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Sean Russell and Frank Ryan and the soul of republicanism


FMcG Seán Russell’s character is a composite of several IRA figures who clashed with Frank Ryan during the 1930s. It was, for example, Seán MacBride (rather than Russell) who sought Ryan’s removal from the editorship of An Phoblacht due to his increasingly independent, left-wing stance (although Russell did court-martial left-wing republicans who left the IRA to join Republican Congress).

Our film simplifies the ideological conflict within the IRA to one between the left, represented by Ryan, and the right, represented by Russell. In reality, Russell’s outlook was not as dominant within the IRA during the early and mid-1930s as our film suggests.

The film also obscures aspects of the wider political context, such as the impact of the rise of the quasi-fascist Blueshirt movement – which radicalised Irish politics after de Valera’s election – and the pressures placed on the IRA by Fianna Fáil’s growing political success which eroded the IRA’s rationale and support base.

By 1938, however, Russell had won control of the IRA, and his influence as Chief of Staff paved the way for the IRA’s bombing campaign in Britain and its wartime alliance with Nazi Germany.

Although some republicans have argued that the IRA’s support for Germany was purely tactical rather than ideological, Document 4 (an extract from the IRA’s propaganda sheet which describes de Valera as a friend of the Jews, Freemasons and traitors) demonstrates the anti-Semitic nature of wartime IRA propaganda.

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Source: War News, February 1940 (courtesy of National Archives of Ireland)

Document 5 (an IRA pamphlet which states that republicans would welcome the landing of German forces in Ireland as ‘friends and liberators of the Irish people’, and describes the Third Reich as dedicated to ‘the reconstruction of a free and progressive Europe’) illustrates the naïve nature of militant republican attitudes to Nazism.

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Source: Ireland’s Answer, 25 July 1940 (courtesy of National Archives of Ireland)

Some republicans did oppose IRA collaboration with Nazism. Document 6 (a letter from the female republican auxiliary Cumann na mBan) shows how that organisation was critical of the alliance with Germany.    

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Source: Cumann na mBan letter to the IRA, June 1940, Humphreys papers (courtesy of UCD Archives).

Despite the ideological differences between Ryan and Russell during the 1930s, both men agreed that German support should be utilised to advance Irish republican objectives. Document 7 (a letter from Ryan to Kerney) outlines the circumstances of Russell’s death in 1940.

Ryan to Kerney, 14 Jan 1942 NAI DFA S A20 4
Source: Letter from Frank Ryan to Leopold Kerney, 14/1/42, NAI DFA Secretary's files, A20/4 (courtesy of National Archives of Ireland).

‘While there are many similarities between history and fiction, there is an important difference arising from historians’ communal practice of history and their accountability to other historians and to new evidence if it comes to light, as opposed to novelists (or film-makers) god-like, near total control of our historical worlds once we start writing’

Hse-Ming Teo

DB The politics of militant Irish republicanism in the post civil war period are complex indeed!  This presents a challenge for a film maker in trying to engage a contemporary popular audience as likely to read the events through a contemporary optic as to dwell on these complexities.  

The head to head antagonism of Ryan and Russell – most  dramatically portrayed in the clash between Republican Congress marchers and the IRA colour party in Bodenstown graveyard -  functions as a cipher for a broader ideological rift between  the socialist project and traditional physical force republicanism in the early 1930s in Ireland.  It also sets up  the antagonism between the two characters which is then stood on its head when Ryan and Russell meet in Berlin and have to enter into an uneasy alliance in the context of  Abwehr plans to transport them home to Ireland on a U-Boat.

Is  distillation of the ideological conflict between left and right within the ranks of republicanism – still very much present -  into the personal  and political hostility of two characters justified?  All I would say is that the economy of filmic story telling requires this just as much as historiographical rigour resists this simplification.

‘The conjuring up of the past requires art as well as information’

Hayden White