Born BURNCOURT 1897.
Flying Column, 3RD Tipperary Brigade, Irish War of Independence.
Company Commander, 15th International Brigade, Spanish Anti-Fascist War.
Killed in Action, Battle of Jarama
12th February 1937.
Dedicated to his memory and the memory of all those Volunteers
from Burncourt who fought in the War of Independence
Ar son Saoirse na hÉireann agus na Spáinne
Por la causa de la Libertad de Irlanda y de España.
Memorial unveiled by Councillor Mattie McGrath
See a photo of his plaque on the Memorial Map
Cathaoirleach, South Tipperary County Council
in the presence of International Brigade veterans
Bob Doyle and Michael O'Riordan, 11th June 2005.
This document was compiled by Manus O'Riordan and brings together a number of important pieces on Conway, congratulations and I hope the memorial launch goes well, Ciaran. An slightly different version of this first article, with a couple of notes, can be found here. May 24th 2005.
Kit Conway - Tipperary hero of Jarama
Two excellent books have done much to recall the memory of those Irishmen who died in defence of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War: Michael O'Riordan's Connolly Column, and Seán Cronin's biography of Frank Ryan. One is instantly impressed by the courage and dedication of Ryan's men. Perhaps the most heroic of them all was Kit Conway, Tipperaryman, veteran of the Black and Tan struggle and the Civil War. Kit Conway is now acclaimed as the hero of Jarama, and his death during that marathon battle in February 1937 was a lethal blow to his comrades.
Kit Conway was born some miles south of the Galtee mountains. Always reticent about his background to his Dublin friends, he usually stated that he was born not far from Galteemore. He was born in or about the year 1897 - the date is uncertain - in the Burncourt area of South West Tipperary. An orphan boy, he was reared in Clogheen poorhouse and at a the age of 14 went to work for a farmer in his native parish. His starting wages were in the region of two shillings a week.
My knowledge of Kit Conway's early career is due to the fact that I grew up in that same countryside where many of his youthful years were spent. My father, who was about two years his senior, was Kit's best friend and from him I learned most of the facts now detailed.
Kit was a remarkable figure, even in his early years. Highly intelligent and articulate, largely self-taught, light-hearted and humorous, he had an enormous capacity for friendship. Years after his death it was invariably the humorous episodes that his friends remembered. In Tipperary he was always known as Christy - the nickname Kit dates from his Dublin days.
He was always a Republican separatist. Yet he joined the British Army in 1915. Whether it was a desire to escape from his unrewarding life as a farm labourer, a wish to see foreign countries, or a belief that a war effort by Irishmen would hasten Home Rule, the reasons for his enlisting are not clear. In any event, he regretted his decision almost immediately and soon parted company with that army.
How he did so is a fascinating story. He devised a most effective plan. He feigned insanity, using such ruses as pretending to eat his cap, beating himself with his rifle, pouring buckets of water over himself, etc. He must have been a born actor. In any event, his act so convinced and alarmed his superior officers at the British Army's Training Camp in Kilworth, North Cork, that he was instantly discharged. Even the private soldiers billeted with Kit were convinced of his insanity.
He fought with distinction during the 1919-21 War of Independence. My father, as Captain of D Company, 6th Battalion, Third Tipperary Brigade, commanded the IRA in the area. Kit served for a brief period in this Company before joining Seán Hogan's Flying Column. He was an excellent soldier and a born leader of men. As a member of Hogan's Column he travelled over a wide area of South Tipperary. Many stories are told of his daring exploits during this time.
Following the Truce, Kit reverted for a brief period to his former occupation of farm worker. The Treaty and Civil War followed. Kit took a step then which greatly surprised everybody. He joined the Free State Army and served at the Curragh and later in Clonmel and Cahir Barracks. At this time nearly all his old comrades were on the anti-Treaty side.
Joining the Free State Army was a decision Kit soon ruefully regretted. He found himself utterly out of sympathy with his Treatyite associates. All his friends were on the other side and his heart was very much with their cause. During the few months he reluctantly spent in the Free State Army he did, however, render valuable assistance to his former comrades, many of whom would have been arrested and imprisoned were it not for Kit's timely tips. He had access to information concerning projected raids and arrests, which he passed on to the Republicans. My father was the Republican commanding officer in his area, and not a single member of his Company was arrested while Kit remained in the Free State forces.
Finally, however, Kit deserted. Finding it impossible to continue to remain a member of an army he opposed, he deserted in the late autumn of 1922. Aided by my father and other Republican friends he managed to escape to Dublin. Soon after his arrival there he made contact with the anti-Treaty group and fought on the Republican side during the remaining months of the Civil War.
I have previously mentioned that Kit was always known as Christy in Tipperary. In Dublin he adopted the name of Kit Ryan; this was obviously a subterfuge to avoid detection and to outwit the Free State authorities. A year or two later when the danger was over, he reverted to his proper surname, but continued to retain Kit in preference to Christy.
Although he never revisited his native county he did, for a number of years, keep in touch with some of his friends there. In Dublin he worked mainly in the building industry, where he acquired firsthand knowledge of the problems of the urban workers. In 1928 he emigrated to New York, but returned to Dublin in 1932 following the defeat of the Cumann na nGaedheal Government.
He retained all his old Republican ardour. When the movement split in 1934 on ideological issues, Kit, remembering the plight of the Tipperary farm workers and observing again the privations of Dublin's poor, went with the Left and joined the Republican Congress led by Peadar O'Donnell and Frank Ryan. In his heart I think he was always a socialist. He became actively involved with, and helped to train and drill, the reorganised Irish Citizen Army.
In our own home my father and mother were reminded of Kit each end of year with the arrival of a Christmas card, invariably an Irish one. No Christmas card arrived, however, in 1936. The reason was soon clear. Kit was in Spain with Frank Ryan and other socialist comrades, defending the democratically-elected Government of the threatened Republic against the Franco-led revolt that was supported by Hitler and Mussolini.
Kit was the life and soul of the little group of Irish Republican volunteers. He commanded a detachment with distinction and great gallantry in Cordoba, in the southern province of Andalusia. In February 1937 he led his countrymen in the crucial engagement at the Jarama valley near Madrid. Nineteen Irishmen died during the month long battle. They included Eamon McGrotty, an ex-Christian Brother from Derry; Liam Tumilson, a Protestant Republican from Belfast; Dick O'Neill, also from Belfast; Mossie Quinlan from Waterford; Rev. Robert Hilliard, a Church of Ireland clergyman from near Killarney; and the brilliant Tyrone poet Charlie Donnelly.
Kit Conway's heroism at Jarama has been widely acknowledged. Following the deaths of some of his fellow officers, he commanded three separate companies at a particularly crucial juncture on February 12th, 1937. It was on that day, soon after 12 noon, that he was fatally wounded.
Seán Ua Cearnaigh,
First published in the Irish Democrat, February 1987.
Burncourt, Co. Tipperary.
KIT CONWAY - A leader like Tom Barry
When I first met Kit Conway during the War of Independence I was initially suspicious of his earlier period in the British Army. Some time after that I invited Conway to take part in an attack on the RIC Barracks at Ballyporeen. He was posted in the most dangerous position during the attack, where we kept him under observation with a view to shooting him at once if he showed any signs of treachery in his behaviour. Instead, to our surprise, he showed himself fearless and determined in the course of the attack, and demonstrated to those of us who watched him how a man should behave under fire.
From that night onwards, he became the white-haired boy, and was taken into the Column without having to take the Volunteer oath. He remained with the Column through all its activities until the Truce, and was our principal instructor in drill and musketry, being an expert on the subjects through his British Army training.
Conway was fearless and a natural born fighter. I often thought in the subsequent years that, had the circumstances afforded the opportunity, he might have been a famous leader like Tom Barry. During the Spanish Civil War he was killed while fighting with the Irish Unit of the 15th International Brigade.
Commander of the 6th Battalion,
3rd Tipperary Brigade, War of Independence.
First published in the Tipperary Historical Journal, 1991.
KIT CONWAY - My hero and friend
I joined the Republican Movement because of the influence of Kit Conway, who was later to be killed in Spain. In 1934 I found lodgings in Dublin's Capel Street, where Kit was to be my flatmate. I 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 into the 1st Dublin Battalion of the IRA. We used to train in the fields of the Dublin suburb of Cabra West. Kit provided us with the type of training one would get in a professional army, practising both military formation and the deployment of our ranks, a training that afterwards proved very useful to me in Spain. Kit delivered all of this instruction with a deadly seriousness. An expert in handling a machine gun, he was able to assemble and disassemble any one of them with his eyes closed.
I was twenty years of age when the Spanish War broke out on the 18th of July 1936. But this was not simply a civil war. The intervention of the foreign forces of Germany, Italy and Portugal on the side of Franco's revolt against the Republic unmasked it as a stage in the strengthening of international fascism as it prepared for the Second World War.
I tried to get to Spain to defend the Republic, because Kit Conway and others had already managed to make their way there in December 1936. Kit was my hero, a great friend and a great example. At the beginning of 1937 I went to see Cora Hughes, a goddaughter of de Valera, who was organising volunteers for Spain. I was rejected because I was considered too young. In February Kit was killed in action at Jarama, defending that Republic. As soon as I myself finally managed to get to Spain in December 1937 I was immediately earmarked to train new recruits in the proper handling of weaponry. All of this was thanks to the quality of the training that I myself had already received from Kit Conway.
Last surviving Irish fighter on the Aragon front of 1938; Last surviving Irish prisoner of the fascist concentration camp of San Pedro de Cardeña 1938-39, and author of Memoirs of a Rebel without a Pause.
How Kit Conway died
February 12. Noon. We had just swung through the bottle-neck of a valley and were beginning to deploy. I had been told to look out for a bridge, our objective. Just then we came under direct fire. Men were hurriedly seeking good cover among the scrub, but once we lay down we had no view ahead. Kit saw this at once and roared out the order to fire from standing positions. Suddenly Peter Daly shouted that the enemy was advancing on our left. I looked across. We concentrated fire on them at 400 yards range.
But the Fascist fire, front and flank, was now pretty heavy. Men were being hit all around. Somebody was hit beside me. A yell for stretcher bearers. Goff tumbled over, his hand to his head, his face white. It was a narrow shave; his helmet was dinged. Kit danced furiously from position to position. "Don't waste your fire, boys," he kept shouting. Although Kit was worked up to fever pitch himself, he did not want us to let our fire be directed away from vital points. Kit was everywhere at once, directing fire, encouraging us all.
The fire on us had grown so heavy now that nobody could tell what would happen, and fear was not felt any more, because it was no use feeling afraid. A Spaniard who had got mixed up with us somehow moved over to my side. The bush he left had been denuded by a stream of bullets. He looked at me, laughed.
Kit ordered us to move back to the heights, under an ever-increasing hail of lead. We took up new positions. I saw Paddy Duff moving back, hit in the leg. Shells were exploding on the left. Holy God! If they fall on this bare ground we are finished! Low-flying planes scream towards us. Now we are for it in earnest. They pass over and soon they are back again with our chasers at their tails. A faint cheer from us.
Now if we quit these positions, the Fascists will break in on the road. So here we must stay, even though the Fascist fire is literally eating the top of the hill away. Our Unit has now become mixed up with the English lads, and Kit assumes command of all three Companies on the hill. The other officers are either dead or wounded.
I settle into a new firing position. My rifle is soon burning hot. Kit comes over. I notice his face with lanes of sweat running through the dust. He hands me a note. It is from Frank Ryan's HQ telling us that we must hold out at all costs. He tells me to transmit these instructions to the section on our left flank. I look through my binoculars before I move off The Moors are sneaking up there on the left. Oh, where are our machine guns? I speed away to the left, deliver the message. On the way, it seems as if a thousand bees are buzzing past my face. So, it does take a man's weight in lead to kill him.
I move back. I am more reckless. No fear now. Why? I do not know. Somebody calls my name. It is Paddy Smith. Blood streams from his head and arm. Tom Jones of Wexford is there. Good man, Tom. Always dresses a man where he falls. A hero. He tells me Goff and Daly are hit.
I move on. 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. My God, Kit is hit in the groin.
He is placed on a blanket. No stretchers left now. His voice is broken with agony. "Boys, don't leave me for the Fascists." Tears glisten in our eyes. Many are from other Companies. But all remember Kit at Córdova and Madrid. His gallant leadership then and today won them all.
Kit is taken away
I see Fascist tanks rolling up the road to the right. The Moors are bringing us under a heavy flank fire. We'll never hold out now. I move to a firing-position. Suddenly, I am lifted off my feet. Something terrific has hit me in the side. I cannot breathe. They are dressing me now …
In the ambulance I meet Kit. He is in terrible agony, and can talk little. "How are the rest?" is his constant question. After a while he asks me if I am badly hit.
That was the last time I spoke to Kit. Next morning they told me our great leader was dead.
Irish Unit, Jarama front.
First published in the Irish Democrat, November 1937.
Republished by Frank Ryan in The Book of the 15th International Brigade, Madrid, 1938.
Kit Conway's final resting place
On October 8th, 1994 a memorial was unveiled over a mass grave of 5,000 anti-fascists in the Spanish cemetery of Morata de Tajuña, in order to honour the total of 10,000 who fell defending the Spanish Republic during the battle of Jarama in February 1937.
In December 1936 the Irish Republican patriot priest Father Michael O'Flanagan had declared: "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. The Government of Spain was elected by the votes of the people and on the other side was Franco's body of rebels, mostly the old Army."
It was because of Franco's failure to capture Madrid in December 1936 that German Nazi and Italian fascist staff officers worked out a plan with him to cut the road that linked the two major Republican cities of Madrid and Valencia at the point where it crossed the Jarama river.
The Franco offensive at Jarama began on February 6th, with five mobile Brigades, as well as a squadron of Moorish cavalry. The power of the offensive overwhelmed the Republican forces, despite the fact that two of their Battalions fought to the last man. The Franco forces continued to press on. The Spanish Republican Army continued to resist. It was one of the bitterest battles of the Spanish War. Frank Ryan, leader of the Irish Column, described how after the death of Kit Conway the anti-Franco fighters were beaten back and forced to retreat in a disorganised manner, but then reorganised in the "Great Rally" which eventually drove the Franco armies back. They accordingly kept the road open and saved Madrid.
Some of the International Brigade dead were buried along with their Spanish comrades on the battlefield where they fell. Others were buried in the graveyard of the nearby village of Morata de Tajuña, where a monument marked their last resting place. With the eventual victory of the Franco forces, this monument to the Republican dead was demolished and their remains were dug up and dumped in a hole in the corner of the cemetery where all the rubbish was deposited.
Nineteen Irish volunteers were among the Jarama dead. Indeed, out of the 240 Irish who went to defend the Spanish Republic, a total of 60 would fall in that war. "Their deed was as noble as that of the men of 1916", said Father Michael O'Flanagan when he unveiled a Memorial Banner to the Irish International Brigade dead in 1938.
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 pro-Treaty forces. He went on to become an active member of the Building Workers' Section of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, 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 that "sooner than Franco should win there, I would leave my body in Spain to manure the fields".
It was Kit Conway's loyal friend, Irish International Brigader Bob Doyle, who tirelessly mounted a European-wide campaign to erect an appropriate memorial over the final resting place of Kit and 5,000 of his comrades. In this project Bob worked with two other now-deceased veterans, Frenchman Francois Mazou and Englishman Walter Greenhalgh. At last, in 1994, the Spanish Government finally approved the erection of an oblong stone memorial set into the wall of the Morata de Tajuña cemetery, with an inscription which, translated, reads as follows:
"TO THE MEMORY OF THE HEROIC SPANISH ANTI-FASCIST FIGHTERS AND OF THE INTERNATIONAL BRIGADES WHO IN THE BATTLE OF JARAMA, FEBRUARY 1937, OFFERED THEIR LIVES FOR THE CAUSE OF THE LIBERTY OF SPAIN, OF EUROPE AND OF THE WORLD."
Last surviving Irish fighter of the 1938 battle of the Ebro, and author of Connolly Column - The story of the Irishmen who fought for the Spanish Republic 1936 - 1939.
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