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Commemorative Address by Manus O'Riordan

This Address was given by Manus O'Riordan, IBMT, at the Castell de Sant Ferran, Figueres, Catalunya on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2006 on the occasion of the International Brigades Seventieth Anniversary Commemorative Crossing of the Pyrennes.

[On Saturday, April 15th, 2006, British and Irish relatives and friends of International Brigaders marked the 70th anniversary of the formation of the International Brigades with a commemorative walk, led by Pauline Fraser, across the Pyrenees from France into Spain. The ceremonies commenced in the French Pyrenean village of Las Illas, at the monument to mark the passing through that village in 1939 of the President of the Spanish Republic, the President of the Basque Republic and the President of the Generalitat of Catalunya - fleeing for their lives as refugees from the triumph of fascism in Spain. (In 1940 the Nazi German occupation authorities and the collaborationist Vichy French Government would hand over President Companys of Catalunya for subsequent execution by Franco's Spanish fascists in Barcelona). This monument also commemorates the same village as one of the routes through which International Brigade volunteers clandestinely entered a blockaded Spanish Republic from 1936 to 1938; as well as the route taken in the reverse direction in 1939 by a significant proportion of more than half a million Spanish Republican refugees.

At the opening ceremony at Las Illas, presided over by Manus O'Riordan, a wreath was jointly laid by the International Brigade Memorial Trust's founding President and Secretary - International Brigade veteran Jack Jones and Marlene Sidaway. Manus O'Riordan and the People's College Choir of Dublin led the singing of Christy Moore's tribute to the Connolly Column - "Viva la Quince Brigada" - while Cor Cochlion of Cardiff led the singing of the IBMT anthem "Jarama" and of the International Brigades anthem "The Internationale".

Central to that opening ceremony - as well as to several more ceremonies held along the course of the route travelled that weekend - were the readings from the memoirs of International Brigaders themselves, recalling their own personal experiences of crossing the Pyrenees, and the poems that were likewise inspired. The 10 km route taken by this particular IBMT commemorative walk climbed up a mountain track from Super-las-Illas towards the French-Spanish frontier on the crest of a Pyrenean hill at Coll de Lli, before descending towards the Catalonian village of La Vajol.

On the following day, Easter Sunday, April 16th, a commemorative plaque - inscribed in French, English, Spanish and Catalan - was unveiled at the fortress of Sant Ferran in the Catalonian city of Figueres to mark the fact that it was here that so many International Brigade volunteers had first mustered after crossing the Pyrenees from France. A wreath was jointly laid by International Brigade veteran Jack Edwards and Dolly West Shaer, formerly founding Secretary of Friends of the International Brigades, whose joining forces with the International Brigade Association led to the establishment of the IBMT.

The following is the full English version of the vote of thanks delivered on behalf of the IBMT by Manus O'Riordan at the Castell de Sant Ferran ceremony, although several of its introductory paragraphs were in fact switched to the Las Illas ceremony of the previous day and - due to time constraints - some others were spoken in Spanish and Catalan only, with just a partial English translation given at the time.]




Dear representatives of the Generalitat (Government) of Catalunya and of Figueres City Council; dear comrades and friends;

It is a great honour for me to speak here as a member of the Executive Committee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust of Britain and Ireland.

Many thanks for this memorial plaque in honour of the International Brigades!

I regret that I do not speak Catalan, and I speak very little Spanish.

We are a group of English, Irish, Scots and Welsh. We are the children, grandchildren, relatives and friends of the International Brigaders who left their native countries 70 years ago in order to fight against fascism, in defence of the democracy of the Spanish Republic and for the rights of Catalunya.

In honour of those brigadistas we have arrived here in Catalunya from France, going on foot across those same Pyrenees that they themselves traversed between 1936 and 1938.

For us, the greatest honour is that we have been accompanied here by three of those heroes:

Two English Brigaders - our President Jack Jones (aged 93) and Jack Edwards (aged 91) ; together with the Irish Brigader Bob Doyle (a lad of just 90 years!).

Apart from marking the 70th anniversary of the formation of the International Brigades, this year is a year of many other important anniversaries in the history of the struggle for freedom and democracy. Two days ago - April 14th - saw the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the birth in 1931 of the second Spanish Republic, while tomorrow will see the celebration of the same anniversary of the restoration of the Generalitat of Catalunya on April 17th, 1931. We are very much aware that the commemoration being held here today in the Castell de Sant Ferran takes place not only in a historic centre of the International Brigades but also in the same place where the Parliament of the Spanish Republic met for the very last time on Spanish soil on February 1st, 1939.

Today, Easter Sunday, my own native country of Ireland is also celebrating the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Proclamation of an Irish Republic and the Easter Week Rising that followed it.

The Vice-President of that Republic was James Connolly, the international socialist leader and General Secretary of my own labour union - originally the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, now known as SIPTU - as well as being the Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Citizen Army.

On May 12th, 1916, strapped to a chair, so severely wounded that he was incapable of standing up, James Connolly was executed by the British Government, a crime comparable to the murder by the fascists of the President of Catalunya, Lluís Companys, on October 15th, 1940.

In honour of James Connolly's memory, Irish International Brigaders who fought in defence of the Spanish Republic named themselves the Connolly Column. These are the words inscribed on that memorial banner in Republican colours being held by my daughter Jess and son Neil:

"Connolly Column - 15 Brigada Internacional"

In the wake of that Easter Rising, Terence MacSwiney - a leader of the Irish Republican Army in Cork - was arrested and transferred to a prison in Britain, where he married his fiancée and comrade-in-struggle, Muriel. Following his release, MacSwiney was elected a Member of the Irish Parliament - Dáil Éireann - in the 1918 General Election, and he was also elected Lord Mayor of Cork in 1920.

Arrested yet again and transferred to a London jail, MacSwiney fought for his own liberty and that of his country by means of a hunger strike. He died after 74 days, but during those months the most profound solidarity with his struggle was to be demonstrated here in Catalunya.

The Catalan trade union organisation CADCI wrote of MacSwiney in its journal "L'Acció":

"This remarkable man, who from his prison cell displays, day after day, his unbending will to sacrifice his life on behalf of his ideal of nationhood".

On November 1st, 1920, All Saints' Day, CADCI commemorated MacSwiney with a mass demonstration in Barcelona and, as "L'Acció" reported:

"The poet Ventura Gassol gave a magnificent reading of a most beautiful original poem exhalting the supreme gesture of the Lord Mayor of Cork, producing among those present a deep emotion."

Based on the Catalonian folk song "Lerida Prison", here is a short extract from Gassol's 1920 poem of internationalist solidarity with Terence MacSwiney ("germá nostre", "our brother") and with the Irish Republic (Please pardon my poor pronunciation of Catalan):

Al cor ombrós d'Irlanda
n'hi ha una gran presó:
que ja no hi queden presos,
que no n'hi queden, no.
MacSwiney, blanc de cara,
gelat encar de la suor de mort,
ha obert un esvoranc a les muralles,
i cel amunt se'ls va enduent a tots …
Espirit de MacSwiney, germá nostre,
oh, si també ens obríssiu la presó !

The widow of Terence MacSwiney greatly appreciated that demonstration of solidarity by Catalunya. Initially in the Communist Party of Germany, and subsequently in the Communist Party of France, the same Muriel MacSwiney was active as an antifascist militant during the 1930s and demonstrated her own solidarity in defence of the Spanish Republic. In later years she also became a good friend of many International Brigaders, especially my father Michael O'Riordan.

The members of British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade were internationalists, not only in their defence of the Spanish Republic, but also in their understanding of the national question in both Ireland and Catalunya.

One can particularly speak of such internationalism with respect to Sam Wild, the British Battalion's final commander as it fought on throughout the course of the battle of the Ebro. That English commander of Irish ancestry had both the sense of history and the foresight to choose an Irish volunteer for a most important and symbolic act. On July 25th, 1938, in the final military offensive of the Spanish Republic, the British Battalion crossed the Ebro at Ascó. And on the other side of that river, on the Catalan territory liberated at that very moment from fascist occupation, this Irish volunteer raised up the national flag of a free Catalunya!

This Irish International Brigader - fighting with the flag of Catalunya in his hand - was born in Cork, the city of MacSwiney. Today the same brigadista, my father Michael O'Riordan, is ill in a Dublin hospital. But he has sent to this commemoration, to all the peoples of Spain, and especially to the people of Catalunya - his second fatherland - his greetings and his love.

The internationalism of the British Battalion was also demonstrated by the homage paid by all to the memory of the Irish socialist James Connolly. That Battalion chose as one of its anthems a song that had originally been written by Connolly himself for the Socialist Labour Party in Scotland (and first published in Edinburgh, in The Socialist, May 1903). Before, during and after the battle of the Ebro, Connolly's song was to be heard ringing out in the mountains, in the valleys and on the roads of Catalunya.

I shall now conclude with that anthem of the 15th International Brigade's British Battalion, James Connolly's own "Rebel Song":

[SINGS:]

Come workers sing a rebel song,
A song of love and hate,
Of love unto the lowly
And of hatred to the great.
The great who trod our fathers down,
Who steal our children's bread,
Whose hands of greed are stretched to rob
The living and the dead.

chorus:

Then we'll sing a rebel song
as we proudly march along
To end the age-old tyranny
that makes for human tears.
And our march is nearer done,
with each setting of the sun.
And the tyrant's might is passing
with the passing of the years.

We sing no more of wailing
No songs of sighs or tears;
High are our hopes and stout our hearts
And banished all our fears.
Our flag is raised above us
That all the world may see,
'Tis Labour's faith and Labour's arm
Alone can Labour free.

chorus Out of the depths of misery
We march with hearts aflame;
With wrath against the rulers false
Who wreck our manhood's name.
The serf who licks the tyrant's rod
May bend forgiving knee;
The slave who breaks his slavery's chain
A wrathful man must be.

chorus

Our army marches onward
Its face towards the dawn,
In trust secure in that one thing
The slave may lean upon.
The might within the arm of him
Who knowing freedom's worth,
Strikes hard to banish tyranny
From off the face of earth.

chorus





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