Mick O'Riordan: The Connolly Column

Photo - Michael O’Riordan, International Brigade Volunteer (1938)
Photo - Michael O’Riordan, International Brigade Volunteer (1938)

Mick O'Riordan was a young member of the Communist Party of Ireland when he went to Spain with the International Brigade. Here he describes the background which saw Irish fascists and anti-fascists mobilising around the events in Spain.

Article from Anti-Fascist Action's Fighting Talk magazine #15 (1996)

Submitted by Fozzie on January 28, 2021

In Ireland the reaction to the Spanish war was to greet it as a crusade for religion. In 1934 we had the beginning of the Blueshirt movement1 , which took a great grip in the political life of the country. They were eventually defeated not by the government but by the Republican Movement, the Communist Party and other progressive groups who fought for possession of the streets and therefore dented the so-called militancy of the Blueshirts. They were completely in accord with the fascist movements throughout Europe. When the Spanish war broke out in 1936 they immediately began to resurrect themselves and issued a call for volunteers to fight for Franco. O'Duffy was the leader of the Blueshirts, and an ex-Police chief who had been sacked by the De Valera government. He raised the cry for people to become involved in the crusade for religion in Spain. The initial appeal was greeted with 5,000 applications. Eventually only 700-800 went to Spain. The leadership of the Blueshirts was composed of ex-officers of the old Free State army and were the core of fascism in Ireland and of the Irish assistance for Franco.

I was born in Cork city2 , my parents came from the Cork/Kerry border area. I was involved in Fianna Eireann, which was the youth branch of the Republican Movement. At one stage the man in charge of the Fianna was Frank Ryan, who later led the first Irish contingent of volunteers to Spain in 1936. I was involved from an early age in the question of resistance to the Blueshirts. Cork was a county which was dominated by whether you were a Blueshirt or an anti-Blueshirt, this was as a result of the question of Free State versus Republican ideology. When the Spanish War broke out I was 18 and I was immediately interested in the parallels with the war in Spain and with O'Duffy's Blueshirts. On the matter of creating a crusade for Spain there was another organisation called the Irish Christian Front. This used to have huge rallies; they never talked about fascism or blueshirtism, they always talked about Christ the King and the so-called horrible outrages against nuns and priests, church burnings, etc, in Spain. At the big meetings, when they had raised people to a certain degree of hysteria, they used to salute. It was not the salute the fascists used, but they raised their crossed hands over their heads in the form of a cross. That was clerical fascism, although not officially part of the catholic theology. They held many meetings and formed a pogrom-type atmosphere.

The Communist Party was refounded in 1933 in Connolly House, which was burned to the ground by a pogrom incited against it. Religion was always used against anyone with left wing or communist ideas, they were regarded as a stereotype of the devil in all senses, physically, morally and intellectually. That was the atmosphere and when O'Duffy decided to organise a group for Spain there was reaction from the Communist Party first of all and from people in the Republican Congress, which was composed of left Irish Republicans. It was from these ranks that Frank Ryan came and took over the leadership of the first group to go to Spain.

They went quietly enough but they released a manifesto which stated what their reasons were for going:

'The Irish contingent is a demonstration of revolutionary Ireland's solidarity with the gallant Spanish workers and peasants in their fight for freedom against Fascism. It aims to redeem Irish honour besmirched by the intervention of Irish fascism on the side of the Spanish fascist rebels. It is to aid the revolutionary movements in Ireland to defeat the fascist menace at home, and finally, and not least, to establish the closest fraternal bonds of kinship between the Republican democracies of Ireland and Spain'.

The attitudes of the Church would make your blood boil and your hair stand on your head. It was real incitement, as I look back on it it was frightening in many respects, like the Salem witchunts - rumour mongering, admonitions from the altar. When the nazis landed in Portugal at Lisbon they were greeted by the Dominican prior of the Irish church, Fr. Paul O'Sullivan. He delivered the following address which was circulated by the Blueshirts at the time to guarantee their religious credentials:

'Never have we heard, even in the dark days of Nero, never even among the most barbarous hordes, that innocent children were cut to pieces, the bodies of the dead exhumed, insulted and profaned, you are going to fight these monsters who are more like demons let lose from Hell than mortal men. More fierce, more depraved, more godless, than Turks or Moslems'. This is interesting because one of the initial forces who fought for Franco were the Army of Africa, which was composed of Muslims and it was a contradiction that they were the people who were 'saving christianity'.

There were 145 Irish (anti-fascist) Volunteers, they were going from December 1936 until the last battle on the Ebro front in 1938, when we were repatriated by the Spanish government. 63 were killed in various battles. The first main battle in which a large number of Irishmen were killed was the Battle of Jarama in 1937. Nineteen of our peope were killed, a large number of the International volunteers were killed, in this fierce battle. The first group that went to Spain were called the James Connolly Section. They were with the 15th Brigade which was composed of English speaking people. After the first battles there were so few left there was no basis for the Connolly Column but the name was still retained and we are known as the Connolly Column. We named ourselves after Connolly because of adherence to his ideology and because he was a man who bore arms in defence of the working people.

Today, 60 years after the first International Brigades came to Madrid, there are only five left of the Irish who went to support the Spanish struggle. Time has taken its toll.

For reasons of space we are unable to publish the whole interview. A full transcript is available by sending an S.A.E. to the AFA (Ireland) address.

Libcom note: A more complete version of this interview is available on the Ireland and the Spanish Civil War site. http://irelandscw.com/ibvol-MoRInterview3.htm