How we deal with Lisa Smith will tell us something about ourselves

The idea of Ireland as a kind of ark and refuge is a deep-rooted one in the Irish psyche

In March 1938, the ex-IRA leader and revolutionary socialist Frank Ryan was captured in Spain by Italian fascist forces. Ryan had gone to Spain and joined the International Brigade, made up of Leftists from outside Spain who fought, unsuccessfully, to defend the Spanish Republic from the Francoist rebellion. He was imprisoned and sentenced to death for murder. The taoiseach, Eamonn De Valera, a man not known for his communist sympathies, immediately tried to intervene to save Ryan’s life, through the Papal Nuncio and Franco’s agent in London, the Duke of Alba.

Ryan’s situation was grave – conditions in the Burgos prison were harsh, and every day nine men were taken out and executed. Eventually Ryan’s death sentence was commuted to 30 years imprisonment, but the Irish State, through its ambassador to Spain, Leopold Kerney, was untiring in its efforts to have him released. There is some dispute as to what exactly happened next but in March 1940, Ryan was handed over to the Abwehr, German military intelligence, at the French border, under the supervision of Leopold Kerney. This was done with the cooperation of the Francoist regime, who publicly declared that Ryan had “escaped”. Ryan would spend the rest of the war in Germany, dying in 1944 in Dresden. However, he never gave up hope of returning to Ireland.

In 1940, in a famous episode, he set off on a mission to Ireland with the IRA chief of staff Sean Russell, in a German submarine, ostensibly to become the liaison man between the Germans and Irish Republicans. Russell unfortunately died en route and the submarine turned back, so Ryan never made it back to Ireland.

Tribal solidarity

It is important to remember that while De Valera was trying to free his old Republican comrade, the IRA was engaged in an armed conflict with the Irish State, with De Valera executing six of its members during the so-called Emergency.


How to explain the State’s efforts on behalf of Ryan? One aspect, of course, is the personal one. Many old republicans who were then in the government would have had personal acquaintance with Ryan, the most die-hard Republican of them all, and those bonds ran deep. Another aspect, it seems to me, has to do with Ireland’s attitude to the larger global conflict, what I think of as the occasional amateurism of being Irish. We still foster the notion that we were neutral, when in fact tens of thousands of Irish men were fighting in the war.

There is the story of the Irish bombardier in an allied bomber over Berlin, stoutly defending Ireland’s neutrality to his crewmates. He points down to the inferno below them, and says: “Say what you like about De Valera, he kept us out of this!” In Berlin there was another Irishman, a friend and companion of Ryan’s, called Francis Stuart. During the war in Berlin he wrote a poem which addresses Ireland, “with your few lost lights in the long Atlantic dark/Sea birds shelter, our shelter and ark”.The idea of Ireland as a kind of ark and refuge, where we all pull on the green jersey together, far from noisy foreign ideological clashes, is a deep-rooted one in the Irish psyche. Ryan after all, was fighting on behalf of an ideology abhorred by the vast majority of his fellow Irish citizens. But somehow, in his hour of need, there was a tribal solidarity, a desire to get him back to the safety of the island.

Irish citizenship

Whatever Lisa Smith may have done when she was in Islamic State, and that’s still not completely clear, her motives in travelling to Syria were certainly ideological. In her interview broadcast on RTÉ on Thursday she talked openly of her desire to live in a Muslim state.

So far Ireland has been spared from terrorism practiced by Islamic extremists, but we are no longer an isolated island, and there can be no doubt that there are people living in Ireland who share Smith’s beliefs. The Government’s caution in this case is understandable, but they have at least avoided the political opportunism practiced by Sajid Javid when he disgracefully cancelled the citizenship of Shamima Begum, the British teenager who had joined Islamic State. There is also the matter of Smith’s child. This child born in the caliphate may have more right to Irish citizenship than a child born in Castlepollard to non-Irish citizens. The case of Smith has to be looked at with compassion and empathy, but how it is handled will tell us a lot about Ireland and how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world.

Michael O’Loughlin is a writer and poet