The Enigma of Frank Ryan

Belfast doubles for Berlin in a new film about the controversial IRA volunteer-turned-Nazi ‘collaborator’, written and directed by Queen's professor, Des Bell

Frank Ryan led some life. Born in Bottomstown, County Limerick, in 1902, Ryan was a teenage IRA volunteer, was interned during the Irish Civil War, fought in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, was sentenced to death by Franco, and entered a murky relationship with the Third Reich. He died in a hospital in Dresden in 1944.

Christy Moore sung about him in ‘Viva la Quinta Brigada’ and The Pogues in 'The Sick-Bed of Cú Chulainn'. Jack Higgins is believed to have used him as the template for the character of Liam Devlin in The Eagle Has Landed. Numerous books have been written about him.

But despite – or perhaps because of – the dramatic sweep of his life, Ryan’s story has not made it to the big screen until now. The man who has succeeded where others – including Gabriel Byrne, who spent several years trying to produce a film version – have failed is Professor Des Bell, from the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University in Belfast.

Derry-born Bell has written and directed The Enigma of Frank Ryan, which premiered on February 18 at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

‘I was aware of the story for about 20 years,’ Bell says. ‘But I’d never looked into it seriously. Then, over a couple of wet Sundays in Donegal, I started reading a number of books on it, including Fearghal’s book [fellow Queen’s lecturer Dr Fearghal McGarry, who acted as historical consultant on the project]. In terms of inspiration, it was just the scale, the size and the significance of the story that struck me.’

Despite its script being sourced from Ryan’s letters, his journalism and the testimony of friends and contemporaries, The Enigma of Frank Ryan has already caused controversy.

‘I was aware of the debate about the south of Ireland and the Second World War, and about the IRA and the Nazis,’ comments Bell. ‘Obviously, a film like this is causing quite a stir, because there are a lot of people that feel like a sacred cow has been shot.’

Indeed, in 2011, the Irish Democrat claimed Bell’s film ‘slanders’ Ryan. ‘Well, they haven’t seen the film,’ snorts the director. ‘So, it’s a rather snap judgement. To some people, merely to tell the factual story is an insult to the memory of Frank Ryan. But you can’t get away from the factual story of his time in Berlin, and that just has to be faced up to, frankly.’

Filming took place in France and Northern Ireland, over just 16 days. The prison scenes were shot in Armagh Prison, while Queen’s University stood in for wartime Berlin.

‘The British buildings at Queen’s actually date from roughly the period, post-war, 46-47,’ says Bell. ‘They have this monumental feel, which is very much the architecture you would have got in Berlin. They have the same sort of gothic modernism.’

Frank Ryan in Spain and Ireland

The Enigma of Frank Ryan received funding from TG4, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and the Irish Language Broadcasting Fund of NI Screen, and was shot in Irish and English. Bell is hoping the film will be shown at the 2012 Belfast Film Festival in June, as well as other festivals in the north, in both versions.

Starring Dara Devaney as Ryan, the 'docudrama' mixes archive footage with live-action drama. The story is told in flashback, with Ryan holed up in an apartment in war-torn Berlin, telling his tale to a young radio producer.

‘It was to allow us to play around with the form,’ explains Bell. ‘The anchor is that towards the end of his life, I think the whole question of his collaboration and his marginality is troubling him. It enables the whole film to be narrated by Frank Ryan, essentially.’

The film explores Ryan’s dealings with the Nazis, who were keen to exploit his dissident IRA connections. The Limerick man had broken from the traditional, militaristic IRA, as represented in film by Seán Russell, played by Frankie McCafferty. However, Bell dismisses any parallels with today’s dissident republicans.

‘It would be easy to make facile comparisons, but they are completely different situations,’ he says. ‘Dissident republicanism as represented by Frank Ryan and the Republican Congress was an attempt to bring a Left-wing agenda into more traditional republicanism, whereas it seems to me that modern dissident republicanism doesn’t appear to have any clear political coherence. I don’t know what their agenda is.’

‘The contemporary resonance will come from republicanism thinking through the tragic Frank Ryan case and actually admitting to the nature of the tragedy,' Bell adds. 'Ryan represents a very significant strand within the broader family of republicanism, and it seems incumbent on republicanism to come to terms with the full dimensions of that story.’