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Homage to an Anti-fascist : Michael O Riordan RIP
Fragments from the last Interview, Dublin, Nov 9th, 2005
( Note ; with Danish journalist Erik Pedersen I went to Michael’s house in Glasnevin a few months ago to conduct an interview about volunteers of the International Brigades for Danish radio. Despite his advanced years, a sprightly man brimming with wit and stories spoke to us for several hours. Characteristically he didn’t talk much about himself or his own endevours in Spain ( he is reported to have been a brave and fearless machine gunner in the battlefield, according to other sources ), instead concentrating on the politics of the situation and on remembering those who fell. History walks with us, and listening to Mr O Riordan reminisce about the heroic struggle waged against the fascist threat in the 1930’s reveals how many of the issues confronted then remain urgent today.
Parts of the interview are unclear, and the brackets are mine, Ramor )
Question – When was it that you first heard about the Spanish Civil War and the problems going on in Spain...
Michael O Riordan : Well I heard about the Spanish Civil War actually soon as it happened, but I heard it from the side of Franco because the Church in Cork was strong, it was pro-Franco, the Church in Ireland was very, very strong. They raised a collection on a day, a chosen day for them, the Feast of Christ the King. In the churches they had the collection - they raised forty thousand pounds, I think. And they immediately said that the people who were fighting the war for Franco were fighting for the preservation of the faith in Europe.
Side by side with the Church activity was another organization called the Christian Front. This was composed not so much of priests but of lay people who were plugging the pro-Franco line and (they) also had a separate collection for Franco. They had all the pro -Franco forces in it; it was very strong in Cork. If they could (have) read my mind in this time, I would have been lynched, just for what I was thinking!
Ah, that was the atmosphere in which I left Cork in 1938. I was due to go earlier with a small group of people (Irish International Brigade volunteers) to Spain but I got an attack of appendicitis which was a rather serious disease or ailment at that time. Soon as I got better, I was able to go, I went. And I went by myself and how do you get to Spain?! It was the first question I was asking myself! So I found out - I was in contact with the Communist Party in Dublin and they told me how to get there, to go first from Dublin to Liverpool, I stayed in Liverpool overnight with a Spanish family. Then I traveled by train the next day to London. There I was given an address of the port to (France). The whole thing was underground, at that time it was illegal to fight for Spain.
And I got the ticket to go to Paris. But I actually arrived in Paris on the eve of Mayday and Paris at that time was bubbling over with aid for Spain, the Popular Front government was there...(unclear)... the Trade Unions and the people in the street were agitating for arms for Spain. And I saw the first big demonstration of Mayday in Paris and from there I went to a place called the Place du Combat. It was an appropriate name for the place we had to go to! And this was the final check off point. You were brought in (the office) and I saw a man passing through and I discovered later on that it was Tito himself, he was in charge of that, of the organization, for the recruits of the International al Brigade. We were interviewed by 3 French comrades and you were asked why do you want to go to Spain, you give your reasons and I had another reason because already in Ireland they had already organized a group to form an Irish Brigade to go to fight for Franco. And I said - to at least to redeem the good name of our country - that's why I wanted to go to Spain, another one and its not a patriotic reason, but they seemed to understand if your country does send people singing hymns, going off to Spain to fight for Franco, you must have a reaction to it. And eh, they weren't bad fellows by the way, (the Irish volunteers for Franco), they weren’t Fascists, although they were remnants of the old fascist movement which had been beaten off the streets in Ireland, the Blue Shirts, at that time, and then when the Spanish War broke out and it gave them, (the Blue shirts) an opportunity to their leader (to reorganise the movement), whose name was General (Eoin) O Duffy, a rather peculiar type of individual, the head of (Irish Free State) Police, he was sacked by one government because they thought his hands were too soiled by the blood of the people, and he was also President at one time of the international conference of fascists in Esteli (*? Unclear.).
(In Spain, the Irish Volunteers for Franco...)... they didn't shape up very well. They didn't get used to the food, they didn't get used to the politics, they didn't get used to the fighting and therefore they were a dead loss as far as Franco was concerned. Then eventually we had a position in Spain where we had a large group of people supposed to be fighting for Franco, but the only thing they did was have a clash with one of the (Moroccan?) troops and they killed one of their people. So when they had to go back, when they returned back to Ireland when they were going back - there were some people in the Foreign Legion who were also for Franco's Foreign Legion, had Scottish men and Irishmen like the French Foreign Legion, (and these men) were there for various reasons (like wanting to) wipe out their past in Ireland and so on. A few of them (the Irish foreign Legionnaires) came back with them, with the Irish (Blue Shirt) group. That gave vent to a joke, an anti-Franco joke, that we had about the Irish who went to help (Franco) in Spain - the only army who went to war and came back with more men then they set out with!
But in Spain itself, we had a number of comrades who were priests who were killed, one who was from Derry, he was a Christian Brother actually, and we had another one then, it was during the Battle of Jarama, also killed in Jarama, there was a Protestant Minister -a Catholic and Protestant united in death fighting Franco!
We had one case of a man actually before we went to the Ebro Front asking very, very innocently - will there be a priest there? In other words to help with the last absolution's and every body laughed at him. He was a clerical student who came to Spain to fight with Franco but he wandered into the wrong camp. And he was impressed by what he saw in the wrong camp! And he was actually taken prisoner by Franco and we did indeed hear about the arrest. The prison camp was formally a monastery that he was (taken). “Soy rojo, soy rojo, I'm a Red!,” (he said) and (he was) very badly beaten by the Spanish. So there you had the mixture of Catholicism on one side, officially and also the mixture of the best of both (Catholic and Protestant) side with us.
I had the honour, in one sense, I was the last Irishman to go to Spain. The first fellows to go there were at the start of the International Brigades in Madrid - that wasn't even known as the International Brigade. They were coming from Poland, who understood what fascism meant and understood what the church meant! You had the Germans who understood what fascism meant and so on, and one of the remarkable things about the Irish contribution was - the Englishmen made a mistake, some times they do make mistakes you know!, and I’m not talking about the side on the national question! And the first English man who died in Spain was so-in-so, and no, he wasn’t even the first Englishman, he was the first Irishman. He (the first Irishman to die) didn't even speak English, Irish was his national language! He came from Achill Island which is an island where they still retain the remnants of the old Gaelic language, and speak the Gaelic language and he was the first man to go to Spain, and he was killed in Madrid. That was the first one and after that we had many other people (who died). We had the Church of Ireland minister and the other minister who were killed in Jarama. There was the Christian Brother killed in Jarama fighting with the Brigade and on the whole, roughly 200 hundred Irish were killed. Were still picking up the remnants of (the names of those Irish who died) because when we left Spain, we left in the last withdrawal, from Spain.
When we got to France we were brought from Paris down to the coasts of France, and there in a very quiet place we were assembled into International Brigade volunteers, to climb over the Pyrenees mountain to go to Spain. We were shipped from there to Madrid and I was able to see myself the conditions of things in Spain, how poor the people were and actually also since it was in Catalonia, a certain degree of anti-religion, not atrocities, but they shouldn't have burned down churches, but that was very quickly put down. But churches were burnt long before that, before the International Brigades were formed, they were burned in the 1880s, long before Marx was born, long before the 3RD International was born, long before Russia (Soviet Union) was born! Because there was the tradition of the clash between the people and the institute of the church. The church was always unsatisfactory and the people were poor and there was always a clash between them, and churches were burned long before that (the Spanish Civil War), probably I’ve never heard of a church being burnt in Catalonia or the Basque Country. The Basque Country because the church was rather close to the people there. There was also the mixture of the national question - and we (the Irish) were good experts on the national question, we still are by the way!
My impressions then of Spain generally, ehm, was of a hungry country. What do I mean by hungry? Food was very short. I was growing, I was very young, I actually celebrated my 21st birthday in Barcelona, I always remembered that because your 21st birthday you traditionally pass from youth to manhood. I thought I had left manhood behind me basically, my date of birth was November 1917, coincided with the October revolution in Russia and we at the time had a different calendar, and it did coincide and then to have my 21st birthday coming of age in Barcelona spoke for itself. I was a child of the revolution, if you like. Now I was a man of the revolution!
As regards the training at that time, armaments were very scarce. We were eventually moved to (...pause) and in the meantime I had another dose of I forget what it was, some sort of bloody tropical diseases... oh I forget what it was. The hospital facilities were very bad, the nursing staff were good, inclusive of the international comrades, who were volunteers in a medical capacity to look after the people who were wounded and so on.
The thing is that they didn't realise that in the brigade itself, it was a whole rich variety of people. People who were from the working class and people who were on the lower level of the working class and people who were on the top echelons of the academic quarters - they were all together, no question of difference. And then you felt you were very lucky to be in such company.
Eventually we were brought to a place in Catalonia. We called it Chiboula valley because it was within a range of mountains and the Chiboula of the trees had shade and these provided some sort of cover and subterfuge for any detection of the troops. And there we got our first rifles. Russian rifles and we were told not to say a word about the Russian rifles, so we fell in with that, we called then Mexicanski rifles and even today you can hear the international brigade refer to the Mexicanski rifles, its the Russian rifles hes talking about because we were very good in that sense of keeping military secrets.
I had already fired my rifle shots in Ireland, to some degree, being in the IRA I had military training of some description so I passed through the exam there very quickly, and I began (as) a Light Machine Gunner in one of the British Companies. We were 2 months there. We went every day through various exercises, imaginary crossing of a river, and imagine crossing a river and there is no river!!! And boats and all that and back across the river, across the Ebro, because right before that the troops had retreated over the Ebro in complete chaos and they had reached a very low level and they were able to whip the troops together again, so ready to go back again, to go back across the Ebro.
We went across the Ebro in the British Battalion. We had some Welsh, Scottish, we had some Cubans as well, people from Trinidad, all the English speakers together. English was the common language, you see. The commander at that time was Sam Wild who was also Irish in so far as his people were Irish, he was born in Manchester and he grew up in Manchester, but his blood stream was Irish and he said, “Now it would be a very good thing, a very good idea, while crossing the river, into Catholic territory, (it would be a good idea, according to the Commander, if) we carried the Catholic flag, as well as the Spanish national flag. And he picks out me - “You will carry the flag,” he says, “(because of) your Irish, you will understand what it means.”
I understood but I didn’t quite understand him about being given the job at the time. It (the flag) was in very brilliant colours, the red gold and so on like that and I had to lead with the Catholic flag and Samuel says, “As soon as you meet the first Catholic, you can give him that flag and he will be proud to get it!”
I made sure I met the first Catholic and I says “This is your flag, comrade!” and he understood it and was glad to have it. I was glad to get rid of it too, because it was too awkward, carrying a rifle and haversack. It was enough to carry your bags, carry whatever you had, so that was it.
Question - Do you have any impression of how you would be looked upon by the civilians in Spain, I’m mean not all of the people would be in favor of the Republic...
You could see that there were people that were not quite convinced. Foreigners, extranjeros, (they would say) but they never called us extranjeros, foreigners, (they would call us) hermanos! And I have a picture there (points to a photo on the shelf) when we were leaving Spain, of the Spanish women – very good looking women too, all the flowers ... salud hermanos, brothers. So brothers we were known by and that was it.
And as regards the politics of Spain, we weren’t able to keep fully in track with them but then, most of the international brigadiers were communists or socialists or nationalists or so on. We had a small group of anarchists, but they disappeared quickly, as anarchists can disappear when it comes to really being in the struggle!
And that was it and we were at home there. We did have a number of Irish events there actually. We had one (Irish comrade) who said, “Well its time we had a Bodenstown in Spain!” So we did have a Bodenstown in Spain.
Finally, we were thinking, the Irish we were organizing, our daily rations of foods for the day or the day before, (we were thinking) to entertain our guests, you see, but we were wondering what was keeping the wine, the vino, and we discovered that the two fellows who were in sent out to a nearby vinery and they got us a weeks supply of wine, but they came home and they were in slightly worse for ware for the wine and they were accused of dipping into the wine. But they said that they had to because as we went along, the motion of (the ride was making the wine fly out of the wine jugs) and so we had to lighten our load! And that was the only way we could do it - it was to drink some of it, rather than give it to the road!
Can you remember how the feeling were between the battles, Mr O Riardon, would there be like a feeling of fear, of ...
Well the moral was high. The morale was the factor going into battle and there have been various types of Imperialist armies trying to cultivate morale but it came natural to us. We were fighting fascism and the number of deserters was very very very small. The Irish have a reputation of doing the fighting but that’s propaganda too (in order to entice young Irish men) to join the British Army. But the question of the morale was good even at the Ebro. We felt that we were fighting the last battle, because the defense capacity of the Republic was getting smaller and smaller and when the news came through said we were withdrawing. Because after the League of Nations, the Spanish Republican Prime Minister made an offer that if the Nazis would withdraw the Germans and if Mussolini would withdraw the Italians, then we would withdraw the foreigners on our side, and leave it to Spain to decide. This didn’t go too well with some of our people, we felt we were leaving and that ehm, we were leaving them in the lurch. But still we had to carry out the orders and we withdrawed, we withdrawed to the north of Catalonia, Repaul (?) was the name of the place, we met up with the French drivers and we were there for about a month or so and, getting ready for home, ...(unclear)... Spain. We didn’t waste time, I wouldn’t say we were brilliant in the sense of being born as politicians, we were just ordinary people and they understood that. And when we were leaving - we knew we were leaving because the United Nations sent over people to count us. There was a British Major General, there was a French (General), there was... and so on like that.
But probably the worst thing, or the best thing, was how we left Spain. The morning we were leaving, people in Repaul (?) they gave us extra bits of bread. That was to carry us over on the train journey (across the border) and we asked “Why the extra bits of bread?” and they said, “You are leaving, and we’re sorry.” They were crying, the Spanish people - very emotional people. So what we did was, all the bread we had, we gave it to them, gave it to the kids, because “We are going to France and we know that there’s some food there, and where ever there’s food and there are men hungry, they will get food!” And we can get food also, but for the kids, they needed that, so we left that.
So we went (left) in a lot of cattle wagons, and sat down for a while. Speeches were made, Frank Paulo (?) the Mayor spoke, and Samuel spoke on behalf of the British. We sat down (on the cattle wagons), and we came to the next station, came to the next stop and there was another meeting there! And a repeat of that went all the way to Barcelona. We must have passed about 12 meetings, you see, saying goodbye. They weren’t crying, they were cheering us - thanks! And that built you up for (leaving) Spain itself. And then we eventually got to the Spanish border and we were right in our forecast, (there was) plenty of food because the French, I don’t know how they did it or not, but they had the tables laid with food for anybody who had an empty stomach, and we never got to Paris by the way, we were detoured on our way to Paris. The Salvation Army, they were at one station handing out food. We wouldn’t take it from them, we said we don’t want charity, we want justice, for Spain, and that’s how we arrived back in London.
And they said, and it was said and it has been said again, we had more people waiting for us in London then there were waiting for the fellows of the First World War, a huge show of people They sang the Internationale and everything, they were in great form and we marched to somewhere near the centre, I didn’t know London very well. We were dropped off at various points to spend the night there, there were Irish there and we were kidnapped by the Irish in London, we were looked after very well. The only thing that I always remember was that and even superceding that welcome, was the one we got in Dublin. It was fabulous. We traveled by Steamboat to Dublin. There were roughly 10 of us, we were the worst (for ware) and on the platform there were four or five people there, fellows who had been wounded before us, and had come back and so on, like that. And a piper. And they said “We will play a tune on the piper for the children who are back for Ireland, they played the pipes for us to walk into the middle of Dublin. “You wont have a meeting, you must have a meeting!” Right in the middle of Dublin, and the rain came down and the pipe played and we marched in on that and who was on the platform? It was but Father O Flanagan, it was he who welcomed us back to Dublin. That was it.
Why did the Republicans lose the battle, do you think?
Well, the Republicans lost the battle because we didn’t have enough equipment. The Soviet planes came through all right, small ones, Mosquitoes, we called them, and they came to Madrid. A lot of the Soviet stuff had to come by sea, they came via the Mediterranean, but the Mediterranean was controlled by the Italian submarines who sunk the surface ships. That is not remembered by many people! The Mexicanskis were the only rifles we had, except towards the very end, there was some Czech rifles came in because at that time, Hitler was going to march on them, and they got some rifles out of Czechoslovakia. But they were got too (by the Italians), not many, but the thing was that (we were) short of grub (food), short of militia, and so on. And the realisation that the Republic had forced its hand as long as it could, there was no question of any wind left to fight in it. That does not mean they were capitulating now, but they were panting as they were fighting, you know.
Then of course but we had internal problems in the Spanish government, principally due to the anarchists and the POUM. That did also obstruct, I mean the POUM rose up in Barcelona. The result was that on the Front where they were meant to have gone (was wide open), and so the Fascists just walked in through it. And they were there side by side then with the POUM people and they had a very good relationship together, they played football together, like gentlemen, like British gentlemen, Jesus Christ Almighty I mean! That didn’t last too long. The Communists fought to the end, and not only the Communists, but the true Republicans as well also fought to the end, and they paid for it, either immediately by executions. Very few of them survived the war by the way. Some of them were brought into the Concentration Camps, some of the Republicans were able to get into France and any of the Republicans you meet who were in... who survived the Civil war, we would meet them in Spain now because they can come across now, you see. Madrid itself was handed over to the Italians. That was a result of the agreement they tried to set up with Childers, not Anarchist, not republican, internationalists in it, or Russians in it. They handed it over. From that the people had to flee, the pitiful scenes up see now of people marching over the Pyrenees mountains with their children, you know, wounded children, they had to get out of the way of the Fascists.
When you returned back to Ireland, did you still continue organizing weapons for the Spanish Republic?
No, when I came back, and this was on December 1939 and the War had started and I was locked up for 4 years in the (Internment/Political Prison) camp. I had my certification (laughs); I’ll get a pension off them sometime! But the funny thing is that, I can recognize the necessity of the Irish government to put away anyone they thought was a danger. They were all (all the Internment Orders) signed, each signed by a (Government) Minister, particularly of course the Minister for Justice had the power to intern anybody. He interned most of them. I got mine signed by the Minister of Finance and all I could do was make a joke out of it. Be jaysus!, there will come a time in Ireland when people will ask are you a tax dodger or something - because the last couple of years we've lived through a period of robberies here, I mean gentile robberies, and so on like that, tax robberies, and I have to say, I went for Ireland, not for the money!