I was in Waterford last week for the unveiling of a Memorial to eleven men from that city who joined the International Brigade and fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. Some 900 Irish men fought in that war, the vast majority of whom sided with Franco, the Spanish Army Officer who led the Nationalists revolt against the newly elected Socialist Government of Spain. Ireland was not long over its own Civil War and many of the Irishmen who volunteered on one side or the other in the Spanish conflict were veterans of that earlier war.
Its strange looking back on the events of that time after 65 years or so to see the allies who came together during the course of the Spanish Civil War. On the Republican’s side, were those who supported the duly elected Socialist Government together with Basque and Catalan regionalists and Russia. With them were the International Brigades comprising 40,000 or so men from 53 countries including almost 200 volunteers from Ireland. Against them was the Catholic Church, the Spanish Nationalists led by Franco aided by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy together with some 700 Irishmen who made up the Irish Brigade. In short, the Communist/Socialist/Republicans versus the Fascists/Nationalists with almost 200 Irishmen supporting the Republicans and 700 or so of their fellow nationals opposing them. The Waterford eleven were on the Republican side and as Trade Unionist/Socialists, they lent their support to the defence and preservation of the elected Socialist Government of Spain. Fearghal McGarry in his book “Irish Politics in the Spanish Civil War” published in 1999 makes the interesting claim that the Irish involvement in the Spanish Civil War broke down on lines roughly similar to those created by the Irish Civil War. The Anti Treaty/IRA element were heavily represented in the International Brigades while the Treaty/Blueshirt movement provided a high percentage of the recruits for the Irish Brigade.
The Irish Christian Front, formed in 1936 to fight Communism was to the forefront of attempts to get the Irish Government to break off diplomatic relations with the newly elected Socialist Government of Spain. Motions to this effect were put to Council’s up and down the country and the Irish Independent of 11th September 1936 reported an exchange in Athy’s Council Chamber which indicated the pressures which Councillor’s faced if they did not support the Christian Front. Willie Mahon, Chairman of the Council, in putting the motion presumed that it would be adopted unanimously. Councillor Tom Carbery, however, indicated that he was dissenting to which Mahon asked him “Are you a Communist”. The inference was very clear and many Councillors, but not Tom Carbery, succumbed to the pressures of local clergy and the Irish Christian Front at that time.
When I was with Kildare County Council in the early 1960’s I got to know Pat Dunny from Newbridge who worked as the Home Assistance Officer for that area. He was a brother of dance band leader, Jimmy Dunny. Pat had been a member of the Irish Brigade which when formed with the encouragement of the Irish Church leaders went to Spain under General Eoin O’Duffy to fight on Franco’s side. No one from Athy fought in that war but Frank Conroy from Ballymore Eustace was killed while a member of the International Brigade. Denis Holden of Carlow and Castlecomer men Sean Dowling and Michael Brennan who were also members of the International Brigade survived the war. From Naas town came four volunteers who fought in O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade. They were Thomas Byrne, Patrick Daly, Peter Lawler and Jimmy Curran, the last of whom I knew when I worked many years ago in Naas.
Of the eleven Waterford men who joined the International Brigade one, Mossie Quinlan was killed in action. When the survivors returned to their native city they were ignored by the people of Waterford who like the majority of the Irish people were in sympathy with the Franco led Nationalists. In a way, their homecoming was similar to that experienced by Irishmen who survived the savagery of World War 1 and whose contribution to that war effort was never acknowledged during their lifetime.
Sixty five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the men who fought for the Republicans at a time when the Catholic Church supported Franco’s Nationalists, have at last been honoured in their home town. The Waterford memorial was officially unveiled on the concourse in the front of the local Town Hall and there to share the occasion was Michael O’Riordan, the last Irish survivor of the International Brigade, Jack Jones former General Secretary of the T.U.C. now aged 91 years and American Moe Fishman who was a member of the Lincoln Brigade.
It’s easy to draw a parallel between these men from Waterford who had the courage to make an unpopular choice in the face of Irish Church and State of the 1930’s and the men from Athy and District who enlisted and fought in World War 1 twenty years earlier. Both groups of men fought a foreigners war on foreign soil and found at the end of their war that the sacrifices and hardships endured did not merit the gratitude of their fellow countrymen. At least the folk of Waterford City have now put that right and the Memorial unveiled last week will be a constant reminder of eleven men’s contribution to a process which eventually led to the democratisation of Spain.
Wouldn’t it be an equally generous gesture for the people of Athy through their civic leaders, or otherwise, to erect somewhere in our town a memorial to the young men of Athy and District who died in World War I. There was not a single street, alleyway or lane in Athy during the period 1914-1918 which did not lose a young man while fighting in France or Flanders or the Dardanelles. Many of the dead were never recovered. Those recovered and removed from the muddied battle fields were laid to rest in military cemetery’s abroad which family or friends seldom had an opportunity to visit.
For too long, Ireland as a nation cast aside the memory of these mostly working class Irish lads who died in the 1914-1918 War. As an economy, Ireland has developed enormously over the last few years. As a country, it has prospered and maybe as a nation, we have gained the maturity which would allow us to honour our dead, no matter in what cause or in what battle they fell. I have always maintained, it does no disservice to what we believe, to honour and commemorate the Irish men who died in the great War.
The time has come for all of us to acknowledge that our past is not just that which is Gaelic or Republican or Catholic. Our history has many streams and the one stream which has been overgrown and unseen for generations was formed with the lifeblood of young men from this area who were killed or maimed during the First World War.
Their memory deserves to be commemorated and if there was sufficient local support for the erection of a suitable monument, perhaps the Town Council would help to rectify a long standing omission in the towns streetscape.