh, immortalized ever since in the sean nós song of the same name, Cath Chéim an Fhéidh, which my father often sang.

But the missing piece in the jigsaw was Moylan's account of the Cork No 2 Brigade's operations in north Cork. Too modest to publish a memoir in his own life-time, Moylan gave his account to the Bureau of Military History in 1953. It took half a century more before such archives were opened to the general public. The Aubane History Society of Millstreet is to be congratulated for so speedily seizing the opportunity to place Moylan's memoir on as many bookshelves as possible.

It is a remarkable account in so many different ways: its sense of historical perspective, its scientific analysis of the strategy and tactics of war, its acute powers of both social observation and individual characterization. While highlighting the significant inspiration of Fenian roots in his own family background and neighbourhood, and the still more immediate nation-wide inspiration of Easter Week, Moylan had concluded at an early stage that a repetition of Easter Week was neither possible nor wholly desirable. What began as an insurrection had to evolve into a revolution, enforcing the results of the 1918 general election. As Moylan put it:

"The revolutionaries set out to make British Government impossible in Ireland and prepared to take over governmental control wherever the British had been ousted or where the allegiance of the people had been weaned therefrom."

Moylan gives a vivid account of the role of the Sinn Féin courts in that process. He was even successful in inducing a British army wife to successfully pursue justice in that forum! But nothing could be achieved without the will to militarily enforce Ireland's right to self-determination.

"What a horrible thing is war" is a statement from Moylan with which those of us who have experienced war will readily concur but, as he went on to say, it had been made necessary "because of the unwisdom of a statesmanship that refuses to recognize right except when it is backed by force".

From the word go, Moylan saw that action had to be substituted for preparation. Tripping up enemy cycling patrols with nothing more than wire had to precede the acquisition of arms. Moylan's account describes the emergence of flying columns but also the hard lessons to be learned from section leaders shouting contradictory commands and suggesting contradictory methods.

Moylan the carpenter-turned-general insisted on a single command, a lesson that would also be belatedly learned the hard way in the army of the Spanish republic, on the insistence of the woodcutter-turned-general Modesto and the stonemason-turned-general Lister.

As the British torched homes from Mallow to Meelin, Moylan describes how the Irish Volunteers had to rapidly unlearn their belief that "regular soldiers do not make war on civilians". Moylan also underlines the argument that, while the Black and Tans were generally sadistic, the introduction into Ireland of that particular body of armed men was but a natural development of British government policy.

To quote his own words:

"Every act of terrorism and murder of which I have known was carried out by the so-called disciplined regular troops of the British Army.'

And that explains why a Kerry republican like Michael Lehane had no problems serving in a British battalion of fellow-anti-fascists defying the British government's strangulation of the Spanish republic, but could not bring himself to put on a British army uniform during World War Two. He contributed to the defeat of Hitler by joining instead the Norwegian merchant navy and risking his life in the Atlantic convoys, until killed by a Nazi torpedo in March 1943.

It was May 1997 before he was posthumously awarded his war service medal by the Norwegian ambassador at a ceremony in his native Kilgarvan, where I was delighted to be joined on that day by two of my Ballingeary first cousins, Paddy Donncha Phaid Cronin and the late Micheál Creed.

On the previous night we had been the guests of Jimmy O'Brien in his Killarney hostelry. This Sliabh Luachra man from Gneeveguilla has a wealth of stories as well as songs, which brings us back to Moylan. For Jimmy delights in telling the story of the joker who regularly sang of the Tureengariffe ambush, but dropped the word 'their' in the phrase describing how the ambush party 'took up their positions,' to sing instead of 'safe positions'.

This was done for the purposes of provoking the ire of one of the veterans of that ambush, who would invariably heckle the singer with the indignant interruption of "There were no safe positions at Tureengariffe!" And indeed there weren't - but the point might have been missed with a more orthodox performance of the song!

Moylan, who had led that ambush in January 1921, also makes the point that: "From the viewpoint of observation we had perfect cover; from that of protection, none." Moylan's account of Tureengariffe and the Drishanbeg and Clonbannin ambushes should not lead one to conclude that this is just a worthy but nonetheless dry textbook of military history. Far from It.

He can also move from a tongue-in-cheek reference to the War of Independence as an 'international disagreement' to a hilarious account of how his deadly serious instructions to carefully hide a British army car captured at Tureengariffe was in fact 'implemented' by the volunteers so-charged lending out that self-same car for a wedding in Killarney, under the very noses of the British authorities.

As Moylan puts it:

History is better understood if one has a conception of the personalities of those who make it; will be better indicated by a few notes on their strayings from the narrow path of rectitude rather than by any panegyric on their courage or capacity."

This is what makes Moylan's memoir such an enjoyable as well as an educational read. His characterization is also superb. Just a few words are required to recall an Elizabethan proposal for genocide in Munster, when Moylan makes a passing reference to '"the gentle, murderous poet, Spenser". But he can just as sharply get to the core in characterizing a contemporary comrade-in-arms:

"I had heard so much of Tom Barry and of his high reputation as a leader of troops in action that I was anxious to see him. Here he was; like Ernie O'Malley, he looked like a soldier and didn't care a damn who knew it. He was slight and erect, his smart coat, riding breeches and gaiters giving an impression of uniform. Later as he sat across the table I watched him. His face was that of an intelligent, earnest, determined and intolerant man, one whose mind was closed to all issues other than that with which he was concerned. I don't think his appearance belied his character. A few weeks before he had, at Crossbarry, a great success against the British."

I met Moylan only once. Barry I knew quite well. As a teenager I had served under him in the 1930s IRA in Cork but had gone on to defy his edict issued on becoming chief-of-staff in 1936 that no volunteer should follow Frank Ryan to fight in defence of the Spanish republic against the fascist onslaught she was enduring.

A decade later, during the Cork City by-election of June 1946, the fact that I had followed Ryan to Spain once again became an issue when I stood as the candidate of the Cork Socialist Party. As the Cork Examiner election coverage illustrated, the 'red-baiting' was led by the Fianna Fáil minister for local government, Seán MacEntee. It was he who said of me on June 7:

"Is he itching for a fight with Franco? . . . . We want in this country men of one allegiance only."

But MacEntee was quickly echoed that very same evening by the independent republican candidate Tom Barry, who warned:

"Do not be misled into showing the Communist chiefs that Cork is a fertile ground awaiting their attention."

On June 9 my campaign director Máire Keohane-Sheehan of Clonakilty (whose sister Kay I would marry that November) stated that 'the Socialist candidate was fighting against fascism in Spain in 1938 when it was most unpopular to do so,' while the report of a June 10 meeting observed:

"He had been informed that he had been attacked by Mr Tom Barry in a meeting in Patrick Street. Mr Barry was now helping Mr MacEntee in throwing buckets of mud in order to sidetrack the real issues at stake in this election - which were the interests of the working man, said Mr Michael O'Riordan, Socialist candidate, at a largely attended meeting in Grattan Street."

Barry's behaviour alienated a number of War of Independence veterans who might otherwise have been expected to support him. He refused to have anybody chair his meetings, stating that since he did not know what a chairman might say, he couldn't take any chances!

So it was that veteran Jim Gray came to me and said that I was the only candidate he could work for. And readers of Moylan's memoir will note that Jim Gray was the volunteer entrusted with driving him to team up again with Liam Lynch when, as a result of the truce, Moylan was released from Spike Island Prison in August 1921.

Polling day was June 14, 1946. The Fianna Fáil candidate 'Pa' McGrath, a veteran of the War of Independence, won the by-election with 14,320 votes, as compared with the Fine Gael vote of 9,707 for Michael Collins O'Driscoll, a nephew of the 'Big Fella' himself, Michael Collins.

But most surprise was generated when my vote of 3,184 came in ahead of Barry's vote of 2,574. "You bate Tom Barry!" Jim Gray exclaimed, adding, "A hard man to beat!" But there was little joy for me in that. Barry was and would always remain my great hero of the War of Independence. (I am delighted that Mercier Press has published Meda Ryan's outstanding biography Tom Barry: IRA freedom fighter)

Barry and myself would later make our peace. And in the 1960s I was particularly pleased when he responded to the invitation from the Donegal veteran leader of the War of Independence, Peadar O'Donnell, to become part of the Irish Voice on Vietnam. Barry proclaimed that if there was ever such a phenomenon as re-incarnation he would like to come back as a Viet Cong guerrilla. But that also goes to underline Moylan's characterization of Barry as the single-minded soldier.

Moylan himself was far more than a soldier. It was at the count centre for that same 1946 by-election that I had my one and only, but memorable encounter with him. The Fianna Fáil crowd were in jubilant form at their impending victory. Then I saw the minister for lands emerge from their ranks to cross the floor in my direction. He offered me his hand and, without any presumption of recognition, introduced himself with a question: "I'm Seán Moylan. What's the latest information on what happened Frank Ryan?"

In retrospect, it was I who should have been asking him that question, as he was better placed to pursue the matter. For his own 'chief' Eamon de Valera knew everything: how Ryan had been Dev's most effective representative in wartime Germany until his death in 1944, and how he had loyally served the cause of Ireland in that role, as Dev himself would finally state for the record shortly before his own death in 1975. Ach sin scéal eile!

Moylan's question was accepted in the friendly spirit in which it was posed. He expressed his warm admiration for Ryan, having known the LImerick man during the War of Independence and civil war years, and in coming over to me to do so was pointedly distancing himself from his pro-Franco fellow-minister, MacEntee.

We then engaged in good-humoured banter. "Who are you up for?" I asked, Tom Barry being the unspoken context. "I'm for the Republic!" he replied. To which I in turn responded, "Well, I'm for the Workers' Republic!" He laughed, for there was also an unspoken working-class context in the carpenter coming over to greet the bus conductor.

As he walked back I asked myself: "What's he doing in Fianna Fáil?" But then I more realistically answered myself with another question: "Where else could he go?" As Brendan Clifford writes in an epilogue to this memoir: "He was one of those who gave a strong Labour orientation to Fianna Fáil."

Not since Peadar O'Donnell have I come across such a class-conscious memoir of the War of Independence. It is not limited to his expression of pride in being a union man while working in Dublin as a carpenter during part of 1919.

He also recalls that the old Fenians he had known in his youth were all working men, "employed in poorly-paid occupations". And, in 1920, when railway workers accepted dismissal rather than transport British troops, Moylan successfully organized the collection of one thousand pounds on their behalf in just one week.

Furthermore, as he led his column from Tureengariffe through "the submerged tenth of the Irish farming population" who "within the limits of their poor resources fed and cared for the fighting men", Moylan reflected: "For them, too, as for the town labourer, Connolly died".

Nor was such social consciousness limited to Ireland's shores. When he wrote that "the mere Irish" had experienced the "poverty, oppression and that contempt which only the Mississippi Negro knows", the comparison itself was an expression of fellow-feeling and solidarity. And although he made clear his disagreement with Marxism, Moylan's 1920 observation that 'Voroshilov and Budenny were marching on Rostov and on to the final destruction of Denikin and his White Russians' gives more than a hint of satisfaction as to the outcome. But perhaps the clearest illustration showing that his Labour sympathies were international in character was the following statement made in 1946:

"We have been and are still often charged with hatred of England. We hate those English evils that Dickens pilloried. But reading those masters of the literary craft did we not get an understanding too, of the fact that there was in England a depressed and outlawed class, martyred at Tolpuddle, murdered at Peterloo, that there were in England, too, men of high courage and honourable resolve and did we not . . . discover that there, too, lived a people like our own with whom we could live in friendly sympathy?"

Long before I had my 1946 meeting with Moylan I had heard the civil war story of how a priest had demanded of a group of republicans that they would have to choose between Christ and Moylan, and how their reply to him was that they chose both Christ and Moylan. If any readers wonder who it was could inspire such independence of spirit, they need only read this memoir by Seán Moylan in order to find out.

Seán Moylan in his own words: his memoir of the Irish War of Independence is published by Aubane Historical Society at £12.00

Editor's note

Micheál O'Riordan was born in Cork in 1917. He fought in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and was interned in the Curragh between 1940 and 1943 during the Emergency. He founded the Cork Socialist Party before going to live in Dublin in 1947 where he became involved in the Irish Workers' League. He was a member of the Irish Workers' Party for which he contested the general election of 1951, when he ran foul of the Catholic hierarchy. In 1967 he became general secretary of the IWP, which merged with other organizations to become the Communist Party of Ireland. This article first appeared in the Ballingeary Historical Society (Cumann Staire Bhéal Atha'n Ghaorthaidh) Journal earlier this year.

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