Military Wiki

Frank Ryan (1902 – 10 June 1944) was a prominent member of the Irish Republican Army, editor of An Phoblacht, leftist activist and leader of Irish volunteers on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

Early life[]

He was born at at Bottomstown, Elton, County Limerick. His parents were National School teachers at Bottomstown (parish of Knockainey) with a taste for Irish traditional music, and they lived in a house full of books. He attended St. Colman's College, Fermoy. From then on he was devoted to the restoration of the Irish language.

He studied Celtic Studies at University College Dublin, where he was a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) training corps. He left before graduating to join the IRA's East Limerick Brigade in 1922. He fought on the Republican side in the Irish Civil War, and was wounded and interned. In November 1923 he was released and returned to University College Dublin. He was active in a number of Irish-language societies (in 1924 he won the Cumann Gaedhealach's gold medal for oratory in Irish) and wrote for Irish-language publications – he briefly edited An Reult (Irish language: The Star ). He formed the University Republican Club and led it on demonstrations. He graduated in 1925.[1]

After graduating he taught Irish at Mountjoy School (a Protestant school in Dublin), but journalism was his vocation. His day job was editing Irish Travel for the Tourist Board, while he also edited An tÓglach (Irish language: The Volunteer ) for the IRA. Evenings were devoted to teaching Irish at Conradh na Gaeilge, lecturing in history and literature, and leading the occasional céilidh.

In 1926, he was appointed adjutant of the Dublin Brigade and given the job of reorganising it. He was always an anti-imperialist, and Peadar O'Donnell believes the biggest influence on Ryan's thinking in those days was the anti-Imperialist Congress in Paris, which he attended with Donal O'Donoghue, as delegates of the IRA, in 1927. In 1929 Ryan was appointed editor of the Republican newspaper An Phoblacht, where he worked alongside Geoffrey Coulter, his assistant. Together they turned it into a lively political paper and boosted the readership substantially. In this year he was elected to the Army Executive, the body below the IRA Army Council.[2]

In May 1930 Ryan spent several weeks in the US, addressing Irish conventions, where he witnessed the start of the Great Depression. In 1931 he was imprisoned for publishing seditious articles in An Phoblacht. Later that year, he was again imprisoned for contempt of court.

Republican Congress[]

In 1933, Ryan, along with George Gilmore and Peadar O'Donnell, proposed the establishment of a new left-republican organisation to be called the Republican Congress. This would form the basis of a mass revolutionary movement appealing to the working class and small farmers. At an IRA Army Convention, they narrowly failed to gain approval for the proposal. Ryan and his allies left the IRA to set it up, with Ryan becoming editor of its eponymous newspaper. The IRA leadership reacted by suspending them to await courtmartial, while IRA volunteers who supported the Congress were stood down.[3]

For months arguments raged both within the IRA and between the IRA and various left-wing organisations on how to deal with Government pressure, the growing Fascist tendency of Fine Gael, and whether to participate in elections, but the IRA leadership managed to keep to its traditional path, though it did actively confront the Blueshirts. In 1935, Ryan established two publishing concerns, the Cooperative Press and Liberty Press, to circumvent the difficulties in publishing left-wing material. During strikes in the first half of that year (butchers' shops in January, a tram and bus strike in March) and agitations for release of prisoners the IRA (which was still torn between a left-wing and a conservative faction and under tremendous pressure from the Government) and the Republican Congress worked together with other left-wing groups. However from June on disputes arose between the IRA and the Congress, which the following year ran into debt due to election expenses and folded.[4]

Involvement in Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939[]

With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Peadar O'Donnell and then George Gilmore went to Spain on behalf of the Congress to report on proceedings, and returned enthusiastic supporters of the Spanish Republicans. Ryan was incensed at quasi-Fascist Blueshirt leader Eoin O'Duffy organising an Irish Brigade to fight with the Fascists, and in open letters to the papers criticised Cardinal McRory for raising funds at church collections to support Franco.[5] The Congress started publicising the Spanish Republican cause in public meetings. This was no easy task, given the strength of pro-Franco feeling at the time, which was whipped up by sections of the Catholic Church and the Irish Independent. Pro-Republican meetings were frequently challenged, and on one occasion Ryan had to climb up a lamp-post to escape from a crowd which attacked a meeting he was addressing in York Street.

O'Donnell due to his age and Gilmore with a broken leg were not in a position to return to Spain to fight. Despite his deafness in late 1936 Ryan travelled to Spain with about 80 men he had succeeded in recruiting to fight in the International Brigades on the Republican side. Ryan's men are sometimes referred to as the "Connolly Column".

He served in the Lincoln-Washington Brigade, rising to Brigadier. He was attached to the staff of the 15th International Brigade in charge of publicity – writing, broadcasting and visiting the front line to see conditions first-hand. He fought in a number of engagements – at the Battle of Jarama (February 1937) he took over command of the British Battalion (the Irish were split between this and the Lincoln Battalion) after it suffered heavy losses.[6] He was seriously wounded in March 1937, and returned to Ireland to recover. He took advantage of the opportunity of his return to launch another left-republican newspaper, entitled The Irish Democrat. On his return to Spain, he again served in the war until he was captured by Italian troops fighting for the Nationalists in March 1938. He was accused of murder, court-martialled, and sentenced to death before being incarcerated in Burgos Prison in 1938. He was under the death sentence for 16 months. During this time he expressed his disagreement with the IRA bombing campaign in England.[7] His sentence was later commuted to thirty years hard labour in January 1940.

'Escape' from Burgos Prison 1940[]

In October 1938 Ryan was visited in Burgos Prison by the Irish Minister to Spain, Leopold Kerney.[8] Kerney hired a lawyer for Ryan, (Jaime Michel de Champourcin, paid for by the Irish government), but in spite of all his efforts, he could not secure Ryan's release. It was through de Champourcin's contacts with Abwehr (a German military intelligence organisation) chief Wilhelm Canaris, and within the Franco Government that saw Ryan released into Abwehr hands on 15 July 1940.[9] The handover took place on the Spanish border at Irun-Hendaye. A cover story that Ryan had "escaped" was released at the time. Ryan was taken to the Spanish border by Madrid-based Abwehr agent Wolfgang Blaum and handed over to Sonderführer Kurt Haller. From the border, Ryan was first taken to the resort town of Biarritz then on to Paris where he received several days hospitality courtesy of the Abwehr. He was then transported to Berlin, and met up with Seán Russell on 4 August 1940.[10]

Activities in Germany 1940 – 1944[]

On his arrival in Berlin Ryan was introduced to SS Colonel Dr. Edmund Veesenmayer. Veesenmayer, as part of his roving SS and German Foreign Ministry brief, was intimately involved in the planning of all Abwehr operations in Ireland during 1940 – 1943, particularly those involving Russell and Ryan. The day after arriving, Ryan was asked by Russell to accompany him to Ireland as part of Operation Dove ("Unternehmen Taube" in German).[11] Although Ryan had not been involved in the training or preparation for Dove both he and Russell departed aboard U-65 on 8 August 1940. When Russell became ill and died during the journey (of a perforated ulcer), Ryan asked the Captain of U-65, Hans-Gerrit von Stockhausen, to cable Germany and ask for fresh instructions before proceeding. The mission was subsequently aborted and Ryan returned to Germany via Bordeaux.[12]

After the failure of Operation Dove, Ryan remained in Berlin. Between Autumn 1940 and January 1943 he lived in a "large gloomy flat" in Berlin with an acquaintance from Ireland, Helmut Clissmann, and Hans Ritter, both of whom were Abwehr assets. Clissmann was married to Elizabeth "Budge" Mulcahy of Sligo, a friend of both Ryan and Leopold Kerney. As an exchange student in Dublin in the 1930s Clissmann had known Ryan and other republicans and socialists well, and before Hitler came to power had been a member of a left-wing student organisation.[13] Ryan was not in good health, as a result of his wound and treatment in the Spanish prison, and at one stage he had a stroke, but he remained convivial and drew around him a small circle of friends. He had to remain incognito and in general did not discuss politics. He grew increasingly deaf (though his friends suggested that he sometimes feigned deafness to avoid uncomfortable conversations with the German authorities[14]) so that he could not be left alone at night – he could not hear the anti-aircraft sirens. He later had to spend his days outdoors or in cafés (where he became friendly with Francis Stuart, whom he had known from Dublin) so that people could see him if the sirens sounded.[15] To Stuart he took Irish newspapers and, being in a position to get extra rations, shared them generously with his friends. In return Stuart took Ryan, who had a lot of time on his hands, on trips to the countryside and on outings with his students. Stephen Hayes, Chief of Staff of the IRA, claimed that Ryan and Stuart were carrying out propaganda work among Irish prisoners of war. This was untrue. They visited a camp for Irish prisoners who signified their intent of joining an "Irish Guard". Ryan and Clissmann also visited a camp containing some men who intended setting up this Guard. Ryan had nothing to do with this and the scheme came to nothing. Ryan regretted visiting the camp and told Stuart that the whole scheme disheartened him – he only had sympathy with men who were, like he and his comrades had been, in prison camps.[16]

Ryan was given the cover name "Richard II" (Russell had been "Richard I"),[17] and he was listed in the Abwehr (Intelligence) files as "Frank Richard". This protected him from the Gestapo, who might have been very interested in a former officer of the International Brigades, but they had no access to the Intelligence files until 1944. Around the end of 1940, a "Where is Frank Ryan?" campaign began in the Irish Press. In response to this Frank Ryan wrote a letter to Leopold Kerney, Irish Minister in Madrid, explaining his whereabouts. Abwehr II's war diary records that the Government of the Republic of Ireland ('Éire'), (the territory formerly known as the Irish Free State), was made aware of Ryan's whereabouts between 11 and 19 December 1940 by Elizabeth ("Budge") Clissmann who had hand-delivered the letter on Ryan's behalf. Ryan instructed Clissmann not to tell Kerney that Russell had died on board U-65 although this information appears to have already been leaked.[18]

In May 1941 Abwehr Operation Whale ("Unternehmen Walfisch" in German), a plan to land a seaplane on a lake in Ireland, was expanded to include resupply of the IRA with money and a transmitter. Ryan was to contact the IRA. After these changes to the plan it became known as Operation Sea Eagle ("Unternehmen Seeadler" in German).[19] Ryan was asked for his co-operation in the planning for Operation Sea Eagle. The written proposal for Operation Sea Eagle gives some supposedly biographical details for Ryan composed by Veesenmayer. It is not known whether Ryan led Veesenmayer to include these statements in the proposal or whether Veesenmayer added them to increase the chances of Operation Sea Eagle being sponsored; either way Veesenmayer did not stress Ryan's Communist sympathies and included a number of inaccuracies and embellishments:

"... he is one of the leading Irish nationalists [and] has been for many years a member of the leader's council of the Irish Republican Army, and a participant in numerous fights against England."

"In 1929 the [British] Secret Service carried out an unsuccessful assassination attempt against him and he has often been in jail since."

"He has extensive connections with the Irish republican circles up to de Valera's closest entourage and with de Valera himself, as well as to the Irish regular army, the nationalist Irishmen in Northern Ireland and especially the leading Irishmen in America."

Frank Ryan's grave in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.

Although Operation Sea Eagle was first postponed after being shown to Hitler on 6 September 1941 and then ultimately cancelled, Ryan's part in planning continued up to its cancellation.

Ryan had also been nominated for inclusion in Operation Osprey "Unternehmen Fischadler", an Abwehr plan to engineer resistance and sabotage amongst the Irish in the event of a feared American invasion. Osprey was planned to work in conjunction with a suite of German Intelligence operations devised by then Brigadeführer Walter Schellenberg, Director of Office VI, Foreign Political Information Service, Reichs Security HQ. using No.1 SS. Special Service Troop. Ryan's role in the plan was to get De Valera and the IRA to work together.[20] There was little realism in that part of the plan (as Ryan realised), but Ryan's main objective, after being four years out of Ireland and in increasingly bad health,[15] was to get home.[20]

The IRA under its new Chief of Staff, Stephen Hayes, now regarded Ryan as its "representative" in Germany.[21] Ryan felt that, through circumstances beyond his control, he was the only European representative of the IRA. However, "he had no illusions about his old friends or his new friends".[14] In a coded letter that was smuggled to Gerald O'Reilly, a member of Clan na Gael in the Bronx, New York, in May 1941, the writer (which O'Reilly understood was Ryan) explained the situation: despite their differences over the previous six years, he had been happy to meet Sean Russell; before his death, Russel had entrusted him with important papers that should be returned to the IRA; that he had a "free hand and was fully trusted"; that success (for the IRA) would depend on the left wing of the IRA working with the leadership, and that if this happened the IRA would emerge stronger after the war.[22] A few weeks later O'Reilly was arrested by the FBI (they were looking for Sean Russell, who had skipped bail) who obtained the letter. They said they were aware of Ryan's "anti-Fascist credentials" and although due to his contacts and knowledge of languages would be useful to "the enemy" (the US was not yet in the war), they did not he believe he would work for Fascism.[23] The leaders of Clan na Gael did not believe the letter.

As far as the evidence goes, Ryan did not change his political views after his release from the Spanish prison; Francis Stuart and the Clissmanns agreed on that. According to the Clissmanns he remained "an Irish Republican and a Connolly Socialist" all his life.[24] However he was frustrated because he could do nothing for Ireland. After the Summer of 1941 he was concerned with defending Ireland's neutrality and he sided with De Valera on that point.[25] There was also the shortage of arms in Ireland to defend itself – Churchill had prevented any supplies of arms to the Republic because Ireland would not give up the ports, and the Americans would not contravene the embargo. Churchill had also hinted at an invasion of the south of Ireland should it be required – there was a lot for all concerned to ponder about in those troubled times.

In 1941 Ryan wrote a number of letters to Irish Minister Leopold Kerney in Madrid. This was facilitated by the Germans to monitor events in Ireland and understand Ryan's position, as after the invasion of the Soviet Union the need to keep Ireland neutral grew, and Ryan was becoming increasingly important in their eyes (ironically, this invasion made Ryan even more suspicious of German intentions). In most, if not all, these letters he expressed his desire to return to Ireland. In November 1941 he wrote that he was treated as a "distinguished guest", a "non-party neutral", in Germany, and added:[26]

There might also be a situation (I was always a pessimist) in which I might be asked to do something I don't like. Such a situation is – soberly speaking – highly improbable. But if the unlikely were ever to happen...I won't do the dirty. And when you plant my tombstone, let it be of granite (like my stubborn cranium) contents. (Not for nothing did I earn the nickname of "The Mule" in my schooldays!)

Once a feared invasion of Éire by US Troops stationed in Northern Ireland in 1942 failed to materialise, Ryan was dropped as a possible mission specialist in further covert Abwehr and Foreign Ministry plans and operations.[27] He was approached late 1943 for his opinion on the feasibility of a "Geheimsender" (secret transmitter) propaganda operation in Ireland for broadcast to the United States, but the plan never reached fruition. It is also known that he discussed Francis Stuart's radio broadcasts with him prior to their commencement.

He died in June 1944 at a hospital in Loschwitz in Dresden. His funeral in Dresden was attended by Elizabeth Clissmann and Francis Stuart. Clissmann eventually forwarded details of Ryan's fate to Leopold Kerney in Madrid. According to Stuart and Clissmann, the cause of death was pleurisy and pneumonia.

Events after Ryan's death[]

In 1963, historian Enno Stephan located Ryan's grave in Dresden, German Democratic Republic.[citation needed] Three volunteers of the International Brigades, Frank Edwards, Peter O'Connor and Michael O'Riordan travelled to East Germany as a guard of honour to repatriate Ryan's remains in 1979. On 21 June his remains arrived in Whitefriar St. church – his local church when he was in Dublin. The church was 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 (who spoke at the service), George Gilmore, and ex-comrades and sympathizers from all over the world. The cortege on its way to Glasnevin Cemetery halted at the GPO in memory of the dead of 1916. His coffin was 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 delivered the funeral oration while a piper played "Limerick's Lamentation".[28]

In popular culture[]

  • Irish singer Christy Moore's song Viva La Quinta Brigada is in large part a tribute to Frank Ryan and his efforts in the Spanish Civil War.
  • Frank Ryan gets a mention in the Pogues song "The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn", on their 1985 Album "Rum Sodomy & the Lash". The lines reference Ryan's Irishness, Internationalism and anti-Fascism. "Frank Ryan bought you whiskey in a brothel in Madrid... and you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids."
  • The character Liam Devlin in the Jack Higgins 1975 thriller The Eagle has Landed seems to be based on Frank Ryan. Higgins's Devlin, like Ryan, is an IRA man who has fought on the Republican side in Spain, was captured and was afterwards passed on to the Germans – but in the book he is then recruited to join a (fictional) commando raid into England, aimed at capturing Winston Churchill.


  1. Cronin, p. 22
  2. Cronin, p. 33
  3. Cronin, p. 52
  4. Coogan, pp. 110–120
  5. Cronin, p. 79
  6. Cronin, pp 92–96
  7. Article by Bob Jones
  8. Eamon Kerney, "Leopold H. Kerney – Irish Minister to Spain 1935 – 1946", at the Ireland and the Spanish Civil War website; also available at Leopold H. Kerney Website
  9. Carter in Shamrock and the Swastika, page 114, claims that the Irish Government made efforts on Ryan's behalf, including the commutation of his death sentence to 30 years hard labour and brokering of a deal via de Champourcin, Abwehr, German Foreign Ministry and Franco whereby Ryan could be released on condition he never returned to Spain again.
  10. Cronin, pp 180–187
  11. Cronin, p. 188
  12. Carter in Shamrock and the Swastika points out that Ryan considered himself more a passenger returning home than a part of the mission.
  13. Cronin, p. 161
  14. 14.0 14.1 Cronin
  15. 15.0 15.1 Coogan, p. 272
  16. Cronin, p. 196 and p. 221
  17. Cronin, p. 190
  18. Carter in Shamrock and the Swastika, page 119, has it the other way around from Hull in Irish Secrets. Carter claims the Abwehr, not Ryan, contacted Kerney via Clissmann to inform Kerney of Ryan's whereabouts. This was in an effort to quieten Irish public opinion on the subject so they could utilise Ryan "without incriminating Germany". Clissmann is also reported to have told Kerney that Russell had died in France.
  19. Also known as Operation Dove II ("Unternehmen Taube II") by the German Foreign Ministry.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Cronin, p. 208
  21. Cronin, p. 192
  22. Cronin, p. 201
  23. Cronin, p. 202
  24. Cronin, p. 205
  25. Cronin, p. 213
  26. Cronin, p. 209 and the letters are contained in the Appendix
  27. An invasion by American troops was anticipated in Germany, but to a far lesser extent in Ireland. De Valera protested against the deployment of American troops to Northern Ireland. See The Emergency.
  28. Cronin, p. 234

Sources and further information[]

See also[]

External links[]

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).