Strong Words, Brave Deeds: the poetry, life and times of Thomas O’Brien, volunteer in the Spanish Civil War

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 1995), Reviews, Volume 3

H. Gustav Klaus (ed.)
(O’Brien Press, £15.99)

This is several books rolled into one—biography, letters, poems, plays, and essays, the whole project ‘illustrated with historic photographs, documents and ephemera’. The title suggests a simplistic approach belied by the contents. This is a book that will enchant, inform, anger and frustrate, as much as the events and issues it confronts, and that is a strong recommendation.
Thomas O’Brien (1914-1974) was, in the year of his death, a founder of the press that published this text. He was also a poet, playwright, communist, IRA member, and International Brigader. He was one of 150 left republicans who joined Frank Ryan in Spain with the Connolly Unit of the International Brigade. In his introduction, entitled ‘Beyond Nationalism and Complacency’, Klaus points out that O’Brien was one of those activists who has been ‘accorded little more than a footnote in the standard accounts of Spanish Civil War writings in the English language’, and he has assembled enough material to reverse that trend.
While I do not agree with Edna Longley’s contention that ‘poetry and politics, like Church and State, should be separated’, the relationship between writing and armed struggle is always fraught, and in an Irish context there is an understandable suspicion of an over explicit linkage of the two. In the case of the Spanish Civil War, where artists were active from the outset, the tendency to mythologise is great, as is the inclination to see in that event a possible solution, rather than a temporary displacement, of internecine strife. Klaus observes that ‘feelings of frustration, and sometimes self-reproach, were widespread among writers and intellectuals of the thirties’. He maintains that the cause of Spain ‘in focusing, enlarging and clarifying the decade’s decisive conflict between the forces of reaction and democracy, between fascism and socialism, brought such feelings to a head and forced a choice upon the writers’.
The first section of the book is a rich selection of O’Brien’s poetry, fifty items from a corpus of two hundred. The second comprises three short plays, two by O’Brien, The Last Hill (1939), a verse play about Spain, and Decent Citizens (1942-3), an anti-war drama which may never have been performed. The other, Lock-Out (1939), by Sean Ó hEidirsceoil, deals with the Dublin crisis of 1913 . These scripts are followed by a short essay by O’Brien published in March 1943 in Surge, the New Theatre Group literary magazine, entitled ‘The New Theatre Group: To Die Or Not To Die’, which argues that the company has to produce drama worthy of the Abbey and other established theatres. I am not sure that the plays in this volume are in that bracket, but they are fascinating social documents, and may be of more interest as history than drama. The third section, ‘Spanish Correspondence’, in keeping with the eccentricity of the volume as a whole, is unusual in that the seventeen letters printed here are from the home front, from relatives, friends and associates, with O’Brien as addressee rather than author.
The final section is made up of three critical essays. Sean Ó hEidirsceoil furnishes an insightful autobiographical piece, ‘A personal memoir of the thirties’, Manus O’Riordan offers a thoughtful article on ‘Communism in Dublin in the 1930s: the struggle against fascism’, and J. Bowyer Bell, in ‘Ireland and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939’, a revised version of an essay first published in Studia Hibernica in 1969, raises some of the vexed questions glossed over in the fictional component of the volume.
Bell contends that the conflict in Spain was to some extent the continuation of the Irish Civil War, that Ireland, isolated from Europe in the thirties, and defining itself principally in relation to the United Kingdom, effectively translated the Spanish situation into the Irish one. O’Riordan, in an incisive account of the complex interface between communism and nationalism, closes by quoting the young Irish communist Charlie Donnelly, killed at Jarama in February 1937, on ‘the stain upon Ireland’ from O’Duffy’s Blueshirts, a stain that had to be ‘wiped out’. O’Riordan concludes: ‘It was a small band of Irish communists…who had taken the lead in ensuring that…stain upon Ireland would indeed be wiped out’. Wiping out stains is the work of heroes, not historians. Perhaps the real complacency of the period lay in the belief that one could, through socialism, republicanism, or communism, so easily make the step beyond nationalism. The tensions between the Catholic Church and Irish republicanism remain unresolved. It would be nice to be able to go beyond nationalism, but doing so is a task no simpler than going beyond history.
There is a cruel irony in the fact that, in order to support his large family, O’Brien turned for a time to writing Westerns under the pseudonym of Harry Mancher, with titles like ‘Murder on the Prairie’. There was clearly a demand for the genre, and for an adventure that would take Ireland out of itself.
This book had a personal resonance for me because my father was a volunteer in Spain. He was captured at Jarama in February 1937 and held prisoner for six months. Trying to convey his experiences in a play four years ago, I was caught between the dissonance of drama and the monotones of political propaganda. After a performance attended by Scottish veterans, I spoke to a Moroccan student whose father had fought for Franco. That conversation convinced me that to translate distant political struggles into our own language, while necessary, was also potentially reductive. Spain may have clarified and focused things for Irish—and Scottish—socialist republicans in the thirties, but that act of translation was also an act of appropriation. Events in Spain had implications—and complications—beyond the European arena. To be open to the other side, to see things in a spectrum of shades and tones rather than in black and white, is to be both a good historian and a good dramatist. Behind the bluff and bluster of a certain masculine political rhetoric, beneath the triumphalism, lurk words and deeds that are neither strong nor brave, but still worthy of attention.
As a moving testament to one man’s experience of left republicanism in Ireland and Spain this is a compelling and thought-provoking work. As history it is more problematic, if no less intriguing. The book’s epigraph comes from Walter Benjamin: ‘It is more difficult to honour the memory of the nameless than of the famous. Historical construction should be dedicated to the memory of the nameless’. Another comment by Benjamin may stand as a kind of proviso: ‘There is no cultural document that is not at the same time a record of barbarism’. Once the nameless are named, they lose the purity of anonymity. Incorporation into the historical narrative robs them of the innocence that piety and polemics might wish to confer upon them. The life-affirming message of O’Brien’s powerful poem Connolly is salutary: ‘Far better leave him quiet in the shade/ Than remember only that he died’.

Willy Maley

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