Frank Ryan (1902-44)

b. Elton, Co. Limerick, son of Vere and Anne Ryan, both teachers and his father headmaster at Bottomstown Nat. School; ed. Rockwell College, having already joined the IRA before leaving; took degree in Celtic Studies at UCD [var. scholarship]; associated with Peadar O’Donnell and George Gilmore; edited Reult; became anti-Treaty republican in Civil War; interned for nine months; completed university and grad. Celtic Studies; worked as teacher and in Irish Tourist Association; participated in riot at O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars (Abbey Th. 1926); joined IRA exec., and ed. An Phoblacht; arrested;

co-fnd. with George Gilmore and Peadar O’Donnell, Comhairle na Poblachta and Saor Éire, 1931, an Irish united front against Fascism; led the Connolly Column [80 volunteers] to fight on the Republican (i.e., Loyalist) side; crossed into Spain, 15 Dec. 1936, joining the 15th International Brigade, a contingent of 277; Charles Donnelly and 18 others killed at Jarama, where Ryan is wounded, 15 March, 1937 - only 15 of his Irish companions surviving; stood unsuccessfully as a republican candidate in Irish general election of 1937; returned to Spain as brigade adjutant to Gen. Maija; captured by Italian forces, being held at Miranda del Ebro detention camp as Franco’s “most valuable prisoner”, 1938, and then at San Pedro de Cardenzas prison nr. Burgos;

accused at trial of death of Admiral Somerville and Kevin O’Higgins, inter al.; inconclusive verdict resulting in death sentence being commuted to 30 years; insensed by IRA bombing campaign in Britain, 1939 (calling the organisers ‘irresponsible political lunatics [...] doing the maximum damage to the Irish Republic’); suffered illness including deafness in prison, and released after 13 months, July 1940, following German intervention and de Valera’s appeal to Franco; permitted to travel to Germany, 1940;

reunited with Sean Russell in Berlin, 1940; travelled by submarine to Ireland with Russell, 8 Aug. 1940; Russell d. at sea, prob. from perforated ulcer, nr. Orkneys [var. suspicious circs.]; returned to Berlin without landing and treated as non-party neutral therafter; d. in Dresden sanatorium, 1944, and bur. Loschwitz; remains returned to Ireland and bur. Glasnevin, June 1979; Rosamund Jacob [q.v.] was his lover; a son lives in Ireland. DIB DIH FDA

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The Book of the XV Brigade, Record of British, Canadian and Irish Volunteers in the XV International Brigade in Spain, 1936-38 (Madrid: Commissariat of War 1938; rep. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Graham 1975).

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  • Seán Cronin, Frank Ryan: The Search for the Republic, foreword by Peadar O’Donnell (Dublin: Repsol 1980);
  • Michael O’Loughlin, Frank Ryan: Journey to the Centre [Letters from the New Island ser., No. 3] (Dublin: Raven Arts Press 1987), 19pp.; Ferghal McGarry, Frank Ryan (Historical Association of Ireland 2003), 98pp.; Adrian Hoar, In Green and Red: The Lives of Frank Ryan (Dingle: Brandon Press 2004), 321pp., ill.

See also Robert Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 (Manchester UP 1999), and Bob Doyle & Harry Owens, Brigadista (Dublin: Currach 2006), the autobiography of an Irish anti-Fascist fighter [Doyle] in Spain.

For an account of Ryan’s incarceration in Spain, see the website dedicated to Leopold Kerney, the Irish Minister in Spain during the Civil War who sought to secure his release in spite of political differences - online. The author, Eamon C. Kerney, continues:

‘Apart from being a loaded word, the use of the word “connivance” is irrelevant and at best indicates a lack of comprehension of the situation [...] The fact is that the handover of Ryan to the Germans was on the direct orders of Franco and was not approved by the Irish minister who could only confine himself to ensuring the safety of Ryan while on Spanish soil, as was his duty. The order given by Franco concerning Ryan's release apparently countermanded an earlier undertaking to have him pardoned and released in the usual way, which was the outcome Kerney was trying to obtain. Although himself a republican, Kerney was a follower of de Valera and did not suppport Ryan’s political views and methods. His brief was to get Ryan out of jail. Once out, he had expected Ryan to make his way to the U.S.’ (Ibid., p.2; online; accessed 22.05.2014.) The author specifically denies that Kerney had any contact with Helmut Clissmann, a known German agent in Dublin ‘except when the latter made personal visits to Madrid after Ryan was taken to Germany.’


Note also that Kerney was accused of Nazi collaboration by T. Desmond Williams in 1953 - resulting in an out-of-court settlement in Kerney’s favour. (See further under Williams - q.v..)

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Donal O’Sullivan, ‘Mr Frank Ryan and “Acts of War”’, in The Irish Free State and Its Senate (London: Faber & Faber 1940), recounts under ‘The 24th August’ [1931] that a ‘long account appeared in an English daily newspaper of an interview given to its special correspondent by Mr. F[rank] Ryan at the offices of An Phoblacht, and that this was quoted in full by Mr. [W. T.] Cosgrave in the Dáil (Dáil Debates, XL, 34-6). Mr. Ryan objected to the use of words. “murder” and “assassination” when referring to the shooting of armed men. [Further:]

“The shootings to which you referred were not murder, they were acts of war. You must remember this, the Irish Republican Army is still at war with Britain. We regard the Free State Ministers merely as the agents of Britain.” As for Superintendent Curtin, he “exceeded his duty. He went out of his way to persecute the I.R.A …. The Civic Guard have no right to interfere in matters that do not concern them. If they ask for trouble they must not be surprised if they get it.” John Ryan, the Tipperary farm labourer [found riddled with bullets at a cross roads], “gave evidence for Curtin [Garda Superintendent who conducted prosecution for ‘drilling’ in Tipperary]. He was nothing else than a traitor. Then there was Carroll, the young man found dead in a County Dublin lane. This is the truth about him. He was an agent provocateur.”

Mr. Ryan continued: “Military organisation cannot tolerate spies or traitors. But let me tell you this - these things are not decided lightly. Decisions are made only with very, very great reluctance. Traitors must be punished, but there are fewer in our ranks than anywhere else.”

The interviewer invited Mr. Ryan to state how the Irish Republican Army proposed to overthrow the Government, and he replied: “All I am going to say is this. One of these days there will be crowds in the street, and they will not be dispersed by baton charges. You know, the old saying that England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. England will be engaged in another great war soon. Then she will try to take advantage of the provisions of the Treaty for garrisoning ports in Ireland. That will be the end of England’s rule in Ireland.”

[T. W. Cosgrave says:] No government deriving its authority from the will of the people would deserve to survive if it lacked the courage to cope with the challenge disclosed by these hard facts. Trial by jury had broken down. Trial by the existing judges without a jury was impracticable; the judges had been appointed in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, and the conditions of their appointment did not include adjudication in criminal matters on questions of fact. Mr. Cosgrave stated that, in connection with the Public Safety Act passed in 1927, he had been informed by at least two of the judges of the Supreme Court that they would require to relinquish their office if I they were called upon to act as a court in such matters. (Dáil Debates, XL, 45.) They were, of course, perfectly within their rights. Accordingly, the only method of trial left was that by military tribunal. Such a method must always he repugnant to the constitutionally-minded; but, so far as the members of the Irish Republican Army were concerned, since they claimed to be soldiers they could not logically object to being tried by soldiers.’ Goes on to document the passing of a Public Safety Bill on 14 Oct. 1931 as Amendment 17 to the Constitution, Art. 2A setting up a military tribunal of five members [… &c.]. (pp.260-61.)

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Rory Brennan, reviewing In Green and Red: The Lives of Frank Ryan, by Adrian Hoar, in Books Ireland (Feb. 2005), notes that his father was an authoritarian who was authoritarian with parents as well as pupils; Ryan interrupted public meetings with the cry, “No free speech for traitors!”; secretly carried on an affair with Rosamund Jacobs; had a (female) lover in Germany; displayed admirable leadership in Spain. Brennan notes carelessness in the production of the book but commends the stimulating narrative. (pp.18-19.)

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Conall Quinn, review of In the Green and Red: The Lives of Frank Ryan, by Adrian Hoar, in Village (11-17 Dec. 2004): ‘Ryan’s constituency was the street. There was little in his political writings to suggest that he was a distinctly original political thinker.’ Further: ‘In one bizarre incident, Captain George Nathan, the English officer commanding the 15th International Brigade, was put on trial for his life for two killings committed during the Black and Tan War nearly 20 years before. Nathan admitted the charge, claiming he had been under orders and was then acquitted by the court.’ Quotes Ryan as saying that he was not a Nazi: “I’m not even pro-German. I am an Irishman fighting for the independence of Ireland.” Concludes: ‘He was in many ways emblematic of an Ireland that, in a time of conflict between the great ideologies of the 20th century ideologies [ I]t was this that allowed Ryan to be at once an anti-Fascist and a Nazi collaborator. And it was not just Ryan’s philosophy but Ireland’s too; declaring ourselves to be neutral in World War II, giving intelligence to the Allies yet passing on our condolences [] on the death of Hitler. If Ryan was all things to all men, could (can) Ireland claim to be any different?’ (p.56.)

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Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 3, selects The Irish Republican Congress [757-59]; also 760; 1431; BIOG, 811-12 [as supra].

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