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(1) Paper presented by Michael O’Riordan to the First International Forum on the International Brigades, Getafe, Spain, 14 November 1999
(2) Address by Michael O’Riordan to the national conference of the Irish Labour Party, Cork, 30 September 2001
Paper presented by Michael O’Riordan (member of the Connolly Column and former general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland) to the First International Forum on the International Brigades, Getafe, Spain
12–14 November 1999
Comrades and friends,
It is indeed a great honour to be asked to speak at this First International Forum on the International Brigades. I am especially happy to be here at this particular time. I was born on 12 November 1917, in the first week of the Russian Revolution; and this is the fourth occasion on which I have celebrated my birthday in Spain. I marked my twenty-first birthday in Barcelona in 1938 while serving in the 15th International Brigade. The dark era of Franco fascism prevented an early return; but the Spanish people emerged as the final victors, and their Homage to the International Brigades in 1996 saw me celebrate my seventy-ninth birthday in Barcelona once again. These circumstances were repeated last year for my eighty-first birthday, held during the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the withdrawal of the international volunteers for liberty. And now the honour of this conference!
The subject of my paper is the response of Ireland to the heroic struggle of the Spanish people, 1936–39. And that story begins with warfare in my own country. Thirteen years before the rising of the Spanish fascist generals, Ireland had a civil war. This was on the issue of full national independence from British imperialism, following a four-year period of mass resistance and a militant guerrilla struggle. The conservative bourgeoisie and its abettors in the national movement accepted the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which created two states in Ireland: one formally independent, the other colonial. This treaty was opposed by a radical section of the national movement, and a bitter civil war broke out. In 1923 the pro-Treatyites won a military victory with the help of British armaments.
The Irish Civil War created a major dividing line among the Irish people. It was followed by an uneasy peace. In 1932 the pro-Treaty government, headed by William Cosgrave, was defeated in a general election. A new government was formed by Fianna Fáil, the party led by Éamon de Valera. That party mainly represented the interests of the smaller capitalists, traders, and middle farmers; its programme called for strengthening Ireland politically and economically as an independent state. However, in the social sphere the de Valera government largely continued Cosgrave’s anti-labour policies.
The electoral defeat of the Cosgrave government was a setback for Irish reaction. To regain ground, the reactionaries launched a hysterical campaign against the left republicans and communists. In March 1933, incited by the reactionaries, a mob sacked Connolly House, headquarters of the Irish Revolutionary Workers’ and Small Farmers’ Groups, from which—despite the terror and government persecution—the Communist Party of Ireland was formed in June 1933. On its initiative, the Republican Congress, which united the left republicans, the tenant and unemployed associations, the small farmers and other organisations, was founded in September 1934.
In Ireland, as in other European countries, there was a fascist movement, which called itself the “Blueshirts.” Its leader was Eoin O’Duffy, who had commanded the pro-Treaty troops and had been chief of police until the election of the de Valera government. O’Duffy had established contact with international fascist circles and incorporated in the objectives of the Blueshirt movement the creation of an Irish corporate state. On 28 February 1934, Deputy J. A. Costello—who would become Taoiseach (prime minister) in 1948—declared in Dáil Éireann (the Irish parliament): “The Blackshirts have been victorious in Italy, and the Hitler Brownshirts have been victorious in Germany, as assuredly, the Blueshirts will be victorious in Ireland.”1
This fascist threat was met by a fighting united effort of republicans, trade unionists, communists, and small farmers. Led by Frank Ryan, Tom Barry, George Gilmore, Seán Murray, and Peadar O’Donnell, they drove the Blueshirts off the streets after many violent encounters. Many of the men who were active in this struggle later joined the International Brigades.
In Ireland the right-wing forces supported the revolt of the reactionary Spanish generals on 18 July 1936 with a hysterical propaganda campaign. Playing on the religious feeling of the people, the Irish reactionaries, particularly the Blueshirts, slandered the Spanish Republic. For instance, the reactionary newspaper Irish Independent described the left-wing bourgeois government formed by Manuel Azaña in February 1936 after the Popular Front’s electoral victory as a “group of bloodthirsty Bolsheviks, persecutors of Catholic nuns and priests.” This sort of propaganda found a response among politically backward sections of the people.
This distortion of the developments in Spain confused even many members of the labour and republican organisations. The first clear exposition of the real issues of the war was given on 27 July 1936 by The Worker, the weekly bulletin of the Communist Party of Ireland. “In Spain, as we write, a new immortal page of working-class history is being inscribed. The reports published by the capitalist press are like a dust cloud obscuring the fighters as they strain in combat, but from the glimpses of the truth we can picture the rest.” After detailing the programme of the Spanish Popular Front, the paper stressed that the programme had the full support of the socialists and the communists, neither of whom had representatives in the government. It ended with the words “Greetings to our heroic Spanish brothers and sisters in their glorious fight!”
This clear declaration by the communist weekly helped many to assess the situation correctly; but the capitalist press proceeded shamelessly to poison the minds of the Irish people. In the ferment of organised hysteria O’Duffy, leader of the Blueshirts, posed as a “saviour of religion” and announced his intention of forming an Irish brigade of volunteers to “fight for Christianity in Spain.”2 The reactionary Irish Christian Front was formed, and it held rallies attended by clerical and lay dignitaries, who, with religious slogans, campaigned for Irish support for Franco. As a result the large sum of £30,000 was collected at the church doors, allegedly for the reconstruction of the churches damaged or destroyed in the fighting. Some of it found its way to the Franco forces, and the rest disappeared, a fact that was, needless to say, completely played down.
The Irish anti-fascists staunchly fought the hate campaign against Republican Spain. They were helped considerably by the clear analysis given by Seán Murray, general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, in his weekly articles on Spain in The Worker. Meetings were held to give people the truth about Spain. An outstanding public speaker, Murray addressed these meetings. On one occasion he said: “I warn the workers of Ireland against the press reports about atrocities in Spain. These come from imperialist liars, the hirelings of fascism. Their purpose is to turn the outside world against the Spanish Republic and to try to get foreign intervention to foist fascism on the people of Spain. These liars are not to be believed.” Giving instances of how religious slogans had been used in Ireland’s own struggles in order to conceal the upper-class opposition to the people’s demands, he pointed out that the same tactic was being used in Spain. “The gallant Spanish people,” he said, “are not only fighting against the traitors within Spain but against the enemies of liberty throughout all Europe, Ireland included. This makes the Spanish question indeed a question for the friends of freedom in every land. Are we in Ireland to stand aside and allow this crime against the people of Spain to be carried out before our eyes?”3
Another powerful voice that came to the defence of the Spanish Republic was that of Peadar O’Donnell. A well-known guerrilla fighter in 1920–23 and the author of many books, he had actually been travelling in Spain when the fascist revolt occurred. His first-hand accounts made an important contribution to making the truth known. Also active in championing the Spanish Republic was another famous Irish guerrilla, Ernie O’Malley, author of On Another Man’s Wound, a well-known book on the Irish War of Independence.
Regrettably, in the tense situation there was no clear call from either the Irish Trade Union Congress or the Irish Labour Party. However, at the annual conference of the Irish Trade Union Congress in August 1936 Christie Clark (Irish National Union of Woodworkers), Bob Smith (Plumbing Trade Union) and some other delegates did raise their voices in support of their Spanish brothers. The Irish newspapers, however, suppressed all mention of their statements in their reports of the congress meetings.
With the growth of the people’s solidarity with the anti-fascist struggle in Spain, the Irish capitalist and religious press stepped up its campaign of lies and slander. Despite the paucity of progressive papers and the existence of a pogrom-like atmosphere, the fearless work of the first defenders of the Spanish Republic in Ireland began to have results. An All-Ireland Spanish Aid Committee was formed. It was headed by prominent public figures like Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, widow of a pacifist who was murdered by a British army officer in 1916; Dorothy Macardle, the writer and historian; Nora Connolly-O’Brien, daughter of James Connolly, the Irish socialist leader who was executed by the British imperialists for his leadership of the uprising of 1916; and R. N. Tweedy. In Belfast, Harry Midgley, the Labour member of Parliament and chairman of the Labour Party of Northern Ireland, declared his stand with the anti-fascists of Spain. Despite a campaign of intimidation against them, the delegates to the Irish Conference of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union in September 1936 unanimously declared their approval of the British Executive’s decision in granting £1,000 for aid to the Spanish government. A committee was formed in Dublin and Belfast to organise an Irish Ambulance Corps for the Spanish republican army.
Though the Irish Catholic Church was violently pro-Franco, there was one priest, Father Michael O’Flanagan, who fearlessly and heroically championed the cause of Republican Spain. He had played a leading part in the movement against British imperialism and had been one of the few priests who openly denounced the Treaty of 1921. Speaking at a meeting of solidarity with Republican Spain in the Engineers’ Hall, Dublin, on 3 December 1936, O’Flanagan said: “The fight in Spain is a fight between the rich, privileged classes against the rank and file of the poor oppressed people of Spain. The cause being fought for in Spain is nearer to us than realised. The Foreign Legion and the Moorish troops are to Spain what the Black and Tans [a mercenary corps of ex-British officers of World War I sent to Ireland in 1920–21 as a special punitive and terror detachment against the Irish guerrillas and civilian populations] were to Ireland.”4 He spoke against the activities of the Irish Christian Front in recruiting an Irish Brigade for Franco.
O’Flanagan and the Spanish Aid Committee—which later developed into the Irish Friends of the Spanish Republic—exposed the claim of the Spanish fascists and the Irish reactionaries that the war in Spain was on religious issues. Father O’Flanagan went on a lecture tour of the United States and Canada, where he spoke at many meetings and delivered many broadcasts, in which he emphasised to the Catholics of those countries the real issues in Spain. He died in Dublin on 7 August 1942, a sterling Irish patriot and militant anti-fascist to the end.
Though they were frightened by the persecution of champions of the Spanish Republic, many trade union leaders made generous but anonymous personal subscriptions to the Spanish Aid Committee, while some—for example John Swift, general secretary of the Irish Bakers’ Union and later president of the International Union of Food Workers—were forthright in raising financial aid from their fellow trade-unionists. Supporters of the Spanish Republic held a meeting on 17 January 1937 in the Gaiety Theatre, one of Dublin’s largest halls. The main speaker was Father Ramón Laborda, a Basque priest. He exposed the assertion that the fascists were defending Christianity: “When I read recently that the Catholics of Ireland were offering men and money to fascist Franco, the personification of the most brutal imperialism, I exclaimed indignantly: It is impossible. Ireland could not do that unless she had been miserably deceived.”5
There was a quick response in Ireland to the news that foreign anti-fascist volunteers were arriving in Spain. The communists took part in this manifestation of international solidarity. In September 1936 the decision was taken to form an Irish unit for the Spanish republican army. The Communist Party of Ireland gave the task of recruitment and organisation to Bill Gannon, a party member who had considerable experience of political work in the Irish Republican Army and had been decorated with an Irish governmental medal for his distinguished record in the Irish national struggle. The first Irish volunteer arrived in Spain in early September. He was Bill Scott, a bricklayer, member of the CPI, one-time member of the Irish Republican Army, and son of a veteran of the working-class movement who had taken part in the 1916 Rising led by James Connolly. In Barcelona he joined a group of French, German, Italian and English anti-fascists, who formed an International Centuria that later took the name of Thälmann. In the defence of Madrid, Bill Scott fought with the Thälmann Battalion. In a letter to Seán Murray he wrote: “You needn’t mind who knows I am in Spain . . . for . . . it’s the most sacred cause in history to defend Freedom.”6 The first Irish anti-fascists fell in action in December 1936 defending Madrid. They were Tommy Patten of Achill, Co. Mayo, and William Barry of Dublin, who came all the way from Melbourne in Australia to Madrid.
The first organised group of Irish volunteers left for Spain in December. It was led by Frank Ryan, who prior to the departure issued a press statement in which he said: “The Irish contingent is a demonstration of revolutionary Ireland’s solidarity with the gallant Spanish workers and peasants in their fight for freedom against fascism. It aims to redeem Irish honour, besmirched by the intervention of Irish fascism on the side of the Spanish fascist rebels. It is to aid the revolutionary movements in Ireland to defeat the fascist menace at home, and finally, and not the least, to establish the closest fraternal bonds of kinship between the Republican democracies of Ireland and Spain.”
Frank Ryan, commander of the Irish in the International Brigades, personified the best militant and revolutionary traditions of the Irish people. At the age of eighteen he had taken part in the war against the Black and Tans and subsequently against the pro-Treaty forces in the Irish Civil War. A revolutionary journalist, he was for many years the editor of An Phoblacht (the Republic). He was one of the founders and secretary of the Republican Congress. In the period from 1923 to 1932 he was imprisoned time and again by the Cosgrave government. He was a respected figure for his integrity and fighting personality and for his efforts to promote Irish culture (he was an enthusiast in the national language revival movement).
With him in the first organised group went outstanding figures in the Irish republican, communist and working-class movements. Among these were Kit Conway of Co. Tipperary, a legendary figure of the War of Independence and Civil War; Jack Nalty and Paddy Duff; Dónall O’Reilly (a veteran IRA fighter from a well-known revolutionary family); Frank Edwards of Waterford, who had been dismissed from his post as a teacher because of his anti-fascist activity; Séamus Cummins; and Jim Prendergast, a well-known activist and public speaker for the Communist Party. The first Irish group went to Madrigueras to be shaped into a military unit. This was speedily done, as most of them, including the youngest, had at some stage or other been members of the IRA, in which they had a military training. The Irish section of the 15th International Brigade became known as the James Connolly Unit.
The ranks of the Irish in Madrigueras were continually augmented by new arrivals from Ireland as well as by many other Irishmen who had come from Britain and the United States. The latter had been driven into exile by the economic pressure of unemployment or had been forced to leave Ireland for political reasons. Among the Irish there were two sets of brothers—John, Willie and Paddy Power from Co. Waterford and the three O’Flahertys from Boston, the “Little Ireland” of the United States.
The revolutionary background, the fighting traditions, political conduct and military fervour of the Irish attracted to their ranks English-speaking comrades who could claim no relationship with Ireland. They included Samuel Lee, a young Jewish volunteer, who was later to die with his Irish comrades in the battle of Jarama, and John Scott from South Africa, who fell near Morata.
On 24 December 1936 the Irish unit went to the front for the first time, along with the British and the French 12th Battalion of the 14th International Brigade. At the time not all the brigade’s units had been formed, but an emergency—a fascist breakthrough of the Republican front in the south near Córdoba—required immediate action. As they approached the front, or, to be more exact, the locality where the front was believed to be—for nobody knew how far the fascists had penetrated—they were strafed by aircraft. Reaching an olive grove by a sand road, they were caught in crossfire by machine-guns from the surrounding ridges. The battalion, including the Irish, continued its advance and occupied a hill, driving the fascists off.
However, it soon appeared that the battalion was almost completely encircled by the fascists. There was confusion among the untrained men, and soon a withdrawal was ordered. In this unexpected encounter the battalion suffered heavy casualties. The Irish unit lost nine men: they were John Meehan of Galway, the Dublin workers Michael Nolan, Jim Foley, Leo Green, Tony Fox, Henry Bonar, and Tommy Woods, the young republican boy scout Mick May (who, as Frank Ryan wrote, “did great work . . . covering off his comrades as they went back under shell and machine-gun fire”), and Frank Conroy (“who fought like a hero the same day”).7 The other battalions of the 14th Brigade arrived in a few days, and, together with the Spanish units, they counter-attacked and brought the enemy to a halt.
Soon afterwards the brigade was transferred to the Central Front, where the Republican forces were repulsing a strong fascist thrust towards the north-eastern approaches of Madrid. The Irish were in action from 11 to 14 January in the counter-attack on the village of Majadahonda. The Dublin worker Denis Coady was killed in this counter-attack; his comrades buried him in Torrelodones. In the fighting, Captain Kit Conway particularly distinguished himself for his leadership in repulsing an attempted counter-attack by the Moroccans at nightfall. A large number of the James Connolly Unit were wounded. Jack Nalty, who had been wounded in the chest by a burst of machine-gun fire, walked 5 kilometres to the nearest dressing station. A well-known athlete, he survived the first and all subsequent battles of the Irish unit and fell in the last action of the 15th Brigade on the Ebro in September 1938.
The Irish mourned not only their own dead but also the death on the Córdoba Front of Ralph Fox, a talented English communist writer and a company political commissar. He had endeared himself to them for his book Marx, Engels and Lenin on Ireland. Many of the Irish fighters had read this book, and it had strengthened their conviction that Irish national liberation had to be closely linked with international proletarian solidarity.
Because of the high rate of casualties, the James Connolly Unit was disbanded and the Irish volunteers were divided between the British and American battalions of the newly formed 15th International Brigade. In the ranks of this brigade they fought in the famous battle of the Jarama. In that battle there were defeats and victories. One of the engagements was recorded by Frank Ryan:
“On the road from Chinchón to Madrid, the road along which we had marched to the attack three days before, were scattered now all who survived—a few hundred Britons, Irish and Spaniards. Dispirited by heavy casualties, by defeat, by lack of food, worn out by three days of gruelling fighting, our men appeared to have reached the end of their resistance. Some were still straggling down the slopes which had been, up to an hour ago, the front line. And now there was no line . . . After three days of terrific struggle, the superior numbers, the superior armaments of the fascists had routed them. All, as they came back, had similar stories to tell; of comrades dead, of conditions that were more than flesh and blood could stand, of weariness they found hard to resist. I recognised the young commissar of the Spanish Company. His hand bloody where a bullet had grazed the palm, he was fumbling nervelessly with his automatic, in turn threatening and pleading with his men. I got Manuel to calm him, and to tell him we would rally everybody in a moment. As I walked along the road to see how many men we had, I found myself deciding that we should go back up the line of the road to San Martín de la Vega and take the Moors on their left flank.
“Groups were lying about on the roadside, hungrily eating oranges that had been thrown to them from a passing lorry . . . I found my eyes straying always to the hills we had vacated . . . They stumbled to their feet . . . One line of four . . . A few were still on the grass bank beside the road, adjusting helmets and rifles. ‘Hurry up!’ came the cry from the ranks. Up the road . . . I saw Jock Cunningham (the battalion commander) assembling another crowd. We hurried up, joined forces. Together, we two marched at the head. The crowd behind was marching silently. The thoughts in their minds could not be inspiring ones. I remembered a trick of the old days when we were holding banned demonstrations. I jerked my head back: ‘Sing up, ye sons of guns.’
“Quaveringly at first, then more lustily, then in one resounding chant the song rose from the ranks. Bent backs straightened; tired legs thumped sturdily; what had been a routed rabble marched to battle again as proudly as they had done three days before. And the valley resounded to their singing:
. . . Then, comrades, come rally,
And the last fight let us face;
The International unites the human race . . .
“On we marched, back up the road, nearer and nearer to the front . . . I looked back. Beneath the forest of upraised fists, what a strange band: unshaven, unkempt, blood-stained, grimy. And marching on the road back. Beside the road stood our Brigade Commander General Gál . . . We gave three cheers for him. Briefly, tersely, he spoke to us. We had one and a half hours of daylight in which to recapture our lost positions. ‘That gap on our right?’ A Spanish Battalion was coming up with us to occupy it. Again the International arose. It was being sung in French, too . . . a group of Franco-Belge had joined us. We passed the Spanish Battalion. They had caught the infection: they were singing, too, as they deployed to the right. Jock Cunningham seemed to be the only man who was not singing. Hands thrust into his greatcoat pockets, he trudged at the head of his men . . . We were singing; he was planning.
“As the olive groves loom in sight, we deploy to the left. At last, we are on the ridge, the ridge which we must never again desert. For, while we hold that ridge, the Madrid-Valencia road is free. Bullets whistle through the air, or smack into the ground, or find a human target. Cries, shouts . . . But always the louder interminable singing.
“Flat on the ground, we fire into the groves. There are no sections, no companies even. But the individuals jump ahead, and set an example that is readily followed—too readily, because sometimes they block our fire . . . Advancing! All the time advancing. As I crawl forward I suddenly realise, with savage joy, that it is we who are advancing and they who are being pushed back.”8
The fascist offensive was hurtled back. But again the Irish, among all the other international volunteers, paid a high price. They lost some of their best and bravest, men like the Protestant clergyman Rev. R. M. Hilliard, known because of his fistic prowess in the ring as the Boxing Parson. In the earlier stage of the fascist advance he had fought on against the advancing tanks with a little group that had neither an anti-tank gun nor grenades. With him died Éamonn McGrotty of Derry, who had been a member of the Irish Christian Brothers, a Catholic teaching order; William Fox, Bill Henry and Dick O’Neill of Belfast; Hugh Bonar of Donegal; Liam Tumilson, the ex-member of the anti-national sectarian Orange Order, who in Spain had proved his fealty both to the cause of Irish national liberation and of international solidarity; Paddy McDaid, whose battles before Jarama had included the defence of the Four Courts in Dublin during the Irish Civil War in 1922; Charlie Donnelly, a student at University College, Dublin, a leader of the Republican Congress, a young poet of great promise, who had interrupted his work on the life of James Connolly to go to Spain.
For the Irish the greatest loss was sustained in the death of Captain Kit Conway. More than sixteen years before he had earned for himself the reputation of a tough guerrilla commander against both the British imperialists and the pro-Treatyites in Ireland. An indomitable opponent of fascism, he joined the Communist Party of Ireland and was well known in many parts of his country for his fighting opposition to the Blueshirts. Because of the pogrom atmosphere in Ireland against the defenders of Republican Spain, many of the volunteers had to leave the country quietly. But Conway, an active member of the Building Workers’ Section of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, on the day of his departure addressed his fellow-workers on the construction job where he worked. He explained what was happening in Spain, saying: “Sooner than fascism should win there, I would leave my body in Spain to manure the fields.”
In March 1937 many of the Irish who had been wounded on the Jarama, like Peter Daly of Co. Wexford, arrived at the base in Albacete, where new recruits were being formed into a unit. This was the Anglo-American Company, which had sections of Americans, Latin-Americans and a section composed of Irish and British. This company was attached to the 20th Battalion.
Two Irishmen, Peter Daly and Paddy O’Daire, were lieutenants in the Anglo-American Company, which took part in the fighting at Pozoblanco. After four months on the Southern Front they were returned to Albacete for the purpose of rejoining the reorganised 15th Brigade.
From 6 to 26 July the Irish volunteers took part in the battle of Brunete, where they lost Thomas Morris; two comrades from Belfast, William Laughran and William Beattie; the Dubliner William Davis; and Michael Kelly of Ballinasloe. Another Irishman, George Brown, who was a leading figure in the communist and working-class movement in Manchester, was shot by the fascists as he lay wounded on the roadside. After Brunete, where there was a further reorganisation of the various battalions of the 15th Brigade, Peter Daly was appointed commander of the British Battalion. During the capture of Quinto on the Aragón Front, he was seriously wounded and later died in a hospital in Benicasim.
Four months later, at the battle for Teruel, three more Irish volunteers were to lay down their lives. They were Peter Glacken, Francis O’Brien, and David Walshe, a lad from Ballina in the west of Ireland.
In Aragón during the fascist offensive that began on 9 March 1938, Ben Murray, a Belfast worker, died a hero’s death in an attempt to stop the advancing Franco troops.
On the same front, Frank Ryan, now with the rank of major and adjutant of the 15th Brigade, was taken prisoner by the Italian fascists. They lined him up on the road with all the other prisoners and with bayonet-prods tried to force him to give the fascist salute. Ryan, with a proud bearing, refused. Under the threat of death they persisted in their efforts, but he continued to treat them with contempt. They then placed him in front of a firing party and proceeded to enact the motions of an execution. He still remained adamant. They did not kill him, as one of the senior officers considered that such a high-ranking officer of the International Brigades was a prize that could possibly be exchanged for one of the Italian fascist officers captured by the Republican forces. Frank Ryan was taken to the concentration camp at San Pedro de Cardeña, where the fascist jailers tried to break him. They failed. He was transferred to the Burgos Central Prison, where a count-martial sentenced him to death. A committee consisting of prominent personalities was formed in Ireland to campaign for his release. In this they did not succeed, but the fascists had to commute the death sentence to thirty years’ imprisonment.
In 1937 and 1938 new volunteers arrived to fill the gaps in the ranks of the Irish. The new and veteran Irish fought alongside the British, Americans, Canadians, Cypriots and others who made up the 15th Brigade, in the crossing of the Ebro and in the subsequent battles on the Sierra Pandols. There the Irish List of the Dead gained new names: Jimmy Straney, Maurice Ryan, and Paddy O’Sullivan, the senior officer of No. 1 Company of the British Battalion.
On 22 September 1938, two years after the first Irish anti-fascist had come to Madrid, the last two Irish deaths in action took place. They were Liam McGregor, a young political commissar and leading figure in the Communist Party of Ireland, and Jack Nalty, officer of a machine-gun company, who had come in the first group with Frank Ryan. Fascist bullets ended the life of men who had been active in the Irish Republican, trade union and communist movements.
The withdrawal of the International Brigades in September 1938 ended the period of service of the Irish anti-fascists in the ranks of the Spanish people’s army. In December they set out for home. They had fulfilled the pledge of solidarity and had redeemed the honour and freedom-loving traditions of the Irish people. Their struggle was a natural expression of traditional links between the Irish national liberation movement and the cause of international solidarity.
Compared numerically with the contributions of other countries to the International Brigades, that of Ireland was not large, but the difficult political conditions under which the Irish joined the movement must be borne in mind. Of the 145 Irish volunteers who came to Spain, 63 laid down their lives.
Their story was told in detail in my book The Connolly Column: The Story of the Irishmen Who Fought for the Spanish Republic, 1936–39 (1979). They were finally honoured nationally by a commemorative plaque unveiled by the Lord Mayor of Dublin on 5 May 1990 at Liberty Hall, Dublin, head office of Ireland’s largest trade union. Liberty Hall had also served as headquarters of James Connolly’s own Irish Citizen Army, which he led in the national revolutionary rising of Easter 1916. Local memorials were also unveiled in Waterford to the ten volunteers who came from that city; on Achill Island, Co. Mayo, to Tommy Patten, the first Irishman to fall in Spain when defending Madrid; and in Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, to the International Brigader Michael Lehane, who gave his life in the continuing struggle against fascism when serving in the Norwegian merchant navy in 1943.
As the sixtieth anniversary of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War was reached, the greatest honour to be received by Connolly Column veterans was from the Spanish people themselves, as we shared with our fellow International Brigade veterans in the award of entitlement to claim Spanish citizenship and as we participated in the nationwide commemorations throughout Spain in November 1996. But there was also an even greater awareness at home of how we had upheld Ireland’s honour in that struggle. In 1937 it had been those who had served Franco fascism who had been acclaimed with a civic reception by the then Lord Mayor of Dublin. Now, if those forces are recalled at all, it is with a sense of national embarrassment. The wheel has turned full circle. Even if it was sixty years late in coming, it was indeed an honour for the surviving Connolly Column veterans to have their anti-fascism at long last honoured by a civic reception from the Lord Mayor of Dublin on 14 February 1997. We have been particularly honoured by our own class with ceremonies organised by the trade union councils of Dublin, Waterford, and Clonmel. On 11 May 1997 we were present in Kilgarvan when the Norwegian ambassador to Ireland posthumously presented his country’s War Service Medal earned in the Norwegian merchant navy by our comrade-in-arms Michael Lehane and as the then Tánaiste (deputy prime minister), Dick Spring, also paid tribute to that Irish International Brigader who gave his life at sea in the struggle against fascism in 1943.
It is a great source of joy to me that present on all these occasions was Peter O’Connor of Waterford, the last Irish survivor of the battles of Jarama and Brunete. It was Peter O’Connor and his fellow-Waterfordmen Paddy and Johnny Power who crawled out onto the Jarama battlefield to bring back the body of the Irish poet-volunteer Charlie Donnelly for burial in Morata de Tajuña. And it was Peter who spoke on behalf of all of us at the ceremonies marking the unveiling of the memorial to the heroic dead of Jarama in Morata cemetery in 1994. I regret to say that Peter O’Connor passed away in June of this year.
Now the ranks of surviving Connolly Column veterans number just four: Bob Doyle and Maurice Levitas, who both fought on the Aragón front and were imprisoned for a year in the fascist concentration camp of San Pedro de Cardeña; and Eugene Downing and myself, who both fought on the Ebro front, where we were wounded. But we have lived to see the sacrifice of our comrades who gave their lives in Spain finally vindicated at the highest level in our own country. And Peter O’Connor also lived to see that day.
It was on 12 May 1996 that a monument was erected outside Liberty Hall to the Irish socialist leader James Connolly on the eightieth anniversary of his execution by British imperialism. The monument was unveiled by the then President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, who is now the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. We, the Connolly Column veterans of the International Brigades, were present with our banner displaying the red, yellow and purple colours of the Spanish Republic. And during the course of her speech President Robinson paid tribute to us as a group who, to use her own words, “fought—inspired by Connolly—in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War.” When the President subsequently greeted us one by one, she also said: “You did yourselves proud.” I have just one qualification to make to that. It was the Spanish people themselves who did us proud, and it was an honour to fight alongside them.
Salud y victoria!
Notes1. Irish Independent, 29 February 1934.
2. Recruited to fight on Franco’s side, the Irish Brigade was in Spain for less than six months. It took part in only one action—with Canary Island troops from their own side—and lost two men in the encounter. Four others were killed during a brief period in the trenches. Realising that they had been duped, the men of the brigade mutinied and demanded to be sent home. Upon their return to Ireland they were given a carefully managed heroes’ welcome. For some time they basked in the blaze of publicity, which extolled their “deeds” in the Franco army. With the aid of Catholic clergy, pressure was applied on them to prevent them from telling the truth about Franco Spain. The news of this brigade’s fiasco was printed in only a few newspapers, one of which was the New York Times. A varnished account of the brigade’s “exploits” is given in a book published by Eoin O’Duffy in Dublin in 1938.
3. The Worker, 15 August 1936.
4. The Worker, 12 December 1936.
5. The Worker, 23 January 1937.
6. The Worker, 19 March 1937.
7. The Worker, 6 February 1937.
8. The Book of the Fifteenth Brigade (Madrid, 1938), p. 58–61.
Address to the national conference of the Irish Labour Party by Michael O’Riordan (member of the Connolly Column, 15th International Brigade, Spanish Anti-Fascist War), City Hall, Cork
30 September 2001Sixty-five years ago the democratically elected Popular Front government of the Spanish Republic was confronted by the twin threat of a fascist revolt led by Franco and its supporting foreign invasion of armed forces from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In response, anti-fascists throughout the world resolved to come to the defence of the Spanish Republic through the formation of the International Brigades.
It was sixty-five years ago this month that the first Irish anti-fascist volunteer arrived in Spain to participate in the heroic defence of Madrid. He was the Irish Bricklayers’ Union activist Bill Scott. Bill hailed from a very politically conscious Dublin Protestant working-class family, and his father had fought in the 1916 Rising as a member of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army. Up to two hundred other Irishmen were to follow him—men of all religions and none, drawn from the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish working-class traditions of our cities and towns and the republican and Land League traditions of both town and country. They were, in the words of Christy Moore’s song “La Quince Brigada”—which he wrote in honour of the 15th International Brigade—“a brotherhood against the fascist clan.”
With the roll of honour of the Irish Section of the International Brigades comprising atheist and Jew, a Church of Ireland clergyman and a former Irish Christian Brother, communist activists, IRA veterans and a former Orangeman, the true republican vision of Wolfe Tone was achieved in its ranks: the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman.
I am now one of only three surviving Irish veterans of the International Brigades. I accept this conference’s recognition of the stand we took over sixty years ago as a tribute to all my comrades in arms, and in particular to the sixty-three of them who gave their lives in the struggle against fascism. In that fight they suffered the added wound of having the vast majority of Irish public opinion opposed to them at that time, whipped up by the hysteria of the William Martin Murphy press. And it was a hysteria that also engulfed the Labour Party itself. Any attempt to raise the issue of the defence of the Spanish Republic was shouted down at Labour Party conferences, and a prominent Labour Party TD actually graced the platform of Paddy Belton’s so-called Irish Christian Front in order to show his support for Franco.
Speaking, as I am, in my native city of Cork, I should also mention from personal experience how that hysteria affected the families of volunteers. My parents, who had migrated into the city from the west Cork Gaeltacht of Béal Átha an Ghaorthaidh, were not responsible for the stand I took in volunteering to fight in Spain, but they were nonetheless made to pay painfully for their son’s actions. In August 1938, I was wounded outside Gandesa in the battle for Hill 481. Some time later, as I recovered in hospital, I was able to send a telegram to my Cork home on Pope’s Quay in order to reassure my anxious parents that I was now safe and well. They were, of course, much relieved. But my genuinely religious mother also met the full venom of religious bigotry on her own doorstep when the postman who delivered that telegram spat out at her the curse: “It’s dead he should be, for fighting against Christ!”
As that great Irish republican priest Father Michael O’Flanagan so often pointed out, we were not of course fighting against Christ but against the perversion of religion to justify the oppression of the Spanish people and the subversion of their democratic will. Father O’Flanagan declared: “The fight in Spain is a fight between the rich, privileged classes against the rank and file of the poor oppressed people of Spain.” But it took over half a century for that fact to be appreciated in Ireland. As part of that process of education I wrote The Connolly Column: The Story of the Irishmen Who Fought for the Spanish Republic, 1936–39. And in my 1979 dedication I wrote: “To the memory of my father, who, because of the propaganda against the Spanish Republic in Ireland, did not agree with my going to Spain, but who disagreed more with our ‘coming back and leaving your commander, Frank Ryan, behind.’”
I came back to four years of internment. Following my release from the Curragh Camp and my return to Cork in 1943, I was among those who founded the Liam Mellows Branch of the Labour Party, in the hope that it might become the political voice of Irish anti-fascism in this city. I was named secretary of that branch, but unfortunately the chairman we were given by the party leadership was a Cork city councillor who would debase the name of Labour in 1944 by a vitriolic attack on what he called the “Jew boys” of Cork. It was in opposition to such anti-Semitism that I insisted on giving a public lecture under the auspices of the Liam Mellows Branch on the subject of the Jewish question. A number of prominent members of Cork’s Jewish community attended that public meeting, and the future Lord Mayor of Cork, Gerald Goldberg, said from the floor: “I came here to defend my people, but when I heard the lecturer I saw there was no need.”
But the anti-Semitic Labour councillor did not give up. When Gerald Goldberg subsequently made a donation to branch funds, I was accused of attempting to “subvert the party with Jewish money.” An investigating committee was established, presided over by a Labour TD. The complaint against me was sustained, and I was expelled from a party that was not prepared to support my continuing anti-fascist stand in 1944.
I know that the present Labour Party has totally shed such anti-Semitism, and that in the person of Mervyn Taylor you have had a member of the Jewish community not only as chairperson of the party but also as Minister for Equality and Law Reform. But it should not be forgotten how long it took for that change to materialise. Even as late as twenty-five years after my own expulsion, a prominent Labour Party TD got away with making an infamous anti-Semitic outburst, for which he may have been criticised but was certainly not expelled. As I have said, that is now passed. And the Labour Party provided not only Ireland’s first Jewish Government minister but also its first Muslim TD, Moosajee Bhamjee.
In mentioning the need to learn from the past I must, however, pay tribute to one Cork Labour leader who did take a noteworthy stand against fascism. Jim Hickey, who was a close personal friend and fellow-striker with my father on the Cork docks in 1920, served several terms in Dáil Éireann. He was also my own branch secretary in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union when I earned my living as a bus worker in this city. It was as Lord Mayor of Cork that he hit the international headlines for all the right reasons in February 1939. When the Nazi warship Schlesien visited Cork that month, Jim Hickey adamantly refused to accord it the civic welcome that was normally due to such a so-called courtesy visit. And how right he was! Seven months later, on the 1st of September 1939, this self-same warship fired the first artillery barrage in the port of Danzig which in turn began the Second World War, with all the holocausts of the millions upon millions that followed.
I genuinely appreciate the tribute now being made by this Labour Party conference to the memory of that small band of Irishmen who took their stand in fighting fascism sixty-five years ago in an effort to halt its onward march towards a wider European and world war. But it is also necessary to appreciate how far we International Brigaders have travelled: from military defeat in that Spanish war to our subsequent vindication not only by history but also by the acclamation of Spanish democracy itself five years ago.
Sixty-three years ago, the withdrawal of the International Brigades in September 1938 ended the period of service of the Irish anti-fascists in the ranks of the Spanish People’s Army. In December of that year they set out for home. They had fulfilled the pledge of solidarity and had redeemed the honour and freedom-loving traditions of the Irish people. Their struggle was a natural expression of traditional links between the Irish national liberation movement and the cause of international solidarity.
Compared numerically with the contributions of other countries to the International Brigades, that of Ireland was not large; but the difficult political conditions under which the Irish joined the movement must be borne in mind. Of the approximately 200 Irish volunteers who came to the aid of Spain, 63 laid down their lives.
They were finally honoured nationally by a memorial plaque unveiled by the Lord Mayor of Dublin on the 5th of May 1990 at Liberty Hall, Dublin. The location was particularly appropriate, since Liberty Hall had also served as headquarters of James Connolly’s own Irish Citizen Army, which he led in the national revolutionary rising of Easter 1916. Local memorials were also unveiled in Waterford to the ten volunteers who came from that city; on Achill Island, Co. Mayo, to Tommy Patten, the first Irishman to fall in Spain when defending Madrid; in Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, to the International Brigader Michael Lehane, who gave his life in the continuing struggle against fascism when serving with the Norwegian merchant navy in 1943; and in the ATGWU office in Dublin. And a further ceremony marked our handing over of the now 63-year-old memorial banner of the Irish International Brigaders to the safe keeping of the Irish Labour History Museum.
As the sixtieth anniversary of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War was marked, the greatest honour to be received by Connolly Column veterans was from the Spanish people themselves, as we shared with our fellow International Brigade veterans in the award of entitlement to Spanish citizenship—by unanimous vote of the Spanish Parliament—and as we participated in the nationwide commemorations throughout Spain in November 1996. But there was also an even greater awareness at home of how we had upheld Ireland’s honour in that struggle. In 1937 it had been those Irishmen who had served Franco fascism who had been acclaimed with a civic reception by the then Lord Mayor of Dublin. Now, if those forces are recalled at all it is with a sense of national embarrassment. The wheel has turned full circle. Even if it was sixty years late in coming, it was indeed an honour for the surviving Connolly Column veterans to have their anti-fascism at long last honoured by a civic reception from the Lord Mayor of Dublin on the 14th of February 1997. The motion to hold such a reception had been proposed by the Labour councillor Dermot Lacey and unanimously agreed by Dublin City Council. We have also been particularly honoured by our own class with ceremonies organised by the trade union councils of Dublin, Waterford, and Clonmel. On the 11th of May 1997 we were again present in Kilgarvan when the Norwegian ambassador to Ireland posthumously presented his country’s War Service Medal earned in the Norwegian merchant navy by our comrade in arms Michael Lehane, who gave his life at sea in the struggle against fascism in 1943.
It was a great source of joy to me that present on all these occasions was Peter O’Connor of Waterford, the last Irish survivor of the battles of Jarama and Brunete, a one-time Labour Party councillor in his native city and a veteran of my own Communist Party of Ireland. It was Peter O’Connor and his fellow-Waterfordmen Paddy and Johnny Power who had crawled out onto the Jarama battlefield to bring back the body of the Irish poet-volunteer Charlie Donnelly for burial in Morata de Tajuña. And it was Peter who spoke on behalf of all of us at the ceremonies marking the unveiling of the memorial to the heroic dead of Jarama in Morata cemetery in October 1994. Also present at the Dublin and Morata ceremonies, as well as at the sixtieth anniversary commemorations, was the Dublin Jewish veteran Maurice Levitas, who fought on the Aragón front and was imprisoned for a year in the fascist concentration camp of San Pedro de Cardeña. Regrettably, Peter died in June 1999, and Maurice died in February of this year.
It is also a matter of particular regret that two of my closest personal and political comrades had passed on before the vindication of those sixtieth anniversary commemorations. Back in my native Cork, I now wish to pay special tribute to two sisters from the west Cork town of Clonakilty. My late wife, Kay Keohane-O’Riordan, who passed away in December 1991, was both a convinced Christian and a convinced communist, who bravely stood by me in our common struggle and who courageously confronted all the Red-baiting attacks that rained down upon us during the Cold War era. Kay’s sister, Máire Keohane-Sheehan, was chairperson of the Cork Branch of the Communist Party of Ireland at the time of her death in September 1975. But many a Labour Party conference was also roused by her eloquence during the 1960s, when, for a time, she was the sole female member of its Administrative Council. Máire—who served as secretary of the Cork Branch of the Irish Nurses’ Organisation—had also been a co-founder of the Liam Mellows Branch of the Labour Party and went on to support me when I was a candidate for the Cork Socialist Party in the 1946 by-election. When I was Red-baited by a Fianna Fáil Government minister during that campaign for having fought against Franco it was Máire who came to the fore in defence of my anti-fascist stand. Her powerful oratory drew thousands to hear her speak at public meetings on the streets of this city and won the support of the close on four thousand people who voted for me. Both sisters had been reared in the tradition of that great Clonakilty ballad “The Wife of the Bold Tenant Farmer,” and I salute their memory here today.
More than sixty years after the Spanish Anti-Fascist War the ranks of surviving Irish veterans of the 15th International Brigade now number only three: Bob Doyle, who also fought on the Aragón front and was imprisoned in San Pedro de Cardeña, and Eugene Downing and myself, who fought on the Ebro front, where we were both wounded. But we survivors have lived to see the sacrifice of our comrades who gave their lives in Spain finally vindicated at the highest level in our own country; and both Peter O’Connor and Maurice Levitas also lived to see that day.
It was on the 12th of May 1996 that a monument was erected outside Liberty Hall to the Irish socialist leader James Connolly on the eightieth anniversary of his execution by British imperialism. The monument was unveiled by the then President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, who is now United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Connolly Column veterans of the International Brigades were present with our banner displaying the red, yellow and purple colours of the Spanish Republic. And during the course of her speech President Robinson paid tribute to us as a group who, to use her own words, “fought—inspired by Connolly—in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War.” When the President subsequently greeted us one by one she also said: “You did yourselves proud.” I have one qualification to make to that: it was the Spanish people themselves who did us proud, and it was an honour to fight alongside them.
I will conclude by sincerely thanking your party leader, Ruairí Quinn, for his invitation and welcome, and conference delegates for this tribute.
Salud, y venceremos!
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