Unveiling of the memorial to Kit Conway
On Saturday June 11, in the presence of the last two surviving Irish fighters of the 15th International Brigade, the Chairperson of South Tipperary County Council unveiled a memorial to Kit Conway in his native village, which reads as follows:
Memorial unveiled by Councillor Mattie McGrath, Cathaoireleach, South
Tipperary County Council, in the presence of International Brigade veterans
Bob Doyle and Michael O'Riordan, 11th June 2005.
The speaker spoke of how his own father, Captain John Kearney, had commanded the local Burncourt D Company, 6th Battalion, of the IRA's Third Tipperary Brigade during the War of Independence. His father had also been Kit Conway's best friend. It was in Kearney's local IRA Company that Conway had initially served, before progressing to Sean Hogan's Flying Column. One of Conway's earliest actions had been an attack on the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) police barracks in the neighbouring village of Ballyporeen (from where US President Ronald Reagan's great-grandfather had emigrated during the 1860s!). It was that combination of courage and military expertise shown by Conway during this attack that led his Battalion Commander, Col. Thomas Ryan, to write of him in later years that "had the circumstances afforded the opportunity, he might have been a famous leader like Tom Barry", the Flying Column Commander of the 3rd West Cork Brigade and author of "Guerrilla Days in Ireland". (This was a notably generous and noble tribute from Ryan who, subsequent to their common struggle during the War of Independence, had gone on to become a Free State Army officer and had fought against the Republican Conway during the Irish Civil War. But, then, the term that Sean Ua Cearnaigh used to designate that latter war was "the War of the Brothers", a term that would certainly not be applicable to the nature of the Civil War fought in Spain.)
The speaker further related Conway's decision to go to Spain to fight in defence of the Spanish Republic, and his appointment as Company Commander of an Irish unit of the 15th International Brigade's British Battalion. He also spoke of how Captain Kit Conway had been killed in action during the Battle of Jarama on February 12, 1937, while commanding not only his own Irish company, but two companies of English volunteers as well, after their own commanders had already been killed.
The unveiling ceremony was a truly historic one, due to the presence of Bob Doyle, last surviving Irish fighter from the Aragon front and ex-prisoner of the fascist concentration camp of San Pedro de Cardena, and Michael O'Riordan, last surviving Irish fighter from the Battle of the Ebro. Their speeches are given in full as (I) and (II) below.
The latter's son, Manus O'Riordan, also welcomed the attendance of relatives of some others who had fought with Kit Conway in either the Spanish Anti-Fascist War or the War of Independence. These included the Mayor of Waterford City, Councillor Seamus Ryan, present in honour of his late granduncle Peter O'Connor, who had been the last surviving Irish International Brigade veteran of the Battle of Jarama; Anne O'Hara who travelled from Glasgow in honour of her late father, Belfast International Brigader Gerry Doran; Marie Edwards who travelled from Dublin in honour of her late father-in-law, Waterford International Brigader Frank Edwards; and Margaret and Claire Guerin who travelled from Dublin in honour of their Burncourt-born father and grandfather Michael Guerin, a member of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade's Kilross Company during the War of Independence.
A particularly warm welcome was extended to four people who had especially travelled over from Spain in order to pay tribute to Kit Conway, in grateful appreciation of the supreme sacrifice that he had made on behalf of their country's liberties - Seve, Isaac, Inez and Ana. They had also brought along with them on that day otro amigo espanol - el sol! But it was the speech of Seve (Severiano Montero), which is given in full as (III) below, that provided the most moving moment of the ceremony. As he concluded his remarks, he sprinkled the ground around the Kit Conway memorial with soil that only two days previously he had brought over from Kit's place of death, the Jarama battlefield site that very soon during that battle itself became known as Suicide Hill.
Manus O'Riordan then sang the popular Tipperary ballad of the War of Independence "The Galtee Mountain Boy", with five additional verses in honour of all of the Burncourt volunteers and Kit Conway in particular, and which is reproduced in full as (IV) below.
Immediately following the unveiling of the memorial by Councillor Mattie McGrath, the renowned traditional accordionist Bobby Gardiner, son-in-law of Kit Conway's best friend Captain John Kearney, played, in the form of a lament, the tune of "Sliabh na mBan". ("Slievenamon" is the name of a Tipperary mountain that translates as "the Women's Mountain"). It was, indeed, a particularly appropriate choice of music, as it was this very same Irish-language song of the 1798 Rebellion that Waterford International Brigader Frank Edwards had also sung as a lament when burying his fallen comrades-in-arms in Spain. The ceremony concluded with the singing of the Irish National Anthem, "Amhran na bhFiann" - "The Soldiers' Song". The chief organiser of this Kit Conway commemoration was Sean Kelly, Treasurer of Relatives and Friends of Waterford International Brigadiers, who had also been the driving force behind the erection of the International Brigade monument in neighbouring Waterford in July 2004 . An illustrated Kit Conway memorial brochure was produced by Annette O'Riordan, with articles by Sean Ua Cearnaigh, Bob Doyle and Michael O'Riordan, and a reproduction of the contemporary account by Kit's comrade-in-arms Jim Prendergast, "How Kit Conway Died", that the Irish International Brigade leader Major Frank Ryan had published in Madrid in 1938, in his capacity as editor of "The Book of the XV Brigade". Copies of this brochure were eagerly taken up by all present at the ceremony. (A pdf version is, however, still obtainable by email, if requested from email@example.com
It is a measure of the interest evoked by that ceremony that a number of people from Burncourt came forward with personal reminiscences of Kit Conway that had been passed on by their parents through family lore. Perhaps the story that attested most to the formation of Kit's character at a very early age was that told by the son of a farmer who had once employed him as a labouring boy. When the teenage Kit - who at that time was still known as Christy - came to a decision that he was at long last old enough to quit and escape such labours, he gave what perhaps was one of the most original notices ever given by a worker to his employer. On a sandy patch of ground on the farmer's land Kit carefully fingered in that same sand the following message, before he disappeared into the night:
"CHRISTY CONWAY. NOW A MAN. GONE FAR AWAY"
The articles from the pdf document mentioned above can be seen here.
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