Ireland’s Marxist guerrillas: the story of the Saor Éire Action Group, 1967-73
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(Mick wrote an article about Saor Eire which appeared on this site in 2011; this is an updated and expanded version of that article, including new material added by former Saor Eire members; the article has been proofed and edited by me – PF)
The 1960s was a time of upheaval and change in conservative Irish society; social attitudes, fashion and music, for instance, all changed dramatically. New social movements reflected the thinking of a new generation that, in particular, wanted more freedom. The huge student-worker protests of May-June 1968 in France, the Vietnamese struggle to remove the US, its allies and their Vietnamese toadies, the US civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and the national liberation struggles in Latin America and Africa galvanised opposition to the existing order. In Ireland, these events inspired people, especially the new generation, into action. This was especially the case around the civil rights movement in the north of Ireland. Among the new organisations which emerged here as a result of this new ferment and revolutionary idealism was the Dublin-based Saor Éire (SE) or, to give it its full name, the Saor Eire Action Group.
Saor Éire Action Group was established in the late 1960s by former members of the Republican Movement and newer young Irish political left activists coming together. As an organisation they claimed to have their roots in the tradition of old Fenianism and the left-wing Republicanism that was prominent in the 1930s. But SE’s founding was additionally influenced by the IRA’s lack of military activity and political direction, following the cessation of Operation Harvest (the IRA border campaign of 1956-62). The group also had a political relationship with the International Marxist Group (IMG), the British section of the Fourth International (the revolutionary movement founded by Leon Trotsky on the eve of World War 2) and several SE members belonged to the IMG at different points.
The Action Group never saw itself, however, as leading the Irish Revolution or developing a front political organisation but rather as a revolutionary catalyst for change – helping to develop a political consciousness by exposing the contradictions in Irish capitalist society.(1)
SE came into existence at a time when the existing Republican Movement was undergoing a major rethink, following the failure of the Border Campaign. Many activists began thinking more consciously about left-wing politics. However, there were substantial tensions as to what those left-wing politics should be. An important influence was exerted by the Communist Party in Britain and the Irish emigre organisation it Britain that it dominanted, the Connolly Association. This influence involved reformist politics, based around the idea of a ‘two-stage revolution’ in Ireland. Firstly, a peaceful civil rights movement would succeed in gaining ‘British norms’ of democracy in the six counties and, only then, advocating and struggling for socialism, with this also occurring by peaceful means.(2)
Among the many who doubted that the British imperialist state or their loyalist frankenstein monster in the six counties would allow the first-stage to be achieved, let alone the second stage, were a layer of socialist-republicans who viewed the Stalinisation of the Republican Movement as a betrayal of revolutionary principles, one that would spell disaster for the Movement and the oppressed nationalist population in the north. These activists constituted the republican wing of the formation of Saor Eire.
Important as well to the formation of the new organisation was the existence in London of Gerry Lawless and Paddy Healy’s Trotskyist group, the Irish Workers Group (IWG). This was the only group at the time on the Irish political scene who were actively counteracting the Moscow line reformist ideology of the Connolly Association from a left-wing perspective, and exposing the effect those theories could have on the Irish revolutionary movement.(3) Consequently, a number of republicans who had been active in the IRA at the time of the Border Campaign were drawn to the IWG and subsequently became core members of Saor Eire. These included Frank Keane, Sean Morrissey, Liam Daltun, Joe Dillon, Liam Walsh, Liam Sutcliffe and Seamus O’Riain.
Keane was a former OC of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA and had even joined the British Parachute Regiment to get military experience for participating in Operation Harvest. He would become national organiser of Saor Eire.
Morrissey had been involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) where he met Gerry Lawless and then joined The Irish Workers Group, becoming an editor of its publication An Solas).
Dillon had joined the IRA around the time of the end of the Border Campaign and been one of a small number of IRA Volunteers encourage by chief-of-staff Cathal Goulding to be educated in Marxist ideas. However the ideas turned out to be those of Stalin and Dillon, a star student, soon grew to be critical, along with a number of others. They became interested in Trotsky’s ideas as well as unhappy with the lack of military activity of the IRA under Goulding’s leadership.
Walsh had joined the IRA in 1954, recruited by Sutcliffe. He had taken part in the Border Campaign, eventually becoming O/C of the South Dublin Unit and been interned in 1957.
Sutcliffe had joined the IRA in 1954 and taken part in the Border Campaign, including infiltrating Gough Barracks in the north for several months. He later became famous for blowing up Nelson’s Column in O’Connell Street).
O’Riain had joined the IRA as a teenager in the early 1950s, taken part in the start of the Border Campaign, but subsequently emigrated to Britain for work and joined the IWG. He would later be arrested in London and charged with possession of twenty-four rifles and two Bren machine guns, doing a three-year stretch in prison in Britain.
Daltun had joined the IRA in 1954 but, dissatisfied with the lack of military action, left and joined the breakaway Joe Christle group, Saor Uladh, and fought with them through the Border Campaign.
Although the majority of the group’s support was based in Dublin, support also existed in Cork as well as Belfast and Derry. (NB: A separate and un-related left-republican group with the same name also existed in Cork.)
A Department of Justice review issued on November 21, 1966, reported on republican groups outside the IRA-Sinn Fein. It suggested there were 41 people in a Dublin splinter group. Among these, according to the DoJ, were a “hard core of ex-IRA extreme and dissident members who are likely to engage in violent acts of disorder. They are known to possess a quantity of arms, ammunition and explosives. Some of the members who were previously well known IRA officers, are fully trained in the use of arms and are explosives experts. During the period under review, the members have availed themselves of every opportunity to become involved in an agitating policy on social and economic questions in the state.”
At this point, of course, Saor Eire did not exist, although the initial forces were starting to coalesce. Nevertheless, the first recorded armed action of Saor Eire did not take place until October 21, 1967. Shots were exchanged by Saor Eire with the Special Branch when activists threw two petrol bombs into the Dublin HQ of Fianna Fail, the government of the day, setting the premises on fire in an attempt to burn it down. This was carried out to draw attention to the plight of Joe Dillon, 22, who was sentenced to five years in prison on May 5th, 1967, having been charged with attempted robbery. Frank Keane, who had become the group’s national organiser, was sentenced to six months in prison for this action. Less than three months later Dillon escaped from the Four Courts during a legal challenge to an order transferring him from Mountjoy prison to Portlaoise. A similar escape occurred when Charlie O’Neill and Sean Doyle walked out of the Central Criminal Court to a waiting getaway car.
An important activity of Saor Eire from early on was bank raids. The first seems to have been a raid on the Royal Bank in Drumcondra, Dublin, on February 27, 1967. More raids followed as they expropriated finance from banks to purchase arms and to fund the establishment of an underground network. It is worth noting that the group acquired weapons after a raid on the Parker Hale munitions factory in Birmingham; more importantly a large consignment of FM heavy automatic rifles were purchased from Belgium.
Although the core of activists came together in 1967, the organisation of Saor Éire was formally established after an eight-person unit simultaneously expropriated £22,000 from two banks in Newry in March 1969. This was the biggest bank robbery recorded in Ireland, up to that time. This action resulted in shots being fired as the RUC crossed the border in pursuit. After a raid on the Northern Bank in Kells, Co. Meath, a statement was issued claiming responsibility in the name of the Saor Eire Action Group.(4) They signed the statement M. Price, and claimed the money would be used to finance a movement which would strive for a Workers’ Republic.
One particular raid that drew media attention was in Rathdrum, County Wicklow. During this, they set up armed roadblocks, stopping all traffic and cutting phone lines before raiding the Hibernian Bank and a local gunsmith, acquiring shotguns and rifles. The National Organiser of SE, Frank Keane, was arrested and charged with the 1968 robbery on the Hibernian Bank, in Newbridge, Co. Kildare but was later released due to a lack of evidence.
During this period undesirable, rather lumpen elements operated around the fringes of the group, attracted, it would seem, by the underground nature of the group and the possibility of using the cover of SE to carry out criminal activity for their own benefit. In an attempt to counteract this, all actions undertaken by SE were acknowledged in an official statement signed M. Price (this was the name of a leading socialist-republican and ally of Nora Connolly in Republican Congress in the 1930s).
An unconnected Cork Saor Eire group was established in 1968; this was essentially a political group. Veteran left-republican Jim Lane, who had been involved in the border campaign, was a leading figure. An unsuccessful meeting took place to try to merge the two groups.
When the North of Ireland erupted into violence in 1969, SE provided funds expropriated in the bank raids to the besieged nationalist population. Though often overlooked, SE was involved in the training of the Nationalist Defence Committees, set up to organise self-defence of the besieged nationalist working class ghettoes facing loyalist pogroms. During the battle of the Bogside in 1969 many of its members took part in the defence. As there were precious few arms and ammunition available, they offered to help defend the area but were refused as it was felt by activists on the ground that their struggle did not necessitate such military assistance at that stage. SE did, however, bomb Edinburgh Castle in retaliation for Scottish soldiers’ involvement in British Army violence against the nationalist population.
After the emergence of the Provisional Republican Movement, a significant meeting took place around January 1970 in the home of Dublin 1916 veteran Joe Clarke, between the leadership of SE and Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA Sean MacStiofan. The idea was advanced that SE should join or work with emerging PIRA but this overture was rejected as the leadership of SE felt that it still had an independent political role to play. However, a decision was made at that meeting to contribute 7,000 rounds of ammunition to the IRA for defence of the nationalist population in the six counties. This contribution was later increased to 30,000 rounds of assorted ammunition, a heavy Vickers machine gun, a medium-wave radio transmitter and other military equipment.(5)
According to Jimmy Roe, quartermaster of the 1st battalion of the Provisional IRA Belfast brigade, they received arms and equipment from Saor Éire when others stood idly by.
Saor Eire, unfortunately, began to be hit by a number of tragedies only a few years after their founding. On October 13, 1970, a premature bomb explosion killed Liam Walsh and also injured Martin Casey. Walsh, Casey and fellow SE activist Máirín Keegan were examining the device at the rear of McKee Army Base, off Blackhorse Avenue in Dublin. Walsh had been active during Operation Harvest, eventually becoming the Commanding Officer of the South Dublin Unit of the IRA. He had also worked with Travellers’ rights campaigner Gratton Puxton and Peadar O’Donnell, helping establish a makeshift school for Travellers in an encampment at Ballyfermot. (In the winter of 1964, Dublin Corporation/Garda brutally evicted the Traveller families.) Hundreds of police could not stop the firing of a volley of shots at Walsh’s funeral. The oration was given by Gerry Lawless of the IMG, ex-IRA and a former Curragh internee.
Though often overlooked, SE was involved in tenant and industrial disputes, such as the explosion that demolished a boundary wall that cut off access to shops and divided a residential area and a working-class housing complex in Ballymun, Dublin. On another occasion, distressed parents of underage teenagers involved in the sex industry on board ships in Cork Harbour approached SE to see if they could intervene. This resulted in a blast detonated on the 500-ton coaster Ben Voord on October 14, 1971.
Another activity at this time was an unsuccessful kidnapping attempt whose goal had been to try to secure the release of one of its members who was imprisoned awaiting trial. The operation involved a member of the extended royal family, Lord Mountbatten, who had docked his boat at Mullaghmore pier. The kidnapping attempt resulted in a stand-off between members of the Special Branch and armed SE members. Nobody was willing to risk a shoot-out which could have resulted in the death of Mountbatten and thereby defeated the purpose of the operation.
On April 3, 1970, during a bank raid at the AIB branch on Arran Quay in Dublin, Garda Richard Fallon was shot and died. The repression against SE increased, with the Special Branch releasing to the newspapers the names of seven men they wanted to question: Padraig and Joe Dillon, Keane, O’Neill, Morrissey, Doyle and Simon O’Donnell. A statement signed M. Price was released to the media saying no unit of Saor Éire was active in the City of Dublin on that morning and that no member of the organization had been in any way connected with the shooting of Garda Fallon. But the state was determined to get Saor Eire.
In December 1970 the Fianna Fail government went so far as to activate the law allowing internment without trial, on the pretext that they had uncovered a plot to kidnap Dessie O’Malley, the Minister of Justice, in exchange for the release of Frank Keane who was then on remand in Brixton prison. He had moved to London to avoid arrest, but was apprehended by the British police; an extradition order was granted and he was brought back to Dublin and subsequently charged with killing a garda during the bank raid.
On June 25, 1971 Frank was tried in the Central Criminal Court. He was the first person on a charge of capital murder since the Criminal Justice Act 1964 abolished the death penalty for murder except for the killing of a member of the government, a garda or a prison officer. He would, however, eventually be acquitted.
Due to political uproar, Internment was not introduced.
Meanwhile, Saor Eire continued to advertise its existence and get its political message out. Following the internment threat the BBC filmed a secret training camp, possibly at Lacken in the Wicklow mountains. It was complete with a dugout and firing range. SE volunteers appeared in masks and military uniform.
On January 15, 1971, Red Mole , the paper of the IMG, ran an interview with several leading members of Saor Eire and five months later, on June 1, it published the Saor Éire Manifesto. This was followed by an interview done by the IMG’s Bob Purdie with two SE volunteers in London. The interview identified SE as an armed group attempting to act as a fuse or detonator to the Irish revolutionary struggle. It was translated into several languages.
Attempts by the Free State to suppress and smash Saor Eire continued. Dillon and Morrissey were arrested in October 1971, when the Special Branch machine-gunned their car in Dublin. At their trial in January 1972, Justice Griffin tried to discredit the two defendants by stating that years ago people knew what the IRA or SE stood for, but this was no longer the case – as if they were some kind of mere criminal conspiracy. Defence barrister Sean MacBride, a former IRA Chief of Staff and later winner of both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Lenin Peace Prize, addressing the court, referred to previous historical periods, saying he could “see no difference between Irish Republicans then and now”, and asking if the Judge could “enlighten him”. The falsification of fingerprint evidence was the point that proved decisive in their acquittal of the charge of capital murder. (The fingerprint expert called upon by the state was Detective Byrne who was later exposed for his mis-identification of fingerprints in the case of the assassination of the British Ambassador, Ewart Biggs by the IRA in 1976.)
Joe and Sean were charged with having the pistol and ammunition in their possession on the day of their arrest. Along with Martin Casey, Frank Keane and four other militants they became the first people to be tried in the no-jury Special Criminal Court. A public meeting organised by the Young Socialists and the League for a Workers’ Republic was held at the GPO in O’Connell Street, to demand their release; it was addressed by such people as Bernadette Devlin MP and Charlie Bird of the YS. (Bird went on to become a prominent TV figure and, of course, eschew his radical younger years.)
SE suffered a critical blow with the murder of Peter Graham on October 25, 1971. Graham was killed in a flat he shared with his comrade Rayner O’Connor Lysaght at 101, St Stephen’s Green. He was the founder and chairperson of the Young Socialists and established the Irish section of the Fourth International in Ireland. While in London he was involved in detailed discussions on the Irish national question with Ernest Mandel, probably the most prominent leader of the Fourth International at the time. Afterwards, Graham was said to be very satisfied with the outcome of the discussions.(6) Various theories exist about the circumstances of Graham’s death but those close to the organisation believe that two men hostile to SE interrogated and shot him when he refused to divulge information they sought about SE weapons. Graham had been in control of an arms dump at the time, and also trained Sri Lankan comrades. Hundreds of people marched at the end of a cortege preceded by two young women who carried the Plough and Stars, as members of the Young Socialists carried the coffin. Several verses of the Internationale were sung and the clenched fist salute was given. The oration was delivered by Tariq Ali of the IMG. Ali declared the greatest tribute of all to Graham would be to carry on his work.
Another terrible blow came with the death of another leader of the group, Máirín Keegan, just a few months later. She passed away from cancer on January 9, 1972. Máirín had been in Paris during the massive student-worker upsurge and general strike of 1968 and gotten involved with the Fourth International. She also was the activist who procured two CS gas grenades that Butch Roche threw onto the Floor of the House of Commons in 1970 to give them a taste of what the gas they were unleashing on protesters in the six counties felt and tasted like. Later, she became secretary to the socialist Republican MP Bernadette Devlin.
Shots were fired in salute over her coffin at the removal on a wet winter evening. Hundreds of police surrounded the graveside at the burial in Mount Jerome cemetery, where an oration was given by leading Trotskyist O’Connor Lysaght.
Just weeks after Keegan’s death, Liam Daltun took his own life on January 30, 1972. His association with radicalism went back to his youth when, at 18 years of age, in 1954 he joined the IRA. He later left the IRA and operated with the breakaway Joe Christle group during the 1950s Border Campaign. However, in 1966, he joined the Irish Workers Group in London. Later, together with Graham, he was instrumental in publishing the Saor Éire manifesto. Liam Sutcliffe and Joe Keegan visited his home in London to discuss arrangements for an SE-style funeral in Ireland. His partner Nan Daltun politely refused the request as she wanted him buried close to his family at New Southgate Cemetery, London.
By 1972 SE prisoners in Portlaoise jail, the prison in which politicals are held in the twenty-six counties, had no study facilities, only one hour’s recreation per day, and visits and correspondence were strictly limited. Two of the Saor Eire prisoners, Sean Morrissey and Martin Casey, were in need of specialist medical treatment which they were not getting.(7) These socialist militants refused to wear prison-issue clothes or carry out prison work. A struggle between the prisoners and the authorities required hunger strikes and going naked with nothing but a towel – experiences repeated just a few years later by IRA and INLA activists in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh – before the SE prisoners’ demands for political status were fully met.
With so many of its leading militants dead or imprisoned it became more and more difficult for the group to counteract the negative effects of criminal activities being carried out in its name. The prisoners in Portlaoise felt they were left with no option but to resign en masse from the organisation in an effort to disassociate themselves from these elements and to preserve their own political integrity. In May 1973 the prisoners issued a statement certifying their resignation from Saor Éire as they believe it had “ceased to play a progressive role”. The statement was signed by Joe Dillon, Padraig Dillon, Martin Casey, Danny McOwen, Donal O’Laoghaire, Donal Dineen, Sean Morrissey and Eugene Norr.
This action effectively ended the existence of the group. They did, however, instruct its volunteers to support the struggle being waged against British imperialism by the PIRA and Séamus Costello’s emerging Socialist-Republican movement.
In spite of their very difficult experiences many of these revolutionary militants continue to strive for a Workers Republic. Moreover, in the fight for Irish national liberation, some became prominent volunteers in the IRA, active in many of its engagements during the following decades. It might be argued that when the North of Ireland erupted in 1969, if SE hadn’t existed history could have been very different. Rayner Lysaght has considered why it was not possible to build on this potential. Of course, it was not helped by some of the best people being inside, with the result that the name of Saor Éire was hijacked by people whose politics owed more to Grivas than Guevara.
1. M. Price, October 7, 2019, Dublin. NB: “M. Price” is a name used by former members of Saor Eire.
2. M. Price, October 5, 2019, Dublin.
4. Saor Eire statement claiming responsibility for the Raid at the National Bank in Kells, Co. Meath, Friday, September 26, 1969.
5. M. Price, October 7, 2019, Dublin.
6. Oscar Gregan, February 18, 2017, London.
7. Anti-Internment News, No 4. 1972
There is a whole body of material about Saor Eire on both The Irish Revolution and the Irish Republican Marxist History Project. In this article, we just link to biographical pieces on this blog. But there are also video interviews with Liam Sutcliffe and Frank Keane, and various other pieces to do with both of them. Just enter their names in the search facility to bring up those pieces.
Posted on March 2, 2020, in Border Campaign/Operation Harvest, British state repression (general), Civil rights movement, Economy and workers' resistance, Fenians, Fianna Fail, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Imperialism (generally), Ireland and British revolution, Officials, Other blogs, Partition, Political education and theory, Prisoners - past, Repression and resistance in 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Repression in 26-county state, Republicanism 1960s, Revolutionary figures, Saor Eire, Social conditions, Uncategorized, Unionism, Women in republican history, Workers rights. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.