Ryan, Francis Richard (‘Frank’) (1902–44), revolutionary, was born 11 September 1902 at Elton, Knocklong, Co. Limerick, fifth son among five sons and four daughters of Vere Ryan and Ann Ryan (née Slattery), both national school teachers. He attended the local national school until 1916, when he began secondary education at St Colman's College, Fermoy. On completion in 1921, he won a Limerick county council scholarship to UCD. He had joined the East Limerick Brigade of the IRA just before the truce in July 1921. Taking the anti-treaty side in the civil war, he left UCD and returned to that unit. Captured by Free State troops, he spent eighteen months internment at Hare Park, in the Curragh, where he edited a camp journal in Irish, An Giorrfhiodh. When released (November 1923) he returned to UCD to complete his studies; while there, he edited An Reult, journal of UCD's Cumann Gaedhealach, and won that society's gold medal for oratory in 1924. He helped found the UCD Republican Club and was involved in the campaign against the establishment of a National Army officer training corps at the college. He graduated from UCD in 1925, with second-class honours in Celtic studies.
Ryan worked for a period as a teacher of Irish at Mountjoy School, but lost his position following his participation in an anti-Armistice-Day protest. He rapidly developed a reputation as a republican street-orator and fighter and was arrested in clashes with the police on several occasions. In February 1926 he took part in disrupting O'Casey's (qv) The plough and the stars. In this period he worked under C. S. (‘Todd’) Andrews (qv) at the Irish Tourist Association and edited Irish Travel. He became editor of the IRA's journal, An t-Oglach, and in 1926 adjutant of its Dublin Brigade. In 1929 he became editor of An Phoblacht. Ryan was also active in Conradh na Gaeilge. A popular figure socially in Gaelic and republican circles, he was engaged to Bobbie Walsh for a period, but she broke off the engagement. He never married.
As the IRA shifted leftwards politically, Ryan's An Phoblacht reflected the trend. He visited the US at Easter 1930, and spoke at the New York republican commemoration. He was a supporter of the socialist Saor Éire organisation, launched by the IRA in September 1931, but was not centrally involved with it. In the government clampdown in late 1931, An Phoblacht was suppressed; in its place Ryan produced Republican File. In January 1932 he was jailed for contempt and sentenced to three months in Arbour Hill prison. He refused to wear prison clothing and spent twelve days on hunger strike; while in jail he received no visitors or news from the outside. After Fianna Fáil's election victory in March 1932, Ryan was released to a tremendous welcome.
IRA activity and recruitment increased throughout 1932, and confrontation between republicans and the newly formed Army Comrades Association escalated. In November 1932 Ryan declared: ‘No matter what anyone says to the contrary, while we have fists, hands, and boots to use, and guns if necessary, we will not allow free speech to traitors’. At the IRA's 1933 general army convention he argued for a return to the policies of Saor Éire. Dissatisfied with leadership policy, he refused to take a place on the IRA executive and resigned as editor of An Phoblacht (March) despite efforts by the IRA leadership to convince him to remain, claiming he wanted to launch an Irish-language journal. In September 1933 he became organiser of the IRA's youth organisation, Na Fianna Éireann.
In March 1934 the differences on policy within the IRA came to a head, and Ryan, along with Peadar O'Donnell (qv), George Gilmore (qv), and Mick Price (qv), left the organisation to form the left-wing Republican Congress. Soon Ryan was heavily involved in the production of its newspaper and in organising Congress nationwide. In November 1934 and November 1935 he led an alternative Armistice Day march comprising former British army veterans and republicans. Congress failed to grow after a promising start, and by 1936 Ryan was struggling to keep its newspaper going. In July the Spanish civil war began, and Congress was among the few in Ireland to oppose Franco's coup. In September Ryan responded to a denunciation by Cardinal Joseph MacRory (qv) of those who supported the Spanish republic. He wrote that ‘as a catholic, I will take my religion from Rome, but as an Irish republican I will take my politics neither from Moscow nor Maynooth’. By November 1936 Ryan was organising Irishmen to fight on the Republican side.
In Spain Ryan was the senior Irish officer in the International Brigades. He took part in the battle of Jarama (February 1937) and returned to Ireland, wounded (March). While at home he edited the left-wing Irish Democrat and took part in a violent IRA anti-coronation rally in Dublin. Against his wishes he was nominated as an ‘anti-fascist’ candidate in the June 1937 elections for Dublin City South; he polled 875 votes. He also edited the Book of the XVth International Brigade (1938). Ryan returned to Spain, and in March 1938 he was wounded and captured by Italian troops at Calaceite. He was imprisoned under harsh conditions in Burgos, and sentenced to death. An Irish fascist, Thomas Gunning, provided information on Ryan to his captors. Ryan was greatly admired by his fellow prisoners; he refused to give the fascist salute or sing the nationalist anthem. An international campaign succeeded in having his sentence commuted.
A strange combination of circumstances conspired to make Ryan's final years the subject of controversy. Two German military intelligence agents, his acquaintances from the early 1930s, had him released from jail in Spain and brought to Berlin in July 1940. He attempted to travel back to Ireland (August) on board a U-boat with Seán Russell (qv). When Russell died at sea, the submarine returned to Germany. Ryan's health had been in decline for some years; he suffered a stroke in 1942. On 10 June 1944 he died in Loschwitz sanatorium, near Dresden. After a long campaign by his family – especially his sister Eilís – and his comrades, Ryan's body was returned to Ireland on 20 June 1979, and was buried in the republican plot in Glasnevin cemetery. His legacy is ambiguous: he is regarded as a hero by republicans and socialists, but his final years in Nazi Germany are clouded by controversy.