Remembering Tommy Dwyer
Tommy Dwyer came into contact with the Irish Communist Organisation in the shape of Len Callender in August 1969. It was a strange encounter: a Belfast republican who was a fluent Irish speaker, steeped in Irish history, and a Communist bio-chemist who had been energised into politics by Hardial Baines—a TCD biology lecturer who founded The Internationalists and radicalised a generation of students.
The times were propitious to revolutionary agitation—with opposition to America’s Vietnam War politicising a generation around the world. Len outgrew the Internationalists and joined the Irish Communist Group in Dublin, along with his wife, Rosheen—also an Internationalist. Dublin ICO was a lively group, with such as Pat Murphy and Dennis Dennehy crashing through mental barriers and stirring up the society. Dennis (1938 – 1984) is remembered for agitating homeless families in 1968-9 and bringing Dublin to a standstill with big marches that gave a fright to complacent Leinster House politicians. (Other Housing Groups were formed around the country, the most successful being the Cork Housing Action Committee, in which Jack Lane was active.) Eventually that housing agitation bore fruit in a second wave of social housing. De Valera’s Fianna Fail had sorted out a housing crisis for a previous generation—but social housing had failed to keep up with modern demands.) Pat Murphy and other comrades are remembered at athol-stpeople.org
Len was Baines’ second-in-command in the Internationalists. He married a fellow-radical TCD student, Rosheen Yasseen. They encountered the Dublin ICO during the Housing Action campaign and joined it—bringing huge energy, commitment and new skills to it.
The Dublin comrades had plenty to say for themselves and the Callenders helped them to say it. A printing press was bought, the Callenders learned to operate it (no mean feat) and taught others. This meant that broadsheets and magazines could be produced cheaply. Dennis brought out a paper called The Agitator. And there was also Communist Comment and The Irish Communist.
The group maintained a weekly Communist presence in O’Connell Street, selling literature, and the public at large encountered radical communist politics. Old hands in the left-wing movement prophesied that the literature sellers would be thrown in the Liffey—a traditional Dublin way of dealing with malcontents. But they never were. Plenty of people stopped to argue and a few became involved themselves.
Something similar was afoot in Belfast. But here it was Trotskyist groups, under the aegis of the London-based New Left Review, which infiltrated the Civil Rights movement and formed the People’s Democracy as a radical spearhead for change, and created a live situation. (Later on, a few of us, including Rosheen and myself, attended PD meetings in Belfast and disrupted the scene with our two-nationist views.)
Len and Rosheen decided to bring ICO politics to Belfast. And that is how Len came to meet Tommy behind the barricades on the Falls Road in August 1969. Mounting night-time guard duty gave plenty of opportunity for conversation and argument, and Tommy became a member. His brother, Mickey, was also to join.
Len did not feel constrained by the fact that he was not Irish. His father hailed from the West Indies and had established a night club in London—a situation which gave him an entrée into gangland. His mother was half Russian and half Polish and Jewish on both sides.
In the Summer of 1969, in the wake of the ‘Siege of Derry’—when the Bogside sealed itself up to prevent RUC and Loyalist incursions—the trouble spread to West Belfast and other areas. Barricades were raised to protect the Falls Road from RUC and Loyalist attacks. A desperate cry for guns went out from the people behind the West Belfast barricades, Len was able to use his family contacts to bring in small-arms.
I do not recall Len or Tommy ever go into detail about how they met up—but I imagine that Tommy impressed Len with his wide-ranging grasp of strategy, military expertise, and intelligent interest in world affairs.
Len impressed Tommy with his commitment and his scientific approach—which he applied to the defence task in hand. He had a very fertile mind.
One thing led to another and the upshot was that the ICO gained a Branch in Belfast in addition to those in Dublin and Cork, and was to become the B&ICO in recognition of the new Northern and British dimension.
Tommy and Len were to form the core of the Branch in the initial stages. A printing machine was bought and most Belfast members, including the late Joe Keenan, were taught to print. Literature was produced and sold on Royal Avenue.
Tommy and his brother Micky (who also joined BICO) developed their printing skills to the extent that they were able to print the chits they required as self-employed bricklayers. His death was marked in Irish Political Review and it is worth quoting it fully, as a lot of it applies to Tommy too:
“A good comrade, Mickey Dwyer, died in Belfast on October 12th last . He had had a long illness but did not tell even his closest family until four weeks before he died, and no one else at all. He said he did not want to be a bother to people, which was typical of the man. So his death came as a great surprise to all of us. His brother [Tommy] said that only a few weeks earlier he was still working in his garden.
Mickey joined the IRA in his youth and his unit fought in the Lower Falls area during the pogroms in August 1969. A nasty rumour did the rounds during the bitter split between the Provisional and Official IRAs that IRA stood for I Ran Away. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gerry Adams, a Provo, paid the most fulsome tribute to Mickey’s unit in his autobiography. He said that they fought day and night to the point of almost complete exhaustion with the meagre supply of rifles that they had.
The Belfast IRA was indeed starved of supplies by GHQ in Dublin, and the Dublin Volunteers were kept South of the Border, which led most of them to join the Provos. By contrast the Cork IRA made its own way with full kit to Derry where it placed itself under the Derry Citizens’ Defence Committee.
Mickey later became associated with the Irish Communist Organisation (later BICO), whose members brought short arms from England and rifles from the South and manned the barricades in the Upper Falls-Beechmount area under the local Citizens’ Defence Committee. Manning this barricade was Mickey’s brother Tommy. Also with them was Jack Lane who learned the necessary military skills from them.
In BICO Mickey’s concern was to further the interest of his class and community by establishing national Labour politics in Northern Ireland, whether of British or Irish origin being of no more concern to him than to the rest of us. Sadly all our efforts were in vain. It cannot be any coincidence that, throughout the years they spurned and rebuffed us, the British and Irish Labour Parties have completely ceased to notice, let alone represent, the working class interest. The situation today is even worse in that respect than it was when Mickey helped form the Campaign for Labour Representation in Belfast in the mid-1970s.
Mickey was a particularly gifted builder. When work was short in Belfast, as it often was, he would go to London for work, regularly staying in an ICO squat in Islington. Though the youngest member of the family he was probably the wildest. But if you ever needed him he was on your door step in half an hour. And among those he knew and cared for he was a gentle man.
Mickey’s great passion was hurling and he was active for many years in the GAA in Andersonstown. He used to make an annual “pilgrimage” to Thurles, as he said, before the new “backdoor” rules came in, that the Munster Final was the real All-Ireland Final!…”
Michael Dwyer 1945 – 2010 (Irish Political Review, December 2010).
When the Campaign for Labour Representation was formed, both Tommy and Mickey supported it actively, bringing a group of supporters to a Blackpool Labour Party Conference, to help canvass support for the Labour Party to establish a presence in Northern Ireland—a region which they governed when in power. The Trade Unions did not boycott the Northern Ireland region of the United Kingdom state, so it appeared bizarre that the Party which was supposed to represent the working class did not maintain an active presence there. (Many years later, after the Campaign was effectively destroyed by Kate Hoey MP and her local supporters, the Labour Party started accepting members in Northern Ireland—after the Conservative Party started to do so. But the Labour members were banned from contesting elections; and the Northern Ireland region was treated as an unloved appendage.)
After Mickey died, Tommy—along with his friend, Dinny Caldwell—remained a strong member of Belfast Branch while it was actively agitating the society to promote cross-community Labour politics. Their commitment was so strong that they even attended Robert McCartney’s rallies in the Ulster Hall—until it became clear that the ‘party organisation’ issue had been hijacked by a Unionist tendency led by Kate Hoey MP.
Tommy could see the point of the Labour Party—which ruled NI when it won a Westminster majority—establishing a cross-community party transcending the national divide in the North, but he was no unionist. His ambition remained that the working class should look out for itself across the national divide. That remained his guiding light. Even after retiring from active politics, he continued as a subscriber to Irish Political Review right up to his death on 6th August 2021.