If any readers haven’t yet taking the time to do it, I really recommend a walk around the Soldiers and Chiefs exhibition in the National Museumm of Ireland at Collins Barracks. The exhibition aims to tell the story of the Irish at war, from revolutionary movements at home like the United Irishmen of the 1790s to international conflicts such as the American Civil War. Centuries of history are presented here, with everyone from King William of Orange in the 1690s to B-Specials in the 1960s making an appearance!
One of my favourite items in the exhibition is a banner in honour of Irishmen who fought in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. While the numbers of Irishmen who fought within these Brigades and in defence of the Spanish Republic are relatively small when compared to those who traveled to Spain from Ireland with Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade, the men who fought against fascism in Spain endured many losses on the battlefield, something which stands in sharp contrast with the experiences of O’Duffy and his men, who found themselves entangled in a fatal friendly fire incident soon after their arrival in Spain and who saw little fighting beyond it. Fearghal McGarry, a leading historian of the Irish dimensions of the war in Spain, has noted that:
The Irish Brigade was blighted by bitter infighting between O’Duffy and his officers while Franco was unimpressed by its lack of military expertise. The Brigade’s first battle in February 1937 was with another Nationalist battalion who mistook them for the enemy while their next (and final) action ended in failure when the Brigade’s officers mutinied, refusing an order to attack the well-defended village of Titulcia. Drunkenness and indiscipline added to these problems and the Brigade was disarmed and ordered out of Spain by Franco.
I was aware I had seen this banner before, but decided to dig a little and see what could be found out about it. The banner was first unveiled in Dublin in November 1938, at a time when the war in Spain was still ongoing. Molesworth Hall was the location for the unveiling of the banner, and the occasion was the two-year anniversary of the establishment of the International Brigades. The banner was described in The Irish Times as being “a memorial banner to the 44 Irish members of the International Brigade who were killed in Spain.”
The unveiling of the banner was performed by Father Michael O’Flanagan, a fascinating figure in the history of radical politics in Ireland, as he was one of very few Catholic priests willing to support the Spanish Republic. An outspoken leftist, O’Flanagan is sometimes remembered as “the Sinn Féin priest”, and his involvement with the Republican movement in Ireland stretched right back into the revolutionary period. Vice-President of Sinn Féin, Flanagan was invited to recite the invocation at the first meeting of the Dáil in 1919 at the Mansion House. He was vocal in his opposition to the Catholic Church support for General Franco’s coup in Spain, and while on a speaking tour of North America in defence of the Spanish Republic he made his feelings perfectly clear, noting that “when the Church tries to step outside of its own activity, which is to preach the gospel, it is very likely to do wrong.” Recently the British Pathe archive uploaded footage of Father O’Flanagan speaking in 1920 during the War of Independence period.
O’Flanagan stated at the unveiling of the banner that “those present that night were honouring themselves by coming to do honour to the members of the Irish unit of the international Brigade, becaue in doing so they required if not physical then moral courage.” He was adamant that the men who traveled to Spain to fight with the Brigades had saved the reputation of the country, stating that “they ought to congratulate themselves that there were some men in Ireland who had the intelligence to do the correct thing and the instinct to follow the best traditions of the Irish people to go to Spain and take part in the fighting in the international Brigades” While Father O’Flanagan spoke at the meeting, it was presided by Roddy Connolly, son of the executed 1916 leader James Connolly. Several returning members of the International Brigades were present too, one of whom, Terry O’Flanagan, reminded the crowd that Frank Ryan was now a prisoner of General Franco’s and that all efforts should be made to save his life. Two minutes of silence were observed at the meeting in honour of those who had died. Over two hundred people attended the meeting, which did not suffer from any of the jeering or physical confrontation that marred other left-wing meetings in the city during this period.
Manus O’Riordan, son of International Brigade fighter and lifelong communist activist Michael O’Riordan, has discussed the banner before at the National Museum of Ireland itself, and during a talk there in 2009 he told a crowd:
This Memorial Banner was painted at the back of Kelly’s shop in Dublin’s Amiens Street. It was executed by a group of art students led by Maurice Cogan, acting under the supervision and according to the design of the artistic daughter-of-the-house, Aida Kelly [1915-1979]. Aida’s husband, Maurice MacGonigal, would become an internationally acclaimed artist. Their son, Muiris Mac Conghail, became a renowned documentary film maker, while his son, Fiach Mac Conghail, is currently Director of the Abbey Theatre.
O’Riordan’s talk also gave great insight into just where the banner had been between its unveiling in 1938 and its display in the National Museum of Ireland:
It was my father who, on behalf of his fellow International Brigade veterans, had been custodian of that Banner since the 1940s, preserving it in James Connolly House. Its awkward size and vulnerability rendered it unsuitable for use in commemorative events. Instead, we use a smaller banner made by Jer O’Leary, which I have brought along to show you, and which suitably consists of the red, yellow and purple flag of the Spanish Republic, bearing the words – in Gaelic script – Connolly Column XV Brigada Internacional.
On the banner, the names of many of those who fell in Spain are visible, including UCD student and poet Charlie Donnelly and Tommy Wood, who we have previously looked at on the site. Wood was only seventeen at the time he gave his life in Spain, making him the youngest Irish fatality of the Spanish Civil War. Before leaving for Spain, he explained his logic for doing so in a letter to his mother. He told her “we are going out to fight for the working class. It is not a religious war, that is all propaganda. God Bless you.”