Tag Archives: Spain

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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Jewish Waterford, 1893-1940

Cormac Ó’Gráda’s book Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce, was a ground-breaking work for looking at religious and ethnic minorities in Ireland historically. I recently heard Ó’Gráda speaking as part of the UCC Historical Society’s History Week. Ó’Gráda spoke about the potential of the 1901 and 1911 census, especially in relation to the study of minorities in Irish life from that period. With that in mind, and following on from some tentative work which I had done for my PhD thesis, I’ve decided to sketch a portrait of Waterford’s Jewish community from the end of nineteenth century up to the beginning of the Second World War.

The Beginnings of the Jewish Community in Waterford

According to Louis Hyman, in his history of Irish Jewry up to 1910, ‘At the close of the seventeenth century, the Council of the Waterford Corporation encouraged the settlement of foreign merchants.’ One man who applied to trade freely in the city was Jacob Nunes who was given the freedom of the city to conduct trade in 1701.[1] Thus Nunes has a fair claim to being Waterford’s first Jewish settler. Again, Hyman notes that ‘individual Jews resided in Waterford in the eighteenth century, and some were there in 1805, one of them, surely Josias Jacob, registered with the Dublin Goldsmith’s Company in 1809. About the middle of the nineteenth century, the grandparents of the late Professor James Desmond Bernal settled in the town.’[2] According to the census of 1871, there was still only a solitary Jew in Waterford, however that was all about to change. With the introduction of what are popularly known as the May Laws, many Jews in Tsarist Russia made their way to Britain and Ireland. As Hyman notes, this movement of Jews from what was sometimes called Russian Poland, and Lithuania, had the effect ultimately of strengthening the communities of Jewish settlers in places other than in Dublin and Belfast.[3]

One of the earliest mentions of the new Jewish community in Waterford comes from 1893 with the death of Joseph Diamond at the age of 68, who lived on 8 Manor Street in the city centre, a street in Waterford that would in time form a central part of the Jewish community in the city.[4] Many of the Jews then settled in Waterford were Welsh, and were part of the Jewish community in Britain that were middle-class emigrants from Central Europe, what were known in Ireland as “English Jews”. The lives of these Jewish people were in stark contrast to those who would come to make up the bulk of Britain, Ireland, and Waterford’s Jewish communities in time, those fleeing pogroms and persecution in Russia.

Shortly after the death notice of Joseph Diamond, the Jewish Chronicle noted that a congregation had been established in the city, with Mr R Smullian as president, and so prayers were held for the  Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, for probably the first time in Waterford’s history.[5] A year later, the Jewish Chronicle again mentioned the new congregation noting that:

Mr and Mrs Goldring presented a Scroll of the Law to the newly-established congregation. In the evening they gave a party to which every Jewish resident of Waterford was invited. Mr M. Simon presided  and great satisfaction was expressed by the Chairman, Mr Hanasan[sic], President of the congregation, Mr R. Smullian, Mr Levy, Mr Diamond and others at the formation of the congregation.[6]

With the congregation up and running in Waterford city, the Jewish community there could do perform rites of their faith in their new home, rather than travelling to other cities in Ireland with synagogues. The development of the congregation breathed life into the city’s Jewish community and it wasn’t long before the city saw its first Jewish wedding, something which attracted a great deal of interest from Waterford people generally:

On Wednesday 14th inst the first Jewish wedding that has been solemnised in Waterford took place in the synagogue 88 the Manor. The couple were Miss Fanny Diamond and Mr Jack Lappin. The ceremony was performed by Rev J. E. Myers of Cork assisted by the local minister Rev Simon Aarons. The wedding created a great deal of interest  in Waterford and the synagogue was filled with Christians. Rev J. E. Myers  preached on Sabbath morning and also at a special service on Sunday evening, the latter attended by several Christians. Mr Goldring, President, and his wife have made handsome presents to the synagogue. Mr Robinson is Treasurer and Mr J. Levy is Hon Sec.[7]

The development of the community was of interest in particular to JE Myers, who ministered to the Cork congregation, and who visited Waterford on a number of occasions.[8] The community was growing in strength and in no time, there was a plan to open a Hebrew School in the city.[9] As the Jewish community grew and developed, children were born into families in Waterford, like the Sherowitz family. The progress of the community in Waterford was followed closely by the Jewish Chronicle, and many notices, no matter how small, relating to the city’s community, appeared throughout its pages. And so we know that some of the members of Waterford’s Jewish community got involved in politics, like Harris Sherowitz who sent a letter to John Redmond MP on the Aliens Act in 1905, signed by many, in the hopes that he would seek amendments to it. There was a significant difference between the size of the community in 1901 and by 1911. The interwar period was the peak of the Jewish community in Waterford, built as it was by the community that had developed and was captured in the census of 1911. Waterford’s Jewish community was at its most numerous in the city then: there were around 62 Jewish people in Waterford at that date. It was never bigger, before or since. While these numbers obviously pale in their significance when placed next to the Jewish communities of Dublin, Cork or Limerick, nevertheless the Jewish community in Waterford left their mark on the city. These maps show where Waterford’s Jewish community settled in the city (click images to enlarge them):

Fig. 1: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1901

Fig. 1: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1901

As you can see from Fig. 1 above, the very small community that existed in 1901, was centred in the main around John Street and Manor Street. This concentration would remain in 1911, as you can see from Fig.2, below:

Fig. 2: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1911

Fig. 2: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1911

To get the full effect, Fig.3 below shows both the 1901 and 1911 settlements overlaid on each other:

Fig.3: 1901 and 1911 Jewish Settlement in Waterford, overlaid on each other.

Fig.3: 1901 and 1911 Jewish Settlement in Waterford, overlaid on each other.

These few streets then, encompassed Waterford’s Jewish community until the beginning of the Second World War.

The Figure of the ‘Jewman’ in Popular Imagination and Memory in Waterford

Once the community strengthened, and became a more visible presence in the city, centred as it was around John Street and Manor Street, the figure of the ‘Jewman’, in that peculiar Irish turn of phrase, was a figure of curiosity and later, folk memory. In Waterford a song was sung called ‘The Jewman’, and according to Dermot Power was popular at one time with workers in Denny’s Bacon curing factory back in the late 1920s and 1930s, when the community was at its height. If as Hyman’s history of the Jews in Ireland has it ‘they knew no trade but peddling’, a fact contested in Ó’Gráda’s work, then this aspect of Irish Jewry is well summed up in the opening verses of ‘The Jewman’:

 At the top of town, Anne Street, a lady does dwell,

Her name I won’t mention, I dare not tell,

One cold winter’s morning the Jewman did call,

And unslung his bag outside of the hall.

He knocked at the door with his usual grin,

Saying good morning, missus, is your husband within

Says she no he’s not I want nothing today,

Ah take something said the Jewman don’t send me away.[10]

In the song, the woman takes some blankets on the promise of payment the following week, and duly the following week no payment is forthcoming, so the Jewman makes a grab for his goods, is hit over the head with a can by the woman before both are brought before a court, the song finishing with the testimony of ‘a big red nosed Bobby’ and a suitably amdmonished Jewman:

Said the Jew oh your Worship my poor head is sore,

And I’ll never go look for me wool anymore.[11]

As Cormac Ó’Gráda notes of such songs, and this particular one seems to have existed in a variety of versions Dublin as well, were indicative of views among Irish people that were ‘more xenophobic than strictly Anti-Semitic.’ Indeed, he contends that ‘the outlook of most Irish people of all persuasions was blinkered, parochial, and prejudiced by today’s standards.’[12] Such was the power over the local imagination of this figure, the ‘Jewman’, that one of Waterford’s lanes, Kneeff’s Lane, was popularly known as ‘Jewman’s Lane’. Indeed, the popular folk memory of the ‘Jewman’ and ‘Jewman’s Lane’ were revisited in a recent documentary about the Barrack Street area in the heart of Waterford city (the relevant segment is from 36:00 to 38:45):

As we’ve seen, the first Jewish marriages and other occasions were of deep interest to many locals, and something of this interest first present in the 1890s remained in the 1930s, as when the Munster Express carried a small notice relating to the Jewish Day of Atonement in September 1931.[13] Members of Waterford’s Jewish community found themselves in court on occasion, and in a rare display of anti-Semitism, a local District Court judge told a member of the family that he should count himself lucky, given what was happening to his people in Hitler’s Germany, though many rushed to defend the judge saying his comments were not meant in such a way.[14] There was also this joke which appeared in the pages of the Munster Express:

Munster Express, June 26 1936

Munster Express, June 26 1936

Still, whether this properly reflects the relationship between the Jewish community and their hosts is difficult to ascertain for certain, perhaps like the figure of the ‘Jewman’ this was more parochial than anti-Semitic. One of the more unusual stories involving Ireland’s Jewish community and Waterford comes from the late 1930s as well. Frank Edwards, a member of the Communist Party of Ireland and rugby player with Waterford City RFC and teacher in Mount Sion, took a leave of absence from his teaching duties in the school to join the International Brigade  to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Upon returning, Edwards was refused his old job and barred from teaching in any Catholic school. Rev. Herzog, the Chief Rabbi in Ireland, gave Edwards a job teaching in Zion Schools, recently established on Bloomfield Avenue in Dublin, where Edwards would work for the next thirty years.[15]

The legacy of Waterford’s Jewish Community

Ray Rivlin’s Jewish Ireland: A Social History, contains a chapter on sport and entertainment.[16] The chapter opens with the story of Maurice Woolfson, a Jewish Waterford man who led local club Evergreen, when they achieved great victory on the field in the 1930s. The Woolfson name is an important one in the early history of Waterford soccer. Isaac Woolfson, was in the 1930s, chairman of the Waterford and District Association Football League and a key figure in establishing the first Employer’s League in 1931, forerunner to the factory leagues. Like many of the figures explored in Anthony Clavane’s Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, men like Isaac, Maurice and later ‘Duffy’ Woolfson, emigrant Jews from the poor edges of Russia, who were not of the middle-class “English Jew” origins of earlier Jews in Waterford, used sport, and soccer in particular as a means of integration and acceptance. Cormac Ó’Gráda, discussing the wide variety of sporting and other bodies established by Ireland’s Jewish community noted that success in the sporting arena ‘fostered communal pride’ but he also noted that it wasn’t long before many Irish Jews, and the membership of their sports clubs, moved beyond the community itself. [17]In 1938, with Maurice Woolfson as chairman, Evergreen won the FAI Minor Cup, beating Sligo United 2-1 in a game held at Kilcohan Park in the city. On his leaving for Dublin 1940, the loss was lamented by all involved in the club.

The Woolfson family dispersed from Waterford but returned in 1971 for the inauguration of the Maurice Woolfson Perpetual Challenge Trophy for the local Schoolboy League at half time during a League of Ireland game between Waterford and Finn Harps. However, as was noted by a journalist at the time, the contribution of the Woolfson family to Waterford soccer amounted to a lot more than just a silver trophy, ‘no matter how magnificent’.[18] The same might be said of the entire Jewish community, who breathed life into the streets on which they lived in Waterford, leaving a long lasting impression on the city and its people.


[1] Hyman, Louis, The Jews of Ireland: From Earliest Times to the year 1910, Shannon: Irish University Press 1972, p.22

[2] Hyman, The Jews of Ireland, p.79

[3] Hyman, The Jews of Ireland, p156 and 161

[4] Jewish Chronicle, 1 September 1893

[5] Jewish Chronicle, 22 September 1893

[6] Jewish Chronicle, 20 October 1894

[7] Jewish Chronicle, 23 November 1894

[8] Jewish Chronicle, 27 March; 17 July 1896

[9] Jewish Chronicle, 6 November 1896

[10] Power, Dermot, The Ballads and Songs of Waterford from 1487, Waterford: Munster Express 1992, pp.10-11

[11] Power, Ballads and Songs of Waterford, p.11

[12] Ó’Gráda, Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socio-economic history, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2006, p.180

[13] Munster Express, September 25 1931

[14] Munster Express, Septembr 27 1935

[15] Rivlin, Ray, Ireland: A Social History, Dublin: The History Press Ireland, 2011, p.110

[16] Rivlin, Ray, Jewish Ireland, pp.209-210

[17] Ó’Gráda, Jewish Ireland, pp.186-187

[18] Munster Express, April 23 1971

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Filed under Irish History, Memory, Nineteenth Century, Social History, Spanish Civil War, Sports History, Twentieth Century

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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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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