Kilkenny's fight against Franco

Katharine Blake remembers the four local people who listened to the call to arms against fascist dictator General Franco
Kilkenny People
Last updated, 30 July 2008

Added to Ireland & SCW site, Sept.12th 2008.

THE two churches in the village of Inistioge stand side by side in the square; St Mary's, the Church of Ireland church and St Colmcille's, the Catholic church. Bells have brought all the worshippers to their pews and the day trippers are enjoying a rare bit of sunshine at the tables outside the pubs and café. All around is harmony.

Similar village scenes would have been familiar in Spain in the thirties until the shadow of Fascism advanced and changed lives forever. Under the threat of Fascism, the call went out across the world and young men and women came in their thousands to fight for democracy. Four of them came from Kilkenny; Michael Brown, Michael Brennan, Seán Dowling and George Brown. Standing outside the churches in Inistioge, Joe Doyle, Tom O'Neill, Terry Bannon and Jim Walsh, four of the Inistioge George Brown Memorial Committee, are also enjoying the sunshine and they lead the way to the plaque dedicated to George Brown recently erected in St Colmcille's graveyard.

"We would like to present you with this booklet which we put together," says Jim Walsh, handing over an impressive book whose cover reads 'George Brown 1906-1937 – Working-Class Activist & Member of the XV International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War'. Inside, photographs, newspaper articles, copies of birth certificates and fragments of letters accompany articles by Ciaran Crossey, Manus O'Riordan, Jack Jones and Paddy Murphy, the committee's chairman. Manus O'Riordan is Head of Research at SIPTU and Jack Jones married George Brown's widow, Evelyn.

"George Brown was killed at the Battle of Brunete, just outside Madrid on July 7 1937,"says Jim Walsh. "He was the only one of the four to die in the war. George's parents left Inistioge for Manchester in the late 1800s but his mother, Mary, who was a Lackey before she married, came back for each of her four pregnancies, so George and his brother, Michael were born here. Noreen Keher, mother of Eddie, the famous Kilkenny hurler, would have been a first cousin of George's mother, Mary. Noreen was at the first commemoration of George Brown which was held 25 years ago. In May of last year, Paddy Murphy got a committee together. He's an inspirational man, a real driver and now we have a plaque to commemorate George Brown and up in Woodstock, we have a memorial stone to the four men in the olive grove by the conservatory."

¡No pasarán! was the battle cry of the Left in the Spanish Civil War and it is carved into the stone in the ground in the olive grove in Woodstock Gardens in Inistioge along with the names, George Brown ( killed in action Madrid 7-7-37 ), Michael Brown, Michael Brennan and Seán Dowling.

Back in the graveyard, the talk has turned, inevitably to the war they went to fight and other wars since.

"It's unbelievable that guys from here went over there to fight," says Terry Bannon, designer of the plaque and book. "I can't imagine it happening now. I can't imagine people from all over the world going to take on Mugabe." "I remember going to Spain in 1973 on my honeymoon," says Jim Walsh, "and being warned not to speak ill of Franco while we were there. There were armed soldiers at the airport which was quite shocking to us. There was no democratic election in Spain between 1936 and 1976."

The photographs and newspaper articles in the pages of the memorial book, remind us again that this was a twentieth century war, a war in which the media was present. In an interview with an unspecified newspaper under the headline, 'Proud of her Son who gave his life for Liberty', George's mother, Mary speaks about her son:

"I am very proud of my son, and the only thing keeping me up is that he died for the cause of freedom and anti-Fascism, in which he believed till his last breath. George firmly held that it was the duty of all who believed in freedom to fight the Fascist menace, and before he went to Spain, he put his arms around me and said, 'Mamma, I'm going to do my share so that Fascism should not gain a victory over people who yearn for freedom.'

At the recent commemorative weekend which included the unveiling of the plaque on the graveyard's stone wall, the booklet was launched by Bob Doyle, the last surviving Irish member of the XV International Brigade. The Graignamanagh Brass Band, augmented by former members of Inistioge's St Colmcille's Brass Band played 'The Rose of Mooncoin' and 'The Internationale.' "Last December, when we unveiled the stone in the olive grove, Terry and the 'Hatchery Folk Group' sang Christy Moore's song, 'Viva la Quince Brigada and they added on two new verses dedicated to George Brown which were written by James 'Shamur' Kelly," says Jim Walsh.

"Terry and two other members of the committee went over to Salford Working-Class Movement Library to gather information on the four men," says Joe Doyle. "A Brigidista who is in his 80s had collated material on George Brown and had it all ready and waiting for them when they arrived. Unfortunately, it has proved difficult to find much information on the others. We know Michael Brennan and Seán Dowling were from Castlecomer. According to Ciaran Crossey, Michael Brennan went to Spain when he was only 15 and he was sent home after a few months because he was too young. Seán Dowling was 26 when he went and he was there until the end of the service of the Brigades in December 1938." In his 'Memories of George Brown', Jack Jones writes, 'I knew George Brown very well in the early to mid 1930s. Whilst I was a very active trade unionist and later a Labour Party councillor in Liverpool, he was the District Organiser of the Communist Party in Manchester. I respected him greatly for his fine, upright character, his speaking abilities and his Irish charm and his dedication to the cause. George got married to Evelyn very shortly before the outbreak of the war in Spain. I had met her with him previously and also greatly admired her as a stalwart of activist against the rise of Fascism.' After George's death in 1937, Jack Jones went to Spain.

'Later that year I myself volunteered and led a group of comrades over the Pyrenees to eventually fight at the Battle of the Ebro, where I was wounded. Repatriated to recover, I met up again with Evelyn and together we did what we could to aid the starving Spanish people… and with our mutual feelings, love and respect for the memory of George, were quickly drawn together and married. George was with us in spirit as a great comrade and guiding light throughout our long and active 60 years of marriage and no greater friend or inspiration could one have had.'

"We don't know where George fell," says Terry, "but now people have somewhere to visit to pay their respects. There are people who visit memorials all over the world and now, Inistioge will be added to that list."