Michael O’Riordan was born in Pope’s Quay, Cork, in November 1917. His parents had moved from Béal Átha an Ghaorthaidh to the city, where his father worked as a tram driver. He attended North Monastery Christian Brothers’ School and, in 1932, became a member of Fianna Éireann, the scouting movement associated with the IRA, of which Frank Ryan was at that time chief scout. He subsequently joined the IRA.
When the Spanish fascist revolt broke out in June 1936, Michael O’Riordan, then 19, volunteered for the International Brigades. Recruiting in Ireland was organised by the Communist Party of Ireland and O’Riordan made contact with Seán Nolan, its national organiser. After a briefing from CPI general secretary, Seán Murray, he sailed alone for Liverpool and then travelled by bus to London, where he enlisted at the Spanish republic’s secret recruiting office using the identity of an older IRA man who had failed the medical test, since O’Riordan was under age. With four others, he travelled to Paris and was then smuggled across the Pyrenees.
He took part in all the battles of the 15th International Brigade, including the Battle of the Ebro, at which he was wounded. It was during ferocious fighting and resistance around Hill 481 in the Chabola valley, while the republican forces were retreating as a result of heavy losses from shelling by the fascist forces and bombing by nazi German bombers, that Michael was hit in the back by shrapnel from a mortar that landed behind him.
In a citation for bravery, the commanding officer said of Michael: "He carried his light machine-gun into every action and, when he was ordered to withdraw, he waited until the whole company had done so. He said that his weapon was worth a dozen men. When he was wounded, he refused to leave his position until others had to leave it. Even then, he did not leave until he was ordered."
As part of an international agreement, the republican government called upon the International Brigades to withdraw in 1938. The last seven surviving Irish participants to arrive home marched from the North Wall, Dublin, led by a piper, to a public meeting in Abbey Street.
Returning to Cork the same day, O’Riordan continued to be active in the IRA and, in 1940, took part in the attempted rescue of Tomás MacCurtain from Cork courthouse. The same year, he was arrested and interned in the Curragh camp, where he joined the Connolly Group, which had been established by Neil Goold, a member of the CPI. A number of internees joined the Communist Party while in the Curragh.
On the flirtation by some elements in the IRA with nazi Germany, O’Riordan quoted Terence MacSwiney. "If Ireland were to obtain its liberty at the expense of other peoples, it would deserve all the execration she herself poured on tyranny throughout the ages."
He was released in December 1943. On returning to Cork he obtained work as a bus conductor and joined the ITGWU (now SIPTU), remaining a member for the rest of his life. In 1945, with his friend Jim Savage, he joined the Labour Party and, with other friends and fellow former internees, established the Liam Mellows branch and contested the city council election.
He attacked members of the Labour Party in Cork for their anti-semitism, which contributed to the decision by the Labour Party head office to dissolve the branch and expel its members. They thereupon established the Cork Socialist Party and put forward O’Riordan as a candidate. He was eliminated only at the last count. The following year, he contested a by-election for Dáil Éireann and won 3,184 votes, ahead of Tom Barry, his former IRA commander, who had emulated Fianna Fáil in a red-scare campaign.
He moved to Dublin in 1947, continuing in his employment as a bus conductor, and, the following year, became a member of the Irish Workers’ League, as the CPI in the South was then called.
He contributed to bringing many Irish delegations to congresses of the World Peace Council in the party’s efforts to foster greater understanding among peoples and nations and opposition to nuclear weapons. During the years of the cold war, Michael O’Riordan and his family bore the brunt of the attacks on our party, suffering abuse and even physical attacks. In 1967, he became the full-time general secretary of the party and was the leading force in bringing all communists under one party structure in 1970.
He was elected the general secretary of the united all-Ireland party – a position that he retained until his retirement in 1984, when he was elected national chairman. He stayed in this office until ill-health caused him to retire in 2001. He remained a member of the national executive committee.
Michael O’Riordan was a defender of the Soviet Union throughout his life and always argued for closer political, economic and diplomatic ties between the Soviet Union and Ireland. On the same night that the Red Flag was dragged down from the Kremlin by the betrayers of socialism, Michael O’Riordan and his comrades raised the Red Flag over Connolly House, Dublin, declaring: "Our flag stays red."
In 1998, at the age of 80, he travelled to Cuba as part of the Pastors for Peace caravan in their efforts to break the blockade and isolation of Cuba imposed by the United States. In 2005, the Cuban government presented him with its highest award for friendship among the people.
He remained as committed to the cause of socialism in his final years as he did as a young man. He spent the last years of his life travelling around Ireland to speak about the Spanish anti-fascist war to the younger generation, to make them aware of those who fought and died fighting against fascism and for democracy in Spain.
Michael O’Riordan personified the best anti-imperialist traditions of the Irish people. The Communist Party of Ireland, saddened by his passing, is proud of the huge contribution he made to our party, to the Irish working class and to the cause of socialism in Ireland and of his legacy of unselfish sacrifice in the cause of the Irish and international working class. The struggle against imperialism continues.
Eugene McCartan –
General Secretary Communist Party of Ireland
Morning Star 19th May 2006