It was fitting that Rayner Lysaght’s coffin was bedecked in the Starry Plough at Glasnevin Crematorium in the summer. He was a socialist above all else, and one who stayed the course. Rayner’s political odyssey with its trials, tribulations, ideological battles, and his determination to stay within the Marxist milieu have been usefully documented by those who knew him better than I. What emerges is a picture of a man uncompromisingly steeped in socialist activism for six decades.
In the mid-1980s, while researching for the Questions Of History project in the H Blocks, I picked up a book by an author I had previously not heard of, D.R. O’Connor Lysaght. Its title was The Irish Republic and it’s Marxist slant seemed appropriate to the task at hand. On the well stacked shelves of the H Block libraries, it ultimately came to sit alongside T.A. Jackson’s Ireland Her Own and Connolly's Labour In Irish History.
Somehow I managed to contact him and from then to my release we corresponded frequently. He was never short on insightful comment and critique on writing I was involved in, including Armed Struggle – A Strategic Imperative. While never judgmental he had an acute understanding of the limitations of the IRA’s armed campaign. He invariably spoke in strategic terms rather than moralising ones. He was a lucid expositor of ideas not a tub-thumping proselytizer for them. I gained immensely from those exchanges: his patience, his articulation, his erudition. The type of discussions we would have might seem esoteric by the standards of today - on whether the Irish capitalist class constituted a comprador bourgeoisie similar to the Indian one fought against by the Naxalites, or a national one. Such were the type of things that were central to our theorising in the blocks, although to most others it sounded like what Danny Morrison once described as Marxist Esperanto.
Yet, Rayner was not some airy-fairy bohemian wannabe revolutionary waving a fist in his 20s and a gavel in his 50s. As Jim Monaghan observed:
I remember way back, a then Leftist making a disparaging remark about Rayner. Paddy Healy told me that when a lot like this person retreated into well paid jobs and careers, Rayner would still be selling a leftwing paper outside a meeting.
And so it proved to be. After release from prison I met up with him, usually at left wing events, which he frequented in Dublin’s Teachers’ Club and Connolly Books. But like much else as the years passed we were preoccupied with our own things and our paths ceased to cross. I grew increasingly disinterested in meetings of the Left, where schism rather than strategy seemed to be top of the menu. He did appear at an event a few years ago, which I also attended. Before I got the opportunity to approach him, I found myself having to rush off early to catch a bus.
Born in Cardiff 80 years ago Rayner attended a university in Ireland which helped launch his deserved reputation as a formidable historian of Labour. While his mother was leader of the Conservative Party in South Wales:
he claimed descent from distinguished ancestors and was proud of it. From Fergus O'Connor, the leader of the revolutionary wing of Chartism and earlier an O'Connellite Repeal-the-Act-of-Union MP; from Arthur O'Connor, United Irishman and distinguished Napoleonic soldier; all the way back to the last crowned High King of Ireland, Rory O'Connor, in the mid-12th century.
With a CV like that he very much would have appreciated being described as a renegade from the ruling class.
Those of us who in our youth had an interest, even a fascination, with republican militarism recall Peter Graham dying from a gunshot wound in Dublin in 1971. It was decades later that I came to learn that he met his end in Rayner's flat. Saor Eire had made the headlines as a mysterious but ruthless republican group responsible for armed robberies, one of which resulted in the death of Garda Dick Fallon in 1970. Graham for some reason appeared to have a fallout with the organisation after the killing and it has been speculated that its members were responsible for his death. That perhaps at an emotional level fed into Rayner's dim view of the prospects of any successful armed struggle being prosecuted by the Provisional IRA. Even without it he was much too cerebral not to have appreciated the long-term futility of an increasingly isolated guerrilla war supported by a small minority of the population in a Western society.
That did not mean that he had the slightest sympathy for those who set their faces like stone against the Provisional IRA and who were eager to mask their reactionary position behind a Left veneer. Of Conor Cruise O'Brien he wrote:
.... he can see that his great bugbear, the IRA is becoming increasingly isolated. Yet, outside the Council chambers, reality remains. All the "peace" marches in the world, even backed by censorship, cannot hide the fact that the Northern crisis is more than just the sum total of senseless crimes committed by psychopaths.
This was an important observation made in October 1976, a month after the onset of the blanket protest that would come to send seismic tremors throughout the political system North and South.
An erudite and incredibly well read Marxist intellectual and activist, Rayner ended his 80 years on the same side of the barricade where he began.
⏩ Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.