My Experiences with the Irish Section of the Lincolns Volunteers,

The Volunteer, Vol. XXIII, No.3, Sept. 2001, By David Smith

In early February 1937, Dan Fitzgerald and I left Boston for New York. We shipped out to Spain on February 7 with about 80 men. On February 14 we had dinner at a union hall in Paris, then traveled by train over the Pyrenees-the border was still open-to Figueras. After a few days of exercise, we went on to Albacete. On February 24 we were behind the Morata-Jarama front. We embarked from the trucks and were handed rifles and three bullets each to fire into the hillside-"a well-known story of our military training."

As the men assembled again, the captain in charge called out, "The following step out," and David Smith was the last name. The captain explained that we Internationals were to be part of a rear guard at Morata. No amount of arguing could change this decision. The trucks took off with the other men and I was assigned to a group of seasoned British volunteers in the rear guard. After I griped a great deal, the leader said, "So you want to get to the front? Just get out on the road and stop the next truck." This I did, and I soon arrived at the front.

As I wandered around, a volunteer came over, asked a few questions, and said, "Come with me." I was now in the Irish section of the Lincolns. By the next day I was acquainted with Peter O'Connor and Johnnie Power. I also found Dan Fitzgerald nearby, also in the Irish section. We stared at each other, embraced, and just sat together speechless for a while.

On February 26 we were told that there would be a full attack with full support, tanks, aircraft, etc., that would take place the next day. On February 27 we were up before daybreak waiting for orders. Soon we were in bright daylight, but no tanks, artillery or aircraft were in sight, and the men began to gripe. Eventually some said, this will be a f- operation. Later Peter O'Connor and Johnnie Power took me aside and told me in no uncertain language, "Since you are new, if you want to come through this operation, just follow us and do as we do."

When the attack order came through, we went over the top a short distance and I did as instructed. Men were falling all around us. I do not have to paint a picture of the horrible sight of men going down in action. Among those Irish who died were Robert Hilliard, a Protestant pastor, and Eamonn McGrotty, a Catholic priest. Unfortunately, this operation was not successful in the sense of driving the fascists back. It was thought, however, that it showed the fascists that they couldn't cut the road behind us to Madrid. Upon returning to the trenches I sat down numb and speechless and we just stared at each other. Later, when more machine guns arrived, I was transferred as a machine gunner with the Lincolns. All the years since Jarama, I have recognized that I owe my life to the men of the Irish section.

This spring I was finally able to visit Ireland with a friend, and in Dublin I met with Manus O'Riordan, chief economist of a large union and son of vet Michael O'Riordan, who is the author of The Story of the Irish in Spain. Peter O'Connor died last year. We visited many monuments, among them the memorial plaque to the International Brigade's Connolly Column at Liberty Hall, the banner of the Connollys in the Irish Labour History Museum, and the graves of Connolly, Pierce, and heroes of the 1915 uprising, and that of Frank Ryan, the leader of the Irish in Spain. We spent time with Michael O'Riordan reminiscing about Spain and saw the wonderful posters and pictures from the Spanish Civil War at their labor hall. It was heartening to realize how many of the Irish are familiar with the history of the Irish volunteers and to be with Manus O'Riordan and his encyclopedic knowledge of the International Brigades.

In the evening we joined the family at a songfest. About 80 men and women, young and old, sat along tables with their pints of Guinness, conversing. Then someone started to sing an Irish song. No one directed the fest, but as soon as one song ended, another individual followed as they saw fit with songs and poetry recitations of Irish struggles, revolutionary songs, romantic songs-both in English and in Gaelic. This took place from 9:30 to 1:30. We had never experienced such a gathering. Manus and his sister, in good voice, sang songs of the Spanish War. All eyes turned to us. I am forever grateful for the opportunity of visiting and reuniting with such wonderful comrades.