Reds na hÉireann review: TG4’s documentary offers a lively and engaging look at communism in Ireland

Reds na hÉireann — four out of five stars

TG4’s documentary Reds na hÉireann captures old lefties keeping the communist flag flying. Photo: PushPull Media/TG4

Pat Stacey

It’s always amusing to listen to someone like conservative American columnist Cal Thomas, best known in this country as a weekly contributor to The Last Word, talking about “the far left”.

He’s invariably referring to certain Democrat politicians who, in any country with a modicum more sanity than America possesses at the moment, would be considered as being at the milder end of the liberal spectrum.

Still, at least Thomas isn’t like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who earlier this year described the entire Democratic Party as “the Communist Party of the United States of America”.

American communists are so difficult to spot these days, they should probably be added to the World Wildlife Fund’s endangered species list. Come to that, Irish communists aren’t as plentiful as they used to be either.

Reds na hÉireann (TG4), looking at the low-key story of Irish communism from 1921 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was another offbeat gem of a documentary from the country’s smallest but smartest broadcaster, which specialises in highlighting the chapters of our history the approved schoolbooks neglected to include.

Plenty of people have youthful flirtations with communist politics. For most of them, idealism eventually bashes into a hard reality: communism doesn’t work. Everywhere it’s been tried, it’s failed, that failure often accompanied by the most terrible violence and repression.

There are numerous historical reasons why left-wing politics of any shade never really gained a lasting electoral foothold in Ireland, but the strength of Kevin Brannigan’s sprightly film — which opened with a striking shot of a bust of Vladimir Lenin sitting in a suburban back garden – lay in the deeply personal recollections of the various contributors.

There’s something admirable about these people who, at an advanced age and in spite of the brutal lessons of the Soviet Union and East Germany, still cling heroically to the tattered red flag, their faith in the righteousness of the cause intact.

One of them, veteran communist activist Seán Edwards, who dutifully held a red flag aloft for the camera, said: “The fall of the Soviet Union was a great tragedy, in that people did not come out to protect socialism.”

Mick Flanagan, who embraced communism early, said “The world was transformed for the worse with the loss of the Soviet Union.”

Mick Flanagan, who left school at 11 and embraced communism early, echoed this sentiment: “The world was transformed for the worse with the loss of the Soviet Union.”

Strangely, though, he also said: “I didn’t want to turn Ireland into the Soviet Union.”

In retrospect, there was never much likelihood of that happening, given that the communist movement in Ireland remained on the margins and its members tended towards the passive rather than the active. This was noted in the 1960s by none other than the young Bill O’Herlihy in an RTÉ report on a Communist Party meeting at its Dublin HQ in Pembroke Lane.

The future sports broadcaster said it “was more of a classroom for socialism than a hotbed of revolution”. This was borne out by Belfast poet Sinéad Morrissey, whose grandfather Seán was a leading light of the CP in Northern Ireland, when recalling her communist childhood.

“Communism for me was speeches,” she said, “lots of speeches.” Her abiding memory is of talky meetings held in stuffy rooms with closed windows and plumes of blue cigarette smoke curling up to the ceiling.

Interestingly, the Irish Communist Party seemed to enjoy its greatest popularity in the 1970s in Belfast, where it offered the only non-sectarian political alternative.

Watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on live television in 1989, Sinéad recalled, she felt “torn” by what was happening. “I began to question what I’d been told,” she said.

It was also something of an eye-opener for Eoin Ó Murchú, who once contested a Laois-Offaly by-election on a communist ticket.

He hadn’t realised that the system was “rotten to the core”. Some old troopers remain steadfast. Helena Sheehan, who was born in Philadelphia and moved to Ireland in 1972, still believes communism is “a more equal system”. Well, the people of the Soviet Union certainly suffered equally under its yoke.

​Reds na hÉireann airs on TG4, Wednesday May 24th at 9.30pm