The Connolly Column: the story of the Irishmen who fought for the Spanish Republic 1936–1939

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

The Connolly Column: the story of the Irishmen who fought for the Spanish Republic 1936–1939
Michael O’Riordan
(Warren and Pell, €22.50)
ISBN 0954890426

How do we now see the Spanish Civil War of 70 years ago? What do we now think of its origins and the forces involved? The world—particularly Europe—has greatly changed. Fascism, as a political/economic/military ideology, looked formidable then, but has largely vanished now. Communism, which had inspired so much idealism and self-sacrifice, started pulling down men like Bukharin, and Moscow firing-squads were busy even as the International Brigade fought with high morale in Spain. World War II was becoming inevitable.
Michael O’Riordan’s book, which first appeared in 1979, has been republished with a new foreword by the author. He corrects some details, with the dedication to the memory of his comrades that has marked his life. With similar dedication, his son, Manus (of SIPTU), has contributed some informative new appendices. These include one entitled ‘Was Frank Ryan a collaborator?’. It should be read in full.
Both O’Riordans draw parallels between Ireland and Spain. Both are writing from a long-term, Republican, patriotic point of view. One may not agree with some (or much) of what they write. Michael’s phraseology can seem old-fashioned, but there is no doubt about his patriotism as well as his communism. But we live in a post-Solzhenitsyn, post-Stasi world. We know the terrible inhumanity of the Gulag Archipelago, of the silent families, of wives having to change their names because their husbands had been sent there—indeed, of the women’s camps also. And Solzhenitsyn has been supported by many other accounts. The ‘sunlit uplands’ were never reached—nor, perhaps, were ever reachable under the system.
Some of the parallels Michael O’Riordan draws between Spain and the Ireland of the Land War, the War of Independence and the Civil War may be strained. I think it was Seán Ó Faoláin who said that the Irish landlord class was more stupid than Spain’s. Were there the exceptions in Spain that we had here? I was told that a UN official serving for a period in the Congo had come from a wealthy Spanish family. He had taken the Republican side in the Civil War and had lost everything.
The Spanish generals’ attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government shocked many democrats in Europe and even America. The result was the International Brigade, which included unlikely people like Clement Atlee, later to be Britain’s post-World War II prime minister. Some later dismissed their service as a peccadillo of their youth. But for most it remained a defining period of their lives. For Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union, Spain became a proxy war, a place to try out weaponry and tactics. The origin of the name ‘Connolly Column’ is well explained in the foreword—it is both more complex and more appropriate than one might think.
There were six international brigades, generally organised by language and nationality—German and Austrian anti-fascists, French and Belgians, Poles and Hungarians, etc. Fifteenth brigade of English-speakers included four battalions—British, Americans, Canadians, and a battalion of Spanish-speakers from Latin America. ‘The total number of Irish volunteers was 145; of that number 61 never came back. This was a proportional casualty rate comparable to the brigades as a whole.’ The Irish did much of their fighting in this brigade. ‘There were never more than 17,000 [international volunteers] at any one time in Spain’, with an overall total of about 40,000 and 5,000 deaths in battle.
‘The arms available to the Republicans were mainly old and few.’ The details are interesting. Bolt-action Canadian Ross-type rifles plus French Lebels and, surprisingly, Austrian Steyers were used. Soviet Mouisin Nugants were later issued—the ones with the small capacity (5-round) magazine. In 1938 there were some Czech Mauser rifles and the first models of the Bren light machine-gun. (About the same time we were purchasing this excellent weapon for the army here. We had it throughout the Emergency.) The numbers of German and Italian regular troops have been disputed but there is no doubt that large numbers were used—perhaps 20–26,000 Germans (many of these were Luftwaffe personnel) and 100,000 Italians—although the latter figure seems high. In any event, it was clear that the weight of numbers must eventually have its effect.
‘Franco’s Moors’ were often mentioned during the Civil War. Franco had brought them from Morocco. We had a battalion from former Spanish Morocco and two companies from former French Morocco in Katanga in 1960. They were fit-looking, well-turned-out young troops and officers with a sprinkling of seasoned NCOs. Col. Byrne asked an NCO about one of his medals. ‘For Madrid, sir’, was the answer.
Both O’Riordans write clearly. Michael is good at describing battle actions—he was involved in some desperate ones. He has a rare skill. Many accounts are pedestrian and over-detailed, but Michael can write of them with clarity, while preserving the excitement and strain. He is one of the two last survivors of the Connolly Column.
Back in the Soviet Union, 36,671 officers were being executed, imprisoned or dismissed in the purges at about this time, including over half the brigade and higher commanders. A talented second string of generals arose to replace them, but many soldiers died as the replacements found their feet. Their origins are written on their faces: the urban fighting expert and ex-shop boy Chuikov; Rokossovsky, the Polish train-driver’s son recently tortured by the NKVD; Yeromenko and Malinovsky and the extraordinary Zhukov—ex-peasants, Czarist troopers, wandering boys. Compared with them the German generals looked serene and competent, men from a different world. We know what happened.
Col. E. D. Doyle

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