Speech at Waterford Regional Technical College

Wed. 4th Dec. 1996

I have never been very good at public speaking, so I intend to read my speech and then I will answer questions.

I was born in 1912 in this county, into a republican and working-class family, and we came to live in Poleberry when I was one year old. My father was Secretary of the Waterford Branch of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers for many years, our family suffered victimisation for their principles for most of their lives, and we took the Republican side during the Civil War.

I well remember the day when the British garrison in the barracks marched out, never to return, and the entry into the barracks of the Republican soldiers, amongst whom was my brother Francis. I felt very proud. My uncle Peter Bergin was a member of the IRA during the Tan War, and my eldest brother Jimmy was captain of Fianna Eireann before transferring to the IRA.

I joined Fianna Eireann when I was nine or ten years of age, and remained a member until I was transferred to the IRA when I was 17 -- this would be about 1929. But I became increasingly disillusioned with the IRA because of its narrow military approach and its sectarian attitude towards Protestants. I took part in the re-establishment of the Communist Party of Ireland in 1933 and in launching the Republican Congress in 1935. The Republican Congress was an attempt by a break-away group of IRA leaders (Frank Ryan, George Gilmore and Peadar O'Donnell) to turn the Republican movement towards working-class politics, to show working-class people and small farmers that republicanism had something to offer them in a material way that was worth striving for. Here in Waterford city we had a very active branch of the Republican Congress. We organised meetings about unemployment, we supported strikers, we exposed the terrible housing conditions, and we organised a Workers' Study Club in Coffee House Lane. We studied the works of Connolly, Marx and Lenin. Most of the ten Waterford men who later went to fight in Spain were members of that Workers' Study Club.

In June 1934 I cycled with my IRA unit to the annual Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown. A group of protestant working class lads from the Shankill Road, Belfast, were there, and they were attacked and prevented from laying a wreath on the grave of Wolfe Tone by a section of the IRA acting on orders from above. I was disgusted and it was this incident which finally led me and several of my comrades to leave the IRA for good.

In late 1935 I had to emigrate to London to find work. Together with other comrades from Waterford I became active in the London branch of the Republican Congress and in the trade union movement in Britain. I was awarded the Bronze medal by the Trades Union Congress. I also joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and took part in the growing anti-fascist movement there, including the Battle of Cable Street when the Blackshirts were prevented from marching through the Jewish area of East London. It was this understanding of the growing threat of fascism which led me to go and fight in Spain.

The whole point about Spain was this: the republican government was the elected government; and the fascists who rebelled against it in 1936, led by General Franco, had the support of Hitler and Mussolini. Without Hitler's help, General Franco could never have succeeded. At that time Britain was still giving Hitler tacit encouragement, in the hope that he would invade the Soviet Union and destroy communism. So the war in which I fought was not just a civil war, but an international war to save the world from fascism. There were some people who said after World War Two that they didn't try to stop Hitler at an early stage, because they didn't know what was in store. But some of us had a good idea what fascism was all about, and we tried to stop it. That was why in December 1936 I went to the British Communist Party headquarters and volunteered to go and fight in Spain, together with my Waterford comrades Johnnie Power, Paddy Power and Jackie Hunt.

I fought on the Jarama front and at Brunete. To me, Jarama was a great international picket line against advancing fascism. In July 1937 I was ordered home by Frank Ryan, as I was the only Irishman still in the fighting line, all the others being either dead or wounded. Frank felt that I should go home and tell the Irish people the truth about the war, that it was not about Christianity but about fascism or democracy. So I reluctantly returned. More Irishmen came out to Spain later to continue the fight. In all 145 Irishmen fought in Spain, including ten from Waterford. Fifty-nine of them made the supreme sacrifice, including Mossy Quinlan of South Parade, Waterford. They came from all parts of Ireland, North and South, Catholic, Protestant and people of no religion. About 45,000 volunteers came to Spain from 54 countries to help fight fascism.

Here in Ireland the Catholic Church strongly supported the fascist rebellion, and the blue-shirt leader O'Duffy led an Irish brigade to Spain to support the fascists, sailing under the swastika. Although the church in Spain has acknowledged its error in supporting Franco, the hierarchy here has still not done so. I think it is high time they did.

You can read more in my little book "A Soldier of Liberty" which was published by my trade union and is on sale at The Book Centre.

The reason all this is important is because fascism is on the rise again in Europe. The task of stopping it is in your hands.

And now, to conclude:

You have to believe in something - in a cause that will make the world a better place, or you will have wasted your life. Spain in 1936-39 was my chance to take a stand for my fellow human beings and I will never forget or regret that part of my life. They were the proudest moments of my life. I was privileged to be, in the words of our great leader Frank Ryan, a soldier of liberty. I have always been inspired by the following words of 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 or 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