How the Red Star waned over Ireland

Sean Murray: Marxist-Leninist and Irish Socialist Republican

by Sean Byers

(Irish Academic Press, €24.99 pb)

Joe Carroll

Setting up a viable Communist party in the ultra-conservative, Catholic Ireland of the 1930s was a well-nigh impossible task, but Sean Murray had the job.

Not surprisingly, he failed. By 1941, the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) faded into the shadows and Murray, originally an IRA commandant from the Glens of Antrim, retreated to Belfast to play a leading role in the Communist Party of Northern Ireland (CPNI) which was just about surviving through its links with the industrial trade unions.

Murray’s struggle to establish the CPI in the then Irish Free State is the centre piece of this very well researched book by Sean Byers.

Murray had had little education, but he was highly intelligent and became attracted to Marxist-Leninism while working in Glasgow and later London where he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The book inevitably is full of acronyms.

In 1927, Murray was selected to join other Irish students at the International Lenin School in Moscow where the Communist International (or Comintern) trained cadres to organise Bolshevist activities in their home countries. It was a thorough indoctrination lasting three years during which Murray acquired a Russian wife. When he returned to Ireland in 1930, it was without her.

Murray faced a daunting task. ‘Big Jim’ Larkin and his Irish Workers’ League (IWL) had broken away from Comintern control after seeing off Roddy Connolly’s Communist Party of Ireland (the first of several). Comintern, however, was working with a plethora of left wing republicans like Peadar O’Donnell, George Gilmore and Frank Ryan under various front organisations.

Murray, aided by Jim Larkin junior, also from the Lenin School, prepared the ground for setting up a new CPI, at first working with a broad front of leftish activists including O’Donnell, Sean MacBride, Roddy Connolly and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. Moscow was keeping a close eye on Murray who was suspected of being too close to former IRA comrades more intent on ending Partition than making Ireland socialist.

Under extremely difficult conditions – including the burning of Connolly House by Catholic activists – Murray founded the new CPI in 1933 on the basis of his manifesto, “The Irish Case for Communism”. During an excursion into Northern Ireland he was jailed under the draconian Special Powers Act for communist activities.

His big challenge came with the Republican Congress in September 1934 when left wing IRA activists, trade unionists and farmers’ representatives met in Rathmines Town Hall with the broad aim of combining republican and socialist aims.

Murray was urged by Comintern to ensure that this did not result in a new political party which could damage the fledgling CPI. He voted for a Peadar O’Donnell resolution for a “united front of the working class and small farmers” to smash “imperialists and native exploiters” and advance to a Republic.

This was carried against a Michael Price resolution calling for a “Workers’ Republic” and favouring a new political party. The Price supporters then walked out and the congress was fatally weakened.

Murray was criticised by Comintern for mishandling an opportunity for a continuation of “broad front” policies. There was a move to replace him at the head of CPI while he loyally followed the Moscow line in supporting the “show trials”, the Soviet-Nazi pact in 1939, and then supporting the Allies following the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941.

Murray found his job impossible in neutral, Catholic Dublin. The CPI was more or less replaced by Larkin’s Irish Workers’ League – the details are not clear – and Murray married his long-term partner Margaret Gannon before departing for Belfast. There he worked untiringly for the CPNI, becoming its chairman and policy-maker. He died in 1963 aged 61.

As those hectic days in the 1930s fade from the memory of many, the author has done justice to a forgotten figure in socialist republicanism in Ireland.