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 helped shape the concept for a new generation.The huge student-worker protests of May-June 1968 in France, the Vietnamese struggle to remove the Americans,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 Éire Action Group.
Saor Éire Acton 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 Saor Éire’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). There is an element of truth, 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 that some Saor Éire members belonged to the IMG at different times.
As contacts were being made with members of republican and radical movements, internal discussions were taking place as to how the group should develop politically. 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)
Saor Éire came into existence at a time when the existing Republican Movement was undergoing a major rethink, following the failure of the Border Campaign. Due to the political shift in the Republican Movement, some disillusioned young Republican Socialists saw the need to counter this betrayal of revolutionary principles as they saw it. This betrayal had its origins in The Connolly Association, the de facto Irish section of the British Communist Party. 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. This concept of the peaceful road to socialism would eventually lead to the attempted disarming of the IRA, which would leave the oppressed nationalist population in the six counties defenceless in the face of the programs of August 1969. (2)
With the arrival of members of the Connolly Association into the Republican Movement; the purges and expulsions began against anyone who was opposed to their political line. Young Republicans who raided for arms or were engaged in finance gathering were denounced as gangsters and outlaws and were expelled or court martialed, a pattern that occurred countrywide, but mostly in Dublin.
Important as well to the formation of the new organisation was the existence in London of Géry Lawless and Paddy Healy’s Trotskyist 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 were drawn to the Irish Workers Group and subsequently became core members of Saor Éire. These included Frank Keane (a former OC of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA), Liam Daltun, Joe Dillon, Liam Sutcliffe famous for his role in blowing up Nelson’s Column and Seamus O’Riain – the latter was arrested in London and charged with possession of twenty-four rifles and two Bren machine guns.
Membership included such figures, as Peter Graham, Máirín Keegan of the Young Socialists and Sean Morrissey who had been involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) who was an editor of Irish Workers Group publication An Solas.
Although the majority of the group’s support was based in Dublin, support also existed in Cork as well as Belfast and Derry. An unconnected Cork Saor Éire group was established in 1968; this was essentially a political group. Veteran left-republicans Jim Lane and Brendan O’Neill, who had been involved in the border campaign, were leading figures. An unsuccessful meeting took place to try to merge the two groups.
A Department of Justice review issued on November 24, 1966, reported on republican groups. It suggested there were 41 people in a Dublin splinter group. Among these, according to the Department of Justice, 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 in time, Saor Éire did not exist, although the initial forces were starting to coalesce. Nevertheless, the first recorded armed action of the group did not take place until October 21, 1967. Shots were exchanged by Saor Éire 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, 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. Yet another 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 the Action Group 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.
As security was a priority to prevent infiltration by the security service, they restructured the majority of its active service units from the conventional battalion structures into a cell system, each section consisting of five members. The Action Group comprised a ten member executive with an Officer Commanding (OC) a Quartermaster and a Adjutant general.
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 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 Éire Action Group. 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 Saor Éire, 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 right-wing political 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 Saor Éire to carry out criminal activity for their own benefit. In an attempt to counteract this, all actions undertaken by Saor Éire 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). The Provisional IRA was a similar group but under the impact of the struggle in the north was welded into an effective fighting force and any criminal elements had been quickly disciplined.(4)
When the North of Ireland erupted into violence in 1969, Saor Éire provided funds expropriated in the bank raids to the besieged nationalist population. Though often overlooked, Saor Éire 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. Saor Éire 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 Saor Éire and Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA Sean MacStiofan. The idea was advanced that Saor Éire should join or work with emerging Provisionals 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 Éire, 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 Saor Éire 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. In 1957, he was interned without trial in the Curragh Internment Camp in Co. Kildare. Working with such people as Travellers’ rights campaigner Gratton Puxton and Peadar O’Donnell, Liam and others helped establish a makeshift school for Travellers in an encampment at Ballyfermot. In the winter of 1964, Dublin Corporation 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 Géry Lawless of the International Marxist Group himself a former Curragh internee.
Though often overlooked, the Action Group 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 Saor Éire to see if they could intervene. This resulted in a blast detonated on the 500-ton coaster Ben Voord on October 14, 1971. Other activities were attributed to and claimed by the group during this period, such as the explosion at Dalton Supplies in Bray, during an eight month long strike over union recognition.
Another activity at this time was an unsuccessful kidnapping attempt whose goal had been to try to highlight the plight of Internees held without trial on HMS Maidstone, a prison ship that was anchored in Belfast Lough in 1971. 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 Acton Group 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.
Another example of direct intervention attributed to the Group was the unsuccessful attempt to tar and feather the Fine Gael TD Paddy Donegan, who had been found guilty In October 1969, of firing a shotgun at a Travellers’ camp site at Monasterboice, Co, Louth and fined a desultory £20 at Drogheda District Court. This was seen by the general public at the time as a grave miscarriage of justice and a naked racist attack on a vulnerable section of the community.
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 Saor Éire 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, not all of those named were members of the group. (O’Donnell subsequently became a member of the Irish Communist Organisation who propounded the Two-Nations Theory). 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.
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. Keane was re-arrested inside the court after he was acquitted of capital murder and charged with the raid in Rathdrum, where again he was acquitted.
Due to political uproar, Internment was not introduced.
Meanwhile, Saor Éire continued to advertise its existence and get its political message out. Following the internment threat the BBC filmed a secret training camp, on 15, December 1970, possibly at Lacken in the Wicklow mountains. It was complete with a dugout and firing range. Saor Éire volunteers appeared in masks and military uniform.
On January 15, 1971, Red Mole, the paper of the International Marxist Group, ran an interview by the IMG’s Bob Purdie with two SE volunteers in London. The interview identified Saor Éire as an armed group attempting to act as a fuse or detonator to the Irish revolutionary struggle. It was translated into several languages. This was followed five months later, on June 1, with the publishing of the Saor Éire Manifesto.
Attempts by the Free State to suppress and smash Saor Éire 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 Saor Éire stood for, but this was no longer the case. 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 Michael Farrell, Bernadette Devlin MP and Charlie Bird of the Young Socialist’s. (Bird went on to become a prominent TV figure and, of course, eschew his radical younger years.)
Saor Éire 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 Saor Éire interrogated and shot him when he refused to divulge information they sought about Saor Éire 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 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 International Marxist Group. Ali declared the greatest tribute of all to Graham would be to carry on his work. (Concern have recently been raised about the claim that Larry White, shot dead in Cork City by the Official IRA in 1975, was one of the murders)
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. 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 British MP’s 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. A volley of three shots was fired by Saor Éire volunteers as a 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 died tragically on 30th January 1972. His association with radicalism went back to his youth when, at 18 years of age, in 1954 he joined the IRA. 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’s funeral took place on a cold winter’s day, with hundreds of socialists followed behind the hearse carrying the Tricolour- and Starry Plough draped coffin to New Southgate Cemetery, London.
Comrades’ know something about the contributions of Máirín Keegan, but many do not understand the important contributions by other women on every level within the group who worked alongside their more famous male counterpart. A good example of this was the attempt to seize weapons at James Stephens military barracks, in Kilkenny city, by an armed unit consisting of two female volunteers.
By 1972 Saor Éire prisoners in Portlaoise prison had no study facilities, only one hour’s recreation per day, and visits and correspondence were strictly limited. Two of the Saor Éire 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.
In relation to Peter Graham’s murder, a leading former Saor Éire member claimed, a full court of inquiry was conducted at the time by the O.C. of the SE prisoners in Portlaoise prison, where several prisoners gave evidence under oath. One prisoner with some inside knowledge, was alleged to verify the names of those responsible for Graham’s murder. The findings of this inquiry were sent out to the leadership of Saor Éire. However, the courier who brought out this document mistakenly left it concealed in a book which was later sent in for a prisoner. It was discovered by the prison authorities who duly notified the Garda. (One of the men allegedly named died in 2011)
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 Provisional IRA 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 sovereignty, 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 Saor Éire 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 (not, I think, the reality) of Saor Éire was hijacked by people whose politics owed more to Grivas than Guevara.
Emphasising the threat that the state still considered them to be, Conor Cruise O’Brien, the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition of 1973-77, sent a directive to Gerry Enright the Commandant at the Curragh camp stating, there was to be no 1916 commemoration in the prison. When the recently transferred prisoners from Portlaoise jail held their parade on Easter Sunday they were confronted by heavily armed Free State soldiers. During this volatile situation Enright defused the standoff by ignoring O’Brien’s directive and withdrew the armed troops.
- M. Price, October 7, 2019, Dublin. NB: “M. Price” is a name used by former members of Saor Éire.
- M. Price, October 5, 2019, Dublin.
- M. Price, October 7, 2019, Dublin.
- The Plough Vol 3-No2 paper of the Revolutionary Marxist Group, the Fourth International in Ireland
- M. Price, October 7, 2019, Dublin
- Oscar Gregan, February 18, 2017, London.
- Anti-Internment News, No 4. 1972.
(The Irish Workers Group and the Plough book bureau, compiled a left-wing library in the Curragh for the political prisoners, comprising a rich and diverse range of hardback books.)