Ruairí Ó Brádaigh (1932–2013), republican and political activist, was born Peter Roger Casement Brady in Upper Mount Street, Dublin, on 2 October 1932. He was the second child of two sons and a daughter of Matt (Matthew) Brady, a farmer of Longford town, and his wife May (née Caffrey). He adopted his Irish-language name in the early 1950s, retaining his birth name for passport applications.
Matt Brady (1890–1942) was a War of Independence IRA veteran who on 27 April 1919 was shot five times and permanently maimed when he and another Volunteer attacked two RIC men. Ó Brádaigh’s Belfast-born mother May Brady (1899–1974) was a UCD commerce graduate active in Cumann na mBan during the War of Independence; like her future husband she opposed the 1922 Treaty and supported abstentionist Sinn Féin against Fianna Fáil. Matt was an Independent republican representative on Longford County Council (1934–42). After his death, May became secretary for the Longford board of health and married Patrick Twohig (d. 1951), a teacher. Ó Brádaigh’s younger brother Seán (b. 1937) was a lifelong political ally.
From his parents and republican commemorative culture, reinforced by the Wolfe Tone annuals of Brian O’Higgins (qv), Ó Brádaigh became convinced that Irish history was shaped by cycles of corruption and resurgence, that constitutional nationalism only benefitted upwardly mobile collaborators, and that physical force separatism represented a line of succession going back to the Norman invasion. Educated at Melview National School and St Mel’s College, Longford, then UCD (1950–54), graduating B.Comm., he became a vocational teacher in Roscommon town.
Joining Sinn Féin in 1950 and the IRA in 1951, he rapidly became commander of the Longford unit and training officer for south Roscommon. From 1954 he worked to prepare the 1956–62 IRA border campaign. He led a successful raid on 13 August 1955 on a British army barracks near Arborfield, Berkshire, though the British swiftly recovered the captured arms and ammunition. During the border campaign he was second in command of the Teeling column and participated in its attack on an RUC station at Derrylin, Co. Fermanagh (30 December 1956), where a policeman was killed. Among several column members subsequently arrested in Co. Cavan, he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in Mountjoy prison, Dublin, for possessing ammunition. He was interned on release in the Curragh military prison.
While incarcerated he was elected Sinn Féin TD, on an abstentionist ticket, for Longford–Westmeath in the 1957 general election, losing his seat in the 1961 general election. He escaped from detention in September 1958 with Daithi Ó Conaill (qv) who became his closest political associate and married Ó Brádaigh’s maternal first cousin. Later that year he married Patricia (Patsy) O’Connor, a UCG commerce graduate and fellow teacher in the Roscommon vocational school. They had four sons and two daughters; three were active in the republican movement. He was IRA chief of staff from October 1958 until March 1959 when he became adjutant-general (second-in-command) to Seán Cronin (qv). He remained at large until November 1959, when he was arrested and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in Mountjoy before returning as chief of staff in June 1960, also becoming editor of Sinn Féin’s United Irishman newspaper.
After drafting the 1962 statement that ended the border campaign, he stood down as IRA chief of staff in favour of Cathal Goulding (qv). He resumed teaching at Roscommon vocational school in September 1962, having not taught since December 1956, and bought a house in Roscommon town, but remained on the IRA army council and active in Sinn Féin. In 1966 he contested Fermanagh–South Tyrone in the Westminster general election, polling some twenty per cent of the vote as an Independent republican.
Regarding orthodox Marxism as dictatorial and opportunistic, he was a leading internal opponent of the Marxist politicisation of the IRA under the Goulding leadership of the 1960s. Although he favoured political agitation to build support (he was active in co-operative and credit union movements in Roscommon), he insisted on the primacy of the military wing. Matters came to a head in 1969 over abstentionism and the leadership’s perceived ineffectiveness amid mass sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. In December 1969 the IRA split, with Sinn Féin following in January 1970; Ó Brádaigh became leader of the new Provisional Sinn Féin and a Provisional IRA army council member. The new group was endorsed by Tom Maguire (qv), sole survivor of seven former second dáil TDs who purported to confer governmental authority on the army council in 1938.
While denouncing the Official IRA as communists, Ó Brádaigh and his associates declared themselves democratic socialists and developed the ‘Éire Nua’ programme, influenced by Desmond Fennell (b. 1929). Advocating federalism based on four provincial parliaments, with extensive powers for local councils, Éire Nua envisaged co-operatively owned industries and credit unions, state-controlled natural resources, and blocking foreign ownership of land and businesses. Despite always opposing the European Community as neo-imperialism, he reflected the declining credibility of autarky by advocating associate EEC membership in 1971. He pursued relationships with European secessionist movements; Breton nationalists linked him with the Gadaffi regime in Libya. Ó Brádaigh was influenced by emerging African nationalists such as Julius Nyerere (1922–99), some forms of decentralising catholic social thought, and the longstanding sense that Irish republicanism represented underdogs against privilege.
Éire Nua promised unionists significant influence in a nine-county dáil uladh and he made sporadic contacts in the early 1970s with Ulster protestant and unionist representatives. During December 1976 to June 1977 he pursued unsuccessful negotiations with the Ulster loyalist central coordination committee aimed at reconciling certain loyalists’ wish for an independent Northern Ireland with Éire Nua. Ó Brádaigh emphasised that his maternal grandmother had been a Swiss protestant and that although a practising catholic he displayed political independence of the hierarchy. Critics suggested he failed to recognise how catholicism permeated his cultural assumptions.
In June 1972 he was charged with IRA membership. On remand he undertook a fourteen-day hunger strike, ending when he was discharged through insufficient evidence. He was arrested on 29 December 1972 under the 1972 Offences Against the State Act which allowed conviction on the opinion of a Garda chief inspector. At his trial (11 January 1973) he neither confirmed nor denied IRA membership, per IRA practice, and was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in the Curragh military prison. He had been granted leave of absence by Roscommon Vocational Education Committee to serve as president of Sinn Féin. The Department of Education refused to sanction this, and after his conviction enforced his dismissal despite resistance by the VEC, leaving his wife as the family breadwinner. His pension rights were restored in 1990.
In summer 1973 he visited five US cities on a fundraising tour. He returned to the US that October to testify before a sub-committee of the foreign relations committee of the house of representatives investigating the protection of human rights. Afterwards he was the guest of honour at a reception attended by over sixty congressmen, including the house majority leader Tip O’Neill. But when he attempted to travel to the US again in January 1974, the US authorities revoked his entry visa (permanently as it turned out) at the request of the British government; the British request had been supported by the Irish government.
Having opened communication channels with the British authorities, he participated in the talks held in Feakle, Co. Clare, between republican leaders and Irish protestant churchmen (10 December 1974). Following the outcry against the killing of twenty-one civilians in Birmingham by IRA bombs, the IRA then called a Christmas truce, extended to mid-January 1975, during which time he met British representatives. This led to a longer IRA truce (10 February–22 September) involving further clandestine negotiations. The British hinted they might consider withdrawal from Northern Ireland while preparing for a long struggle involving ‘normalisation’ of the conflict by ending internment, relying on local security forces and treating paramilitary prisoners as ordinary criminals. The IRA was severely affected by its inability to respond to sectarian killings by loyalist paramilitaries, and some members defected to the newly-formed INLA.
Ó Brádaigh saw the truce as a calculated risk but made no attempt to brief the wider republican movement on his rationale. The perception grew, especially among younger northern IRA members, that the republican leadership had been manipulated by the British. After the truce he came under pressure from a northern faction who presented the Ó Brádaigh group as superannuated southern conservatives, and gradually isolated and displaced him and his associates. He was hindered by his decision to remain living in Roscommon rather than Dublin, by an exclusion order barring him from Northern Ireland, and by the 1981–2 Maze hunger strikes in which the northerners appeared as the faces and voices of the protest, though he was quicker to see that electoral politics could build support for the campaign.
The northerners criticised Éire Nua as combining a potential new Stormont with cumbersome governmental structures and for giving too much scope to capitalism. In 1979 the IRA repudiated Éire Nua; it was watered down by Sinn Féin in 1981 and rejected in 1982. Replaced by Gerry Adams as president of Sinn Féin in November 1983, he returned to part-time teaching and left the army council after being injured in a car accident in January 1984. He suffered a minor stroke, walking thereafter with a cane.
Ó Brádaigh led opposition to the abandonment of abstentionism from Leinster House at the 2 November 1986 Sinn Féin ard fheis; on defeat he and his supporters walked out and established Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), claiming to be the continuation of the party established in 1905. He was elected president and Éire Nua was reinstated as party policy. The Continuity army council, secretly endorsed by Tom Maguire, was also established and gradually developed into the Continuity IRA (CIRA). (In 1997 Ó Brádaigh published Dilseacht: the story of General Tom Maguire and the second (all-Ireland) dáil, setting out the republican legitimist claim.) Ó Brádaigh probably belonged to this army council until his death or shortly before it.
He saw the 1990s IRA ceasefires and Sinn Féin involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process, culminating in disarmament and membership of a Northern Ireland Assembly and executive, as vindicating his analysis. Goulding commented – ‘We were probably right too soon, Adams and company were probably right too late and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh will never be right’ (White, Ó Brádaigh, 334). Other breakaway groups, notably the Real IRA (RIRA), tried to merge with RSF/CIRA to avail of his international contacts and RSF’s established political structures. These attempts foundered on personal resentments over the 1986 split, Ó Brádaigh’s demand that RIRA accept abstentionism as unchangeable, and well-founded RSF suspicions that RIRA was penetrated by security force agents. CIRA elements saw his insistence on control as hindering the military movement and collaborated with other groups behind his back. After Ó Brádaigh stepped down as president of Republican Sinn Féin in 2009, Des Dalton’s election as his successor led to a split in RSF/CIRA. The breakaway group alleged that Ó Brádaigh still controlled the movement using Dalton as a figurehead.
Ó Brádaigh died in Roscommon County Hospital on 5 June 2013. His funeral to St Coman’s cemetery was marked by scuffles between mourners and numerous Gardaí present to prevent the firing of a volley. RSF subsequently organised a Ruairí Ó Brádaigh summer school annually in Roscommon. In 2005 he had deposited a collection of his political papers at the James Hardiman Library, UCG, on long-term loan.
Ó Brádaigh provoked strong reactions. Abstaining from alcohol until late in life, and partaking only very absteemiously, he was calm and courteous in person, with some reporters nicknaming him ‘the gentleman terrorist’ (Irish News, 12 June 2013). Commentators often contrasted his forthrightness with the perceived evasions of the Adams leadership group. Beneath this affable surface lay steely integrity or self-righteous fanaticism, according to perception. His 1971 description of the accidental killing of a seventeen-month old girl by IRA fire in Belfast as ‘one of the hazards of urban guerrilla warfare’ (White, Ó Brádaigh, 3) was seen as particularly reptilian.
He was a creature of the mid-twentieth century, formed by his parents’ experiences and with the pedantic self-importance of a provincial schoolteacher aware of his university education when such qualifications were uncommon. By the time of his death even most dissident republicans discarded the historical legitimation to which he attached such importance in favour of a more general rejection of authority. His cyclical view of Irish history caught a genuine aspect of the long-term processes of Irish state formation, but critics of his version of republicanism saw him as offering only perpetual entrapment on a self-sustaining karmic wheel of bloodshed.