Old soldier remembers young Cork docker who sailed to Spain to fight for democracy

 

MICHAEL O'Riordan is an old soldier who served on the losing side in an unfashionable war. A former general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, he was never afraid of taking unpopular stances.

His communism now looks like a lost cause, but history has been kinder to the idealism which led him and others to fight in Spain for democracy in the 1930s.

Late last year the Spanish parliament unanimously supported a motion advising their government that "Spanish citizenship should be given to all people who asked for it and had been accredited as part of the International Brigade".

It is hoped that the Spanish government will approve the motion in time for the 60th anniversary celebrations in November this year of the brigade's part in the Spanish Civil War.

Michael O'Riordan fought with the International Brigade in Spain. He was one of 145 Irishmen to do so, 61 of whom were killed. Five of the survivors are thought to be still alive.

In February 1938 he joined up to fight for the Republican government against the rebel Gen Franco, who was backed by the Catholic Church. He was "gone 19" and had been working on the docks with his father in Cork. Recruitment was organised through the Communist Party.

The Spanish government, elected in February 1936, was presented to the Irish people as a "group of blood thirsty Bolsheviks, persecutors of Catholic: priests and nuns".

An Irish Christian Front was formed under Eoin O'Duffy, leader of the "Blueshirts". Huge rallies were held and large amounts of money raised to help the "fight for Christianity in Spain".

This movement organised 700 volunteers to fight for Franco and enjoyed the vociferous support of the Catholic Church. Not so the International Brigade, or its Irish unit, formed in September 1936.

By December the first Irish contingent left for Spain. Michael O'Riordan travelled there via Dublin, Liverpool, London and Paris. All of which was illegal as it was against the law to volunteer for the International Brigade.

He got into France using an English name and address, and arrived at the hotel there, where Marshal Tito of the former Yugoslavia headed operations. For four days he and, other volunteers underwent an intensive orientation course.

They were then brought to the Spanish border at the foot of the Pyrenees, which they crossed using a smugglers route. The crossing took 12 hours. He was the only Irishman among 30 volunteers.

In June they took part in a major assault against Franco forces at the Ebro river. They had no aerial support and were being bombed heavily from the air. They had no artillery or anti tank guns. They numbered 35,000 to Franca's 45,000.

But the element of surprise was theirs, as was victory. O'Riordan was wounded. A piece of shrapnel from a trench mortar hit his right shoulder and he had to be taken to a field hospital.

Conditions there were so bad there was no anaesthetic. He was returned, injured, to the reserves and saw no further action before the brigade withdrew in December.

By then they had served their function. A Spanish army had been built up, which replaced them. There was a formal public farewell from the Spanish people at a parade in Barcelona on October 29th that year. Thousands lined the streets and threw flowers to their departing hermanos (brothers).

And in Dublin they (about 30) marched from Westland Row (now Pearse) railway station to O'Connell Street, where that turbulent republican priest, Father Michael O'Flanagan, greeted them from the back of a lorry.

On his arrival in Cork Michael O'Riordan was "ostracised", with the pious "blessing themselves and crossing to the other side of the road" whenever they saw him.

In February 1940 he was among the first three men interned in this State as a "security risk" and when he stood for election in 1951 the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr McQuaid, had a message read at all Masses forbidding votes for him under pain of mortal sin.

Then in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. "History has its own way," he says, agreeing that mistakes were made in the past but insisting "communism is not dead". He instances recent elections in Poland, Russia and Hungary as proof.

Then he predicts that "what will come will not be the same as before. It will be a more flexible form of communism". And he moves away into the winter evening, slowed only by history and arthritis. Semper fidelis.