Unveiling of the memorial to Kit Conway
Address by Michael O'Riordan
11th June 2005
It is indeed a great honour for me to be present, in the company of my fellow International Brigade veteran Bob Doyle, at the unveiling of this memorial plaque to Kit Conway in his native Burncourt.
For it was here in 1919 in his home county of Tipperary, between the Knockmealdown and the Galtee mountains, that Kit first took up arms in the fight for freedom.
In this very countryside he fought to defend the Irish Republic -- that our own parents and grandparents had democratically chosen in the 1918 general election -- and in that War of Independence he stood shoulder to shoulder with others from the Burncourt area against the Black-and -Tan terror that was unleashed on the Irish people by British imperialism.
But Kit was not only an Irish patriot. He was also an internationalist, and in 1936, when Franco and his generals - aided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy - sought to overthrow the democratically elected government of another Republic in Spain, Kit Conway rushed to the defence of the Spanish people. Father Michael O'Flanagan, that outstanding Irish Republican patriot priest, rightly pointed out:
"The fight in Spain is a fight between the rich privileged classes against the rank-and-file of the poor oppressed people of Spain. The cause being fought for in Spain was nearer to us than we realised. Franco's foreign legion and Moorish troops were to Spain what the Black-and-Tans were to Ireland."
Nobody had a better grasp of the significance of that comparison than Kit Conway, a veteran of the Flying Columns that had fought against the original Black-and-Tans here in Tipperary.
Since there was such powerful propaganda against us during the course of the war in Spain, most of us Irish International Brigaders, who had volunteered to fight in defence of the Spanish Republic, had to leave Ireland quietly and secretly.
But with that combination of outstanding physical and moral courage that he always displayed, Kit Conway felt compelled to take a very public stand before his departure.
He was determined to explain to his fellow building workers - who like himself were members of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, now known as SIPTU - why he was going off to fight for the Spanish Republic. On the building site where he was working at that time, Kit mounted an oil barrel and defiantly declared:
"Sooner than Franco should win there, I would leave my body in Spain to manure the fields!"
At the battle of Jarama in February 1937 --- as he commanded not only his own Irish company, but had also taken command of a further two companies of British anti-fascist volunteers --- Kit Conway did indeed lay down his life for the Spanish Republic, and in solidarity with the democratic choice of the Spanish people.
Jarama was one of the greatest battles in the Spanish War. Since Franco had failed in his attempt to capture Madrid directly, he decided on a major offensive to isolate that capital city from the rest of Spain by trying to cut off the road to Valencia, as it passed through the Jarama valley. The Republican forces defeated that attempt, at the cost of 10,000 Spanish Republican and International Brigade lives.
Eighteen other Irishmen died alongside Kit Conway at Jarama, from both North and South, and from all traditions - Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. Among them was the poet Charlie Donnelly, whose vividly descriptive statement, just before he himself was killed, that "even the olives are bleeding!" conveys so much of the horrors of that battle. Furthermore, the unity of the Catholic and Protestant Republican traditions was underlined by the death at Jarama of a former Irish Christian Brother from Derry, Eamon McGrotty, and a Church of Ireland clergyman from Kerry, the Reverend Robert Hilliard. Despite such sacrifices, the overwhelming military assistance that Franco had received from Hitler and Mussolini -- coupled with the actions of the British and French governments in blocking any similar assistance to the Republic -- enabled fascism to triumph in Spain two years later and to impose a vicious dictatorship on its people that would last for almost forty years.
It was in a totally vengeful spirit of victory that Franco went out of his way to desecrate the graves of Kit Conway and thousands of others, by digging up their remains and reburying them en masse on the site of a rubbish dump at the rear of a cemetery in the Jarama valley. But democratic Spain has changed all that.
In 1996, by a unanimous decision, the Spanish parliament voted to award to Bob Doyle and myself, and to all other surviving International Brigaders, the right to claim Spanish citizenship, in acknowledgement of the fact that we had stood by them in their hour of need.
And two years previously, thousands of the Spanish Republic's martyred dead from the Jarama battlefield had themselves been appropriately honoured. In 1994 --- together with Bob Doyle and the late Peter O'Connor of Waterford, who was the last Irish survivor of the battle of Jarama -- I was privileged to represent Ireland at the unveiling of an imposing memorial. This memorial, approved by the Spanish government, at long last marked and honoured the final resting place of Kit Conway and his comrades. Now the wheel has come full circle, as today we honour Kit Conway in his place of birth, together with all of his comrades-in-arms who fought in the War of Independence.
We are indeed proud of this son of Burncourt, and we salute his memory !
Long live the Republic !
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