Obituary: comrade Rayner Lysaght 1941 – 2021

Rayner Lysaght at the Frank Conroy Commemoration

Yesterday I attended the funeral in Dublin of life-long Marxist Rayner Lysaght, surrounded by over thirty of his old comrades who were members and supporters of the various embodiments of the Trotskyist movement that Rayner was a member of from the 1960s. Born into a well-to-do family in South Wales in 1941 he came to Ireland in the early 60s, graduating from Trinity College Dublin in 1964.

Always courteous and friendly he was a fountain of knowledge on Irish history and its labour movement: someone of whom it was always understood, without even having to consider, that would remain faithful to the socialist cause to the end.  From his early membership of the Irish Workers Group in the 1960s until his membership of Socialist Democracy in 2021, Rayner retained membership of a revolutionary organisation throughout the decades.

While his braces, refined accent and labarynthine locution often gave an other-worldly impression, his long contribution to the Irish socialist movement was widely recognised by the many tributes from members of the various socialist currents in Ireland, personified by the attendance at the funeral of the People before Profit TD Paul Murphy. The many tributes on Facebook testify to his honesty, integrity and openness to everyone on the left with whom he came into contact over the years, including young historians seeking access to his encyclopaedic knowledge. 

Much gratitude belongs to Anne Conway for her support to Rayner during his illness and also to his wife Aine, who followed the funeral on web cam while also in Beaumont Hospital.  Anne spoke at the service along with Jack McGinley from the Irish Labour History Society and John McAnulty representing Socialist Democracy.

 Anne recounted some of the many tributes from his former comrades.

From Michael Farrell – “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. He was a dedicated Marxist all his life and a fine scholar of working-class history when it was not popular and certainly wasn’t profitable. He was a comrade and friend from as far back as the 1960s, when anything seemed possible”.

From Joe Harrington from Limerick – “I met him in Dublin in 1972 when I stayed with him and Aine (and a few other notorious and not so notorious characters) in the place that I think was known as Parnell Road, in Harold’s Cross. Much later in Limerick the link to Rayner was persistent. He looked to us in the Treaty City for sorting the practical aspects of producing the six or so editions of his ‘The Story of the Limerick Soviet’ – aspects such as typing out his handwritten and long revised tracts of the narrative – on the old-fashioned typewriter, tippex and all.   Every edition had to be launched and to succeed in putting a time limit on Rayner’s speeches, on those occasions, was never easy.  As Pat O’Connor could tell and as Mary O’Donnell tells, there was always a story to tell after Rayner returned home.”

“Rayner saw the Limerick Soviet as extremely important, as a clear-cut example, in so many ways, of how workers can change society and the lessons from that effort – the strike weapon, the organisation of a society without bosses (if only for a short while), the impinging national question, the international aspect and the bureaucrats and the clerics’ sell-out.  Apart from his other work, Rayner Lysaght’s labours on the Soviet has ensured that he has made a difference.  Sure, that’s what legends of the socialist movement do.”

Anne also noted the other aspects of Rayner’s life that contributed to making him the valued friend and comrade that he was – “Rayner had an interest in so many things.  You wouldn’t associate him with folk music, but he knew about and could talk about the artists, the songs, the persons mentioned in them.  There was nothing unusual in Rayner reading a weighty tome by Marx or Trotsky, then proceeding to a comic or watching a TV detective series or reading a crime novel, a passion he shared with the Belgian Marxist, the late Ernest Mandel.”  

“Rayner had an unquenchable curiosity about just about everything. He was a remarkable man – an author and historian, an activist, he was witty with a wiry sense of humour and enjoyed performing his party piece often with his rendition I am an English Man. He was a devoted husband to Aine.”

“Above all he was a Marxist revolutionary and was committed to the Workers Republic of James Connolly, so to honour Rayner’s memory and his commitment a rendition of Where Oh Where Is James Connolly will be played as we leave the service.”

Anne noted that “he wrote the book The Republic of Ireland in 1971, it was his contribution to understanding the country and the struggles of the working class.  He wrote numerous other pamphlets some of them under pennames and I think, many will remember him for his work in uncovering the story of the Limerick Soviet, that briefly arose in 1919 following the Russian Revolution.  He never really got the credit he deserved for this and was always modest about his abilities and his achievements. But he was an important historian of working class struggles in Ireland.”

It was appropriate that, while his wife of 48 years Aine, and his brother and sister William and Priscilla, could not be at the funeral, his cousin thanked the congregation for the welcome Rayner received when he moved to Ireland and the many good friendships he had formed in his new home.

As a member of Peoples Democracy from 1978 and latterly Socialist Democracy until 2012, I attended many meetings, events and demonstrations with him over these years.  Like many of those who attended the funeral, who had not seen him for a number of years, his contribution to the socialist struggle in Ireland gave him a presence that will be missed by all.

He was always there, a seemingly permanent embodiment of the struggle that we were all a part of, from before we entered it to whatever difficulties we knew we would certainly face in the future.  Rayner was there and we knew that he would always be there.  Now that he has left us, as we all will do, we will remember with gratitude, fondness and inspiration his contribution to the great cause to which he devoted his life.

His RIP web site records the words of Leon Trotsky:

“Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”

Farewell to a Comrade

My comrade and friend Kevin Keating died on 8 May following a diagnosis of Glioblastoma in March last year.  He had asked me to say a few words at his funeral but circumstances did not permit this.

Instead I submitted a few personal words to his wife Anne, but I now write about the political example that Kevin’s life embodied.

The two are not separate. Kevin’s qualities as a person are integral to a political appreciation.  He was warm and kind, as prepared to listen and learn as he was to speak and teach.  His honesty and integrity were fundamental to his political beliefs and practice, so that he recoiled from the cynicism and hypocrisy that characterises much left political practice.  His political commitment was without any personal calculation and arose spontaneously from his revulsion against oppression and his belief that there was a socialist alternative.

His history of political activism shows that this was a consequence not of opposition to any particular oppression but was motivated by universal opposition to all oppression.  It developed into an abiding commitment to Marxism as the only politics adequate to ending all exploitative and oppressive social relations.  It was evidenced in his youthful radicalisation and his participation in international solidarity movements; more recently his support for abortion rights in the Repeal the Eighth campaign and in his opposition to clerical control of the new National Maternity Hospital.

He was born into a working class area of South Dublin and drew his developing political views from this background – his position as a young apprentice in a militant working class – and from the experience of working class revolt that had spread across the world in the late sixties and early seventies.

He briefly encountered the Young Socialists in the early 1970s, and after Bloody Sunday in 1972 he joined the Republican Movement.  He left that movement due to misgivings over its secret negotiations with the British State and the exclusion of the rank and file of the movement, not only from any input into them but full knowledge of their conduct.

As he notes in an interview with him here not long before he died, this was not the only time the Republican Movement involved itself in secret diplomacy, always to the detriment of the struggle its volunteers were engaged in and the people it claimed to be fighting for.

Kevin later joined Peoples Democracy at the time of the republican hunger strikes, convinced that it provided the way forward for the campaign for political status and the struggle in the North.

While many members of Peoples Democracy subsequently left that organisation for Sinn Fein, believing that anti-imperialism meant defending republicanism which meant supporting republicanism, Kevin was convinced of the correctness of his move to Marxism, a journey very few took before or since.

This commitment to socialism has been described as inspirational by his comrades, while the modesty with which he defended this commitment has also been recalled.  The two are not unrelated.  Kevin inspired because of his modesty, a quality he had despite the rarity of his journey and the perspicacity of his political judgement.

I still remember his criticism of the politics of much of the Irish left that, just like Oliver Twist asking for more, this did not mean seeking the end of the workhouse system.  As Karl Marx once said “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’”

This modesty made him his greatest critic, never content with received wisdom and always open to learning.  He neither forgot the world-wide radicalisation of the period in which he became politically aware, nor did he simply believe it would return in the same form.  He never looked back from his departure from republicanism but neither did he renounce opposition to partition, imperialism and its division of the working class.

He never denied defeats, but never disallowed that victories were possible.  His certainty about Marxism did not prevent him acknowledging problems, from asking questions and seeking answers.  His physical courage so evident in his political activism, and his living with cancer and its horrendous treatment, was matched by an intellectual courage that was not afraid of listening to the views of others.  He was not dogmatic but still remained committed to the fundamental ideas of Marxism.

My fondest memory was when we spent a week together at a World Congress of the Fourth International, spending hours walking and talking in between sessions about the issues being debated.  For him no authority, and especially of those in working class and socialist organisations, was beyond questioning or criticism. In fact, they, above all, were to be subject to them.  This is what working class organisation was all about.  Why republicanism was to be rejected, why trade union bureaucracies were to be fought, and why socialist organisations should be models of free debate and criticism.

An Australian at the World Congress told us that Bruges was a short distance away so we decided to take a day away from the congress and take the tram and train instead.  It was extremely cold as we walked the cobbled streets of Bruges, which ‘forced’ us to go into one of the many pubs for a drink.  We decided to take turns buying a round and to get a different drink at each round.  Because we were in Belgium the bar had dozens of different beers of all prices and strengths.  One round would cost a fortune and the next one would be cheap.  One would taste like diluted water and the next one would blow your head off.

Neither of us being able to hold our drink, we gave up after about four rounds and decided to go home.  Neither of us satisfied the image of a stereotypical Irishman who could drink until the cows came home.  I said that we should rather think of ourselves as Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in the film ‘In Bruges’, and that he was the Brendan Gleeson character and I was the Colin Farrell one.  From the smile on Kevin’s face it was clear that he thought not only did he not look like Brendan Gleeson but I didn’t look like Colin Farrell.  And he was, of course, correct.

It is as a friend that I will miss him most but also politically.  As I normally sit down to write a post on this blog the person I would think most often of as my audience, whose opinion I would anticipate and consider most intently afterwards, was Kevin’s.  His lifetime commitment to socialism was well encapsulated by his choice of song at his funeral, Phil Och’s ‘When I’m Gone’ –

Can’t add my name into the fight while I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

In life, so now in his death, he has inspired his comrades to continue to dedicate their lives to the struggle for socialism under the banner of Marxism. “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”