Political activist and radical photographer Séamus O’Riain,1937-2014

by Mick Healy

“There are those of us who try to follow the path once taken by Casement, Pearse, Connie Green and O’Hanlon. We seek to put through the charter that was bought with blood of our glorious dead in 1916, which the Free State Regime failed to do, a charter that would make an All-Ireland Workers Republic.” – Séamus O’Riain, HM Prison Brixton, September 1967.

Séamus (Ryan) O’Riain was born into poverty on September 2, 1937 to Katherine Ryan in Dublin. When Katherine married a Tom Ryan, Séamus was fostered out to a family called Corbally; unfortunately he was to end up in Drainages children’s detention centre in County Offaly.  What’s more, he remained there for about three years before he was reunited with Katherine and step-father Tom at 51 Viking Road, Arbour Hill, Dublin. (Drainages treated the children more like slaves than children, stated a commission in 2009 that inquired into child abuse at the detention centre.)

O’Riain became an accomplished photographer; his employment for a number of years was with Jerome Photography Studio at 4 Henry Street, Dublin. He created hundreds of remarkable images which are a vital history of Republican and left-wing activity. Moreover, the photographs with his Phoenix Company in London featured Brendan Behan, The Dubliners and Tom Barry, the former  Commander of the IRA’s Third West Cork Flying Column during the Irish War of Independence. Tom Barry praised him in a letter dated 24, August 1977, “A hundred note of thanks for your splendid set of photos. They are the finest I have ever seen and I have, unfortunately, had hundreds taken.”

Seamus’ association with radicalism went back to his youth when he joined the IRA along with his comrade Liam Sutcliffe, during Operation Harvest (the IRA 1950s border campaign). Like others of his generation, O’Riain migrated to London to find employment and it was there he converted politically to Marxism whe he became involved with the Irish Workers Group (IWG), along with his friends Frank Keane and Géry Lawless. In the late 1960s he forged links with Saor Éire Action Group, which was set up by former members of the IRA and activists involved in the Irish political left, especially Trotskyism, in Dublin. 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.

Importantly there’s a copy of correspondence between O’Riain and General Georgios Grivas, the EOKA leader, in March 1964.  This was five months before the out-break of fighting when Grivas commanded the Cypriot national guard and Greek forces in Cyprus. As the leader of EOKA Grivas led the struggle (enosis, the union of Cyprus with Greece) against the British. Séamus’ daughter Hazel said “my father was a very secret man and would travel abroad a lot on his own when I was young, so God only
knows what he was up to politically”.

Arrested in September 1967 at Northchurch Road, Dalston, London, Seamus was charged with having twenty-four rifles, two Bren machine guns, four Bren machine guns barrels, ammunition and a case containing twelve magazines, expropriated from an R.A.F. training camp in Islington. Justice
R.L. Seaton, when passing sentence, said: “You had In your possession an absolute armoury of weapons which, no doubt, a little expert attention would have put into good working order”. Not all the weapons were recovered by the police, a considerable amount made their way to Saor Éire in Ireland.

Little is known about the later years of his life, though while in prison his affable manner instantly put the Soviet espionage prisoners, possibly some of the Portland Spy Ring who were sentenced at the Old Bailey in March 1961, at ease where they became comrades. After his release from prison he started a relationship with Maryan O’Donovan Rossa from Castletownroache in County Cork; they had two children Séamus and Hazel.

He died in London after a long illness and his funeral took place on July 23, 2014 in Mount Jerome cemetery Dublin. Family and friends including Frank Keane (who had been National Organiser of Saor Éire) escorted the coffin, led to the graveside by a lone piper, playing a lament. He was laid to rest in a quiet corner of the cemetery where Saor Éire activists Liam Walsh, Máirín Keegan and Liam Sutcliffe are also buried.

“I am in this court on the word of an informer, a man despised even by the people he serves, and more so in my case, he is despicable, because he too is Irish.”  Séamus O’Riain, Brixton Prison, 1967.

Posted on October 19, 2020, in Border Campaign/Operation Harvest, British state repression (general), Economy and workers' resistance, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Political education and theory, Prisoners - past, Repression and resistance in 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Repression in 26-county state, Republicanism 1960s, Saor Eire. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Political activist and radical photographer Séamus O’Riain,1937-2014.

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