The late 1960s were marked by violent revolutionary struggle and right in the middle of it was the Ramsey Steamship Co vessel Ben Vooar.
When the Ben Vooar was bombed on Cork harbour on October 15th 1971 the first reports said it was the IRA. The Daily Telegraph reported:
“Merchant seamen and officers calling at Irish ports are expected to seek a “war bonus” of extra pay and insurance after a 51b gelignite bomb exploded on a Manx cargo vessel in Cork harbour yesterday.
“The explosion tore a hole in the deck of the ship, Ben Vooar, 540 tons, shortly after it tied up at 2.30 a.m. No one was hurt The Manx Government has asked Britain to make a protest and seek compensation from Eire.
“The National Union of Seamen condemned the bombing as “most reprehensible” (Daily Telegraph October 15th 1971)”
However it was not the IRA (Official or Provisional) but a much smaller and very violent grouping called Saor Éire that espoused a mix of Trotskyist ideals mixed in with nationalist republicanism they were out to ferment Marxist revolution through armed action. They were violent to their opponents, the State and on occasion each other. The State responded in kind and leading figures in the group were detained and beaten savagely by the Garda Special Branch while in custody. In turn Saor Éire fired shots at the Guards and fire-bombed the HQ of Fianna Fail.
Saor Éire came about because after the failure of the IRA border campaign (Operation Harvest) in the 1950s the republican movement dumped arms (mid 60s) and decided to pursue the socialist republican nirvana using methods imported via British Communists and the Connolly Association. This was anathema to the adherents of Saor Éire and they started a violent campaign that ranged from 1967-1975. It became a banned organisation and although it no longer functions (and has not for decades) is still banned.
It was a hectic period not least for the Saor Éire membership themselves. Its leader Peter Graham was murdered by other members of the group in 1971. Another leading figure, Liam Walsh, was killed when a bomb he was handling exploded prematurely. There were bombings and bank raids across Ireland and ‘social actions’ of which the Ben Vooar bombing is said to be one fall into the latter category according to the Irish Republican Marxist Social History Project (link):
Soar Éire were the ultimate mavericks. Before the Provisional IRA had even emerged they were active in the North purportedly at the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ in 1969. They also supplied ammunition and other materials when the Provisionals were formed but spurned an offer to merge with them. They also did not eschew targets such as in the other Celtic countries that mainstream republicans eschewed, for example they bombed Edinburgh Castle in retaliation for Scottish soldiers participating in the ‘troubles’. Always as well as the domestic agenda the ideal of the World Marxist revolution was to the fore and when Peter Graham who had been assassinated was buried in the front row of the mourners with clenched fist raised was Tariq Ali!
Finally of course there’s the Ben Vooar, the only British merchant ship to be targeted by Irish republicans!
Image: Tariq Ali (International Marxist Group) centre at the funeral of Peter Graham assassinated Saor Éire leader. A youthful Charlie Bird, later a prominent RTE reporter, on his left. The flagman to his right holds the ‘The Starry Plough’ – Inset: the Ben Vooar in happier times inward bound on the River Foyle in the North of Ireland.
AGS Celtic League (16th July 2023)