The sudden death of Manus O’Riordan, Ireland secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, on 26 September occasioned immense shock and sadness. In Irish president Michael D. Higgins’ words, it is ‘a sadness that will be shared by so many of those who have worked for a more equal and inclusive society’. Despite Covid restrictions and advice that allowed few to witness Glasnevin’s funeral ceremony, hundreds marched the coffin from his home or lined the street, a piper leading a colourful parade of banners, flags, and streamers.
A lifelong socialist and trade unionist, his weekend had been a typical swirl of events. After watching Finn Harps defeat Bohemians at Dalymount Park on Friday night, he went into the Teachers’ Club to attend the Frank Harte Festival, as he would on Saturday with his eldest grandchild Amaia, after travelling back from Sliabh Foy above Omeath in County Louth for an annual tribute to men from the country who fought in the International Brigades: a typical Manus weekend of football, political organising, singing, company, and comradeship.
Education and Trade Unionism
Micheál Manus O’Riordan was born on 30 May 1949, one of Michael O’Riordan and Kay Keohane’s three children along with Mary, who was born in 1948 and died shortly after, and Brenda, born in 1952. They grew up in Victoria Street in Dublin’s Portobello and after a scholarship to Synge Street CBS, Manus gained a BA in Economics and Politics at UCD before completing a Masters in Economics and Labor History at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. His thesis revealed much of James Connolly’s then little-known life in the United States, and was in many ways a pioneering work.
Living close to a synagogue, now Dublin’s Jewish Museum in Walworth Road, Manus developed a fascination with Jewish Dublin. In 2002, he was involved in erecting a plaque in Lower Camden Street at the former premises of the International Tailors, Pressers and Machinists Union – the Jewish tailors’ union. Similarly, his recovery of James Connolly’s 1902 Wood Quay election address in Yiddish was an exquisite piece of work that was published in Saothar, the journal of the Irish Labour History Society, in 1988.
Manus had a long history in the Irish trade union movement. In 1971, he was appointed head of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union’s (ITGWU) research department in the newly-created Development Services Division (DSD) which contained Communications, Education and Training and Industrial Engineering Departments. In 1990, after the ITGWU merged with the Federated Workers’ Union of Ireland (FWUI) to form SIPTU (Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union), Manus remained head of research until retirement in 2010.
In this capacity, he wrote countless speeches and papers, provided immeasurable advice and explanation of economic and social events to union officers and executives. Much of this material, while recorded in others’ speeches he had drafted and in his own addresses to conferences, was not published publicly and, in any case, was often transient by its very nature, as it dealt with particular circumstances occasioned by political or economic crisis, lobbies for budgetary reforms, or national bargaining demands.
ITGWU conferences began to debate policy papers drafted by Manus’ research department on economic and social policy, equality, and employment law. For key figures engaged in pay bargaining from national wage agreements to national understandings – and their collapse – followed by the Programme for National Recovery in 1987 and social partnership, Manus’s precise, tightly-referenced explanations were extremely influential.
He believed, in the traditions of James Larkin junior, in placing organised labour and its members’ needs at the heart of matters. This went far beyond the simplistic ambition to ‘get more wages’. Industrial strength — in the continuing absence of any Irish Labour Party ability to obtain meaningful power — could be used to win advances in social welfare, education, health, and employment rights. While never a particularly public figure, Manus’ closely-argued papers were reflected in trade union achievements that benefitted thousands.
Politics and the International Brigades
Politically, Manus began in the Connolly Youth Movement, youth wing of the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI), which his father Michael O’Riordan had led. He later moved to the British and Irish Communist Organisation, which promoted a ‘Two Nations’ theory that held that Ulster Unionists had a separate national identity with a right to self-determination. This brought him into conflict, sometimes publicly, with his father Michael, and his former comrades in the Communist Party.
In the early 1980s, secularism and anti-clericalism led Manus to join Limerick TD Jim Kemmy’s (1936-1997) Democratic Socialist Party (DSP). Manus both campaigned and wrote for the organisation, which was strongly motivated by ambitions to challenge the Church’s influence over debates on divorce, contraception and abortion. After the DSP merged into the Labour Party in 1990, Manus declined to travel with them and remained unaffiliated.
His politics were nevertheless informed by Marxism and democratic concerns. He demonstrated a considerable and courageous capacity to change his view – often expressed in detailed letters to the Irish Times sharply critical of his own earlier positions. On the Irish national question, Cuba, and Palestinian solidarity, Manus moved closer to his father’s CPI line while maintaining (privately) criticisms of Soviet failures and (publicly) concerns about socialism’s future and its continued, vital necessity.
It was a brave person that took on Manus in a political discussion as he was inevitably well-informed and prepared. And yet, he created few political enemies, as evidenced by the ‘broad kirk’ attending his funeral from many different left-wing, radical and republican traditions in Ireland.
Michael O’Riordan fought in Spain and his son’s commitment to maintaining the memory of the International Brigades became what many will regard as his greatest legacy. He was Ireland Secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust and served on the Executive of Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland.
He spoke at memorial events across the globe. In 2016, he had shared a platform with Jeremy Corbyn and fellow Dubliner Max Levitas at the 80th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Cable Street, carrying the banner of the Connolly Column. In 2018, he travelled to the Catalan town of Gandesa, where he helped a mayor to unveil a painting of his father, Michael, carrying the Catalan flag across the Ebro. Manus was key to many monuments that have been erected to Irish Brigadistas too, most proudly the Liberty Hall plaque unveiled by president Mary Robinson in May 1996.
It was through what his sister Brenda describes as ‘our international family’ that Manus met his partner Nancy Wallach, whose father fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. For Manus, it was not merely maintaining a memory, important as that was, but reminding people that some fights might yet have to be fought again. In the words of the late Welsh historian and activist Gwynn A. Williams, Manus was a ‘people’s remembrancer’, the IB fight remaining horribly relevant.
Writing and Culture
In the days well before Google, when struggling with a question — whether of economics, labour history, or folklore — for many the solution was ‘to Manus it’. A phone call provided not just the answer but most often, a number of answers to other questions that you had not asked but might have done.
A correspondence followed containing references, documents, personal memories, frequently laced with a wry humour. On the weekend of his death, he emailed a typically lengthy response to a comrade who had innocently asked a question when they ran into each other at Dalymount Park.
Manus published widely, sometimes in relatively obscure left-wing or local history publications, often now difficult to retrieve. Those in the Irish Political Review, Saothar, and recent editions of Umiskin Press’s Left Lives are easily referenced. So too is his recent article for Tribune on the life and politics of Paul Robeson, a product of his own friendship with this publication’s editor.
Michael D. Higgins particularly praised Manus’s work on Ireland in the 1930s but his range of interests was breath-taking and included, in no particular order, agrarian struggles; Fenianism; women workers and equality; Jim Larkin – senior and junior; Ernest Bevin; Frank Ryan; European communism and the Soviet Union; Mike Quill and the Transport Workers’ Union; environmental issues; and all aspects of the Spanish Civil War and Brigadista biographies.
Whatever he wrote was informed and informing, his style accessible despite its frequent depth. A valuable task would be to collect his works and make them available online and his papers — electronic and actual — when assembled will be a unique and valuable commentary on his times.
Manus had a deep interest in and respect for language and culture. In addition to fluent Irish, Manus could be heard singing in Catalan, French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish, the song often one he had discovered as a verse and set to music. He had to know the provenance of anything he sang from ‘The Bould Tenant Farmer’ to Frank O’Connor’s tribute to Larkin, ‘Roll Away the Stone’, sung so movingly by his son Luke at the funeral.
Manus’ singing can be heard on the Irish Traditional Music Archive and on various Youtube clips. He was a fixture at An Góilín Traditional Singers’ Club and, more recently, at Howth Singing Circle and Liberty Hall’s Clé Club, where his ‘sleeve notes’ were often longer than the song but no less compelling for that.
He was a theatre goer, admiring Irish playwrights from O’Casey to Murphy, Friel to McGuinness, while Brecht, Ibsen, and contemporary works held equal fascination, his interest in the production, setting and acting as well as the work itself. He was also an inveterate attender at the National Concert Hall, appreciating all musical forms and loved serious cinema. His decision to skip a Bohemians versus Shamrock Rovers derby in 2017 to attend a Shostakovich concert in the same venue was a source of much slagging from his sons, but underlined his broad and at times competing interests.
He was also an informed critic of televised history and political documentaries and, too seldom, was asked to contribute to them. He read incessantly: O’Donnell and McGill, Sholakhov and Yovkov, Angelou and Mariam Khan, Machada de Assis and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the poetry of Akhmatova or Lola Ridge, Donnelly, Neruda or Víctor Jara. He absorbed what he read with an endless capacity for more; whether it was folklore, visual arts, posters and banners: art, to Manus, was political expression.
It was in the ITGWU’s DSD premises in Palmerston Park that Manus met Annette Hennessy Macdonald who worked as librarian. They married in 1974 and had three children – Jessica, Neil, and Luke. Annette tragically died in 2013. Her own life story led to involvement in campaigns for the Lost Children, the scandal of Mother and Baby Homes and the widespread pain they caused and continue to cause.
Notwithstanding Manus’s myriad preoccupations, family was the fulcrum around which his life revolved. A loving father and adoring grandfather, he erected a memorial bench at Hart’s corner dedicated to his father Michael and Annette’s memory. For his children Jess, Neil and Luke, grandchildren Amaia, Rory, Caleb and Eli, sister Brenda, partner Nancy, and his extended family, their sudden loss is immense. They can draw consolation from the hundreds of expressions of love and respect that greeted his passing and are reflected in the countless tributes on his Facebook page and elsewhere.
In his address at Manus’s funeral, his son Neil observed that ‘my father was almost always on the right side of history… Look at the big social issues of the last few generations and he was ahead of his time.’ He contributed, intellectually, organisationally, and personally by attendance at rallies and meetings, to every significant trade union or social campaign fought in the last five decades. He was universally regarded as deeply personable, a man full of brilliant eccentricities, a tireless agitator for progressive causes, whose company that you always left enlightened or provoked but—either way—with a smile on your face and a lift in your heart.
On the hastily made banner at Bohemians’ game at Oriel Park, Dundalk the Monday after his death, youthful Bohs fans scrawled the words ‘RIP Manus – No Pasarán’. It was apt; like Joe Hill, Manus would demand not that we mourn but that we organise. Many more virtual banners fluttered aloft in Catalonia and Gougane Barra, Havana and Willowfield, Sofia and New York, lining the multitude of overlapping tracks trodden by a remarkable comrade. La lucha continua.