Author Archives: David Convery

From Civil Rights to the Bailout

From Civil Rights to the Bailout: Social movements, workers agitation, and left-wing activism in Ireland, 1968-2010

Butchers

Conference organised by the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour & Class this Friday and Saturday 19-20 June, featuring papers on a diverse range of topics from a range of speakers from academic and activist backgrounds. There will be a special session devoted to how to record history through oral history and archives, and we are especially pleased to announce a discussion in the Mechanics’ Institute on Friday evening, 19 June, in which activists from the west of Ireland will talk about campaigns they have been involved with from organising administrative workers in UCG, to Gaeltacht civil rights. The programme can be seen below, and more information is available at the following website:

https://fromcivilrightstothebailout.wordpress.com/programme/

All welcome, please share widely!

Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class

NUI Galway

Moore Institute,

Hardiman Research Building

19-20 June 2015

Overview

Fri 19 June

13.00-13.45 Registration

13.45 Welcome address

14.00-15.30 Panel 1: The context of Northern Ireland

15.30-15.45 Break

15.45-17.15 Panel 2: Varieties of Protest

19.30 Mechanics Institute, Middle Street: ‘Civil Rights and Union Rights: Veteran Voices from the West of Ireland’

Sat 20 June

10.00-11.30 Panel 3: Radical Politics

11.30-11.45 Break

11.45-13.15 Panel 4: Challenging legal and cultural constraints

13.15-14.00 Lunch

14.00-15.30 Panel 5: Engaging Beyond Ireland

15.30-15.45 Break

15.45-17.45 Panel 6: Preserving History: Oral History and Archives

CLOSE OF CONFERENCE

Friday 19 June

14.00-15.30

1. The context of Northern Ireland

‘The People’s Democracy and the struggle for Civil Rights’

Matt Collins (University of Ulster)

‘”You can’t be neutral on a moving train”: Trade union responses to violence and sectarianism in Northern Ireland’

Seán Byers (Queen’s University Belfast and Trademark)

‘Responses in the West of Ireland to civil rights protest in Northern Ireland, 1968-72’

Gerard Madden (NUI Galway)

15.30-15.45

Break

15.45-17.15

2. Varieties of Protest

‘Rural Identity and Protest Mobilisation: the case of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association’

Trish O’Flynn (Open University)

‘Save the Roundstone Bog’: the Environmental Activism of Tim Robinson

Derek Gladwin (University of British Columbia)

‘An interrogation of the character of protest in Ireland since the bailout’

Mary Naughton (University College Dublin)

19.30: Mechanics Institute, Middle Street, Galway

‘Civil Rights and Union Rights: Veteran Voices from the West of Ireland’

Tish Gibbons will talk to Liz Walsh, Mary Cooke and Brid Carr about their efforts in unionizing their fellow administrative workers at UCG in the mid-1970s in the teeth of opposition from University management.

Cllr Declan Bree (Connolly Youth Movement / Sligo-Leitrim Independent Socialist Organisation) and Cllr Seosamh Ó Cuaig(Gluaiseacht Cearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta, independent socialist republican) will discuss their careers as activists with John Cunningham. Audience questions welcome.

Saturday 20 June

10.00-11.30

3. Radical Politics

‘When Irish anarchists faced the hangman’s noose – the case of Marie and Noel Murray’

Alan MacSimoin (Independent scholar and activist)

‘Youth in Revolt, Youth in Retreat: Labour Youth and the expulsion of Militant 1978-1989’

Cathal Malone (Independent scholar)

‘Saor Éire Action Group, 1967-1975: The vanguard of Trotskyist revolution in Ireland?’

Séan Ó Duibhir (NUI Galway)

11.30-11.45

Break

11.45-13.15

4. Challenging legal and cultural constraints

‘The Political Economy of Workers’ Liberty in 1980s Ireland: On the right to strike, union solidarity and the Talbot car workers’ factory occupation.’

Thomas Murray (University College Dublin)

‘Deconstructing the Irish Propensity to Constitutionalise Abortion: A Leftist, Feminist Critique’

Charles O’Sullivan (NUI Maynooth)

‘Why inequality Persists- Racial Stratification in the Labour Market’

Ebun Joseph (University College Dublin)

13.15-14.00

Lunch (provided)

14.00-15.30

5. Engaging beyond Ireland

‘Challenging Empires – EU Critical Activism & Emerging Identities’

Peter Lacey (NUI Maynooth and activist)

‘Performing Activism: Theatre as a Political Space’

Tracy Ryan O’Flaherty (University of Sussex)

‘Solidarity Forever: Irish Workers and the Miners’ Strike in Britain, 1984-5’

Daryl Leeworthy (Cardiff University)

15.45-17.45

6. Preserving History: Oral History and Archives

‘The Irish Left Archive: creating the informal Archive’

Ciarán Swan (Irish Left Archive)

‘I knew nothing about the thing that I constantly declared myself to be – a socialist.’ Oral History and Left-Wing Activism

Mary Muldowney (Alternative Visions Oral History Group)

This final panel will take the form of a workshop with the two speakers introducing the session on how best to conduct oral history and preserve documentation, both providing case studies of projects they are involved with. Audience participation and discussion is strongly encouraged once the speakers have concluded.

***********

Registration: €5

This will help cover the costs which include coffee, tea and biscuits to be provided at all breaks, and a lunch of sandwiches to be provided on the Saturday.

In order to provide for catering, we need an estimate of the number of attendees. If you would like to attend, please contact David Convery at david.convery@nuigalway.ie and please also make us aware of any special dietary requirements. If you would like to attend but feel you cannot afford the registration fee, please let us know.

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The Irish Front – Republican Congress in London

IrishFront

 

The Irish diaspora has a long history of involvement in radical politics in Britain. Their contribution to the labour movement in the form of the Chartists, producing leading lights such as Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien; the matchmakers strike in 1888 in East London; the London dockers strike of 1889; the influence of James Connolly and Jim Larkin; and the first Labour Minister for Health in the minority government of 1924 being the Irish-born John Wheatley; is well-established. The Irish have also formed their own branches of home-grown organisations in Britain, such as the IRB, the Gaelic League, and the IRA. I have recently started a postdoc at the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class at NUI Galway which examines the impact Irish independence had on the British working-class in the period 1922-1945. Part of this explores the life and politics of the Irish working-class diaspora in Britain at the time. In the Ireland of this time, arguably one of the most important, and certainly one of the most debated radical organisations to be formed (and fall-apart) was Republican Congress.

Congress was formed as a left-wing split from the IRA in 1934. For a number of years, the left within the IRA, led by Peadar O’Donnell, Frank Ryan, and George Gilmore amongst others, had attempted to reform the organisation in a leftward direction, convinced that the gun alone would not achieve the Republic. The IRA, they believed, needed to take-up social issues, engaged alongside the workers and small farmers in their day-to-day struggles to convince them of the relevance of the fight for the Republic that would bring an improvement to their lives. The IRA had made overtures in this direction with the formation of the socialist-republican Saor Éire in 1931, but the ensuing ‘red scare’ put paid to that venture. After a number of subsequent failed attempts of reform by the left, which culminated in a vote at the 1934 Army Convention, O’Donnell and the others walked out. A conference held in Athlone, County Westmeath on the weekend of 7-8 April issued a manifesto proclaiming the creation of Republican Congress with the call ‘We believe that a Republic of a united Ireland will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots Capitalism on its way.’[1] The momentum behind Republican Congress grew throughout the summer of 1934. Strong branches were created in Achill, Leitrim, Kilkenny, Dublin and Waterford.[2] Congress engaged in many social campaigns to improve the lives of working-class people in Ireland, such as through the creation of the Tenants Leagues to fight for improvements in housing for the slum-dwellers of Dublin. Congress held its inaugural conference at Rathmines town hall from 29-30 September 1934, where, as is well known, it split. First-hand accounts are available from George Gilmore and Patrick Byrne here and here. Despite this, Congress continued to campaign until the end of the decade, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 giving it a new lease of life.

Congress did not just organise in Ireland however, but also had a branch among the Irish diaspora in London. This included many talented individuals who would later go to fight and die in Spain such as Charlie Donnelly, Michael Kelly, and Tommy Patten. The Republican Congress in London even produced its own newspaper, Irish Front. I have been able to locate one copy of this dated 11 May 1935, Issue 5 of Vol 1, which is reproduced here. My apologies for the poor quality, it is a copy of a copy of a copy. From the issue I have found, Irish Front, although poorly-produced, provided a well-informed left analysis of Irish and British issues for the Irish diaspora. Its notices also give a tantalizing glimpse into the political activities of the Irish diaspora in Britain. The London branch of Congress would later fuse with other small organisations in 1938 to create the Connolly Association, an organisation which continues to this day and whose most famous member was the historian C. Desmond Greaves, author of a number of important works on twentieth-century Irish socialist and republican history, including The Life and Times of James Connolly (1961). Irish Front is an important publication in the history of labour and republican radicalism among the Irish in twentieth-century Britain. I appeal to anyone who may know of any other copies that are available, regardless of whether these be in a library or among your personal papers, in whatever quality, to please get in touch with me at

david DOT convery AT nuigalway DOT ie

Thank you, your help is much appreciated!

[1] George Gilmore, The Irish Republican Congress (Cork: The Cork Workers’ Club, 1978), p. 30.

[2] Patrick Byrne, The Irish Republican Congress Revisited (London: Connolly Publications Ltd, 1994), pp. 21-22.

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Filed under British History, Irish History, Labour History, Literature, Social History, Socialism, Spanish Civil War, Twentieth Century

‘Viva Chile!’ Remembering 11 September 1973

Allende addresses a crowd

Salvador Allende addresses a crowd

History cannot be stopped by either repression or crime.

Salvador Allende, 11 September 1973

On 11 September 1973 troops moved into position in the major cities of Chile, occupying telecommunications, water and electricity plants, securing road and rail junctions and surrounding the presidential palace in Santiago, La Moneda, trapping inside the nation’s president, Salvador Allende.

Allende had been voted into the office of president in September 1970, his left-wing coalition Popular Unity (UP) having secured 36.6 per cent in the popular ballot. The UP was composed and dominated by the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, along with smaller left-wing organisations and the centrist Radical Party. It was elected on a broad progressive programme that advocated widespread agrarian reform, increased provision to health and education for the poor in the cities and the countryside, and the nationalisation of the key sector of the economy, the copper industry, controlled by US companies. These reforms would be accompanied by the gradual introduction of worker and community representatives in the decision-making process in the workplace and in state institutions. This top-down ‘revolution’ was dubbed the Chilean road to socialism. Despite the seemingly narrow victory for Allende himself, this programme was very similar to the one advocated by the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), although not carried out in practice while it was in government. Embarking on the election campaign with similar policies, the PDC candidate received 27.8 per cent of the vote.  These suggested reforms then, had a far wider base in society than the vote for Allende at first suggests. The bill to nationalise the copper industry, advocated by Allende for the past thirty years, had become such a widely accepted idea that it was passed unanimously in Congress and signed into law on 22 November 1970. Not everything would go so smoothly.

Allende’s reforms threatened the vested interests not only of the Chilean elite, but also of the United States. The US had since the early nineteenth century pursued a policy of domination in what it called ‘its own backyard’, i.e. Latin America, as advocated in the Monroe Doctrine, exploiting the continent’s resources for its own benefit through clientelist relations with often corrupt governments. The Cold War exacerbated these tendencies, prompting major investment in finance for right-wing media and political parties, and overt and covert military training to stop the spread of what it called ‘communism’ in Latin America. Any mildly reformist government in the region posed a threat to the US domination of the continent’s resources, and so could be tarred with the communist brush and overthrown as with Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. The success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 inspired thousands of Latin Americans, and intensified US concern with the region. Thus the CIA spent between $800,000 and $1,000,000 trying to stop the election of the UP in 1970. When this alone failed to have the desired effect, a new strategy was required.

President Nixon famously instructed his people to ‘make the economy scream’, and ordered the CIA to begin preparing for what was called ‘Track II’ – a military coup. Right-wing terrorist groups funded by the CIA carried out bomb attacks, kidnappings and assassinations, assigning blame to left-wing paramilitary groups in order to create a climate of fear. Despite this, the UP increased its vote in the municipal elections of April 1971 to over 50 per cent. Violence intensified between left groups and the fascistic ‘Land and Liberty’ group, and street demonstrations involving the wealthy became common. In October 1972, a national transport strike organised and supported by business, the PDC and largely funded by the CIA inflicted large damage on the economy. Allende rallied hundreds of thousands of people to voluntarily transport goods, consolidating his own base, but the failure of the strike also  intensified the calls for a coup among the right. In many ways Allende was too wedded to the idea of freedom of speech, and naive regarding the role of the military. In March 1972, documents were released demonstrating efforts by US multinational ITT to undermine the UP government, supported by the CIA and right-wing groups in Chile. Throughout that year, sections of the media openly called for a coup, but Allende failed to sanction them. Furthermore, Allende had an unwavering belief in the constitutionalism of the Chilean military, and failed to significantly reform it during his time in office. During the transport strike, he even appointed three military men to cabinet. Despite an unsuccessful coup attempt by the 2nd Armoured Regiment on 29 July 1973, defeated by officers loyal to the government, Allende failed to act. This lack of action would in the end undermine him.

In the weeks following, more and more officers loyal to the government were replaced in their positions by supporters of a coup. On 11 September 1973, upon the orders of General Pinochet, they struck.

allende moneda

Allende defends La Moneda

At 6 a.m. naval forces took the port city of Valparaiso, and cut communications with Santiago. At 8 a.m. the military moved in the capital. The coup was relatively quick and bloody. Allende, however, holed up in La Moneda with a group of defenders, refused to surrender. At 9.15 a.m., Allende gave his last speech to the nation:

This will surely be my last opportunity to address you. The Air Force has bombed the towers of Radio Portales and Radio Corporación. My words contain not bitterness, just disappointment. They should stand as a moral castigation of those who have been traitors to their oaths: Chilean soldiers, titular commanders-in-chief, Admiral Merino, who has designated himself commander of the Navy, and even more señor Mendoza, the cringing general who only yesterday manifested his fidelity and loyalty to the Government, and who also has named himself Director General of the Carabineros. In the face of these deeds it only falls to me to say to the workers: I shall not resign!

Standing at a historic point, I will repay with my life the loyalty of the people. And I say to you that I am certain that the seed we have planted in the worthy conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans, cannot be reaped at one stroke. They have the power, they can make us their vassals, but they cannot stop the social processes, neither by crime nor by force. History is ours, and it is made by the people.

Workers of my country: I want to thank you for the loyalty you have always had, the confidence you placed in a man who was only the interpreter of great yearnings for justice, who pledged his word to respect the Constitution and the law, and who did so. In this final moment, the last in which I will be able to address myself to you, I want you to take advantage of the lesson: foreign capital and imperialism, united with reaction, created the climate for the Armed Forces to break their tradition, which they were taught by general Schneider and which was reaffirmed by commander Araya, victims of the same social sector that today will be be expecting, with an alien hand, to reconquer the power to continue defending their profits and their privileges.

I address myself to you, above all to the modest woman of our land, to the campesina who believed in us, the mother who knew of our concern for the children. I address myself to the professionals of the nation, to the patriotic professionals who continued working against the sedition overseen by their professional academies, classist academies that also defended the advantages of a capitalist society.

I address myself to the youth, to those who sang and who brought their happiness and their spirit to the fight. I address myself to the man of Chile, to the worker, to the campesino, to the intellectual, to those who will be persecuted, because in our country fascism has now been present for several hours; in the terrorist assassinations, blowing up the bridges, cutting the railways, destroying the oil and gas pipelines, in the face of the silence of those who had the obligation to behave.

They too were committed. History will judge them.

Radio Magallanes will surely be silenced and the calm metal of my voice will no longer reach you. That is not important. You will continue to hear me. I will always be with you. At least my memory will be that of a man of dignity who was loyal to the nation.

The people should defend themselves, but not sacrifice themselves. The people should not allow themselves be subdued or persecuted, but neither should they humble themselves.

Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will go beyond this grey and bitter moment when treason tries to impose itself upon us. Continue to know that, much sooner than later, we will reopen the great promenades down which free men pass, to construct a better society.

Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!

These are my last words and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the least, I will be a moral lesson to castigate felony, cowardice, and treason.

Following his speech, Allende released anyone not in state service. Meanwhile, he and a few others, remained to defend the building. As fighter jets bombed La Moneda, and helicopters fired tear gas through the flames, Allende and his  cohort fired from the windows at the attackers. When the ammunition was spent, he ordered the surrender of the remaining defenders to spare their lives while he closed the door behind him, and refusing to surrender, committed suicide.

Allende's glasses, discovered in the ruins of La Moneda. Author's photo.

Allende’s glasses, discovered in the ruins of La Moneda. Author’s photo.

In the massacre that followed, thousands were rounded up, tortured and executed, most famously in the National Stadium in Santiago, as graphically depicted in the 1982 film Missing. Amongst these was the popular Chilean folk singer Victor Jara. Thousands more simply ‘disappeared’, a practice to become common in Latin America over the next two decades. Hundreds of thousands more were forced into exile, including the playwright Ariel Dorfman and the film-maker Patricio Guzman, director of The Battle of Chile which documents the three years of the UP government and the Pinochet coup, and the 2004 documentary Salvador Allende.

Pinochet’s junta, with the assistance of US advisors including the ‘Chicago Boys’, would become an experimental ground for what would be termed ‘neo-liberalism’. Privatisations of areas including health and education would become the norm, lauded by Reagan and Thatcher. Despite the transition to democracy in 1990, the effect of the coup and dictatorship is still strongly felt in Chile.

Statue of Allende keeps watch over La Moneda. Author's photo.

Statue of Allende keeps watch over La Moneda. Author’s photo.

Forty years on, Allende and the UP continue to inspire. A statue of Allende now keeps watch over La Moneda, and the efforts of the UP have been emulated to an extent by a new wave of left-leaning governments throughout the continent. Forty years on, it is important that we remember not only the coup, but the  efforts of millions in Chile and throughout Latin America to change society for the benefit of the majority, and that we learn from their experiences. In this way, the disappeared will not have vanished.

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Filed under Chile, Communism, Labour History, Latin America, Memory, Social History, Socialism, Twentieth Century

Locked Out: A Century of Irish Working-Class Life

Locked Out: A Century of Irish Working-Class Life

Locked Out: A Century of Irish Working-Class Life

In 1913, a titanic battle gripped the city of Dublin that polarised Irish society. The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, led by Jim Larkin, took on the might of one of the biggest Irish capitalists of the day, William Martin Murphy. What began as a strike over union recognition in Murphy’s Dublin United Tramway Company quickly escalated, as Murphy, backed by the state and the Dublin Employers’ Federation, declared all-out war on the trade union movement. Despite tremendous efforts, the workers went down to a bitter defeat. Historians and other commentators have tended to view the 1913 Lockout as a tragic, but unique case in Irish history. However, its uniqueness lies mainly in its scale. The working class continued to exist after 1913. It continued to develop its own organisations, its own cultural and leisure activities, its own forms of self-representation and identity. It also continued to engage in strike action and other forms of protest against the employers and ruling establishment. Yet the study of an independent working class has been neglected in favour of an all-embracing focus on nationalism in politics, culture and wider society. That class, rather than ethnicity, religion, or the idea of national identity could have a role to play in politics and cultural production is an alien one to mainstream Irish debate. The working class has been locked out of history.

Locked Out: A Century of Irish Working-Class Life offers a different perspective. Written by a new generation of scholars,  it aims to commemorate the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout and to advance Irish labour history in new and innovative ways. Locked Out grapples with subjects as varied as working-class literature, music, sport, factory life, gang-culture, poverty, emigration and institutional abuse. In doing so, it illustrates the richness and complexity of Irish working-class identity, history and culture over the past century and its centrality to an understanding of contemporary Irish history and society.

Locked Out will be available shortly from all good book stores and online retailers such as amazon.

Contents

Introduction – David Convery

  1. ‘Your only God is profit’: Irish class relations and the 1913 Lockout – Conor McCabe
  2. Uniting the Working Class: History, Memory and 1913 – David Convery
  3. Andrew Patrick Wilson and the Irish Worker, 1912-13 – James Curry
  4. ‘Real Irish Patriots would scorn to recognise the likes of you’: Larkin and Irish-America – Alan J.M. Noonan
  5. Workers show their strength – the 1918 Conscription Crisis – Fiona Devoy McAuliffe
  6. Newsboys and the ‘Animal Gang’ in 1930s Dublin – Donal Fallon
  7. ‘The problem is one not of criminal tendencies, but of poverty’: the NSPCC, John Byrne and the Industrial School System in Ireland – Sarah-Anne Buckley
  8. Pro-Hitler or anti-management? War on the industrial front, Belfast, October 1942 – Christopher J.V. Loughlin
  9. ‘The Brightest Couple of Hours’: The Factory, Inter-House, Inter-Firm and Pubs Leagues of Ireland, 1922-73 – David Toms
  10. ‘I never would return again to plough the rocks of Bawn’:  Irishmen in Post-War Britain – Sara Goek
  11. ‘As if you were something under their shoe’: Class, Gender and Status among Cork Textile Workers, 1930-1970 – Liam Cullinane
  12. From Yeatsian nightmares to Tallafornian dreams: Reflections on classism and culture in ‘classless’ Ireland – Michael Pierse

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Book Launch: The Dynamics of War and Revolution: Cork City, 1916-1918

 

borg

I am pleased to announce the launch of John Borgonovo’s latest book, The Dynamics of War and Revolution: Cork City, 1916-1918 (Cork University Press). John has been a friend of The Dustbin of History since its inception, and his previous works the critically acclaimed Spies, Informers and the Anti-Sinn Féin Society: The Intelligence War in Cork City, 1919-1921 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006) and The Battle for Cork: July-August 1922 (Cork: Mercier, 2011) based on years of painstaking research have offered  penetrating insights into Cork in the revolutionary period. His work has become an important facet of the ongoing historiographical debate concerning the IRA and violence at this time.  This book is set to add significantly to our understanding of the dynamics of the revolution and violence in Cork by exploring its origins in the effect of the First World War on Irish society.

The book will be launched by Professor Gearoid Ó Tuathaigh on

Thursday 23 May 2013

at 6pm 

in

The Aula Maxima

University College Cork

Drinks will be served

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Unravelling the Enigma?

Film Review of The Enigma of Frank Ryan

Directed by Des Bell

Starring: Dara Devaney, Barry Barnes, Mia Gallagher, Frankie McCafferty

The Enigma of Frank Ryan film still taken from http://enigmafrankryan.com/

The Enigma of Frank Ryan film still taken from http://enigmafrankryan.com/

Frank Ryan is a figure who consistently inspires comment and interest despite the rather small role he played in Irish history. Famous left-republican leader and Gaelic scholar in the 1920s and 1930s, Ryan led the Irish who fought for the Spanish Republic against Franco during the Spanish Civil War until his capture in March 1938. The abiding interest however, concerns the question of what Ryan, famous anti-fascist leader, was doing in Nazi Germany during the Second World War? This is the central question the aptly titled ‘The Enigma of Frank Ryan’ seeks to address.

The narrative of the film situates itself around Ryan’s time in Berlin, where, through flashbacks, Ryan examines his previous life in Ireland and Spain. Combining dramatic reconstructions sliced with real archival footage, the film overall is an interesting and enjoyable one. From certain newspaper headlines previewing the film I had the impression that Ryan’s life would be dealt with in simplistic black and white terms – Frank Ryan, Nazi collaborator, end of story. However, upon viewing, I was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case. The director Desmond Bell has avoided the easy route of sensationalism, and has instead provided a nuanced portrait of Ryan’s time in Berlin.

Released from Burgos jail into the hands of the Nazis in July 1940, Ryan found himself seemingly a free man in Berlin. Bell does well in portraying the ambiguities of Ryan’s situation. Initially, Ryan does not know what interest the Nazis have in him until he is brought to a meeting with Seán Russell, IRA Chief-of-Staff. Russell, a purely military man, is in Germany to seek assistance for the IRA from the Nazis – my enemy’s enemy is my friend – and wants to bring Ryan back to Ireland with him. Ryan chastises Russell for seeking help from the Nazis, but accepts his offer of a trip home to Ireland via U-boat when Russell assures him that he is only offering Ryan a way home, nothing more. Nevertheless, when Russell dies en-route, Ryan decides to return to Berlin. Here the Nazis keep him in order to use him in the event of an invasion of Ireland – by Britain or Germany. Ryan is therefore not a prisoner, but nor is he simply free to do as he pleases. Yet Ryan is never shown as collaborating with the Nazis. He never acknowledges the ‘Heil Hitler’ greeting, refuses to be used for a propaganda broadcast to Ireland, and seeks answers to the purpose of the concentration camps. Although there is no evidence for any of this, nor is there any real evidence that Ryan directly assisted the Nazis, and Bell uses his artistic license well to develop scenarios which appear balanced, and assist in portraying the confusing and complicated situation Ryan found himself in.

Despite this, the same standards are not applied to the rest of the film. Ryan’s life in Ireland and Spain is incredibly condensed and abounds with unnecessary historical inaccuracies.  This is to the detriment of the film as a whole, which appears rushed and sloppy. No real effort is made to develop the character of anyone other than Ryan, and coupled with bad acting, ensures that everyone comes off as one-dimensional caricatures. It is to be expected in a biographical film that certain parts of a person’s life must take precedence over others. It is also reasonable that a director should be able to change aspects of the history in order to develop the plot. For instance, the relationship/conflict between Ryan and Russell looms larger in the film than it did in real life. In my opinion, this is a valid reworking in order to prepare the audience for their encounter in Germany, and so assists in telling the overall story. Similarly, although it would have been better if more attention was paid to the reasons behind Ryan’s disillusionment with the IRA and the development of Republican Congress, it is reasonable that this is condensed in order that more time is devoted to examining his life in Germany. What is unacceptable however, are inaccuracies where none need exist. There are small mistakes, such as incorrectly dating the Eucharistic Congress to 1934 instead of 1932 which can be forgiven. The main inaccuracies concern Ryan’s time in Spain, by far the weakest part of the film. Not only are Ryan’s fellow International Brigaders reduced to a status commensurable with those of unthinking puppets, there are so many inaccuracies here that a historian could be forgiven for thinking that the makers of the film took no more than a cursory glance at the material concerning Spain. To give two small examples; we see Ryan walking over the Pyrenees in December 1936 when in fact he was driven over and we see Rosamund Jacob pleading with Ryan when he is home in Ireland in May 1937 not to go back, saying the International Brigades are being disbanded – this was not announced until the end of September 1938. We also see the bust-up between the British and Irish at their base, as well as the battle of Jarama, grossly oversimplified when the reality would have provided a much more entertaining and believable film. The Blueshirts never appear, and General O’Duffy, who led some 700 Irishmen on the side of Franco, is only once casually mentioned by Ryan, when no reference has previously been made to explain him and what he represented. We are consequently faced with the most serious fault that no real attempt is made to explain why Ryan left to fight in Spain in the first place.  My concern is that someone watching this film with no knowledge of the context would get the impression that Ryan left simply because he was hot-headed and needed to be in the middle of any fight going.

Having said this, the film is worth seeing, and Bell is to be congratulated for bringing Ryan’s story to the screen. One cannot help but feel however that a chance has been missed to provide an entertaining as well as an accurate and educational account of Ryan’s life.

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Filed under Communism, Fascism, Historiography, Irish History, Memory, Reviews, Spanish Civil War, Twentieth Century

There’s a valley in Spain… Commemorating the Battle of Jarama

6th Memorial March Battle of Jarama

The legacy of the civil war is everywhere to be seen in Spain. All one needs to do is scratch the surface. I spent the past weekend in Madrid to attend a series of events organised by the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AABI – Friends of the International Brigades) around the battle of Jarama in February 1937. Staying in a pension in central Madrid, I was reminded as soon as I began speaking to the receptionist that the civil war continues to polarise contemporary Spanish society. After asking whether I was here for business or a holiday, I opted for the former, saying I was a historian researching the civil war. As soon as he pointed out to me that the church opposite had been used as an arms dump by the ‘reds’, I knew which side he supported. Nevertheless, I was curious to find out more about the local landscape and he pointed out some interesting sites to me. When he mentioned Paracuellos, we began a discussion on Santiago Carrillo, a communist and leader of the Socialist/Communist Youth who was allegedly responsible for the massacre of more than 2000 mostly right-wing prisoners when Madrid was threatened by the attack of columns of Nationalist forces in November 1936. The receptionist’s attitude was further reinforced when he said that some say Carrillo set out to start the civil war – a grand piece of historical distortion. Carrillo was a relatively minor player until the siege of Madrid in November, four months after the war had started.[1]

That night I attended a very moving book launch of the Spanish translation of Laurie Levinger’s book Love and Revolutionary Greetings: An Ohio Boy in the Spanish Civil War, compiled using the letters and stories home of her uncle Sam, who died aged 20 in the war. On Friday morning, I set out with two busloads of British, Irish and a sprinkling of other nationalities, for the march to identify the positions of the British and Lincoln battalions on the battlefield of Jarama.

The first thing to note is that the battlefield is immense, and the positions of the British and Lincoln battalions, though important in the grand scheme of the battle, especially the British, occupy a relatively small part of the overall battlefield. On the way through the barren, rusty landscape south of Madrid, passing by bare rockfaces and olive groves, we passed to our left, the Arganda bridge. It was here that on 11 February the Francoist Nationalist columns attacked, killing the French sentries but encountering stiff resistance from the Italian Garibaldi Battalion of the XII International Brigade. That same day, the XV International Brigade commanded by General Gal, were moved up the line, consisting of the British Battalion on the left, the Franco-Belge 6th of February Battalion in the centre and the mostly Balkan Dimitrov Battalion on the right.

The Nationalist frontal attack on Madrid had been repulsed by mid-December 1936. Attacks from the north continued but were repulsed in January 1937. Franco decided to cut the city off instead. The Jarama offensive was designed to cut the Madrid – Valencia road to the south of the capital, cutting off the central government which had moved to Valencia during the siege of November 1936. The attack, which began on 6 February 1937, was meant to coincide with an Italian-led assault at Guadalajara which would surround the city completely. This action was delayed, but Franco decided to press on at Jarama regardless.

The Cookhouse

The British Battalion began their campaign on the morning of 12 February at a farm building which became their cookhouse, sheltered at the rear of the battlefield. It was from here that we began our march to their positions, guided by Danny Payne of the UK-based International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT) and Seve Montero of the AABI.

We rambled over the hilly dry landscape passing dug-outs created in a gully etched into the side of a hill. It was here that the South African sculptor Jason Gurney, who was a runner for the battalion, described finding books, clothing, ammunition and personal belongings abandoned by those who thought they would be back later to collect them.[2] The ensuing slaughter ensured they wouldn’t.

Dugout

We ascended the hills to a plateau which commanded a superb view over the landscape. To the south, we could see in the distance the village of Morata de Tajuña, which played a key role in the battle. On the hill immediately opposite to the north on our right, we saw the area which had been the headquarters of the brigades, now marked by an imposing clasped pair of fists visible for kilometres around.

View from the plateau. The monument at the International Brigade HQ is visible behind the trees on top of the ridge in the left background. The smoke rising in the centre background is from Morata.

We continued our march over the plateau along a dirt track through the olive groves, passing by what became the positions of the Lincoln battalion late in February, of which more later, before reaching the area of the main fighting of the British Battalion. It was here that the slaughter of Jarama took place.

The British Battalion at Jarama

Most of the fighters had little training, received over a period of only a few weeks at their base in Madrigueras. Some had only first fired a rifle the previous day. They had no artillery, air or tank support. Their personal supplies were not much better. The British Battalion was composed of three infantry companies of 200 soldiers each, and a machine-gun company armed with heavy maxims and a few light French Chauchet machine guns, described as useless by most eyewitnesses.[3] These poorly-trained, poorly armed volunteers, most who had never left their homes in Britain and Ireland, were now the front line defence against a well-equipped, trained and merciless assault by Franco’s elite Moroccan regulares. Their defence initially proved a disaster.

View from the machine-gun company

The view from the position of the machine-gun company. White House hill is visible in the left centre, with conical hill just visible slightly beyond and to its right, with the beginning of the incline of the knoll visible to the right.

George Leeson, who was in command of a section of the machine-gun company, claimed they did not even know whether they were on the offensive or defensive.[4] They had no maps of the area, and soon after they began to descend into the valley, they came under fire from the Nationalists, whom the Republican command had not realised had already crossed the river.[5] James Maley from Glasgow described how as they advanced, others came running past them retreating from their positions and some of their own men started to drop, killed before they could fire a shot.[6] They pulled back and took up positions. The machine-gun company was placed with a commanding view of the gulley and in front of it lay a ridge of land where the three infantry companies were positioned on distinctive features of the landscape. To the left was White House hill, after the white-painted building on top of it, to the centre was conical hill, and to the right lay the knoll. This whole area, but particularly the conical hill and White House hill, would soon become known as ‘Suicide Hill.’ The machine-gun company soon realised that it had been given the wrong ammunition, and so it was left to the three infantry companies to hold off the attack.[7]

Kit Conway

Kit Conway

Kit Conway memorial cairn located at the position of the machine-gun company.

Kit Conway memorial cairn located at the position of the machine-gun company.

No. 1 Company under the command of ex-IRA member Kit Conway from County Tipperary, initially held in reserve, was sent up the line to give much needed experienced assistance. The attack by the Nationalists was unrelenting. Man after man fell, and the companies were decimated. No. 4 Company fell back, as did No. 3. The ridge, now held mostly by No. 1 Company, came under a constant heavy fire, the ‘thin grass and weeds on the crest of the hill were being slowly mown down, as if a gigantic scythe was passing and repassing, by bullets from the machine-guns of the Moors and machine-guns of the Germans.’[8] The situation on the hill was frantic, as described by Jim Prendergast:

My rifle is soon burning hot. ‘Kit’ comes over. I notice his face with lanes of sweat running through the dust. He hands me a note. It is from Brigade H.Q. telling us that we must hold out at all costs. . . . Somebody calls my name. It is Pat Smith. Blood streams from his head and arm. Tom Jones of Wexford is there. Good man, Tom. Always dresses a man where he falls. A hero. He tells me Goff and Daly are hit. I reach the hill-crest where ‘Kit’ is directing fire. He is using a rifle himself and pausing every while to give instructions. Suddenly, he shouts, his rifle spins out of his hand, and he falls back. . . .  His voice is broken with agony. ‘Do your best boys, hold on!’ Tears glisten in our eyes. . . . ‘Kit’ is taken away. . . . I see Fascist tanks rolling up the road to the right. The Moors are sweeping us front and flanks. We’ll never hold out now. I move to a firing-position. Suddenly, I am lifted of [sic] my feet. Something terrific has hit me in the side. I cannot breathe. . . . In the ambulance I meet ‘Kit’. He is in terrible agony, and can talk little. ‘How are the rest?’ is his constant question . . .

Next morning they told me our great leader was dead.[9]

The ridge was evacuated but just as Moroccan troops were coming over, the machine-gun company which had managed to acquire the right ammunition, opened fire: ‘You never saw a slaughter like it. They went down like corn.’[10] At the end of that first day, less than half the battalion remained and political commissars had to intervene to convince some to stay and hold the line.[11]

Conical Hill as viewed from White House hill.

The pressure continued the following day as the Dimitrov and the Franco-Belge battalions drew further back leaving the British Battalion surrounded on three sides. No. 4 Company panicked and retreated, leaving the machine-gun company exposed, which was then surrounded and captured almost wholesale.[12] In total, thirty men had fallen captive.[13] The third day of the battle began with the Nationalists advancing with a tank attack, driving the battalion well back: ‘The left flank broke, and the rout spread to the whole line. The slaughter was terrible. One would see five men running abreast, and four of them suddenly crumple up.’[14] They fell back to a sunken road where they were told by Lieutenant Colonel Gal that they were the only men between the Nationalists and the capture of the road.[15] Frank Ryan and Jock Cunningham had the unenviable job of rousing the remaining men to counter-attack. Ryan describes the scene:

The crowd behind us was marching silently. The thoughts in their minds could not be inspiring ones. I remembered a trick of the old days when we were holding banned demonstrations. I jerked my head back: ‘Sing up, ye sons o’ guns!’

Quaveringly at first, then more lustily, then in one resounding chant the song rose from the ranks. Bent backs straightened; tired legs thumped sturdily; what had been a routed rabble marched to battle again as proudly as they had done three days before. And the valley resounded to their singing

‘Then comrades, come rally,

And the last fight let us face;

The Internationale

Unites the human race.’

On we marched, back up the road, nearer and nearer to the front. Stragglers still in retreat down the slopes stopped in amazement, changed direction and ran to join us; men lying exhausted on the roadside jumped up, cheered, and joined the ranks. I looked back. Beneath the forest of upraised fists, what a strange band! Unshaven, unkempt; bloodstained, grimy. But, full of fight again, and marching on the road back.

French soldiers joined, as did Spanish and soon they reached the ridge.[16] Here they held the line, and from then this particular part of the front remained more or less the same for the next two years.

The Lincoln Battalion

On 16 February, the new Lincoln Battalion was sent to Jarama. The battalion, based at the village of Villanueva de la Jara near Albacete, consisted of two companies of infantry, plus a machine-gun company, medical and kitchen staff and an armoury section, numbering 550 people in total.[17] The Irish who had transferred from the British Battalion in January formed the ‘James Connolly Unit’, which comprised one of three sections of the first company.[18] From the beginning, the battalion had difficulties finding an experienced and competent leadership. The role of commissar changed hands multiple times and although the battalion was officially led by Captain James Harris, he quickly proved himself inept and in practice, it would be his adjutant Robert Merriman, a 27-year-old economist, who would lead them into battle.[19]

After a day at the nearby village of Morata, the battalion was moved up to reserve lines, where they faced five days of continual bombardment. The Americans had recently arrived in Spain, and had received only minimal training. Nevertheless, on 23 February they were ordered to make their first attack. As with the first attack of the British Battalion, it was a disaster. John Tisa gives the following vivid description:

From tree to tree into open fields, with nothing but the roots of grapevines for shelter, we now charged more rapidly, vainly seeking cover, over the soft ground heavily raked by enemy fire. We had plenty of grenades, but they were useless unless we could get close to the enemy. To make matters worse, while we were charging and approaching enemy positions, a rapid and relentless machine-gun cross fire zeroed in on us. . . . I felt so useless that I wondered out loud, at the top of my voice, ‘What am I doing here?’ But a quick glance around and I saw some of my comrades in even worse shape. A little guy to my right, whose face I couldn’t see, was frantically churning the ground with his bare hands, ripping his skin and tearing off his fingernails. Another lay behind a stump clutching his rifle and trying to shrivel himself to nothing to avoid being spotted. It was impossible to advance further.[20]

In the end, they had to retreat to their original positions. Despite twenty killed and sixty wounded, it had all been for nothing.[21]

Charlie Donnelly

Charlie Donnelly

On 27 February, reinforced by seventy new arrivals, they were ordered to advance again towards positions strongly held by the Nationalists.[22] They were promised artillery, air and tank support as well as the support of a Spanish battalion all of which failed to materialise. Their commander Robert Merriman pleaded with Vladimir Čopić, the commissar of the Brigade, that advancing under such conditions was pointless, but Čopić persisted and they advanced straight into a slaughter.[23] Only 150 of the 263 men who went into battle were still standing the next day.[24] Tyrone-born poet and Republican Congress member Charlie Donnelly was killed in this action. A witness described his dying words, destined to become famous in Ireland as a poetic description of the Spanish Civil War:

We run for cover. Charles Donnelly, Commander of the Irish Company, is crouched behind an olive tree. He has picked up a bunch of olives from the ground and is squeezing them. I hear him say quietly, between a lull of machine-gun fire ‘Even the olives are bleeding.’ A bullet got him square in the temple a few minutes later.[25]

The order to advance had been suicidal and led to major grumblings among the troops.[26] After this battle, the lines settled down and the brigades had to do battle with boredom and disease more than the enemy.

'Even the olives were bleeding'. The position through which the Lincoln Battalion advanced on 27 February 1937.

‘Even the olives are bleeding’. The position through which the Lincoln Battalion advanced on 27 February 1937.

In total, fourteen Irish would die at Jarama from February to June 1937. Most died in the initial battles in February but there were some casualties in other minor skirmishes too.

Charlie Donnelly memorial at Rivas Vaciamadrid

Charlie Donnelly memorial at Rivas Vaciamadrid

After our march over the battlefield, the Irish went to visit the memorial erected in 2010 in memory of Charlie Donnelly in Rivas Vaciamadrid, overlooking the Arganda bridge.

The sixth annual Jarama march

Route of 6th Jarama March

Route of 6th Jarama March

The next day, Saturday 17 February, was the official sixth annual Jarama march, this time in memory of the French-speaking volunteers organised in the four battalions of the XIV International Brigade, and the Commune de Paris battalion of the XI IB, the André Marty of the XII IB, and the Six Fevrier of the XV IB. This march took us beyond the points occupied by the British and Lincoln battalions. My knowledge of the French positions is not as in-depth as of the XV Brigade so I cannot give an accurate account of their role in the battle.

Part of the Jarama march

Part of the Jarama march

International Brigade Memorial

International Brigade Memorial

We marched to the HQ of the International Brigades visible on a ridge off to the west. When we reached the top with a commanding view of the area to the south, east and north, and the Lincolns’ position to the west it was a truly stunning sight. Deep trenches hacked into the stony ground are still visible. The towering rusty-coloured monument to the International Brigades of two clasped fists formed the backdrop in which about 300 people mingled – representatives of the IBMT from the UK, Irish representatives of the newly-formed umbrella group Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland, comprising groups which have organised memorials in Belfast, Tyrone, and Wexford, and others from Dublin, Armagh, Derry and representatives of the Limerick International Brigade Memorial Trust who are currently seeking permission to erect a memorial in Limerick. With these were members of the French Amis des Combattants en Espagne Républicaine (ACER – Friends of the Combatants in Republican Spain), a Danish man whose two uncles fought in Spain, as well as a sprinkling of Americans and multitudes of Spanish people from every left background – communists, socialists, anarchists and liberal republicans. Guests of honour were the Almudévar brothers, Joseph and Vicente, French of Spanish birth who fought in the civil war, Juan Antonio Mayoral who was a member of the Spanish Republican army during the war, and Luz Alonso, a republican of the civil war years.

Memorial at Morata cemetery

Memorial at Morata cemetery

After a lunch in Morata in restaurant Mesón El Cid which is located on the site of the former field hospital of the battle, we visited the Jarama museum, which houses thousands of artefacts found strewn over the site from bullets and tin cans to medals and pieces of shrapnel. After this, we visited the cemetery at Morata, which was the site of a mass grave of Spanish republicans and International Brigaders, and of a memorial unveiled in 1994 after a campaign by International Brigaders François Mazou from France and Bob Doyle from Ireland. Claire Rol-Tanguy, daughter of Colonel Henry Rol-Tanguy, political commissar of the XIV IB, laid a bouquet of flowers in the vibrant purple, yellow and red of the Spanish Republic’s flag.

Driving through the central square on the way out of Morata, we passed by the headquarters of the local fascist Falange, proudly displaying its symbol of a bundle of arrows. In some places, one doesn’t even need to scratch the surface.


[1] For a discussion of the massacre of prisoners, see Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (London: Harper Press, 2012), pp. 357-369.

[2] Jason Gurney, Crusade in Spain (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), pp. 103-4.

[3] Patrick Curry, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive (IWMSA) File 799/3/1.

[4] George Leeson, IWMSA 803/4/2.

[5] Richard Baxell, British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War: The British Battalion in the International Brigades, 1936-1939, (2nd ed. Torfaen: Warren & Pell,  2007), p. 76.

[6] James Maley, IWMSA 11947/3/1.

[7] Baxell, British Volunteers, pp. 77-8.

[8] Tom Wintringham, English Captain (London: Faber and Faber, 1939), p. 170.

[9] James Prendergast, ‘How “Kit” Conway Died’, in Frank Ryan (ed.), The Book of the XV Brigade: Records of British, American, Canadian, and Irish Volunteers in the XV International Brigade in Spain 1936-1938 (Torfaen: Warren & Pell, 2003), p. 66.

[10] Fred Copeman, IWMSA 794/13/2.

[11] Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty: Spain 1936-1939 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1982), p. 97, says that less than half the battalion remained, while John Bosco Jones, IWMSA 9392/6/3, says political commissars had to intervene.

[12] Baxell, British Volunteers, p. 80. It has been suggested by many who were there that the men were tricked by the Morrccans, who came up the ridge singing the Internationale, to join the side of the Republicans. The men downed arms and when the enemy arrived it was too late. This rather fanciful account is refuted by others. See Baxell, British Volunteers, pp. 81-2 for an analysis of the accounts.

[13] Three of those captured were shot, but the rest were taken shunted from prison to prison – San Martín de la Vega to Navalcarnero to Talavera de la Reina, where ill-fed, cold, and with poor sanitation, they were put to work, mostly on the roads. In May 1937, they were sent to Salamanca where five were sentenced to death. However, the executions were not carried out and all the men were eventually freed. See J.R. ‘Prisoners of Franco’, in Frank Ryan (ed.), Book of XV International Brigade, p. 198-200; George Leeson IWMSA 803/4/2-3 and Baxell, British Volunteers, pp. 115-118.

[14] O.R.,‘Third Day: The Tank Attack’, in Frank Ryan (ed.), Book of XV International Brigade, p. 57.

[15] Phil Gillan, IWMSA 12150/4/4 .

[16] F.R. [Frank Ryan], ‘The Great Rally’, in Frank Ryan (ed.), Book of XV International Brigade, p. 60.

[17] John Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight: An autobiography of the Spanish Civil War (South Hadley, Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey, 1985), pp. 23-4.

[18] Arthur H. Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade (New York: The Citadel Press, 1967), pp. 32-3.

[19] See Peter Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 94-99.

[20] John Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, pp. 42-43.

[21] Peter Carroll, Odyssey, p. 99.

[22] Ibid., p. 100.

[23] Marion Merriman and Walter Lerude, American Commander in Spain: Robert Hale Merriman and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1986), pp. 106-110.

[24] Carroll, Odyssey, p. 102.

[25] Quote from pamphlet ‘Hello Canada’, produced by the Friends of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, 1937 and cited in Michael O’Riordan’s notes ‘Ireland and the Spanish Anti-Fascist Struggle’, November 1966, p. 17, International Brigade Memorial Archive, Marx Memorial Library, London, Box 21 File O’R/1.

[26] Anonymous, The Story of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (New York: Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 1938), p. 24, cited in Merriman and Lerude, American Commander, pp. 112-3. For details of this and other actions of the Lincoln battalion at Jarama, see ‘Interview with Marty Hourihan, Commander of Lincoln Battalion from March 9 to July 4, later second in command of all English speaking battalions in XV Brigade. Villa Paz, Aug. 16, 1937’, RGASPI 545/6/912/41-44.

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