The Irish who fought in the Spanish Civil War - Manus O'Riordan Mar 09

The Irish who fought in the Spanish Civil War

An Adult Gallery talk on the 1938 Memorial Banner to the Irish International Brigaders who gave their lives in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War, given by Manus O’Riordan on March 7, 2009 in the National Museum, Collins Barracks, at the “Soldiers and Chiefs Exhibition: the Irish at War at Home and Abroad”.

It is a great honour to be asked to give this talk on the Memorial Banner of the Irish Volunteers of the 15th International Brigade, which is wonderfully displayed in the cabinet behind me. I will briefly detail the story of the Banner itself, before proceeding to talk about what it represents. En route, I will make a distinction between memorialising and remembrance. If some would consider what I say about that distinction a bit too harsh, perhaps I might then surprise you with another piece of information about one particular item in the adjoining display cabinet, whose provenance is not so clearly evident.

This Memorial Banner was produced during the Spanish War itself, and unveiled in 1938 by Father Michael O’Flanagan [1876-1942]. Earlier this year we commemorated the 90th anniversary of the opening sitting - on January 21, 1919 - of the very First Dáil Ēireann to be freely chosen by the Irish people in the General Election of December 1918 and which, in turn, ratified the Irish Republic proclaimed by the Easter Rising of 1916. Fr. O’Flanagan had been called upon by Cathal Brugha to pronounce the opening prayer of that historic session, hailing him as “the staunchest priest who ever lived in Ireland”. Michael O’Flanagan was required to be even stauncher still in character two decades later, when in fact he was the one and only Irish priest prepared to support the Spanish Republic and the Government that had been freely chosen by the majority of the Spanish people in that country’s General Election of 1936. O’Flanagan stood alone in the Church against an Irish Hierarchy that was unanimous in its denunciation of the Spanish Republic. Cardinal McRory went even further and encouraged the Irish Fascist leader Eoin O’Duffy to raise a Brigade of 700 to support Franco’s revolt against that Republic, a revolt that was backed to the hilt, both politically and militarily, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

O’Duffy’s Brigade lasted only six months in Spain and suffered no more casualties than can be counted on the fingers of both hands. On the other side of the political divide, about 300 Irish volunteered to serve in the ranks of the International Brigades in defence of the Spanish Republic. As many as 60 of them laid down their lives, beginning with Tommy Patten from the Co. Mayo Gaeltacht of Achill Island, who was killed defending Madrid in December 1936, and ending with Dubliners Liam McGregor and Jack Nalty, who gave their lives on the Ebro front in September 1938, during the final combat engagement involving the International Brigaders before they were withdrawn a month later.

This Memorial Banner was painted at the back of Kelly’s shop in Dublin’s Amiens Street. It was executed by a group of art students led by Maurice Cogan, acting under the supervision and according to the design of the artistic daughter-of-the-house, Aida Kelly [1915-1979]. Aida’s husband, Maurice MacGonigal, would become an internationally acclaimed artist. Their son, Muiris Mac Conghail, became a renowned documentary film maker, while his son, Fiach Mac Conghail, is currently Director of the Abbey Theatre.

The 1938 Irish International Brigade Memorial Banner has been on display here in the Collins Barracks National Museum since 2006, having been carefully repaired and restored by Rachel Phelan. Before that, it had been on display in the Irish Labour History Society Museum. It is now on joint loan from that Museum and the International Brigade Memorial Trust, of which I am the Executive Member for Ireland. By two pleasant but appropriate coincidences, the ILHS President who authorised that loan, Brendan Byrne, is both a former Union colleague of mine in SIPTU, Liberty Hall, and a nephew of International Brigader Eugene Downing [1913-2003], who fought side-by-side with my own father Micheál O’Riordan [1917-2006] in the 1938 battle of the Ebro.

It was my father who, on behalf of his fellow International Brigade veterans, had been custodian of that Banner since the 1940s, preserving it in James Connolly House. Its awkward size and vulnerability rendered it unsuitable for use in commemorative events. Instead, we use a smaller banner made by Jer O’Leary, which I have brought along to show you, and which suitably consists of the red, yellow and purple flag of the Spanish Republic, bearing the words – in Gaelic script – connolly column XV brigada internacional. The last such occasion on which it was used was exactly a fortnight ago, February 14, for the 600-strong memorial procession through Dublin City centre to Liberty Hall, following behind the ashes of Bob Doyle [1916-2009], the very last of Ireland’s International Brigade fighters.

I do, however, know of at least two occasions on which the larger Memorial Banner was used for outside commemorations. The first was in November 1987, when I gave a lecture on Irish and Jewish Volunteers in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War, as the Banner stood beside the Ark of the former synagogue of the Irish Jewish Museum, located off the Dublin street where I myself grew up and near the childhood home of Irish Jewish International Brigader Maurice Levitas [1917-2001]. The second occasion was outside Liberty Hall in May 1991, as the Memorial Plaque was unveiled to those Irish who had given their lives in defence of the Spanish Republic, and as Maurice Levitas read out the roll of honour.

Six months later, in November 1991, the Memorial Banner was presented by my father to the Irish Labour History Society Museum, in a moving ceremony at which the last Irish survivor of the 1937 battle of Jarama, Peter O’Connor [1912-1999], also spoke. The family of Aida Kelly was represented by her now deceased brother Arthur Kelly. Arthur had served with me with me in Liberty Hall as an official of the ITGWU. So also did his daughter, my friend and SIPTU colleague Barbara, who is the owner of an original scene from that War painted by the world famous Catalan Republican artist Sim. It is precisely a reproduction of that same Sim painting that is featured as a panel in this Banner, centred directly under the names of the dead and the memorial invocation “Democracy Remembers Her Sons”. This is not, however, a complete list of all those who gave their lives in Spain. Indeed, it contains the name of one Volunteer, presumed dead, who had gone missing in action behind enemy lines on the Aragon front, but who eventually made his way back to his own lines, fought again on the Ebro front - and lived to tell the tale.

In the first row of this Banner you can see that the second name is that of the Reverend Robert Hilliard, introduced by Christy Moore’s song “Viva la Quince Brigada!” in the following manner:

“Bob Hilliard was a Church of Ireland pastor.
From Killarney across the Pyrenees he came.
From Derry came a brave young Christian Brother.
Side by side they fought and died in Spain.”

Beside him is the London-Jewish volunteer Samuel Lee who chose to fight in the ranks of the Irish, although he may in fact have had his own connection here during part of his childhood, as he had also been known to some of his fellow-volunteers as “Dubliner David Levy”.

In the second row is the Co. Tyrone poet Charlie Donnelly, famous for the very last words he is reputed to have uttered before being shot – “Even the Olives Are Bleeding!” On the same line is Liam Tumilson of Belfast, formerly Billy, a one-time member of the Orange Order before being persuaded of the need for cross-community unity among workers by the Communist Party of Ireland. In the fourth row is another Belfastman, Bill Henry, a First World War veteran. In the fifth row are Eamon McGrotty of Derry, the former Christian Brother referred to in Christy Moore’s song, and Achill Islander Tommy Pattern. In the sixth row is John O’Shea of Waterford - the man who came back from the dead! In the seventh row is Kit Conway, a Flying Column hero in his native Tipperary during our own War of Independence, and who would be killed in action in the February 1937 battle of Jarama as he commanded three separate companies. As I wrote in some additional verses in his honour that I’ve attached to the song “The Galtee Mountain Boy”:

“So gathered here let’s raise a cheer for Burncourt’s native sons,
Jack Ryan and Michael Guerin defending with their guns
The Republic and Dáil Éireann, the Irish people’s choice,
First in the fray, brave Kit Conway, with John Kearney and the Boys.”


“’36 the year, defying fear, saw the Spanish people vote
A Republic for the Rights of Man, but Franco would revolt.
Gernika ablaze from Hitler’s planes, the Republic overthrown,
Despite the brave 15th Brigade, Kit Conway to the fore.”

In the final line of the Banner’s list you can see the name of Tommy Wood. To again quote from Christy Moore’s song:

“Tommy Wood, aged 17, died in Cordoba.
With na Fianna he learned to hold his gun.
From Dublin to the Villa del Rio
Where he fought and died beneath the Spanish sun.”

Before departing for Spain, Tommy had left a letter for his mother: “I am going to Spain to fight with the International Column. I left a message to be delivered on Sunday. We are going out to fight for the working class. It is not a religious war, that is all propaganda. God Bless you.” This Republican youth was a nephew of Patrick Doyle, hanged by the British in Mountjoy Jail in 1920, and not reburied in Glasnevin cemetery until more than eight decades later, along with Kevin Barry. Two months after Patrick had been hanged, his brother Seán was killed in action – during the War of Independence battle of the Custom House.

Liam McGregor’s father had perished when serving in the British army during World War One, but neither he nor his mother Esther - whom I had the honour of knowing throughout the 1970s and up to her death in the 1980s - ever wore Poppies or participated in British Legion commemorations. Esther knew that the twin personal tragedies in her life resulted from the deaths of both her husband and her son in two very different wars. She fully concurred with Frank Ryan’s statement from Spain: “Our 50,000 who died in the Great War were sacrificed uselessly; no life here is given in vain.”

These were sentiments also shared by Achill Islander Tommy Patten. This former IRA volunteer had gone to Spain inspired by James Connolly. So also had Bill Scott, one of the very first Irish International Brigaders, whose Spanish identity card is on display here in the adjoining cabinet. Bill Scott hailed from a radical Dublin Protestant working class tradition that had previously seen his father join the Irish Citizen Army and fight alongside James Connolly in the GPO during the 1916 Rising. It was not Armistice Day nor Remembrance Sunday that was commemorated by the Irish volunteers in Spain - not even by the World War One veterans among them - but the anniversaries of Tone and Connolly. And that is why Father O’Flanagan, when unveiling this Banner in 1938, said of the Irish anti-Fascist dead in Spain: “Their deed was as noble as that of the men of 1916”.

Tommy Pattern is individually commemorated by a magnificent memorial on his native island. He is collectively commemorated with his comrades-in-arms both in this Memorial Banner and on the Liberty Hall Memorial Plaque. But the memory of the Republicanism he stood for has been traduced by the addition last year of his name to the self-proclaimed Mayo Peace Park Memorial. This is not at all a memorial to all Mayomen who died in warfare, for it specifically excludes all those Mayomen who gave their lives for their own country in the War of Independence, as well as excluding Mayo’s Major John McBride, who had been executed in 1916 for his leadership in the Easter Rising. The primary purpose of that memorial is to honour not only the Mayo lives uselessly sacrificed in the Imperialist War of 1914-18 but also those Mayomen who served in America’s imperialist war against the National Liberation Front of Vietnam.

Let there be no misunderstanding here. I believe the British Legion has every right to honour its dead. I myself have felt a very definite sense of family sorrow as I opened the Book of the Dead at the British War Memorial in Islandbridge to read the name of my grandfather’s first cousin John Sheehy, who was killed on the Somme Front in 1918. But the name of the Irish Republican Tommy Patten should not have been so outrageously hijacked for a British Legion agenda in Mayo.

This all brings me to the need to appreciate the difference between memorialising and remembrance. I remember with sorrow the name of John Sheehy, while rejecting the cause for which his life was sacrificed. But I honour both the names on this International Brigade Memorial Banner and the cause for which they fought. The names of those Irishmen who volunteered to either defend or attack the Spanish Republic are indeed remembered here in the same adjoining display cabinet. But here there is nothing resembling a Mayo sleight-of-hand. It is made perfectly clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that those volunteers were on opposite sides of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War, as they are on opposite sides of the cabinet itself.

My family, in one way or another has been responsible for all the International Brigade artefacts on display here: myself, on behalf of the IBMT, for the Memorial Banner itself; my son Neil for the Spanish Republican Army cap my father wore during the battle of the Ebro; my late father himself, shortly before his death, for the loan of Bill Scott’s Catalan identity card.

On display on the opposite side of that cabinet is the leather autograph book, complete with the Nazi swastika among its embossed decorative insignia, of Tom Hyde of O’Duffy’s Brigade. Hyde had followed the Blueshirt O’Duffy’s political trajectory all the way – from Fine Gael to the unequivocally Fascist National Corporate Party. Tom Hyde has been one of O’Duffy’s few casualties in Spain – being killed in a shootout with troops from their own Francoist side, a regiment of Canary Islanders, in what would nowadays be euphemistically categorised as “friendly fire”.

His nephew and namesake, Tom Hyde, has been a friend of mine for almost forty years, but views his uncle as having fought on the wrong side. Many of you will already have seen the historical Tom Hyde on screen, without realising who he was. Btu the next time you view the documentary film footage of the start of the Irish Civil War, as the Free State Army opens up artillery fire on the Republican garrison in the Four Courts, you will now know that the officer seen covering his ears was Tom Hyde.

The loan source for Tom Hyde’s autograph book is left anonymous in this display cabinet. It might otherwise have caused confusion! For I am its owner, having been entrusted with it a decade ago by his nephew Tom. But when this exhibition was first mooted, I had a problem of conscience. Having loaned the artefacts on the International Brigade side, should I leave that autograph book from the Fascist side buried at home in a drawer, or should I allow Hyde’s name to be remembered? I could not make such a decision on my own. I felt my father had every entitlement to exercise a right of veto. It was, after all, his War! No sooner had I raised the matter, however, than his response came unhesitatingly and unequivocally: “Put it on display. He was probably the best of them!” For my father also remembered the role of Tom Hyde at an earlier stage of his life, one who had served bravely in the East Cork IRA during the War of Independence.

I too honour Tom Hyde’s role in our war, while deploring his role in Spain. But like my father, I agree he should be remembered. It is, however, Hyde’s opponents, the men on this International Brigade Memorial Banner whom I honour. I will therefore conclude with a poem which the late Arthur Kelly, brother of the Banner’s designer Aida Kelly MacGonigal, composed and read out on the occasion of its presentation to the Irish Labour History Society Museum in 1991:

We Will Remember Them

In memory of the Irish Brigade of the Spanish Civil War
We read the names over and over
We read the names of places where so many died
On arid plains and on the cold sierras
Visioned faces imaging before my eyes
And now they are dead and we are alive
And we cannot bring them back

The once warm and laughing faces dying
In too many far-off places
In defence of a cherished freedom
The brittled sun splinters into a million facets
Of bright pieces – each one glancing shaft of light
On lonely graves of our fallen comrades
In the said Iberian peninsula

This now a solemn vow a promise to those
Now silent images that in their number we will rekindle and keep alight
The candle of freedom and liberty
The orange and lemon groves still blossom and grow
The olives still bleed and we still hope
And not in vain for freedoms’ light
We will not forget them
We will remember them.

- Arthur Kelly [1917-2007]

We will indeed not only remember but also honour their names by virtue of this 1938 Memorial Banner. Thank you for your attention.

Manus O’Riordan