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Rayner Lysaght obituary: Leading activist and historian in the labour movement and a hugely influential figure in Ireland’s left-wing political sphere


Historian and activist Rayner Lysaght

Historian and activist Rayner Lysaght

Historian and activist Rayner Lysaght

Rayner Lysaght died after a prolonged illness on July 2 in Beaumont Hospital, Dublin, at the age of 80 years. He was a prominent activist and historian in the Irish labour movement and an intellectual forebear in many ways of the current array of far-left parties and elected politicians.

His full name, which he preferred to use in his writings, was Daniel Rayner O’Connor Lysaght. He was born on January 30, 1941, in Llanishen, Cardiff, the eldest son of surgeon Arthur and Jacqueline Lysaght (née Heard).

The family had roots in Limerick and Cork and used the spelling “Conner” in their name, but Rayner preferred “O’Connor”, based on his admiration for Feargus O’Connor (1796-1855), an Irish-born leader of the radical Chartist movement for political reform in Britain.

Lysaght received his secondary education at Cheltenham College before moving to Trinity College Dublin, where he studied modern history and political science, graduating in 1964 with an honours BA. He later obtained a master’s degree at University College Dublin in 1983.

An admirer of the innovative and controversial politician Dr Noel Browne, Rayner joined the left-wing National Progressive Democrats (NPD). The party, established by Browne and Roscommon TD Jack McQuillan, was active from 1958 to 1963.

Browne and McQuillan went on to join the Labour Party and Lysaght followed. Browne, though, was not easy to get along with and he eventually drove Rayner out of the party.  

In the mid-1960s Rayner became involved with the far-left current of the labour movement which adhered to the views of Leon Trotsky and worked toward starting a revolution that would establish a socialist society based on democratic principles, rather than a Stalinist dictatorship.

The Vietnam War was a huge issue at the time and the protests against it facilitated the spread of radical ideas.

In 1967 he joined the Irish Workers’ Group (IWG), whose most prominent member was the colourful activist and journalist Gerry Lawless.

The IWG collapsed following a dispute between different factions in 1968 and Rayner moved over to the League for a Workers’ Republic.

Another split took place in 1971 when a group including Lysaght and his friend Peter Graham broke away. In addition to his high-profile political activities, Graham was also a member of the secret paramilitary group Saor Éire, which shot 43-year-old Gda Richard Fallon dead during a bank raid in Dublin on April 3, 1970.

The 26-year-old Graham was himself shot dead at his flat in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, on October 25, 1971, apparently as the result of an internal Saor Éire dispute.

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Among Rayner Lysaght’s published works, one of the most popular was a pamphlet on the Limerick Soviet, which acted as a de facto governing authority in the city for almost two weeks in April 1919.

It emerged out of a general strike organised by the Limerick Trades and Labour Council in protest at the British army’s designation of most of the city and part of the county as a “Special Military Area”.

The Limerick Soviet controlled the city, printed its own money and organised food supplies during the period in question.

Paul Murphy, the People Before Profit TD for Dublin South-West, attended Lysaght’s funeral last Tuesday and said later: “Rayner’s work as a Marxist historian was groundbreaking. Probably his greatest impact was uncovering and popularising the story of the Limerick Soviet.

“With this work he gave a crucial reference point for socialists: workers could and did take over the running of a city in Ireland. He was also a non-sectarian Trotskyist, happy to attend and speak at a wide range of meetings and debate with other socialists.”

Lysaght wrote many articles as well as a number of pamphlets on political issues down through the years and his book The Republic of Ireland was published by Mercier Press in 1970.

In his final years he also gathered together and published material relating to a small Irish Trotskyist group from the 1940s.

Along with wide-ranging erudition, he had a witty side, as seen in a debate on the “two-nations theory” where he said: “Ireland certainly isn’t two nations, but I’m not really sure that it’s one.” When a heckler shouted, “what is it so?”, Lysaght responded in his best upper-class accent: “It’s a developing nation, me bhoy.”

His funeral at Glasnevin Crematorium was restricted in numbers because of the pandemic but still included a wide array of mourners.

Charles Lysaght, author and distant relative of the deceased, referred to the poem where William Butler Yeats wrote: “My glory was I had such friends.”

Charles said afterwards that his deceased kinsman was “a pure-souled idealist” and added: “My quote reflected the fact that he had built up such a wide circle of devoted friends, despite being from a very different background.”

The coffin was draped with the Starry Plough flag. Dr Kieran Jack McGinley spoke of his 40 years working alongside Rayner in the Irish Labour History Society. As Principal of Umiskin Press, Dr McGinley had also worked with Lysaght, who edited and wrote the introduction for trade union leader Matt Merrigan’s autobiography, Eggs and Rashers: Irish Socialist Memories, published in 2014.

“Picking out favourite memories of Rayner is a difficult choice,” Dr McGinley said. “He will be greatly missed but not forgotten and his scholarship will bear the test of time.”

He said former Labour Party leader and finance minister Ruairí Quinn had “asked me to pass on his condolences to all here present today”.

Rayner Lysaght is survived by his wife of 48 years, Áine, his brother William, sister Priscilla and other relatives. Because of illness, Áine could not attend her husband’s funeral but was able to follow the service online from hospital.

Their friend Anne Conway told mourners: “Rayner came from a very well-to-do background and he could have chosen a different path in life, but he chose the cause of the working class.”

She read out a message from civil rights activist Michael Farrell, who was also in attendance: “There was hardly a radical or progressive protest or demonstration that Rayner was not at for the last 60 years or more and he played his part in bringing about major social change.” 

Tribute was also paid by John McAnulty on behalf of the Socialist Democracy organisation, which is the Irish Section of the Fourth International and whose membership included Rayner Lysaght.

Those expressing condolences on rip.ie include Jim Gibney, a leading member of Sinn Féin, who wrote: “Rayner was a great supporter of a united Ireland and of the political prisoners on protests for political status in the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s prison in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I met him at protests in Dublin and at conferences. He was a gentleman, with a soft voice and an encyclopaedic mind.

“He keenly passed on his scholarly knowledge in a gentle and unassuming manner. And I will always remember him for that and his gentle yet persuasive ways.”

The death-notice on rip.ie includes the following summary of Rayner Lysaght’s life and times: “He lived to make this quote from Trotsky a reality: ‘Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it to the full.’”

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