The Irish Times, February 9, 1996
Old soldier remembers young Cork docker who sailed to Spain
to fight for democracy
The Spanish recall an Irishman who fought for their liberty and an old
man talks to Patsy McGarry about those who fought and those who died
MICHAEL O'Riordan is an old soldier who served on the losing side
unfashionable war. A former general secretary of the Communist Party of
he was never afraid of taking unpopular stances.
His communism now looks like a lost cause, but history has been
kinder to the
idealism which led him and others to fight in Spain for democracy in
Late last year the Spanish parliament unanimously supported a motion
their government that "Spanish citizenship should be given to all
asked for it and had been accredited as part of the International
It is hoped that the Spanish government will approve the motion in
the 60th anniversary celebrations in November this year of the
brigade's part in
the Spanish Civil War.
Michael O'Riordan fought with the International Brigade in Spain.
He was one
of 145 Irishmen to do so, 61 of whom were killed. Five of the survivors
thought to be still alive.
In February 1938 he joined up to fight for the Republican government
the rebel Gen Franco, who was backed by the Catholic Church. He was
and had been working on the docks with his father in Cork. Recruitment
organised through the Communist Party.
The Spanish government, elected in February 1936, was presented to
people as a "group of blood thirsty Bolsheviks, persecutors of
An Irish Christian Front was formed under Eoin O'Duffy, leader of
"Blueshirts". Huge rallies were held and large amounts of money raised
the "fight for Christianity in Spain".
This movement organised 700 volunteers to fight for Franco and
vociferous support of the Catholic Church. Not so the International
its Irish unit, formed in September 1936.
By December the first Irish contingent left for Spain. Michael
travelled there via Dublin, Liverpool, London and Paris. All of which
illegal as it was against the law to volunteer for the International
He got into France using an English name and address, and arrived at
hotel there, where Marshal Tito of the former Yugoslavia headed
four days he and, other volunteers underwent an intensive orientation
They were then brought to the Spanish border at the foot of the
which they crossed using a smugglers route. The crossing took 12 hours.
the only Irishman among 30 volunteers.
In June they took part in a major assault against Franco forces at
river. They had no aerial support and were being bombed heavily from
They had no artillery or anti tank guns. They numbered 35,000 to
But the element of surprise was theirs, as was victory. O'Riordan
was wounded. A piece of shrapnel from a trench mortar hit his right
shoulder and he had to be taken to a field hospital.
Conditions there were so bad there was no anaesthetic. He was
injured, to the reserves and saw no further action before the brigade
By then they had served their function. A Spanish army had been
which replaced them. There was a formal public farewell from the
at a parade in Barcelona on October 29th that year. Thousands lined the
and threw flowers to their departing hermanos (brothers).
And in Dublin they (about 30) marched from Westland Row (now Pearse)
station to O'Connell Street, where that turbulent republican priest,
Michael O'Flanagan, greeted them from the back of a lorry.
On his arrival in Cork Michael O'Riordan was "ostracised", with the
"blessing themselves and crossing to the other side of the road"
In February 1940 he was among the first three men interned in this
State as a
"security risk" and when he stood for election in 1951 the Archbishop
Dr McQuaid, had a message read at all Masses forbidding votes for him
of mortal sin.
Then in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. "History has its own way," he
agreeing that mistakes were made in the past but insisting "communism
dead". He instances recent elections in Poland, Russia and Hungary as
Then he predicts that "what will come will not be the same as
before. It will
be a more flexible form of communism". And he moves away into the
evening, slowed only by history and arthritis. Semper fidelis.
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