Updated 3rd May 2016

Memoirs of some Irish International Brigadistas

The Irish boys of the Old (Lincoln) Brigade

Article from Irish Echo, May 1-7, 1996, New York
Thanks to Jack Holland for his permission to reprint this article.
The copyright is his.

Spanish Civil War veterans "vindicated" after 60 years

From Irish News, 6th December 1996

Bob Doyle

A report of his visit back to Spain and his campaign to erect a memorial to the fallen of Jarama.
Article from Irish Post, London, 16th October 1993
An additional piece on this visit from Fortnight, a magazine produced in N. Ireland.

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The Irish boys of the Old (Lincoln) Brigade
ŠJack Holland.
Republished from the Irish Echo, May 1-7, 1996, New York.

A glorious spring day greeted the veterans of the Lincoln Brigade as they arrived at the New York Sheraton for the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the unit that crossed the Atlantic to fight fascism in Spain all those years ago. The veteran Irish activist George Harrison had been looking forward to the day for quite some time. Though not a member of the brigade himself, he has attended more than half their yearly reunions, and has helped them organise the events.
This year he booked a table for ten guests. Among those seated next to us were Frank Durkan and his wife, and Cuba's first secretary to the UN, Mario Medina, along with his wife. Unfortunately, one of the Brigade's most ardent supporters, Paul O'Dwyer, could not be there due to frail health.
The 60th Anniversary was special. It could celebrate the fact that the Spanish government plans to confer honorary Spanish citizenship on all those who fought for the Spanish Republic in the International brigades, of which the Lincoln Brigade was an important part. Surviving members of the 40,000 strong brigades have been invited to Spain for the ceremonies, which are scheduled to take place next November.
It was the citizens of the United States who provided one of the biggest contingents to the brigades. Approximately 3,000 Americans went to Spain, most of them as members of the Lincoln brigade. Nowadays, as ethnic conflicts and wars inspired by religious fanatics' rage across the planet, it is hard to find a cause to which reasonable men and women can give their allegiance. But Spain was one of those causes, inspiring people from al walks of life who were horrified at the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini. They saw in the rebellion of Francisco Franco in July 1936 a drastic extension of the threat that fascism was offering to the civilised world.
The imperial Ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in New York seemed a long way from the world of aerial bombardment, jack-booted storm troopers and concentration camps. Under rather special chandeliers some 900 people sat down at table, the biggest gathering that the veterans had so far enjoyed. Among them were 49 veterans of the brigade, nearly all of them in their 80's. Harrison knew almost all of them, among them Lennie Levenson.
Levenson spent 18 months fighting in Spain, the last four of them in a special machine gun battalion, one of whose tasks was to hold bridges against the advancing fascists. He became an arms instructor. When World War 2 started, he tried to sign up as an instructor. He was told that he did not have enough teeth. He replied: "What'd you want me to do, bite the Japs?"
Levenson, sprightly in his 80's, had fought alongside Paddy O'Daire. The Donegal born O'Daire was an appropriately named Irish volunteer in the Irish contingent, the Connolly Column, named in honour of James Connolly, the military commander of the Easter Rising and revolutionary socialist. According to Levenson, Paddy was "the toughest soldier there." O'Daire had been deported from Canada because of his involvement in a strike, and had then gone to Spain. After the war ended, he joined the British army and - unusually for a non-commissioned officer - had been promoted up to the ranks to major.
O'Daire was one of some 200 Irishmen who fought in Spain in the Connolly Column. Unlike their American equivalents, these men faced tremendous opposition in Ireland. Franco claimed to be defending Catholic values against the "Red Menace" and this created a lot of sympathy for him in Ireland. It was Cardinal MacRory who encouraged Eoin O'Duffy, the former Blueshirt leader, to go to Spain to meet with Franco. Somewhat extravagantly, O'Duffy promised the fascist dictator 20,000 Irishmen to fight for his cause against "the new paganism." In the end, about 700 volunteers went to Spain under O'Duffy. Though it was more than three times the number who joined the fight for the Spanish Republic, the Blueshirts were more of an embarrassment than anything. In one action in which they did engage, they succeeded only in firing on their own side. Not long afterward, they slunk back to Dublin.
On the other hand, the Connolly Column volunteers - the comrades of the Lincoln Brigade - contributed some of the bravest and ablest fighters, including Frank Ryan, who had been one of the leading members of the IRA. Frequently, they faced opprobrium from their parish priests and their neighbours if they were fortunate enough to get home alive. Many from the Connolly Column died in Spain, as did many of the Lincoln Brigade - some 300 from the New York area alone. That Sunday, at the luncheon, they were never very far from the minds of those who survived.
What tales they had to tell. At the end of the event, there was a recital to accompany readings from letters written by Lincoln Brigade members to their loved ones back in the U.S. Among the things they recounted were the first descriptions of aerial bombardment, as German and Italian dive-bombers practised on Spanish civilians and introduced the modern world to a horror it has had to live with ever since.
"These ghostlike walls," wrote one of the aftermath of such an attack, "household furnishings perched on the edges of broken floors; kitchen utensils; the blood which stains the walls from which human flesh had been scrapped…Such barbarism can never rule the earth."
The tragedy was that these sights would become all too characteristic of modern warfare and of the world in which we now live.

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Spanish Civil War veterans "vindicated" after 60 years
By Brendan Anderson, Irish News, Belfast, 6th December 1996

One of the few remaining Irish survivors of the Spanish Civil War will be in Belfast this weekend to talk about his role as a volunteer in the International brigades.
Michael O'Riordan, who works in a Dublin bookshop, had little time to celebrate his 21st birthday in Barcelona, with one of the bitterest conflicts of the century raging around him.
Mr. O'Riordan was one of the 133 Irishmen who fought with the International Brigades, in support of the Spanish government which was eventually overthrown by Franco's right wing army.
The republicans may have been defeated then, but almost 60 years later, this time on his birthday, Michael O'Riordan and his former comrades were back in the city, this time hailed as heroes.
"Even apart from being received in the Spanish parliament, the response of the ordinary people who turned out to greet us was very, very emotional. It was a vindication, it took a long time to come but it was worth waiting for.
"Danger there was, and the fact that we were outgunned completely did not help. The American army carried out an assessment of the Spanish war and it was estimated that, in troops, guns, tanks, even food, the fascists had a 7-1 advantage."
Mr. O'Riordan said he never referred to the conflict as a "civil war" because he believes it turned into an invasion with the arrival of German troops and planes and Italian tanks.
"There was a difference of calibre in the two sides. In one famous battle at Guadalajara, the Italians were cock-a-hoop and said they did not need any help to fight us. Well, there were anti-fascist Italians in the International Brigades side and they beat the hell out of them."
He did not fight against fellow Irishmen of the Irish Brigade who fought on Franco's side, but he said he did not hold them in high regard.
"They were regards as a bit of a comic opera and soon there was a mutiny in their ranks and they quickly returned home," he said.
Among the many Irish members of the International brigades who did not return home was Jim Straney from East Belfast's Short Strand area.
"I knew Jim Straney very well. He was killed on the last day of fighting on the Ebro front. We took the offensive by crossing the Ebro, and that surprised the Franco forces, but then the whole weight was shifted against us. We had very little tanks or aviation, they had tons of it", he said.
Michael O'Riordan will give a talk on Homage to the International brigades in Spain on Saturday in The Place, Northern Visions, 4 Donegall Street. The film, To Die in Madrid will also be shown. Music is by Maggies Leap.

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Faithful to the fallen

Spanish Civil war veteran Dubliner Bob Doyle is still fighting for justice for those he left behind. His remarkable story can be seen this Saturday on BBC 2. Here he talks to MARTIN DOYLE.
Every now and then television profiles an individual with such integrity, vigour and vitality that we stop to question how much we are putting into and getting out of life. Hannah Hauxwell of the Yorkshire Dales is one example. Dubliner Bob Doyle is another.
Seventy-seven years old, this veteran, who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, was handed a camera by the BBC last year to film his struggle to achieve a memorial to the members of the international brigade, among them 19 Irishmen, who died at the Battle of Jarama, near Madrid. The result, Video Dairies: Rebel Without a Pause, can be seen this Saturday, October 16, on BBC 2.
I first met Bob, who now lives in Neasdon, north London, early this year. Having arranged to meet him outside a tube station, I was taken by surprise when he arrived, not on board public transport, but astride a Honda moped. Though surviving on a pittance of a pension, together with his Spanish wife Lola, who is 10 years his junior, Bob's lust for life and fierce devotion to justice is as strong today as when, aged 20, following the example of Frank Ryan and Kit Conway, he went to fight Fascism in Spain.
Nothing left
Bob was captured by Mussolini's troops, the Black Flashes, and imprisoned in concentration camps, first in Burgos, where he was interrogated by the Gestapo, then in San Sebastion. There is nothing left of the prison camp in San Sebastion, not even a brick, but the Burgos jail is now a monastery.
Bob makes an emotional journey back to Burgos, where he finds himself one lunchtime across the table from a Spaniard whose uncle was a Major in Franco's army and whose sympathy lay too with the dictator. Disbelief that Bob could have been a Republican prisoner of war - "All the Reds were shot"- leads to the conversation stopper: "This country is going to hell with democracy."
Bob's quest to see recognised the sacrifice of the 5,000 members of the International Brigade who died at Jarama came about when he learnt from a former comrade, Frenchman Francois Mazou, that all the burial sites and simple memorials to the fallen had been destroyed. The remains of the dead had been disinterred and thrown unceremoniously into a pit which henceforth became a rubbish dump.
Though their bodies might lie on waste ground, to prove that their lives had not been wasted and that their deaths were worthy of remembrance, Mazou commissioned and put in place a memorial stone and in 1990 the municipality of Madrid approved in principle the creation of a site of national importance in Jarama, but today things are seemingly no further forward.
Bob Doyle was accompanied on his trip to Spain to meet with local politicians by Cluna Donnelly, whose uncle, the poet Charlie Donnelly, is among those buried in the unmarked mass grave. It is a moment of deep emotion for her and the viewer when she reads a tribute to him near the site of the grave.
But before Bob and Cluna made the emotional trip to Spain, there was a wealth of preparation to be made, and a cheerful, at times hilarious, mood is struck, thanks in part to Bob's apprenticeship with the video camera, in part to some clever editing in the BBC cutting room, but above all to the characters Bob meets as he goes about his business.
The Video Dairy is not Bob's first time in front of the camera. His son Julian was a cameraman on the Monty Python films and Bob featured as an extra in the Holy Grail. His "starring role", he says, was as a human doorbell in Jabberwocky. But Bob behind the camera is a different matter. Filming a meeting of Mirror Group pensioners - "I couldn't manage without the 64p a week I get from Mirror Group" Bob ironises, wryly recalling Robert Maxwell once addressing him as Brother Doyle as they negotiated a pay deal - the strobe button comes on by mistake. On another occasion he is forced to leave the camera and his hopes for a more humanitarian future society to chase a cat out of his garden.
Huge success
As Bob prepares for a Spanish-Irish fundraising evening, he goes to visit a local wine merchant, who keen for him to "recuperate" some money from the do, first dissuades him from spending money on cognac for the punch, then warns him off buying Spanish cheese. "You don't want Spanish cheese. That'll cost you an arm and a leg. Nobody will appreciate it anyway. Give them cheddar." In the end, the evening is a huge success, with Spaniards and Irish rallying together to sing the Internationale, an emotional moment evoking the dawn chorus of socialism.
One event in the diary that has got nothing to do with the Spanish Civil War and everything to do with the Irish experience in Britain is a scene in a pub in Neasden, where Bob is quietly having a pint. Suddenly one of the young me drinking in the bar starts shouting at that Paddies coming over here to work on building sites should clear off home after what the IRA did in Warrington.
Whatever about IRA atrocities provoking or permitting such outbursts of anti-Irish racism, Bob reveals to me something not shown in the video dairy - out of picture< Ireland are thumping England in a televised Five Nations rugby match, perhaps the real cause of the Englishman's ire. Still, it is a rare moment of television, one worth recording and sending to the Commission for Racial Equality to chew over.
"Memorials are important," says Bob Doyle, "because they remind people of the significance of historical events. With fascism and racism on the rise today, it is important history isn't swept under the carpet." At a speech at the memorial in London's South Bank to those who fell fighting Fascism in Spain, he declares: "Today in a world which is witnessing a resurgence of the Nazi ideology we salute with pride our International brigade comrade who gave their lives in defence of the Spanish Republic. We pledge our continuing struggle until their dignity in death is restored."
As the BNP picks up a council seat in London's East End, and racism and fascism spread though-out Europe, the actions of the International brigade take a sharper contemporary significance. "The threat of Fascism is greater today than in the 1930's", Bob believes. "The struggle against fascism is not finished."
Looking back on his long, eventful life, the veteran has reached this understanding: "In the twilight years of my life I recognise more and more the proudest thing I ever did was to participate in a noble, worthwhile struggle and it's the last thing I'm going to do."
Bob believes that his video dairy is going to stir things up for the local authorities in Spain,. While there he met the priest in charge of the cemetery which adjoins the war grave, who assured him that he had no objection to a memorial. He has already persuaded politicians such as Edward Heath and Dick Spring to write to the Spanish authorities and is appealing to Irish post readers to do the same.
Letters should be addressed to Don Joaquin Leguina, Presidente, La Communidad Automama de Madrid, Puerta del Sol 7, 28013 Madrid, and Don Jaime Lissavtzky, Presidente de la Consejeria Cultural de la C A M, Plaza de Espana 8, 28008 Madrid, specifying the war grave in the Morata de Tajuna cemetery.
* Video Dairies: Rebel Without A Pause is on BBC2 this Saturday, October 16, at 11.20 p.m.
Article taken from the Irish Post, London, 16th October 1993.

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Ideals indecently buried.
Eugene Egan in Fortnight June 1993

In 1937, Bob Doyle left his native Dublin to fight on the republican side in the Spanish civil war. He joined the Connolly Column, the Irish unit of the International Brigade, which was attached to the British battalion. Now 76, last month he returned to Spain to campaign for a memorial to the brigadiers who died at the battle of Jarama.
According to Mr. Doyle, the bodies of his comrades were dumped in an unmarked mass grave in Morata de Tajuna. His journey back to Spain was recorded by BBC's Video Dairy, for broadcast in October.
Nineteen Irishmen died in the battle of Jarama. Many were IRA veterans, who fought with distinction - it was the death of one of them, Kit Conway, that led Mr. Doyle to Spain to join the struggle.
"I shared a room with Kit Conway in Dublin. At the time we were both in the Republican Congress. He was a man I admired, so when I heard he was killed in Jarama I made my own way to Spain to avenge his death and take his place," he said.
Mr. Doyle, one of the few survivors of the Connolly Column, also wants to highlight the fact that tens of thousands were executed after the war ended. As far as he, and many others, are concerned, Franco's reign of terror was a second Spanish Inquisition.
"One must remember that 172,000 people were executed by Franco's forces between 1939 and 1952. This happened to anyone who was associated with a strike, lockout or trade dispute, yet very little concern was expressed about atrocities. People did not realise the true extent of the terror in Spain.
"Nobody was punished for these executions. In 1947 I returned to Spain, having married a Spanish woman, and tried to visit places where executions had taken place. But I was prevented from doing this by the Spanish authorities," Mr. Doyle explained.
He does not want to see the efforts of those who died swept under the carpet. He is determined that those whose remains were thrown into a mass grave are given a decent resting place. But he has met a negative response from the Spanish authorities, who would rather keep the matter quiet.
The former Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath, has written to the Spanish premier, Felipe Gonzalez - facing elections this month - in support of the campaign. The Irish Labour leader, Dick Spring, has added his support too.
The International Brigade consisted of volunteers from 62 nations. When asked why he had gone to Spain when many Irish republicans took the view that there was fighting to be done at home, he said: "It provided me with an opportunity to avenge Kit Conway's death and I felt an obligation to assist my Spanish brothers and sisters.
"Kit Conway was the battalion instructor for the IRA in Dublin and at that time we were fighting on many issues that affected the working class. We fought against people being evicted from rat infested basements. We supported the rent strikes and the rights of trade unionism and organised demonstrations against unemployment.
"With the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, we were able to identify with the struggle of the Spanish people. We thought that what was happening in Ireland and Spain was all part of the same struggle against imperialism and fascism. Having a broad international outlook we could no longer stand by and look on at the murder of democracy and the achievements the Spanish people had won."
Mr. Doyle was captured in March 1938, with the Irish unit’s leader, Frank Ryan. They were taken to a concentration camp, and then to the main prison at Burgos and sentenced to death. His sentence was later commuted to ten years imprisonment, while Mr. Ryan’s was reduced to 30 years.
The prisoners were systematically beaten and deprived of food. Eleven months on, however, Mr. Doyle as released in exchange for Italian prisoners held by republicans.
He brought home to Dublin the names of 16 priests he claimed had been executed by Franco’s forces, but they were never published in the Irish papers. Unable to find work in the hostile climate of the free State at the time, with the outbreak of World War 11, he joined the navy as a seaman.
After the war, Mr. Doyle settled in London, where he met his Spanish wife, Dolores. For the next 37 years he worked in the London printing trade and was active as a shop steward in his trade union.
The rise of fascism and racism in Europe disturbs him and has given his task an added urgency. He said: "The threat of fascism is greater today than in the 1930s. Because there is hardly a country in the world that is not facing the same problems, such as mass unemployment and poverty, which fuel fascism. The consequences of ignoring the fascist threat in Spain were the holocaust and the outbreak of World War 2.
"The struggle against fascism in not finished. The executions and the dumping of people's remains in mass graves are not going to go unchallenged. If history is allowed to be swept under the carpet, then it could be said that the efforts of those who fought against injustice had been in vain."

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