Memorial to Kit Conway unveiled

By John Corcoran, An Phoblacht, 25th June 2005

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Manus O'Riordan speaking at the launch unvieling of the memorial, June 11th, 2005.

Photo: Manus O'Riordan, son of Spanish Civil War veteran Michael O'Riordan addresses the Kit Conway commemoration. His father is seated to the left and another veteran, Bob Doyle, is seated to the right

Basking in bright sunshine on Saturday 11 June, a large crowd gathered in the small Tipperary village of Burncourt to witness the unveiling of an impressive commemorative plaque in memory of legendary local republican soldier Kit Conway. An orphan boy, he was reared in the Clogheen poorhouse and at the age of 14 went to work for a farmer in his native parish.

He fought with distinction during the 1919-'21 War of Independence, and he served with the Third Tipperary Brigade, before joining Seán Hogan's Flying Column. By all accounts he was an excellent soldier and a born leader of men. As a member of Hogan's Column, he was engaged in numerous military actions over a wide area of South Tipperary.

Kit Conway stood against the Treaty and after the civil war in Ireland, his political commitment continued, culminating in him volunteering to combat fascism with the International Brigades for the democratically-elected Spanish government.

Kit Conway, known as "Christy" in his native Tipperary, went on to become the Company Commander of the 15th International Brigade in the Spanish anti-fascist war between 1936-1939. He died in action in the battle of Jarama on 12 February 1937.

This particularly bloody battle prevented Franco's Nazi-backed insurgents from breaking through to Madrid at an early stage in the war. A fascist force of 40,000 men crossed the Jarama River on 11 February 1937. In the Battle of Jarama alone, 7000 Republican soldiers, including several hundred International Brigaders, gave their lives.

In this crucial, month-long, bloody engagement, Kit was killed alongside 19 other Irish republicans, including Eamonn McGrotty, an ex-Christian brother from Derry; Liam Tumilson, a Protestant republican from Belfast; Dick O'Neill, also from Belfast; Mossie Quinlan from Waterford; the Rev Robert Hilliard, a Church of Ireland clergyman from near Killarney; and the brilliant Tyrone poet Charlie Donnelly, who at the height of the battle wrote "even the olives are bleeding".

Councillor Mattie McGrath, Cathaoirleach South Tipperary County Council, in the presence of the last two surviving Irish International Brigade veterans, Bob Doyle and Michael O'Riordan, unveiled the commemorative plaque.

Bob Doyle, who shared a room with Conway in Dublin's Capel Street, spoke movingly at the ceremony of his former comrade:

"I found lodgings...and learned that Kit was a well known IRA activist who was regarded as a legend in his native Tipperary, he had fought against the Black and Tans and later against the Treaty. In one action, a bullet went through his mouth and left him with a slight lisp. Kit Conway was a model instructor and a strict upholder of military discipline. He recruited me to the 1st Dublin Battalion of the IRA. We used to train in the fields of the Dublin suburb of Cabra expert in handling a machine gun, he was able to disassemble any one of them with his eyes closed."

Bob added that the training he had received from Conway "afterwards proved very useful in Spain".

A contemporary account, written by Jim Prendergast in November 1937, gives a vivid indication of the heroism Kit Conway displayed in the stage of the battle where he received his fatal wound

"Kit is standing on top of the hill. He is using a rifle himself, and after every shot turns towards the men to give instructions. Suddenly he shouts, his rifle spins out of his hand and he falls back.... He is placed on a blanket, no stretchers left now. His voice is broken with agony. 'Boys, don't leave me for the Fascists'."

Prendergast soon sustained a wound himself and recollected that he was transported in the same ambulance as Kit. "In the ambulance I meet Kit, he is in terrible agony and can talk little. "How are the rest?" is his constant question... he asks me if I am badly hit."

Michael O'Riordan, who despite his advanced years, has lost none of his oratorical powers, said:

"At Jarama, the greatest loss of all was sustained in the death of Captain Kit Conway. More than 16 years before, he had earned a reputation as a tough guerrilla commander both against the British and the pro-Treaty forces. He went on to become an active member of the Building Workers' section of the ITGWU, as well as an indomitable opponent of fascism. On the day of his departure for Spain, he mounted an oil barrel on the building site where he was employed and addressing his fellow workers, he explained what was happening in Spain, telling them, 'sooner than Franco should win there, I would leave my body in Spain to manure the fields'."

In a moving gesture, Seve Montero of the Spanish organisation, Friends of the International Brigades, concluded his address by sprinkling a bag of Jarama's light coloured soil from the spot where Kit was fatally wounded, symbolically mingling the soil of Kit's last battlefield with that of his birthplace.

Those present left feeling profoundly moved and satisfied, it being fitting, that despite a lengthy wait, a substantial monument befitting this outstanding republican socialist shall henceforth act as a permanent reminder of the outstanding contribution made by this remarkable Tipperary republican.

A compilation of the speeches, songs, etc. given at the unveiling of the memorial to Kit Conway