Dublin: Obituary for Paul Burns

In The Volunteer, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Winter, 1996-7

We mourn the loss of our beloved comrade in arms, Paul Burns. Last month it was our privilege to return to Spain to be honored as International Brigades veterans by the people of Madrid, Bilbao, Guernica, Barcelona and Gandesa. We were indeed delighted to renew acquaintance with many Lincoln vets who had also returned. But we also turned our thoughts to absent friends who had not traveled - particularly Paul Burns who had fought with the James Connolly Section of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the 1937 battles of Jarama and Brunete, until invalided home as a result of war wounds.

Paul was indeed a very special type of American who both dug deep and grew outwards. Deeply conscious of his Irish roots, his sense of internationalism also led him to risk his life in defense of the Spanish Republic, "to try and stem the rising fascist tide."

Daylight was yielding to dusk as we revisited the battlefield of Jarama on November 7. As we proudly stood beside what had been the Lincoln Battalion's trenches with our banner of the Connolly Column of the 15th brigade we remembered that on May 12, 1937, the 21st anniversary of James Connolly's execution, Paul was among those who had organized a Connolly Commemoration behind those lines.

Earlier on the morning of that return visit, we had revisited the nearby cemetery of Morata de Tajuņa where in a mass grave of 5,000 who fell at Jarama, there are nineteen Irish dead, including the poet Charlie Donnelly, killed in action on February 27, 1937. And again we recall that in the 1938 Book of the Fifteenth Brigade, edited by the Irish commander Frank Ryan, it was Paul who ensured that the memory of Charlie Donnelly would be kept alive as an inspiration by writing of his death in action. But Paul did more than that.

He also wrote for that book a very vivid account of how, when the Lincolns first went into action at Jarama on February 23, both he and Charlie Donnelly had fought side-by-side with no more than an olive tree as their protection. Speaking of Frank Ryan, our return to Jarama also brought us down the famous "sunken road" where Frank had rallied the troops at an earlier stage in that battle.

Here once again our thoughts were led back to Paul - for when Ryan had been captured by the fascists and with trumped-up false accusations was put on trial for his life, it was an international solidarity campaign that saved that life.

And to the fore in that campaign was the letter which appeared in the New York Times of May 30, 1938, in which Paul Burns and other Irish-American vets of Spain gave eye-witness evidence of Frank Ryan's honorable behavior both on and off the field of battle.

The veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and the Connolly Column have lost a brave and noble comrade, recalled with pride by those with whom he took his stand and fought shoulder-to-shoulder in order that fascism should not triumph in Spain. That it was the democratic will of the Spanish people which finally triumphed over that fascism and warmly welcomed back the International Brigades last month is the ultimate vindication of Paul's courageous stand. Salud! on behalf of the Irish veterans of the Connolly Column, 15th Brigade.

Peter O'Connor and Michael O'Riordan