FRANK RYAN’S life was dramatic. Born at Bottomstown, Elton, Co Limerick in 1902, he was a teenage IRA volunteer. He fought on Éamon de Valera’s side in the Civil War, most of which he spent in prison, and was imprisoned at various stages for his political beliefs.
Disillusioned with the infighting of Irish republicanism, he went to Madrid in December, 1936 to fight with the International Brigade, leading the Connolly Column in the Spanish Civil War. He was injured and imprisoned in Burgos for a couple of years until German intelligence, keen to make use of his dissident IRA connections, took him to Berlin. He spent the Second World War in a curious dance with the Third Reich, before dying in a hospital in Dresden in 1944.
Christy Moore has sung about him. Jack Higgins used him as a model for one of his characters in The Eagle Has Landed. Gabriel Byrne spent years trying to produce a film about him.
Derry-born filmmaker Desmond Bell has made a creative documentary about the Limerick man, The Enigma of Frank Ryan. The film mixes archive footage with dramatic recreations, and stars Dara Devaney. It will premiere this weekend [Feb 18], as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
“I’d been aware of the Ryan story for 25 years,” says Bell. “I’d never really attended to it much because it was a bit of a mystery. It was always given very hallowed status on the left, but nobody wanted to talk about the German side of it very much. This was part of a more general issue in the south of Ireland, about coming to terms with the Second World War, neutrality, the Emergency, where Ireland fitted into the broader global picture. Ryan is just a lightning rod for all those issues.”
De Valera, played by Arthur Riordan, is an interesting presence in the film. He shared Ryan’s love of the Irish language, identified with his burning idealism and tried in vain to get him released from prison in General Franco’s Spain, although he despaired of him in the finish.
“I think Ryan was an idealist,” says Bell, “but he was also a man who believed he was an historical figure. He was on a world political stage. Spain gave him that in a way that Ireland hadn’t. As part of a generation of people who had come of age after 1916, he believed that he was pushing in the right direction in terms of historical forces that would bring him to some form of pre-eminence.
“One part of him is the idealist; the other is the part driven by the need for public acclaim and recognition.”
Ryan clashed regularly during the 1930s with Seán Russell, the IRA’s chief of staff whose bronze statue in Dublin’s Fairview Park is defaced by swastika graffiti. Ryan was court-martialled by him for insubordination, but he had made up his mind to leave the IRA and set up the Republican Congress, an offshoot that disbanded a few years later.
The pair were reunited in Berlin in 1940 — a dramatic moment in the film — thrown together by Colonel Veessenmeyer, Adolf Hitler’s coup d’état specialist. They set off for Ireland in a U-boat as part of Operation Dove. Russell died of a stomach ulcer on the journey. Ryan dithered and, with the Irish coastline in sight, u-turned and returned to Germany.
“Operation Dove could only have been aborted because Ryan didn’t appear to have been briefed properly,” says Bell. “It’s not entirely clear why he went back to Berlin, except that he probably felt that he would be arrested if he landed in Ireland and he didn’t have the contacts to organise anything. He would have been completely isolated.”
Ryan’s last years, redundant politically, or worse given his socialist credentials as a stooge for the Nazis, were a sorry end to his escapades. It is even rumoured he met Hitler in August, 1941.
“He went back to Germany with this idea that he’d take over the role Russell had as a sort of plenipotentiary,” says Bell.
“But, of course, by 1942, Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, has started. The concern of the Germans with Ireland has diminished. The invasion of England had been put off. The Americans have entered the war. The Russian campaign is going badly. Ireland is small beer by this stage.
“An attempt to raise an Irish brigade out of captured, Irish-extraction British prisoners of war appalls him when he sees their ragged, emaciated condition. He’s floating around Berlin, really without a proper function.”
* The Enigma of Frank Ryan screens as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival at the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield at 6.30pm on Saturday. Further information on the film at www.enigmafrankryan.com.