Nolan, Seán (‘Johnny’) (1908–88), communist, was born 4 June 1908 in the Rotunda hospital, Dublin, son of Edward Nolan, van driver, of 4 Ryan's Cottages, off Marlborough Place in the north inner city, and Catherine Nolan (née Behan). A member at age 18 of the Irish Worker League (IWL) of James Larkin (qv), he joined the short-lived Workers’ Party of Ireland (WPI) (1926–7) led by Roddy Connolly (qv), which pursued a more active and leftist policy, but failed to supplant the IWL as the Irish affiliate of the Communist International. He seems, despite his youth, to have served on the WPI executive, and seems also to have been among the party members who complied with a Comintern directive to disband and rejoin the IWL (February 1927). Influenced by Sean Murray (qv), who remained for many years a close friend and ally, he was a leading organiser of the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups (1930–33), which sought to build a militant movement independent of the mainstream labour and trade-union organisations, and lay the foundations for a communist party. At the founding congress of the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) (June 1933), Nolan was elected to the central committee, under Murray as general secretary. Prominent in Irish Friends of Republican Spain, he headed the Dublin committee for the release of International Brigade leader Frank Ryan (qv) from prison. His lengthy involvement in leftist publication began with his editorship of the CPI organ Irish Workers’ Voice (1930s), followed by his tenure as production manager of the punchy 1937 journal, the Irish Democrat. During 1941 he assumed editorship of the CPI organ Irish Workers’ Weekly, which enjoyed healthy circulation buoyed by widespread working-class dissatisfaction with the wages standstill order and proposed legislation to license trade unions.
Following the invasion of the USSR by Nazi Germany in 1941, the CPI suspended its organisation in neutral Ireland. Nolan was among several communists who then entered the Labour Party's influential Dublin Central constituency branch, promoting a Fianna Fáil–Labour coalition government with the unstated objective of bringing Ireland into the war against Germany. Also serving on Labour's Dublin area executive, Nolan worked with such non-communist Labour activists as the elder Larkin, young James Larkin (qv), and John de Courcy Ireland (qv) (1911–2006), to generate a dramatic upsurge in party militancy, membership, and electoral strength. In the 1942 local elections, in which Labour emerged as the largest party on Dublin corporation, Nolan was election agent for Martin O'Sullivan (qv), subsequently chosen as Dublin's first Labour lord mayor. Amid a febrile red scare, marked by disaffiliation of the powerful ITGWU, and a crippling split in the parliamentary Labour party, Nolan was one of six persons expelled by the party in a purge of leftist militants (April 1944). When the southern-based communist movement regrouped as the Irish Workers’ League (IWL), Nolan was briefly designated general secretary at the body's public launch (November 1948), before assuming a permanent post as league chairman. Over the next twenty years he and the general secretary, Michael O'Riordan (qv) (1917–2006), were the two leading figures in the communist movement in the south of Ireland, maintaining a small but dedicated membership through the virulently hostile cold-war climate, punctuated by continual harassment and occasional physical attacks. He represented the IWL at the world congress of communist parties in Moscow that marked the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution (1957). After the league's metamorphosis into the Irish Workers’ Party (1962), Nolan chaired the body's joint national council with the CP of Northern Ireland, playing a major role in forging the reunified, all-Ireland CPI in 1970, which he served as party treasurer.
For forty-six years from its opening in 1942 Nolan managed the New Books shop, at 16A Pearse St., and in subsequent premises in Connolly House, East Essex St. Associated with New Books Publications, which reissued the writings (some long out of print) of James Connolly (qv), and distributed the standard texts of Marxist–Leninism, the shop was long unique in the republic as an outlet for leftist literature, and a venue for lectures and discussion. Nolan edited and wrote most of the text of an outline history of the Irish communist movement, published by New Books in the mid 1970s. Modest, shy, and quiet-spoken, steadfast in his communist principles, including consistent solidarity with the USSR, Nolan was respected throughout the broader labour movement. He married (date unknown) Anna Fitzpatrick (d. 25 August 1988), daughter of Paddy Fitzpatrick (Labour party activist and first national treasurer of the Irish Post Office Workers’ Union). Involved from her youth in leftist activities, she too was a CPI official; they had no children. The last surviving foundation member of the 1933 CPI, Nolan died 7 September 1988 within two weeks of his wife's death after a long illness.