Peter O'Connor - a Waterford Volunteer for the Spanish Civil War

Peter O’Connor was born on March 31, 1912 and the family went to live at no. 86 Poleberry, in the city, when Peter was only about one year old. He had three brothers and two sisters and all were active in socialist and republican circles in the city. All the male members of the family were carpenters, with the notable exception of Peter.

Peter was introduced to the Republican movement by his brothers (one of whom, Francis, was a member of the I.R.A. when they took over the Military Barracks in Waterford from the English) and he joined Fianna Éireann when he was about ten years old. This was "…a Republican youth movement founded in 1909 to counter what was thought to be the anti-Nationalist Scout Association of Ireland which was started in 1908. On joining, members had to declare - I promise to work for the independence of Ireland, never to join England's armed forces and to obey my superior officers". At seventeen years of age Peter was brought into the I.R.A. by his brother Jimmy (who was Battalion O/C of the I.R.A.) and he was engaged in bringing despatches to the various units in the locality.

At this time, the late 1920's and early 1930's, Waterford was a hotbed of Republican and working class agitation. The Unemployed Association in the city was so strong that it succeeded in having two of members, David Nash and Thomas Purdue, elected to the City Council on the platform "Bread, Blood and Work." For the next few years the local scene was enlivened by numerous, and often boisterous, marches and meetings in the City Hall and in the People's Park. An example of the type of rhetoric used can be gleaned from a speech made by Councillor Nash when he said, "If we [the unemployed] are not going to get what we want, we will leave this city like the Temple of Jerusalem - we won't leave a stone upon a stone." In December 1932 the roadworkers in the Asphalt company went on strike and in January 1933 the city branch of the Plasterer's Society struck. This latter case was when Peter first came into conflict with the local members of the Hierarchy as John Hearne, who was the leader of the master builders federation in the city, was a prominent member of many of the city's Catholic organisations and he was a personal friend of the Bishop and Archdeacon Byrne. Peter was involved in various activities such as the the 'request' to the managers of the local cinemas not to show films 'of a decidedly British type.' He was also involved in the 'Bass' protest. This meant the entering of public houses and the smashing of all the stock of Bass Ale on the premises.

A group of young men in the city, including Peter and Frank Edwards, had been disatisfied, for some time, with the leadership of the I.R.A., in particular with the emphasis on military rather than political action. Having read the paper, Irish Workers Voice, the paper of the Irish Revolutionary Workers Group, Peter asked that an organiser be sent from the Dublin headquarters to organise the unemployed workers in Waterford. The man sent was Seán Murray, later the first secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland. His coming moved public agitation onto an altogether higher level and confrontation between the employers and the workers (employed and unemployed) was common.

At that time, following the guidance of the Pope in his great Encyclical "Quadragesimo Anno," the Bishop and priests of the Diocese fostered the formation of 'Study Groups' where social issues would be discussed from a Christian standpoint. Peter formed a Workers Study Club and here the members studied the writings of Marx and, especially, James Connolly. In 1933 the members of the Irish Revolutionary Workers Group, including Peter, disbanded and out of the ashes rose the (re-formed) Communist Party of Ireland. In April 1934 he was among the first to join the Republican Congress with Peadar O'Donnell, George Gilmore, Frank Edwards and Frank Ryan. The Waterford members of the Congress were very active at this time and one of their great successes was the exposure of the slum landlords in the city and the terrible living conditions of the people in places like Lady Lane, Teapot Lane, Tanyard Arch etc. I, personally, have a vivid memory from my childhood of looking into a house in Lady Lane and being shocked at what I saw: a family, living in one room with a makeshift bed of straw on the floor.

Peter was a victim of the general depression in Ireland and he emigrated to England, seeking work whereever he could find it. He joined the London branch of the Congress and there he met other like-minded Waterford men. He also joined the British Communist Party and took part in the anti-Mosley demonstrations. When Franco attempted to overthrow the Republican government in Spain Peter left London in December 1936 to journey to Spain, accompanied by Jackie Hunt from New Street and Johnny and Paddy Power from Newtown. All four signed up with the International Brigade and joined the American group, the Lincoln Battalion. They were assigned to a separate unit within the Battalion, the James Connolly Unit and Peter was appointed Group Leader. Barely a month after their arrival in Spain the four were involved in the fierce fighting on the Jarama front and it was in this battle that Frank Ryan was injured and the poet Charlie Donnelly (Even the olives are bleeding) was killed. His body was found among the olive groves and it was taken down the hillside by three Waterford men - Peter O'Connor and the brothers, Paddy and Johnny Power. The Battalion then moved on the offensive north east of Madrid and came under terrible strafing and bombardment from Hitler's Luftwaffe. In all, Peter spent eight months in Spain, most of them at the front lines in extreme heat and under fire from the Franco and Hitler forces. He was ordered home by Frank Ryan at the end of July 1937. He left under protest, but Ryan insisted that as Peter was the only Irishman left to carry on fighting - all the others were dead or injured - he needed someone to tell the true story of the war to the Irish people when he got home.

Peter himself did not escape from the war without some serious health consequences. He was in Spain only four days when he contracted typhoid fever from drinking contaminated water - as a teetotaller he did not drink the wine. He suffered another bout of typhoid fever two months later and was in a serious condition in hospital. In July, during the intense heat of a Spanish summer, he suffered severe burning of his feet through marching all night in boots, without socks, in the deep sand.

He arrived home in Waterford in October 1937 and, in 1938, when the International Brigade was disbanded a small group went to the North Railway Station in Waterford to welcome home Jackie Hunt, Johnny Power and John O'Shea. They were not going to arrive home and then quietly disperse - they were determined on making a statement - so they formed in line and marched across the Bridge, down the Quay and up Henrietta Street to the old Cathal Brugha Sinn Féin Hall where old comrades from the I.R.A and Cumann na mBan held a party for them. This march was commemorated on May 1st, 1994 when the Waterford Council of Trades Unions honoured Waterford's ten participants in the Spanish Civil War. The commemorative march was led by the Waterford Pipe Band and it took the same route taken by Peter and his comrades in 1938. Peter, as the only survivor unveiled a plaque bearing the names of the famous 'ten' and he said:

"I am very pleased to be here today on this historic May Day and to have lived to see my comrades and myself, all members of the Connolly Column, International Brigade, vindicated in the eyes of the Waterford Council of Trade Unions, and the people of Waterford in particular. Looking back over the past 58 years ... I wish to pay tribute to my wife Biddy who stood by my side through all the turmoil of the thirties. I know it was not easy for her, being a devout Catholic. She stood up to all the pressures put upon her during all those years. Through all the vile propaganda about the Reds in Spain burning churches, murdering priests and digging up the skeletons of nuns and dragging them through the streets ... she never left me for which I ... thank her most sincerely.

How things have changed ... The great lesson of Spain was the lesson of unity, where comrades of every religion, and of none, united in a common cause to defeat ... fascism."

Peter O'Connor died on June 19th 1999. The following obituary was taken from Unity, the paper of the Communist Party of Ireland, July 3rd 1999.

Over three hundred mourners attended the funeral of Peter O’Connor at Ballybricken Cemetery, Waterford on Monday June 21, 1999. The coffin was covered with the banner of the Irish Connolly Column of the International Brigades. Amongst the many floral tributes was one huge wreath bearing the crimson, gold and violet of the Spanish Republic. Heading the funeral procession was a piper playing the appropriate air, The Minstrel Boy. At the graveside, Ken Keable played a lament on the flute, which was followed by the song Comrades, by Pauline Humphries. Michael O’ Riordan gave the graveside oration.

Amongst those in attendance at the funeral were representatives from the Waterford Trades Council, Michael O’Reilly, Irish Secretary of the ATGWU, and a delegation from the Communist Party of Ireland. Peter remained a member [of the latter] from the day he participated in its foundation in June 1933 to the day he died. Among the mourners were cultural figures such as Anna Manahan, the stage and TV artist; Jim Nolan, the playwright; John McGrotty, brother of Eamon McGrotty, one of the nineteen Irish anti-fascists who died in action at the battle of Jarama in February 1937 and Sean Edwards, son of the late Frank Edwards, another of the ten from Waterford who fought in Spain.

A measure of the respect that the people of Waterford had for Peter is shown by the decision of the leading book shop in the city to give a two-week exhibition of his book and memorabilia of the Spanish anti-fascist war.

The following is the text of Michael O’Riordan’s tribute to his fellow comrade, Peter O’Connor

"Dear Tina and Emmet, daughter and son of Peter, his six grandchildren and other relatives of the O’Connor family.

Dear Comrades and Friends.

This is a sad occasion and, at the same time, a historic occasion. We have laid to rest in this grave a great, but most modest, man, the last of ten Volunteers from Waterford who in the years of 1936-39 defended, against gigantic odds, the democratically elected government of the peoples of Spain. The odds were indeed gigantic and not only in Spain itself where the forces of reaction were aided by German Nazi, Italian Fascist and Portuguese forces. They were gigantic in Europe and the USA when the forces of the so-called democracies tied the hands of Republican Spain behind its back, by a movement of appeasement to the forces of Franco, Hitler, Mussolini and Salazar.

Responding to the call against Fascism there came to help the Spanish Republic, 40,000 Volunteers from 53 different countries. Five thousand of them died in battle in Spain and many, many, more in the anti-Fascist Resistance Movements that fought in World War II. And of the 145 who formed the Irish Connolly Column of the Fifteenth International Brigade, Peter O’Connor was one of the first to volunteer.

The odds in Ireland against Irish people supporting the Republic against Franco were also gigantic. There was a hysterical campaign which sought to present the Franco forces as a Crusade to defend religion. There was the organization of an "Irish Brigade" which embarked on a comic-operatic military operation to support Franco.

Despite those odds, Peter answered the call of Frank Ryan to fight for the Spanish Republic as an Irish response to the call for an international action of solidarity and as a patriotic one to restore the good name of the Irish people which had been besmirched by the religious hysterical reaction of support for Spanish Fascism. The war was not a religious war, but only one Irish priest spoke out in favour of the Spanish Republic. He was that great Irish Republican, Fr. Michael O’Flanagan who declared: "The fight for Spain is a fight between the rich privileged classes in Spain against the rank and file of the poor oppressed people of’ Spain. The cause being fought for in Spain was nearer to us than we realised."

Waterford was proud of Peter

Peter O’Connor was proud of Waterford and the attendance here today shows that Waterford was proud of Peter. He was proud that there were ten Volunteers in the International Brigade from Waterford - the greatest single contribution from any county in Ireland. Peter recorded the names in his autobiographic book A Soldier of Liberty, and I know that he would wish their names to be mentioned on the occasion of his own funeral which now marks the death of all the Waterford ten. They were:

Maurice Quinlan, South Parade, Waterford - killed in action on the Jarama front, February 1937;
Johnny Power, Waterpark Lodge, Newtown, Waterford; Paddy Power, Waterpark Lodge, Newtown, Waterford; Willie Power, Waterpark Lodge, Newtown, Waterford (Three brothers);
Jackie Lemon, Olaf Street, Waterford;
Jackie Hunt, New Street, Waterford;
John Kelly, Grady's Lane, off Barrack Street, Waterford;
John O'Shea, Kilmeaden, Co. Waterford;
Frank Edwards, Barrack Street, Waterford;
Peter O'Connor, Parnell Street, Waterford.

He and they were bound together in a comradeship of heroes as sung by Christy Moore in his ballad, Viva la Quince Brigada - long may their memory live on!

Today we say our last farewell to Peter O'Connor who died at the age of 87 years but who began his political life 77 years ago when he joined Fianna Eireann at the age of ten. He developed as an activist in the Republican Movement, in the Labour and Trade Union Movements, as a foundation member of the Communist Party of Ireland in 1933, in the united front of the Republican Congress in 1934 and as a Labour Councillor. He was, later on, involved in the solidarity activities of the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement and with Cuban Solidarity. All together an amazing saga of continuous struggle over 77 years!

Peter was influenced by great people and they were by him: Frank Ryan, Sean Murray, George Gilmore - and his own father and three brothers, a truly remarkable family. Today we salute all of them who are represented here today by Peter’s sole surviving sister, Bridget.

A Soldier of Liberty

Peter’s autobiography, A Soldier of Liberty, deals with his time in Spain and particularly with the Battle of Jarama, February 1937, in which nineteen of our Irish comrades fell in battle. Amongst them was Charlie Donnelly whose last words were 'Even the Olives are Bleeding,' uttered on February 23rd. His body lay on the battlefield until March 9 when Peter and two of the Power brothers, John and Paddy, went out to retrieve it. Amongst the dead were also Éamonn McGrotty, a former Irish Christian Brother from Derry and the Church of Ireland clergyman, the Reverend Robert Hilliard, a native of Kerry, who ministered in Belfast. A remarkable unity in death of Catholic and Protestant, in the tradition of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen.

For his defense of the Spanish Republic Peter was awarded the Hans Beimler Medal, this being the name of a foremost German anti-fascist who was killed in Madrid while serving in the International Brigade. In addition, he was decorated in Madrid with the 50th Anniversary Medal marking the formation of the International Brigades. On May 1 1994 Peter unveiled a beautiful Waterford Crystal Plaque bearing the names of the Waterford International Brigadiers.

The final vindication of the courageous stand against Fascism came when he and the other International Volunteers were the recipients of the right to become honorary citizens of Spain by the unanimous decision of the Spanish Parliament in 1996.

In A Soldier of Liberty, Peter wrote a concluding paragraph, which it is right that I should now read, as it is, in fact, his own epitaph:

"You have to believe in something - in a cause that will make the world a better place, or you have wasted your life. I have always been inspired by the following quote from Lenin: ‘Man’s dearest possession is life and since it is given to him to live but once, he must so live as to feel no torturing regrets for years without a purpose; so live as not to be seared with the shame of a cowardly and trivial past, so live, that dying he can say, 'all my life and all my strength were given to the finest cause in the world - The Liberation of Mankind."

Peter O’Connor so lived his life. Salud y victoria!"

In writing this biography I have drawn heavily on the Peter O'Connor Papers (including Peter O'Connor's Spanish Civil War Diary) in the Waterford City Archives, High Street, Waterford and I am indebted to Dónal Moore, the Waterford City Archivist for his help.

Copyright © 2000 Waterford City History
Last modified: September 30, 2002