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Sean Russell, the IRA and the Second World War… a guest post by Brian Hanley August 26, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish History, Irish Politics, Sinn Féin, The Left.

cover WN





Many thanks to Brian for penning this and contributing the accompanying documentation.

Reflecting on the discussion that followed the most recent attacks on the Sean Russell statue I thought that the CLR might be interested in these documents. All are photocopies of material from the 1940s and I use them as part of the reading for a course I teach on the history of the IRA. The first document is an IRA Army Council statement from 1940, replying to an appeal from George Bernard Shaw that Irish republicans should support Britain against Germany. The second is the first and final page of War News from February 1941. War News was the IRA’s main publication after 1939, and was of course illegal, produced intermittetely and of varying quality. Editions were also produced in Belfast and Cork. The issue reproduced here carries a message from Stephen Hayes, Russell’s successor as IRA Chief of Staff , who soon after was deposed in a strange and controversal episode. Most issues of War News tended to carry similar rhetoric, the impression usually being given the IRA was on the verge of victory. This of course was far from the case. The final document is the front and inside pages of the October 1951 United Irishman (the newspaper of the republican movement after 1948) which reports on the unveiling of the Russell statue and includes what purports to be the true story of Russell’s time in Germany. The occasion marked an important moment in the public reorganisation of the republican movement after it’s defeats during the 1940s. (There is also a Garda report of the unveiling on-line).

In my own intervention on the previous thread I was perhaps a bit moralistic in tone, so I’d like to try and tease out a few ideas about the controversies here. Firstly many people seem reluctant to accept that fascist ideas had an influence within the republican movement. I disagree; I think the fact is that by 1940 republicans were represented along with former Blueshirts, Anti-Semites and a variety of cranks in a number of pro-Nazi groups in Ireland. The new book by R.M. Douglas Architects of the Resurrection illustrates how a concerted effort was made by the fascist party Ailtiri na hAiseirghe organisation to influence republicans during this period, and they had some success. This doesn’t mean of course the majority of republicans were fascists. I presume that most of those who supported the alliance with Germany did so for anti-British reasons. Nevertheless there were some for whom fascism, whether in it’s German or Italian variety, was attractive.

Secondly a number of the people who defended Russell (in the Irish Times and Irish News for instance) argued that he could have had no real idea of the nature of Nazi Germany and was motivated solely by a desire to hit the British. I think Russell has to be judged differently than the very many people in nationalist Ireland during 1939-40 who were anxious to see Britain suffer defeats at the hands of the Germans or who even wished to see Germany win the war. Firstly Russell was the leader of a reviolutionary movement that claimed that it was fighting for Irish freedom. His movment was entering into an alliance with the Nazis on the basis that this could deliver Irish independence. Certainly without massive German aid the IRA had absolutely no prospect of overthrowing either the Free State or Northern Ireland. How much did Russell know about the Nazis? He must have been aware that his own organisation, through it’s newspaper An Phoblacht, had criticised both Nazi Germany and fascism in general on several occasions during the early and mid 1930s. An Phoblacht had noted the suppression of the trade unions and rival political parties in Germany, republished material from the underground Social Democrats and noted the persecution of the Jews. Perhaps Russell paid little attention to this but it is surely wrong to claim that he had no knowledge of Nazism. He had been in contact with the German Ambassador in the United States as early as 1936, (apologising for the refusal of de Valera’s government to grant landing rights to German seaplanes in Galway Bay). Indeed Tom Barry would claim that at the 1938 IRA convention it was made clear that funding for Russell’s proposed campaign in Britain was coming from the Nazi German American Bund in the USA. The logic of Russell’s position during 1940 and his efforts in Germany was that the forces of that regime would land in Ireland and be aided by the IRA. This was not an unrealistic prospect that year- most people thought Germany was about to win the war. Flanking Britain with landings in Ireland made sense and the British seriously considered reoccupying the Free State both to prevent this and to secure the former ‘Treaty ports.’ Had the British moved to reoccupy the Free State during 1940 the IRA would of course have resisted them. But had the Germans landed as part of an attack on Britain the IRA would have supported them. In the longer run the Germans fully expected to occupy Ireland anyway. At the Wannsee conference in 1942 they went to the bother of estimating Ireland’s Jewish population. Suggesting that people consider the consequences of this is not retrospective moralism; there were contemporary critics of this policy. The Communist party’s Irish Workers Weekly attacked the IRA during 1940 for wanting German forces to ‘come and devastate the land they talk of freeing’. (And this was during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact.)

As the United Irishman report shows, Russell was eulogised by republicans after his death. Indeed in 1976 The Last Post, published by the National Graves Association, would argue that for the IRA, the period from 1923 to 1940 had been one of ‘inactivity, playing with politics and veering to the Left’ but this had ‘come to an abrupt end in the early 40s (when) an uncompromising new leader and his faction of like-minded supporters’ had finally led the IRA ‘into action.’ Of course the 1923-1940 period was not one of inactivity, and many of Russell’s IRA contemporaries such as Moss Twomey, Sean MacBride, Mick Price and Donal O’Donoghue, to list just a few, are themselves interesting and worth studying. Yet it is Russell, Chief of Staff for a little less than two years, who continues to be commemorated. His status as the ultimate man of action, who dismissed ‘playing with politics’ and instead took the war to the British accounts for some of his attractiveness to physical force republicans. But Russell was also commemorated well into the 1970s by the Official Republicans (after their ceasefire) and indeed several of his 1940s contemporaries (including Paddy Fleming the signatory of the 1940 Army Council address) were supporters of theirs. In the post Peace Process era Sinn Fein, despite moving some distance from the rhetoric of armed struggle, seem as eager as ever to remember him. Some single out his record from 1916-1923 as reason to honour Russell, while there are those in Dublin’s inner city who see him as an authentically Dublin republican hero. I would suggest though, that much of the cult of Russell has been due to an unwillingness, among any brand of republicanism, to examine the movement’s policies during the 1940s, and the tendenecy of those involved at the time to avoid discussion of them, except in general terms. What is notable about the United Irishman article for example (also published in pamphlet form for the August 1957 Russell commemoration) is there is no hint of embarrassment about Russell’s time in Berlin, despite knowledge of the nature of the Nazi regime being widespread by October 1951 (to put it mildly).

During 1971 a former Curragh internee, Sean Mulready, recounted his memories of how in June 1940, when news reached the camp that France had surrended to the Germans his fellow inmates ‘just went berserk, berserk. The prisoners ran around in sheer delierious joy that the Germans had defeated and were about to occupy the cradle of modern militant republicanism.’ Mulready’s article was of course written over 30 years after that event but I think the question he posed is still valid; ‘I could never understand how Republicans fighting for the freedom of their own country could support an imperialist power that was crushing all the nations, big and small, in Europe. To me, the idea that we could expect liberation from an all-triumphant Nazi government, was just perverted logic.’ That question remains worth discussing today.


1. entdinglichung - August 26, 2009

Brian wrote:

“An Phoblacht had noted the suppression of the trade unions and rival political parties in Germany, republished material from the underground Social Democrats and noted the persecution of the Jews.”

where can I find the exact references for that, I’m really interested in reading these articles … was there a significant number of German exiles in Ireland after 1933?


2. John Palmer - August 26, 2009

Very interesting. I have ordered the book which may answer a question I have never been able to get answer to: what happened to Gearóid Ó Cuinneagáin, founder of Ailtirí na hAiséirghe after it imploded? While I am at it is there anyone here who knows what became of the blue shirt deputy to O’Duffy, Cmmdt Ned Cronin, who set up the original “Army Comrades Association” after the war? I am looking at the post-war codas to the career of 30’s fascists.


Joe - August 31, 2009

I hope you got the answer in the book John. I read it and found it very good. What really surprised and quite depressed me was how commonplace openly anti-Jewish sentiment was in Ireland in the 30s and 40s. It wasn’t just fascist organisations like Aiséirí that spouted anti-Semitic stuff but you’ll find instances of people from across the board, FF, FG etc indulging in it. Horrible.

What happened to Gearóid Ó Cuinneagáin is that he kept on going pretty much as a one man band. Aiséirí was the name of the political paper that he published right into the seventies, Deirdre was his attempt at a Womans Way as Gaeilge.


3. Brian Hanley - August 26, 2009

I have a suspicion that Cronin emigrated to the US at some stage but this is only based on his son having an American accent in an RTE documentary on the Blueshirts a few years ago. Fearghal McGarry’s biography of Eoin O’Duffy or his book on Ireland and the Spanish Civil War might have more information.
On the first question, the An Phoblacht reports were based on the SPD in exile’s public statements so these were probably sourced from London or Paris. I’m afraid I don’t have any information on German anti-nazi exiles in Ireland. Post-war there was a few pro-nazi ones however, including Otto Skorzeny.


4. WorldbyStorm - August 26, 2009

Doesn’t The Irish Counter-Revolution, 1921–1936 have any of that information? I seem to recall it does. Interesting that they sourced it from the SPD.


5. NollaigO - August 27, 2009

The Irish language poet, Gabriel Rosenstock, is the son of an anti-nazi exile in Ireland. IIRC, the father settled in Kilfinnan, Co.Limerick.

I remember Ó Cuinneagáin’s paper being still available in the early 1970s.
Dr Ruán O’Donnell, University of Limerick, who has done detailed research on Operation Moterman, might be a possible help.


6. NollaigO - August 27, 2009

Operation Motorman in #5 should read Operation Harvester


7. Jim Monaghan - August 27, 2009

The journal was “Deirdre” I remember buying it in a pub in the 70s. Hugo Hamiltons father was a member.His autobio has a lot on the awful athmosphere of homelife.
One Trotskyist from Germany was in Ireland for a period before going on to the USA. I will dig out hiis name later. He corresponded with Trotsky from a Dublin address.
Was O’Cuinneagain a full blown fascist and anti semite?
I would have some sympathy with Brian Hanley on the need for those who beleive that the national struggle is valid to examine and weed out the nonsense and the plain awful.Ignorance of what Germany was is not really an excuse. There is a necessity to look closely at potential allies.eg, Casement was fairly hostile to the Central Powers by the time he returned to Ireland.
I have a mantra “The enemny of my enemny is not necessarily my friend”. eg while opposing say a western intervention in Iran, I feel no need to find something nice to say about the Mullahs.The criticism by the CP is interesting. In the USSR it was not quite the same.Anti-fascists were handed over as a gift to Germany.


8. John Palmer - August 27, 2009

Jim – I remember their paper as Aiseiri (reformed spelling) being sold in pubs as late as the early ’60s. As for O’Cuinneagain he certainly was anti-semite but then a certain “limited” anti-semitism was widespread in the Irish political class during the early part of the war/Emergency. Things changed a little later as the full revelations about the Nazi death camps emerged. Airseiri made a special cult of the right wing Portuguese dictator Salazar. He was preferred to Franco and Hitler (the latter bec ause he imported too much “pagan” and anti-Catholic ideas into the Nazi ideology. They were ultras as far as so-called “Vocational” government was concerned. But in a milder form these ideas were also shared by harmless bodies like Muintir na Tireat that time.
I have no record of German anti-fascists in Dublin. Tony Cliff told me that when he sheltered in Dublin for a period around 1946/47 he did meet at least one German Trotskyist through Skeffington. Cliff said that this man was part of the so called IKD “Retrogressionist” faction which argued that Hitlerism meant that the revolutiionary left had to return to making bourgeois democratic demands the core of their programme.


9. entdinglichung - August 27, 2009

the “Retrogressionist faction” was the circle around Josef Weber (“Johre”) who led the IKD in exile during the late 1930ies and early 1940ies, they had developed around the period mentioned some links to Shachtman (which were not very close) and started publishing a journal in the USA called “Contemporary Issues”, their best-known non-German author was Murray Bookchin who later broke with Weber’s pessimism … the allegation that the nazis were “pagan” or “godless” is still today common among many catholics, forgetting that e.g. Hitler and Goebbels were at least a nominal and fee paying members of the catholic church and that the leading and rank and file nazis who did not define their religion as “christian” (like e.g. Himmler, Hess or Rosenberg) can better described as deists or pantheists


10. Jim Monaghan - August 28, 2009

Sorry John we are I think both right. he ended up with Deirdre, the journal not a person.
There was an interesting programme on TG4 on them. His Cork followers broke from him over his leader cult. To a degree it was an incohate response to the dire straits the country was in during the 50s. As always if the left fails to give an answer to the crisis the right will step in. But thats another debate. Oh John did you write in the old Irish Militant of McCann, Lawless etc. The archivists here are interested and gave me a list of names of people who wrote for it and maybe An tSoals (the theoritical?


11. Jim Monaghan - August 28, 2009

Found tyhe letter. I believe I have more.
It si addressed Dublin 1st May 1933. To Trotsky with references to the British Balham group, Wicks,Grove Sara and Purkis.Unfortunately the one I have to hand has not a name.It is from the Houghton archive of Trotskys material.
I wonder did he have any contacts with Irish people was was it just a stopover.
My german is non existent.


12. Conor McCabe - August 28, 2009

@ John Palmer.

I’m an Irish labour historian and at the moment I’m working on a study of Irish Trotskyist groups in the 1960s, as well as on an oral archive of the Irish left. I would very much to talk to you, especially regarding the Irish Workers Group and Irish Militant. I would be grateful if you could get in touch with me. My email address is:



13. John Palmer - August 28, 2009

Jim: Thanks for that. I had never heard of the journal Deirdre. Aiseiri the paper certainly survived after the “Architects” had collapsed as an organisation. It was very much a creature of the “Emergency” years. Its programme of public works and government through “vocational” councils came to seem more and more surrealist with the passing of the years. Certainly its “plan” to march (unarmed” on the north and somehow subsume into the new Christian state was truly surreal. At one time O’Cuinneagain certainly saw himself as a would be dictator – even laying down the line to fellow “Fuhrers”. After the war his milieu seems to have overlapped very much with that of Maria Duce and Fr O’Fahey. I remember one or two younger men who subsequently gravitated from Aiseiri to the republican movement in the late 50s – earl;y 60s (one was reputedly Sean South).
I never remember Lawless or McCann writing for Irish Militant (but my memory may be letting me down). They certainly wrote for An Solas – together with Matgamna, Liam Daltun and others. By this time others like myself who had been active in the Irish Workers Union (which morphed into the Irish Workers Group) had joined Cliff’s Socialist Review Group – later the International Socialists.


14. Fluther Good - August 28, 2009

Douglas suggests that South was never a member of Aiseiri though he had read their material. He was in Maria Duce. Gearoid O Broin, a leading republican in the 50s was a member of Aiseiri, as were Deasun Breathnach, Richard Roche and Tarlach OhUid (who edited War News at one time). Breathnach wrote a piece dismissing the footage of the concentration camps as propaganda in 1945. O Cuinneagain had links with several American and British fascist groups post 1945.


WorldbyStorm - August 28, 2009

Literally got the book today. Looks fascinating. The photo’s of their meetings in O’Connell St. are something else.


15. Jim Monaghan - August 29, 2009

On footnote the German Trotskyist in Ireland in 1933 was a Paul Kirchoff who wrote under the name Eiffel. He was important enough to correspond with Trotsky.He ended up in the USA.


16. NollaigO - August 29, 2009

I never remember Lawless or McCann writing for Irish Militant

Are you not forgetting that there were two Irish Militants? The first was published by the Irish Workers Group from London circa 1966 -1969 and the latter was launched by Irish members of the Grant organisation in the 1970s.
Lawless and McCann wrote for the first Irish Militant. The November,1966 edition, John, has a report of you addressing a meeting in Belfast !
A number of 1950s republicans had an association or have been accused of having had an association with Aiseirí and/or Maria Duce. Matgamna accuses Gery Lawless of being a Maria Duce supporter.(This accusation is still on the AWL website). Recently in Ireland, I had an account from a republican historian of the 1950s/60s period stating that a prominent WP member also had an association.
A big gap in the CLR archives, IMHO, is the absence of any material from either the IWG or the RMG/MSR.
On the question of Seán Sabhat, I recently unearthed a two thousand word review of a biography of Sabhat. The review written in 1965 in Irish was by our sean cara, Eoghan Harris. The review tells us little in detail about Sabhat’s life. It’s mainly about Harris’s views in 1965 of the republican movement and it completely undermines much of his present day explanations of his political evolution.


17. John Palmer - August 29, 2009

NollaigO – Conor McCabe has sent me copies of the first Irish Militant. You are right it is quite different in provenance to the Grant/RSL oriented version which came in later years and with which I got IM mark one confused. It does indeed not only include Gery Lawless, Liam Daltun, Eamon McCann and others of the IWG as contributors but also among others Chris Grey, Michael Farrell and myself! (who were all affiliated with the IS) as well. My memory did indeed let me down badly. Needless to say such pluralism did not last too long. Differences over the characterisation of the Soviet bloc countries (and also Algeria which Gery deemed a “workers state” on the basis of one visit) as well as later differences of approach to the 26 county state ( elements of which Gery and others thought capable of a “national” or even a “Castroite” intervention in the north meant that there was a parting of the ways. Of course well worked together (most of the time) in the later Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign. I am sorry to say that Conor tells me that Gery has been seriously ill recently. By the way I have just started the R.M.Douglas book which looks impressive.


18. Conor McCabe - August 29, 2009


Could I take this opportunity to ask if I could talk to you about the Irish left c.1950s to 1980s? At the moment I am interviewing people for an oral history archive on the Irish left, which will be based in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. At the same time, I am working on an article on the re-emergence of Trotskyism among the Irish in Britain and in Ireland (North and South) during the 1960s. I would be grateful if I could talk to you about these projects. My email is:



19. John Palmer - August 29, 2009

A tiny correction please – I have referred to Gerry Lawless throughout as “Gery.” I sadly and unjustifiably confused him with Gery Healy.


20. Jim Monaghan - August 29, 2009

John, I think the Ger(r)y are reversed.
Was there a precourser or parallel left alliance called IALSO which had Rory Quinn.
Lawless was very influenced by Algeria and I think saw a parallel between the FLN and Provos and MNA and Officials with a similar result expected.Interestingly the famous Pablo was an advisor to the Ben Bella government which was in the context quite left.Pablo and the Dutch Trotskyist Santen were involved with quite dangerous solidarity work with the FLN. It is dealt with in the new bio. of Mandel.The Lambertistes backed the MNA, the other liberation movement.
On workers states generally it was usually Grant who saw them in every third world state with a mildly left nationalist regime.


21. NollaigO - August 30, 2009

We are getting a long way from Seán Russell. However

I agree with Jim on the Ger(r)y spelling.

IIRC, this was an all Ireland body, Irish Association of Labour Students. They held a national meeting in UCC in Autumn 1967 but I don’t know if that was their last significant meeting. Many of those who subsequently became well known in the PD and the Dublin left attended. That well known life longer learner, Gery Lawless, was there. Eoghan Harris, home from BAC for the weekend, dropped in on the Sunday afternoon session. Harris commended the Internationalists for breaking up a Peace in Vietnam rally. This drew a fiery rebuke from Lawless. Shortly after, one of the Internationalist publications carried an attack on the meeting even though they were not present at the IALSO meeting. It transpired that it was Harris, making mischief, who wrote the report as he was by then well installed in the IWP wing of the Republican Movement. Mischief making is something that has remained constant in spite of all his political somersaults.

The Irish Workers Group :
The organisation had collapsed by the time I went to live in London in 1969 but it was still easy to get detailed information. Besides many of the people mentioned by John Palmer, I met people like Anne Murphy, Gery Lawless’s partner at the time, who was subsequently active in the feminist movement in Dublin in the 1970s/80s; Jim Donaghy, a classmate of McCann and also a very able public speaker. Jim unfortunately died as a young man. His wife Rita, who may have been an IWG supporter, subsequently became a very prominent trade union official in UNISON and TUC president; Pat O’Donovan, from West Cork who wrote many labour history articles in the Irish Post, a London based paper; Seán Morrissey who became associated with the Saor Éire Action Group.
From the documents that I have seen (I’m recollecting from almost forty years ago here), the civil war within the IWG was declared when Matgamna raised his Standard, the document
Trotskyism vs Combinationism. IMO, the operating methods of certain people in the group more than the range of political differences were decisive in its demise. In a more sane group, those differences should have been possible to contain. While Lawless did have a quixotic view that large sections of the Twenty Six Co Irish Army would go over to support the republican struggle in certain situations, I do not recall that or any other differences on the national question being mentioned by participants as being decisive in the split/collapse of the IWG. [ I might return to the Army issue at a later date under the title, Private Eye & Ireland 1969-72] .


22. John Palmer - August 30, 2009

In case of any misunderstanding NollaigO my references to the debate about Algeria and the eastern bloc “workers states” was not that they were the cause of the implosion of the IWG (which had more to do with separate differences between Lawless, Matgamna and others) than that these were among the reasons why some who had been in the IWU and the early IWG joined the SR/IS and not the various groups claiming affinity to the 4FI..


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