A DIVERSITY OF VOLUNTEERS
A paper by MANUS O'RIORDAN delivered at the International Brigade Commemoration Committee Public Seminar Commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War in Transport House, Belfast, 16th Sept. 2006
Comrades and friends,
The International Brigade Memorial Trust, of which I am honoured to be a Trustee, has commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War with the publication of a wonderful anthology:
Poems from Spain – British and Irish International Brigaders on the Spanish Civil War.
It contains poems written by six Irish volunteers, two of them from Ulster. I will begin this talk with one of them, and finish with the other.
The first poem is by Charlie Donnelly from Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, who fell at the age of 23 in the Battle of Jarama, on February 27, 1937, the exact date of the 10th anniversary of his own mother’s death.
Donnelly’s friend Blanaid Salkeld would commemorate him in her poem Casualties. It begins:
Who would think the Spanish War
Here Salkeld linked Donnelly’s name to that of the Reverend Bob Hilliard, also killed at Jarama.
Donnelly’s friend Leslie Daiken would link him to three other poets killed by the Fascists – two English and one Spanish.
My voice a reedy note in Arcady,Another friend, Ewart Milne - himself a volunteer with the ambulance service in Spain - expressed his internationalism thus:
Sirs and Señoras let me end my story -
Here Donnelly had been celebrated by poet friends who came from a diversity of traditions within Ireland itself - Catholic, Jewish and Protestant respectively. It was otherwise with those Irish who supported the Fascist side. As Eoin O’Duffy put it in April 1938, he took full responsibility for "the organisation of the Irish Brigade against Communism, Jewry and Freemasonry, for bringing that Brigade to Spain, and for bringing it home when it had fulfilled its obligations to the full".
The sheer viciousness of the propaganda and hatred faced by those Irish who took such a courageous stand against Fascism in Spain was summed up in a series of articles that ran all week in the Irish Independent in the New Year of 1937 and concluded with the following Fascist curse pronounced on those Irish International Brigaders who met their deaths, beginning with Tommy Patten in December 1936 and ending with Jack Nalty and Liam McGregor in September 1938. I quote: "In concluding these articles, I wish to state that "the present Government of Madrid is 100% Red and violently opposed to the Catholic Church. Any Irishman preparing to fight for or defend vicariously this regime is defending the enemy of his faith".
The International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT) is a broad church. It honours all who stood in defence of the Spanish Republic, whether or not they remained strong throughout or at times succumbed to weakness as a result of the horrors of war. The IBMT also honours the memory of all those who had the moral courage to confront unpopularity on the home front in Ireland through their defence of the Spanish Republic. They were led in the South by that brave Republican priest who had read the invocation on the occasion when the freely elected first Dáil met to ratify the Irish Republic in 1919 - the former Vice President of Sinn Fein, Father Michael O’Flanagan. And they were defiantly led in the North by the then Chairman of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and future Unionist Party Minister for Education in the post-War Government of Northern Ireland - Harry Midgley.
As for those who volunteered to go to Spain to fight, the wording of the plaque being unveiled here in Belfast today is broad enough to encompass both strong and weak, because we know what it cost each and every one of them to take the stand they did. It is dedicated to those volunteers “who stood against Fascism”. But we in the IBMT are also pleased to note that this very wording is unequivocally solid enough to exclude any honours for the man who claimed to have been the first Irish volunteer - Charlie McGuinness of Derry - who initially did go out to Spain, but when offered the opportunity to actually fight for the Republic he promptly returned home in December 1936 and during that same month - while the first Irish International Brigaders were being killed in action - he commenced the production of such scurrilous but all too influential Fascist propaganda for the Irish Independent.
Yes indeed, it was none other than that same McGuinness who had been the author of that Fascist curse on the heroic dead that I have just quoted. But we ourselves intend to honour those heroes, to mention just two of them named in Christy Moore’s song:
Bob Hilliard was a Church of Ireland pastor
Éamon McGrotty was that Derryman’s name. I remember accompanying his late brother John, in both 1994 and 1996, to the mass grave of 5,000 where Éamon is buried near Jarama; how John brought clay from their parents’ grave to mix into that mass grave and brought some of Jarama’s clay back to their grave; how he carried his brother Éamon’s own missal with him on both occasions; and how he retold the double hurt experienced by his family when they sought to have a Mass said after Éamon’s death in February 1937 and the Bishop of Derry refused them, saying that a Mass would be no benefit whatsoever to Éamon, as he was “now in Hell”. McGuinness’s dirty work had borne fruit.
Yes, it is the Irish volunteers who defended the Spanish Republic that we honour. Thanks to Ciarán Crossey and Jim Carmody we have an ever-expanding roll of honour for them. And of the Northern Ireland volunteers on that roll published in this Committee’s newssheet last year, six of them had served alongside my father in the British Battalion in the 1938 Battle of the Ebro.
One Ulstermen who survived that battle was the first of my father’s immediate comrade-in-arms that I remember from early childhood, Hughie Hunter from Ballyclare, Co. Antrim, whom I recall always brought his mouth organ down with him from Belfast to play tunes for us in our Dublin home, and whom my father brought to life in an interview with Ciaran Crossey as he recalled Hughie carefully saving his few pesetas at the Front in order to send home a regular donation to the Unity fund in Belfast.
Anybody who heard the BBC Radio Ulster programme by Diarmuid Fleming last April cannot fail to have been moved by the new accounts emerging in respect of volunteers from Northern Ireland:
Peggy Mount talking about her brother Dick O’Neill; Liz Shaw talking about her father Joe Boyd; Harry McGrath being recalled by his Shankill Road nephews. Such volunteers came from both Catholic and Protestant religious backgrounds; from Republican, Communist, Independent Labour and Loyalist political traditions. People from all traditions are also coming together today to honour their memory. This coming together does not abolish real differences but it does enhance the human relationships that make dialogue possible. And while such an event provides no solution for the Irish question, in our coming together to honour all who defended the Spanish Republic we might note that in that one struggle there was in fact an interchange and identity of language used in Spain itself, where every Republican was a Loyalist and every Loyalist a Republican.
The volunteers who hailed from the South were all Irish Republicans in the Wolfe Tone tradition – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and atheist. I will name but a few. Bill Scott from a Dublin Protestant working class tradition which had seen his father fight as a member of the Irish Citizen Army man alongside his leader James Connolly in the 1916 Rising. Frank Edwards a teacher from Waterford - already victimised by the Christian Brothers - who on his return from Spain found himself blacklisted by Catholic schools for his Spanish Republicanism and by Protestant schools for his Irish Republicanism, but who also found that the one and only school prepared to employ him was Dublin’s Jewish National School. Maurice Levitas from a Dublin Jewish working class tradition, his parents being refugees who had fled Tsarist anti-Semitism in Latvia and Lithuania. During the course of World War Two Morry’s maternal aunt Rachel and her family would become Holocaust victims in Riga. His paternal aunt Sara, her family and neighbours would be locked into their own Lithuanian village synagogue and burned to death. A paternal uncle in Paris - whom Morry had visited on his way to Spain in 1938 and again on his way back in 1939, following his release with Bob Doyle from the San Pedro concentration camp, and who thought he had emigrated far enough west to be safe - would also be murdered on his own doorstep by the Gestapo at the very end of the War. Christy Moore’s song speaks of “the rising fascist tide”, and it was that tide which those International Brigade volunteers - so derisively referred to by the British and American Establishment as “premature anti-fascists” - had tried to halt.
Another volunteer, originally from Kerry but for a number of years intimately linked with this city of Belfast as a Church of Ireland clergyman, was the Reverend Robert M. Hilliard, who was to fall at Jarama in February 1937. In 1931 he served as curate in Christ Church, Derriaghy, and in 1972 that Church was presented with a communion chalice, paten and cruet in his memory by a fellow International Brigader who was himself an agnostic. After he had been appointed to the Belfast Cathedral Mission in 1933, Hilliard became greatly radicalised by the social upheavals in this city at that time. Personal problems saw him subsequently leave for London where he became even more radicalised in later years, joining the CPGB and volunteering for Spain in December 1936.
His last message to his family was dated 24th January 1937 – a fortnight before his death. Let me quote from that farewell:
"My dear, Five minutes ago I got your letter. There is a Daily Worker delegation here who will take this back. They leave in ten minutes so I have time for no more than a card which will have an English postmark. Teach the kids to stand for democracy. Thanks for the parcels, I expect they have been forwarded to me, but posts are held up very long & especially parcels. Do not worry too much about me, I expect I shall be quite safe. I think I am going to make quite a good soldier. I still hate fighting but this time it has to be done, unless fascism is beaten in Spain & in the world it means war and hell for our kids. All the time when I am thinking of you & the children I am glad I have come. Give my love to Tim, Deirdre, Davnet & Kit. Write when you can, it will help-love to you, Robert."
Bob Hilliard also wrote to a friend:
"We came from France in motor lorries. Spirits were high. Speaking one to another we said ‘Franco has heard we are coming, already he is on the run.’ In the morning we were in the barracks at Figueras .The commandant arrived and we were given the choice of a day’s rest or of moving on. Unanimously we voted to move. Four hours sleep and breakfast. Then the train to Barcelona. We marched through Barcelona. What a march! Everywhere the people were out to salute - the clenched-fist anti-fascist salute, but in particular I remember one woman. She was about four feet in height, she wore a brown shawl with a design at the border - a shawl very like what an Irish woman from the country wears in town on market days. She carried a basket on her left arm, but her right arm was raised and her hand clenched in the anti-fascist salute. Her face though was what mattered. Her hair was black, her forehead wrinkled and heavy lines marked the sides of her mouth. She stood to attention as we passed, nearly two hundred of us marching in fours, and her mouth was moving rapidly up and down, holding back the tears. She was a brave old lady. Who knows whom she had lost in the fight against fascism?”
As the Gospel says:
"So shall the first be last and the last be first. For many are called but few are chosen".
We have already seen how the man who claimed to have been the very first Irish Volunteer in Spain, Charlie McGuinness, reversed that call and dishonoured himself by immediately going into the service of Fascism before the end of 1936.
Today’s plaque honours all those who actually stood against Fascism. And in a very special way it honours the man himself who will unveil it – Bob Doyle. When I spoke at Bob Doyle’s Dublin book launch in June I said that in some respects I could be described as the son of the runner-up in a slow bicycle race. After the death of Eugene Downing three years ago, both Bob and my father knew that they were the only two Irish International Brigaders still alive and they joked to each other about having a race between them as to who’d be the very last. As my father approached death last May and said his goodbyes to us he also added: “Good luck to Bob Doyle! He’s the last man standing!”
So today, the last shall also be the first.
But in a different way there is yet another last who also becomes first and who is deserving of particular mention in my final words of this tribute – the very last Irish volunteer to reach Spain. Here again my father found out that he had been the runner-up on that score also. In his 2002 interview with Ciaran Crossey, Eugene Downing had stated: "Finally Mick O’Riordan went out in April 1938, he was probably the last Irish volunteer". A year later, however, the grandnephew of another volunteer sent me a letter which referred to his relative enlisting in May 1938. My father immediately commented: "That makes him the last volunteer, so".
That man was an Ulsterman - James Patrick Haughey from Lurgan, Co. Armagh – who had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with my father in the Battle of the Ebro during July and August 1938; and who was captured and imprisoned that September, ending up where Bob Doyle had already been imprisoned for the previous six months – the concentration camp of San Pedro de Cardeña.
As with the letters of the Reverend Bob Hilliard, the following letter written from Canada after Haughey’s release from that Fascist Hell brings us still closer to the great humanity of all such volunteers.
This letter from Jim to his sister Veronica is dated 25th May 1939:
Jim Haughey was right. Some of those same things he referred to are dealt with in an appendix to the new edition of my father’s book Connolly Column, where I take issue with the denigration of Haughey by the historian Robert Stradling, who misrepresents a letter I once wrote to Carl Geiser, author of Prisoners of the Good Fight – the story of the San Pedro concentration camp. Stradling refers to that letter of April 1993 concerning Geiser’s Irish fellow inmate of that San Pedro concentration camp, Jim Haughey. I had written of Eugene Downing’s recall of Haughey’s Catholic faith in naively asking prior to the Ebro offensive whether or not the International Brigaders might have a priest to minister to them at the Front. Stradling contemptuously described that as a “pathetic” enquiry, whereas I myself had in fact described it as “poignant”, because, as I also informed Carl Geiser in that same letter, Haughey had told a British fellow-prisoner, Frank West:
"You know I shouldn’t be here at all! I’m on the ‘wrong side!’…I decided I would fight for the Faith in Spain. But I ended up on this side, and am I glad I did!"
There was nothing pathetic about Haughey, because what Stradling also decided to omit from his use of my letter to Carl Geiser was my further account of Haughey’s bravery as a prisoner:
"He had been thoroughly educated by his experience and was so convinced of the justice of that cause (the Spanish Republic) that he courageously stood up as a ‘rojo’ before his fascist captors and endured an almost fatal beating from a pick axe".
That was one horrific truth that he had held back from telling his sister Veronica.
Jim Haughey also went on to prove his continuing anti-fascist valour. He volunteered for the Canadian Air Force in June 1941, was killed in a plane crash on September 12th 1943, and his name is engraved on Canada’s World War Two Book of Remembrance.
Following his death, The Times of London published a poem entitled Fighter Pilot over the name of Séamus Haughey, in its issue of October 31st, 1943. It has echoes of the WB Yeats poem An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, but possesses the greater authenticity of being the actual premonition of a real airman, rather than Yeats’s attribution of his own imagined thoughts to Robert Gregory. What I hadn’t realised until last year was that Jim had already lost his father a year before, killed at sea - able seaman James Aloysius Haughey, torpedoed by a Nazi German submarine on February 1st, 1942. Reflections on his father’s death at sea are also present in the first verse where he speculates about his own forthcoming death. The 63rd anniversary of Jim Haughey’s death occurred four days ago. Might I make a proposal? The highlight of the International Brigade Commemoration Committee’s activities this year is today’s unveiling of a memorial plaque by Bob Doyle. Next year the highlight will be the erection of the Belfast monument itself. And the year after? Today we are honouring all who died. But we do have an actual International Brigade war grave here in Ulster – in Dougher Cemetery, Lurgan – where Jim is buried. So, in September 2008, it would indeed be possible to commemorate both the 65th anniversary of Jim Haughey’s death and the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Ebro - where he had fought so bravely and continued to fight following his capture - by an appropriate ceremony at his Lurgan graveside. I will now finish with Jim Haughey’s own poem, entitled Fighter Pilot.
I think that it will come, somewhen, somewhere
Now at last, we not only mention Jim Haughey’s name on this commemorative occasion, but also pay tribute to him and to all of his internationalist comrades who stood against fascism in defence of the Spanish Republic.
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