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President of Ireland

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Speech at the opening of the International Brigade Memorial Trust AGM

​ Liberty Hall, Dublin, Saturday, 15 October, 2016



As the world continues to face conflict, poverty and abuse of power, we are called upon to continue to show moral courage and, be willling in our words and policies to demonstrate a sense of internationalism.

It is a great honour to be present at the AGM of the International Brigade Memorial Trust here, meeting most appropriately, in Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the Services, Industrial, Professional, and Technical Union (SIPTU).  May I thank Manus O’Riordan and the Memorial Trust for inviting me to join you here today. I would like, in particular, to welcome members of the organisation who have travelled from the UK and further afield to be here with us today. 

It is fitting that we meet in the Connolly Hall of this historic and symbolic building.  It was here, in 1936, that a group of activists gathered, bound together as they were by idealism, solidarity, internationalism and above all courage would soon become part of the International Brigade.

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the formation of the International Brigades, formally established by a decree of the Spanish Republic on 18th October 1936. Around 40,000 international volunteers from more than fifty countries joined the brigades. Amongst them were two hundred Irish born volunteers moved by the plight of the working classes of Spain and, deeply concerned by the threat to democracy and the lengthening shadow of fascism that was spreading across Europe, decided to volunteer for the International Brigade. Over sixty of these Irish internationalists would never come home.

The International Brigades were drawn from a wide range of social strata and occupations. Some of their number, like the novelist George Orwell, the poet WH Auden, or the former Church of Ireland minister Robert Hilliard, were intellectuals drawn from the middle classes, but most historical studies now agree that the vast majority of the Irish and British who joined the International Brigades were manual workers, workers with an extraordinary sense of social and political justice and the importance of defending workers’ rights wherever they were at stake. As the research of Angela Jackson, among others, has shown, women – many of whom worked in medical units or relief organisations – for that reason played an important role in the International Brigades.

The carnage of the working class in the trenches of World War One in what was above all a contest of empires, was for them a fresh memory. The authoritarianism at its source the culture of absolutionist power that was fascism was already thick in the air.

Ní hiad na stairithe amháin ar cheart dóibh a bheith buíoch d'Iontaobhas Cuimhneacháin na Briogáide Idirnáisiúnta. Tá buíochas tuillte acu ó gach aon duine againn, mar is iad a choinníonn cuimhne na fir is na mná Éireannach agus Sasnach a throid go tréan ar son an daonlathais agus in aghaidh an fhaisisteachais sa Spáin.

[Not just historians, but all of us, owe a debt of gratitude to  The International Brigade Memorial Trust, who continue to keep alive the memory of the Irish and British men and women who so bravely fought to defend democracy and fight fascism in Spain.]

The death in January 2009 of Bob Doyle, - whom I had the pleasure of meeting on a number of occasions with Michael O’Riordan and his colleagues, marked the passing of the last veteran of the Connolly Column; reminding us of the role the Trust and all who support it play as important custodians of the history which had such an important influence on the society in which we now live. We must be grateful to the Memorial Trust for their untiring work in ensuring that the task of striving to achieve a full and ethical interpretation of that most controversial of conflicts that was the Spanish Civil War, and its place within the history of modern Europe continues. It is appropriate, too, that we recall how long the consequences would last in Spain, the cruelty of the extra judicial killings, the incarcerations, and the long wait for parliamentary democracy that would ensue.

Engaging with the past may be a difficult and complex process, but it is ethically unavoidable. The Pacto del Olvido, imposed by political elites in Spain after the fall of Franco signifies the fears that so often exist around any deep or honest reflection on a history that, in the case of the abusing elites, has much to hide.

If we are to stand back and take a longer historical perspective of the events leading up to the Spanish Civil War, our gaze might initially fall on the rise of liberalism across Europe during the 19th century, and the opposing voices of authoritarianism that emerged and saw in the demand for democratic participation – a threat from the new voices that were challenging the previous unassailability of Monarchy, Nobility and Church. We can perceive how such growing democratic demands and political agitation and related organisation gave birth by way of response to the curious relationship between monarchy and dictatorship which existed throughout Europe in the 1920s.

We can also observe the strain on fragile democracies across the continent, as they sought to deal with the weight of class confrontation in conditions of change and the conflict between the left and right political forces, and the often differences within each. Those with fascist sympathies offered support in the name of order to dictatorship as it promised strong actions to solve the consequences for their nations of a worldwide economic crisis; a crisis that would claim lives and livelihoods all over the world. The politics of fear meant that an opportunity had emerged for the seizure of powers.

It would be simplistic, however, to claim that the war that broke out in Spain on 17th July 1936 was ab initio a straightforward clash between forces calling themselves democratic and fascist. As with all major wars, the Spanish Civil War was the outcome of observable social forces; an impoverished and disenfranchised workforce, landholding patterns of the rich that were almost feudal, an elite intent upon maintaining their wealth and privilege, strong regional autonomy movements, a Church, - newly committed to corporatism, drawing on such documents as Quadragesimo Anna, which recalled  Rerum Novarum of forty years earlier which had condemned what it generalised as Marxism and Communism.

Hitler’s rise to power, which had culminated two years before with his achievement of absolute command of Germany - together with his alliance with Mussolini and his concern to distract western powers from his Central European Strategy - resulted in Nationalist rebels receiving support from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

As to the position of other countries, despite the signing by twenty seven countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union, of a non intervention pact in September 1936, it was a war that was soon to take on an international dimension. Stalin, worried by the rise of fascism in Europe and the threat it presented to a Soviet Union, moved to prevent the Nationalists from taking power by providing military assistance to the Republicans.

Ireland’s reaction to the civil war was probably unique across Europe. It was a war which provoked a divided response, with volunteers going to Spain to support both Nationalists and Republicans.

It is difficult for some even today, given the high regard in which the Irish International Brigadiers are now held in this country, to understand how the great majority of Irishmen who fought in the Spanish Civil War did so in support of General Franco.

We must remember, however, that support for Franco in Ireland was sourced in the conservative institutional forces dominated a brand of clericalism far more authoritarian than spiritual and imposed through fear and many of those who decided to join the International Brigades faced public opprobrium at home.  Rather than being seen as a struggle between democracy and fascism, the Spanish Civil War was widely presented in Ireland  as a conflict between Catholicism and Communism. Yet both Catholic and non Catholic clergymen in Northern Ireland would support the Spanish Republic.

The Catholic hierarchy‘s pastoral warning against the spread of left-wing ideas in Ireland, issued some years before, had clearly stated that the two beliefs, Catholicism and Communism were completely incompatible.  Meanwhile the influence of the shirted movement that would come to be known as the Blueshirts continued to spread under the leadership of Eoin O’Duffy who was an admirer of European fascism and not committed to democratic politics if it included workers entitled to agitate for their rights. Described by Diarmuid Ferritter as:

“a mirror to the Ireland of the Twenties and Thirties”

O'Duffy’s seven hundred strong Irish Brigade was supported by the Catholic Church, the Dean of Cashel sending them on their way with the blessing of such words as -:

"The Irish Brigade have gone to fight the battle of Christianity against Communism.”.

Throughout the country the church gate collection for ‘ambulances for Franco’ was the largest since the time of Daniel O Connell’s campaign for Catholic Emancipation in the previous century.

Meanwhile, like the tens of thousands of foreigners who had decided to come to the Republic’s aid in Spain, many Irish men and women were moved by the distress of the democratically-elected Spanish government, and the suffering of civilians. They were courageous and determined. They had to be as for many of them, getting to Spain involved great difficulty and hardship, as described by the late   Michael O’Riordan who recalls his own illegal and clandestine journey through London and Paris as a ‘difficult and long road’.

Most of the volunteers were smuggled in over the Pyrenees, where they received a sadly inadequate training for the war they were about to fight. They had, however, been left under no illusions upon recruitment about the bloody and brutal battle that lay before them. Michael O’Riordan remembers the ‘authentic, realistic and honest’ description they received of what they were likely to encounter in Spain, which had the effect of some volunteers stepping out and returning home.

Among the ranks of the International Brigades was the brilliant young poet, Charles Donnelly, whose final words were to become an almost iconic description of the Spanish Civil War, still remembered and quoted today many years after they were first uttered on the battlefields of Spain.

Described by Eavan Boland as  ‘a dark star’ who can ‘haunt a generation’ Charles Donnelly was just 22 years of age when he  decided to come to the aid of Republican Spain.  Donnelly, with hundreds of men from the International Brigades, fought in one of the bloodiest confrontations between Republican and Nationalist forces – that of the battle of Jarama which took place just seven weeks after his arrival in Spain. 

It was here, during a lull in machine gun fire and just moments before a bullet was shot into his temple, that Charles Donnelly plucked a bunch of olives from the dust and squeezing them spoke the five simple words that still echo poignantly across the decades:

‘Even the olives are bleeding’.

At Jarama, a battle took place that, in the words of Cathal O’Shannon many years later, was to

‘epitomise war in all its horror’.

Here, the Irish and British battalions fought side by side, and suffered huge casualties, yet achieving one of their finest hours as they played their brave role in thwarting an attempt by Franco’s forces to encircle Madrid.

Ten days after his death, Charles Donnelly’s body, - “face fresh, naive looking” - was buried beneath one of those olive trees in that foreign land far away from his native Tyrone; his family left unaware of his death for some time, his distressed father unable to talk about him for years. Yet it is important to recall that support for the Spanish Republic drew alliances together between religions in Northern Ireland. The silence of the relatives of the lost is as moving now to recall as it was understandable in its time.

Sadly, such silence was not unusual. Many of those who died so bravely for freedom, were marginalised back home in Ireland for many years. Many had their teaching posts taken from them. Communist Party spokesman Eugene McCartan, describing the anguish and despair of those who lost sons to anti-fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War said:

"To be attached to someone who died was not safe in Ireland. The Catholic Church made a rallying cry for fascists and held collections to support Franco. It was no wonder families kept their    heads down."

However, while O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade was comprised wholly of Roman Catholics, we must not forget that many committed Catholics fought with the International Brigade, seeing no conflict between their religious beliefs and the spirit of solidarity which drove them to fight, and in some cases sacrifice their lives, for democracy in Spain.

Frank Ryan, leader of the Irish contingent of the Brigade, wrote when completing a questionnaire on his arrival at the concentration camp of San Pedro de Cardena, that he had come to Spain for two reasons; one to aid a democratic government, and the other because he believed that religion was not at stake in the Spanish War and he wanted to show that O’Duffy did not represent the Irish people.

The Ireland of the 1930s that produced these opposing forces was an Ireland that experienced the extremes of authoritarianism imposed on the people, be it in relation to culture, dance, books, moral panics against communism and fear. The character of the Irish International Brigade, with its mix of socialists, idealists, communists, and men of all religions and none can perhaps be best summed up in the words of the late Paddy O’Daire, a leader of the International Brigade who said:

“All causes are worldwide. Freedom is indivisible. If a man fights for freedom in one place, he is fighting for it everywhere”

The urge to defend the Spanish Republic invoked internationalism and a shared humanism that was construed as a threat to the absolutism and the imposed certainties of the time. The response was vicious.

Cogadh chróga agus searbh a bhí ann, agus i ndeireadh na dála cuireadh na mílte chun báis agus na milliúin chun díbeartha agus chun príosún, agus níor tugadh deis do ghlún iomlán fás ná teacht faoi bhláth i náisiún dhaonlathach.

[It was to be a brave and bitter fight, culminating in an ungenerous defeat which saw thousands executed, a million people exiled or imprisoned, and a generation denied the right to live, grow and flourish in a democratic nation.]

Today, the people of Spain continue to grapple with transacting the legacy of a civil war that was undoubtedly the most important chapter of its 20th century history. It is a chapter which has left a profound legacy, with many citizens still engaged years later in a continuing search for contact with their past; a past, and as so often elsewhere, perhaps because of the pain or guilt, not discussed at home, and often left out of the history books studied in their classrooms.

Here in Ireland, as we engage with the ongoing Decade of Commemorations, we have been called to reflect on the challenge of remembering ethically. Such remembrance must always aspire to respect complexity and to seek to understand, as they contructed it, the integrity and the motivations of the men and women from the past. That is not an easy task. Such ethical remembering remains a challenge for Spain, as for us and for many nations around the globe, if just and enduring peace is to be achieved.

As the world continues to face conflict, poverty and abuse of power, we are called upon to continue to show moral courage and, be willling in our words and policies to demonstrate a sense of internationalism. If we are to overcome together the forces of greed, intolerance and oppression which deny so many of our fellow global citizens their right to justice and freedom it can only be with alarm that, eighty years after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, we see xenophobic, nationalistic and inward-looking movements gaining traction again in mainstream politics right across Europe. 

If we are to tackle the growing divisions within the international community it is important that we focus our efforts anew on building social cohesion and solidarity. In the centenary year of the republican uprising of 1916, and the 80th anniversary of fascism’s attack on the Spanish Republic, we should recall the origins and aims of true republicanism, and strive to continue to show the strength of conviction, moral courage and generosity that was shared among those who fought in the International Brigades. 

The inspiring spirit of humanity that defined the International Brigades has never, perhaps, been more movingly articulated than in the farewell speech of the great Spanish Republican,Dolores Ibárruri – or La Pasionaria, as she is better known. Addressing them at the final parade in Barcelona in October 1938 she told them that:

“From all peoples, from all races, you came to us like brothers, like sons of immortal Spain; and in the hardest days of the war, when the capital of the Spanish Republic was threatened, it was you, gallant comrades of the International Brigades, who helped save the city with your fighting enthusiasm, your heroism and your spirit of sacrifice.”

The volunteers who joined the Brigades from across Europe and beyond, set an example of international solidarity and global citizenship which today continues to inspire those who bravely march alongside the downtrodden, the excluded and the marginalised; and who battle against inequality in all its forms, fighting for justice and freedom in communities and societies across the globe, those who work to give meaning and greater democracy for all.  

Ba cheart dúinn, mar náisiún, a bheith an-bhródúil as na fir is na mná cróga Éireannach a chuaigh leis an Bhriogáid Idirnáisiúnta sa bhliain 1936. Is mian liom sibh a mholadh as an obair atá ar siúl agaibh le cuimhne agus le luachanna na ndaoine a throid ar mhachaire catha na Spáinne, ar son na saoirse i ngach áit, a choinneáil beo.

[As a nation we can be very proud of the brave Irish men and women who joined the International Brigade in 1936. May I commend you, therefore, for the work you do in keeping alive the memory and the values of all those who bravely fought for ‘freedom everywhere’ on the battlefields of Spain almost eighty years ago.]

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

Viva la Quince Brigada!