Charlie Donnelly

Two obituaries from 1937/8

An obituary by Montague Slater and an appreciation by Frank Ryan. The obituary was originally published in the Left Review journal in 1937 and reprinted in the Irish Democrat in July of the same year. This version updated with the footnote added on March 8th 2007 by Charlie Donnelly's brother Joe disputing Charlies reported politics.

The item by Frank Ryan appeared in The Workers’ Republic in July 1938.

"We shall miss Charles Donnelly" - An appreciation by Montague Slater

Charles Donnelly, a poet and a contributor to Left Review, a member of the Irish (James Connolly) Company of the American (Lincoln) Battalion in Spain has been reported missing for several months, and is believed to have been killed. I remember clearly one day in 1935 when I met Donnelly for the first time. He had come over a short time before from Dublin, where he had been at University College. His joining the Communist Party had given offence both to his parents and given offence to his parents [the university], and he had abandoned his studies.[see the footnote - a comment by his brother Joseph Donnelly, sent to me, 8th March 2007.]

In London he supported himself at first with the sort of jobs young Irishmen usually get hold of. I think he was either a barman or a dishwasher. He must have been twenty-one. He had already made a great impression on audiences at Marx House, lecturing on the building of capitalism in the Free State. He saw affairs in his own country with such a fresh eye that conversation with him was a voyage of discovery.

He had the critical judgement of political questions of the sort one sometimes finds in very young people, confident and flexible and what used to be called in children 'old fashioned.' I never met in anyone so young the same boldness of political vision, and I remember wondering whether it was what we ought to expect in the new generation now coming of age, though I hadn't found it in the run of his contemporaries.

It was no chance flash as some readers of Left Review will know for themselves. Two of his articles in Left Review are well worth looking at again, the first, 'Portrait of a Revolution', Vol. 11, No. 1, October 1935, is an account of a meeting with one of the exiled German leaders. In it Donnelly pays a modest and imaginative tribute to one who had gone through the furnace, and he tries to look with the eye of a novelist into the subject's character. The second is one in which we collaborated, an article on Casement and Connolly, (Vol 11 No 7, April 1936), consisting of a resume of Bernard Shaw's draft speech in defence of Casement with Casement's annotations, and an historians judgement written by Donnelly of James Connolly as a revolutionary and as a man. It is a fine piece of eloquence, and had what I thought was, for us, a new note. He wrote regularly at this time in Irish left-wing papers, and had some very good articles in International Press Correspondence. More here ...

It is the natural history of many of us for the emotional life to find it hard to catch up with intellect. Latterly, Donnelly wrote about politics less directly, was writing verse, had begun a novel and studied military science with a sort of romantic enthusiasm. He was moving from one to another of comparatively short-term jobs, as journalist, office worker, and so on, going though the usual struggle.

When the Fascist rebellion broke out in Spain he plunged into all available material, particularly Napier's 'Peninsular War,' and produced a memorandum on strategy in Spain which I have not seen, but I believe it was shown to military experts whose interest was aroused. When the International Brigade was formed, he said it was ridiculous to spend all this time on military theory without experiencing the practice, but he waited till the Irish company was ready, saying he would only fight beside people he knew.

He went to Spain just before Christmas, and in his last days here wrote a great deal of verse in which his emotional and intellectual life were beginning to find fusion. Some of this may be rescued. I am reminded of something Upward says in 'The Mind in Chains' that only 'in revolutions and major wars do fundamental realities come to the surface of life.' For Donnelly public and private living had come together and were to be fused in dying.

I have said enough to show that I believe a mind of rare delicacy has been sacrificed. The lessons of history are not cheap, and the price this time was the maximum. Donnelly paid with cool understanding and all the letters from Spain speak of his gallantry in the fighting.

Footnote: Comment by Joseph Donnelly on Charlie's politics

Noting your publication on your website of an obituary on my brother, Charlie Donnelly by Montague Slater.

I would be obliged if you could add a note in correction of a comment made in the obituary that my brother was a communist. The facts are that the only organisations or movements my brother ever joined were The Republican Congress in Ireland, the Labour Movement in England and the International Brigade in Spain.

Joseph Donnelly.

Charlie Donnelly: An Appreciation by Frank Ryan

The Workers’ Republic, July 1938

Appreciation of Charles Donnelly by Frank Ryan, written to Paul Burns of the Lincoln Battalion (USA) International Brigade now commanding the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

"I am enclosing copies of two poems by Charlie Donnelly, his death is one of the tragedies of those breathless days just a year ago when men just had to fling themselves across the path of the fascist advances. Today we are in a better position to utilize men of Charley's calibre in their proper sphere. It's not the death of the poet I lament - for I never thought of him in that role: modern poetry is something I generally prefer to see written as prose, it is the revolutionary thinker I mourn. With a few more years experience. For he was still too much of the student, Charley would have been invaluable to us. I always wanted to pull him out of the Battalion but as you may recall the circumstances in January, that I didn't [get] my chance. Charley and I used to be on opposing wings when he first came into the movement in Ireland. He was all theory then and had little use for my [stance] as he called it. He went to work in London - dishwashing for a while - for a year and then wrote me to agree that there was a lot in my point of view. In fact he made the mistake of swinging temporarily too much under away from internationalism. But, after that year, what an asset he would have been to the Irish revolutionary movement."