O'Riordan, Michael (Micheál; Mick) (1917–2006), communist, was born 12 November 1917 at 37 Pope's Quay, Cork city, youngest among three sons and two daughters of Michael O'Riordan, a carter, and his wife Julia (née Creed), a small farmer's daughter and former domestic servant. Despite both parents being native Irish speakers from Ballingeary, Co. Cork, the children were not reared in the language (though young Michael throughout his life was known within the family as Micheál). The elder Michael O'Riordan, whose own father was evicted from his tenant farm in 1885, conveyed dairy products with a team of horses and cart on the Killarney–Cork 'butter road'; after moving to Cork city he worked initially as a tram driver, then as a carter with the City of Cork Steam Packet Company. With compensation money received for a work accident on the city docks, he opened (in young Michael's childhood) a lock-up grocery shop, 'Ballingeary Stores', on Adelaide Street. Young Michael received primary education at North Monastery CBS, where his contemporaries included the future taoiseach, Jack Lynch (qv). On leaving school in 1932 he assisted in the grocery and worked occasionally on the docks. Influenced by the writings of James Connolly (qv), especially Labour in Irish history (1910), from an early age O'Riordan's politics were socialist republican. Joining the republican boy scouts, Na Fianna Éireann (1932), and subsequently the Irish Republican Army (IRA), in 1935 he joined the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI), while also maintaining his IRA membership, and became the CPI's local organiser in Cork and contact man with the Dublin leadership.
An attack of appendicitis requiring hospitalisation (April 1937) precluded O'Riordan's intention to volunteer for service in the army of the Spanish republican government in the civil war against the fascist–nationalist insurrection led by Francisco Franco. Renewing his intention the following year, he travelled alone to London and enlisted in a secret recruiting office of the international brigades; being under the requisite minimum age of 21, he used the identity of an older IRA volunteer who had been rejected on medical grounds. After intensive orientation in a Paris reception centre (where wounded veterans briefed recruits on the hardships and horrors ahead), he joined a party of volunteers that travelled by train to the frontier and entered Spain by foot on a perilous night crossing of the Pyrenees (May 1938). Assigned as a light machine gunner to the British battalion of the XV (International) Brigade, he took part in the last, ill-fated republican offensive of the war, along the Ebro river. O'Riordan's unit crossed the Ebro at Ascó on the first night of the surprise attack (25 July 1938), and advanced rapidly to the outskirts of Gandesa, the primary objective of the offensive, before being checked by superior nationalist air power and artillery. Engaged in the fierce fighting on the notorious Hill 481, in the searing heat of the barren, arid highland region, O'Riordan was wounded in the right shoulder and back by shrapnel from an exploding mortar shell (1 August); evacuated to a field hospital, he endured removal of the shrapnel by forceps without anaesthetic. Commended for his bravery under fire, especially after receiving wounds, O'Riordan saw no further action before the withdrawal of the international brigades from the fronts (September 1938) and their subsequent repatriation.
Cork IRA; internment
Returning home to Cork in December 1938, O'Riordan was widely ostracised owing to the fervour of press and pulpit castigation of Spanish republicans. On CPI instruction he resumed his IRA membership as a 'sleeper'; he served as quartermaster of Cork IRA brigade, but privately opposed the 1939 IRA British bombing campaign. He was involved in the attempted rescue of IRA volunteer Tomás Óg MacCurtain (son of Tomás MacCurtain (qv), the slain lord mayor) from Cork courthouse where he was under trial for killing a garda detective while resisting arrest; the rescue plan was aborted when the court hearing adjourned earlier than expected (February 1940). Interned during the Emergency in the Curragh camp (22 February 1940–9 August 1943), O'Riordan was secretary of the 'Connolly group' of leftist internees, which formed around Neil Goold (Hamilton Neil Stuart Goold-Verschoyle (1904–87), a communist, university graduate, and linguist from a landed Donegal Anglo-Irish background, who had lived in Soviet Russia). An enthusiastic participant in the group's study circle, O'Riordan studied Marxist theory and two languages: Russian under Goold (attaining sufficient fluency to 'get around' on visits to the USSR in later life), and Irish under Máirtín Ó Cadhain (qv). He edited the group's sporadically produced clandestine handwritten journal, An splannc ('The spark', after Lenin's Iskra). Numbering over sixty members, the Connolly group remained aloof from the camp's rival IRA command structures. Witnessing the bitter and enervating divisions among the republican prisoners, and alerted by the political study and debate to the contradictions between Marxist ideology and purist Irish republicanism, after his release from internment O'Riordan terminated his IRA membership.
O'Riordan worked as a bus conductor in Cork (1943–7), and was elected chairman of the Cork busworkers' section of the ITGWU. Joining the Irish Labour Party (the political vehicle chosen by communists in the neutral twenty-six counties, where the CPI had suspended its organisation after the 1941 German invasion of the USSR), he co-founded and became secretary (November 1943) of the party's large and militant Liam Mellows branch in Cork. He was among six individuals (including John de Courcy Ireland (qv)) expelled by the Labour party (early 1944) consequent upon internal party investigations of communist infiltration (also resulting in dissolution of the Mellows branch), during which he was queried about his attendance in October 1943 at the conference of the Communist Party of Northern Ireland (CPNI). O'Riordan had made powerful enemies within the Labour party by openly challenging in a public lecture on 'the Jewish question' the outspoken anti-Semitic sentiments of a leading Cork Labour politician (but drawing the favourable attention of the solicitor and future lord mayor Gerald Yael Goldberg (qv), whose subsequent £5 donation to the Mellows branch aroused accusations that O'Riordan was 'subvert[ing] the party with Jewish money' (Quinn, 29)). (Forthright opposition to anti-Semitism was a constant throughout O'Riordan's career; after taking up residence in Dublin's Portobello district, he was actively involved in cultural activities of the sizeable Jewish population of the area.)
Most of the Mellows branch members – many of whom were Connolly group ex-internees – followed O'Riordan into the Cork Socialist Party, launched in May 1945. The party's political secretary, O'Riordan contested the June 1945 local elections, and was eliminated narrowly on the last count. Standing in a 1946 Cork Borough dáil by-election, he came third of four candidates with 3,184 first preferences, outpolling the well-known veteran republican Tom Barry (qv). These two electoral performances indicated the change in public mood from the late 1930s, and the potential for socialist politics in the immediate post-Emergency milieu, though soon to be quashed amid the red-baiting politics of the cold war period.
Irish Workers' League
Personal and political factors underlay O'Riordan's moving to Dublin (February 1947): the unavailability of suitable accommodation in Cork after his recent marriage, and an invitation, on the basis of his promising work in Cork, to help weld a unified communist organisation in the capital. Transferring within CIÉ, he worked as a Dublin bus conductor (1947–65). The fracturing of the wartime alliance of the USA, UK, and USSR, and the onset of the cold war, was regarded as an opportune context for reviving an open communist movement in the twenty-six counties – a polity presumed to be receptive to the new Moscow line denouncing British 'imperialism'. O'Riordan presided over a series of meetings in 1947–8 among several small, Dublin-based elements – ex-CPI-members (including Seán Nolan (qv)) latterly active around New Books and the Review newspaper; former Connolly group republican Curragh internees; Labour party dissidents; radical TCD students – culminating in the public launch (November 1948) of the Irish Workers' League (IWL) as an open Marxist-Leninist organisation. For the next thirty-five years O'Riordan served as general secretary of the IWL (1948–62) and its successor organisations: the Irish Workers' Party (IWP) (1962–70) and the reconstituted Communist Party of Ireland (1970–83). Given the historical continuity among these organisations, as the vehicles of orthodox, Moscow-orientated communism in Ireland, O'Riordan may thus be described as the longest serving leader of a political party in the history of the Irish state.
The cold war years in Ireland were marked by a fervent anti-communism, fanned by the catholic church, and all mainstream media and political parties, and entirely out of proportion with the actual size and potency of the communist movement within the country. Irish anti-communism was motivated above all by the ideology's atheism, and restrictions on religious institutions in communist countries (at least one elderly habitual bus passenger, whenever approached by O'Riordan for her fare, would solemnly bless herself). The IWL was a convenient domestic target for expressions of outrage against the USSR and other communist states. As he was the IWL's most prominent personality, O'Riordan and his family endured frequent verbal and written abuse, and occasional physical attacks. After the Soviet invasion of Hungary (November 1956), the IWL bookshop was wrecked by anti-communist protesters, and the league suspended publication of its organ, Irish Workers' Voice. IWL rhetoric early in the cold war concentrated on denunciation of American and British foreign policy alongside pro-Soviet apologia. The IWL opposed the anti-partition campaign of the major political parties, fearing a bargain whereby Britain would concede Irish unification and a unified Ireland would join NATO. As east–west relations gradually thawed after the death of Stalin (1953), and the Soviet line toward the west shifted away from confrontation toward peaceful co-existence, the IWL placed great emphasis on spirited defence of Irish neutrality.
O'Riordan's leadership was characterised throughout by steady allegiance to the prevailing Moscow line, and loyalty to the Stalinist tradition within international communism. When Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's 'crimes' at the twentieth congress of the USSR communist party (February 1956), O'Riordan publicly defended Stalin's legacy (while admitting to unspecified 'mistakes'), and denied that Khrushchev's remarks had amounted to a repudiation of Stalin. The IWL was most effective in its involvement in the unemployed protest movements of 1953 and 1957. In the latter year, league members were prominent in the successful general election campaign that saw Jack Murphy (qv) returned to Dáil Éireann as an 'independent unemployed worker'.
Irish Workers' Party
At its March 1962 congress, the IWL was reconstituted as the Irish Workers' Party (IWP) and adopted a policy programme, Ireland her own, which prescribed that the transition from an Ireland divided and exploited by capitalism and imperialism to a united and socialist Ireland would occur gradually by peaceful, constitutional means through a series of stages utilising the existing parliamentary institutions and trade-union structures. (The change from a 'league' to a 'party' reflected the shift in emphasis toward participation in the existing electoral and parliamentary system.) Vigorously opposing the penetration of Ireland by 'foreign monopoly capitalism', the IWP programme envisioned accelerated industrialisation led by state-controlled enterprises in a planned economy, building upon the existing state and semi-state sector. The IWP secured a small but important base within Dublin trade-unionism, and pursued a strategy of seeking to attain office within the trade unions and thereby influence the top union leadership. In practice the IWP tended to occupy a middle space between rank-and-file labour militants and the trade-union hierarchy, discouraging unofficial action by the former while urging more assertive action by the latter.
In 1965 O'Riordan retired as a busman to become full-time IWP general secretary. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s the IWP was closely involved alongside other leftist groups and individuals in several single-issue campaigns: opposition to Ireland's joining the EEC; opposition to the US war in Vietnam; advocacy of nuclear disarmament. The campaign protesting the severe housing shortage in Dublin was especially militant, marked by mass demonstrations, occupation of buildings, and organised squatting; O'Riordan was arrested during one such protest.
Merger and ideological ferment
O'Riordan played a central role in the reconstitution of the communist movement in Ireland by the merger of the IWP and the CPNI as the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) in March 1970. The decision to form a united, all-Ireland movement was largely a response to the developing crisis in Northern Ireland. Increasing numbers of individuals from nationalist backgrounds had been attracted into the CPNI – whose traditional base had been among skilled protestant workers – by its involvement in the civil-rights campaign. This factor, combined with the outbreak of political violence in 1969, created a momentum within the movement toward a more assertively anti-partitionist policy.
The national question was part of a larger ideological ferment within Irish communism. After openly supporting the 'Prague spring' political and economic liberalisation in Czechoslovakia, the IWP joined many other western European communist parties in denouncing the Warsaw Pact invasion of the country (August 1968). O'Riordan was absent from the meeting of the party's political committee that had issued the denunciation, and strongly disagreed with the decision. The episode initiated a protracted, ideologically based power struggle within the party, unresolved at the time of the merger. The central issues concerned the nature of the party's relationship with Moscow, and the correct models of socialist revolution and a socialist economy and society. O'Riordan represented the traditional pro-Moscow, post-Stalinist element, committed to the model of 'really existing socialism' in the USSR and eastern Europe, as against a Eurocommunist element favourable to democratic socialism and critical of authoritarian aspects of eastern bloc communism. On the national question, O'Riordan's element was significantly more militant in its opposition to partition. O'Riordan patiently cultivated support among new and younger members of the party. The struggle culminated in a victory for O'Riordan's camp at the party's sixteenth congress (1975), which adopted resolutions affirming the eastern European socialist model, and declaring that the eastern bloc countries had overcome certain 'distortions' and 'illegalities' that had occurred in the past. A resolution specifically addressing Czechoslovakia declared that behind the liberalising reforms lurked imperialist forces seeking the restoration of capitalism. These decisions prompted a number of high-profile defections from the party; some of the defectors formed the short-lived Irish Marxist Society.
Over the remaining eight years of O'Riordan's leadership, the CPI was one of the most uncritically pro-Moscow communist parties in western Europe. The party supported the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (1980), and the imposition of martial law and suppression of the Solidarity trade union in Poland (1981). Defending the Polish crackdown, O'Riordan argued its necessity to pre-empt a planned coup d'etat by Solidarity, which would have resulted in civil war.
O'Riordan contested five general elections in Dublin constituencies, as candidate of the IWL (Dublin South West, 1951, 1954), IWP (Dublin South Central, 1961, 1965) and CPI (Dublin Central, 1973). The diminutive size of the communist movement in Ireland (at its peak in the early 1970s CPI membership probably numbered in the lower hundreds; the party itself claimed some 600 members) and its marginal place in the politics of the Republic are indicated by the paucity of the vote O'Riordan attracted. Only once did he rise above the bottom of the poll (in 1954, with 375 votes), and his highest first-preference tally was a mere 466 in 1973. His candidacies regularly occasioned strident denunciations by catholic clergy.
In the 1960s and 1970s O'Riordan, with his IRA background, personal contacts, and political tendencies, was a key figure in the forging of links, largely clandestine, between the communist movement and elements of the Irish republican movement. By 1968 a secret mechanism was established for regular contacts between the IRA chief of staff, Cathal Goulding (qv), and leaders of the IWP and CPNI. The initiative was part of Goulding's new direction of moving the republican movement away from concentration on armed struggle as the means for ending British rule in Northern Ireland, toward engagement in political, social, and economic agitations, as part of a 'national liberation front'. Republicans and communists worked closely in the Northern Ireland civil rights campaign, and on various agitations in the Republic.
O'Riordan responded favourably to a request by Goulding and Séamus Costello (qv) in August 1969 during the 'battle of the Bogside' that he procure arms for the IRA from the USSR, proposing delivery to a disguised fishing trawler on the high seas. Two months later O'Riordan, on behalf of the joint council of the IWP and CPNI, requested that the Kremlin provide a shipment of small arms and ammunition, stating that the 'combat potential' of the IRA had been weakened by concentration on 'social protests and educational activity'. There followed a series of contacts between O'Riordan and Kremlin officials regarding how best the operation could be conducted to satisfy Kremlin concerns that strict secrecy be observed regarding the source of the shipment. On at least one occasion O'Riordan travelled to Moscow to advance the request, and on another occasion proposed that the connection be made through Cuba. In August 1972 KGB chief Yuri Andropov outlined an elaborate plan for conveying a small quantity of captured West German weapons to the Official IRA; it is not known whether the plan was ever executed. When correspondence from Kremlin archives regarding the matter was published in a book by Boris Yeltsin in 1994, O'Riordan claimed it was a fabrication.
After the split in the republican movement, O'Riordan attempted to mediate a compromise between the two wings with a view to reunification, till the decision of Official Sinn Féin (OSF) at its January 1971 ard-fheis to abandon the policy of parliamentary abstentionism dashed any hopes of a reconciliation. Throughout the early 1970s OSF activists at all levels were encouraged to work closely with the CPI; many young activists held dual membership of OSF and the CPI's Connolly Youth Movement. Goulding's long-cherished 'front' strategy assumed organisational form with formation of the Left Alternative (February 1976), comprising the CPI, OSF, and the Liaison Committee of the Labour Left (a Labour party ginger group opposed to coalition with Fine Gael). The grouping unravelled within a year, largely owing to ideological friction between the CPI and OSF, occasioned by adoption of a breathtakingly revisionist policy document by the OSF ard-fheis of January 1977 (when the party also changed its name to Sinn Féin The Workers' Party (SFWP)), which deconstructed traditional nationalist interpretations of Irish history, including the left republican tradition. Thereafter the CPI and SFWP engaged both publicly and privately in fervent ideological debate, while competing for favour with Moscow, and for the same working-class support base. The breach prompted the CPI to intensify its contacts with other republican organisations; throughout 1977 there occurred meetings among the CPI, Provisional Sinn Féin, and the Irish Republican Socialist Party (a breakaway from Official Sinn Féin), toward formation of an anti-imperialist 'broad front'; discussions foundered over CPI insistence on ceasefires by both republican organisations as a precondition of cooperation.
With Goulding still hankering for a united left approach, negotiations toward a rapprochement between SFWP and the CPI began in autumn 1978, but ended abruptly and definitively after an incident in which two CPI members (both defectors from SFWP) were caught in the middle of a retaliatory attack by SFWP hard men upon party dissidents in a Dublin pub (December 1978). An infuriated O'Riordan suspended discussions, and led a CPI delegation to SFWP headquarters to protest about the incident; in a scathing letter to Garland, O'Riordan accused SFWP of maintaining association with a 'secret army wing'.
On retiring as CPI general secretary, O'Riordan served as party chairman (1983–97), and remained till his death a member of the national executive committee. On his seventieth birthday he was awarded the Soviet Order of Friendship of Peoples (1987). He opposed the reform policies of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s (the first time he publicly criticised a Soviet leader), and latterly blamed them for creating the conditions that resulted in the collapse of the communist systems in the USSR and eastern Europe. On the dissolution of the USSR (December 1991), he raised a Soviet standard over Connolly House, the CPI headquarters in Dublin, declaring: 'Our flag stays red.' While admitting that grave mistakes had been made by communist governments, he insisted that the ideology was not dead, and foresaw the development of 'a more flexible form of communism' (Irish Times, 11 November 1996).
Two prominent interests of his latter years were recounting (in print and on public platforms) and commemorating the Spanish civil war, and Cuba support activities. His book, Connolly column (1979), is an account of the Irish who fought in the Spanish republican international brigades; a second extended edition appeared in 2005. With two other international brigade veterans (Frank Edwards and Peter O'Connor (qv)) he formed a guard of honour that accompanied the remains of Frank Ryan (qv) from Dresden in East Germany to Ireland for reinterment in the republican plot in Glasnevin cemetery (1979). O'Riordan was ever zealous to refute assertions that Ryan had collaborated with Nazi Germany. He attended dedications of memorials to Irish international brigaders in Dublin, Waterford, and Achill Island. Returning to Spain on several occasions after the restoration of democracy in the country, in 1996 he was among the 360 veterans from thirty-one countries who received certificates of the right to obtain Spanish citizenship conferred upon all surviving international brigaders at a ceremony in Madrid, and subsequently attended a reception in the Catalan parliament in Barcelona. He addressed the 2001 Irish Labour party conference on his role in the Spanish war, and was among four Irish and English international brigaders received by President Mary McAleese at Áras an Uachtaráin (October 2005).
O'Riordan's remarks on Spain iterated the orthodox Stalinist analysis of the struggle. He was severely critical of the Ken Loach film about the Spanish civil war, Land and freedom (1995), identifying (correctly) that Loach drew heavily in narrative detail and political analysis from George Orwell's book Homage to Catalonia (1938) by tracing the experiences not of an international brigader but of a young English worker fighting in the militia of a small revolutionary leftist Spanish party (the POUM, vilified by communists (incorrectly) as Trotskyite, and suppressed by the republican government under Soviet pressure in 1938). The terms of the ideological debate are embodied in the nomenclature: what O'Riordan consistently called 'the Spanish anti-fascist war' – emphasising the united front of all anti-fascists to defend a bourgeois democracy – Loach in his subtitle calls (sympathetically) 'the Spanish revolution' – emphasising the collectivisation (often spontaneous) of land and industry by workers and peasants in parts of republican Spain, condemned by communists as premature, divisive, and a distraction from the war effort.
O'Riordan led the European delegation that participated in the caravan to Cuba – aimed at breaking the US economic blockade of the country – conducted by the American inter-church group Pastors for Peace (1998); he raised $5,000 in Ireland towards the purchase of medicines and medical equipment for the caravan. Honoured with a tribute concert headlined by Christy Moore (whose song 'Viva la quinte brigada' was inspired by a reading of Connolly column) at the New Theatre, Dublin (January 2002), he donated the proceeds to Cuban Medical Aid. In October 2005 he was presented with the Cuban Medal of Friendship.
A man of immense moral and physical courage, O'Riordan withstood years of public vilification for his convictions, and the animosities engendered by fractious leftist and republican politics, often with threats to his personal safety. He possessed considerable charm, conviviality, and good humour. An atheist, he was on friendly and mutually tolerant terms with religious believers, including catholic, protestant, and Jewish clergy of progressive political and social opinion. He married (24 November 1946) Catherine ('Kay') Keohane (qv) (1910–91), from Clonakilty, Co. Cork, a civil servant working in the civil aviation section of the Department of Industry and Commerce, Dublin. They had two daughters (the firstborn of whom died in infancy) and one son. Settling in Dublin shortly after the marriage, he resided for fifty-two years on Victoria Street, South Circular Road, Portobello (1947–99), and thereafter in Glasnevin (1999–2006). He died in Dublin 18 May 2006 after a long illness requiring six months' hospitalisation, the second last surviving Irish veteran of the international brigades (the last being Bob Doyle (1916–2009)). A secular service reflecting his atheist and communist convictions was held at Glasnevin crematorium. His ashes were taken to Spain and scattered by his family in the Ebro river at Ascó (12 May 2007).