In terms of domestic Irish history Saor Éire was probably the most unusual – and controversial – left-leaning republican organisation to have emerged from the political and social turbulence of the late 1960s and the return to open conflict in the north-east of the country. Formed in 1967 its leadership eventually included such youthful radicals as Peter Graham, a member of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, Maureen Keegan of the Young Socialists (originally a section of the Labour Party), Gerry Lawless of the Irish Workers Group and Frank Keane, a former OC of the Dublin Brigade of the pre-split Irish Republican Army. An uneasy mix of Trotskyists and nationalist-republicans, of close friends and bitter rivals, the group’s supposed aim was to ferment a Marxist revolution in Ireland through an escalating series of armed actions. In reality, of course, such aspirations were a nonsense, though many left-wing activists of the period still regard the organisation with a certain degree of nostalgia.
The death knell for Saor Éire came in June of 1975 when a senior member, Larry White, was assassinated in Cork by members of the rival, far-left Official IRA (linked to Official Sinn Féin – the Workers Party). Several suspected OIRA activists were eventually charged with White’s murder, including people later associated with the Labour Party. Shortly after the Cork slaying Saor Éire was officially disbanded, the remaining handful of loyalists joining other groupings or fading back into civil society. However what makes the history of Saor Éire so controversial – apart from the number of violent incidences it was involved in, including the shooting dead of an unarmed garda – is its still mysterious links to the political establishment in Dublin and several overseas Marxist organisations, primarily in Britain. Accusations of cover-ups and conspiracies in relation to the Fianna Fáil government of 1966-73 are a repeated feature of any discussion of Saor Éire, giving the whole thing a sort anni di piombo air to it, albeit a particularly Gaelic one.
I was reminded of all of the above thanks to the Irish Republican & Marxist History Project and this post, “INTERNATIONAL MARXIST GROUP HOLD MEMORIAL MEETING FOR PETER GRAHAM-NOVEMBER,1971“. It includes a photo taken at the graveside of Peter Graham, who was murdered in shockingly brutal circumstances in 1971, aged just twenty-six. His killers were never caught though the main suspects were well-known and evidence for a trial seemed in plentiful supply. Among the mourners at his funeral were Charlie Bird, previously a member of the Young Socialists, and Tariq Ali of the International Marxist Group. A photograph of the funeral shows Bird and Ali (left and right) giving a clenched fist salute at the grave which you can see below. Charlie Bird went on to join Official Sinn Féin – the Workers Party, serving as a local director of elections, until he was recruited as a journalist in RTÉ by fellow OSF-WP activist and news producer, Eoghan Harris.
Ireland in the 1970s was a different place indeed.