Brothers in Arms

Irish Post, August 30 1986

Tony Birtill has been talking with Liverpool Irishman Frank Deegan, who, half a century ago, fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Fifty years ago this summer, General Franco led the Spanish army officers in a revolt against the Republican Popular Front government, which had been elected the previous February. Thus started the Spanish Civil War, a complex and bloody conflict which was to drag on for three years.

Newspapers like the Irish Independent and The Daily Mail represented it as a struggle between Christian civilisation and Godless Communism. However, this was far from the truth. The Communist Party had only a handful of seats in the Popular Front government, which mainly consisted of Socialists, left-wing Republicans and other radicals and regional groups. The Basques, who were probably the most fervently Catholic people in the patchwork of nations known as Spain, were also the most determined supporters of the Republican government. Franco, on the other hand, numbered among his allies the Moors from Spanish Morocco as well as regular troops from Fascist Italy and Germany.


The democratically elected Republican government attracted support from all over the world and thousands flocked to join the International Brigades. The Irish were heavily represented in the Brigades. Frank Ryan, veteran of the Tan War and the Republican side I the Irish Civil War, led the contingent of 80 which travelled to Spain from Ireland in November 1936.

Other Irish, like Paddy Roe McLaughlin from Donegal, and the three 'fighting O'Flaherty brothers' from Boston travelled from the United States. Thomas Patton of Achill and William Barry of Dublin came via Melbourne. [In case anyone misreads this part, Patten travelled from Britain, not Australia, CC] And there were those like Frank Deegan, Paddy O'Daire and Tommy O'Brien who travelled from Liverpool.

I spoke to Frank Deegan the other evening after his weekly Merseyside Pensioners' Association meeting in the Transport and General Workers' Union HQ in Liverpool. He is now 76 but still very sprightly. The Pensioners' Association, he informed me, 'is not a bingo outfit or a tea and buns gathering, but a very political campaigning organisation open to all OAPs willing to fight for an improvement to their lot.'

I could see from the outset that Frank Deegan's views had not gone soft over the years. He told me that he was born in Bootle, at the north end of Liverpool. His father was from Portlaoise and came to Liverpool in 1894 when he was 17 years of age. His mother was born in Bootle, her parents being from Cloghough, near Newry.

Frank was one of 11 children - six daughters and five sons. Three of the boys died in infancy. His father worked as a casual dock labourer and then in an iron foundry, often for 18 hours a day in order to provide for the 10 of them in the two-up, two-down house.

When Frank was 19, TP O'Connor, the Irish National Party MP in Liverpool died and this marked the end of that party in Liverpool, where it has been founded by John Denvir and Isaac Butt, and had once been the main opposition party on the City Council. Frank Deegan's political energies were, however, attracted in another direction.

'The Unemployed Workers' Movement was the most active and important political movement in Liverpool in the Thirties,' he said. 'I was much involved in its activities, including the Liverpool to London hunger march in 1936.'

The poverty and unemployment of those years led Frank into the Communist Party in 1931, being recruited by Owen Kelly. 'The docks and Bootle branches of the CP were nearly all Liverpool Irish; Leo McGree, Joe Byrne, Albert McCabe, Alec McKechnie, and ever so many more. In the docks area, the working class community was often 75% Irish and they were great rebels,' he recalled.

At the same time as Frank Ryan, Peadar O'Donnell and the Republican Congress in Ireland were denounced as 'red monsters', the CP and the Unemployed Workers' Movement were similarly denounced in Liverpool. 'We were regarded as people with two heads and horns protruding from both,' said Frank. 'When Joe Byrne, a practising Roman Catholic, stood as a Communist in the Council election in my ward, the Labour Party ran a religious campaign for its candidate, Bill Keenan, even though he was a professed atheist. Nevertheless, Keenan won.'

In the autumn of 1936, when Frank Ryan was organising the Irish contingent for Spain, Frank Deegan was coming to blows with Fascists closer to home. Oswald Moseley held a rally in Liverpool's boxing stadium. The first speaker was William Joyce, later to become known as Lord Haw Haw. 'When I heard him my Irish blood boiled over,' said Frank, 'and I got up and started heckling. The Blackshirt stewards grabbed me and used me as a battering ram against the locked doors!'

The anti-Fascists that day were led by another young Communist. James Larkin Jones, who was, as Jack Jones, to become general secretary of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers' Union in the Sixties. 'He was always known as JL in the Thirties,' said Frank, 'we never called him Jack. He got that name after the war.'

Frank and JL were active together in the struggle against unemployment and Fascism in Liverpool; fought together in the Spanish Civil War; worked together in the TGWU when Jones was general secretary and Frank was a shop steward on Liverpool docks; and are now active together in the TGWU retired members' association.

Jones' parents were militant trade unionists - his father being a member of the National Union of Dock Labourers, His mother's family was Irish. When their son was born during the great Dublin lockout of 1913, the Jones's gave him the Christian names of James Larkin.

It was in May 1937 that Frank Deegan decided to go to Spain. 'My best pal, Barney Mumford, had already gone to join the International Brigades and the newspapers were full of news from the Battle of Jarama.'

It was in that battle that the leader of the Irish section of the British battalion, Kit Conway, from the Glen of Aherlow, was shot dead as the Internationals retreated from Franco's advancing Moorish troops. (The Internationals were divided along language lines - some of the Irish ended up in the British Battalion, while others, like Tommy O'Brien, were in the American Lincoln battalion.)

Frank Ryan then took command of the battered and depleted Battalion and, aided by Jock Cunningham, a Glasgow-Irishman, rallied the men. Singing the Internationale, the Battalion - swelled by French, Belgians and Spanish - stormed their previous positions, driving back the Moors.

There were, of course, Irish fighting on the Fascist side. General Eoin O'Duffy had organised 500 men to fight for Franco. They left Galway on a ship flying the Swastika at the same time as Frank Ryan was departing with his men. O'Duffy's contingent was mobilised for the Battle of Jarama, but their first engagement ended in farce when a Francoist Canary Islands unit, mistaking them for Internationals because of their foreign uniforms and language, opened fire and killed two of them. The Irish pulled back and to man trenches and then lost four dead to republican artillery fire.

Frank Deegan arrived in Spain in June 1937 - the month O'Duffy's men, disillusioned by their experiences, returned to Ireland. On his first day in Spain, Frank was enlisted in the International Brigade in an old fortress town of Figueras in the Pyrenees. Hundreds of men had passed through the fortress and had carved their names on the walls. Frank recognised many names from Liverpool and added his own, pointing out that 'I was Liverpool-Irish.'

Soon he was among friends, including two outstanding commanders. Peter Daly from Wexford and Paddy O'Daire from Glenties, Co. Donegal. 'In fact I knew Paddy before Spain as he lived in Bootle for a couple of years. We had been involved in the unemployed movement together', he recalled. 'When Peter Daly was commandant of the British Battalion, Paddy was his adjutant. Other Irishmen I got to know were Mick Lehane and the brothers Paddy and Tom Murphy. Jim Larne used to lecture us on the history of the Irish republican movement and the struggle for freedom. Then, of course, there were the Power brothers from Limerick - John, Paddy and Willy.' [CC - they were really from Waterford.]

Both Peter Daly and Paddy O'Daire fought at Jarama. Frank Deegan fist saw action at the battle of Brunete in July 1937. Some time afterwards, at Quinto on the Aragon front, he first met Frank Ryan: 'He was a stocky, powerfully built man who was somewhat deaf. Some years later when my wife, Ellen, was expecting our first child, she was attended by a doctor in Liverpool named Ryan. Later, when I visited my dentist, H J Madden, a real old Irish rebel, he told me that Dr Ryan was Frank Ryan's brother. Unfortunately, he had died in the interim.'

The fighting was particularly heavy at Quinto and Frank Deegan and his friend Albert McCabe were caught in machinegun fire. 'Albert was killed instantly and I was wounded in the knee. When I made my way to the doctor, I found him attending our commander, Peter Daly, who had a serious wound. A few days later I heard that Peter had died. He was a very courageous soldier.'


He saw action at Teruel and Belchite, before disaster at Calcite on Thursday, March 31, 1938, when a column of Internationals walked around a bend in the road and into a cluster of Italian tanks. Over 100 Internationals were killed, and many others, including Frank Ryan and Joe Byrne, captured. Others like Frank Deegan and John Power from Waterford wandered for days through the Aragon countryside with no food and only what water they could find. Frank remembers nine awful days in that no-man's land. But in time he made it back to his own lines.

In September 1938, Frank Deegan heard that Socialist Prime Minister Juan Negrin in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to persuade the League of Nations to persuade Hitler and Mussolini to withdraw their troops from Spain, had agreed to pull the International Brigades out of action. 'Fighting was so fierce at the time that I only heard on the day we were supposed to have left. I was at the front line at the time and was told by one of our lads. I remember remarking that it was still going to be a long day,' Frank recalled.

A few hours later he was badly wounded by a hand grenade. But he had mended by the time he left for home in December of that year.

He wasn't long back in Liverpool before he met Paddy Roe McLaughlin. Paddy had fought in the Tan War and the Irish Civil War, served in the New York National guard and had fought in Spain with the James Connolly section of the American Lincoln Battalion. Paddy's best friend in Spain was Liam Tumilson, a Belfast Protestant Republican who had accompanied the Shankill Road delegation to the Wolfe Tone commemoration in Bodenstown, Co. Kildare, in 1934. Paddy had the sad duty of writing to his fiancée, Kathleen Walsh.

When Paddy left Spain, he settled in Liverpool and afterwards married Kathleen. 'Paddy was very committed to the Irish cause and sold the Irish Democrat until he died,' said Frank.

By an old quirk of fate, Paddy's eldest son, Mick, became a Fascist - eventually becoming leader of the British Movement in the seventies. Frank Deegan remarked how strange it was to see on television an unemployed Liverpool-Irish milkman receiving Nazi salutes from ranks of London skinheads. Mick has, however, retired from such activities and now runs an army surplus store in Wales.

In 1981 Channel 4 brought Frank Deegan back to Spain for the making of its series on the Civil War. 'It was very moving visiting all the old battlefields. On May Day I was in Barcelona and was able to march with the Catalan veterans,' he said.

One thing Frank was not able to do was to visit the graves of his fallen comrades. He explained that, after his victory in 1939, Franco ordered that the graves of the fallen Internationals be desecrated - the bodies burned and the ashes scattered. Perhaps Franco was haunted by the words of Dolores Ibarruri (La Passionaria) to the departing Brigadiers: "Mothers! Women! Speak to your children. Tell them of the International Brigades. Tell them how they gave up everything and they came and told us 'we are here. Your cause, Spain's cause, is ours. It is the cause of all advanced and progressive mankind.' Today they are going away. Many of them, thousands of them are staying, with the Spanish earth for their shroud."

Of the 48,000 who served in the Brigades, 12,000 were killed, including 526 from the British Battalion. Despite the heavy losses, Frank Deegan still feels that going to Spain was the correct thing. 'The defeat of the Spanish government was a step on the road to Fascism in Europe. World War 2 might have been avoided if Franco had been defeated. Mussolini and Hitler aided Franco to strengthen Fascism in Europe. They prepared for World War 2 in Spain.'

Frank is still very much involved in politics, as are many of his surviving comrades from the Brigades. Last month he was the principal organiser of a Communist Party meeting in Liverpool at which the main speaker was Silverio Riuz, a former Republican commander in Spain who spent 14 years in Franco's jails.

Spain now has a Socialist government and Frank derives some satisfaction from that. But, in Liverpool, things haven't changed. There, Frank's battle still goes on.

Another article on Frank from 1988 is also available here.