Michael O’Riordan was born on the 12th November 1917, at 37 Popes Quay in Cork City. He was the youngest of five children. His parents, Micheál O’Riordan of Inchinossig and Julia Creed of Illauninagh came from Ballingeary in Muskerry, Co Cork. His father, Micheál, was a carter at Cork docks and later opened his own grocery shop on Adelaide Street in Cork City’s Middle Parish.
Michael attended school at the North Monastery and even though still a young teenager, Michael became politically active in the early 1930s and took part in the confrontations with the Blueshirts (Ireland’s fascist organisation) on the streets of Cork. He joined the IRA and supported the Republican Congress under Peadar O’Donnell and Frank Ryan, which sought to establish an Irish Socialist Republic. Later he joined the Communist Party of Ireland.
The Cork City of Michael O’Riordan in the mid-thirties was in ferment, there was an atmosphere of intimidation and hysteria fuelled by reports of attacks on the Catholic Church in Spain by Spanish Republican forces. An example was on 20th September 1936, some 40,000 people attended an Irish Christian Front meeting in the City. This Front was a reincarnation of the old Blueshirts organisation, although with wider appeal.
Founded in 1936, it was led in Cork by Liam De Róiste, former Sinn Fein T.D., and on that evening in September, Professor Alfred O’Rahilly former T.D., Registrar and future President of University College Cork warned the huge crowd of the dangers of communism and lashed out at the trade union movement for their support of Republican Spain. Later that same night, Gardai had to baton charge Christian Front demonstrators outside the Bridewell as they had attacked a number of people, who they claimed were communists.
In was in this hostile political and social climate that O’Riordan bravely volunteered to go to Spain in April 1938 to join up with the International Brigades. He became one of about 250 Irishmen who fought on the Republican side, around 15 of them were Cork born. Some 600 other Irishmen went to Spain under Eoin O’Duffy to support Franco’s army with over 50 from Cork city and county. This “Irish Brigade” saw little action.
Having joined the XVth International Brigade, O’Riordan saw action immediately and fought in several of the engagements. He was wounded by shrapnel on the Ebro front on the 1st August 1938, having earlier carried the Catalan flag across the river Ebro in what was to prove the final Republican attack mounted by the International Brigades. Following the demobilisation of the International Brigades, O’Riordan arrived back in Dublin on December 10th 1938.
Of the contribution of Irishmen to Spain: Michael O’Riordan in his book Connolly Column stated,
“Compared numerically with the other national contributions to the International Brigades, that of Ireland was a small one. What it lacked in numbers was made up for in quality, integrity and battle-courage. The contribution was made under the most difficult of internal political circumstances”
Later in 1939 he began training IRA units in Cork and was arrested and imprisoned in the Curragh Internment Camp from February 1940 to August 1943. He learned Irish under Mairtìn O Cadhain at the language classes and was one of dozens of IRA men from Cork interned in the camp.
On his release he became very active in labour politics and on 14th June 1946 he stood as a Cork Socialist candidate in the bye-election in Cork and polled a very creditable 3184 votes. Michael and Kay Keohane from Clonakilty, Co. Cork were married in November 1946. They had three children. Both Kay and her sister, Máire Keohane-Sheehan were and remained committed activists in the labour and trade union movement.
He worked as a bus conductor in Cork and later in Dublin and remained active all his life in the ITGWU. Michael campaigned on many social issues such as housing, he stood in a further five general elections in Dublin and served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland from 1970 to 1983. Later he served as Chairman of the Party until 1988. He also campaigned on behalf of the Birmingham Six.
Very active in the International Brigade reunions, Michael helped to ensure the return of the remains of his old commander, Frank Ryan, from Germany in 1979. The same year he published “Connolly Column, the story of the Irishmen who fought for the Spanish Republic 1936-1939” which is the most influential and informative history of the Irishmen who went to fight and of the 60 or so Irishmen who died in the International Brigades. Honoured by the Cuban government in 2005, he was presented with the Medal of Friendship.
Michael dedicated the book “To the memory of my Father who, because of the propaganda against the Spanish Republic in Ireland did not agree with my going to Spain, but who disagreed more with our “coming back and leaving your commander, Frank Ryan behind”. Christy Moore credited the book, which he read while on holiday in Spain, with inspiring his song “Viva La Quinta Brigada”.
Michael O’Riordan died on the 18th May 2006 aged 88. Kay had passed away in December 1991.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Michael O’Riordan’s birth at nearby Popes Quay, Manus O’ Riordan, his son, will give a talk “Remembering Michael O’Riordan – A Neighbour’s Child” on Friday afternoon 4th August 2017 at the Spirit of Mother Jones summer school. It will form part of a wider examination that day of the events and lessons of the Spanish Civil War. Manus worked as SIPTU Head of Research for many years, retiring in 2010 after 39 years with the One Big Union. He is a noted historian and writer. For full details of the day’s events please consult the final Spirit of Mother Jones summer school programme which will be published in early June.