September 2016        

Communist Party member airbrushed from history

Michael Healy

Not only has Frank Conroy slipped through the cracks of history and memory but he left nothing behind: no letters or diaries; he named no next of kin. What’s more, Ireland was a cold house for left-wing republicans in the 1930s and 40s, with communists interned without trial in the Curragh Camp during the Second World War.
     The families of volunteers who fought in the International Brigades had to keep their heads down and were anxious not to draw attention to themselves. The stories of Frank Conroy and similar young communists faded from family memory and were conveniently airbrushed from history by the establishment.
      In the winter of 2014 the Kildare historian James Durney wrote that he had found Conroy’s birthplace. “He was born on 25 February 1914, in Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, and baptised on 1 March 1914. His parents were Michael Conroy (born in Co. Laois) and Catherine Farrell (born in Co. Dublin). They married in Dublin South in 1908. Michael Conroy was a baker by trade and in the 1911 Census he was living with his wife and two children, John (2) and Mary, an infant, in the Guinness Trust Buildings, in Patrick Street, Dublin. Michael Conroy moved his family to Co. Kildare shortly after, probably for employment reasons, as there was a large bakery, O’Connell’s, operating in Kilcullen.”
     Frank Conroy, like many of his generation, was born into poverty on the eve of the twentieth century. Initially joining the IRA in the 1930s, he later converted to Marxism and became involved in the Republican Congress. He was active in street battles against the fascist Blueshirts, and about this time he volunteered to join the International Brigade, determined to defend the Spanish Republic against Franco’s rebellion.
     This former IRA volunteer, now a member of the Communist Party, set sail on the Holyhead ferry on 13 December 1936, alongside other Irish volunteers of the International Brigade, including Frank Ryan and Frank Edwards. (Frank was the father of Seán Edwards, lifelong CPI member.)
     Frank Conroy crossed the border into Spain with Frank Ryan on 14 December, with stopovers in Barcelona and Valencia. He arrived in Albacete, the main base of the International Brigade, in the morning of 17 December 1936.
     At Lopera in Córdoba the Irish in the new 15th International Brigade went into action in the French International Battalion, sent south on Christmas Eve, 1936. On 28 December they advanced uphill to a town where they were bombed by enemy planes and heavily machine-gunned. The fighting here was fierce. Even an experienced commissar like Ralph Fox was killed, as well as the poet John Cornford, as were Frank Conroy, Johnny Meehan, Henry Boner, Jim Foley, Tony Fox, Leo Green, Michael Nolan, Michael May, and Tommy Woods. Frank Ryan wrote of Frank Conroy that he “fought like a hero the same day.”
     On 16 December 2012 the Frank Conroy Committee held its first commemoration. The main speaker was the Spanish Civil War historian Harry Owens, who said: “Why did these Irish republicans and leftists, such as Frank Conroy, go to fight in Spain? Frank Ryan was asked this by the Gestapo when he was captured in March 1937. ‘Because it’s the same fight in both places,’ Ryan replied.”
     Frank Conroy’s body, and those of his comrades, lies somewhere in the hills around Lopera today.

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