Frank Ryan, born in Limerick, Ireland, joined the Irish Republican Army at 16 during the War of Independence, and fought against the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
Frank Ryan, a fascinating, somewhat mythical figure, lived during turbulent times when Ireland finally disposed of tyrannical British rule in Ireland, became an icon for socialist republicans in Europe during the 1930s and 40s.
Frank Ryan came from a family of teachers with a middle class future pre-destined. Ryan, a fiery and inspirational orator, attended University College Dublin, Ireland and served as a flying column member during the murderous Black and Tan War of 1919-21, thereby interrupting his studies. He secured his degree in Celtic Studies and further secured the editorship of An Phoblacht (The Republic), the newspaper of the anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA).
The Blue Shirts
The split in the Irish independence party, Sinn Fein (Ourselves Alone), resulted in regular fist fights between pro and anti-Treaty forces. Clann na nGaedhael, the pro-Treaty political party in government, recruited the Army Comrades Association (Blue Shirts) under former Garda (Police) Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy to protect their members from anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army protesters at annual Armistice Day and Wolfe Tone (1798 rebellion leader) commemorations. Frank Ryan was a forceful orator at these events and was frequently arrested and beaten up by the Gardai. The fractious politics resulted in Dail (Irish Parliament) members Sean Hales and Kevin O’Higgins shot dead in public.
Frank Ryan resigned from the IRA and founded the Republican Congress with Peadar O’Donnelll and George Gilmore. Worker’s strikes united Northern Protestant and Southern Catholic workers protesting against low wages and long hours.
The Spanish Civil War
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War inspired Frank Ryan to lead the first contingent of Irish volunteers to support the Popular Front government of Republican Spain. A brave and inspiring leader, he served with Italian and German Republican divisions. Ryan was seriously wounded at the battle of Jarama, February 1937. ‘ There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama..’tis there that we wasted our manhood and most of our old age as well.’ Following recuperation in Ireland, he was appointed adjutant to republican General Jose Miaja. During the Aragon offensive he was captured with 150 of his men in April 1938 and sentenced to death. Irish President, Eamonn de Valera, intervened with General Franco and Ryan’s sentence was commuted to thirty years. Ryan’s health suffered severely in Burgos Prison, Spain during his two year incarceration.
Franco refused to release Frank Ryan because he was considered his most dangerous prisoner. In August 1940 Ryan was transferred to Berlin, Germany where he was re-united with IRA Chief of Staff Sean Russell. An attempt to return both men to Ireland by U-Boat ended with Sean Russell dying from a perforated ulcer. Ryan voluntarily returned to Germany where he served as the unofficial IRA ambassador for German intelligence. Irishman Francis Stuart, son-in-law of Maud Gonne, who wrote some of Wiliam Joyce’s (Lord Haw-Haw) propaganda, took good care of Ryan until his untimely death in a sanatarium in Dresden July 1944.
An Ardent Socialist
Frank Ryan led a vicarious life in pursuit of human rights, socialism and republicanism. His life story remains more colourful than fiction.