Frank Ryan, politician, journalist, intelligence agent and paramilitary activist, is born in the townland of Bottomstown, Elton, County Limerick, on September 11, 1902. A fascinating, somewhat mythical figure, he lives during turbulent times when Ireland finally disposes of tyrannical British rule in Ireland and becomes an icon for socialist republicans in Europe during the 1930s and 40s.
Ryan’s parents, Vere Foster Ryan and Annie Slattery, are National School teachers at Bottomstown with a taste for Irish traditional music, and they live in a house full of books. He attends St. Colman’s College, Fermoy. From then on he is devoted to the restoration of the Irish language. He studies Celtic Studies at University College Dublin (UCD), where he is a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) training corps. He serves as a flying column member during the murderous Irish War of Independence (1919-21), thereby interrupting his studies. He leaves UCD before graduating to join the IRA’s East Limerick Brigade in 1922.
Ryan fights on the Anti-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War (1922-23), and is wounded and interned. In November 1923 he is released and returns to UCD. He secures his degree in Celtic Studies and further secures the editorship of An Phoblacht (The Republic), the newspaper of the anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA).
The split in the Irish independence party, Sinn Féin, results in regular fist fights between pro and anti-Treaty forces. Cumann na nGaedhael, the pro-Treaty political party in government, recruits the Army Comrades Association (Blueshirts) under former Garda Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy to protect their members from anti-Treaty IRA protesters at annual Armistice Day and Wolfe Tone commemorations. Ryan is a forceful orator at these events and is frequently arrested and beaten up by the Gardai. The fractious politics results in Dáil members Sean Hales and Kevin O’Higgins being shot dead in public.
Ryan resigns from the IRA and founds the Republican Congress with Peadar O’Donnell and George Gilmore. Worker’s strikes unite Northern Protestant and Southern Catholic workers protesting against low wages and long hours.
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) inspires Ryan to lead the first contingent of Irish volunteers to support the Popular Front government of Republican Spain. A brave and inspiring leader, he serves with Italian and German Republican divisions. He is seriously wounded at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. Following recuperation in Ireland, he is appointed adjutant to republican General José Miaja. During the Aragon Offensive he is captured with 150 of his men in April 1938 and sentenced to death. Irish President, Éamon de Valera, intervenes with General Francisco Franco and Ryan’s sentence is commuted to thirty years. His health suffers severely in Burgos Prison, Spain during his two year incarceration.
Franco refuses to release Ryan because he is considered his most dangerous prisoner. In August 1940 he is transferred to Berlin, where he is re-united with IRA Chief of Staff Seán Russell. An attempt to return both men to Ireland by U-boat ends with Russell dying from a perforated ulcer. Ryan voluntarily returns to Germany where he serves as the unofficial IRA ambassador for German intelligence. Irishman Francis Stuart, son-in-law of Maud Gonne, who writes some of William Joyce’s propaganda, takes good care of Ryan until his untimely death at a hospital in Loschwitz in Dresden on June 10, 1944.
Ryan’s funeral in Dresden is attended by Elizabeth Clissmann, wife of Helmut Clissmann, and Francis Stuart. Clissmann eventually forwards details of Ryan’s fate to Leopold Kerney in Madrid. According to Stuart and Clissmann, the cause of death is pleurisy and pneumonia.
In 1963, historian Enno Stephan locates Ryan’s grave in Dresden. Three volunteers of the International Brigades, Frank Edwards, Peter O’Connor and Michael O’Riordan travel to East Germany as a guard of honour to repatriate Ryan’s remains in 1979. On June 21, 1979, his remains arrive in Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church, his local church when he lived in Dublin. The church is packed with all shades of Republican and left-wing opinion, as well as those from his past such as the Stuarts, the Clissmanns, Peadar O’Donnell, George Gilmore, and ex-comrades and sympathizers from all over the world. The cortège on its way to Glasnevin Cemetery halts at the GPO in memory of the dead of the 1916 Easter Rising. His coffin is borne to the grave in Glasnevin Cemetery by Irish veterans of the Spanish Civil War, Frank Edwards, Peter O’Connor, Michael O’Riordan and Terry Flanagan. Con Lehane delivers the funeral oration while a piper plays “Limerick’s Lamentation.” He is buried next to Éamonn Mac Thomáis.
Ryan leads a vicarious life in pursuit of human rights, socialism and republicanism. His life story remains more colourful than fiction.