Plans for city statue to honour Spanish Civil War volunteers

Bimpe Fatogun in the Irish News, July 19th 2006

A voice from Belfast's socialist past is to be brought to life with a new statue commemorating the city's contribution to the Spanish Civil War.

Twenty men from Belfast joined the fight against the forces of fascism during the war of the 1930s. They were part of a 79-strong group from across the north who travelled to Spain following an attempted coup d'etat by senior generals - including Fransico Franco.

After the war Franco became dictator of Spain and remained in power until 1975. The right-wing forces were backed by the fascist powers of the time, Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy.

Many of the Northern Ireland volunteers died during the bitter three-year war.

Now a group dedicated to marking that sacrifice has raised funds to erect a public piece of art in their memory. The International Brigade Commemoration Committee (IBCC) is in discussions with Laganside Corporation about getting the gift of a small piece of land in Custom House Square on which to put a piece of art.

They have identified an area called 'The Hecklers', part of Belfast's own Speakers' Corner, where people - including some of those who later fought in the Spanish Civil War - gathered to address crowds. Organisers say the corporation has responded positively to their request and are hoping it will be formally accepted in coming weeks.

"We're not calling it a memorial," IBCC secretary Kevin Doherty said.

"You could say there are too many memorials in this part of the world and many of them have negative associations. But this has been a forgotten piece of history.

"Historians look back on it and say this was the beginning of the Second World War, but it wasn't the governments that engaged, it was the people of the world who stood up and fought where governments were still trying to appease Hitler."

Mr Doherty said it was also an important part of the north's past.

"It was one of the few times in history that people from both sides of the community came together and came together to help the people of another country and fight against fascism," he said.

"We need to remember them."

Among those who fought were Belfast-based Joe Boyd and Fred McMahon, who travelled to Spain as medics.

They were captured and held prisoner before being expelled through Portugal.

Lower Falls men Dick O'Neill and James C Domegan were killed in battle, as were Henry McGrath, Bill Beattie and William Laughlin from the Shankill.

Jim Haughey from Lurgan was taken prisoner but released in May 1939. He would later volunteer for the RAF in the Second World War, dying in a plane crash.

There are also plans to mark his contribution to the war with some sort of commemoration in Craigavon, and the sacrifice of volunteers from Derry may also be marked at some point in the future.

Chance For Belfast To Remember A Unique Period

With cenotaphs to the British war dead and plaques to dead IRA men in almost every town and city in the north, it could be argued that people are beginning to get 'memorial-fatigue'.

Professor of Sociology and Applied Social Studies at the University of Ulster Bill Rolston acknowledges that Northern Ireland probably does have more memorials than most parts of the world.

However, he believes there is a uniqueness to them which both sets them apart from many other countries and makes them valuable to citizens.

"Memorialisation is something that goes on throughout the planet," he said.

"In some places they are really oppressive, in old imperial cities where they are literally larger than life - huge memorials to some general or some war, some Austro-Hungarian success.

"If you stop and think, 'What's going on?' What's being said is that there is one way to remember the past and that is the way of the rich and the victors.

"It is good to have memorials where the 'also-rans' of history also get to appear.

"In those terms we probably have more proportionally than many places because we have a tradition that goes back 100 years of murals and memorials.

"Put it this way: I would rather kids knew that there were a number of people from this island, from this town, that went to fight against fascism before it became popular to do so, who suffered for it in many, many ways, than statues to 'Lord This' or 'Queen That or the other'."