Tribute to Peter O'Connor

Peter O'Connor died on June 19th 1999. The first obituary note here was taken from Unity, the paper produced by the Communist Party of Ireland, July 3rd 1999. The second piece was actually printed earlier, June 26th.

OVER three hundred mourners attended the funeral of Peter O'Connor at Ballbricken Cemetery, Waterford on Monday June 21. 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, a delegation from the Communist Party of Ireland. Peter remained a member from the day he participated in its foundation in June 1933 to the day he died.

Cultural figures such as Anna Manahan, the stage and TV artist, Jim Nolan the playwright, John McGrotty, brother of Eamom McGrotty, one of the 19 Irish antifascists who died in action at the battle of Jarama in February 1937, Sean Edwards, son of the late Frank Edwards, another of the 10 from Waterford who fought in Spain, were among the mourners.

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

In the next columns we print the text of Michael O’Riordan’s tribute to his fellow comrade, Peter O’Connor

"Dear Teena 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 times a historic occasion. We have laid to rest in this grave a great but most modest man, the last of 10 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. 5,000 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 10 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 10.

They were:

Maurice Quinlan, South parade, killed in action on the Jarama front, February 1937.
The 3 brothers from the Power Family, Johnny, Paddy and Willie, all of Waterpark Lodge, Newtown.
Jackie Lemon, Olaf Street.
Jackie Hunt, New Street.
John Kelly, Grady's Lane, off Barrack Street.
John O'Shea, Kilmeaden, Co. Waterford.
Frank Edwards, Barrack Street, and finally, Peter O'Connor, Parnell Street.

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 10. 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. Al 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 then 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 Powers Brothers. John and Paddy went out to retrieve it. Amongst the dead were also Eamon McGrottv, 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 Waterford International Brigadiers.

The final vindication of courageous stone 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 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!"

Salute to Peter O'Connor

Peter O'Connor, founder member of the Communist Party of Ireland in 1933, who fought under the command of Frank Ryan in the Connolly Column of the International Brigade in the defence of the Spanish Republic 1936-1939, died in his native Waterford on Saturday at the age of 87.

Michael O'Riordan, his fellow member of the International Brigade represented the Party at Peters funeral.

In the mid-1950s he was co-opted on to Waterford Corporation to succeed his brother, James, who had been a member of the Corporation previously. In the following election Peter retained the seat. He remained politically active and was involved in many campaigns right up to the time of his death.

Peter was proud on May 1, 1994 when Waterford honoured its participants in the Spanish Civil War. An event was organised by the Waterford Council of Trade Unions and Peter as the last surviving member of the 10 Waterford Brigaders unveiled a plaque being the names of the men from Waterford who fought in the Connolly Column of the International Brigade.

Those of us who knew Peter will remember him for his strong beliefs in Socialism and a just world for all. He carried out his tasks in a quiet, unassuming manner, but at the same time with great determination.

In the conclusion of the publication, Soldier of Liberty, in which Peter relates his experiences fighting Franco's fascism in Spain he says: "You have to believe in something - a cause that will make the world a better place, or you have wasted your life."

Peter lived his life to the full he could truly say, to use an appropriate quotation: "All my life and all my strength were given to the finest cause in the world - the Liberation of Mankind."

He will be sadly missed.

Salute Peter!

For additional information there is an obituary piece in the Irish Times, 21st June 1999, reprinted in this site

Irish Times obituary

Letter to Irish Times, 2.7.99


Sir, - I admire Kevin Myers enormously. In his column he frequently turns over the coin of accepted received wisdom and shows us that the obverse is neither wise nor acceptable.

In his Diary of June 26th, however, he makes the mistake of assuming that praise in one direction must be balanced by dispraise in another.

Peter O'Connor, who died last week, was the man who, fighting with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, crawled out on his belly into no-man's land to bring in the body of the young Dublin poet Charlie Donnelly.

Kevin Myers allows, grudgingly, that Peter O'Connor "was, no doubt, a brave and decent man". But, he goes on to ask, was he braver or more decent than a man fighting on Franco's side? Or was either of them any braver than the many Irishmen who fought against Hitler?

As Mr. Myers himself admits, those who fought the Fascists were "merely doing what their bishops and priests declared was their duty". People like Peter O'Connor made the decision to fight Franco against the wishes of Church, State and public opinion. O'Connor's colleague, Frank Edwards, a gifted teacher, was thrown out of his State job by order of the bishop and never ever taught again except in a Jewish school.

All his life, Peter O'Connor challenged injustice wherever he found it. He supported Jim Gralton of Leitrim who was shamelessly treated by Church and State for his socialist principles.

I corresponded with him and was privileged to meet him once. I got to know the indomitable spirit and character of the man through his friends Peadar O'Donnell, Norah Harkin, Frank and Bobbie Edwards and the Graltons.

Peter O'Connor was small in stature and diffident by nature, but he had the heart of a lion. - Yours, etc.,

GERRY O'MALLEY, Old Conna Village, Bray, Co Wicklow.

A piece in a Waterford local history journal from 2000 about Peter is well worth reading.

Other material about the Irish volunteers can be found here