A drama inspired by the Irish Brigaders

This article is abridged from the Irish Times, January 3, 1994. By Francine Cunningham
Carried in The Volunteer, paper of the ALBA, Vol. XV1,No2, Fall 1994.

When the playwright Jim Nolan left his job as a linesman at Telecom Eireann 10 years ago to establish the Red Kettle theatre company in Waterford, he did not expect his former workplace to provide inspiration for one of his plays.

Nolan had been fascinated by the story of the 105 Irishmen, 10 of whom were from Waterford, who volunteered for the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

"I'm particularly interested in the form of idealism which made these men go to Spain, although I know 'idealism' is a word that the survivors resist," said Nolan, on a visit to Dublin. "Then I began to look at the business controversies at Telecom and at the morality which forms the basis of our political/economic culture. I started to look at that culture through the eyes of a survivor like Peter O'Connor from Waterford, who went some 57 years ago to fight in Spain.

"Part of the reason these men went to fight in the Spanish Civil War was because the struggle for a particular form of social justice in Spain linked into the type of politics they were trying to create in this country. "In Europe, at a time when many countries did have fascist governments, the Republican government in Spain looked like a beacon. The men who fought in the International Brigade had a clearly thought-out vision of the sort of country Ireland might become, emerging from a nation which was narrow, very sectarian and divisive.

"So when I looked at the social culture that prevails in this country, I wanted to make a connection between their hopes for Spain and Ireland." Nolan's resulting play, Guernica Hotel, is set in a small, modern-day Irish town where a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Francis Shannon, runs a hotel. The local people disparagingly refer to it as the "Guernica Hotel." While researching the subject of his play, Nolan spoke to survivors such as Peter O'Connor, Bob Doyle and Michael O'Riordan of the Irish Communist Party. "What these men did was virtually written out of history," said Nolan.

"There seems to me to have been a gross and deliberate distortion of information sent back from Spain, with propaganda stories about the murder of priests and rape of nuns by the Communists, spearheaded by the Catholic Church and sections of the Irish media. "Nothing could be closer to their hearts than to see a socialist government defeated in a Catholic country. So the men who fought were pilloried when they came back.

"There is a harrowing story about one volunteer from Waterford called Frank Edwards, who has since died. Because of his involvement with a group called the Republican Congress, he was sacked from his position as a teacher at Mount Sion school in Waterford. When he came back from the Spanish Civil War he could not find work, until he eventually got a job in the Jewish school in Rathgar. "What the volunteers struggled for is still worth struggling for. I make the distinction here between the formal Communist Party politics and the principles or ideals at the heart of the system. There is a certain moral stature which screamed for social justice, and it doesn't go away when East Germany collapses. There is a danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water."

Given that Irish men also went to fight alongside Franco on the nationalist side, it is notable that Guernica Hotel does not deal with their story. Why did Jim Nolan choose to exclude those who fought with Franco? "The lives of the volunteers were imbued with what they believed. It was not just a case of the right speech in the right place, it was not designed for getting elected. T h e play is very much a personal story, about trying to bridge the public and private world of an individual." '