The wake and funeral of Manus O Riordan

Memorable Gatherings – the Wake and Funeral of Manus O Riordan

Something of what Manus represented, privately as well as publicly, was to be seen in the wake and funeral that his family organised for him. Both events had large attendances made up of people from diverse backgrounds who would not normally socialise together. Such were the numbers at both gatherings that it was impossible to chat with everyone, but the buzz of conviviality at both sent out its own message.

Of course, there was sadness as well as companionship, and adding to the sadness of Manus’s sudden passing was the memory of two other wakes that had taken place in the O’Riordan house, those for Michael, his father, and Annette, his late wife, both well known to many in the room.

The attendance included people who had known Manus through all manner of activities. A big contingent were friends from the Goilin Club where he built a reputation as a singer. When I mentioned The Wife of the Bold Tenant Farmer, a song that he wrote about and recorded for the Club, Des Geraghty told me it was one of his first, a song that had strong family associations for him. Notices added to the website contained many from the world of traditional music and entertainment like Christy Moore, Andy Irvine and the host of the popular music radio show, John Creedon.

Many in attendance knew him through the Transport Union (now SIPTU) where he worked over a long career. There were also friends from Bohemians Football Club, from the Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland (FIBI) and the International Brigades Memorial Trust (IBMT), and from politics. Former Labour Leader Joan Burton was there with her husband, Pat Caroll, as was Micheal MacDonncha of Sinn Fein, as was a large contingent from the Democratic Socialist Party, the party he helped found with Jim Kemmy in 1982 which merged into Labour in 1990. Other political associates present, of course, were those of us who were his fellow contributors to the Irish Political Review. Other friends of Manus in attendance were Alice Lawless, Frank McGabhann and Deaglan De Breadun and a friend from the Goilin Club, retired Assistant Secretary at the Department of the Taoiseach, Wally Kirwan.

In recent years Manus was very active in the organisations associated with the International Brigades. That his commitment in that instance stemmed from the participation of his father in the Spanish Civil War was very clear, but only marginally less important were friendships he made through that involvement. In a remarkable article published in the September 2021 edition of Irish Political Review he paid tribute to Eddie O’Neill, the Tyrone Republican who founded FIBI in 2013. Drawing from Ruan O’Donnell’s multi-volume study, “Special Category – The IRA in English Prisons”, he recounted the inspirational story of O’Neill’s 14-year prison experience. One point made in the article was an acknowledgement of the “close comradeship and friendship [that] was formed over the succeeding eight years, notwithstanding differing political backgrounds”, between Manus and Eddie.

Another friend he made through the International Brigades network, of course, was his partner, Nancy Wallach, who travelled from New York for the funeral. At the wake Nancy told a group of us of adventures she had with Manus on the New York Subway arising from his dislike of using taxis. His position was that having represented transport workers for most of his life, he would always opt for public transport, no matter the inconvenience, no matter the location. Manus would have enjoyed the story—a sharp Dublin wit was one of his strong traits.

By any standard the procession from the O’Riordan house to the Glasnevin chapel was an impressive affair. Headed by a piper it had hundreds of followers and a forest of colourful trade union banners and flags that tested the knowledge of some. The flags were of Palestine, Catalonia, the Basque country, and Cuba, as well as tricolours and the Starry Plough. Among the marchers I noticed many old friends—Tony Byrne, Sean Barrett and his partner Niamh, Simon O’Donnell, Noel Redican, Helen Lahert, Jimmy O’Leary—in addition to present members of the Irish Political Review Group—Malachi Lawless, Tony Monks, and Philip O’Connor. 

Given the contribution that Manus made to the achievement of social partnership, a point endorsed by Peter Cassels on, it is fortunate that solid research on that topic is being continued by Philip O’Connor. A book on the topic by Philip is reported to be close to final production and Manus reportedly provided many interviews for it. Just before he died, Manus expressed satisfaction on that work, having read a completed draft.

As at the wake, the distinguishing aspect of the procession was the number of people from widely different political backgrounds who joined it. Well known figures I recognised were former Labour Leader Ruari Quinn, Roger Cole, Chair of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance and the Roger Casement Summer School, Chris Hudson, now a Unitarian Minister in Belfast, and Mick O’Reilly the long-time official of the British based ATGWU.

Mick, who is the father of Sinn Fein TD and Shadow Spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly, made an interesting comment about Manus. Hearing that he was a member of a group called the Ernest Bevin Society in London many years ago, he and a group of colleagues asked Jack Jones, then Secretary of the T&G union in Britain, for his view on Bevin. The reply from Jones, who incidentally was also a friend of Manus’s, and whom he stoutly defended when Jones was slandered in the British press, was that “Bevin never had a left-wing thought in his life”.  It was a friendly and decent gesture on Mick’s part to attend the funeral and his presence underlined how Manus kept on good terms with all strands of Trade Union opinion.  He can rest assured that an explanation of Bevin’s contribution to the socialist advance achieved in Britain by the post-war Labour Government, with which he is free to disagree, will be offered in Irish Political Review in due course.

Due to the continuing restrictions, a relatively small number of mourners attended the service in the crematorium chapel. As President Higgins arrived, the crowd broke into spontaneous applause. Among the throng that remained outside I met up with Niall Meehan, Anne Speed and John Meehan. John told me how Manus had attended the funeral of Rayner Lysaght, a leading figure in Irish Trotskyism with whom he had maintained a friendly rivalry over many years.

As we waited for the service to conclude I spoke with Sinn Fein Leader Mary Lou McDonald who told me that Manus’s son Luke worked for the Sinn Fein organisation. Other dignitaries and office holders present included former President of SIPTU Jack O’Connor, current Minister for Finance Pascal Donohue, Francis Devine of the Irish Labour History Society, Sinn Fein Councillor Larry O’Toole, former Trade Unionist and Official Republican, Fergus Whelan, Eugene McCartan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, and Sinn Fein TDs, Louise O’Reilly and Sean Crowe. After the service, before the President headed for the exit, he nodded—although I don’t believe he knows me—when I said to him that only Manus could have united such a cross section of the Irish Left!

There was plenty more socialising at the sit-down meal and many people remained chatting long after the meal had finished. Manus’s family—especially Jess, Neil and Luke—can draw succour from the knowledge that he received a fitting send-off that will be long remembered.

Dave Alvey

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