Reprinted from: - International Solidarity with the Spanish Republic 1936-1939

Produced by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. The institute of the International Working-class Movement, Soviet War veterans' Committee, published by Progress Publishers, Moscow, (second printing 1976). This is a series of articles about the support given to the Spanish Republic by activists across the world.

Thirteen years before the rising of the Spanish fascist generals, Ireland had a civil war. This was on the issue of full national independence from British imperialism—following a four-year period of mass resistance and a militant guerrilla struggle. The conservative bourgeoisie and its abettors in the national movement accepted the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which created two states in Ireland: one formally independent and the other colonial. This treaty was opposed by a radical section of the national movement, and a bitter civil war broke out. In 1923 the pro-treatyites won a military victory with the help of British armaments.

The Irish civil war created a major dividing line among the Irish people. It was followed by an uneasy peace. In 1932 the pro-treaty government headed by William Cosgrave was defeated in a general election. A new government was formed by the Fianna Fail Party led by Eamon De Valera. That party mainly represented the interests of the smaller capitalists, traders and middle farmers. Its programme called for strengthening Ireland politically and economically as an independent state. However, in the social sphere the De Valera Government largely continued Cosgrave’s anti-labour policies.

The electoral defeat of the Cosgrave Government was a setback for Irish reaction. To regain ground, the reactionaries launched a hysterical campaign against the Left Republicans and Communists. In March 1933, incited by the reactionaries, a mob sacked Connolly House, the headquarters of the Irish Revolutionary Workers and Small Farmers Groups, from which, despite the terror and government persecution, the Communist Party of Ireland was formed in June 1933. On its initiative the Irish Republican Congress, which united the Left Republicans, the tenant and unemployed associations, the small farmers and other organisations, was founded in September 1934.

In Ireland, as in other European countries, there was a fascist movement that called itself the "Blueshirt movement". Its leader was General Owen O’Duffy, who had commanded the pro-treaty troops and had been chief of police until the election of the De Valera Government. O’Duffy had established contact with international fascist circles and incorporated in the objectives of the Blueshirt movement the creation of an Irish corporative state. On February 28, 1934, Deputy J. A. Costello declared in the Irish Parliament: "The Blackshirts have been victorious in Italy, and the Hitler brownshirts have been victorious in Germany, as assuredly, the blueshirts will be victorious in Ireland." (Irish independent, 29/2/1934)

This fascist threat was met by a fighting united effort of Republicans, trade unionists, Communists and small farmers. Led by Frank Ryan, Tom Barry, George Gilmore, Sean Murray and Peadar O’Donnell, they drove the blueshirts off the streets after many violent encounters. Many of the men who were active in this struggle later joined the International Brigades.

In Ireland the Right-wing forces supported the revolt of the reactionary Spanish generals on July 18, 1936 with a hysterical propaganda campaign. Playing on the religious feeling of the people, the Irish reactionaries, particularly the blueshirts, slandered the Spanish Republic. For instance, the reactionary newspaper Irish Independent described the Left-wing bourgeois government, formed by Manuel Azaña in February 1936 after the Popular Front’s electoral victory, as a "group of bloodthirsty Bolsheviks, persecutors of Catholic nuns and priests". This sort of propaganda found a response among politically backward sections of the people.

This distortion of the developments in Spain confused even many members of the Irish Labour and Republican organisations. The first clear exposition of the real issues of the war in Spain was given on July 27, 1936 by The Worker, the weekly bulletin of the Communist Party of Ireland: "In Spain, as we write, a new immortal page of working-class history is being inscribed. The reports published by the capitalist press are like a dust cloud obscuring the fighters as they strain in combat, but from the glimpses of the truth we can picture the rest." After detailing the programme of the Spanish Popular Front the weekly stressed that the programme had the full support of the Socialists and the Communists, neither of whom had representatives in the government. It ended the report with the words: "Greetings to our heroic Spanish brothers and sisters in their glorious fight!"

This clear declaration by the Communist weekly helped many to assess the situation correctly, but the capitalist press proceeded shamelessly to poison the minds of the Irish people. In the ferment of organised hysteria O’Duffy, the leader of the blueshirts, posed as a "saviour of religion" and announced his intention to form an Irish Brigade of volunteers to "fight for Christianity in Spain". [Editors note. Recruited to fight on Franco’s side, the Irish Brigade was in Spain for less than six months. It took part in only one action with Moroccan troops and lost two men in the encounter. Four others were killed during a brief period in the trenches. Realising that they had been duped the men of the brigade mutinied and demanded to be sent home. Upon their return to Ireland they were given a carefully managed hero’s welcome. For some time they basked in the blaze of publicity, which extolled their "deeds" in the Franco army. With the aid of clericals, pressure was applied on them to prevent them from telling the truth about Franco Spain. The news of this brigade’s fiasco was printed in only a few newspapers, one of which was The New York Times. A varnished account of the brigade’s "exploits" is given in a book published by Owen O’Duffy in Dublin in 1938.] The reactionary Irish Christian Front was formed and it held rallies attended by clerical and lay dignitaries, who with religious slogans campaigned for Irish support for Franco. As a result, the large sum of £30,000 was collected at the church doors allegedly for the reconstruction of the churches damaged or destroyed in the fighting. Some of it found its way to the Franco forces and the rest disappeared, a fact that was, needless to say, completely played down.

The Irish anti-fascists staunchly fought the hate campaign against Republican Spain. They were helped considerably by the clear analysis given by Sean Murray, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, in his weekly articles on Spain in The Worker. Meetings were held to give people the truth about Spain. An outstanding public speaker, Murray addressed these meetings. On one occasion he said: "I warn the workers of Ireland against the press reports about atrocities in Spain. These come from imperialist liars, the hirelings of fascism. Their purpose is to turn the outside world against the Spanish Republic and to try to get foreign intervention to foist fascism on the people of Spain. These liars are not to be believed." Giving instances of how religious slogans had been used in Ireland’s own struggles in order to conceal the upper class opposition to the people’s demands, he pointed out that the same tactic was being used in Spain. "The gallant Spanish people," he said, "are not only fighting against the traitors within Spain but against the enemies of liberty throughout all Europe, Ireland included. This makes the Spanish question indeed a question for the friends of freedom in every land. Are we in Ireland to stand aside and allow this crime against the people of Spain to be carried out before our eyes?" (The Worker, 15/8/1936)

Another powerful voice that came to the defence of the Spanish Republic was that of Peadar O’Donnell. A well-known guerrilla fighter in 1920-23 and the author of many books, he had actually been travelling in Spain when the fascist revolt occurred. His first-hand accounts made an important contribution to making the truth known. Also active in championing the Spanish Republic was another famous Irish guerrilla, Ernie O’Malley, the author of On Another Man’s Wounds, a well-known book on the Irish War of Independence.

Regrettably, in this tense situation there was no clear call from either the Irish Trade Union Congress or the Irish Labour (Social Democratic) Party. However, at the annual conference of the Irish Trade Union Congress in August 1936 Christie Clark (Irish National Union of Woodworkers) Bob Smith (Plumbing Trade Union) and some other delegates did raise their voices in support of their Spanish brothers. The Irish newspapers, however, suppressed all mention of their statements in their reports of the congress meetings.

With the growth of the people’s solidarity with the anti-fascist struggle in Spain the Irish capitalist and religious press stepped up its campaign of lies and slander. Despite the paucity of progressive papers and the existence of pogrom-like atmosphere the fearless work of the first defenders of the Spanish Republic in Ireland began to have results. An All-Ireland Spanish Aid Committee was formed. It was headed by prominent public figures like Mrs. Sheehy-Skeffington (widow of an Irish pacifist who was murdered by a British Army officer in 1916); Dorothy MacArdle, the Irish writer; Nora Connolly-O’Brien (daughter of James Connolly, the Irish Socialist leader who was executed by the British imperialists for his leadership of the uprising of 1916) and R. N. Tweedy. In Belfast Harry Midgley, the Labour Member of the Parliament and Chairman of the Labour Party of Northern Ireland declared his stand with the anti-fascists of Spain. Despite a campaign of intimidation against them, the delegates to the Irish Conference of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union in September 1936 unanimously declared their approval of the British Executive’s decision in granting £1,000 for aid to the Spanish Government. A committee was formed in Dublin and Belfast to organise an Irish Ambulance Corps for the Spanish Republican Army.

Although the Irish Catholic Church was violently pro-Franco, the Reverend Michael O’Flanagan fearlessly and heroically championed the cause of Republican Spain. He had played a leading part in the movement against British imperialism and had been one of the few priests who openly denounced the treaty of 1921. Speaking at a meeting of solidarity with Republican Spain in the Engineers Hall, Dublin, on December 3, 1936, O’Flanagan said: "The fight in Spain is a fight between the rich privileged classes as against the rank and file of the poor oppressed people of Spain. The cause being fought for in Spain is nearer to us than realised. The Foreign Legion and the Moorish troops are to Spain what the Black and Tans (a mercenary corps of ex-British officers of World War I sent to Ireland in 1920-21 as a special punitive and terror detachment against the Irish guerrillas and civilian population.—Author) were to Ireland." (The Worker, 12/12/1936) He spoke against the activities of the Irish Christian Front in recruiting an Irish Brigade for Franco.

O’Flanagan and the Spanish Aid Committee (which later developed into the Irish Friends of the Spanish Republic) exposed the claim of the Spanish fascists and the Irish reactionaries that the war in Spain was on religious issues. Father O’Flanagan went on a lecture tour of the USA and Canada, where he spoke at many meetings and delivered many broadcasts in which he emphasised to the Catholics of these countries the real issues in Spain. He died in Dublin on August 7, 1942, a sterling Irish patriot and militant anti-fascist to the end.

Although they were frightened by the persecution of champions of the Spanish Republic, many trade-union leaders made generous but anonymous personal subscriptions to the Spanish Aid Committee, while some (for example, John Swift, now General Secretary of the Irish Bakers’ Union and President of the International Union of Food Workers) were forthright in raising financial aid from their fellow trade-unionists. Supporters of the Spanish Republic held a meeting on January 17, 1937 in the Gaiety Theatre, one of Dublin’s largest halls. The main speaker was Father Ramon Laborda, a Basque priest. He exposed the assertion that the fascists were defending Christianity: "When I read recently that the Catholics of Ireland were offering men and money to fascist Franco, the personification of the most brutal imperialism, I exclaimed indignantly: ‘It is impossible.’ Ireland could not do that unless she has been miserably deceived." (The Worker, 23/1/1937)

There was a quick response in Ireland to the news that foreign anti-fascist volunteers were arriving in Spain. The Communists took part in this manifestation of international solidarity.

In September 1936, the decision was taken to form an Irish unit for the Spanish Republican Army. The Communist Party of Ireland gave the task of recruitment and organisation to Bill Gannon, a Party member who had considerable experience of political work in the Irish Republican Army and been decorated with an Irish Governmental Medal for his distinguished record in the Irish national struggle. The first Irish volunteer arrived in Spain in early September. He was Bill Scott, a bricklayer, member of the CPI, one-time member of the Irish Republican Army, and son of a veteran of the working-class movement who had taken part in the 1916 rising led by James Connolly. In Barcelona he joined a group of French, German, Italian and English anti-fascists, who formed an International Centuria that later took the name of Thaelmann. In the defence of Madrid Bill Scott fought with the Thaelmann Battalion. In a letter to Sean Murray he wrote: "You needn’t mind who knows I am in Spain ... for ... it’s the most sacred cause in history to defend Freedom." (The Worker, 19/3/1937) The first Irish anti-fascists fell in action in December 1936 defending Madrid. They were Tommy Patton of Achill, County Mayo, and William Barry of Dublin, who came all the way from Melbourne in Australia to Madrid.

The first organised group of Irish volunteers left for Spain in December. It was led by Frank Ryan, who prior to the departure made a press statement, in which he said: "The Irish contingent is a demonstration of revolutionary Ireland’s solidarity with the gallant Spanish workers and peasants in their fight for freedom against fascism. It aims to redeem Irish honour besmirched by the intervention of Irish fascism on the side of the Spanish fascist rebels. It is to aid the revolutionary movements in Ireland to defeat the fascist menace at home, and finally, and not the least, o establish the closest fraternal bonds of kinship between the Republican democracies of Ireland and Spain." (The Worker, 19/12/1936)

Frank Ryan, commander of the Irish in the International Brigades, personified the best militant and revolutionary traditions of the Irish people. At the age of 18 he had taken part in the war against the Black and Tans and subsequently against the pro-treaty forces in the Irish civil war. A revolutionary journalist, he was for many years the editor of An Phoblacht (The Republic). He was one of the founders and the secretary of the Irish Republican Congress. In the period from 1923 to 1932 he was imprisoned time and again by the Cosgrave Government. He was a respected figure for his integrity and fighting personality and for his efforts to promote Irish culture (he was an enthusiast in the Irish-Gaelic-national language revival movement).

With him in the first organised group went outstanding figures in the Irish Republican, communist and working-class movements. Among these were Kit Conway of Tipperary, a legendary figure of the Black and Tans and civil wars; Jack Nalty and Paddy Duff; Donal O’Reilly (a veteran IRA fighter from a well-known revolutionary family), Frank Edwards of Waterford, who had been dismissed from his post as a teacher because of his anti-fascist activity; Seamus Cummins and Jim Prendergast, a well-known activist and public speaker for the Irish Communist Party. The first Irish group went to Madrigueras to be shaped into a military unit. This was speedily done as most of them, including the youngest had at some stage or other been members of the IRA in which they had a military training. The Irish section of the International Brigade became known as the James Connolly Unit.

The ranks of the Irish in Madrigueras were continually augmented by new arrivals from Ireland as well as by many other Irishmen who had come from Britain and the U.S.A. The latter had been driven into exile by the economic pressure of unemployment or had been forced to leave Ireland for political reasons. Among the Irish there were two sets of brothers—John, Willie and Paddy Power from Waterford and the three O’Flahertys from Boston, the "Little Ireland" of the U.S.A.

The revolutionary background, the fighting traditions, political conduct and military fervour of the Irish attracted to their ranks English-speaking comrades who could claim no relationship with Ireland. They included Samuel Lee, a young Jewish volunteer, who was later to die with his Irish comrades in the battle of Jarama, and John Scott from South Africa, who fell near Morata.

On December 24, 1936, the Irish Unit went to the front for the first time along with the British and the French 12th Battalion of the 14th International Brigade. At the time not all of the brigade’s units had been formed, but an emergency—a fascist breakthrough of the Republican front in the south near Cordoba— required immediate action. As they approached the front, to be more exact, the locality where the front was believed to be, for nobody knew how far the fascists had penetrated, they were strafed by aircraft. Reaching an olive grove by a sand road they were caught in a crossfire by machine-guns from the surrounding ridges. The battalion, including the Irish, continued its advance and occupied a hill, driving the fascists off.

However, it soon appeared that the battalion was almost completely encircled by the fascists. There was confusion among the untrained men, and soon a withdrawal was ordered. In this unexpected encounter the battalion suffered heavy casualties. The Irish Unit lost nine men. They were: John Meehan of Galway, the Dublin workers Michael Nolan, Jim Foley, Leo Green, Tony Fox, Henry Bonar and Tommy Woods, the young Irish Republican Boy Scout Mick May (who, as Frank Ryan wrote, "did great work ... covering off his comrades as they went back under shell and machine-gun fire") and Frank Conroy ("who fought like a hero the same day") (The Worker, 6/2/1937). The other battalions of the 14th Brigade arrived in a few days and together with the Spanish units they counter-attacked and brought the enemy to a halt.

Soon afterwards the brigade was transferred to the Central Front, where the Republican forces were repulsing a strong fascist thrust towards the north-eastern approaches of Madrid. The Irish were in action from January 11 through 14 in a counterattack on the village of Majadahonda. The Dublin worker Denis Coady was killed in this counter-attack. His comrades buried him in Torrelodones. In the fighting Captain Kit Conway particularly distinguished himself for his leadership in repulsing an attempted counter-attack by the Moroccans at nightfall. A large number of the James Connolly Unit was wounded. Jack Nalty who had been wounded in the chest by a burst of machine-gun fire, walked five kilometers to the nearest dressing station. A well-known athlete, he survived the first and all subsequent battles of the Irish Unit, and fell in the last action of the 15th Brigade on the Ebro in September 1938.

The Irish mourned not only their own dead but also the death on the Cordoba Front of Ralph Fox, a talented English Communist writer, a company political commissar. He had endeared himself to them for his book Marx, Engels and Lenin on Ireland. Many of the Irish fighters had read this book and it had strengthened their conviction that Irish national liberation had to be closely linked with international proletarian solidarity.

Because of the high rate of casualties the James Connolly Unit was disbanded and the Irish volunteers were divided between the British and American battalions of the newly formed Abraham Lincoln 15th International Brigade. In the ranks of this brigade they fought in the famous battle of the Jarama. In that battle there were defeats and victories. One of the engagements was recorded by Frank Ryan:

On the road from Chinchón to Madrid, the road along which we had marched to the attack three days before, were scattered now all who survived—a few hundred Britons, Irish and Spaniards. Dispirited by heavy casualties, by defeat, by lack of food, worn out by three days of gruelling fighting, our men appeared to have reached the end of their resistance. Some were still straggling down the slopes which had been, up to an hour ago, the front line. And now there was no line.... After three days of terrific struggle, the superior numbers, the superior armaments of the fascists had routed them. All, as they came back, had similar stories to tell; of comrades dead, of conditions that were more than flesh and blood could stand, of weariness they found hard to resist. I recognised the young commissar of the Spanish Company. His hand bloody where a bullet had grazed the palm, he was fumbling nervelessly with his automatic, in turn threatening and pleading with his men. I got Manuel to calm him, and to tell him we would rally everybody in a moment. As I walked along the road to see how many men we had, I found myself deciding that we should go back up the line of the road to San Martin de la Vega and take the Moors on their left flank.

Groups were lying about on the roadside, hungrily eating oranges that had been thrown to them from a passing lorry.... I found my eyes straying always to the hills we had vacated.... They stumbled to their feet.... One line of four.... A few were still on the grass bank beside the road, adjusting helmets and rifles. ‘Hurry up!’ came the cry from the ranks. Up the road ... I saw Jack Cunningham (the battalion commander.—Ed.) assembling another crowd. We hurried up, joined forces. Together, we two marched at the head. The crowd behind was marching silently. The thoughts in their minds could not be inspiring ones. I remembered a trick of the old days when we were holding banned demonstrations. I jerked my head back: ‘Sing up, ye sons of guns.’

Quaveringly at first, then more lustily, then in one resounding chant the song rose from the ranks. Bent backs straightened; tired legs thumped sturdily; what had been a routed rabble marched to battle again as proudly as they had done three days before. And the valley resounded to their singing:

... Then comrades, come rally,
And the last fight let us face;
The Internationale unites the human ...

On we marched, back up the road, nearer and nearer to the front.... I looked back. Beneath the forest of upraised fists, what a strange band: unshaven, unkempt, bloodstained, grimy. And marching on the road back. Beside the road stood our Brigade Commander General we gave three cheers for him. Briefly, tersely, he spoke to us. We had one and a half-hours of daylight in which to recapture our lost positions. ‘That gap on our right?’ A Spanish Battalion was coming up with us to occupy it. Again the Internationale arose. It was being sung in French too... a group of Franco-Belge had joined us. We passed the Spanish Battalion. They had caught the infection: they were singing, too, as they deployed to the right. Jack Cunningham seemed to be the only man who was not singing. Hands thrust into hi greatcoat pockets, he trudged at the head of his men.... We were singing; he was planning.

As the olive groves loom in sight, we deploy to the left. A last, we are on the ridge, the ridge which we must never again desert. For, while we hold that ridge, the Madrid-Valencia road is free. Bullets whistle through the air, or smack into the ground or find a human target. Cries, shouts.... But always the louder interminable singing.

Flat on the ground, we fire into the groves. There are no sections, no companies even. But the individuals jump ahead, and set an example that is readily followed—too readily, because sometimes they block our fire.... Advancing! All the time advancing. As I crawl forward I suddenly realise, with savage joy, that it is we who are advancing and they who are being pushed back." (The Book of the 15th Brigade, Madrid, 1938, pp58-61)

The fascist offensive was hurtled back. But again the Irish, among all the other international volunteers, paid a high price. They lost some of their best and bravest men like the Reverend R. M. Hilliard, known because of his fistic prowess in the ring as the Boxing Parson. In the earlier stage of the fascist advance he had fought on against the advancing tanks with a little group that had neither an anti-tank gun nor grenades. With him died Eamonn McGrotty of Derry, who had been a member of the Irish Christian Brothers a Catholic teaching order; William Fox, Bill Henry and Dick O’Neil of Belfast; Hugh Bonar of Donegal; Liam Tumilson, the ex-member of the anti-national sectarian Orange Order, who in Spain had proved his fealty both to the cause of Irish national liberation and of international solidarity; Paddy McDaid, whose battles before Jarama had included the defence of the Four Counts in Dublin during the Irish civil war in 1922; Charlie Donnelly, a student at University College, Dublin, a leader of the Irish Republican Congress, a young poet of great promise, who had interrupted his work on the life of James Connolly to go to Spain.

For the Irish the greatest loss was sustained in the death of Captain Kit Conway. More than 16 years before he had earned for himself the reputation of a tough guerrilla commander against both the British imperialists and the pro-treatyites in Ireland. An indomitable opponent of fascism, he joined the Communist Party of Ireland and was well known in many parts of his country for his fighting opposition to the blueshirts. Because of the pogrom atmosphere in Ireland against the defenders of Republican Spain, many of the volunteers had to leave the country quietly. But Conway, an active member of the Building Workers’ Section of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, on the day of his departure addressed his fellow workers on the construction job where he worked. He explained what was happening in Spain, saying: "Sooner than fascism should win there, I would leave my body in Spain to manure the fields."

In March 1937 many of the Irish who had been wounded on the Jarama, like Peter Daly of County Wexford, arrived at the base in Albacete, where new recruits were being formed into a unit. This was the Anglo-American Company, which had sections of Americans, Latin-Americans and a section composed of Irish and British. This company was attached to the 20th Battalion.

Two Irishmen, Peter Daly and Paddy O’Daire, were lieutenants in the Anglo-American Company, which took part in the fighting at Pozoblanco. After four months on the Southern Front they were returned to Albacete for the purpose of rejoining the reorganised 15th Brigade.

From July 6 to 26 the Irish volunteers took part in the battle of Brunete, where they lost Thomas Morris; two comrades from Belfast, William Laughran and William Beattie; the Dubliner William Davis; and Michael Kelly of Ballinasloe. Another Irishman, George Brown, who was a leading figure in the communist and working-class movement in Manchester, was shot by the fascists as he lay wounded on the roadside. After Brunete, when there was a further reorganization of the various battalions of the 15th Brigade, Peter Daly was appointed commander of the British Battalion. During the capture of Quinto on the Aragon Front, he was seriously wounded and later died in a hospital in Benicasim.

Four months later, at the battle for Teruel, three more Irish volunteers were to lay down their lives. They were Peter Glacken, Francis O’Brien and David Walshe, a lad from Ballina in the west of Ireland.

In Aragon during the fascist offensive that began on March 9, 1938, Ben Murray, a Belfast worker, died a hero’s death in an attempt to stop the advancing Franco troops.

On the same front, Frank Ryan, now with the rank of major and adjutant of the 15th Brigade, was taken prisoner by the Italian fascists. They lined him up on the road with all the other prisoners and with bayonet-prods tried to force him to give the fascist salute. Ryan with a proud bearing refused. Under the threat of death they persisted in their efforts, but he continued to treat them with contempt. They then placed him in front of a firing party and proceeded to enact the motions of an execution. He still remained adamant. They did not kill him—as one of the senior officers considered that such a ranking officer of the International Brigade was a prize that could possibly be exchanged for one of the Italian fascist officers captured by the Republican forces. Frank Ryan was taken to the concentration camp at Mora del Ebro, and later to the prison of San Pedro de Cárdenas, where the fascist gaolers tried to break him with torture. They failed. He was transferred to the Burgos Central Prison, where a court-martial sentenced him to death. A committee consisting of prominent personalities was formed in Ireland to campaign for his release. In this they did not succeed, but the fascists had to commute the death sentence to 30 years’ imprisonment.

In 1937 and 1938 new volunteers arrived to fill the gaps in the ranks of the Irish. The new and veteran Irish fought, alongside the British, Americans, Canadians, Cypriots and others who made up the 15th Brigade, in the crossing of the Ebro and in the subsequent battles on the Sierra Pandols. There the Irish Roll of Honour gained new names: Jimmy Straney, Maurice Ryan and Paddy O’Sullivan, the senior officer of No. 1 Company of the British Battalion.

On September 22, 1938, two years after the first Irish anti-fascist had come to Madrid, the last two Irish deaths in action took place. They were Liam McGregor, a young political commissar and leading figure in the Communist Party of Ireland, and Jack Nalty, officer of a machine-gun company, who had come in the first group with Frank Ryan. Fascist bullets ended the life of men who had been active in the Irish Republican, trade union and communist movements.

The withdrawal of the International Brigades in September 1938 ended the period of service of the Irish anti-fascists in the ranks of the Spanish People’s Army. In December they set out for home. They had fulfilled the pledge of solidarity and had redeemed the honour and freedom-loving traditions of the Irish people. Their struggle was a natural expression of traditional links between the Irish national liberation movement and the cause of international solidarity.

Compared numerically with the contributions of other countries to the International Brigades, that of Ireland was not large, but the difficult political conditions under which the Irish joined the movement must be borne in mind. Of the 127 Irish volunteers who came to Spain 55 laid down their lives. Irish newspapers rarely reported the death of an Irish fighter of the International Brigade. Records of their struggle and heroism could only be found in the progressive weekly Irish Democrat.

During the Second World War four of the Irish veterans fought in the ranks of the anti-Hitler forces: Paddy O’Daire, who nose to the rank of major; Alec Digges, who is now prominent in the Association of the International Brigade and Friends of Republican Spain; Michael Lehane, who was killed in a Norwegian transport during a clash with the enemy; Paddy Roe MacLaughlin.

Those who returned home encountered many difficulties caused by the unemployment that had gripped Ireland. For an anti-fascist fighter home from Spain the prospect of finding work was extremely doubtful. Nonetheless, many went back to their homeland and continued the struggle.

For instance, Donal O’Reilly resumed his trade-union work. He is now a member of the Executive Committee of the Irish Plasterers’ Union and of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions.

Jim Prendergast went back to his post in the Irish Communist Party and later worked among the Irish emigrant workers in Britain. At present he is a leading figure in the National Union of Railwaymen. Paddy Duff, who was one of the first Irish volunteers in Spain, became a fulltime official in the Workers’ Union of Ireland. Michael O’Riordan, Johnny Power and Paddy Smith spent the war years in an Irish internment camp. James F. O’Regan and Liam O’Hanlon served nine years of penal servitude in British goals for Irish Republican activity. Hugh Hunter resumed his tireless work as an activist in the Irish communist movement. Peter O’Connor served as a Labour Councillor in his native city of Waterford. Others, like Frank Edwards and Tom O’Brien, continued to serve in the Irish progressive movement.

In the long run, thanks to the efforts of the former volunteers, the truth about Spain became known to the Irish people. Indicative of this was the protest evoked by the "friendly" visit of Italian fascist warships to the Port of Dublin in 1938. The fascist officers had to flee the streets in face of a demonstration of workers singing Bandera Rossa. The song had been brought to Dublin by Irish members of the International Brigade who had borrowed it from the Italian Garibaldi Brigade.

One of the main tasks of the men who had returned from Spain was to secure the release of Frank Ryan from Franco captivity. For this purpose, as we have already noted, a committee was formed which organised protest rallies and actions. In an attempt to damp down the campaign the De Valera Government gave false assurances that Frank Ryan was being well looked after in Burgos. Only in later years was it revealed that he had been taken from Burgos to Germany and that he died in Dresden on June 10, 1944. Today he lies buried in the soil of the German Democratic Republic and his grave is tended by former German comrades of the 11th Brigade.

As the fascist attack on the Spanish Republic had its sharp reverberations in Ireland in 1936, so will the present courageous struggle of the Spanish people against Francoism have its effect on Ireland that has still not secured full national independence. For that reason solidarity with Spain is inalienable from the struggle of the Irish people for national freedom. Many of the Irish people, once duped by the flow of reactionary propaganda, now display a vital interest in the developments in Spain. The real issues of the war of 1936-39 have become clearer to them. For instance, they see the growing unity between Communist and Catholic workers in Spain and hear that a number of churches have become organised centres of resistance to the Franco regime.

Though reaction is still very strong in Ireland, none of its champions would now dare to call a public meeting of support for Franco. None of them celebrated the 30th anniversary of the generals’ revolt. On the other hand, the Connolly Youth Movement, which was founded in 1964, honoured the anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish people’s national-revolutionary war by a public lecture. The Laurentian (Catholic) Society of Trinity College, Dublin, organised a symposium on the Spanish war. The symposium was attended by Peader O’Donnell of the Irish Friends of the Spanish Republic, and Michael O’Riordan, former member of the International Brigade. Solidarity with the Spanish students is displayed by the Irish Union of Students. These changes in the context of Ireland are a good measure of the impact of the Spanish people’s continuing struggle against Francoism. They are also a vindication of those who, at the cost of their lives, fulfilled on behalf of all the Irish people their internationalist duty on the battlefields of Spain.

The anti-fascist traditions of the Irish Unit of the International Brigade are alive today in a new generation of fighters. They live on in the Irish Communist Party, in the Irish labour and trade union organisations, in the Republican movement and in the Connolly Youth Movement formed to advance the ideals of national and social liberation and international solidarity.