maker of the Spanish Civil War documentary
"Even the Olives are Bleeding!" (1976)

at the launching of a new expanded edition of

"CONNOLLY COLUMN: The Story of the Irishmen who Fought for the
Spanish Republic"


at the Liberty Hall Cultural Centre, Dublin, March 16, 2005

In 1976 I was in the town of Gandesa not far from the River Ebro, where I met a Spanish historian. He told me that up to that year more than 25,000 books had been written about the Spanish Civil War - and that only included those in the Spanish language. As far as I knew there had been no book published on the Irish contribution to that war, apart from Eoin O'Duffy's Crusade in Spain, which, of course, was a celebration of his own brief part in the Spanish conflict and which I think must have been ghostwritten for him. At that time I had not read The Book of the Fifteenth Brigade, which was compiled in 1938 by Frank Ryan and which outlined in brief detail the trials of the Irish fighters in the International Brigades.

So I was delighted a few years later to see the launch of the original publication of Michael O'Riordan's Connolly Column, the book which is being republished now in its original form, but updated with material which was not available in 1979.

I am particularly glad to have the opportunity to help launch this new edition, and I'll tell you why. The original has been out of print for years and at least half a dozen times I have had pleas from all sorts of people to lend them my copy. I always did so in the fear and trepidation that I would not get it back, because it became a precious and landmark work on the Irish in Spain. I can now in all conscience assure would be borrowers that they can once again buy their own copies.

But this book is not just an account of what Irish Brigaders did in Spain. Anyone who knows Michael O'Riordan would expect that his epic work would be more than a mere tale of fighting on the Jarama or the Ebro, Madrid or Barcelona or wherever. And, indeed, readers get more than that. They get a social history of Ireland in the 1930s and before; they get a history of Irish socialism of the period; they get the clear, gritty outspokenness of a man of huge socialist and republican ideals. Michael O'Riordan could have chosen to write a book like Tom Wintringham's English Captain, a military history as well as an account of the British part in the war, but he has given us much more than that. The range of the book is vast. Apart from battle accounts, you can read here on diverse subjects such as the manifesto of the Irish Labour Party, recollections of participants in 1916 and the letters of Irish bishops of the 20s and 30s to their cowering flocks.

The book is a monument to those Irishmen who went to Spain - and they were astonishing men - ASTONISHNG. We are inclined to some extent to take men's experience in war for granted, since the memory of the Second World War is fresh enough for some of us. But these men were in the vanguard of democracy. They were men who in some ways were before their time. I know there is a romantic air about the Spanish war - but we have to remember that the men who went to the International Brigades did so under circumstances of great difficulty, they virtually had to fight to make their secretive journeys to Spain, and they were left under no illusions about what the conditions of modern warfare were like. They went to Spain because they wanted to, because they perceived that their cause was right and just. But right and justice doesn't always win, and the men among whom Michael O'Riordan fought were defeated in battle, but never in spirit.

If the original edition of this book has one thing missing then it is in the modesty with which Michael treats his own history. It told us little about the details of the man's life. I am glad to say that this new edition amends that, and there is an interview with the author done some years ago by Ciaran Crossey and John Quinn. There is also an interview with the late Eugene Downing and his recollections of men like Jack Nalty and Charlie Donnelly. There is also a graphic account of that other Ryan, Maurice Ryan, who was executed by Brigaders.

And, of course, there is a good deal about the great Frank Ryan. Michael O'Riordan has always been the guardian of Frank Ryan's reputation, which he praises and defends in the original edition. In this new edition there is the very detailed account of the Ryan controversy in a long review by Manus O'Riordan of the book on Ryan by Fearghal McGarry - provocatively entitled "Was Frank Ryan a Collaborator?" Manus's help to his father in this new publication is evident and extensive, and if ever there was a chip off the old block then this is it. Manus, a distinguished writer and historian on the period, argues convincingly that Ryan's sojourn in Nazi Germany after he was freed from Brugos was free of collaboration in the sense that he changed sides or opinions.

I have always believed that Frank Ryan was a sick man in the physical sense when he was jailed, and that his morale was ground down when he was in Berlin. His return to Germany in that submarine in which Sean Russell died can only have been a result of confusion, fear and illness. He must have regretted it for the rest of his life.

What is written in this book will not completely end that controversy about Ryan, but it must be taken as a very important contribution, in the most reasoned and detailed manner, to the controversy.

One other sad note. In the original edition Michael lists the then survivors of the Irish in the Brigades. In 1979 there were ninety of them. Time has winnowed their number, and today only Michael O'Riordan and Bob Doyle are left. Two out of the glorious two hundred who went to Spain.

When I took down the original edition of this book recently two pieces of paper fell out. One was a letter from Peter O'Connor telling me how he had been in the party that had found Charlie Donnelly's body. The other was a cutting of a letter which I had written to the Irish Times years ago after an attack on the International Brigades by Kevin Myers. The letter ended: "Whether Kevin Myers likes it or not the International Brigade did fight for freedom - a freedom from which he and I are benefiting today"

Attached to it was another letter, this one from Leo Rickard, on the same subject. He wrote: "We in Ireland owe a debt of gratitude to men such as Michael O'Riordan, who is still with us, and his less fortunate comrades who lie buried in the olive fields of Spain".

My generation and those following it should remember these words and honour such men. Michael O'Riordan remains the guardian of the gate of our memories, the keeper of the flame that honours the men who went to Spain.

It is my pleasure to see this book republished and updated - and I would urge you all to buy it.

Speech by Michael O'Riordan and the opening remarks by Manus O'Riordan