Veteran communist dedicated to his cause

 

Michael O'Riordan: Michael O'Riordan and the Soviet Union were born within a week of each other in 1917. Russia's "October Revolution" began on November 7th, 1917, in Petrograd. The conflict of dates was due to Imperial Russia's insistence on the ancient, and inaccurate Julian calendar.

Just five days later, at Pope's Quay in Cork City, Michael O'Riordan was born the son of parents from the Gaeltacht of Béal Átha an Ghaorthaidh. The link between the Cork man and the Soviet state was to last until the red flag was taken down from the Kremlin as 1991 ended. To mark the latter occasion O'Riordan raised the standard over Connolly House in Dublin, declaring: "Our flag is still red."

O'Riordan survived the USSR by almost 15 years and was uncompromising in his support of Moscow's political leaders, with the singular exception of Mikhail Gorbachev. He was a communist of the old school, a supporter of Soviet military and civil actions that were, to say the least, difficult to defend.

His unflinching beliefs stopped well short, however, of the political sectarianism that bedevilled Irish left-wing politics, entry into which has been compared to diving naked into a shark-infested swimming pool.

A man of considerable charm and conviviality, Michael O'Riordan was the polar opposite of the dour, dogmatic communist leader portrayed by Cold-War political opponents. Not many general secretaries of communist parties could be found in the pub, drinking a pint or, more likely, sipping a glass of Hewitt's whiskey and chatting with locals on matters mundane. Personal animosity was virtually unknown to him. His mother, a deeply-religious Catholic, constantly prayed for his soul, and they got on very well with each other.

Though he fought as a youth for the Spanish Republic, he thought the rank-and-file Blueshirts who fought for Franco were simply misled: "I never regarded them as fascists - the ordinary Blueshirts."

Not surprisingly for someone whose roots were in west Cork his early political activity led from the boy scouts of Fianna Éireann to the IRA. Frank Ryan, his comrade in arms in Spain and a man he held in the highest esteem, was the leader of the Fianna scouts at the time he joined.

At school in the North Monastery CBS in Cork, O'Riordan was a contemporary of former taoiseach Jack Lynch, whom he considered a brilliant student.

It was IRA membership that led him to Spain. He travelled alone to Liverpool and onwards to London where he enlisted in the International Brigades by pretending to be older than he was. From there he travelled to France and onwards over the Pyrenees and into action. O'Riordan fought and was wounded by shrapnel at the battle of the Ebro.

In a citation for bravery, his commanding officer wrote: "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."

Returning from the war he, and a handful of other veterans, were led down Dublin's quays by a lone piper to a meeting in Abbey Street led by the republican priest Fr Michael O'Flanagan. O'Riordan then returned to Cork and to politics. He was interned in the Curragh and although of Gaeltacht origins, learned his Irish there from his fellow prisoner the author Máirtín Ó Cadhain. As a Socialist candidate he gained 3,184 votes in a by-election for Cork Borough in the 1940s to finish ahead of his former IRA commander Tom Barry.

He was less successful in Dublin where his candidature for the Irish Workers League, the communist party's name at the time, was the subject of vitriolic attacks from the pulpit. Among the threats to voters was that of hell fire in the next life but O'Riordan's concept of the "hereafter" was that of "someone who will carry on the fight when I've gone".

In those election campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s he was made forcefully aware of the fickle nature of politics and relished telling a story of the support he received from Luke Kelly of the Dubliners.

"We had met on his return from Britain and shared a personal-political friendship. When I stood as a party candidate the help of Luke in his artistic capacity was invoked. We billed our public appearance at the then waste ground across from Christ Church Cathedral.

"That evening a big audience turned up and Luke performed his overture of working class and national rebel songs. The crowd grew even bigger and then with a rousing finale he stepped back to give the floor to the candidate. I went to the microphone, glancing down to straighten my speech notes, and then looked up to find that 90 per cent of the crowd had evaporated in the wake of Luke. When next we met I greeted him as 'Comrade Pied Piper of Hammelin'."

In later life he devoted himself to telling the younger generation of the struggle against fascism in Spain. His abiding memory: "the horrors and the hunger." He was granted honorary Spanish citizenship in 1996 and on his 70th birthday was awarded the Soviet Order of Friendship. On that occasion a congratulatory message from the Central Committee of the Communist Party was carried on the front page of Pravda and an obituary inside stated that he was "brought up in the land of ardent patriots, fighters against the English colonial oppression, where the combat songs of the troubles were sung instead of lullabies and stories about hero republicans were told instead of fairy tales for children."

Michael O'Riordan married Kay Keohane from Clonakilty in 1946. The couple shared their family and political life and had three children: Mary, who died in infancy, Manus and Brenda. He is survived also by five grandchildren: Jessica, Neil, Dara, Caitríona and Luke.

Michael O'Riordan born Cork November 12th, 1917. Died Dublin May 18th, 2006.