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Below is the excellent 1976 RTÉ documentary on Irish involvement in the Spanish Civil War (Spanish Anti-Fascist War, 1936-1939) uploaded by our good friend and grandson of brigadista Michael O’Riordain, Luke in the last couple of days. Presented and produced by Cathal O’Shannon, the documentary features contributions both from Irishmen who fought for the International Brigades on the Republican side and those who travelled with Blueshirt Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade to support Franco and Fascism.

The documentary title was inspired by poet Charlie Donnelly, who remarked that ‘even the olives are bleeding’ shortly before he died fighting for the Republic at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937.

The documentary features some amazing footage, including an Eoin O’Duffy address from the balcony of the Ormond Hotel on Dublin’s Ormond Quay. Other notable contributions, apart from those with Michael O’Riordan and his great comrade Bob Doyle, came from Terry Flanagan, ex-baker and Saor Eire member and Alec Digges, a brigadista who returned to Ireland from Spain, before going on to fight in the Second World War, where he lost a leg.

Mural of Brigadista, Bob Doyle, installed on the Cobblestone Bar, Smithfield, (since removed.) From An Phoblacht.

On the fascist side, there is contributions, amongst others, from George Timlin, an NCO in the Irish Army who gave his reasons for going to Spain as “the spirit of adventure” and to quote “to oblige a friend… Eoin O’Duffy who wouldn’t have asked me if he didn’t want me to go” and Padraig Quinn, veteran of the War of Independence and the Civil War who, encouraged by the anti-communist sermon of his local bishop, joined Eoin O’Duffy’s legion.

Its sometimes easy to forget that there were Irishmen on both sides in an at times brutal war, and this documentary gives a good account of both.

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Given that this week has seen the unveiling of a mural and the erection of a plaque in memory of the Irish anti-fascists that went to fight in the Spanish Civil War 1936-39, it was great to come across the clipping below when doing research for a completely different article. Reading like a veritable who’s who of revolutionary politics, Charlie Donnelly, Frank Ryan, and the sons of Thomas McDonagh and Francis and Hannah Sheehy Skeffington all appear in an article dated May 12th 1934.

The article focuses on the foundation of a society called Student Vanguard at a meeting in a room in 41 Parnell Square. The society, a joint effort between UCD and Trinity students, unveiled its manifesto at the meeting, stating:

The Student Vanguard sees in Fascism in Ireland the bludgeon of the reactionary elements against the struggle for the national and social liberation of the Irish people.

The meeting did not go entirely to plan though, and eleven Blueshirts made their presence known at the back of the room causing a scuffle to break out and the meeting to be interrupted. Bizarrely enough, it looks very much like the Blueshirts were present, somewhat under the blessing of Charlie Donnelly, who would later fight and die in Spain, on the Republican side. A Mr. K. Patton from UCD, who declared himself a Blueshirt stated at one stage “We promised Mr. Donnelly we wouldn’t cause any trouble here tonight.”

From the Irish Press, Saturday, May 12, 1934

Frank Ryan later apologized in the meeting stating that if it was the case that the Blueshirts present were indeed there under invite, then he retracted his demand for them to leave. At the meeting, it was also stated that “Fascism (means) political, economic and cultural repression; distortion and restriction of education; the crushing of all progressive movements; perpetuation by force of ‘the present economic anarchy,’ unemployment and distress.”

Despite what seemed to pass off as a rift between two groups of students, settled by a polite handshake and an apology, a couple of years later, men from both sides would be making their way to Spain to fight on either side of the Civil War. The Blueshirts left with a fanfare, and came back without a loss in combat and with their tails between their legs. Some on the Republican side, like Michael O’Riordan and Bob Doyle would come back alive, others, like Charlie Donnelly would not.

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“What was this Republic of which I now heard for the first time? Who were the leaders the British had executed after taking them prisoners, Tom Clarke, Padraic Pearse, James Connolly and all the others, none of whose names I had ever heard? What did it all mean?”

So wrote a young British soldier serving in Mesopotamia, or Iraq to you and me. Bemused by what had occured in Dublin, this one soldier had gone to war not lured by the recruitment posters featuring small nations (often personified in the form of female characters) but in his own words “..for no other reason than that I wanted to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel like a grown man”. This young soldier would continue to serve that army afterwards, but in 1920 became a member of the 3rd Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army, rising through the ranks to become a flying column leader who inflicted terror on Auxiliary forces at Kilmichael and the Essex Regiment of the British Army and the Royal Irish Constabulary at Crossbarry. The young man, of course, was Tom Barry.

Tom Barry

Barry was not the only Republican leader who saw the Rising in an unusual manner. In Dublin,a young medical student named Ernie O’ Malley was taken aback by events, and vivdly described events on Sackville Street.

“Other shops had just been looted: Lawrence’s toy bazaar and some jewellers. Diamond rings and pocketsful of gold watches were selling for sixpence and a shilling, and one was cursed if one did not buy…. Ragged boys wearing old boots, brown and black, tramped up and down with air rifles on their shoulders or played cowboys and Indians, armed with black pistols supplied with long rows of paper caps. Little girls hugged teddy bears and dolls as if they could hardly believe their good fortune”

Ernie O' Malley

While literally seeing the outbreak of the rebellion, O’ Malley would also encounter a student he knew who told him they were arming themselves in case Trinity College would be attacked. O’ Malley informed the student that while he was off home, he would return later(The fact O’ Malley was a UCD Student would no doubt lead to cries of ‘Sacrilege!’ from some even today). Largely indifferent at first to what was occuring, O’ Malley would quickly turn towards the rebels, even making his way down Moore Street and towards Nelsons Pillar one night, where he discussed the rising so far with a uniformed officer of the Irish Citizen Army. Amazingly, O’ Malley and a schoolboy friend would take it upon themselves to assist the rebels, through taking potshots at soldiers with a rifle his friends father had been given “as a present by a soldier who brought it back from the Front”

In his memoir, On Another Man’s Wound he went on to note that after the rebellion he purchased a copy of James Connolly’s Labour In Irish History. History would see Ernie O’ Malley remembered as a leading republican anti-treatyite, and a key intellectual within the movement.

James Stephens

In Dublin, James Stephens was surprised by the outbreak of the insurrection, in fact to the extent that he did not notice at first and went about his business. A novelist and poet, his account of the week, The Insurrection in Dublin, is well written and oft-humourous.

“This has taken everyone by surprise. It is possible, that with the exception of their staff, it has taken the Volunteers themselves by surprise; but,today, our peaceful city is no longer peaceful; guns are sounding or rolling and cracking from different directions, and, although rarely, the rattle of machine guns can be heard also.

Two days ago war seemed very far away- so far, that I have convenated with myself to learn the alphabet of music”

Stephens would seek confirmation of the Risings continuation from his own window, and the Republican flag flying over the Jacob’s Garrison, under the command of Thomas MacDonagh, but including a diverse band of individuals like Peadar Kearney (author of The Soldiers Song), Major John MacBride and the actress Máire Ní Shiubhlaigh, a member of Cumann na mBán, the womens auxiliary force to the Irish Volunteers.

“It is half-past three o’clock, and from my window the Republican flag can still be seen flying over Jacob’s factory. There is occasional shooting, but the city as a whole is quiet. At a quarter to five o’clock
a heavy gun boomed once. Ten minutes later there was heavy machine gun firing and much rifle shooting. In another ten minutes the flag at Jacob’s was hauled down.

Many had believed that the country would rise after Dublin, and create a national uprising out of a regional one. This was not to be, with contradictory orders from national leadership leading to mass confusion. Liam Mellows mustered a force of several hundred in Galway who were involved in several attacks on police barracks’ yet did not have the capability to sustain any sort of campaign in the region. Men of the ‘Fingal Batallion’ of the Irish Volunteers would find themselves active in Ashbourne, County Meath with Thomas Ashe, where they inflicted real damage on local Royal Irish Constabulary forces. Still, the significant forces available to the Volunteers nationwide were not used, as many had obeyed the order of Eoin MacNeill and word did not travel from Dublin at a speed to allow for a nationwide insurrection.

Dan Breen, front row.

The frustration of some Volunteers outside Dublin can be clearly felt in Dan Breen’s account of news reaching him in Tipperary, and his attempts to establish contact with Sean Treacy, a leading figure of the Third Tipperary Brigade and a close friend.

“Sean had left his home on the first news of the Rebellion and cycled from one centre to another, urging the Tipperary Volunteers to take action….

…We were bitterly dissapointed that the fighting had not extended to the country. We swore that, should the fighting ever be resumed, we would be in the thick of it, no matter where it took place”

Perhaps fittingly, on the 21st of January, 1919, Sean and Dan would play no small part in resuming the fighting with the Soloheadbeg Ambush, an action that has found a place in Irish history as the event which essentially kick-started the War of Independence. Anyone new to the period should seek out the ‘Wanted’ poster for Dan Breen, which is sure to raise a chuckle, highlighting his “sulky bulldog appearance” among other things.

Events in Dublin would have a ricochet effect far beyond the city or even Irish countryside. In Wales, Captain Jack White would find himself arrested too.

Captain Jack White

White had drilled, and in fact dressed (disagreeing with Sean O’ Casey on the matter of uniforming such a workers militia), the Citizen Army long before the insurrection.

In his memoir, Misfit, White noted that “In short, I am arrested in the South Wales coalfield for trying to get the Welsh miners out on strike. Why? To save Jim Connolly being shot for his share in the Easter Rising in command of the Citizen Army. Had I succeeded I would have crippled the coal supply for the British Fleet”

Years after the insurrection, White would find himself an anarchist in Spain,and in an article published on November 11th 1936 titled “A Rebel In Barcelona: Jack White’s First Spanish Impressions” White would once again speak of the Easter Rising.

“You will have heard no doubt about the Dublin Rising of 1916. That rising is now thought of as purely a national one, of which the aims went no further than the national independence of Ireland. It is conveniently forgotten that not only was the manifesto published by the “bourgeois” leaders concieved in a spirit of extreme liberal democracy, but, associated with the “bourgeois” leaders was James Connolly, the international socialist, who some regarded as the great revolutionary fighter and organiser of his day. In command of the Irish Citizen Army, which I had drilled, he made common cause with the Republican separatists against the common Imperial enemy.”

The article was printed in the CNT-AIT Boletin de Informacion, and White concluded by stating he greeted the working class revolution with “..the voice of revolutionary Ireland”

Not all former comrades of James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army were as kind. Sean O’Casey had walked from the Citizen Army (where he held the situation of Honorary Secretary) with maintained a belief that the Citizen Army had aligned itself too closely with what he saw as reactionary nationalist forces.

Sean O' Casey

In his ‘Story of the Irish Citizen Army’ (available to read free online over at Libcom) O’Casey wrote of the raising of the green flag over Liberty Hall, stating that in his opinion “Labour had laid its precious gift of Independence on the altar of Irish Nationalism…”

Concluding Book 3 of his own autobiography, Drums under the Windows, published in 1945, it becomes clear he did not change his views with regards the new and secondary role the Irish labour movement had taken to Irish nationalism:

“But Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan, walks firm now, a flush on her haughty cheek. She hears the murmur in the people’s hearts. Her lovers are gathered around her, for things are changed, changed utterly.

A terrible beauty is born.

Poor, dear, dead men. Poor W.B. Yeats”

Lastly, it is worth taking a brief look at a story that is personal and not political. In Portrait of a Rebel Father , Nora Connolly O’ Brien, daughter of James Connolly, describes the initial reaction of the family to their fathers execution.

Nora Connolly O' Brien

“Mama, we must go back to the Castle and ask for daddy’s body”
“They won’t give it to us”
“We must ask”
It was refused.
“Mrs. Connolly”- a nurse came to them as they stood in the hall not knowing what to do- “before Mr. Connolly left us I cut this off for you” On her hand was a lock of daddy’s hair. Mama took it and held to her cheek all that was left of him.

Of course, the above opinions and reactions are just a small sample of what is out there. This Easter Week, we should look at the event not just as a week long insurrection, but as an event that would ricochet on through the troubles that followed and continue to spark debate long after the last bullets whizzed through the Dublin sky.

A fantastic snap from life.com from one of the the 2006 commemorations at the GPO,Dublin.

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Some friends of ours are organising a benefit night next week to help raise money to erect two monuments in the memory of Charles Donnelly, poet, anti fascist and UCD graduate. The first near his birthpace in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone and the second near the spot where he died at the age of 23 in the Battle of Jarama.

Unfortunately the night clashes with a gig I’m organising but we still encourage people to help to finance the stone’s engraving and its transport to Madrid by attending the event or sending money directly (details below)

The night will comprise music, poetry and song but, more importantly, it will give like-minded people who appreciate the continuing significance of the Spanish War of 1936-9, an opportunity to meet up, have the craic and celebrate the spirit and legacy of people such as Charlie Donnelly.

To reserve tickets beforehand or make a donation, contact:
Eddie O’Neill at 087 271 2864 or eddietyrone@gmail.com.

Note: I wrote an article about Donnelly’s time in UCD last year.

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“When the Blueshirts –the Irish fascists- caught me on a demonstration through D’Olier Street I was surrounded by a crowd of them. They got me down a laneway off Dame Street and were hammering me. The Police came and they joined in and then arrested me, dragging me up to O’ Connell Bridge to an inspector who was sympathetic…

When I was with the inspector for a moment,he said, ‘Can you run?’

I said ‘Yes!’ and was across the bridge like a hare”
Bob Doyle in Marx Arthurs fantastic ‘Real Band Of Brothers’

Bob Doyle was an interesting, and very complex character.

In 1933, a mob besieged Connolly House in Dublin. Connolly House of course was the home of the Communist Party of Ireland, and the hysteria was religious by nature. On the 29th of March, this crowd proceeded to set fire to the building, with Gardaí estimating the crowd to be in the region of five to six thousand people. One of those people was a certain Mr. Bob Doyle.

Bob would later end up joining the Dublin IRA, and joining the International Brigades in Spain. Not an easy task mind, as to get there he endured quite the hard life. Learning that the last group to depart for Spain from Ireland were gone, he decided to “get there on his own steam”, staying in Salvation Army shelters like that in Great Peter Street, Westminster. He ended up getting a job as a kitchen porter (“like Ho Chi Minh” he observes, in Max Arthurs book!) and even spent time in Marseilles sleeping on park benches and later hoped a ship to Spain, making a jump for the jetty and pulling a runner as the captain of the shop shouted “POLICIA!” at the top of his lungs. Some journey before seeing a single rifle.

A fantastic obituary to Doyle in The Independent noted that

During the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, Doyle, who lived in the area, organised patrols to protect immigrant West Indians as well as a demonstration which he headed carrying a placard saying “No Little Rock Here”. He also drew regular Sunday crowds of up to 600 at Speakers’ Corner, where he would attract attention by setting fire to newspapers and saying “That’s what I think of the capitalist press”. Trips to Spain were an opportunity to distribute anti-Franco leaflets: he scattered them in Madrid among football crowds and on buses before making a swift getaway.

‘Brigadista’ is the title of not alone Doyles autobiography (A fantastic read in itself) but also a recorded interview with Bob. His last one, in fact. Recorded by Dublin Community Television (DCTV) , the conversation took place during Doyles last visit to Dublin (He spent his later years living in London) This interview is essential viewing. A one on one conversation with Trade Unionist Mick O’ Reily, Doyle discusses not alone Spain but also Dublin and London.

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A little known link.

The Court Laundry (1903 – 1971) at 58A Harcourt Street acted out as the venue for meetings for the Spanish Aid Committee during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). [1]

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, the suffragette and Irish republican, acted as chairperson of the group while the secretary was John Swift, general secretary of the Irish Bakers’ Union. Other prominent members included Dorothy Macardle, the writer and historian and Nora Connolly-O’Brien, daughter of James Connolly.

The use of the laundry had been arranged by Robin (Robert) Tweedy (1853 – 1956), a Communist Party member whose family had connections with the laundry business.

[1] A. P. Behan, Dublin Historical Record, Vol. 47, No. 1, Diamond Jubilee Issue (Spring, 1994), pp. 24-45.

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