Peter O'Connor - an obituary

Saothar, the journal of the Irish Labour History Society, No. 24, 1997-8

If Peter O'Connor had only fought in the International Brigades in Spain he would have been worth writing about. But he did much more. He made the connection between republicanism and socialism, between nationalism and internationalism, and believed that Irish nationalists must make common cause with the British working class against British Imperialism. He was ahead of his time.

Born at Keiloge, Co. Waterford, on 31 March 1912, he moved to Waterford city at the age of one. Here he lived almost all his life and was a proud Waterford man. His family background was both republican and working class, his father being a branch secretary in the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers for many years, and on strike when Peter was in the womb. Two elder brothers and an uncle were in the IRA. The strong influence of James Connolly's ideas began early and remained all his life. Joining Fianna Eireann at the age of nine or ten, he took some part in the Civil War, at least as a messenger, on the anti-Treaty side. He graduated to the IRA at 17, in 1929.

In 1931 he bought a copy of the Irish Workers' Voice, organ of the Revolutionary Workers Groups, and as a result meet Sean Murray, the future General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI). Murray stayed at the O'Connor home, became a family friend, and had a lasting influence. Peter was a founder member of the second CPI in 1933, and in 1934 a delegate the Republican Congress. In a related development, a Workers' Study Circle was formed in Coffee House Lane, Waterford. All 10 Waterford men who went to Spain were in that circle. Peter broke with the IRA in 1934 when a group of Shankill Road Protestants, who came to attend the annual commemoration at Bodenstown, were prevented from laying a wreath on Wolfe Tone's grave.

Moving to London to seek work, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and the London branch of the Republican Congress. At the Hyde Park rally to welcome the Jarrow Hunger Marchers, he heard Tom Mann speak, and fought British fascism at the 'Battle of Cable Street.' He was awarded the bronze medal of the British Trades Union Congress for recruitment to the National Union of General and Municipal Workers. In December 1936, through the CPGB, he set of to Spain to fight the fascist insurrection and defend the elected government.

The details of his activities are set out in his short autobiography, A Soldier of Liberty (MSF, 1996). By a narrow majority the Irish fighters decided to leave the British Battalion and join the (US) Lincolns - they couldn't bear to fight alongside the 'old enemy'. But Peter saw it as an opportunity to show that British anti-fascists were not their enemy. He fought in the ferocious battles of Jarama and Brunete, resisting the fascist advance to Madrid, yet emerged unscathed. When he was the only Irishman not dead or wounded, the commander of the Connolly Column, Frank Ryan, ordered him home to refute the pro-fascist line of the Catholic Church.

Returning home in September 1937, he joined the Labour Party (which did not require him to leave the CPI), becoming branch secretary in 1939. From 1942, for a few years, he ran 'The Key Bookshop and Lending Library', a home based collection of about 100 books, mainly of the Left Book Club type. He served as a Labour councillor on Waterford Corporation from 1944 to 1950, and remained active in the Labour Party, and in causes like the Anti-Apartheid movement. He returned to Spain in 1994 for the unveiling of war memorial, and again in 1996, to be thanked formally by the Spanish parliament. Vindication indeed. The people gave the veterans a rapturous welcome, with civic receptions and banquets all over Spain. ON May Day 1994 he said:

"The great lesson of Spain was the lesson of unity, where anti-fascists of every nation, where comrades of every religion and of none, united in a common cause to defeat Franco fascism. We must strive for that unity today if we are to be successful in gaining the freedom of our country. I believe we cannot be successful in that task unless we join forces with the British working class. We must make common cause with our comrades across the water. Our enemy is not the British people but the system of British Imperialism and monopoly capitalism which is the enemy of all peoples struggling to be free."

Peter married Bridgett Hartery in 1939 and, after spells of unemployment, found work as an insurance agent with the Royal Liver. He stayed with the company until retirement. He and Biddy were a devoted couple and proud of their children, Emmet and Teena; Teena cared for them both in old age whilst bringing up her own children. Biddy died in February 1998. He missed her terribly and died peacefully on 19 June 1999. There was a large attendance at his funeral and Michael O'Riordan gave a magnificent oration at the graveside in Ballybricken.

Peter O'Connor's character was not typical of men with such a military background. A book-lover, ILHS member, and life long teetotaller, he was quiet, modest, tolerant, and undogmatic. He often wept when speaking of his fallen comrades. His relationship with Biddy was very strong, he deeply appreciated her loyalty to him in face of Church condemnation and her family's opposition, and they respected each other's different views- he an atheist and Communist, she a Catholic.

Peter wrote 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 words from Lenin: 'Man's dearest possession is life and since it is given to him but once, he must so live as to fell 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!' "

Long may his memory live on.

Ken Keable

Other obituaries for Peter O'Connor

Obit for From the Irish Times.
There was also an obituary and related pieces written about Peter O'Connor
in Unity, the Northern Ireland paper of the CPI during June-July 1993

Other material on IB volunteers:

can be seen here.

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