DOB: May 30th 1949
DOD: September 26th 2021
Manus O’Riordan, who has died aged 72, was a trade unionist and a socialist, a singer and a lover of music, a historian and proud protector of the heritage of left-wing activism, particularly the history of anti-fascist endeavours in the Spanish Civil War that included the role of his father, Irish Communist Party leader Micheál O’Riordan.
Micheál Manus O’Riordan, known to all throughout his life as Manus, grew up on Victoria Street in the Portobello area of Dublin in a home shared initially with another family. He was the second of three children, one of whom, his elder sister, Mary, died in infancy. He had a younger sister, Brenda.
The family circumstances were modest but the young Manus was a bright child and won a scholarship to the Christian Brothers school at nearby Synge Street.
He repeated the achievement for university, earning a primary degree from University College Dublin and then obtaining a masters degree in economics and labour history from the University of New Hampshire in Durham, in the United States.
Manus’ father Micheál, who was born in Cork city, was a bus conductor. His mother was Kay O’Riordan (nee Keohane), a civil servant from Clonakilty, Co Cork, who was obliged to end her career upon marriage, due to the civil service rules and conventions of the time.
The beliefs and life experiences of O’Riordan senior had a huge and enduring impact on his son, although the pair did not always agree on all matters political.
Micheál O’Riordan had been involved in the War of Independence. Later, he helped found the Community Party of Ireland of which he became General Secretary.
Spanish Civil War
But the defining moment of his, and arguably his son’s life was O’Riordan senior’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, which was fought between the democratic government forces of the Spanish Republic and the rebel fascist forces of General Francisco Franco. The 20-year-old O’Riordan was one of about 80 members of the so-called Connolly Column, part of the 300-strong Irish contingent that fought with the International Brigades assisting the Spanish government side.
Fighting since late 1936, O’Riordan took part in the Battle of the Erbo in 1938, the last major battle of the war. Helping defend Hill 481, outside the town of Gandesa in Tarragona, Private O’Riordan (later promoted cabo, or corporal, in recognition of his bravery), was wounded by mortar shrapnel and repatriated home.
Manus O’Riordan returned to Dublin after his masters in New Hampshire and in 1971, was appointed head of the Research Department at the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), a position he held until 2010 by which time, through amalgamations, the union had become Siptu, the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union.
The former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), Peter Cassells, had no doubt as to O’Riordan’s contribution to the union. “Without Manus’s intellectual underpinning of the partnership process, there would have been no partnership agreements,” he said.
It was there that he met his future wife, Annette Macdonald. The following year, they became engaged and married in 1972, living happily together in Glasnevin, first in Claremont Court and later Finglas Road, until her death in 2013. They had three children, Jessica (Jess) , Neil and Luke.
In his working life, O’Riordan championed economic and social justice, and determinedly left-wing politics. He was a member of the Connolly Youth Movement, the British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO) and later of the Democratic Socialist Party headed by the late Limerick TD Jim Kemmy.
He retained a life-long belief in the value of education, of studying and understanding history, of reading and research, of discourse and debate. This was recalled by his son Neil O’Riordan, when giving his father’s eulogy.
“You soon learned that, if you were going to disagree with his interpretation of events, you would need to be certain of your facts because he would be,” said his son.
“His command of dates and ability to recollect obscure details made him a daunting adversary. In fairness, these skills had been honed with disagreements with his own dad which were sometimes played out over the letters pages of newspapers or public protests but never affected their own personal relationship.
“What has become clear over the past few days is how highly his intellect, research and judgement was regarded by those across many different fields. He had a sharp mind and, whilst he might have had absolutist positions, he was also capable of admitting that some of his previous stances were incorrect.”
O’Riordan devoted much energy to keeping alive the memory of those who, like his father, fought against fascism, particularly in Spain.
He ran FIBI, the Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland, and was Irish secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. It was through this involvement that he met – following the death of his wife – his partner Nancy Wallachner. She was a board member of ALBA, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Association, which also fought at Gandesa, among them her father, Hy Wallach.
O’Riordan had many other consuming interests. They included music, theatre, and football.
“It is hard to capture all of his interests and hobbies,” said his son, Luke O’Riordan. “His staple was the Góilín Singers Club on a Friday night for many decades. In recent years he would juggle his Friday nights by attending Bohemians games at Dalymount Park, often with his grandchildren, before promptly marching as soon as the full-time whistle sounded on to the Teachers’ Club on Parnell Street to join up with the Góilín Club.
“But he had a broad interests in music, theatre, history, and literature. I would regularly come home late after work not knowing where he was but would be safe in the knowledge that he was most likely in the theatre, at a book launch, at a trad session, or at a concert in the concert hall.
“The most amusing clash of interests that springs to mind was when he skipped a Bohemians-Shamrock Rovers Dublin derby in 2017 to attend a Shostakovich concert in the NCH, much to my mix of incredulity and bemusement!”
Manus O’Riordan was warmly remembered by his many friends and admirers who took to social media when word of his untimely and unexpected death spread. Almost all referenced the quality of his friendship, his intellect and his many passions.
They included President Michael D Higgins who said he recalled “with fondness our many conversations over the years, including recently, and his infectious enthusiasm, energy and commitment”. The President praised his commitment to “a more equal and inclusive society”.
“It was a privilege to have known him and his father, Mick O’Riordan, as friends and campaigners for so many causes, and particularly for their testimony to the bravery of those who served in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War,” said the President.
Manus O’Riordan was predeceased by his wife Annette and his sister Mary. He is survived by his daughter Jess; sons Neil and Luke; grandchildren Amaia, Rory, Caleb and Eli; his sister Brenda; and his partner Nancy.