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From the Glens of Antrim to Moscow – and back

Glens of Antrim farmer's son Seán Murray was an IRA leader in the War of Independence, studied in Moscow and headed the Irish Communist Party. His biographer Seán Byers sees him as in important though largely forgotten figure of modern Irish history

Sean and Margaret Murray. Their marriage makes it likely that his papers were amended to remove any trace of the wife he left behind in Moscow

BORN in Cushendall in 1898, Sean Murray had to leave school at 14 to work on the family farm. Despite his limited formal education, he took an interest in the Irish national struggle from an early age. He became acquainted with the works of James Connolly and, influenced by a chance encounter with Roger Casement, joined Sinn Féin and the IRA shortly after the Easter Rising.

This led to his participation in the Irish War of Independence, and by its end he was in command of a 149-strong battalion in the Antrim Brigade. His IRA unit was responsible for attacks on crown forces and unionist establishment figures, as well as a daring bank robbery and the ‘Big House' burning of Ronal McNeill (later Lord Cushendun)'s opulent home.

Arrested in 1919, Murray was interned without trial for the best part of a year, first in Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast, and then in the Curragh Camp, Kildare. Undeterred, he resumed his IRA activities upon his release and attended the banned anti-Treaty conference at the Mansion House, placing on record his support for the IRA Executive and rejection of the Provisional Government.

Seeking refuge from the reprisals of the unionist regime's security forces, he was introduced to British industrial politics in Glasgow and London. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and made his way to Moscow in late 1927 as a delegate to the International Lenin School.

After completing the ‘long course' – including the experience of a purge of suspected right-wingers – he and Jim Larkin jnr returned to Ireland in the summer of 1930 to assume control of the preparations for the formation of a Communist Party of Ireland (CPI). In so doing, he left behind a Russian wife, who was denied the opportunity to leave the Soviet Union by the authorities and whose fate goes unrecorded in Murray's private papers.

His subsequent marriage to Margaret Gannon, who came from a strong republican family in Dublin, makes it likely that his papers were amended to remove any trace of this potentially embarrassing chapter of his life.

In his inaugural speech as general secretary of the CPI in 1933, Murray described the party as the ‘United Irishmen of the 20th century'. For the duration of the 1930s, he promoted cooperation with individuals such as Peadar O'Donnell, whom he first met at the 1922 Anti Treaty conference, and other left-wing republicans within and outside the ranks of the IRA.

The difficulties encountered by Murray and the communist movement during his era were considerable. He was jailed once again in 1933 for addressing a banned commemoration of the outdoor relief strikes in Belfast, and then Murray was served with an exclusion order by the long serving minister of home affairs Dawson Bates.

This prohibited him from officially entering the six counties until 1941, when Bates revoked the order under pressure from Jack Beattie, the Northern Ireland Labour Party MP. The other reactionary force he faced was, of course, the Catholic hierarchy, which routinely employed red scare tactics to combat the ‘communist menace' in Ireland.

As Murray grew in prominence, he drew the opprobrium of the conservative press and the clergy, and was lucky to escape with his life on a number of occasions. In March 1933, he was one of the defenders of Connolly House, headquarters of the Revolutionary Workers' Groups, during a three-day siege of the building by a Catholic mob inflamed by a Lenten pastoral read at the Dublin Pro-Cathedral.

Although he took to carrying a gun for protection and suffered further marginalisation at the hands of the British and Irish Communist parties, following the latter's farcical attempt to keep step with Stalin's shifting position on the Second World War, Murray's political activities continued unabated into the 1960s.

He played a central role in the organisation of the Irish volunteers who fought with the International Brigades in Spain, and was instrumental in the establishment of an informal popular front alliance around the Irish Democrat newspaper, which he co-edited with Frank Ryan and Seán Nolan of the CPI. Until now, his contribution to the Republican cause has been grossly understated in accounts of Irish participation in the Spanish Civil War.

Seán Murray paid his final visit to the Soviet Union in November/December 1960, for a special conference of 81 communist and workers' parties. He would defend the achievements of ‘actually existing socialism' until his death, though he regularly defied the ‘Stalinist' stereotype.

A complex, sophisticated and largely forgotten figure, Antrim man Murray left a significant imprint on Irish socialist and republican politics through his work as an activist and organiser, a prolific writer, propagandist and theorist.

:: Seán Byers is the author of Seán Murray – Marxist Leninist and Irish Socialist Republican, published by Irish Academic Press, priced £19.99 and available now. See iap.ie.

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