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A few hundred Irish Republicans and other Anti-Fascists gathered today in the Ballybock area north of Dublin city centre to commemorate IRA leader of the 1940s Seán Russell. The event was organised a few weeks after the incumbent Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, had made a public statement suggesting that Russell was a fascist sympathiser and that his monument and some others in Ireland should be removed. In attendance yesterday (Sunday 21st June) was a cross-section of the Irish Republican movement in addition to independent Irish socialists and anti-fascists.
Note: Photos of the event are from individuals D. Breatnach and C. Perry and organisations Saoradh and Anti-Imperialist Action.
“NAZI COLLABORATOR” SLUR
Leo Varadkar’s comment that Sean Russell had been “a Nazi collaborator” was made in the course of a TV discussion on racism, arising out of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the USA, an event which sparked off huge protests not only in the USA but, because it had been so clearly documented and shared on social and news media, around much of the world. Among the angry retorts in reply had been an Open Letter by Matt Doyle, of the National Graves Association, pointing out that Russell was an Irish Republican with no elements of fascism in his history or ideology and that in fact Varadkar’s party, Fine Gael, was the one built on fascism, i.e the Blue Shirts movement of the 1930s, which Republicans had fought and defeated.
Seán Russell had gone to Nazi Germany in 1940 to seek assistance from them in ridding Ireland of British colonialism but on his way back to Ireland in a German submarine, accompanied by Frank Ryan, Russell had become seriously ill, died and was buried at sea, 20 miles from Galway. Frank Ryan was also an Irish Republican but had been wounded fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War; after his capture the Nazi German allies of the Spanish fascists had expressed interest in Ryan for the purposes of assisting Irish Republican action against the English occupation of the occupied Six Counties.
A BROAD REPUBLICAN PARTICIPATION IN PROCESSION AND RALLY
The attendance had representation from across the Irish Republican spectrum from “Stickles” to “Provies” to “Dissidents”1, mixed with some independent socialists and antifascists but notably absent was a representation from the Irish socialist and communist parties in any numbers, nor were their flags to be seen. No anarchist flags were in evidence either and only one Antifa flag was, that one from the Basque Country. The event was organised by “Independent Republicans”, a headline permitting a wide attendance free from sectional hostilities or the more fundamental division of for or against the Good Friday Agreement. The flags most in evidence among the attendance were the orange rising sun on a blue field of Na Fianna and both versions of the “Starry Plough”, the one in gold on a green field and the one with white stars on a blue field.
The Starry Plough was the flag of the Irish Citizen Army, founded by James Connolly and Jim Larkin and described as “the first workers’ army in the world”; formed in 1913 to defend the Dublin strikers and locked-out workers from the attacks of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, its ethos was socialist and for Irish independence. The ICA recruited men and women and a number of the latter were officers during the 1916 Rising, including third-in-command in two insurgent garrisons. That version was gold-on-green field version but the Republican Congress of the 1930s had the white-stars-on-blue-field version. The Republican Congress was a short-lived attempt to unite communists, socialists and the Irish Republican movement in one front.
Na Fianna Éireann was an Irish Republican youth organisation founded by Bulmer Hobson of the IRB and Constance Markievicz in 1909 and therefore predated the ICA (and the Irish Volunteers). Members of na Fianna were highly motivated and disciplined and played a prominent part in the collection of Mauser rifles smuggled into Howth in 1914, in the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and in the Irish Civil War.
Led by a traditional Irish Republican colour party and a lone piper, the parade on Sunday set off from under the railway bridge crossing the North Strand road and marched north in the traditional formation of two lines, their flags fluttering in the strong breeze. The procession crossed the Tolka river at Annesley Bridge, scene of a battle in 1916. In fact, the whole area had also been the scene of running battles in 1014 as the defeated Viking mercenaries from Orkneys and Manx ran for their ships, pursued by some of Brian Boróimhe’s (“Boru”) forces, for prior to the draining and reclaiming of the marsh, dunes and mudflats of the “sloblands” to permit laying out of Fairview Park and parts of the East Wall area, the seashore had been there.
Once over the bridge, the procession turned into Fairview Park and marched a short distance under trees until arriving at the Seán Russel monument and its surrounding low iron fence, where a number of people had already gathered. The monument had been erected in 1951 by the National Graves Association, a totally independent NGO and had been attacked twice, once having an arm removed and on the other occasion, its head. The first attack has been attributed to right-wing elements and the second, to antifascists.
WREATH, SPEECHES AND SONG
Patrick “Parko” Burke as MC for the event welcomed those in attendance and called for the placing of a floral wreath at the monument on behalf of Dublin Republicans. The piper played a short piece while the flags of the colour party were lowered and a moment’s silence was observed, then as the flags were raised again a short piece was played again.
The MC then introduced Gerry Mac Namara, who is a member of the extended Russell family.
Speaking briefly first in Irish and going on to address the gathering in English, the speaker recounted that Russell’s antecedents had been Fenians and that Seán himself was an Irish Republican who fought in the 1916 Rising and War of Independence and continued in the IRA after De Valera led a split to form Fianna Fáil. Mac Namara denounced Varadkar for his comments and commented that if the Prime Minister was in the mood to remove monuments there are a number of memorials of the British occupation and to English landlords in Ireland with which he might make a good beginning. Mac Namara made some comments in a similar vein in reference to Cnclr. Ray McAdam, “the publicity-seeking Fine Gael Councillor” who had recently sought to desecrate the 1798 mass grave monument at Croppies Acre. “Sean Russell has no grave”, commented Mac Namara, “because he was buried at sea. This monument is the closest thing to a gravestone he has.”
If Varadkar wanted to talk about racism in Irish history, he would do well to refer to Oliver J. Flanagan, a prominent member of the Fine Gael party and Minister in Fine Gael government, who had in the Dáil in 1943 called called on the Irish Government to do as the Nazis had done and to “rout the Jews out of this country …. where the bees are, there is honey and where the Jews are, there is money.”
Liam Manners, a young man came forward then to read a statement from the Irish Republican prisoners in Maghaberry, Mountjoy and Portlaoise jails. The first of those prisons is of the Six Counties colonial administration while the other two are of the Irish State.
Pat Savage was called forward and performed the Republican ballad “White, Orange and Green”, about an anonymous teenage Republican girl who refuses to surrender the Irish Tricolour to an English soldier during the War of Independence.
“A REPUBLICAN LIKE TONE AND PEARSE”
Mallachy Steenson came to stand in front of the monument and gave a resumé of Seán Russel’s service to the Republican movement. In seeking help to rid Ireland of British occupation Russell had been not only to Nazi Germany but to imperialist USA and Soviet Russia, however he had not been accused by Varadkar of being a Soviet or a US imperialism collaborator. Russell was ready to receive help from Nazi Germany to get rid of the British occupation, as he said himself but nothing more.
Steenson stated that Russell had been an Irish Republican in the same mold as Patrick Pearse and Theobald Wolfe Tone: Tone had sought help from France and Pearse from Imperial Germany, yet Tone was not a “French collaborator” nor was Pearse a collaborator with German imperialism or monarchy. Steenson commented that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has been a well-known tactical slogan on many occasions.
Briefly touching on John Mitchell, whose statue in Newry some had suggested had suggested should be got rid of, Steenson pointed out that Mitchell had opposed English rule in Ireland for which he had been deported to Australia as a convict. From there he had escaped to the USA. While it was unfortunate that he had taken the side there of the slave states of the Confederacy, were it nor for the English he would have been in neither Australia nor America.
The Sean Russell monument is not only to commemorate Russell, Steenson pointed out and there are names on the pediment of many other Republicans, including those executed by the De Valera government because they had continued the fight which Fianna Fáil had abandoned. The Irish Republicans of the 1940s, of which group Sean Russell was an important member, passed through a particularly difficult period.
Talking about monuments which he said should be removed, Steenson referrred to the wall of names in Glasnvevin Cemetery, which he said should be called “the Wall of Shame” and went on to refer to the attempt to interfere with the Croppies’ Acre memorial2. Steenson said that there was a concerted effort to remove or rewrite Irish history. There had not been too much controversy during the early part of the “Decade of Commemorations” but coming up soon would be the Civil War. How would Varadkar and Fine Gael justify the Free State’s execution of 77 Republicans after a summary court martial, he wondered. Or the Free State army tying of captured Republicans to a land mine and blowing them up? Or the removal from their cells in Mountjoy Jail of four Republican leaders, one from each province before shooting them dead the next day3?
The MC made a mention of the National Graves Association and announcing that the organisation had a big event planned for later in the summer, then called for another song which Pat Savage performed: “Off to Dublin in the Green”, a Republican ballad about the 1916 Rising.
Patrick Burke acknowledged the presence of Dublin City Councillors Cieran Perry and Christy Burke and invited the latter to say a few words.
Like Steenson, Cnclr. Burk referred to the “wall” in Glasnevin but also reminded listeners that in January of this year the Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan had proposed to commemorate the Black ‘n Tans4 but his plans had been defeated by the public reaction of outrage. Burke referred also to the plan to build a playground on the United Irishmen mass grave at Croppies’ Acre and that a motion by Councillors such as Cieran Perry against any such desecration had won 50% of the vote and since he had been Chair, he had given the additional casting vote in favour of the protective motion. Cnlr. Burke said that he along with Cnclrs. Mannix, Perry and others were preparing a motion to prevent any Republican monument being removed in Dublin.
The formal part of the event concluded with the playing of the chorus of Amhrán na bhFiann, the Irish National Anthem while some remained in the area to take photographs, have theirs taken in front of the monument or catch up with friends or acquaintances whom they had not seen for some time.
There were three minor incidents during the event:
1) Two cyclists had strung a line of bunting in LBTG colours between their bicycles and were at first some distance behind the monument but later moved to the street in front. It is not known whether they were supporting the event or commenting on it in some way.
2) While one of the speakers was addressing the crowd, one of a small group of secret police approached one of the supporters of the event who had become momentarily separated from the general attendance and tried to detain him there for questioning. However, the man shouted to the crowd that he was being “harassed by the Special Branch” and with a snarl the secret policeman stepped out of the man’s way. After all, there were several hundred supporters of the event present but only a handful of secret police!
3) During the proceedings, a middle-aged woman came from behind the monument and stood to one side of it in the space left open, looked at the statue, then at the attendance with an insolent attitude, then stalked away without saying anything.
The event was marked by the absence of any obvious representation of the fascists and racists of the far-Right in Ireland who have been for some time now attempting to represent themselves as “Irish patriots” and who, it was rumoured had been warned not to attend.
The mood at the event was defiant and the speeches militant in form, seeming to reflect a determination to defend Irish Republican history and monuments to the anti-colonial resistance of the Irish people from forces in or outside Government who might wish to destroy or misrepresent them.
The calumny that Sean Russell was in any way a supporter of fascism has been staunchly refuted. However the correctness or otherwise of the general thesis that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and its specific application to Nazi Germany or other cases remains a subject of some debate even in Irish Republican circles.
1Popular words used to describe the Official Sinn Féin and IRA and its split, Provisional Sinn Féin and IRA and those Republicans of various groups and none, of armed group or none, that rejected the Good Friday Agreement.
2The “wall” referred to is an installation put up in 2016 by the Glasnevin Cemetery Trust commemorating fatalities during the 1916 Rising but which includes the names of soldiers of the British Army alongside those of freedom fighters of the insurgency. Many in Ireland have objected strenuously to this juxtaposition and the installation has been continually guarded by Gardaí, the police force of the Irish State which has failed to prevent at least two attacks on the “Wall” and there are plans to include Black and Tans and Auxilliaries on it in future.
3Actually more than 77 executions of Republicans, since the number does not include a few executed for armed robberies to raise funds for the struggle. The first of the land mine atrocities was the Ballyseedy Massacre in Kerry, on 7th March 1923, followed by others within 24 hours: five at Countess Bridge near Killarney and four in Cahirsiveen. There were many unofficial executions by the Free State during the Civil War, varying from kidnapping and murders to shooting prisoners of war: of the 32 Republican fighters killed in Kerry in March 1923, only five were killed in combat.
4In January Charlie Flanagan, Minister of Justice of the Fine Gael minority Government, had declared his plan to commemorate the colonial police force of the British occupation of Ireland, the Royal Irish Constabulary. In 1920 these had also included two auxiliary special police forces, the “Black and Tans” and the “Auxiliaries”, whose role was to terrorise the Irish population and who committed torture, murder, arson and theft until they were disbanded in 1921 after the signing of the “Anglo-Irish Treaty”. A wave of public repugnance had caused the Government to “postpone the event”.