In remembrance of International Brigaders

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2012), Letters, Volume 20

Sir,—Des Bell and Fearghal McGarry complain (HI 20.3, May/June 2012) that ‘before the first scene of The Enigma of Ryan had been shot, our film had been denounced by an Irish Democrat article headlined “Film to slander Frank Ryan as Nazi collaborator”’. They do not name the author of the offending article and are being unfair to that publication on two counts. All it had done was reprint my own posting on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives website, and all I had done was respond to the Sunday Times report last 11 September that had quoted Des Bell’s own declared intention ‘to present to the audience the kind of enigma Frank Ryan was—how he started out on the left and ended up working for fascism’.
Bell and McGarry now write of the film that was actually made that ‘the potency of Nazi iconography makes an arresting case concerning Ryan’s status as a collaborator that the dialogue proceeds to undercut’. Fair enough. At the History Ireland Hedge School following the film’s screening on 26 February I welcomed the fact that it had retreated from its previously stated purpose and now presented the complexity of Ryan’s position in Germany, a welcome that I have restated in the spring/summer 2012 newsletter of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. In that Hedge School debate, Fearghal McGarry did indeed return to the ‘collaborator’ thesis that he had advanced in his 2003 biography of Ryan, while I, in turn, restated the ‘patriot’ argument of my book review for this magazine (HI 11.1, Spring 2003), available on-line. The Oxford English Dictionary has a very precise political definition of ‘collaborate’ as ‘cooperate traitorously with an enemy’, while Oxford’s Thesaurus further defines ‘wartime collaborator’ as ‘sympathizer, traitor, quisling, fifth columnist’. In an interview with Michael McInerney of the Irish Times in April 1975, de Valera passed the following judgement on Ireland’s International Brigade leader in the Spanish anti-fascist war: ‘Frank Ryan was a man for whom I have always held the highest regard. In all he did at home or abroad he had as his first aim the interests of his own country’. HI readers can, of course, make up their own minds, not only by revisiting Fearghal’s biography and my review but also by listening on-line to the February Hedge School debate (
Your excellent Olympics issue (HI 20.4, July/August 2012) further notes that Ireland’s team manager at the 1932 games, Eoin O’Duffy, went on to take the fascist side in the Spanish war. It is at least as important to remember the two International Brigade Olympians, one Irish and the other English, who gave their lives fighting against that same fascism. Church of Ireland minister Bob Hilliard had been the Irish bantamweight boxing champion in 1923 and 1924. He was the only civilian member of the Irish boxing team at the 1924 Olympics. Indeed, as an IRA volunteer in our 1922–3 Civil War, he had fought against his Free State Army fellow team members! At the Paris Olympics he lost on points to the Argentinian Pertuzzo, who in turn lost in the quarterfinals to the US silver medallist Tripoli. Bob Hilliard was killed in action in the February 1937 battle of Jarama. London Labour councillor Lewis Clive had a more successful Olympic Games in 1932, winning a gold medal for Britain in coxless pairs rowing. He literally fought side by side with my late father, Micheál O’Riordan, as his company commander, at the 1938 battle of the Ebro. Shortly before my father was wounded on 1 August, Lewis Clive was killed in action alongside him.—Yours etc.,
International Brigade Memorial Trust
Dublin 11

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