Category Archives: British History

Reading History: The Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland

In a now famous injunction, E.H. Carr in his classic text What Is History? suggests that if you want to know the historian, then you should know their history. While Carr meant this in terms of the politics that will have informed the historian, I’m using it in this post, as a jumping off point for an extension of Carr’s injunction. More than just knowing the historian’s history, it might be worth knowing their reading history. And so, here’s a short look at one of the history books that I can both recall reading in a vivid way, but which has also survived in a way that many other books I was given over the years has not. Continue reading

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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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Call for Papers: Sport History Ireland 10th Annual Conference.

Here on the Dustbin, I have been responsible for a substantial amount of sport history appearing on the blog since we began. So it is with great pleasure that I post today to bring  to your attention a major milestone in the historical study of sport in Ireland.

On 20th September 2014, St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra will host the 10th Annual Conference of Sport History Ireland, the body set up to encourage and foster scholarly research into Ireland’s sporting past. The history of sport has emerged in Ireland in the ten intervening years as a vital and exciting aspect of much of the new social and cultural history that has emerged in the same period. The call for papers is now open, until the 20th June 2014.This is an event not to be missed. For further details, here’s the poster:Image

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Dónall Mac Amhlaigh and ‘The Middle Nation’

Galway-born Dónall Mac Amhlaigh (1926-1989) is perhaps best known as the author of Dialann Deoraí, first published in 1960 and translated into English as An Irish Navvy, a record of his experiences working in England in the 1950s. This frequently referenced work established him as a dominant voice of Irishmen in Britain, but he left a much broader legacy.[1] Máirín Nic Eoin has written about his works of fiction, most of which have a strong autobiographical bent, but his extensive body of journalistic prose remains largely unexamined.[2] Unfortunately historians and literary scholars alike have even further marginalized his untranslated Irish works due to lack of familiarity or engagement with the language.[3] These omissions seem particularly grave given that Mac Amhlaigh himself expressed dissatisfaction with Dialann Deoraí, calling it ‘a great lost opportunity’ because he felt he did not take full advantage of the ‘rich, virtually unworked subject’.[4] He viewed his last novel, Deoraithe [Exiles], a fictional (though autobiographically-based) treatment of the same topic, as a way to ‘make good’ this earlier fault.[5]

In the intervening years Mac Amhlaigh continued to write prolifically and his journalism shows the development of his social and political consciousness. Between 1966 and 1988 he wrote roughly 200 articles for the Irish Times in both Irish and English. These presented the experience of the Irish in Britain, from the perspective of a working-class urban Gaeilgeoir, primarily to an Irish audience who had remained in Ireland. This post examines a series of three articles published in October 1970 titled ‘The Middle Nation’, which takes the form of observational, and at times sharply critical, social commentary.[6] Mac Amhlaigh seeks to explain the difficult and ambiguous position of the Irish in Britain and in doing so addresses persistent class divisions among the immigrants and differing levels of attachment, or lack thereof, felt by members of that group to their heritage. Though written in 1970 he focused on his own generation, those who had come to Britain in the post-war years, and while the focus on male labourers in Dialann Deoraí has been perceived as homogenizing the image of this cohort, he clearly recognized its diversity.

As the word ‘middle’ in the title suggests, a primary theme of the series is the feeling of liminality, of belonging fully neither to Ireland nor Britain. In the first article Mac Amhlaigh addresses the issue of adjustment to life in Britain, questioning the nature of ‘assimilation’. He lambasts equally the Irish who ape British ways and those who seem in denial of the fact that they live in Britain. The former he stereotypes as:

People who “muck in” in village or suburban life, who get on committees, on dart teams, pay into divvi-clubs for Christmas and go on coach-outings to the seaside where they do a “Knees Up, Mother Brown” as good as any Cockney; who rarely read an Irish paper, bother their heads about Irish affairs, try to tune into Radio Éireann or sing a bit of an Irish song. Men who talk of foreigners, wogs and – so help me, God! – of Paddies, even![7]

Though he admits ‘they are not all so objectionable as this’, what bothers him about them is their ‘complete and wholehearted apostasy’, their abandonment of their Irishness. Though he hesitates to draw firm conclusions without ‘concrete evidence’ of statistics, he suggests that this type of person tends to be of the ‘professional and business’ class.[8] On the other hand,

There are a great many of our people who have never really come to terms with their exile, people to whom after nearly forty years of residence in England the day-old Irish newspaper is of more interest than the Mirror or the Express… who are, in speech and thought and manner, as uncompromisingly Irish as the day they left home… and these are the real casualties of Emigration, the ones who won’t or can’t integrate.[9]

This latter position seems equally reprehensible. What he criticizes in both extreme cases is the failure to acknowledge or even embrace liminal status, the failure to admit (or even take pride in) Irish heritage while also facing the realities of living abroad.

The second part of the title, ‘nation’, also poses somewhat of a paradox because while the term implies a degree of unity, the Irish in Britain comprise a heterogeneous group. Mac Amhlaigh addresses head-on issues of class divisions in the second article in the series, ‘Social Life and the Emigrant’:

It was Honor Tracy, I think, who remarked upon the almost pathological fear of some of the Irish abroad of coming into contact with each other. One would perhaps need to be Irish to appreciate this fully, to understand the vagaries of class-consciousness based less on real rank or wealth than upon an unshakeable belief in one’s superiority to another – however intangible the basis for the assumption (emphasis added).[10]

If attempting to create a ‘nation’ or sense of cohesion among an immigrant group, clearly these divisions carried over from rural Irish society are problematic whether real or imagined. To this he adds factors of ‘apathy, indifference and the traditional Irish failure to agree on things’.[11] He argues that though social organizations existed and the Irish Post (the newspaper of the Irish in Britain) might cover the functions they organized, these were formal rather than ‘free-and-easy’ affairs. From his own experience he suggests that even people from the same locality in Ireland resist associating with one another outside a close group of relatives: ‘without exception, these people will say of each other: A níl aon nádúr ionntab sín, tá siad coimhthioch – “There’s no nature in them, they’re standoffish.”’[12] He feels no compunction in criticizing them for it, for their unwillingness ‘to take the first step’ or to break out of the ‘world of taboos, of inhibitions,’ of the ‘smothering conformity which forbade them to think as individuals’.[13] Clearly he thought life in Britain offered an opportunity to develop new perspectives and lamented the failure of many to embrace that chance.

However, despite these shortcomings in the final article in the series, ‘Finding Our Feet’, Mac Amhlaigh does offer hope of redemption. He believes that Irish immigrants have made progress and argues that they are (in 1970) more comfortable with their place in British society than even a decade previously:

It is very evident that our exiles are fast shedding that extreme touchiness – well enough justified in the past, no doubt, but which sometimes bordered on paranoia – and are now able to make a more mature appraisal of themselves and of their position in what has come to be known as the host community (emphasis added).[14]

He says he has witnessed changing attitudes both of the Irish towards the English and vice versa. This includes ‘a change in our estimation of ourselves’ from ‘a sense of insecurity’ to a feeling of more ‘assurance’. However, the spectre of the Troubles and its potential impact lurked in his mind and he states that ‘barring a worsening of the Northern situation we will become steadily more identifiable with our hosts’.[15] However, this does not imply forgetting their origins and the article concludes with the hope that ‘emigration may continue to fall off and that once more we may be able to restock the great lonely spaces of Ireland,’ evoking the image of emigrants since the famine as ‘the vanishing Irish’ and on the eve of a (brief) reversal of those trends.[16]

Though he attempts to resolve the issue of being both Irish and living in Britain, arguing that dual identity or loyalty is indeed possible, there is still an ambivalence towards always remaining ‘the middle nation’. In an interview in the 1980s he said that ‘most of us, even though we’ve lived in Britain, and seen our children grow up here, could never give our hearts to this country in the same way we could to Australia or New Zealand or some place like that, because of the history’.[17] He says he has no anti-English feelings but, speaking for the Irish in Britain as a whole, there is a lingering sense of equivocation: ‘We have that feeling, on the one hand, of a certain amount of gratitude, if gratitude isn’t misplaced, that we got work here when we couldn’t have got it at home, and on the whole we’ve lived reasonably well here… On the other hand there’s the fact of finding ourselves in a country we might perhaps rather not be in.’[18] He certainly was not alone in expressing this sentiment and Liam Harte argues that ‘the dialectical tension between adherence to a fixed originary identity and the evolution of a flexible, contingent migrant identity’ is one of the ‘central tropes’ in the literature of the Irish in Britain, though each author gives it an individual colour.[19] Mac Amhlaigh’s ‘The Middle Nation’ series is a perceptive example of how the personal reflections contained in his journalism can contribute to our understanding of the experiences of the post-war emigrant generation and its evolving sense of identity. In the now more widely recognized and growing body of writing by and on the Irish in Britain Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s voice remains unique and deserving of attention in its own right.


[1] On Dialann Deoraí see: Bernard Canavan, ‘Story-tellers and Writers: Irish Identity in Emigrant Labourers’ Autobiographies, 1870-1970’, in Patrick O’Sullivan (ed.), The Irish World Wide: History, Heritage, Identity. Vol. 3, The Creative Migrant (Leicester University Press, London, 1994), pp.162-5; Tony Murray, London Irish Fictions (Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2012), pp.79-85; Clair Wills, ‘Realism and the Irish Immigrant: Documentary, Fiction, and Postwar Irish Labor’, Modern Language Quarterly, vol.73, no.3 (Sept. 2012), pp.373-94.

[2] Máirín Nic Eoin, ‘An Scríobhneoir agus an Imirce Éigeantach:  Scrúdú ar Shaothar Cruthaitheach Dhónaill Mhic Amhlaigh’, Oghma 2 (1990), pp.92-104.

[3] Though historians and literary scholars frequently quote and cite An Irish Navvy, it is almost always the English translation rather than the original (as is the case in the works listed in footnote 1).

[4] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, ‘Documenting the Fifties’, Irish Studies in Britain, no.14 (Spring/Summer 1989), p.9.

[5] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, in Nigel Gray (ed.), Writers Talking (London: Caliban Books, 1989), p.181.

[6] The drawings that accompany these articles are also very interesting, but unfortunately copyright prevents me from reproducing them here. They are worth looking up if you have access to the Irish Times via the ProQuest Historical Newspapers archive.

[7] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, ‘The Middle Nation’, Irish Times, 14 Oct. 1970.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, ‘Social Life and the Emigrant’, Irish Times, 15 Oct. 1970.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, ‘Finding Our Feet’, Irish Times, 16 Oct. 1970.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, in Gray (ed.), Writers Talking, p.181.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Liam Harte, ‘“You want to be a British Paddy?”: The Anxiety of Identity in Post-war Irish Migrant Writing’, in Dermot Keogh, Finbarr O’Shea & Carmel Quinlan (eds.), The Lost Decade: Ireland in the 1950s (Mercier, Douglas Village, Cork, 2004), p.234, p.236. He also makes the problematic assertion that ‘while migrant writers of the 1950s such as Dónall Mac Amhlaigh and John B. Keane are primarily concerned with chronicling the loneliness and alienation of the Irish in post-war England, Walter Macken and Tom Murphy focus on the dilemmas faced by migrant protagonists who wish to evolve new narratives of belonging’ (p.238). While that may be true of Dialann Deoraí (the only work of Mac Amhlaigh’s that Harte cites in relation to that statement), it does not hold true for all of Mac Amhlaigh’s later work.

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Teddy Boy “Terrorists” & Mod Invasions: Youth sub-culture in Waterford, 1950-1985

One of the most remarkable books of Irish social history to appear in the past twelve months is Where Were You? by Garry O’Neill, a superb photographic record of youth culture and street style in our capital, Dublin, from 1950 to 2000. The various subcultures the book represents from Teddy Boys through to mods, rockers, punks and skinheads and beyond weren’t exclusively Dublin-centric developments. Although largely imports and imitations of both American and English youth subcultures, all of these were adopted by Irish teenagers and twenty-somethings, as a means of collective and individual expression of difference from their parents. These subcultures were very often also linked to violent and social criminal behaviour. Here, I’m going to take a brief look at some of those in Waterford from the 1950s to the middle of the 1980s.

The Teddy Boy, and Girl, emerged in post-war Britain, a subculture that appropriated Edwardian dress  (hence the shortening to Ted/Teddy) and subverted it through their associations with American Rock ‘n’ Roll and cemented their mythical status as troublemakers through the Blackboard Jungle and Notting Hill riots of respectively, 1956 and 1958. The style of the Teds was imported into Ireland in the same period, and caused panic akin to that in the British press.

The film in particular, so emblematic now of the Teds, was indeed popular in Waterford – being showed at regular intervals in The Coliseum (originally opened as a skating rink in 1910) cinema on Adelphi Quay from 1956-1958, but there seemed to be no desire to imitate the famed riots of their British counterparts among the youth of the south-east. One group of self-styled Teddy Boys in Waterford though in 1956 found themselves up in court for breaking and entering into various city premises and generally terrorising people on the streets; despite pleas of clemency from one of their mothers, one boy, McCarthy, was sentenced to two months in jail. The headline of the report was sensational, calling them Teddy Boy Terrorists:

teddy boys


Teddy Boys were most often referred to in Waterford in relation to more positive stories of youths – with local dignitaries and the clergy happy to be able to provide examples contrary to the behaviour of the Teddy Boys. But soon the Teddy Boys gave way to other emerging youth sub cultures in the early 1960s. Again taking their lead from their British counterparts, the mods and rockers of Ireland attracted the opprobrium of Ireland’s clerical class, as this stern warning from the Bishop of Ossory indicates:

Ossory Warning

Such fear-mongering was largely misplaced and indicative of a failure to understand that even in Ireland, now in the televisual age, would be open to much wider and disparate cultural influences, especially among the young. An article in the Munster Express of June 26, 1965 readily acknowledges this, if lamenting its impact on the fortunes of Irish language and culture by saying that ‘now we have more than Anglicisation: we now have world-wide Americanisation.” The journalist goes on to write, half-aghast, that “we hear so much about ‘Mods’ and ‘Squares’ that one cannot help wondering how certain sections of the community will be described next.” An article in the same newspaper in 1967 reporting a talk given by Frank Hall suggests that the Irish youth are becoming increasingly odd, and worse, unmanly, suggesting we institute mandatory military service in order to inculcate “general manliness and normal behaviour”, after all, he notes “there are no Beatniks or Mods in the defence forces.” But mods were such a part of Irish life by this time that Jacobs biscuits even did an ad for their Club Milk that saw bankers, mums, and Gardai, as well as too-cool-for-school mods doing the “Club Milk Kick!”

The mods gave way to various other youth subcultures in the 1970s, notably skinheads and a little later punks. There was a strong skinhead contingent in Waterford who became associated with the Waterford Football Club and who along with their Shamrock Rovers counter-parts caused serious trouble at games throughout the period:

A clipping from a Waterford FC match in 1973 that ended in a nil all draw.

A clipping from a Waterford FC match in 1973 that ended in a nil all draw poking fun at its skinhead following.

But it was in the wake of the post-punk new wave and the Mod revival led by bands like The Jam, that Waterford would see panic on the scale of the early Teddy Boy scares in the 1950s. Indeed, it was in the 1980s that what was a Mod revival for the UK, was probably the real flowering of Mod culture in Ireland, and this was strong in Dublin, Cork and Waterford especially. Tramore, the seaside town in County Waterford that we’ve seen in the past play host to motor car races, was in the early 1980s a popular rallying point for mods and scooter enthusiasts. Perhaps fearing that this would lead to an Irish version of the battle of Brighton beach, captured evocatively in the 1979 film Quadrophenia the local newspapers led with a bold headline. The Munster Express was certainly raising the alarm with this notice in June of 1983:

Mod Invasion

There appears to have been little enough to have worried about, and tellingly, the paper the following week steadfastly insisted that it was not whipping up a storm of controversy, but their ‘Invasion’ headline was based upon a reliable local Garda source. There had been a major rally in 1982, and there was certainly a crowd in 1983, but whatever the Munster Express had been expecting to happen that Whit weekend didn’t seem to!

Issue 3 of Mod revival fanzine 'Who Are You' featuring Tramore

Issue 3 of Mod revival fanzine ‘Who Are You’ featuring Tramore. Source: irishjack80s.web.com

A girl looks on at Mod revivalists in Tramore in 1982. Source: irishjacks80s.web.com

A girl looks on at Mod revivalists in Tramore in 1982. Source: irishjacks80s.web.com

Mod revivalists line up along the Prom in Tramore in 1982. Source: irishjacks80s.web.com

Mod revivalists line up along the Prom in Tramore in 1982. Source: irishjacks80s.web.com

 

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Na Spailpíní: Irish Seasonal Labourers in Britain in the 20th Century

Go deó deó rís ní raghad go Caiseal
Ag díol ná reic mo shláinte;
Ná ar mhargadh na faoire am shuighe cois balla,
Um sgaoinsi ar leath-taoibh sráide:-
Bodairídh, na tire ag tígheacht ar a g-capaill
Dá fhiafraidhe an bh-fuilim h-írálta,
Téanamh chum siubhail, tá’n cúrsa fada
Seo ar siubhal an Spailpín Fánach!

No more – no more in Cashel town
I’ll sell my health a-raking,
Nor on days of fairs rove up and down,
Nor join in the merry-making.
There, mounted farmers came in throng
To try and hire me over,
But now I’m hired, and my journey’s long
The journey of the Rover![1]

This song from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century tells the story of ‘an spailpín fánach’, ‘the wandering labourer’, who hires himself out to farmers to make his living, though in this case he has chosen to forsake that life and all its hardships. Seasonal migration, both within Ireland and across the Irish Sea to Britain, formed an important part of the life cycle of many rural communities over the centuries, probably peaking in the decades immediately after the Great Famine. An estimated 38,000 migratory agricultural labourers went to Britain in 1880, and 27,000 in 1896, but numbers dropped to 13,000 in 1915, after which the government stopped collecting the statistics.[2] Despite evidence that it did continue (though in smaller numbers) even until the 1980s, little work has been done specifically on the twentieth century.[3] The event that garnered the most notice was a tragedy in September 1937 when ten workers from Achill Island died in a fire in a bothy in Kirkintilloch, Scotland. This prompted the establishment of the Irish government’s ‘Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1937-1938’, which produced a report describing the categories of labourers, primary places they came from, and recommendations, but little consideration has been given to the persistence of seasonal migration after that time.[4]

The voices of a few former migrants can be heard on the RTÉ radio documentary, ‘The Tattie Hokers: The Migrant Workers of North Mayo’. As one man says on the programme, seasonal migration was ‘a way of life’ for many, though it seems one relatively neglected in scholarly works on migration and the Irish diaspora. The most comprehensive work on the subject is Anne O’Dowd’s Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers: History and Folklore of the Irish Migratory Agricultural Worker in Ireland and Britain. However, it is organized thematically rather than chronologically, thus integrating oral testimonies and answers from folklore questionnaires related to twentieth-century movement with other similar material from earlier periods. This emphasizes continuity over change, minimizing consideration of questions such as: Did mechanization of farm work have a significant effect and how? Did seasonal migration continue but in other lines of work (outside agriculture)? How did the changing political context (Ireland’s independence, the two world wars) affect workers’ experiences? What were significant regional differences? Did certain localities continue to have greater seasonal movement and why?

I can’t claim to answer all those questions, but my interest in them was prompted by anecdotes in two oral history interviews. Fiddle player Vincent Campbell was born in 1938 in An tSeanga Mheáin near Glenties, Co. Donegal. The county has a long history of ties to Scotland and Vincent describes workers going for the ‘tattie hoking’: ‘There was an awful lot of potatoes grown in Scotland that time and when it would come to, say, around the month of October, the spuds would be, the potatoes would be raked down to be packed and there used to be gangs would leave Donegal here and go over to Scotland to gather the potatoes.’[5] He recalled gangs still engaging in this type of work in his youth:

Sara Goek: Did you know many people that went over to work in Scotland in your time?
Vincent Campbell: Of course I did know them. The last of the crowds that I heard of going over when I was young they came from Glenfin country, that’s up near, that’s just about, I suppose it would be about eight miles from here [Glenties]. They were the last that took gangs with them going over to Scotland. There was other places then down Gaoth Dobhair and places like that, they used to have a gang. They had to try to have a ganger man or a gaffer of some kind as well, but a lot of them they enjoyed going over because there was great dances on the Friday night always, they would have great dances. So it was entertaining as well. If a fiddle player would hear or a musician would hear that they were going to go on such a day, he would make sure to land at their house the night before to tell them, ‘give me a promise – bring back a good tune or a few tunes or a few good songs’ and that was a part of the bargain, that they would have to bring something like that back.[6]

The Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration specifically mentions this region around Glenties as one of the principal places from which migration took place, with 1,352 agricultural workers leaving in 1937.[7] Vincent’s interest in the subject is also closely connected to the cultural exchange promoted by this type of back-and-forth movement and to this day the Donegal fiddle repertoire retains its influence. Vincent himself worked on a hydroelectric scheme in Scotland when he first emigrated in 1956, following the same route as those before him, and he describes a similar social life with music and dancing on the weekends. However, despite his drawing parallels between the experiences of earlier migrants and his own, the fact that he engaged in industrial rather than agricultural labour shows the declining importance the latter as the twentieth century wore on.

Another musician, Tommy Healy, a flute player from Montiagh, Co. Sligo then living in London, was interviewed by Reg Hall in 1987-88 for his research on Irish music and musicians in London. This area near Tobercurry is also mentioned specifically in the Report as one of those sending large numbers of seasonal workers to Britain, 352 in 1937.[8] Tommy’s narrative of migration is especially interesting because it is multi-generational: his maternal grandfather worked as a seasonal agricultural labourer in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in the late nineteenth century, his paternal grandfather worked as a hired labourer within Ireland, his father went to Scotland once picking potatoes but then immigrated to Boston (where Tommy was born) around the turn of the twentieth century, the family returned to Sligo in 1928 where they took over his mother’s parents’ farm, and Tommy went to England in 1943, first doing seasonal agricultural work and eventually settling in London after the Second World War, working on railways and in construction. He thus situates his own migration intimately within that of his family and local community, highlighting the normalcy of this type of global transiency, saying of seasonal employment, ‘that was the only employment those people used to have outside their own little farms’ and of going to America and back, to Reg’s astonishment, ‘it was the usual procedure’ and several other families in his parish had done the same.[9]

Tommy Healy & Johnny Duffy

Tommy’s story differs from those who went before him because he emigrated during the Second World War. He describes the process of getting work in England at that time (listen to part 1 of the interview online, this portion is at 1:14:30):

Reg Hall: Did you do farming work?
Tommy Healy: Oh I did in the early part. That was the only way we could get over here, as a migratory agricultural worker.
Reg: Can you explain that system? This was at the end of the war?
Tommy: No, no middle way in the war really or even 1941 or ’42. In the area that we come from, we were given employment on this piece production and they didn’t want anybody to leave. They wouldn’t give you a permit at the Labour Exchange to leave – you had to get permission, but when it come to harvest time and that if you could prove that you were a migratory agricultural worker, then you got your permission.
Reg: You could prove that in Ireland?
Tommy: Yeah.
Reg: How did you prove that then?
Tommy: Forgery.
Reg: [Laughs] prove that you’d done it regularly, you mean?
Tommy: Yes, that I was there the year before and that this farmer wanted the same men as he had the year before. Somebody that was working in Lincolnshire, that was the principle part of the agricultural work, one of our own mates sent a letter to this one and that one and so on, 4 or 5 letters, such a one wants the same gang, you, you, and mention the names that he had last year. We were never there before, but the bloke in the Labour Exchange or the guard’s barracks didn’t know that. He had to do his own part before you could apply for the passport. The application for the passport had to be done in the guard barracks. He had to sign his name to it and all.[10]

He says ‘forgery’ in a perfectly straight tone of voice, again suggesting it was nothing unusual. During the war the Irish government placed a ban on the migration of men with experience in agricultural or turf work; ‘they didn’t want anybody to leave’.[11] However, despite the complexities of the regulations it seems loopholes existed and the workers proved particularly adept at finding them:

Complicated as the rules for travel and employment may have appeared at first sight, they do not appear to have hindered migration by reason of their incomprehensibility. On the contrary, Irish workers were found to display so considerable a familiarity with the finer points of official requirements, and so ingenious a knowledge of the limits of tolerance which official routine was accustomed to observe, that a constant watch was needed to prevent the evasion of rules.[12]

In the end, Tommy did not migrate with the permit he received through ‘forgery’ because of other circumstances at home, but about a year later he got work through an agent and went over to Gloucestershire:

The next best thing, I had got the passport this time, the next best thing was to sign on with an agent to do agricultural work here. You couldn’t get the work yourself because in wintertime you see it’s thrashing, hedging, all that type of thing, so I signed on and I come over here in the month of February in the middle of a blizzard. But like we got here today and we went off to the food, somebody took us to the food office, the labour exchange and everything, all the paperwork was cleared up that day, and we were out on our glory at seven o’clock the next morning into some farmer’s yard.[13]

He went on to describe conditions in wartime England: working hours (54 hours per week plus overtime), wages (£3 5s. plus a lodging allowance), blackouts (‘no lights whatsoever’), shortages (‘razor blades were hard to find’) and rationing.[14] He did that work seasonally for about three years, going back home to Sligo at Christmas, went back to stay from 1947 to 1949, but then returned to settle in London, where he still lived at the time of the interview.

These two individuals offer only a brief glimpse of patterns and circumstances of seasonal agricultural migration from Ireland to Britain in the twentieth century. They both suggest continuity of geographical patterns, but changes in the type of work and circumstances from their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Much more work remains to be done to understand these migrants’ varied experiences and contexts.


[1] Traditional song, in Anne O’Dowd, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers: History and Folklore of the Irish Migratory Agricultural Worker in Ireland and Britain (Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 1991), p.313-6.

[2] Enda Delaney, Demography, State and Society: Irish Migration to Britain, 1921-1971 (Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2000), p.28; Appendix II, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1937-1938 (Stationary Office, Dublin), p.59. The report estimates that 9,500 seasonal labourers went to Britain in 1937. The 1954 report of the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems mentions seasonal migration only in passing in four separate paragraphs.

[3] O’Dowd in Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers provides snippets of evidence of seasonal agricultural labour in the twentieth century: in Connaught ‘‘the tradition continued right up to the 1940s and 1950s’ (p.82), ‘men and women from Ballina and Mulraney, Co. Mayo, still work as tattie hokers in the 1980s’ (p.199), and resentment of Irish migratory workers because of they had not fought in either world war (p.267), but she provides little further detail apart from citation of her own interviews. Many folklore sources were collected in the twentieth century, but it is difficult to pinpoint the time period in which they originated.

[4] The report itself does not actually say the committee was established in response to the Kirkintilloch tragedy, but the letter at the beginning states the committee was appointed on 23 September 1937, exactly one week after the event. For a more detailed description of that particular event see: http://www.theirishstory.com/2012/09/24/the-kirkintilloch-tragedy-1937

[5] Vincent Campbell, interview with Sara Goek, 12 June 2012.

[6] Ibid.

[7] 9,783 agricultural workers migrated from certain areas of Clare, Connaught, and Donegal in 1937 and Glenties had the 3rd highest total of all the areas enumerated. These areas tended to be in the ‘Congested Districts’, with high population density on poor land and generally small landholdings. Appendix V, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1937-1938, p.62.

[8] Appendix V, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1937-1938, p.62.

[9] Tommy Healy, interview with Reg Hall part 3, 6 April 1988, British Library. He talks about the work his grandfather would have done as a hired labourer from 04:30.

[10] Tommy Healy, interview with Reg Hall part 1, 28 Oct. 1987, British Library.

[11] A.V. Judges noted in his report, Irish Labour in Great Britain, 1939-1945 (1949), that this ban did not extend to the ‘Congested Districts’ in the western part of the country and though maintained, it had little effect until restrictions were tightened further in 1944 (p.13). There were three ways of securing labour in Britain during the war: through a liaison officer, through direct contact with the employer, or through the employer’s agent. Tommy’s story falls under the second category, of which Judges writes, ‘an employer who was actually in contact with a potential employee could furnish him with a letter… through the Ministry of Labour and the Department of Industry and Commerce and the worker would then secure the necessary travel documents on producing the letter’ (p.14).

[12] Judges, Irish Labour in Great Britain, p.15.

[13] Tommy Healy, interview with Reg Hall part 1, 28 Oct. 1987, British Library.

[14] Ibid.

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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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Los Niños of Southampton

On 26 April 1937 the Nazi Condor Legion, working on behalf of General Francisco Franco, bombed the Basque city of Guernica. The city arguably had no real strategic value, but had huge symbolic value in Franco’s attack on the Basque country in that Guernica was the ancient ceremonial capital of the Basques. The nature of its destruction – the mass bombing of civilians from the air – more so than the destruction itself caused widespread revulsion throughout the world and was made famous by Pablo Picasso’s evocative painting, first exhibited at the stall for the Spanish Republic at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1937.

Image

Picasso’s ‘Guernica’

The destruction of Guernica however, was part of Franco’s wider, brutal campaign against the existence of the Spanish Republic in the north of the peninsula. The campaign led not just to widespread destruction of property, but thousands of civilian casualties too, as well as widespread displacement. With access to the rest of the Republic cut off, many sought refuge abroad. Spanish aid campaigns had by this time spread to every city and town in Britain, and a plan was organised by the British National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief that saw some 3,800 Basque children evacuated to England and Wales for the duration of the war.

The British government, pursuing its perfidious policy of non-intervention in the conflict (denying aid to the Republic while turning a blind eye to mass Nazi and Italian Fascist aid to Franco), refused to be responsible for the children. The ‘Basque Children’s Committee’ was formed which had to guarantee a fund of 10 shillings per child per week to ensure their care and education.

Image

Charity envelope issued by the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief From the archives of the Trades Union Congress, Modern Record Centre, University of Warwick, reference: 292/946/18a/58.
This and other images available at http://www.historyextra.com/basque

The children left for Britain from the port of Santurtzi on board the steamship SS Habana on 21 May 1937, arriving in Southampton two days later. Upon their arrival, the children were sent to a camp in North Stoneham in Eastleigh (see original reports here) before being dispersed to ‘colonies’ throughout England and Wales in places such as Bradford, Bristol, Cambridge, Oxford, Keighley, Caerleon, Hull, Langham, Leeds, London, Maidenhead, Manchester, Swansea, Witney and Worthing. By mid-September, all of ‘los niños’ as they became known, had found homes with families. Most were repatriated to Spain after the war but some 250 still remained in Britain by the end of the Second World War in 1945. These children grew up in Britain, and some are still alive today.

Recent years have seen a renewed interest in their story, and have seen the erection of plaques at the former colonies, newspaper articles, documentaries, books and memorial organisations, and efforts have been made to record the stories of those who are still alive.

The Basque Children of ’37 Association was set up in November 2002 and aims to reunite the surviving niños and preserve their memory through the collection of oral history and documentation, as well as commemorate their story through the erection of plaques in the former ‘colonies’.  Among its activities is a useful website and an annual lecture in London.

Here is a photo of a plaque I saw recently at the central library in Southampton, which was erected by the Association in 2007.

DSCF8204

To read more about their remarkable story and how they have been remembered, see the doctoral thesis by Susana Sabín-Fernández here.

See also the following pieces for more information:

Los Niños Exhibition in Southampton

Interview with one of the niños

Basque children reunion

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