Kit Conway - Hero of Jarama

By Sean Ua Cearnaigh

Irish Democrat, Feb. 1987

Added to the website,Ireland and the Spanish Civil War, Jan 18th 2005 after the author gave his permission, CC. Thanks to Sean for his permission to republish this piece. Should anyone else have memories of Conway please contact me. Updated, 22nd January 2005.

Copyright rests with Sean Ua Cearnaigh.

Two excellent books, published within the last few years, have done much to recall the memory of the 59 Irishmen who died in defence of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War. The books in question are Michael O'Riordan's Connolly Column, and Sean Cronin's biography of Frank Ryan. Reading both 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 February battle 50 years ago was a lethal blow to his comrades. Both Michael O'Riordan and Sean Cronin have acknowledged this. However, part of Mr Cronin's information on Conway, (Frank Ryan, p93) is slightly inaccurate:

He states:

"Kit Conway from the Glen of Aherlow, a born soldier with long experience of tight situations, led the Irish in the British Battalion. Conway was 38 years of age with a fine record in the Black and Tan War."

Kit Conway was not, however, a native of the Glen of Aherlow. He was, in fact, born some miles south 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 are of South West Tipperary. An orphan boy, he was reared in Clogheen poorhouse and at 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. [10p]

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 the army.

How he did so is a fascinating story. He devised a most effective plan. He feigned insanity. He must have been a born actor. In any event, his act so convinced and alarmed his superior officers at the Military Station (Kilworth, Co. Cork) that he was instantly discharged. Even the private soldiers billeted with Kit were convinced of his insanity. [see end of article, cc]

He fought with distinction during the 1919-21 war of Independence. My father was 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 Dinny Lacey's Flying Column.[In a letter to me, 19th Jan 2005, Sean corrects this to say that Conway was a member of Sean Hogan's Flying Column, not Lacey's, CC.] He was an excellent soldier and a born leader of men. As a member of Lacey'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 country 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 nGael 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 now the privations of Dublin's poor, went with the Left. In his heart I think he was always a socialist. He became actively involved with and helped to train and drill the reorganised Irish Citizens' Army.

In our own home (I had not, as yet, been born), 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 threatened Republic against Franco's forces. In all, over 140 Irishmen fought for the Spanish republic and 59 of these died in action.

Kit was the life and soul of the little group. 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; 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 particularly crucial juncture on February 12th 1937. It was on this day, soon after 12 noon, that he was fatally wounded. One of his comrades, James Prendergast, described his passing:

"I reach the hill-crest where Kit is directing fire. He is using a rifle himself and pausing every while to give instructions. Suddenly he shouts, his rifle spins out of his hand, and he falls back.

"He is placed on a blanket. No stretchers left now. His voice is broken with agony. 'Do your best boys, hold on.' Tears glisten in our eyes. Many are from other companies. But all remember Kit at Cordova and Madrid. His gallant leadership then and today won them all.

"Kit is taken away. I see Ken Stalker. [see below, cc] He is the only experienced man left. I run to him and he takes command.

"In the ambulance I meet Kit. He is in terrible agony and can talk little. 'How are the rest?' is his constant question.

"Next morning they told me our great leader was dead."

Note by Ciaran Crossey, 9th January 2005:

There is another small detail about Conway worth making available here.

In October 1936 he applied for a passport, and as one civil servant recorded in the Department of Foreign Affairs,Dublin files -

[He has] made application for a passport to travel to France, Italy, Belgium, Germany. Switzerland and Holland, for the ostensible reason of visiting [the Catholic shrine at] Lourdes.[!]

[Conway and Cummins, who'd also applied] are active members of the Communist Party of Ireland and Conway is also associated with the Republican Congress group. From information in this branch it would appear that both recently volunteered for service in Spain and it would appear that the object of these men in applying for passports is to make their way to Spain, via France.

National Archives of Ireland, DFA File 2/1043. The application for a passpport was successful!

In his letter of January 19th 2005, Sean Ua Cearnaigh repeated his fathers memory of how Conway feigned the madness.

"According to my father, Kit Conway spent a few weeks in the Training Camp at Kilworth, Co. Cork where he feigned insanity, using such ruses as pretending to eat his cap, beating himself with his rifle, pouring buckets of water over himself, etc. The trick worked and he was discharged."

Along with his letter, Ua Cearnaigh, sent an extract from the Tipperary Historical Journal of 1991, an article by Thomas Ryan, Commander of the 6th Battalion, 3rd Tipperary Brigade in the fighting against the Black and Tans, etc. in the War of Independence.

Conway was in the Flying Column but was suspected of spying as he'd been in the British army [hardly unique I would have thought. Thomas Ryan wrote:

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 observatin, with a view to shooting him at once if he showed any sign of treachery in his behavious. 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 thorugh 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 him the opportunity, he might have become a famous leader like Tom Barry, for instance. During the Spanish Civil War, he was killed while fighting with the Irish Brigade [International Brigade.]

Detail on Ken Stalker

This note, not directly of Irish reference but still interesting, was sent in by Mike Arnott, Secretary of Dundee Trades Council, 31st March 2005. Thanks Mike.

I was doing a search for Ken Stalker and found him mentioned in the Kit Conway story on your site. Thought you might be interested in who Stalker was.

Alexander Kenneth Stalker, d Feb 12th 1937, Jarama. Born in Dundee, son of Professor A.M.Stalker. Attended Dundee High School. Age 41 on enlisting in the Brigades in December,1936. He enlisted from the Balham/Putney area of London and is recorded as from London on the main British Brigade website. He was an Engineer and Draughtsman who attended University College, London from where he went to Spain. He was a member of the Associated Engineers & Shipbuilding Union and served in the Army in the Great War and had worked in the Far East & India. Member of the CPGB. Went into action at Lopera in late December 1936 with the No 1 Company (Anglo /Irish) of the French XIV Brigade and later in January at Las Rozas. Returned to Albacete and joined up with the British Battalion in XV Brigade.

Went to Jarama on Feb 12th 1937 as Political Commissar. Took command of the No 3 Company when its Commander Bill Briskey was killed. After Kit Conway was fatally wounded, Predergast reports that he saw "Ken Stalker. He is the only experienced man left. I run to him and he takes command." Stalker was killed soon afterwards, shot in the head later the same day, defending the Madrid-Valencia road.

His obituary was printed in the Dundee Courier March 10th 1937.

Other articles from the Irish Democrat, Irish Post, etc. from 1968-95 on Ireland and the SCW are available here.