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Culture - Long-awaited refresher

Book: Connolly Column by Michael O'Riordan

John Corcoran finds that the updated story of the Irishmen who fought in the Spanish Civil war remains utterly true to the original

Review in the Morning Star April 26, 2005
The first edition of this book appeared in 1979, when no Irish publisher was prepared to handle the title.

This long-awaited, new and updated version remains utterly true to the original by republishing the main body of the text in exactly its original form.

However, in this new edition, there is the addition of 14 new appendices comprising articles, obituaries and book reviews which all bring much fresh information to the reader.

Notably, there are impressive obituaries for Maurice Levitas and Eugene Downing and a full and more up to date roll of honour.

Michael O'Riordan was born in the West Cork Gaeltacht of Ballinderry, Gouganbarra. He grew up in Cork City where he joined the Fianna and the IRA.

O'Riordan was a member of Republican Congress and the Gaelic League and was friendly with Peader O'Donnell and Frank Ryan.

In 1936, O'Riordan went to fight fascism in Spain with the XVth International Brigade. He saw action on all fronts and was wounded at Ebro.

In 1938, O'Riordan was offered an army commission by the Irish Free State but chose instead to train IRA units in Cork. He was kept in the Curragh internment camp from 1939 until 1943, where he was OC of the Cork Hut.

In the post-war era, O'Riordan worked as a bus driver in Cork and was active in the IT&GWU. In 1947, he stood as a Socialist Party candidate and later moved to Dublin where, in the 1960s, he was a pivotal figure in the Dublin Housing Action Committee.

O'Riordan attended the 1966 International Brigades Reunion in Berlin and was instrumental in organising the removal of Frank Ryan's remains from Germany to Ireland in 1979, the same year that the first edition of his authoritative account of the role of the Irish in the International Brigade was published.

He also campaigned on behalf of the Birmingham Six and attended their appeal trial in 1990. Michael O'Riordan was, for many years, the chairperson of the Communist Party of Ireland and published many articles under the auspices of the CPI.

Connolly Column primarily focuses upon the Irish republicans and anti-fascists who fought in Spain, mostly within the British and Lincoln battalions of the XVth International Brigade after January 1937.

Leading figures such as Frank Ryan were IRA veterans of the war of independence and civil war. Ryan, like some other prominent Irish republicans, gravitated towards the left-wing Republican Congress in 1934 and the International Brigades in 1936.

As well as the original vivid and well written eye witness accounts of the war by Michael O'Riordan, of particular interest is the contribution of his son Manus O'Riordan, who convincingly contests such points as the critical re-evaluation of Frank Ryan's career by Ferghal McGarry and Robert Stradling.

These issues still resonate in modern Ireland, as evidenced by the vandalism of Russell's monument in Dublin in December 2004.

Manus O'Riordan's chapter on Frank Ryan's latter years confronts the insinuation that he was in any way sympathetic to fascism and concludes that Ryan, as an Irish patriot, "undoubtedly fails to pass the Stalinist test of unconditional loyalty to the interests of the Soviet Union, as he also fails to pass the Churchillian test of loyalty to the British Empire."

In the summer of 2003, Mick O'Riordan and Bob Doyle, the last surviving Irish International Brigaders - despite their advanced years - attended a commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Ebro, a decisive turning point in the Spanish civil war.

This moving international gathering attracted a large crowd under blue skies and, in the gruelling heat of a Catalan summer, with immense dignity and stoical patience, these veterans of the International Brigade sat alongside their comrades from many other nations, as speeches from local politicians who were half their age extolled the courage of their contribution to the fight against fascism.

Returning to Barcelona, word went around the train that a Brigadista was on board. People young and old came down to shake hands and embrace Bob Doyle in gratitude for his and his comrades' help in their struggle against fascism 65 years earlier.

Doyle was easy to find with his straw panama covered with anti-fascist badges and his rather surreal-looking sunglasses with the words "No to war" emblazoned across the shades in protest against the invasion of Iraq.

One woman tearfully explained that her grandfather had been among the countless thousands of republicans who were executed by the Franco regime after the fall of the Spanish Republic in 1939.

She thanked Doyle on behalf of all her family - people who had silently and bitterly nurtured their anti-fascist and republican principles throughout the long dark years of Franco's rule.

These spontaneous scenes demonstrated better than any speeches the genuine and sincere appreciation that lives on among the diverse people of Spain for the role of the International Brigade.

This powerful book helps to explain why this sentiment remains so heartfelt.

- The Connolly Column, The story of the Irishmen who fought for the Spanish Republic, 1936-1939 is available from Warren and Pell Publishing, GBP 14.99 paperback, GBP 19.99 hardback.

Several documents with reviews of material on Ireland and the SCW

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