Cronin, Seán Gerard (1922–2011), journalist, historian and republican, was born on 29 August 1922 in Dublin, the only son among three children of Con Cronin (d. 1924), a member of the IRA, and his wife Kate. After Con Cronin's death, Kate worked as a cook in a boarding school while their children were brought up by relatives in Ballinskelligs in the Kerry Gaeltacht. Educated locally, Seán was deeply influenced by his Gaeltacht childhood; his later writings often refer to the hypocrisy of a state that romanticised the Gaeltacht while neglecting its social problems. During the second world war emergency, his sisters emigrated to England to train as nurses while he worked as a labourer for Kerry County Council. In December 1941 he joined the Irish army, and was selected in 1943 for an officers' training course, on which he formed a lifelong friendship with the future theatre director Alan Simpson (qv). Cronin was commissioned, and remained in the army until 1948.
Shortly thereafter he emigrated to America, writing for the Advocate, an Irish-American newspaper published in New York, and living in New York and Chicago with his first wife, Terry Millen, a naturalised American of Russian origins and strong left-wing political commitments. Cronin was strongly influenced by interviewing 1916 veterans for the Advocate and by contact with left-wing Irish-American associates of Michael Quill (qv), who had played leading roles in the foundation of the Transport Workers' Union. (Cronin's paper on the ideological links between Quill and his associates and the ideas of James Connolly (qv) was published in a pamphlet, The Transport Workers' Union of America: the Irish connection (1984), by the Dublin-based Labour History Workshop.) He also became active in the semi-secret separatist organisation Clan na Gael, and in autumn 1955 returned to Ireland with the aim of helping the IRA to prepare for another military campaign.
Working as a sub-editor with the Evening Press, he also contributed summaries of world affairs to the Weekly Irish Times; these included articles on the ongoing guerrilla campaigns against the French in Algeria and the British in Cyprus, which he privately saw as models for imitation by the IRA. Cronin established contact with the IRA, and his military experience led to his rapid assignment to GHQ staff. He was initially placed in charge of training and instruction, composing a manual on guerrilla warfare and twelve lectures on battlefield training; he taught new military techniques (notably splitting attack parties into two groups, which alternated between attack and providing cover). New recruits, such as the future IRA chief of staff Ruairí Ó Brádaigh (1932–2013), found him deeply impressive.
Cronin became a leading advocate of an early IRA campaign against Northern Ireland, and was deputed to draw up plans for 'Operation Harvest', which envisaged four columns operating across the territory of Northern Ireland, attacking security forces, sabotaging infrastructure, and progressively making the territory ungovernable. He personally selected and trained column personnel. The campaign began in December 1956, but on 8 January 1957 Cronin was arrested near the border in Co. Cavan. At his trial, the prosecuting counsel read out a document, 'General directives for guerrilla campaign', found in his home, which combined detailed plans for the campaign with criticism of its failings so far. Cronin's protests that reading out the document constituted 'collaboration', as it endangered the lives of IRA men in the six counties; that the document was irrelevant, as it was directed exclusively against the six counties and not the twenty-six-county state; that the government lacked a mandate from the Irish people to repress the border campaign; and that resistance to the invader was simply an extension of his former duties as an Irish army officer, highlighted some of the principal weaknesses of his strategy: an assumption that the southern state would tacitly allow its territory to be used as a base for IRA attacks (as Tunisia did for the Algerians and Greece for the Cypriots), and that popular anti-partitionism would automatically translate into active support for the IRA campaign. He was sentenced to three months' imprisonment.
Most of the IRA and Sinn Féin leadership were interned by the Dublin government on 6 July 1957. Cronin, one of the few to escape, became IRA chief of staff. He also acted for a time as editor of the movement's newspaper, the United Irishman, and wrote an account of the 1957 campaign, Resistance, under the cover-name 'J. McGarrity'. He tried to secure weapons from various sources, leading an unsuccessful raid on a British army base at Blandford Camp in Devon (16 February 1958) and through contacts with Spanish republican exiles in Paris. The Irish-American community remained the IRA's main source of external support.
Cronin was arrested (30 September 1958) and interned, causing considerable disarray, as he had been running much of the campaign single-handed. When the internees were released in March 1959, he resumed his position as chief of staff after a factional dispute caused the resignations of Tomás Óg MacCurtain and the former chief of staff Tony Magan. Cronin continued to argue that a sustained guerrilla campaign might yet succeed, but in June 1960 was again arrested and imprisoned for six months.
In November 1960 the Irish Freedom Committee (IFC), a Clan na Gael splinter group, accused Cronin of being a communist (largely because of his wife's origins) and a 'Free State agent', supposedly implicated in the 1944 execution of Charles Kerins (qv). The IRA organisation supported Cronin (especially after the IFC refused to supply evidence on the grounds that it would compromise their sources), but Cronin nevertheless decided to resign successively as chief of staff, as a member of the army council, and as an IRA volunteer, on the grounds that his presence endangered the American support necessary for the continuance of the campaign. He then secured a job as a journalist on the Irish Independent. Cronin withdrew his resignation in November 1961 after the Irish government reinstated military tribunals to try suspected IRA men; he was subsequently sentenced to six months' imprisonment by a military tribunal, and was in prison when the border campaign ended on 26 February 1962. Released on amnesty (19 April 1962), he finally resigned from the IRA the next day.
Cronin attributed the failure of the campaign to neglect of the socio-economic dimension of republicanism and insufficient attention to the need to secure popular support. (For instance, with the exception of an 'Appeal to unionists' that Cronin had published in the United Irishman in 1958, no attempt had been made to address propaganda to Ulster protestants.) Cronin was one of the founders in 1963 of the discussion groups that evolved into the Wolfe Tone Society, strongly influenced by C. Desmond Greaves (qv), which sought to build popular support for a Marxist-influenced republicanism; he personally recruited Greaves's disciple Roy Johnston (b. 1929) for these discussions. He began to produce pamphlets aimed at articulating this interpretation of republicanism, notably A man of the people (1964), a short life of James Hope (qv), presented as a model Ulster protestant working-class republican, and For whom the hangman's rope was spun: Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen (1963, rev. ed. 1991), presenting Tone (qv) as model of an Irish identity not linked to catholicism. Cronin also produced a series of articles on post-treaty Ireland (revised and published as Ireland since the treaty: fifty years after (1971)), arguing that the treaty was a neo-colonial settlement from which flowed all the subsequent problems of Ireland north and south, and that only a socialist republic could create economic development and social justice. In 1966 he published Our own red blood: the story of the Easter rising (subsequent editions in 1976 and 2006).
By February 1966 Cronin had returned to the USA, where he resided for the rest of his life (with regular visits to Ireland.) He worked as a journalist on the Newark Evening News and the Dow Jones News Service, and was the US correspondent of the Irish Times (1967–91); he also covered UN affairs, and continued to write articles on American matters for the Irish Times until 2000. His commentary on US home affairs (including African-American urban riots in the late 1960s) and foreign policy was written from a leftist perspective, and he was generally close to Paul O'Dwyer (qv). Cronin's Marxism might have been expected to incline him towards the Official republican movement after the 1969–70 split, and many of his subsequent publications were indeed produced by Official Sinn Féin's publishing arm, Repsol. However, he also published with Provisional Sinn Féin and initially called for the split to be resolved. In 1998 he allowed the rump Workers' Party that survived the 1992 split with what became Democratic Left to republish his pamphlet on James Hope, and in 2006 allowed the hard-line Republican Sinn Féin to reprint Our own red blood. These publishing decisions probably reflected Cronin's personal links to former colleagues (such as the Ó Brádaigh brothers Ruairí and Seán) rather than definitive commitment to one side or another in their subsequent divisions.
Cronin's intellectual guiding star was Connolly's Labour in Irish history (1910), which presented socialism as necessary for the fulfilment of the republican hope for a common Irish identity transcending British divisions. Like Liam Mellows (qv) and Frank Ryan (qv), Cronin argued that the southern state was founded by Lloyd George and remained a third-world entity sustained by a comprador bourgeoisie. (By 1980 Cronin admitted that the state had achieved some social and economic modernisation, but saw this as precariously based on fly-by-night multinational corporate investment.) He dismissed Ulster unionism as a form of colonial false consciousness derived from elite manipulation rather than an authentic form of nationalism.
Cronin was raised above the run of republican polemicists, however, by his genuine concern that the republican movement should understand and learn from past mistakes and place its experience in a broader intellectual framework, and by his desire to discover and assimilate new primary sources. Three of his specific studies deserve particular interest in this context: Young Connolly (1978) explores the previously untapped papers of William O'Brien (qv) (1881–1968) to reconstruct Connolly's experiences with the Irish Socialist Republican Party; Frank Ryan: the search for the republic (1980) provided the first political biography of Ryan, characterised as a lost leader who might have come into his own in the depressed Ireland of the 1950s; and, above all, The McGarrity papers (1972). Cronin's Clan na Gael contacts had given him access to the papers of Joseph McGarrity (qv), lying neglected in private ownership. After two years' study, he published in the Irish Times (1969) an account of the light the papers shed on the Irish independence struggle, and also arranged for them to be deposited in the NLI. This was probably Cronin's greatest service to Irish historiography, although his publications remain useful, not least because they incorporate interviews with survivors such as George Gilmore (qv).
In the 1970s Cronin took a degree at New York University, then taught and studied for a doctorate at the New School for Social Research in New York under Hans Morgenthau (1904–80). His dissertation formed the basis for his magnum opus, Irish nationalism: its roots and ideology (1980). Although limited by its colonial model and socialist-republican intellectual framework, this historically oriented account draws on Cronin's extensive research and personal contacts to some effect.
After the death of his first wife in 1974, Cronin married Reva Rubinstein, a toxicologist; in 1980 they moved to Washington, DC. Cronin had no children by either marriage, though his second wife brought him a stepson. After a long illness, he died on 9 March 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland; his ashes were interred at Dromod old cemetery, near Waterville, Co. Kerry, in September 2011.
Assessments of Cronin's contribution to Irish life depend to a considerable extent on the view taken of his political commitments. Even if the traditions of politically driven, amateur history and left-republican politics that shaped his career are ultimately rejected, they cannot be ignored or dismissed out of hand, and neither can Cronin as a practitioner thereof.