"Retracing the exploits of the Irish volunteers in the Spanish Civil War
South Belfast Post, August 2006
as we mark the 70th Anniversary"
This year marks the 70th Anniversary of the Spanish Civil war, which was probably of one the most defining events of conflict in the 20th Century, yet it is a war very few people know the importance of in relation to the shaping of modern history.
The bringing together of volunteers from through out the world in the shape of International Brigades to defend the democratically elected Left-Wing government against a military coup headed by General Franco with the support of the church and the wealthy of Spain, created one of the finest examples of a rallying of support to ensure the right of democracy
With the western powers refusing to intervene, it was left to a core of ordinary people driven purely by ideology to make their own way to Spain in an organized manner to be trained into fighting groups.
Over 200 Irishmen with origin from throughout Ireland volunteered to fight in support of the left-wing republican government as part of the 15th International Brigade. Of these over 70 came from the north. They were a mixture of working class men drawn from both the Nationalist and Unionist communities with a varied background ranging from veterans of World War 1 to IRA volunteers.
This from a local perspective was equally unique as you had men from both communities fighting side by side in pursuit of a goal that was as apparent at home as it was abroad.
Many of these men gave their lives in that struggle and this year as part of a series of events, it is hoped that through the efforts of a local committee set up in Belfast that a specially sculptured memorial could be erected in their memory
Recently two members of that Committee, musician Pol Mac Adaim and local historian and author Raymond John Quinn embarked at their own expense to travel to Spain and trek across the battle areas from Jarama to the Ebro with the purpose of documenting through film and photographs the battlegrounds on which the Irish Volunteers fought and in many cases died.
They also attended a special event in the Pyrenees to commemorate the route over which the Volunteers walked into Spain. John relates:
Having first flown into Madrid we spent the following day at Jarama. Accompanied by a local historian whose geographical knowledge of the battlefield was invaluable, we walked across ground and viewed terrain of which stories and recollections from veterans were so familiar to me. The Jarama valley is one of broken hills and ridges, a terrain that is rough and sparse, dotted with olive trees and vines. The positions were so much bitter fighting took place are relatively small hills encamped into the sparse and rough terrain and surrounded by ridges.
On one such position known as "Suicide Hill" the British Battalion fought against overwhelming opposition losing half its strength in casualties during the fighting.
Remains of trenches can still be seen some cut into rocks which acted as protective shelter.
On my approach to "Suicide Hill" I could smell for the first time the strong perfume-like smell of wild thyme, often remembered by veterans and the only pleasantry amid appalling conditions.
In the nearby town of Morata de Tajuna we had a chance to speak to the Mayoress, if only through our guide due to the language barrier and we visited the local small cemetery were a memorial unveiled in October 1994 at the top right hand corner pays tribute to those who died at Jarama fighting with the 15th International Brigade. The monument consists of a large white marble slab set into the wall of the cemetery with the inscription:
To the memory of the fallen heroes of Jarama who made the supreme sacrifice in the defense of Madrid and succeeded in keeping open the road to Valencia, 1936-39.
Those Northerners killed at Jarama were: Bill Henry-[Belfast], Danny Boyle-[Belfast], Dick O Neill-[Belfast], Liam Tumilson-[Belfast], Charlie Donnelly-[Dungannon] and Eamon Mc Grotty-[Derry].
The graves of these men and many others remained virtually unmarked for 57 years, neglected under the Franco regime. However, the present democratic government rectified this and the present memorial to the 5,000 Republicans who fell at Jarama was build.
In the following days we drove across Spain into the Catalan and Gandesa. There is an excellent museum to be found in the town itself, but perhaps the most poignant memorial is the old town of Corbera d Ebre [Terra Alta] which today remains as a monument to peace, following its shelling by Republican forces in 1938 during the Ebro offensive. 337 meters of shelled remains, the centre point of which is the church provide a unique historical insight amid the hills surrounding Gandesa.
Laid out throughout the ruins are modern sculptures, the work of painter Jesus Pedrola who has designed the modern "Alphabet to Freedom" a symbol of peace and reconciliation.
A new memorial to honor the British Battalion volunteers has just been unveiled on Hill 705 in the Sierra Pandols in the Terra Alta district just south of Gandesa.
The final part of our journey before returning to Barcelona took us into the Pyrenees, firstly to visit the large Napoleonic fort at Figueras used for training and described by many Brigadiers in their memories and then the following day into the Pyrenees itself to witness a commemoration crossing of the Franco-Spanish border along one of the paths taken by International Brigade volunteers.
We visited the memorial on the Spanish/Catalan side of the border at Col Mannett, erected in 1981 to Luys Companys, President of the Catalan Generalitat during the period of the Republic and who was executed by Franco in 1940.
We covered a lot of ground during the 6 days and I was able to build an extensive photographic record enabling me to gain a feel for a subject on which more needs to be written epically in relation to the role of the Irish volunteers.
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