Ruan O'Donnell and John Corcoran review The Connolly Column, The story of the Irishmen who fought for the Spanish Republic, 1936-1939 by Michael O'Riordan, Warren and Pell Publishing, ISBN 0 9548904 2 6,30 euro, £19.99 hbk, 22.50 euro, £14.99 pbk
LIBERTY HALL, the scene of heavy fighting during the 1916 Easter Rising, was the appropriate venue on 16 March for the launch of the revised second edition of the classic Connolly Column, The story of the Irishmen who fought for the Spanish Republic, 1936-1939.
Michael O'Riordan's striking book first appeared in 1979 when no Irish publisher was prepared to handle the title. While hostility regarding Ireland's 'premature anti-fascists' had largely abated, the Corkman evidently struck a nerve with a positive account of volunteers waging an armed campaign in the teeth of opposition from the Dublin and London establishments.
This explains in part why the first edition suppressed certain identities and suffered the ill-effects of proof copy exchanges with a printer in the German Democratic Republic.
The new version, launched by broadcaster Cathal O'Shannon, retains the spirit of the original by republishing its original text. However, the addition of fourteen new appendices comprising short articles, obituaries and book reviews brings much fresh information into play. Several contributions are the work of Manus O'Riordan, Head of Research with SIPTU and an authority on the republican left of the 1930s.
Recent commentaries by the two O'Riordans are particularly interesting as the dual perspectives of the author, a highly intelligent eye-witness, and that of the modern researcher are jointly brought to bear on the first generation of academic treatments of the subject.
They contest such points as the re-evaluation of Frank Ryan's career by Ferghal McGarry and Robert Straddling, not least the complicated relationship between Ryan and alleged pro-fascist Sean Russell during World War Two. These issues resonate in modern Ireland, as evidenced by the vandalism of Russell's monument in Dublin in December 2004.
The primary focus of Connolly Column concerns the Irish communists, republicans and anti-imperialists who fought in Spain, mostly within the British and Lincoln battalions of the XV International Brigade after January 1937.
Many, like the Frank Ryan, were IRA veterans of the War of Independence and Civil War. Ryan gravitated towards the left wing Republican Congress in 1934 and the International Brigades in 1936.
Similarly, Kit Conway, killed in action at Jarama in February 1937, had fought British soldiers in his native Tipperary before embracing several former enemies as comrades in Spain.
Amazingly, Major George Nathan, suspected of involvement in the murder of two leading Limerick Sinn Fein members in March 1921, was eventually accepted as a bona fide volunteer after an enquiry at Madrigueras. Nathan acknowledged his background in military intelligence but reassured his accusers by asserting: "We are Socialists together now". He was killed near Madrid.
Bill 'Liam' Tumilson, a Belfast socialist with Orange Order relatives, is one of many northerners mentioned in Connolly Column. One anecdote concerning Tumilson recounts how he and Falls Road man Jimmy Straney threw an obnoxious ex-Black and Tan into the River Lagan.
In 1934 Tumilson and Straney carried the banner of the Belfast branch of Republican Congress at Bodenstown. They died at the Ebro and Jarama respectively. O'Riordan also commemorates Maurice Levitas, the Jewish Dubliner captured with Ryan in March 1938 and maltreated in the San Pedro de Cardena 'concentration camp'. Levitas was one of seven survivors honoured by a civic reception in Dublin's Mansion House in February 1997, four years prior to his death.
Bob Doyle, who survived captivity with Levitas, attended the Liberty Hall event where he was reunited with the redoubtable Mick O'Riordan. The book, unlike many afforded the praise, really is essential reading for students of the period. Ruan O'Donnell
THE FIRST edition of this book first appeared in 1979 when no Irish publisher was prepared to handle the title. This the long awaited, new and updated version, remains utterly true to the original by republishing the main body of the text in exactly its original form.
However, in this new edition there is the addition of fourteen new appendices comprising articles, obituaries and book reviews brings much fresh information to the reader, who may already possess the original edition, notably impressive obituries for Maurice Levitas and Eugene Downing, and a fuller and more up to date roll of honour.
The publishers, Warren and Pell, must be congratulated for republishing so many of the classic accounts of the Spanish Civil War, which had hitherto gone out of print, this is the latest in a series of most welcome reprints.
Michael O'Riordan was born in Cork City, his family originated in the Cork Gaeltacht area of Ballingeary, Gouganbarra. Mick however, grew up in Cork City where he joined the Fianna and the IRA. In 1938, Mick O'Riordan went to fight fascism in Spain with the XVth International Brigade. He saw action on the Ebro front where he was wounded . In 1938 O'Riordan was offered an army commission by the Irish Free State, but chose instead to train IRA units in Cork. He was interned in the Curragh internment camp from 1939 until 1943 where he was OC of the Cork hut.
In the post-war era O'Riordan worked as a bus conductor in Cork and was active in the IT&GWU. In 1946 he stood as a Socialist Party candidate and afterwards moved to Dublin where, in the 1960's he was a pivotal figure in the Dublin Housing Action Committee.
O'Riordan attended the 1966 International Brigades' reunion in Berlin and was instrumental in organising the removal of Frank Ryan's remains from Germany to Ireland in 1979, the same year that the first edition of his authoritative account of the role of the Irish in the International Brigade was first published.
He also campaigned on behalf of the Birmingham Six and attended their Appeal court hearing in 1990.
Michael O'Riordan was for many years, the chairman of the Communist Party of Ireland, under whose auspices he published many articles.
As well as the original vivid and well written eye-witness accounts of the war by Michael O'Riordan, of particular interest is the contribution of his son Manus O'Riordan, who convincingly contests the recent critical re-evaluation of Frank Ryan's career by Ferghal McGarry and Robert Stradling. Manus O'Riordan's chapter on Frank Ryan's latter years confronts the insinuation that he was in any way sympathetic to fascism, and concludes that Ryan as primarily an Irish patriot,
" undoubtedly fails to pass the stalinist test of unconditional loyalty to the interests of the Soviet Union, as he also fails to pass the Churchillian test of loyalty to the British Empire. "
In the summer of 2003, Mick O'Riordan and Bob Doyle the last surviving Irish International Brigader's, despite their advanced years, attended a commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Ebro, a decisive turning point in the Spanish Civil War.
This moving international gathering attracted a large crowd under blue skies, and in the gruelling heat of a Catalan summer, with immense dignity and stoical patience these veterans of the International Brigade sat alongside their comrades from many other nations, as speeches from local politicians half their age extolled the courage of their contribution to the fight against fascism.
Returning to Barcelona, word went around the train that a Brigadista was on board, people young and old came down to shake hands and embrace Bob Doyle in gratitude for him and his comrade's help in their struggle against fascism 65 years earlier. Bob was easy to find, with his straw panama covered with anti-fascist badges and his rather surreal looking sunglasses with the words " NO TO WAR" emblazoned across the shades in protest against the invasion of Iraq.
One woman tearfully explained that her grandfather had been amongst the countless thousands of republicans executed by the Franco regime after the fall of the Spanish republic in 1939, she thanked Bob and his comrades on behalf of all her family; people who had silently and bitterly nurtured their anti-fascist and republican principles throughout the long dark years of Franco's rule.
These spontaneous scenes demonstrated better than any speeches the genuine and sincere appreciation that lives on amongst the diverse peoples of Spain for the role of the International Brigade, this powerful book helps explain why this sentiment remains so heartfelt. John Corcoran
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2005 Ruan O'Donnell & John Corcoran