Obituary by Manus O'Riordan
I suppose the first book I read cover to cover on the Spanish Anti-Fascist War was that published in 1979 by my father, Irish International Brigade veteran Michael O’Riordan, entitled “The Connolly Column – The Story of the Irishmen who fought for the Spanish Republic”. Since then there has been a steady stream of additions to my library on that War. And so it was that on September 27, 2001 I first came across Harry Fisher’s book “Comrades” in an English-language bookshop in Brussels while attending a European Trade Union Seminar.
I did not have time to start reading it before I was out of town again a few days later, attending my own Union’s Delegate Conference. But I did receive an excited phone-call from my wife Annette who had started reading Harry’s book and had been electrified by it. As soon as I returned home I read it myself and was likewise overpowered I had previously read many memoirs of Spain, but never before had I read a work of such penetrating and comprehensive humanity, as well as uncompromising, though sometimes painful, honesty.
At that juncture I was especially gripped by his account of his involvement with the citizens of Madrigueras. I had only just commenced a correspondence with Olga Gascón Flanagan of Barcelona, whose grandmother Sagrario had married Irish International Brigader Andrew Flanagan in Madrigueras in 1937, but for whom the triumph of Fascism in Spain subsequently meant a lifetime of separation from his Spanish wife and their infant daughter Andrea, whose own daughter Olga I was now helping to trace her late grandfather’s Irish roots.
My father was equally delighted to read “Comrades”, not least because one of its heroes was his own late friend and fellow-Irish volunteer Johnny Power, described by Harry as “the greatest guy in the world”. We were therefore thrilled to meet Harry himself in Madrid in October 2001 for the 65th anniversary commemoration of the International Brigades. On October 27, exactly a month to the day from when I had first set eyes on his book, Harry now signed it “to Annette and Manus O’Riordan, to my new friends”. My father in turn signed a rare copy of his own now-out-of-print book for Harry in memory of Johnny Power, and I myself presented Harry with a copy of the English-language summary Olga had sent me of the 1937-38 letters from her grandfather to her grandmother in Madrigueras. It was also a pleasure for me to meet Olga and Andrea face-to-face and experience their overwhelming joy when I later introduced them both to Harry. It turned out that Maria, who is portrayed so lovingly in Harry’s book, had been the best friend of Andrea Flanagan’s mother Sagrario. And so a further bond was firmly established which Olga herself has movingly described on Harry’s web-site.
One runs out of words to express the warmth that so many people felt for Harry from the very moment they began to read his book. Perhaps the best tribute I can pay to him is therefore to share with you some more of Harry’s own words in his subsequent correspondence with me. Immediately upon his return to the USA Harry’s e-mailed me on November 2, 2001:
I didn't realize what a treasure you gave to me when you gave me that book of letters that included the two women from Madrigueras. Last night I couldn't put it down. That book is one of the best treasures that I have.
Thank you. racias. I was also glad to meet the daughter and granddaughter of one of the Madrigueras women. I felt lots of love for them.
I was invited to speak at Madrigueras and I spoke there Wednesday night. Then the mayor and some from Albacete and some from Madrigueras had a late dinner that lasted till 1:30 in the morning. An elderly man in his mid-seventies said that he was a cousin of Maria and that he remembered me walking and holding hands with Maria as we walked in a circle of the village square after dinner, which had been a custom there. Others also remembered Maria. I also met a nephew of Maria who lives in Madrigueras.
And now, thanks to you, I have more wonderful memories of those days of more than sixty years ago. When I am more rested after the strenuous days in Spain, I will write to you again. Tell your dad that I was thrilled to meet him. Actually, I do have his book that you gave to me about the Irish comrades in Spain. But I wanted this book especially because of his short note in memory of John Power and I will treasure it also because it has his signature. Gracias and give my greetings to your dad.
So, Salud and Peace, Harry Fisher”.
The following day, November 3, there was another emotion-filled e-mail:
I read the document you gave me, evidently prepared by Olga, and I am not ashamed to say that I cried. This document that you gave me is very valuable and a good part of the history of the Spanish Civil War from one who played a big role in it…. What I found so interesting in these letters is that I went through the same battles that he describes. The cities or towns like Gandesa, Caspe and many others are places that I wrote about in my book during the retreats. It was very moving for me to read about another comrade who went through the same battles where so many of our good comrades died. It was also a great experience for me to meet Olga and her mother”.
Only two days later, on November 5, Harry’s preoccupation with vindicating the honour and good name of Oliver Law brought him back to his Irish comrade Johnny Power:
“We have had the same experience of people writing lies in books and articles about some of our people. The two worst books were ‘Between the Bullet and the Lie’ by a professor Cecil Ebi and a book by a vet Bill Herrick ‘Jumping the Line’. Both books make a big story that is an absolute lie about our black commander Oliver Law being killed by his own men because he was stupid and getting the Lincolns killed. I wish that John Power was still alive because we both were out in no-man's land at Mosquito Ridge during the Brunette battle when Oliver Law was killed by the fascists. John was wounded in the leg and was urging Law to get down because hundreds of bullets were raising the dust around him when he was urging us on. It's a long story and only one of many lies about the I.B.ers.”
This in turn prompted me to tell him that Johnny Power had also featured as a hero in the 1996 memoirs of his fellow-Waterford City volunteer Peter O’Connor, who had been a Group Leader in the James Connolly Unit of Irish volunteers attached to the American Abraham Lincolm Battalion. Peter, who was one of my dearest friends, had been, on his death in 1999, the last Irish survivor of the Battles of Jarama and Brunete.
Harry’s book had also paid warm tribute to the memory of the Japanese International Brigader Jack Shirai. He described how he had found Jack Shirai dead in a ditch during the course of the Brunete fighting, I was now able to give Harry exact details of the circumstances of that death, right beside Peter O’Connor. On November 15 Harry e-mailed me in excited anticipation and provided another unique insight into how the indomitable human spirit of International Brigaders could triumph even during the worst horrors of War:
“Wow!!” What an interesting letter you sent me. - I would love to have Peter O'Connor's letter on John Power and Jack Shirai. - This will be exciting news for the American vets and for my friends in Japan. - The Spanish embassy has given a scholarship for a young Japanese to get as much information about Jack Shirai as possible. - He is becoming a legend in Japan. -
I remember Peter O'Connor very well. - After John Power was wounded on July 9, the same day that Oliver Law was killed and the same day that Paul Burns was badly wounded, I remember John getting on Peter's back and Power yelling ‘Giddap’. - O'Connor was John's horse taking him about a mile away to an ambulance. - That picture is still in my head. - So much suffering that day, yet these two men had a wonderful sense of humor.” -
In “Soldiers of Liberty – Recollections of a Socialist and Anti-Fascist Fighter” Peter O’Connor had recounted:
“The big offensive began on July 6th, 1937 at 5.00 am. By 9.00 am the fascists were being routed. We advanced steadily all day and made great advances. Brunette and Villanueva de la Cañada were in our hands. Johnny Power and Paul Burns were wounded in both their legs… For the second time a section of our battalion advanced too far and there was a danger of being cut off. I believe that if we had reached the high ridge in front of us and the remainder of the battalion were to follow, we would be in a better defensive position if the fascists were to counter-attack. We were ordered back and withdrew to a low ridge, occupied by the main body. In doing so, we came under very heavy crossfire. Several of our comrades failed to reach the lower ridge. While we were resting and taking a breather, I happened to be sitting next to Jack Shirai, who was eating some food when he was struck in the forehead by an explosive bullet. He fell forward and some of his brains fell into his billycan. He died instantly. Jack was a Japanese comrade from New York, where he worked as a cook. He became very attached to the Irish and insisted on staying with us. We were all very sorry to lose such a great Japanese anti-fascist”.
Having received and read this account, Harry immediately replied on November 27:
“I was thrilled to get the book by Peter O'Connor and the other material. - I am going to send immediately the quote from his book about the death of Jack Shirai. - The Spanish ambassador to Japan has given a scholarship to a young person in Japan, to get all the information he can on Jack Shirai. - He is becoming a legend in Japan since he may be the only Japanese who went to fight in Spain, and Peter tells about Shirai's death there. - I did see Shirai's closest friend crying while holding on to his dead body, but I didn't know how he was killed. - So this will be valuable information.
Reading the book brought back to me so many memories of those days, since I went through some of the actions Peter wrote about. - Of course, I knew so many of the people he wrote about, like Paul Burns (a very close friend of mine), Steve Nelson, Oliver Law, Joe Rehil, Frank Ryan (I met him twice) and of course John Power. - I will treasure the book.”
Nothing demonstrated the open-mindedness of Harry than the fact that, though a Jewish anti-fascist who had fought against Nazi Germany 60 years ago, he refused to demonise the German people. The warmth of his German friendships, testified to in his 2001 article, has taken root and flowered in his web-site. He was therefore particularly interested in a paper which I had written on the Irish Marxist James Connolly, a leader of the Easter Rising who was executed by the British in 1916. I had pointed out that anti-historical telescoping of the First and Second World Wars obscures the fact that in the 1914-18 War it was Britain, through its alliance with Tsarist Russia, that represented the forces of anti-semitism, and that Connolly’s own relentless opposition to such anti-semitism was among the reasons why he had been pro-German during that War. I illustrated in detail Britain’s support of Tsarist wartime pogroms against Jews, which was to continue during Britain’s War of Intervention against the Russian Revolution.
On December 19 Harry replied:
”I haven't finished reading all the material as yet, but I'm beginning to realize how little I know about the Irish. - I especially found your information about James Connolly fascinating. - I learned a hell of a lot. - I never knew, for example, that Winston Churchill was an anti-semite during the period and after World War One, and that he had a big responsibility for the killing of over 100,000 Jews in that period. - It so happens that I have always disliked Churchill and I was glad to learn from your writings what a bastard he was.
I don't know if you knew about a little incident that happened in England during W.W. II. - Eleanor Roosevelt, who had always been an admirer of the International Brigades and had arguments with her husband about it, criticized Churchill for the role played by England during the Spanish Civil War. - Churchill replied that if the Loyalists had won that war, he and she would have been killed by the communists. - And he praised Franco because he stopped communism from coming to Spain. Thanks Manus for thinking of me.” -
The New Year of 2002 brought the following greetings on January 1:
I still keep in touch with Olga. - I'm hoping to finish my second book and will try to send it to the publisher in about a month or so. - I hope your dad is feeling O.K. - Give him my greetings. - - So, with love and Peace, - - - Harry”.
I guess one of the reasons why I had not corresponded with him more recently was that I wanted to talk to him in person again. My wife, my father and myself were so much looking forward to seeing him back in Spain at the Battle of the Ebro commemoration this July. I therefore postponed writing so I could tell him face-to-face the latest news from Ireland, that Waterford City Council is presently considering the erection later this year of a memorial on that city’s mediaeval walls to the ten Waterford men who fought for the Spanish Republic, including Harry’s own hero, Johnny Power. The news of Harry’s death in struggle a month ago on March 22, therefore came as a great shock. I guess I thought he’d never die. But in so many ways, just like Joe Hill, he has not.
There was an Irish-speaking writer from a now-uninhabited island off Ireland’s Atlantic Coast who said that the reason why he had written his own memoirs in 1929 was “So that I may be alive when I am dead”. In like manner, with “Comrades”, as well as with its forthcoming sequel, our own dear friend and comrade Harry Fisher will indeed remain very much alive.
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