The North West and the Spanish Civil War
Emmet O’Connor of the North West Spanish Civil War Memorial Project wrote a series of 6 articles which appeared in the Derry newspaper, Sunday Journal, in April-May 2006. This is a part of the activities of the No Pasaran! group who intend to erect a memorial to the volunteers for Spain from counties Tyrone, Derry and Donegal during 2006.
The Spanish Civil War began 70 years ago this year on 17-18 July 1936, when General Francisco Franco led a military revolt against the left-wing popular front government.
From the outset, the war had an important international dimension. The Spanish navy remained largely loyal to the government and controlled the straits of Gibraltar. Hitler’s Luftwaffe was vital in transporting key units of Franco’s army from Spanish Morocco across the straits to Spain. Germany, Italy, and Portugal would later send troops, machines, munitions, and advisers to Franco. The French government decided to assist the Spanish Republic at first, but was dissuaded by Britain, and by fear of a backlash in France itself. Sending a French army across the Pyrenees, it pleaded, would not result in a democratic Spain, but a fascist France. Instead the British and French sponsored a ‘non-intervention committee’ to prevent all foreign involvement in the war.
Meanwhile, thousands were volunteering to fight in Spain. It was not simply a question of internationalism. All had both a national and an international reason to join the fight. Following the First World War, there had been great hopes for democracy and a new age of the people. But almost since the end of the war to end all wars, country after country had fallen under the dictators. The Spanish people were the first to offer successful resistance. It seemed that at last, a line had been drawn, and now it was necessary to stop fascism in Madrid. If Spain became the latest domino to tumble, fascism would have to be fought in Paris, Prague or London.
The war presented Soviet Russia with a dilemma. One the one hand, Stalin needed allies against Hitler, and he didn’t want to frighten the British and French with a big intervention in Spain. On the other, the Communists were now prioritising ‘people’s unity’ against fascism, and could hardly stand by and do nothing for Spain. To address the problem, the Soviet state and the communist parties took nominally different positions. The Soviet Union endorsed non-intervention in principle, though it supplied increasing aid to the Spanish Republic as it became evident that the Anglo-French sponsored non-intervention committee was substantially ineffective. The Communist International or Comintern, the controlling body of all communist parties, agreed to the formation of International Brigades in September 1936. By October 1938, when they were withdrawn from Spain, some 35,000 people from 53 countries had served in the Brigades. In line with the Comintern’s popular front policy, the communists exaggerated non-communist enlistment, and communist Internationals were instructed to give their own political affiliation simply as ‘anti-fascist’, but the Brigades were communist controlled.
Estimates vary on the number of Irish in the International Brigades. Most recent studies put the figure at about 240. It is reckoned here that 138 went to Spain directly from Ireland (some enlisting in Britain or elsewhere), of whom 130 fought with the International Brigades, three joined other forces on the republican side, and five served with medical units. A further 102 volunteers were first generation Irish exiles, of whom at least 30 were living in London. Some of these expatriates were long out of Ireland and politicised abroad, while others were recent emigrants and still engaged with Irish politics, notably through the London branch of the Republican Congress.
What of the North West? Twenty-two men from Derry, Donegal, and Tyrone are known to have been members of the Connolly Column (the name which has become a blanket term for all Irish born volunteers who served on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War). And to the roll should be added the name of Peadar O’Donnell, who was not a combatant in Spain, but deserves inclusion as he was instrumental in recruiting for the International Brigades in Ireland.
In this 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, the North West Spanish Civil War Memorial Project hopes to unveil a plaque in memory of the 23. Over the coming weeks, this column will tell what is known of their stories. Readers who would like to support the project, who have information on the Tyrone volunteers, or who would like to receive information, should contact email@example.com
From the American War of Independence to the American invasion of Iraq, there is a long history of foreign wars intersecting with Irish politics. Each tells us much about Ireland itself. The huge impact on Ireland of the Spanish Civil War, for example, challenges the folk wisdom that Ireland was inward looking before entry into the EEC. In some respects it shows how European Irish mentalities were in the 1930s. Arguably, 21st century Ireland is more Anglo-American.
Of all the links between Ireland and the continent in the 1930s, the strongest was Catholicism. The Catholic Church was closely associated with the rich and powerful in Spain, while Spanish socialism had an anti-clerical streak. Once the war started, the Catholic bishops backed Franco, and there were sporadic socialist assaults on the clergy and attacks on Church property.
Anxious to maximize unity against Franco, the communists condemned ‘the provocative burning down of churches and monasteries, since such acts only go to help counter-revolution’. But the Catholic Church in Ireland blamed all the trouble in Spain on ‘Godless communism’. Inflamed by lurid accounts of ‘Red terror’, thousands flocked to rallies of the Irish Christian Front, which was launched in August 1936 to mobilize support for Franco.
Meanwhile, the Spanish Count de Ramirez de Arellano asked Joseph Cardinal MacRory for Irish aid for Spain. The Cardinal referred him to General Eoin O’Duffy, hero of the War of Independence, former Chief of Police, leader of the Blueshirts, and admirer of Mussolini. O’Duffy promised to form an ‘Irish Brigade’, and declared histrionically: ‘If only two men go to Spain, I will be one of them’. He needn’t have worried. The Irish Independent claimed that 5-6,000 enquired about enlisting in the Brigade, and O’Duffy would eventually lead some 650 men into Franco’s army. In addition to regular troops from Germany, Italy, and Portugal, a handful of individuals from various countries fought for Franco, but Ireland was the only country which sent an organized unit of volunteers. The Comintern in Moscow wondered if Ireland itself would go fascist, and was astonished to hear that £32,000 had been collected ‘from the poverty stricken people [of Ireland] to help the Spanish fascists’. In fact, the Irish bishops had raised over £43,000, ostensibly to help Spanish Catholics.
Like all kindred parties, the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) was expected by the Comintern to send volunteers to Spain. As the CPI had less than 100 members, and its organization was confined to Dublin and Belfast, it turned to its friends in the Republican Congress for help. The Congress had been formed in 1934, by radicals who split from the IRA. Surprisingly, given the weakness of the left in Ireland, there was no shortage of volunteers – at least in 1936. Irish interest in the war declined from mid 1937, and the supply of volunteers dried up as the lethal consequences of war hit home. Peadar O’Donnell and Frank Ryan, the main recruiting agents of the International Brigades in Ireland, said that hundreds wanted to join, and many were persuaded to stay at home. Both were worried about casualties, and well aware that they had limited resources to provide welfare for men who might return without an arm or a leg, or for their dependents. Even the CPI is known to have declined to accept quite serviceable applicants. Certainly, no one from Ireland has ever claimed that they were harangued into going to Spain.
Allowing for the fact that around 100 of the 240 men in the Connolly Column were expatriates, the Irish involvement with the International Brigades was remarkably high, given the size of the CPI. By comparison, Wales and Scotland, with their concentrations of mining and heavy industry, and their pockets of vibrant communism – the so-called ‘little Moscows’ - generated 150 and 500 volunteers respectively. If we add O’Duffy’s Brigade to the total, then it is likely that Ireland sent more volunteers per capita to the Spanish Civil War than any other country.
As yet we do not have complete details on the 23 men from the North West who served in defence of the Spanish Republic. Below is a list of the names (and addresses where possible). Further information or corrections would be very welcome.
From Derry: James Campbell (22 Tyrconnell St), James Donald, Jack Flynn, George Gorman (Longtower), William McChrystal (36 Cross St, Waterside), Éamonn McGrotty (Marlborough Road and Mount St, Rosemount), Charles ‘Nomad’ McGuinness, John Murphy (8 Mountjoy St), and Herbert Pollock. From Donegal: Hugh Bonner (Falchorrib, Templecrone), Philip Boyle (Calhane), Paddy Glacken; Brian Goold-Verschoyle (Dunkineely), Joseph Kelly, Paddy Roe McLaughlin (Lecamy, Moville), Paddy O’Daire (Glenties), Francis William Vincent O’Donnell, Hugh O’Donnell (Burtonport), and Peadar O’Donnell (Dungloe). From Tyrone: Joe Boyd (Boydsland, Stewartstown), Charles Donnelly (Killybrackey, Dungannon), Ben Murray (Aughnacloy), and Thomas Traynor (Strabane).
When the International Brigades were stood down in 1938, the celebrated Republican orator, La Passionaria, did not exaggerate in telling the volunteers: ‘You are history. You are legend’. There is a vast corpus of work on the Spanish Civil War – in excess of 40,000 volumes. And in socialist mythology, all International Brigaders are assumed to have been heroes of ‘the good fight’. But for the 23 from the North West, does history support the legend?
Part 3 Derry volunteers
Below is a list of biographies of the nine volunteers from Derry. The information is drawn mainly from:
International Brigades Memorial Archive, Marx Memorial Library, London (which holds the papers of the British battalion); the records of the International Brigades in the Spanish Republican Army,
Russian State Archive for Social and Political History (RGASPI), Moscow;
Michael O’Riordan, Connolly Column: The Story of the Irishmen who Fought for the Spanish Republic, 1936-1939 (Warren & Pell edition, 2005);
Raymond John Quinn, Irish Volunteers for Spain (Belfast, 2004),
No Pasaran! International Brigade Commemoration Committee Newssheet (Belfast)
Ciarán Crossey’s website, which has recently been revamped and is now at http://www.geocities.com/irelandscw, an excellent site on Ireland and the Spanish Civil War, and well worth a visit.
James Campbell, 22 Tyrconnell Street, aged 33 in Spain. Remembered in Derry as ‘a bit wild’ politically, and characterized in the Moscow archives as ‘insubordinate’, Campbell was detained by police in Barcelona in July 1937 in a round-up of anarchists and suspected Trotskyists. It is believed that he survived the war, but did not return to Derry.
James Donald, born in Derry on12 January 1916, worked as a miner in Scotland, where he lived at Methil, Fife; arrived in Spain on 24 January 1937 and served with the British battalion; fought at Aragon in the spring of 1938; one report says he was killed at Caspe on 17 March 1938; another report says he was killed in action in June 1938.
Jack Flynn (also cited as Flyn), born 1914, and lived for some time in 126 Field St Everton, before he joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment; deserted, apparently, from the British army, and arrived in Spain on 7 January 1937; captured, or possibly deserted, at Jarama in February, and held until late May when he was released with other British soldiers in exchange for Italians; on 18 May he was moved to Salamanca, tried by military court for 'aiding a military rebellion', and sentenced to 20 years; was among 23 prisoners released in late May and arrived back in London at the end of the month.
George F. Gorman, born in Derry in 1900; lived in Folkstone, Kent, before spending 12 years in the British army, serving in India and, during World War 1, in Iraq; arrived in Spain on 3 May 1938; later a sergeant in no.4 company, British battalion; taken prisoner at Sierra Caballs; George Wheeler, a British volunteer who was also captured in that incident, states that Gorman was killed by friendly fire. He died on 23 September 1938.
William McChrystal, born 28 December 1905, lived at 36 Cross Street, Waterside; worked as a tailor and organized unemployed in Vancouver; a member of the Communist Party of Canada in January 1936; arrived Spain from Canada on 14 August 1937; taken prisoner at Caspe-Belchite on 17 March 1938.
Éamonn McGrotty, the best known of the Derry volunteers and remembered as the ‘brave young Christian Brother’ in Christy Moore’s song Viva la Quinta Brigada; born in 1911, into a republican family, lived at Marlborough Road and later in 4 Mount St, Rosemount; in the Christian Brothers between 1925 and 1932; moved to Dublin with his family when his father died in 1932; lived in 9 Upper Drumcondra Road, Dublin; active in Conradh na Gaeilge, Na Fianna, and the IRA; worked as a journalist; arrived in Spain on 22 December 1936; was adjutant of the Irish company (the James Connolly centuria), Lincoln battalion when he was killed in action during the assault on the Pingarron Heights in the Battle of Jarama on 27 February 1937.
Charles McGuinness, born 6 March 1893 and raised in Derry; an adventurer extraordinaire, and the title at least of his autobiography is no exaggeration: Nomad: Memoirs of an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-Fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel, and Antarctic Explorer (London, 1934); after the Antarctic expedition he developed an interest in the Soviet experiment, and became harbour master in Murmansk, Russia, from where he went to Spain, the first Irishman to join the International Brigades according to himself; after brief service with the British battalion, he returned to Ireland and wrote fanciful and self-serving pro-Franco articles for the Irish Independent; he was lost at sea when the schooner Isalt foundered off Wexford in 1947. For more details, see John McGuffin and Joseph Mulheron, Charles ‘Nomad’ McGuinness: Being a True Account of the Amazing Adventures of a Derryman (Irish Resistance Books, Derry, 2002).
John Murphy, born 1902 and lived at 8 Mountjoy St; arrived in Spain from London on 1 September 1937 and served with the British battalion; gave his occupation as ‘fruit seller’ and his next of kin as his wife at 14 Boscombe Road, London W12.
Herbert Pollock, a boilermaker and member of the Communist Party of Canada in 1935; arrived in Spain on 27 June 1937. No further information is available.
Next week we will look at the Donegal and Tyrone volunteers.
Part 4: Donegal and Tyrone men
Below is a list of men from Donegal and Tyrone who served in defence of the Spanish Republic. The information is drawn from the same sources cited in part 3 of this series. Again, all additional information and corrections from readers will be gratefully received and acknowledged. I am obliged to Conal Houston for details on Hugh Bonner, and to Brian Curragh for details on his great-uncle, Ben Murray.Donegal
Hugh Bonner, born 2 October 1907 in Falchorrib, Templecrone, the son of Hugh, a farm labourer, and Nellie Bonner; he was a section commander in the Lincoln battalion when he was killed in action at Jarama; he died on 5 April 1937.
Philip Boyle, born 5 October 1903 in Calhane; a carpenter by trade; he served in the IRA, 1919-24, and was imprisoned, 1920-21; a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in Hammersmith, London; he arrived in Spain in September 1937; served as a company quartermaster and was wounded at Teruel.
Paddy Glacken; fought at Teruel; killed in action, 20 January 1938.
Brian Goold-Verschoyle; born into an Anglo-Irish family in 1912, and raised in a ‘big house’ at Dunkineely, he became an electrical engineer on leaving school and joined the CPGB; a courier for the Soviet secret police (OGPU) in London, he visited Russia in 1936 and received training in radio operations in Moscow. In 1937 he was sent to Spain as a radio officer; according to General Krivitsky, a senior officer in Razvedupr (Red Army intelligence) who defected to the west, Brian was suspected of Trotskyist tendencies, and lured onto a Soviet ship in Barcelona on the pretext of repairing a radio transmitter; the ship sailed for Odessa, Brian was convicted of being a British spy and sentenced to eight years in the Gulag. It is believed that he died in 1941.
Joseph Kelly, born 10 March 1898; a lumberjack and a member of the Communist Party of Canada in 1932; active as a union organiser in Vancouver; arrived in Spain on 14 February 1937; wounded twice; returned to Vancouver after the war.
Paddy Roe McLaughlin, born in 1902, at Lecamey, about five miles north of Moville; the son of Thomas, a small farmer, and Bridget McLoughlin; known in the family as ‘Pat’, he attended Bredaglen National School, and was an altar boy at the old church of St John’s, which was located in the area currently occupied by St Columb’s Church, Ballinacrea; a veteran of the War of Independence, and an active republican in the 1920s, he emigrated to America and worked in construction in New York; on 4 December 1936 he left Victoria station, London, for Spain, where he served in the artillery; during the war he was granted leave to Kathleen Walsh, a Yorkshire born Communist who had been gaoled in Liverpool for anti-Mosley activities. Kathleen had been engaged to Paddy’s close friend, Liam Tumilson, who was killed in the Battle of Jarama. In World War 2, Paddy served in the RAF as a mechanic, and after the war he worked in construction. He and Kathleen had four children and lived in Liverpool. Both were Communists, but became disillusioned after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Paddy last visited Ireland in the 1960s. He died in Liverpool in 1974, and was survived by Kathleen, who died in 1998.
Patrick O’Daire, born 22 May 1905 in the Glenties; served in the IRA and as a sergeant in the Free State army during the Irish Civil War; emigrated to Canada in 1929 and was jailed for 15 months in Saskatchewan for provoking a riot; deported to England; joined the CPGB in Bootle in 1934 and worked as a miner; arrived in Spain on 5 December 1936; wounded at Lopera; an excellent and popular soldier, he commanded the British battalion in August-September 1937, and again in November 1937; in 1939 he was one of a number of International Brigaders involved in the Royal Navy’s Thetis submarine test; he fought in the British army in World War II, and retired with the rank of major. He later settled in Wales, where he died in 1981.
Francis William Vincent O’Donnell, born in Ireland on 19 August 1904; arrived in Spain on 29 January 1937, from Canada; captured at Gandesa in March or April 1938, but survived the war.
Hugh O’Donnell, a stoker from Burtonport, he was a PoW in San Pedro prison, near Burgos, in 1938, and survived the war.
Peadar O’Donnell, Meenmore, Dungloe; one of 20th century Ireland’s outstanding agitators and writers; he found himself in Spain on the outbreak of the war and wrote a memoir Salud! An Irishman in Spain (Methuen, London, 1937); with Frank Ryan and Bill Gannon, he was a key organiser of Irish recruitment for the International Brigades; for recent biographies see Peter Hegarty, Peadar O’Donnell (Mercier Press, Cork, 1999), and Dónal Ó Drisceoil, Peadar O’Donnell (Cork University Press, 2001).Tyrone
Joe Boyd, born in 1907, at Boydsland, Stewartstown. Aged ten or so, the family moved to Belfast. He later went to New York, and in the early 1930s returned to Belfast and set up a milk retail business, using American pasteurising and bottling techniques. A member of the Socialist Party, he was one of two party members selected to join a Scotch Ambulance Unit in Spain. In November 1936 he was captured on his 29th birthday on the Toledo front as he ‘defied orders to drive his field ambulance into no-man’s-land to collect wounded from both sides…’. He was condemned to death, but Anthony Eden (later British Prime Minister) and Harry Midgley, MP, negotiated his release, via Portugal. After Spain, he returned to his milk business in Belfast, and became active in the Northern Ireland Labour Party. In 1972 he retired to Spain, where he died in 1997.
Charles Donnelly, born 10 July 1914, at Killybrackey, near Dungannon; active in the Republican Congress in London and Dublin; left for Spain on 23 December 1936; the best known Irish poet of the war, he coined the line ‘Even the olives are bleeding’ just before being killed at Jarama on 27 February 1937. See Joseph O’Connor, Even the Olives Are Bleeding: The Life and Times of Charles Donnelly (Dublin, 1992).
Ben Murray, born 19 July 1895 in Enniskillen; raised with his family outside Aughnacloy, where his father was an RIC sergeant; emigrated to Canada aged 15; joined the Canadian army, serving in World War 1; after the war he returned to Montreal, until 1933 when he moved to Belfast and became active in the Communist Party; moving to London in 1935, he joined the CPGB; joined the British battalion in Spain on 11 February 1937 and was wounded at Brunete in July 1937. He was killed in action on 14 March 1938.
Thomas Traynor, Strabane, born July 1897; he emigrated to Canada, worked as a timekeeper in Toronto, and was a member of the Communist Party of Canada in January 1936; he arrived in Spain on 29 April 1937; served with the Lincoln battalion at Brunete and was wounded in July 1937. He later transferred to the Canadian (Mackenzie-Papineau) battalion, and served at Fuentes and Teruel. He was repatriated to Canada in October 1938.
Next week we will look at why they went to Spain.
Part 5: Why did they go?
Why would anyone want to join a war in a faraway country, of which he knows little, with no guarantees about conditions of service, or securities in the event of death or disability? We can answer this question at two levels, the personal and the political.
Most International Brigaders were single, working class men in their 20s and 30s from urban, industrial backgrounds. Incomplete evidence on the Connolly Column suggests that volunteers were more likely to come from unskilled rather than skilled occupations. Despite claims in the right wing press that the communists were happy to use anyone as ‘Stalin’s cannon-fodder’, the Brigades would not accept married men. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) introduced an age limit of 18 years, later raised to 21. There are many examples of men with health problems, or those considered too old, being rejected, or sent home from Spain.
The men from the northwest broadly fit the general pattern, but there were certain differences. Only the nine Derry volunteers could be considered as coming from an urban background originally, though the Donegal and Tyrone volunteers emigrated to work in big cities. Most had working class jobs: such as James Donald (miner), William McChrystal (tailor), Herbert Pollock (boilermaker), Philip Boyle (carpenter), Jack Flynn (soldier), Joseph Kelly (lumberjack), Paddy Roe McLaughlin (driver), John Murphy (fruit seller), Paddy O’Daire (building worker), Hugh O’Donnell (stoker), and Thomas Traynor (timekeeper). But a surprising number were not working class, and were struggling to survive in a variety of indeterminate occupations: Joe Boyd (self-employed businessman), Éamonn McGrotty (journalist?), Charlie McGuinness (ship’s officer?), Charlie Donnelly (writer?), Peadar O’Donnell (agitator?), and Brian Goold-Verschoyle (secret agent?).
The most common personal characteristic of the northwest volunteers was mobility. All were migrants or emigrants. There is no evidence that any left directly from their home counties, and Boyd, McGrotty, Donnelly may have been the only ones who went to Spain directly from Ireland. Donald went from Scotland. Flynn, Gorman, Murphy, Boyle, Goold-Verschoyle, O’Daire, and Murray went from England. McChrystal, Pollock, Kelly, Francis O’Donnell, and Traynor went from Canada. McGuinness went from Russia, and McLaughlin from the USA. Most unusually, their age profile was remarkably high. While the average International Brigader was in his mid 20s, seven of the north west volunteers were aged 35 or over.
What of their politics? Communists dominated the International Brigades, accounting for 60% of French, 62% of British, and 70% of United States volunteers. But, of the 139 International Brigaders who went to Spain from Ireland, only 33 were members of the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI); and of 101 Irish born exiles, only 42 were communists. The Irish were unique in that there were more of them in the International Brigades than in the CPI. There were two reasons for this. One was that so many Irish volunteers were expatriates. The other was that an alliance developed between communists and republicans in the late 1920s, and socialist republicans made a huge contribution to the Connolly Column. Indeed, it is misleading to differentiate between socialist republicans and communists at this time. In the Ireland of the 1930s, all communists were republicans, while the Republican Congress was heavily influenced by the CPI.
We know of the politics of 16 of the northwest volunteers. All were republicans or communists, and only Boyd, Campbell and McGrotty are not known to have had communist connections. McGuinness had served in the IRA, and went to work in Russia in the 1930s. Peadar O’Donnell, a leader of the Republican Congress, had been a communist, leaving the party when it refused to appoint him as an organiser. Donnelly was a member of both the CPI and the Republican Congress. Boyle and O’Daire were ex-IRA men and members of the CPGB. McChrystal, Pollock, Francis O’Donnell, and Traynor were in the Communist Party of Canada. Goold-Verschoyle, Kelly, and Murray were in the CPGB. McLaughlin was in the Communist Party of the USA.
So why did they go? Communism – or a Communist view of world politics - is the most obvious answer. And it was probably more significant in recruitment in Ireland than historians have allowed. Some Irish historians have argued that the high Irish involvement with Spain owed more to the Irish than the Spanish Civil War, and claimed that it was only because O’Duffy’s men were identified with the Free State side in the Irish Civil War that republicans joined the other side in Spain. The case of the northwest volunteers refutes this argument. John McGrotty, brother of Éamonn, recalled: ‘Eamon was affected by teaching young people with no shoes, this made him a socialist…He went to Spain because of his knowledge about the danger of advancing fascism in Europe, he had to help stop fascism’. The Communist influence on the other volunteers suggests that they too were caught up in the politics of Europe in the 1930s, not Ireland in 1922. The right-wing press tried to portray the International Brigaders as adventurers. But of the northwest volunteers, only McGuinness fits that description.
At the same time, personal circumstances were important. After all, not every medically fit, unmarried Communist of military age joined up. It is likely that the mobility that went with being an emigrant or moving through a string of dead-end or low-paid jobs was a factor. This point is probably valid generally. Of the 5,500 Poles in the International Brigades, about 4,700 were émigrés. Of 350 Finnish volunteers, almost 300 were émigrés, and a relatively high proportion of these were seafarers. In the case of the Irishmen from the northwest, military experience may have been a consideration too. Three had served in the IRA, two in the British army, two in both the IRA and the British military, one in the Canadian army, and one had received training as a secret radio operator in Moscow.
How did they fare in combat? Next week we will review their military record in Spain.
Part 6: The record in Spain
As with the Irish generally, the northwest volunteers reached and departed Spain at different times and, as timing dictated, fought on different fronts, in various sections of the XV International Brigade. The XV was treated as the brigade for English-speakers, though it was not exclusively anglophone. In January 1937 it comprised the (mainly Slav) Dimitrov battalion, the (Franco-Belgian) 6 February battalion, the (American) Abraham Lincoln battalion, and the 16th battalion. In deference to the Irish within it, the 16th was sometimes called the ‘Anglo-Irish’ or ‘English-speaking’ battalion at first, until everyone settled on the shorter title ‘British’, except the continentals, to whom ‘British’ was invariably ‘English’. In November 1937, when new numbers were allocated, the XV Brigade was made up of the 57th (British), the 58th (Lincoln-Washington), the 59th (Spanish), and the Canadian 60th (Mackenzie-Papineau) battalions. Initially it was assumed that the Irish would form part of the British battalion, until in January 1937, in a controversial decision, a number opted to join the Lincolns. The bulk of the Connolly Column would serve with the Lincoln or British battalions, while a few were with the Canadian ‘Mac-Paps’. There is a popular perception that all International Brigaders were heroes of the ‘good fight’. Of course, reality was not as kind or as simple.
Most anglophone volunteers had little idea of life in Spain. Military conditions could be difficult. A recruit to the British army in World War 1 received over six months training, he was well equipped, and in the war zone he spent 10 days a month in the front line. In Spain, volunteers would be lucky to enjoy two or three weeks rudimentary training. Weapons could be unreliable: when Frank Edwards from Waterford fired his first shot in anger, the rifle broke up in his hands. And troops might spend weeks on end at the front. The best known English-language song of the war, ‘There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama’, is sometimes taken as a defiant lament for fallen comrades. Actually, it was a sardonic criticism of Brigade staff for delays in granting leave. It is a tribute to Frank Ryan’s sense of democracy that he included it in the Book of the XV Brigade, the compendium which he edited in 1938. Fighting fascism, which might have seemed a great idea at a political rally in Dublin or London, could look differently to a dying of thirst at Brunete, freezing and frostbitten at Teruel, or crawling with lice and wondering when he going to get a hot shower.
Casualties were high. Some 25% of the Lincoln and British battalions were killed in action, and about half the remainder were wounded. Of about 1,900 survivors of the British battalion, 300 deserted and another 100 were characterized as ‘bad elements’ – drunks, cowards, criminals, spies etc. Some historians have criticized the characterizations as unduly harsh, and argued that anyone who did not meet the highest standards of ‘Bolshevik enthusiasm’ was faulted. The evidence is mixed. But it should be said that discipline in the International Brigades was not severe. Claims that the Brigades were kept in the field through a ‘red terror’ are not supported by the facts. Deserters were normally sent to the front, or to a penal detachment. Only in rare cases were ‘bad elements’ executed, and only one Irish volunteer was executed – for firing on his own troops. Pending an exhaustive study, it would seem that the Irish had a relatively good record, and were to the fore in combat. At least 30% of the Connolly Column made the supreme sacrifice.
How did the men from the northwest perform? At least six were appointed to positions of responsibility. Captain Paddy O’Daire, one of the most distinguished officers of the Connolly Column, was described as having ‘very good military qualities’ and commanded the British battalion in August and September 1938. (The Spanish were not generous with ranks, and it was usual for captains to command battalions, while a Lieutenant Colonel commanded the XV Brigade). Joseph Kelly served as a lieutenant, Philip Boyle as a company quartermaster, George Gorman as a sergeant, Éamonn McGrotty as adjutant of the James Connolly Centuria in the Lincoln battalion, and Thomas Traynor was commended as a ‘good section leader’. Two deserted, and one was characterized as ‘bad’. Seven were killed in action: James Donald, George Gorman, Éamonn McGrotty, Hugh Bonar, Paddy Glacken, Charlie Donnelly, and Ben Murray, while Brian Goold-Verschoyle later died in Russia from circumstances arising out of the war. A further three were wounded, one on two occasions.
On balance, the record of the northwest volunteers was good, exceptionally so in providing officer material. It is probable that their age and personal experience were important in these respects. Four were ex-IRA men (three being veterans of the War of Independence), one had soldiered for 12 years in the British army, and one had served in the Canadian cavalry during World War 1.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the northwest contingent is that it provided so many memorable characters of the Connolly Column. McGrotty, the Christian Brother turned socialist; ‘Nomad’ McGuinness, adventurer extraordinaire; O’Daire, ‘the man from the mountains’ who soldiered with distinction in the IRA, the Free State army, the International Brigades, and the British army; Goold-Verschoyle, scion of a big-house turned Soviet spy; Donnelly, poet and romantic; and Peadar O’Donnell, one of twentieth century Ireland’s finest agitators.
But whether the volunteers were quiet or colourful, and however they performed in Spain, they had the vision to see that if fascism was not fought in Madrid, it would have to be fought in Paris, Prague, or London; and the courage to commit themselves to a war which offered no material rewards and no securities should they return without an arm or a leg.
Finally, my thanks to all who have been in contact since the start of this series to offer additional details on the volunteers. We are still completing the biographies, and it is hoped that a definitive commemorative souvenir will be published in due course. All help received from individuals, organizations, and newspapers will then be acknowledged appropriately.
Go raibh maith agaibh go léir, agus beir bua. Paseremos.
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