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The Jarama at Peace, February 2008
Over 40 people flew out to Madrid last weekend to participate in a number of events centered around a commemoration of Tyrone poet, Charlie Donnelly, who was killed in February 1937 in the latter stages of the Battle of Jarama.
The weekend kicked off with a double book launch at the UNESCO Friends’ Club in downtown Madrid. The venue was particularly appropriate. For many years, this was perhaps the only public space in the city where those opposed to the Franco regime could speak openly without fear of arrest.
Indymedia spoke to a CNT member just outside their new bookshop, La Malatesta, in Calle Jesús y Maria:
‘In the 60s they were still killing people in the hills, especially in the Asturias. The people there were very isolated. There were no anarchists left to kill in Cataluna. Here in Madrid we were able to meet foreign comrades in the UNESCO club and get information out about the repression’.
When did things start to get easier?
‘We were organising neighbourhood meetings in the early ’70, a few years before he [Franco] died. There was still a sense even then that any form of open activity was dangerous. In my home village in Aragón there was certainly nothing happening until ’75, despite the various amnesties that had started to come in 10 years earlier. You could trust nobody’.
The books launched were Poemas de Guera y Paz, a translation of International Brigadista Jimmy Jump’s collection of poetry and Un Otoño Para Salvar Madrid, the biography of French IBer Théo Franco by Christine Diger.
Over 100 people packed into the meeting room to hear Jump’s son Jim talk about his father’s life and what motivated him to fight for the democratically-elected Republican government against the forces behind Franco’s coup. Present were Bob Doyle and Jack Jones, perhaps the last survivors of the XV International Brigade. Both men were to attend the other events organised over the weekend.
Also present was an elderly comrade Flor Cernuda, who after a period of post-war imprisonment in a concentration camp, worked for many years for the underground resistance against Franco’s regime. This reporter’s knowledge of Spanish being barely sufficient to survive 20 minutes outside a tapas bar, her story was sufficiently fascinating to ask her carer to facilitate a brief interview. Her photograph can be seen and her biography and present situation better appreciated in an exhibition curated by Harry Owens, currently on show in the Blanchardstown Library.
The highlight of the weekend was the 1st Memorial March on Saturday morning along a sector of the front line where the British Battalion of the XV Brigade halted an attack on the Valencia road by forces far superior in terms of weaponry and manpower. On February 12 1937, just 600 ill-trained and equipped volunteers from the UK and Ireland moved into positions in olive groves on a ridge overlooking the Jarama valley to the southeast of Madrid. By nightfall the following evening, less than 150 remained alive and capable of defending their positions along a sunken road just behind the ridge. The collapse of the line the next day and the subsequent counter attack organised by Frank Ryan and Jock Cunningham effectively set the front line in cement for the remainder of the war, keeping the Valencia road open to supply the capital.
Among the 20 or so Irish killed over the initial 48 hours were Kit Conway, a left Republican from Tipperary, Robert Hilliard, a former Church of Ireland cleric from Kerry and Eamon McGrotty, whose one time membership of the Christian Brothers is often highlighted in the literature as a contrast to Hilliard’s Anglicism.
Donnelly fought with the American Lincoln Battalion, who were brought up to the line a week or so later to bolster the much depleted ranks of the Brigade. He died in what must have been a suicidal attack in the same sector of the line as Conway and his comrades. His best known poem, written some weeks before his death, is particularly poignant as his body lay in no man’s land for several days, awaiting the tolerance of crows.
The impetus for Saturday morning’s events came from Eddie O’Neill, who organises an annual Charlie Donnelly Writers’ Week in Dungannon. Eddie has been visiting Spain for years and has a deep knowledge and interest in the Civil War and likewise of the battles we are still losing and indeed the lessons that have yet to be learnt.
The walk was guided by Seve Montero, a Madrid teacher who approached the landscape with an archaeologist’s eye. Interesting was the use of Google Earth handouts which brought life of sorts to the landscape. We noticed that the new monument to the XV Brigade, on a hillock about 2km behind the ridge where the main battle took place, wasn’t yet depicted. We also noticed that several lines of defensive trenches were now covered with builders’ rubble, seemingly fly tipped into the barranco below.
The absence of mapping is perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of Jarama which hasn’t received much attention in the historiography. The only decent map of the sector appears in Frank Ryan’s Book of the XV International Brigade. The map reproduced in Mick O’Riordan’s Connolly Column seems to be a version of that map originally prepared for the brigade by Jason Gurney on the first morning and its inaccuracies are evident.
One battlefield monument is located where a position would have given covering fire to the advancing brigade, had the machine guns been fitted with the correct ammunition. This didn’t arrive until the evening of the first day and the attacking fascist troops were halted temporarily when the correct ammunition was brought to the front. The position was captured the following day when an English detachment withdrew without orders from their right flank.
Donnelly was commemorated nearby by a minute’s silence and a reading in Spanish and English of The Tolerance of Crows.
The walk ended at the new monument to the IBs with a few speeches and a presentation to Bob Doyle and Jack Jones. The only speech with any real political content was that given by Bob who stressed that capitalism had not been defeated in Spain and that the struggle against those in control of power and wealth still continues. He cited Shell’s involvement in Nigeria and stressed that sophisticated PR was now a weapon in their arsenal. He stressed the importance of opposing these forces using different methods to those used in the past. Bob’s speech can be read at the AABI link below.
Official Dungannon was represented by the mayor, Cllr. Barry Monteith and the former mayor, Francie Molly MLA (both SF). The local PSOE MP Juan Julián Ramón was heckled briefly but recovered sufficiently to mouth along to the Internationale, which was rendered simultaneously in several languages.
The afternoon was spent in a local restaurant El Cid, which also houses a museum of the battle. Presentations were made to several of the organisers of the events of the weekend and this reporter enjoyed discussions with several comrades from the (Irish) republican movement. Some went off afterwards to visit the cemetery where the remains of those who fell at Jarama were unceremoniously dumped in an area of waste ground after the war. A monument has recently been erected there after much lobbying by Bob Doyle and Harry Owens among others.
A small group went back up into the hills to look over the site at twilight and Indymedia would like to thank Juan, a comrade from the CNT in Morata who kindly drove us back to the bus later that night.
The PSOE hosted a homage to the International Brigades in a community centre in the Madrid suburb of Vicálvaro on Sunday morning. Proceedings began with a recording of Dolores Ibárruri’s speech given on 1 November 1938 at the IB’s final parade before their stand down in Barcelona. More speeches were delivered by the elected representatives present (both Spanish and Irish) and both Doyle and Jones were presented with flags of the Spanish republic. The latter talked for a moment about the ‘ups and downs’ experienced by the English Labour Party over the past number of years and assured us that under Gordon Brown, the party would be brought back to its socialist roots. Juan Julián Ramón spoke again, this time a little more vociferously to what appeared to be a more elderly and indeed militant local audience.
Referring to the recently enabled Law of Historical Memory, the legislative result of the social movement Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica, Ramón told us that the struggle did not finish in Spain in ’39 and that we must all follow the example of Bob Doyle and Jack Jones, a point echoed by the elected representatives from Tyrone.
An emotional Internationale was sung again as we departed for the local PSOE offices were food and drink were laid on and more presentations were made to Harry Owens, Eddie O’Neill and the IBers present. The official Dungannon contingent were presented with books on Vicálvaro’s role in the Civil War before heading off with Bob Doyle to the Basque Country.