Saor Eire – Marxist and republican

by Mick Healy

What elevates the actions of Saor Eire to a serious revolutionary platform is the attempt to weld this political and military struggle into one unit. Any attempt in recent Irish history to perform such a task has resulted in an unhappy alliance with either a degeneration into conventional politics or resulting in a group of a purely militarist nature. – May 1971, Saor Eire manifesto.

At Easter 1966 (the anniversary of the 1916 Rising) a large explosion echoed through the heart of Dublin, Nelson’s Pillar had been blown up.  The radicals that blasted Lord Nelson were Socialist Republicans including Liam Sutcliffe who had became disillusioned with the IRA’s “lack of military activity and political direction”.  This group would eventually help to establish Saor Eire (SE).  Saor Eire was set up in the late sixties by members of the Republican Movement and the Irish political left.  This group was distinguishable from other Republican organisations at the time through its politics which leaned explicitly towards the international Trotskyist movement of the Fourth International.  This link was strengthened by a meeting of the leader of the Fourth International’s United Secretariat, Ernest Mandel, and the leaders of Saor Eire in Dublin in 1972.

Saor Eire also had international links as well as privileged relations with the British-based International Marxist Group (IMG), which was the British section of the Fourth International.  Saor Eire was a small organisation, along with hundreds of supporters, the majority based in Dublin, with support in Cork as well as the North.  Prominent members included Liam Sutcliffe who, on instructions from the IRA during the border campaign, joined the British Army with Sean Garland.  They were based in Gough barracks, Armagh, where . The membership also included Sean Doyle, Tom O’Neil, Martin Casey, Frank Keane (a former OC of the IRA’s Dublin brigade) and Joe Dillon.  In addition, several members of the Young Socialists, Peter Graham and Máirín Keegan, became involved in the organisation of Saor Eire.  Members from the Trotskyist groups organised publicity, demonstrations and pickets on behalf of the Saor Eire political prisoners.  From 1967-73 these demonstrations were led by Gerry Lawless, Liam Daltun (IMG), Ann Speed and Raynor O’Connor Lysaght as well as Graham and Keegan of the Socialist Labour Alliance.

On October 21st 1967 Saor Eire threw two petrol bombs into the Fianna Fail Headquarters in Dublin, setting the premises on fire in an attempt to burn it down.  This was carried out to draw attention to the plight of political prisoners such as Joe Dillon.  Former commandant of the Dublin IRA Frank Keane was sentenced to 6 months in prison for the attack.

Saor Eire acquired weapons after a raid on the Parker Hale munitions factory in Birmingham, England and smuggled them into Ireland.  They would commence the expropriation from the Irish banks, carrying out roughly a dozen meticulously-planned bank raids.  Among the earliest raids was a bank in Drumcondra in February 1967, followed by a bank in Ballyfermot in October 1968, where shots  were fired at the police.  This happened yet again in March 1969 when an eight-person unit simultaneously raided two banks in Newry with military precision.  In 1970 Saor Eire robbed the Northern Bank in Kells, Co Meath, setting up roadblocks to cut off the town.

However the most spectacular of these raids was in 1970 in Rathdrum, County Wicklow during which Saor Eire set up armed roadblocks, stopping all traffic including a police car and cutting all phone lines before raiding the bank.  A member of the police, Richard Fallon, was shot dead in April 1970 during a Saor Eire raid on the AIB bank in Arran Quay, Dublin.  Three men – Frank Keane, Joe Dillon and Sean Morrissey – were tried for the murder but  acquitted.

When the North of Ireland erupted in 1969 Saor Eire supporters championed the campaign of the People’s Democracy (PD) in the North.  Keegan and Gerry Lawless took part in the PD march from Belfast to Derry in 1969 that was attacked at Burntollet by Loyalists.  Peter Graham participated in the civil rights march in Derry on October 5th 1968.  SE displayed solidarity by providing funds expropriated from the bank raids to the besieged nationalist population in the North.  Though often overlooked, SE was involved in the arming and training of the Northern Nationalist Defence Committees with weapons smuggled  from England and Europe.  Moreover Saor Eire bombed Edinburgh Castle in retaliation for Scottish soldiers’ involvement in  British Army violence against the nationalist population.

During a similar operation, a premature explosion killed Liam Walsh and also injured Martin Casey, leaving him deaf in one ear.  Walsh and Casey were preparing the bomb to be handed over to the female activists, including Mairin Keegan, who would carry out the operation on the 13th October 1970 at the rear of McKee army base, off Blackhorse Avenue in Dublin.

Hundreds of police could not stop the firing of a volley of shots over Walsh’s coffin.  Gerry Lawless gave the oration at the funeral in Mount Jerome cemetery.  The Fianna Fail Government in 1970 went so far as to activate the law allowing internment without trial in order to combat the actions of  SE.   This wasn’t proceeded with due to political uproar.

On 25th October 1971 Marxist and Saor Eire activist Peter Graham was shot dead in a flat in the Stephen’s Green area of Dublin at the age of 26; his murder remains unsolved.  There is little doubt that if he had lived he would have been a major force in left-wing politics.  Before his death Graham spent time in London during which he assisted in the publishing of Red Mole (the newspaper of IMG), along with Bob Purdie, Tarig Ali and Liam Daltun.  Graham also arranged an interview by Bob Purdie with two Saor Eire members at Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery; the interview was translated into several languages.  Graham established the Irish section of the Fourth International just before he died.

The Provisional IRA in a statement said his death had come as a severe blow to the national resurgence and that he provided aid of all forms in 1969.  The IRA statement came as a surprise to many socialist colleagues who were not aware of his activities in relation to the North.  Furthermore, Graham and Saor Eire were very well-respected by both sides of the split in the Republican Movement in 1969-70.  Hundreds of socialists and republicans marched behind the coffin draped with the Starry Plough supplied by Official Sinn Fein.  The oration was given by Tariq Ali of the IMG.  Ali commented that the Irish working class had lost a leader of great potential.  Several verses of the International were sung and the clenched fist salute was given.

Less then three months later Máirín Keegan passed away from cancer on the 9thJanuary.  Keegan had previously provided an interview to British television as a representative of Saor Eire defending the actions of the organization; she also worked as secretary to socialist-republican Bernadette Devlin MP.  Hundreds marched in the cortege to Mount Jerome cemetery Dublin where the oration was given by Raynor O’Connor Lysaght.  He remarked that Keegan had been on the executive of Saor Eire and had been appointed the representative of the Fourth International in Ireland after the assassination of Peter Graham.  The Máirín Keegan Memorial Committee unveiled a headstone in March1997 in Mount Jerome cemetery.  The proceedings were chaired by Liam Sutcliffe and the oration was given by Frank Keane.

Three weeks following Máirín’s death Saor Eire member Liam Daltun tragically took his own life on Bloody Sunday January 1972.  O’Connor Lysaght remarked that he was a man of great charm and knowledge.  Daltun was a veteran of the IRA border campaign and after its failure went to London, initially joining the Communist Party but later converting to Trotskyism and becoming involved with the IMG.  Daltun had also been the organiser of the Frank Keane Defence Committee with Peter Graham and Gerry Lawless.  He is buried in London.

In May 1973 the prisoners in Portlaoise prison issued a statement, certifying their resignation from Saor Eire as they believe it had “ceased to play a progressive role”. They also stated while Saor Eire had been formed to struggle against imperialism,” during the last two years owing to political weakness . . . undesirable elements have been able to operate around its fringes and carry out actions. . . which had nothing in common with the stated objective of that organisation. The statement was signed by Joe Dillon, Padraig Dillon, Sean Morrissey, Martin Casey and other Saor Eire prisoners.

On June 10th 1975 twenty-five year-old Saor Eire member Larry White was shot dead in Cork City during a disagreement over weapons with the Official IRA.  A guard of honour wearing black berets fired shots over the coffin at his funeral.  Saor Eire was officially disbanded the same year.

It is not the quantity of Marx digested that makes a Revolutionary but ability to prepare for, take part in and make the Revolution that matters.  Saor Eire Manifesto, May 1971.

Posted on February 14, 2012, in Civil rights movement, Commemorations, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Political education and theory, Prisoners - current, Provos - then and now, Republicanism 1960s, Revolutionary figures, Women in republican history. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. O'Connor Lysaght

    Pretty good chronological account and reasonably accurate – apart from the phraseology saying that Mairin died ‘one year later’ than Peter’s assassination: it was more like 11 weeks.
    The question remains: why was it not possible to build on this potential ? Of course, it was not helped by some of the best people (Frank, Joe, Sean) being inside, with the result that the name ( not, I think, the reality) of SE was hijacked by the Whites, whose politics owed more to Grivas than Guevara. Sadly, other comrades were with Mandel at the talks, which proved inconclusive.
    D.R,O’Connor Lysaght

  2. Cheers, Raynor. I’ve edited Mick’s piece to correct the time gap between Peter Graham and Mairin Keegan’s deaths.

    Mick mentioned to me a while back that you were at the Bloody Sunday commemoration in Dublin the year following the massacre and that this protest was attacked by the gardai. Do you recall how big that protest was and what happened? If you’d like to write something about it, I’d be very happy to stick it up on the blog.

    All the best,

  3. Thank you Raynor I think your comment should be tagged on to my article as it makes it clearer why Saor Eire did not succeed.

  4. There were 2 distinct Saor Eires. Fintan Lane has written about the Cork one. No connection.

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