The Enigma of Frank Ryan: Interview with Des Leslie Bell
The Enigma of Frank Ryan is Des Leslie Bell’s docudrama of the life of the Irish Republican socialist Frank Ryan, probably best known for his role as leader of the Irish Column of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The film deals with Ryan’s early career as an IRA volunteer in his native Limerick, his political involvement in the 1930s trying to push the republican movement to the left, his time in Spain and his controversial stay in Nazi Germany where he died in 1944. The film attempts to deal with the political complexity of Ryan’s life. The enigma of the title refers to Ryan’s actions as a revered Irish Republican leader of the 1920s and 1930s and anti-fascist volunteers in the Spanish Civil War ending his life being accused of being a fellow-traveller with Nazism.
The film is narrated in flashback, with Ryan recording his story for German radio in war-time Berlin, before his death in a hospital in Dresden in 1944. Bell’s film skilfully blends drama, with a strong performance by Dara Devaney as Ryan, and archive footage.
MEJ editor Des Murphy interviewed Bell shortly after the film’s release.
Des Murphy: Before we talk about the film, could you tell us something about your own background, both as a filmmaker and a media educator?
Des Leslie Bell: I got into film making as a result of shifting from teaching sociology to media and communication studies in the 1980s. At this time video cameras were opening up moving image production beyond commercial film and I immediately could see the application of the video camera to my ethnographic interest in documenting youth cultural practices in Northern Ireland(1). Moving from this ethnographic use of the camera to making a film structured by narrative concerns and likely to appeal to a mass audience was, however, a challenge. I was lucky that with Channel 4 on the scene there was an avenue along which a number of relatively inexperienced filmmakers could journey with support from a broadcaster. The other motivating factor was working in a university School of Communications (in Dublin) where a generation of students were exploring the linkage between media theory and practice. It seemed I was obliged to catch up with them . . .
DM: The Frank Ryan story isn’t particularly well known in the UK. I came across it only from Christy Moore’s song, ‘Viva la Quinta Brigada’ (about the Irish Column in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War) and from a footnote in Hugh Thomas’s history of the Spanish Civil War. Could you give us some idea of his background and tell us why you are fascinated by him?
DLB: In the 1980s Frank Ryan loomed as a ghostly presence over the left in Ireland. In particular his concern in the 1930s with bringing socialism and republicanism together under the banner of Republican Congress seemed to have import for building a united front in the north of Ireland against British imperialism in the 1980s. Much was made of Ryan as the leader of the Irish Brigade (the ‘Connolly Column’) in the Spanish Civil War but a discreet veil was drawn over Ryan’s activities in wartime Berlin. The Ryan story is a powerful one full of event and in the end tragedy and as such seemed ripe for a filmic treatment that would be searching in terms of exploring his Berlin sojourn but generally sympathetic in so far as his ‘collaboration’ with the Nazis would be put in its historical context without too much revisionist moralising.
DM: What was Ryan’s aim when he helped form the Republican Congress? Did he hope to form a new revolutionary socialist party or was it an attempt to push the republican movement to the left, beyond partition and military action, and focus more on social struggles?
DLB: It’s unclear if Ryan wanted to create a new party of the left or to push Irish republicanism towards a more socially radical agenda to meet the challenges of the 1930s. Republican Congress was riven with this dilemma and largely broke up because it could not decisively move to create a distinct vanguard party of the left not in hock to military adventurism.
DM: He seems to have been one of the few republicans since the death of Connolly in the Easter Uprising to put so much emphasis on relating to Protestant workers in the north?
DLB: Connolly was the inspiration both as a trade union organiser and as a socialist intellectual. Ryan was attracted to syndicalism (he was an active trade unionist) and this philosophy also appealed to many workers of Protestant origins in the north of Ireland.
DM: Your film hasn’t been out long but has it created much debate in terms of its treatment of republicanism, Irish neutrality etc?
DLB: The film has fed into a renewed debate about both Irish neutrality on the Second World War and more specifically the collaborationbetween the IRA and the Nazis in this period. Some on the left chose to attack the film even before they had seen it. While there were lively debates after the screenings, most of the participants seemed to feel that we had portrayed Ryan in a truthful manner and that his activities in Berlin could simply not be wished away but needed to be addressed. Interestingly some relatives of figures portrayed in the film came to the screenings – they seem generally satisfied we had dealt with their parents in a fair-handed manner.
DM: After his involvement with the Republican Congress movement, the next narrative strand in your film covers Ryan’s involvement on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. How did this come about? There is a suggestion that the attraction of going to Spain was that it was relatively straightforward black- and-white response compared to the problems of building a resistance against the effects of the great depression in Ireland. Do you see it in that way?
DLB: Alongside the political idealism that motivated many of the International Brigade volunteers was a youthful adventurism and Ryan was not immune to this. His politics always had a militaristic and indeed dramaturgical element drawn from the physical-force tradition of Irish republicanism. Spain did offer him a vivid platform for his politics which he could not find in the Ireland of the 1930s. Spain offered him international recognition in what was the leading political cause of the day and this was in contrast to the public failure to mobilise in Ireland. It also offered him a commission in the army of the Republic and celebrity status as a political commissar.
DM: He was captured by the Nationalists in Spain but escaped and ended up in Nazi Germany of all places, surely the central enigma in your narrative. How did Ryan’s involvement with the Abwehr (military intelligence) come about? Was it simply a question of “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” or was there a real fear in Ireland of a British invasion of neutral Ireland to get control of the ports? There is a suggestion that any invasion would be led by the Americans who had forces in the North at this time.
DLB: A British invasion of Ireland to seize the Treaty ports seemed a distinct possibility to many in the summer of 1940 – as did the possibility of a German assault on England and simultaneous landings in Ireland. It was undoubtedly this strategic context that led many Republicans like Ryan to contemplate a temporary alliance with Nazi Germany with a view to advancing the goal of unification – invoking the old motif, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”.
DM: What I found interesting was the Abwehr’s efforts to keep Ryan’s political past from the Gestapo. It that documented or was it conjecture on your part?
DLB: No this is well documented though clearly we dramatise the encounters with the German Intelligence services.
DM: Regarding his role in Berlin up to his death in Dresden 1944, was there any logic in his position, an anti- fascist working with German military intelligence? It’s hard to see someone like Ryan, a socialist and anti-fascist, having sympathy of any kind for the Nazis. Could he be influenced by the Soviet Union’s realpolitik in signing up to the Hitler-Stalin Pact?
DLB: The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact undoubtedly was the context within which he opted to travel to Berlin after his ‘escape’ from Burgos (as Franco would not officially release him from prison, even after German requests, an escape was fabricated with assistance from German Military Intelligence). Ryan was in many ways politically naïve and was close to the Communist Party in Spain. It’s not clear if he had any analysis of the global politics of Stalinism or of the politics of the popular front in Spain and France. Thus while he was bitterly disillusioned after the pact was announced it did provide a rationale for his initial decision to travel to Berlin. The evidence – sketchy enough – suggests that he may have come to bitterly regret that decision as the USSR and Germany became locked in a titanic struggle and as the character of the Nazi regime revealed itself to him. He tried to keep himself at arms length from the Nazi state regarding himself as occupying adiplomatic role for Ireland rather than a collaborationist and conspiratorial role.
DM: I thought the archive footage was well integrated with the narrative and looked unfamiliar. Where did you acquire it?
DLB: Most of the moving image archive used in the film was sourced from the collections of the National Archives and Library of Congress in the US, though we also used material from the Irish Film Archive also (Dublin in the 1930s) and one actual clip of Ryan’s release from prison in 1932 from a Pathe newsreel.
DM: Where did the location shooting take place? The sequences in wartime Germany look very authentic.
DLB: The film was shot in and around Belfast with buildings of Queen’s University standing in for wartime Berlin (the swastikas draped on the exterior of the university’s Whitla Hall produced a few wry comments about the university’s new corporate logo). The prison scenes were shot in the wonderful Armagh Gaol. The scenes dealing with his time in Spain were in fact shot in the Languedoc in France.
DM: The film looks very good yet I don’t suppose you had a very generous budget. Where did the financial backing of the film come from and how did you make it go far? Did the funding affect any directorial decisions?
DLB: The budget was tight especially for a film of this ambition in terms of the costume and design elements and number of scenes etc. The film was originally commissioned by Irish broadcaster TG4 with support from the Broadcast Authority of Ireland and Northern Ireland Screen as well as some additional support from the Arts Humanities Research Council and the Leverhulme Trust. In other words a right rag bag of funders which enabled us to cobble together the budget which was around £270,000, very modest for a project like this (equivalent BBC budgets might be in the order of £1.2 million). Did this impact on the production? Of course. We were restricted in the number of days we could shoot (16 days) and what we could pay but there is some freedom over creative content and approach if you do it this way.
DM: Your film uses the genre of docudrama. Are there any particular problems, or indeed advantages, in operating in this genre?
DLB: The term docudrama covers a multitude of approaches - I prefer the term ‘fact-based drama’ which I hope gets one out of the unrealistic expectations critics and broadcasters have with regard the documentary form and its truth credentials. This is a drama with documentary inserts and with a script informed by the historical record but also by the imaginative demands of filmic storytelling.
DM: I don’t know if you are familiar with the works of the American historian Robert Rosenstone who was historical advisor on Edward Zwick’s 1989 film, Glory (about a black regiment in the American Civil War) and has written about the problems of invention in historical film without which the films would be dramatically lacking in interest. He posits a distinction between ‘false invention’ (which ignores ‘the discourse of history’) and ‘true invention’ (which engages ‘the discourse of history’), thereby serving the interests of both history and dramaturgy. Did you have any similar concerns in the making of the film? Did you have recourse to such invention?
DLB: Well I have had an historian on my tail for most of the production – academic Fearghal McGarry who has written on Frank Ryan – who keeps me up to speed with ‘the discourse of history’(2). However Fearghal like Rosenstone (whose work I like) takes the broader view that a project like this is likely to profit from a creative dialogue between the demands of historiography and those of filmmaking. The element of the film where the fictive element most prevails is in Ryan’s time in Berlin where the historical record is at its most sketchy. We have to imagine Ryan in internal torment as the contradictions of his position become apparent to him. We dramatised this around his queries about the camps. We have no evidence either way of what he knew, might have known, should have known. Hopefully the dramatic encounters explore this in an imaginative manner not incompatible with the evidence such as it is.
DM: Finally, when will audiences in Britain get a chance to see the film?
DLB: We are approaching the BBC about broadcast in GB and hopefully there will be festival screenings later in the year.
1. Bell, Desmond (1989) Acts of Union: Youth Culture and Ethnic Identity in Northern Ireland, London: Macmillan
2. Bell, Desmond and McGarry, Fearghal (2012) ‘Filming Major Ryan’, History Ireland, Vol 20 No 3. May/June