An Irishman's Diary
One of the ironies of the current austerity for persons of a certain age, in Spain as well as here, is the feeling of going backwards in time. In the mid-1950s I hitch-hiked across Franco’s Spain, from San Sebastian to Madrid and Madrid to Barcelona. What I remember most was the impoverishment of the Spanish countryside, the bleak poverty of the hill villages and the emptiness of the roads. Very few cars in sight, which was hard on the hitch-hiker.
One expensive car did stop and as soon as I got into it I realised that a son had persuaded his father to stop for me. The young man was my own age and anxious to try out his English while I tried to make do with my own, recently acquired, First Arts UCD Spanish.
The father was arrogantly silent with an elegant suit and swollen face. He looked a bit like the Generalissimo himself.
The son and I got on to talk about the Spanish civil war and he was surprised to hear that Irish volunteers had fought on both sides in the war.
He was particularly curious about the kind of Irishmen who had fought for the Republic against Franco. Who were they? Why did they give their lives in the fight against fascism? Suddenly the conversation came to an abrupt halt. A muttered exchange broke out between father and son in the front seats. The father braked the car in the middle of the road and gestured to me: Out! The car drove off leaving me on the side of the road. I can still see the white face of the young man watching me from the passenger window as they drove away.
The shadow of the civil war is still over Spain today. In recent months, its supreme court clamped down on one of its judges, the advocate judge Baltasar Garzón, for daring to raise the issue of Spain’s civil war outrages.
I don’t know about the accusations that have been made against the judge but I do know that the central issue is whether or not to reopen investigations into what happened during the civil war.
This year is the 75th anniversary of the death of the young Irish poet and socialist Charlie Donnelly at the Battle of Jarama, one of the most savage of the war. He was 22, but had already packed in a considerable amount of activity into those years, including two stints in Mountjoy for his agitation on behalf of workers and trade unionism.
He was part of a remarkable generation of young writers at UCD in the 1930s. It included Myles na gCopaleen, Denis Devlin, Mary Lavin, Brian Coffey, Mervyn Wall and Donagh McDonagh.
They had to carve out a new identity for themselves in the shadows of Yeats and Joyce, looking at the new Ireland which they were born into with bright, sceptical intelligence and a political sophistication. Charlie Donnelly was part of that generation.
The estimable publisher Pat Ramsay of Lagan Press has produced a handsome book to mark the Donnelly anniversary (Heroic Heart, A Charles Donnelly Reader).
The poetry raises the old, tragic question of what might have been if he hadn’t been shot in that olive grove in 1937 at the age of 22. I’m not an expert on his work but it would appear to me that somewhere about 1935, when he moved to London, the poetry lifted onto another plane. It moves from the early romanticism of a young man’s writing, filled with echoes of Shelley, to something harder, more achieved where the political conviction is rooted in the language, as in the remarkable poem, The Tolerance of Crows, which speaks with such authority of the highly organised slaughter of the 20th century:
Death comes in quantity from solved
Problems on maps,
Angles of elevation and direction ...
Towards the end of his book on the Spanish civil war, Homage to Catalonia , George Orwell describes his reflections on the trauma he has just experienced in Spain. Back home again, he looks back on the war from the peaceful slumber of southern England with its bowler hats and cricket matches. He thinks about the brutality but he also sees something else, something hopeful. “Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.”
Charlie Donnelly is part of that decency.