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Some famous Irish communists

Michael O’Riordan

(1917–2006)



Michael O’Riordan was born in Pope’s Quay, Cork, in November 1917. His parents had moved from Béal Átha an Ghaorthaidh to the city, where his father worked as a tram driver. He attended North Monastery Christian Brothers’ School and in 1932 became a member of Fianna Éireann, the scouting movement associated with the IRA (of which Frank Ryan was at that time Chief Scout). He subsequently joined the IRA and in 1935 also joined the Communist Party of Ireland.
    When the Spanish government called for international volunteers to help resist the fascist revolt, Michael O’Riordan volunteered for the International Brigades. Recruiting in Ireland was organised by the CPI, and O’Riordan made contact with Johnny Nolan, its national organiser. After a briefing from Seán Murray, general secretary of the CPI, he sailed alone for Liverpool, then travelled by bus to London, where he enlisted at the Spanish Republic’s secret recruiting office, using the identity of an older IRA man who had failed the medical test, as O’Riordan was under age. With four others he travelled to Paris and was then smuggled across the Pyrenees.
    He took part in all the battles of the 15th International Brigade, including the Battle of the Ebro, at which he was wounded. It was during ferocious fighting and resistance around Hill 481 in the Chabola valley, while the Republican forces were retreating as a result of heavy losses from shelling by the fascist forces and bombing by Nazi German bombers, that Michael was hit in the back by shrapnel from a mortar that landed behind him. In a citation for bravery, the commanding officer said of Michael O’Riordan:
                  He carried his light machine-gun into every action, and when he was ordered to withdraw he waited until the whole company had done so. He said that his weapon was worth a dozen men. When he was wounded, he refused to leave his position until others had to leave it. Even then he did not leave until he was ordered.
    As part of an international agreement, the republican government called upon the International Brigades to withdraw in 1938. The last seven surviving Irish participants to arrive home marched from the North Wall, Dublin, led by a piper, to a public meeting in Abbey Street. Returning to Cork the same day, O’Riordan continued to be active in the IRA and in 1940 took part in the attempted rescue of Tomás Óg Mac Curtáin from Cork Courthouse.
    The same year he was arrested and was interned in the Curragh camp, where he joined the “Connolly Group,” which had been established by Neil Goold. A number of internees joined the Communist Party while in the Curragh. Within the camp Michael O’Riordan edited the clandestine anti-fascist journal An Splannc (named after Lenin’s Iskra). On the flirtation by some elements in the IRA with Nazi Germany, O’Riordan quoted Terence MacSwiney: “If Ireland were to win freedom by helping directly or indirectly to crush another people she would earn the execration she has poured out on tyranny for ages.”
    He was released in December 1943. On returning to Cork he obtained work as a bus conductor and joined the ITGWU (now SIPTU), remaining a member for the rest of his life. With his friend Jim Savage, in 1944 he joined the Labour Party and with other friends and former fellow-internees established the Liam Mellows Branch and contested the city council election. He attacked members of the Labour Party in Cork for their anti-Semitism, which contributed to the decision by the Labour Party head office to dissolve the branch in 1945 and expel its members.
    They thereupon established the Cork Socialist Party and put forward O’Riordan as a candidate, who was eliminated only at the last count. The following year he contested a by-election for Dáil Éireann and won 3,180 votes (ahead of Tom Barry, his former IRA commander, who had emulated Fianna Fáil in a red-scare campaign).
    He moved to Dublin in 1947, continuing in his employment as a bus conductor, and the following year became a founder-member and secretary of the Irish Workers’ League (which in 1962 changed its name to Irish Workers’ Party and in 1970 merged with the Communist Party, Northern Ireland, to re-establish the all-Ireland CPI). He stood for election five times for the Communist Party, with reactionary forces hiding behind clerical garb denouncing anyone who voted for “the red O’Riordan” as committing a “mortal sin.” He was active in the Dublin Housing Action campaign in the 1960s, and organised the first demonstration against the US war of aggression against Viet Nam.
    He contributed to bringing many Irish delegations to congresses of the World Peace Council in the party’s efforts to foster greater understanding among peoples and nations and opposition to nuclear weapons. During the years of the Cold War, Michael O’Riordan and his family bore the brunt of the attacks on our party, suffering abuse and even physical attacks.
    In 1965 he became the full-time general secretary of the party and at the Unity Congress of 1970 was instrumental in uniting Irish communists in a single organisation. He retained the position of general secretary until his retirement in 1983, when he was elected national chairman, and he remained in this office until ill-health caused him to retire in 1988. He remained a member of the National Executive Committee.
    In 1979 his book about the Irish unit in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War, Connolly Column, was published by New Books (now Connolly Books), Dublin, with a revised edition published in 2005 by Warren and Pell, Pontypool.
    Michael O’Riordan was a defender of the Soviet Union throughout his life and always argued for closer political, economic and diplomatic ties between the Soviet Union and Ireland. On the same night that the Red Flag was dragged down from the Kremlin by the betrayers of socialism, Michael O’Riordan and his comrades raised the Red Flag over Connolly House, Dublin, declaring: “Our flag stays red.”
    In 1998 (at the age of eighty) he travelled to Cuba as part of the Pastors for Peace caravan in their efforts to break the blockade and isolation of Cuba imposed by the United States. In 2005 the Cuban government presented him with its highest state award for friendship among the people.
    He remained as committed to the cause of socialism in his final years as he did as a young man. He spent the last years of his life travelling around Ireland to speak about the Spanish Anti-Fascist War to the younger generation, to make them aware of those who had fought and died fighting against fascism and for democracy. He took part in every national demonstration against the occupation of Iraq.
    Michael O’Riordan personified the best anti-imperialist traditions of the Irish people. The Communist Party of Ireland is saddened by his passing, but we are also proud of the huge contribution he made to our party, to the Irish working class and to the cause of socialism in Ireland and of his legacy of unselfish sacrifice in that cause.

[EMC]

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