In 1971, Ireland was in a flurry of militancy, with the republican movement, despite the recent ’69/’70 split, playing a key part. Both the Official and Provisional wings of the movement played heroic parts in the Civil Rights Movement, opposition to British occupation and in standing with the people of Ireland against all forms of oppression. It was in this context that Volunteer Martin O’Leary gave his life.
The movement had engaged in intervening on the side of workers in several disputes, providing protection and security for workers, much the same as the Gardaí stood on the side of the bosses and exploiters. In Silvermines, Co. Tipperary the Canadian Multi-national Mogul Mines had been given permission to conduct mining operations in what was the largest deposit of silver ore in Western Europe. The Irish establishment had no interest in these resources going to the Irish people. Workers at the mines had to endure low wages, poor conditions and an unresponsive management, they decided to take strike action.
On the night of Satuday, 3 July, a group of 5 armed men held up security men at the Mogul Mines. They placed gelignite charges on the main electricity transformers – the damage from the explosion would cause Mogul Mines 1.6 million in damage. This led to a Garda manhunt for the men, with republicans across Munster facing inquiries. Unfortunately, on the night of the explosion at the mining site, a man with severe burns was dropped off to Barrington’s Hospital in Limerick by men who made a swift exit. It transpired that the explosion at the main electricity transformer had been premature and caused mortal injury to Martin.
Martin did not die immediately. For the next few hours, he would regain consciousness several times for brief periods. Each time, his family would be ushered out of the room while Garda Special Branch attempted to question him about the operation and the other participants. A tape recorder was also placed under his bed. However, despite this shameful harassment in his last moments, Martin never gave any information. Brigid Sheils Makowski, who gave Martin shelter in her home before the operation, had her house raided by armed members of the Special Branch for all traces of Martin’s stay there. In her autobiography, Daughter of Derry, Shiels Makowski describes Martin as “ all, soft-spoken and very handsome (he reminded me of Omar Sharif).”
On the following Monday, representatives from Mogul Mines flew to Ireland, forced by the OIRA unit’s operation to resolve the dispute, to the satisfaction of the workers. The strike ended a few days later which gave O’Leary a fitting epigraph. Martin’s funeral took place on 8th July, with over 1,500 in attendance, and a large Garda presence. Outside Martin’s home at 143, Connolly Road, Ballyphehane, a volley of shots were fired over his tricolour-draped coffin, in recognition of his service. His body was buried in the Republican Plot in St. Finbarr’s Cemetery, in defiance of Cork Corporation’s refusal to allow it. A party of 20 of the striking Mogul Mines workers were in attendance at the funeral to pay their respects, a wreath was laid on their behalf. The workers also organised a ceremony where a plaque was placed at the entrance to the mine to commemorate O’Leary. At the graveside oration, Cathal Goulding said that O’Leary was the “first martyr in a new phase of the republican struggle”, also saying that:
It is not within our power to dictate what action the forces of imperialism and exploitation will engage in to repress, coerce and deny ordinary people their God-given rights, making it necessary to speak the language that would bring these vultures to their senses – the language of the bomb and bullet.
Martin O’Leary was 20 years old when he died. He was, as Goulding put it, a “prototype of the modern revolutionary”. While it would not do him well to guess his views, he certainly wouldn’t have approved of the movement he gave his life for splinter into a counter-revolutionary force, taking a concilliatory view of British occupation and allowing the once revolutionary wokring-class traditions it stood for take a back seat to the purposes of opportunism. Perhaps O’Leary would have gone with the later revolutionary split in the ranks fo the Official Movement, taking the side of the INLA/IRSP or perhaps he would have welcomed the Provisionals move towards socialism. A ballad was written after the death of Vol. O’Leary:
As time goes by and years roll onward
Deep in my memory I will keep
Of a dark July morning
When all Cork City was asleep.
A band of gallant Irish soldiers
To Mogul Mines they made their way
To strike a blow against the boss class
Who exploit the wealth beneath our clay.
So rally all you Iirsh workers
The wealth of Ireland is your right
The foreign interests shall exploit you
Unless like Martin we all fight
The miners down in Tipperary
A hard and bitter struggle waged
Against the foreign mine owners
And the anger of the native slave.
Solidarity was their slogan
Determination was their mood
While poverty and deprivation
O’er their families loomed
A member of the raiding party
Before the dawn fought for his life
For injured he was while in action
Upholding Irish workers’ rights
The Free State vultures standing o’er him
A cell and trial their concern
But God above knew he had plans for Martin
In that glorious spot he had reserved
Fuair sé bás ar son Phoblacht na nOibrithe!