Short commemorative article on the Irishmen of the International Brigades
Connolly Column 70th Anniversary
By Scot MacCreamhain
Viva La Quince Brigada
Ten years before I saw the light of morning
A comradeship of heroes was laid.
From every corner of the world came sailing
The Fifteenth International Brigade.
They came to stand beside the Spanish people.
To try and stem the rising Fascist tide
Franco's allies were the powerful and wealthy,
Frank Ryan's men came from the other side.
Even the olives were bleeding
As the battle for Madrid it thundered on.
Truth and love against the force of evil,
Brotherhood against the Fascist clan.
Viva La Quince Brigada!
"No Pasaran" the pledge that made them fight.
"Adelante" was the cry around the hillside.
Let us all remember them tonight.
Bob Hilliard was a Church of Ireland pastor;
From Killarney across the Pyrenees he came.
From Derry came a brave young Christian Brother.
Side by side they fought and died in Spain.
Tommy Woods, aged seventeen, died in Cordoba.
With Na Fianna he learned to hold his gun.
From Dublin to the Villa Del Rio
Where he fought and died beneath the Spanish sun.
Many Irishmen heard the call of Franco.
Joined Hitler and Mussolini too.
Propaganda from the pulpit and newspapers
Helped O'Duffy to enlist his crew.
The word came from Maynooth: 'Support the Nazis.'
The men of cloth failed yet again
When the bishops blessed the blueshirts down in Galway
As they sailed beneath the swastika to Spain.
This song is a tribute to Frank Ryan.
Kit Conway and Dinny Coady too.
Peter Daly, Charlie Regan and Hugh Bonar.
Though many died I can but name a few.
Danny Doyle, Blaser-Brown and Charlie Donnelly.
Liam Tumilson and Jim Straney from Short Strand.
Jack Nalty, Tommy Patton and Frank Conroy,
Jim Foley, Tony Fox and dick O'Neill.
July 18th 2006 marks the 70th anniversary of the Fascist uprising against
the democratically-elected Spanish government. The Fascists had military
support from Germany and Italy whilst the Spanish Republic relied on the
Soviet Union and Mexico for arms and advisers. Most other Western
governments refused to get involved and signed a non-intervention pact.
Many on the left felt that these were the opening shots of a second world
war against Hitler, Mussolini and Spain’s rebel General, Franco. Idealistic
young men and women from all over the world volunteered to come to the aid
of the Spanish Republic in the face of indifference and hostility of their
own governments. From Germany came the Thaelmann battalion, from Italy the
Garabaldis, from Canada the Mackenzie-Papineaus, from the USA, the Abraham
Lincoln battalion, from Scotland, Wales and England, the British Battalion,
and from Ireland the Connolly column. All Anglophone fighters were organized
under the XVth International Brigade. In total the International Brigades
totalled 45,000 men and played a major role in fighting the fascist forces.
In Ireland, support for the beleaguered Republic was organized by Frank
Ryan, a Republican Socialist, veteran of the Limerick IRA flying columns,
Gaelic scholar and former editor of An Phoblacht. Ryan was driven by an
intense dislike of Eoin O’Duffy, former Garda Commissioner, Blueshirts’
leader and first Fine Gael president, who had already with the support of
Cardinal McRory, The Independent newspaper and capitalist W.L Murphy,
organized an Irish Brigade to help Franco’s side in the war.
O’Duffy had promised 5000 men to Franco and at their peak in 1934 the
Blueshirt movement had 50,000 members. This movement had come out of the
Treatyite Army Comrades Association which represented the large farm owners
and capitalists but also the rural poor who lived under an almost feudal
relationship with the church.
In the end though O’Duffy only managed to dupe 670 men, mostly rural-based
from Cork and Kerry to follow his crusade to Spain believing that the
catholic religion was under attack. In some areas of Catalonia churches had
been burned and some atrocities carried out but were highly exaggerated by
the church hierarchy:
“Spain has always been a catholic country like Ireland. We are for religion
and we don’t want the Reds to conquer Spain.” said O’Duffy
In many cases churches were used as storage dumps for fascist arms,
personally witnessed by Frank Ryan and there were reports of individual
fascist priests firing on civilians from church towers, again bullet holes
on houses opposite churches provided the evidence. What O’Duffy failed to
tell his men was that Franco was actually using Moorish Muslim troops in his
front line from colonized Morocco and were themselves persecuting the
catholic Basques who had gained autonomy under the leftist government.
On the 18th December 1936 480 men sailed on the SS Urundi from Galway flying
the German Swastika to form the Irish Brigade of the XVth Bandera el Tercio,
an elite battalion based on O’Duffy’s claims that the men were there to die
as Christian martyrs. As the battle for Jarama was in full swing the Irish
Brigade arrived late in the proceedings and were caught up in a friendly
fire incident and withdrew without orders. All in all they lost 6 men and
were involved again only briefly. In fact their drunken behaviour at camp
and poor performance on the battlefield (mainly down to bad leadership) led
to the Irish Brigade being sent home in disgrace. A split also had the
effect of denying them any sizeable parade on their return to Dublin.
In stark contrast the Irish section of the International Brigades, 200
strong, were drawn from some of the poorest urban sections of Irish society
(66% from Dublin and Belfast), mainly communists and IRA men from the
Republican Congress who had a visceral hatred of O’Duffy and the bosses.
Some of these men saw the chance to fight in Spain has a way of avenging the
result of the Civil War and many blamed O’Duffy for the Ballyseedy atrocity
Ryan is quoted at the quayside on leaving for Spain:
“The Republican contingent, besides being a very efficient fighting force –
every member of it having been in action – is also a demonstration of the
sympathy of revolutionary Ireland with the Spanish people in their fight
against International Fascism. It is also a reply to the intervention of
Irish Fascism in the war against the Spanish Republic, which, if
unchallenged would remain a disgrace on our people. We want to show that
there is a close bond between the democracies of Ireland and Spain. Our
fight is the fight of the Spanish people, as it is of all people who are
victims of tyranny”
Desmond Ryan (no relation) made this appeal:
“Why do you fight by the side of the upholders of a land system as crushing
and as terrible as that which your own grandfathers fought against in the
days of the Land League. The answer is easy; cynical politicians and
thoughtless bigots have misled you.”
Bob Doyle said:
“O’Duffy and his Blueshirts intended following in the footsteps of the
Nazis...I thought there was a danger Ireland would go Fascist and that was
one of the motivating factors in making up my mind to go. I didn’t know much
about Spain, but my thoughts on the way to Spain were that every bullet I
fired would be a bullet against the Dublin landlords and capitalists”
Tommy Patton said:
“the bullet that will get me won’t get a Spanish worker”
Two volunteers whose enthusiasm was not wanting and whose republican
credentials were well-known to Ryan, presented themselves for enlistment but
Ryan curtly dismissed them; Brendan Behan and Cathal Goulding were barely 14
The Irish and British battalion was organized with military efficiency by
the Comintern and volunteers were vetted by the CPI and the CPGB in London
before traveling onwards through France to the I.Bers base at Albacete.
Volunteers were asked to travel in discrete (and discreet!) groups and only
to speak when spoken to by members of bourgeois authority. The party
travelling with Frank Ryan disdained to behave in such an anti-social manner
and on one channel crossing around forty men occupied the bar giving out a
stirring repertoire of rebel songs and impressing on their fellow passengers
their strong distaste for fascism and Franco.
The first party of Irishmen to arrive was soon pressed into action after
only a couple of days training at Lopera on the Cordoba front at Christmas
1936. Kit Conway was in charge of this company. 8 Irishmen were killed
including Tommy Woods aged 17.
Meanwhile more Irish began to arrive at camp and found they were to be part
of the British Battalion and not a separate Irish section. Frank Ryan
explained that the English working class were their allies against fascism
and they should work together. However tensions rose when it was discovered
one of the British Officers, a Captain Nathan, had been part of a Dublin
Castle murder gang responsible for the deaths in Limerick of the mayor and
ex-mayor. A meeting was called and a majority of the Irish present decided
they wanted to move to the Lincoln battalion.
As more Irish arrived the IB leadership refused to allow any more to move to
the Lincolns and that they must serve with the British which most agreed to
do remembering their enemy was imperialism and fascism. Nathan was demoted
and moved from the area.
In February 1937 Franco was making a major push to encircle Madrid and the
apex of the battle to stop him was the Jarama valley. The fighting done by
the International Brigades here is the stuff of legend and rightly so. On
the 12th February Kit Conway led troops across olive fields straight into
fascist fire capturing enemy positions and halting the advance, Conway
himself being fatally wounded. Franco’s troops, veterans of the Moroccon
war, had never been stopped so effectively in open countryside. Ryan called
out with a loudhailer in case the Irish fascists were in the enemy trenches:
“Irishmen go home! Your fathers would turn in their graves if they knew that
you’d come to fight for imperialism. This is the real Republican army, the
real, real men of Ireland.”
On the 13th some defensive positions were lost after a British commander
withdrew without orders and the defensive line fell back slightly however on
the 14th when all seemed lost the men were ready to be routed in the face of
overwhelming numbers including tanks, the fascists failed to pursue them
possibly tiring themselves. Frank Ryan and Scots-Irishman Jock Cunningham
turned around the bedraggled remains of the batallion singing the
Internationale and led 140 men back towards the enemy. The fascists
erroneously believed fresh units had arrived and fled. The machine gun
positions were re-captured Ryan was wounded in the arm and went back to
Ireland for a period of recuperation. Nearby on the battlefield the 40 Irish
with the Lincolns attacked Pingarron Hill and lost over 100 men including
the UCD scholar and poet Charlie Donnelly who coined the phrase “even the
olives were bleeding”. The battle was over and Franco’s army looked to other
fronts to win the war.
Jarama was the Connolly Column’s finest hour but they went on to fight at
Brunete, Guadalajara, Belchite and finally at Gandesa where in March 1938
Frank Ryan and hundreds more were surrounded and captured by Italian Black
Arrows. Most were eventually released but Ryan was passed over to German
intelligence, the Abwehr and spent the rest of his days in Berlin, finally
dying in Dresden in 1944.
The International Brigades were wound down in November 1938 with a parade in
Barcelona just months before Franco came into control of the entire country
and a long dark period of repression would begin.
However Dolores Ibárruri, La Pasionaria, gave the farewell address at the
parade which finished with these words:
“We shall not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace is in flower,
entwined with the victory laurels of the Republic of Spain --- return!
Return to our side for here you will find a homeland --- those who have no
country or friends, who must live deprived of friendship --- all, all will
have the affection and gratitude of the Spanish people who today and
tomorrow will shout with enthusiasm ---
Long live the heroes of the International Brigades!”
In Red and Green: The Lives of Frank Ryan – Adrian Hoar
The Irish and the Spanish Civil War – Robert Stradling
The Spanish Civil War – Hugh Thomas
The Connolly Column – Michael O’Riordan