Reprinted from a inactive site linked to Anti Fascist Action
Mick O'Riordan Interview
with Anti Fascist Action
As a teenager Mick O Riordan fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. In this interview with AFA he talks about fascism and anti fascism in Ireland in the 1930s and the contribution of the Irish 'Connolly Column' to the war against Fascism in Spain.
I will deal briefly with the situation in Ireland at the time that the Spanish Civil War broke out. In Europe Hitler was in power in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Salazar in Portugal and there were dictatorships in Greece, Poland and Bulgaria. Outside of the entrenched fascist powers there was the Fiery Cross in France, the Mosleyites in Britain and the Blueshirts in Ireland.
When the election took place in Spain in 1936 the popular front, consisting of progressive, left and even middle class parties won by a narrow margin. The Front did not include the Anarchists, who remained distinct from the Popular Front. It began to introduce some reforms, which stimulated the fascist generals to revolt against the Spanish government.
The 'Crusade for Religion'
In Ireland the reaction to the Spanish War was to greet it as a crusade for religion. In 1934 we had the beginning of the Blueshirt movement, which took a great grip in the political life of the country. They were eventually defeated not by the government but by the republican movement, the Communist Party and other progressive groups who fought for possession of the streets and therefore dented the so called militancy of the Blueshirts. The Blueshirts were completely in accord with the fascist movements throughout Europe.
When the Spanish war broke out in 1936 they immediately began to resurrect themselves and issued a call for volunteers to fight for Franco. O Duffy was the leader of the Blueshirts, and the ex Police chief who had been sacked by the De Valera government. He raised the cry for people to become involved in the crusade for religion in Spain. The initial appeal was greeted with 5,000 applications, eventually only 700-800 went to Spain. I have never called the rank and file people who went to Spain fascist, they were simply misguided and tricked. They were only ordinary fellows who were unemployed, they were not lumpen-proletariat. The leadership of the Blueshirts was composed of ex-officers of the old Free State army and were the core of fascism in Ireland and of the Irish assistance for Franco.
I was born in Cork city, my parents came from the Cork/Kerry border area. One of the first political books I read was James Connolly's 'Labour in Irish History', where I first saw the word Marx, and it interested me in the role of the people in history. I was involved in Fianna Eireann, which was the scout [youth] branch of the Republican movement. At one stage the man in charge of the Fianna was Frank Ryan, who later led the first Irish contingent of anti fascist volunteers to Spain in 1936. I was involved from an early age in the question of resistance to the Blueshirts. Cork was a county which was dominated by whether you were a Blueshirt or an anti-Blueshirt, this was as a result of the question of Free State versus Republican ideology. When the Spanish War broke out I was 18 and I was immediately interested in the parallels with the war in Spain and the parallels with O Duffy's Blueshirts.
On the matter of creating a crusade for Spain there was in existence another organisation called the Irish Christian Front. This used to have huge rallies, they never talked about fascism or blueshirtism, they always talked about Christ the King and the so called horrible outrages against nuns and priests, church burnings, etc, in Spain. At the big meetings, when they had raised people to a certain degree of hysteria, they used to salute. It was not the salute the fascists used, but they raised their crossed hands over their heads in the form of a cross. That was clerical fascism, although not officially part of the catholic theology. They held many rallies and formed a pogrom type atmosphere.
The Communist party was refounded in 1933 in Connolly House, which was burned to the ground by a pogrom incited against it. Religion was always used against anyone with left wing or communist ideas, they were regarded as a stereotype of the devil in all senses, physically, morally and intellectually. That was the atmosphere and when O Duffy decided to organise a group for Spain there was reaction from the Communist party first of all, and from people in the Republican Congress, which was composed of left Irish Republicans and who worked with the Communist Party in the Republican Congress. It was from these ranks that Frank Ryan came and took over the leadership of the first group to go to Spain. They went quietly enough but they released a manifesto which stated what their reasons were for going. It was not published by any of the newspapers, except the 'Irish Workers Voice', the paper of the Communist Party.
"The Irish contingent is a demonstration of revolutionary Ireland's solidarity with the gallant Spanish workers and peasants in their fight for freedom against Fascism. It aims to redeem Irish honour besmirched by the intervention of Irish fascism on the side of the Spanish fascist rebels. It is to aid the revolutionary movements in Ireland to defeat the fascist menace at home, and finally, and not least, to establish the closest fraternal bonds of kinship between the Republican democracies of Ireland and Spain."
We summarised that afterwards when asked why we went to Spain; that we had to carry out our solemn proletarian solidarity with our Spanish brothers and sisters and we had to redeem the good name of our country and our own good people who had fought so long for their freedom and was now besmirched by the Blueshirt intervention on the side of Franco.
The attitudes of the Church I have summarised in the book I wrote, Connolly Column. I took it from official statements and sermons recorded in 'The Irish Catholic Yearbook'. It would make your blood boil and your hair stand on your head. It was real incitement, as I look back on it, it was frightening in many respects, like the Salem witch-hunts. Rumour mongering, admonitions from the altar. O Duffy's crowd went to Spain on a nazi liner from Galway, Christy Moore wrote a song about it 'Viva la Quinta Brigada', he has the words 'When the Bishops blessed the Blueshirts in Dun Laoghaire as they sailed beneath the Swastika to Spain'. He is right in all of it except one thing, they didn't sail from Dun Laoghaire, but from Galway. But that is only a location, he does capture the whole attitude of the Church. The Blueshirts were blessed as crusaders by the Catholic church.
When the nazis landed in Portugal, at Lisbon, they were greeted by the Dominican prior of the Irish church, Fr Paul O Sullivan. He delivered the following address which was circulated by the Blueshirts at the time to guarantee their religious credentials. 'Address to General O Duffy and the Irish Brigade on their way to fight Bolshevism in Spain, delivered at the Irish National Church in Lisbon, 26th Novemebr 1936'.
"Never have we heard, even in the dark days of Nero, never even among the most barbarous hordes that innocent children were cut to pieces, the bodies of the dead exhumed, insulted and profaned. You are going to fight these monsters who are more like demons let loose from Hell than mortal men. More fierce, more depraved, more godless, than Turks or Moslems".
This is interesting because one of the initial forces who fought for Franco were the Army of Africa, which was composed of Muslims and it was rather a contradiction that they were the people who were 'saving christianity'.
Irish Anti-Fascists As far as I can make out there were 145 Irish anti fascist Volunteers, on the whole no more than 150. They were going from December 1936 until the last battle on the Ebro front in 1938, when we were repatriated by the Spanish government. 63 were killed in various battles. The deaths were a very serious blow.
In the first arrivals of the International Brigades to Madrid in November 1936 among them were 3 Irishmen. One was Donal O'Reilly, a plasterer by trade, he survived the war and came back and became a very prominent leader and spokesperson of the Irish Plasterers Union. Another was a man called William Barry, who actually came from Melbourne, but was Irish. The third man was Tommy Patton from the island of Achill, west of Mayo. He has been described as among one of the earliest English speaking people to be killed but this is a contradiction because he was a native Irish speaker. Like many of the people on the west coast of Ireland he had to emigrate to Scotland during the potato harvest and there he came into contact with the militant traditions of the Scottish trade union movement, and he was the first Irishman to die in Spain.
There is a beautiful monument now erected to him on Achill Island which indicates the feeling of the local people. Whilst the rest of Ireland was swept away with the pro-Franco religious propaganda the people of Achill island were solid behind the Spanish Republic and weren't misled or intimidated into supporting Franco and fascism.
'There's a valley in Spain called Jarama'
The first main battle in which a large number of Irishmen were killed was the Battle of Jarama in 1937, 30 miles south east of Madrid. 19 of our peope were killed and a large number of the International volunteers were killed in this fierce battle. Of the 19 Irish dead there were remarkable people like Charlie Donnelly, a young Irish poet and member of the Communist party. Side by side died a protestant clergyman and a catholic Christian Brother [monk], who were both on the anti-fascist side. The deaths left a serious gap in the ranks of the Irish and afterwards the individual volunteers came and were split among the American and the British battalion.
I came much later after that. I was with the British Battalion, with the rest of the English speaking volunteers. The Welsh miners were probably the most predominent numbers in it, Scottish comrades were next. There were Irish and there were some Cypriots, and some Australians and others. We were like a miniature duplication of the British Isles at the time. We didn't argue about separate Irish identification, we were there as part of an international army where there were no national boundaries.
Every battle after that we lost people. Today, 60 years after the first International Brigades came to Madrid, there are only five left of the Irish who went to support the Spanish struggle. Time has taken its toll.
The Connolly Column
The first group that went to Spain were called the James Connolly Section, they were a separate section within the 15th Brigade which was composed of English speaking people, including Americans, Canadians and so on. After the first battles there were so few left there was no basis for the Connolly Column, but the name was still retained and we are known as the 'Connolly Column'.
Each of the Brigades and Battalions took on themselves the titles of various national heroes and working class leaders in their own countries. The first group of international volunteers came from France. With the French comrades came a large group of Polish workers, miners working in exile in the French mines. Recruitment throughout the world was a tremendous feat because there were 53 countries represented in the International Brigades. To get them into Spain was a tremendous organisational feat, it was organised by the Communist International. The volunteers from the different countries were divided into different brigades, based on language. There was the 11th Brigade composed of German and Austrian anti-fascists, there was the Italian 12th Brigade, known as the Garibaldi Brigade. Poles and Hungarians were in the 13th Brigade, the Dumbrovsky Brigade, The Brigade of French and Belgians were the Marseillaise, called after the anthem of France. The English- speaking Brigade was composed of 4 different Battalions. The British Battalion was called the Seklatvala. Seklatvala was an Indian who lived in England and was a member of the Communist Party. At that time there was an interchange of membership between the Communist Party and the Labour Party. Seklatvala became a Labour MP, but strictly speaking also the first British Communist in the House of Commons.
The two American brigades were the Lincoln and Washington Brigades, named after the national heroes. The Canadians were known as the McKenzie-Papineau Battalion, representatives of progressive English and French speaking Canada. The Bulgarians were called the Dimitrov Battalion.
We named ourselves after Connolly because of adherence to his ideology and because he was a man who bore arms in defence of the working people and fought for national liberation.
What was the background of the majority of the volunteers who went out?
Answer: I am glad you asked that question because there was a book written called 'The War of Poets', and it gave the impression that almost everybody in the International Brigades seemed to be a poet. That is not true. Some leading poets were members of the International Brigade but the majority were workers, trade unionists and the most militant sections of the working class such as the Welsh and Scottish miners. There is a book written by Judith Flood (?) where she deals with the statistics of the occupations. Some leading intellectuals played a very good part, such as the poets.
In Madrid itself, in the University where the famous Spanish poet Garcia Lorca was a student, there is a plaque with the names of 5 leading poets. The fifth person is Charlie Donnelly of Tyrone, a biography of him has been written called 'Even the Olives are Bleeding'. They were his famous last words, before he was killed in the Battle of Jarama. It was a working class fight but there was room for everybody, intellectuals, progressive people.
I want to make a point about the role of the Communist Party, since the Brigade was being organised by the Comintern, which was the Communist International. The Communist Party in each country played the role of being the recruiting centre, I went through the Communist Party here. In the propaganda like the Loach file 'Land & Freedom' it is a complete distortion from the actual political composition of the International Brigades and the whole role of the Communists in the Spanish War. We were issued with a military book and there was a space to put down what was your politcal party.
Some Irish Anti Fascists who fought in Spain:
Frank Ryan was a student, his parents were teachers, he was born in Co. Limerick. He developed as a journalist and was the editor of 'An Phoblacht', a leading Republican paper. He was an anti-fascist and one of the leaders of the Republican Congress.
Donal O Reilly had a unique record. His mother died very young, there was only his father and 5 brothers. He was only 14 or 15 years of age when he went home on Easter Monday 1916 and found there was nobody at home. His father and 5 brothers had gone out to the GPO, to take part in the Easter Rising. He decided he had to go and find his family. He went to the GPO and was there 3 days looking for them. Old Tom Clarke saw this young fellow of 15 years of age and gave him a few copies of the Republican 'War News' to distribute to people around Dublin and gave him a cuff on the ear and said "Don't come back here again". Donal O Reilly had the unique distinction of being in the GPO in Dublin in Easter Week 1916 and in Madrid in 1936.
Another man was Kit Conway, he was killed in the Battle of Jarama, within 6 months of going to Spain. He was a building worker. He grew up in an orphanage in Tipperary and played a big part in the IRA in the struggle against the British and afterwards joined the Free State army, because there was a very confused situation at the time. After the Treaty was signed, when he found he was in the wrong army, he had risen to be a battalion commander in the Free State army. He was stationed in the Curragh [army camp] and he skipped it out of the Curragh with a couple of machine guns and went over to the Republican side. After the victory of the Free State in the Civil War he enrolled in the National Guard, a volunteer force, in the US in order to 'keep his hand in'.
He was brilliant as a military strategist. Any book you read about the Battle of Jarama his name crops up in it, because he was such a born leader. He came back to Ireland in 1933/34 when the Free State government had been replaced by the De Valera government and many people came back from the States who had to leave after the Civil War in Ireland. He worked as a builder's labourer. The day before he went to Spain - at a time when everybody went quietly to Spain - (I went quietly, you were in danger of being knocked out by a pogrom by the infuriated Christians) he stood up on an oil barrel on the building site and said to his fellow workers that he was going to Spain and the reason he was going was to defeat Franco and fascism and made a prophetic statement that "Rather then see Franco win I would prefer my body to lie as manure in the fields of Spain". His body did lie as manure in the fields of Spain. He was typical.
Another man was Jack Nalty, he was an oil transport worker and member of the ITGWU, a very prominent Trade Unionist. He was a very well known marathon runner, a very healthy athletic fellow. In one of the early battles he was knocked out with a burst of machine gun fire across the chest and he came back to Ireland to recuperate. He went back again to Spain - climbed over the Pyrenees mountains - the only way he could get in. I reject that everyone who went to Spain was a hero, but I do regard as heroes fellows who went to Spain, got the taste of battle and knew what war was and went back again. Nalty was killed in the last hour of the last day of the last battle of the 15th Brigade.
In this context I will mention another man, a man from Kerry. Michael Lehane was born on the Kerry side of the Cork border, where my mother and father were born. We met in Spain. I seemed to understand his accent and I discovered that he came from just a few miles from myself. He was also wounded and went back again. He came home in 1938 with me and the last to come out of Spain. He couldn't get a job so he went over to London to work. My problem with getting a job was solved because I was interned almost immediately after coming home so I didn't have to look for a job. Mick Lehane used to write to me when I was in the Curragh Internment Camp and we developed a very close friendship.
He was commenting on the progress of World War Two, he said "Hitler must be defeated". This was in the period of the phony war when the British and French were sparring and Hitler was making further and further progress. "As a Kerry Republican and a Kerry Communist I can't wear that bloody British army uniform". I could see the frustration in the man. The next letter I got from him he said "I have solved the problem, tomorrow I am enlisting in the Norwegian Merchant Navy." He died in the Norwegian Merchant Navy, he was killed at sea by a German U Boat in the convoys. The Norwegian government conferred two medals on him, one because he was a volunteer who joined the Norwegian Merchant Navy and also that he joined the most dangerous section of it, the Transportation of War convoys. Next Friday we will have a memorium notice in the Irish Times, Friday September 27th 1996.
''Lehane, Michael. Morley's Bridge, Kilgarvan, Co Kerry. In proud memory of our dear friend and comrade at arms on the 60th Anniversary of the Spanish Anti Fascist War. Born Sept 27th 1908, International Brigadier from December 1936. Wounded at Brunete, July 1937 and Gandesa, July 1938. Fireman with the Norwegian Merchant Navy from October 1941. Killed at sea by a Nazi torpedo, March 11th 1943. Always remembered by Peter O Connor and Michael O Riordan, Connolly Column, International Brigades. Salud y victoria! "From Morley's Bridge his way he made, a pike in his fist fellow workers to aid. Death cheated in Spain, Atlantic waves guard his grave. War Convoys set sail, for freedom life gave."
Charles Brown, from Kilkenny, emigrated to Manchester and London. Became very prominent in the Manchester Trade Union movement, the Manchester Labour party and Communist Party. He was killed - no he was not killed - he was murdered. The Italian fascists came along and shot him on the side of the road as he lay wounded.
Dinny Coady from Dublin was from a Dublin working class family. Kit Conway I have mentioned. Peter Daly from Enniscorthy. I mentioned his name recently in connection with the 1798 events taking place here [planned 1798 rising commemoration events]. He was actually born on Vinegar Hill, where one of the fiercest 1798 battles were fought. He worked in Britain, in Wimpeys. He volunteered for Spain. He rose to be in charge of the Anglo American Battalion. He was also the commander of the British Battalion in the Spanish War.
Leo Green, he was killed very early on in December 1936, working class.
Paddy O'Daire, from Donegal. He also was a born soldier. He joined the Free State army in 1927 and afterwards emigrated to Britain. Became a Battalion Commander in the British Battalion. When World War Two broke out he joined the British army and rose to the rank of major. That is as high as you can go, unless you have blue blood in your veins you don't get any higher, not even if you are Napoleon himself. O Daire is dead about 10 years now, he was an outstanding soldier and a great student of medical science.
Very soon there will be the unveiling of a plaque in the offices of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union in Dublin commemorating the fact that during the Spanish war the executive of the T&G in London gave £5,000 to Spanish Aid, for medical aid, etc. The reactionaries here in the Christain Front and the Blueshirts turned on the membership here and tried to get them to repudiate it. The Irish membership did not repudiate it, they endorsed it, which took a lot of guts at that time. This is the dual purpose of the plaque, to honour the heroes who died in Spain and also the proud record of the union.
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