An Irishman's Diary

 

For centuries the Irish have fought foreign wars in foreign lands, mostly from necessity rather than idealism. But most of the young people who fought in in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War were motivated by feelings of solidarity with the downtrodden, writes Deaglán de Bréadún

The brigades were stood down in 1938 and one would need a stony heart not to be stirred by the farewell speech of Dolores Ibarruri, alias La Pasionaria, who told the volunteers: "You came to us like brothers, like sons of immortal Spain. . You are history. You are legend."

Happily, some veterans of the International Brigades are still with us and two of them, Michael O'Riordan and Jack Jones, will be remembering their former comrades at a special event in Waterford next month.

Mr O'Riordan was the chief standard-bearer for communism in Ireland over many decades and his good humour and optimism never failed him throughout that quixotic endeavour. Mr Jones is a former general secretary of the British-based Transport and General Workers' Union whose name was rarely out of the headlines during what we now call the Wilson Era.

Both men fought at the Battle of the Ebro and on Friday, July 9th they will jointly unveil a memorial to 11 Waterford men who joined the International Brigades. The monument is made of six tons of Spanish granite and designed by Michael Warren. Three of the Waterford Brigadistas, the Power brothers, came from one family and, in February 1937, five Waterford men fought in the Battle of Jarama, where Maurice Quinlan was killed in action. The other volunteers were, Frank Edwards, Jackie Hunt, Johnny Kelly, Harry Kennedy, Jackie Lemon, Peter O'Connor and John O'Shea.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, some 75 US veterans of the war are still alive and about a dozen defied the vicissitudes of old age to turn out for a recent commemorative event at New York University. They had different messages for the audience. One said: "I have had many regrets in my life, but going to Spain was not one of them." Another: "I'm falling asleep here!"

Someone described the Spanish affair as "World War One-and-a-Half". There is a compelling argument that, if the Spanish republic had triumphed over Franco's fascists, then perhaps the second World War could have been averted. There is a riposte that Stalin would inevitably have subverted the Spanish Republic and subjected the country to a different form of totalitarianism, as he did in Eastern Europe after the 1939-45 War.

At the New York commemoration there were labour songs and songs about Spain, and speakers drew parallels with the situation in Iraq today. As somebody observed, "The fascists won the war, but we got all the good songs". One I had not heard before was a ballad dedicated to Harry Simms, a 19-year-old mining union activist killed by strike-breakers in 1932: "He gave his life in struggle,/ That's all that he could do,/ He died for the union,/ Also for me and you."

On a more contemporary note, Bruce Barthol of Country Joe and the Fish, famed for its anti-Vietnam War number at the Woodstock festival, sang a satirical song for our times called "Cakewalk to Baghdad". The title derives from the claim by the US neo-conservative Richard Perle that the Iraqi war would be "a cakewalk".

"It went real easy, took a couple of weeks,/ We tore down that statue, set those Saddamites free./ The frogs and the krauts, you know they feel real bad,/ They missed out cakewalking into Baghdad." But the song concludes with a moral: "It's easy to cakewalk in, not so easy to cakewalk out."

Afterwards, I asked an elderly woman why she had come to the Spanish reunion. "For my brother, he died there," she said simply. Perhaps the most striking moment was when someone quoted Abraham Lincoln: "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side. My great concern is to be on God's side."

There will also probably be a song or two at next month's commemoration in Waterford. The site of the memorial on the green area in front of the Bishop's Palace, the Mall, has been provided free of charge by unanimous vote of Waterford City Council.

Further information is available from Jim Nolan at 087-6805314.