The Connolly Column

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The following piece was gratefully submitted by one of our readers and is a brief overview of the legendary Connolly Column of the International Brigades that fought to defend the Spanish Republic during Franco’s counter-revolution

I recently finished reading the book “Connolly Column” by Michael O’Riordain (a Corkman from Pope’s Quay and former General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland). The book tells the story of the brave Irishmen who went to Spain to fight against Franco’s fascists. The men faced dreadful conditions, were equipped with poor quality weapons and were faced with a vastly more technically superior Nationalist opponent. Up to 35 of their number died. What they did have however was an unshakeable comraderie and belief in their cause.

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Irish unit in Spain. Michael O’Riordan is in front row, third from the right

In the 1930s, the Catholic Church was at the height of its power and influence in Irish society. In Spain, a Republican government had been elected and had instituted popular left-wing reforms. Right-wingers in the military, led by General Franciso Franco, launched a coup. They had support from the Catholic Church, industrialists, landlords, monarchists and radical nationalists. They also obtained support from Hitler and Mussolini. This led to a Civil War in 1936 that would last for 3 years and involve people from around the world. The Church in Ireland was supportive of Franco and priests’ sermons praised him while condemning the “godless communists” of the Spanish Republic. Newspapers joined in in the lauding of Franco and collections were held for him. The Irish Christian Front was established as a solidarity organisation for the fascists. Also at this time, the IRA, Communist Party and various Anti-Fascists were regularly brawling with the Blueshirts – a contingent of whom would leave for Spain to fight with the Francoist forces and would suffer an ignominious defeat.

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Eoin O’Duffy receives the fascist salute from his Blueshirts

Clearly, ostentatious anti-Fascist agitation wasn’t viable in such a climate and Irish volunteers for the International Brigades had to be subtle when leaving for Spain. Most volunteers came from a socialist republican background and most were current or ex members of the Communist Party, IRA and Republican Congress. They were lead by veteran socialist republican Frank Ryan – later to be captured and die in captivity while in Germany in 1944. The Irish diaspora in Britain and America also played a part.

Irish volunteers in the various batttalions fought with gallantry and vociferous belief. They participated in major battles such as Jarama and Madrid, impressing both their Spanish comrades and foes. Despite coming from various background, the Dmitrov (Balkans), Lincoln (America) and other Battalions all shared a comendable sense of internationalism and common struggle.Commemorations were held for national heroes of all countries, including Ireland’s own James Connolly and Wolfe Tone. These internationalists who, I am sure, would be proud to see their countrymen march along with the XV Brigade in defense of liberty.

Frank Ryan and International Brigade's comrade John Robinson

Frank Ryan and International Brigade’s comrade John Robinson

These men personified the Celtic image of the Wild Geese or Fighting Irish. They were to face scorn and misunderstanding upon returning home, some of them not making it back. They played a valiant role in a key chapter of Spanish history and yet so often go unmentioned in the history books. Their sacrifices have been marked however. The Spanish government has conferred an honorary citizenship on all surviving members (sadly, few remain to tell a new generation of their experience) and Christy Moore immortalised them in his song “Viva La Quince Brigada”. They understood the cause of freedom was international and rallied to La Pasionara’s rallying call of they shall not pass. We have a lot to learn from these men.

No Pasaran!

Graham

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