Michael O’Riordan’s address to The Labour Party Conference




Cumann Stair, Beal Áthan Ghaorthaidh, are proud to reproduce here the Address to the Irish Labour Party National Conference in the City Hall, Cork by Michael O’Riordan (of the Connolly Column Fifteenth International Brigade during the Spanish Anti-Fascist War, 1936-1939) delivered on Sunday, September 30, 2001. Michael has spent his entire life fighting for the rights of workers and oppressed people. His parents were Micheál O’Riordan, Inchinossig, Ballingeary and his mother was Julia Creed, Illaunineagh, Ballingeary.


Sixty five years ago the democratically-elected Popular Front Government of the Spanish Republic was confronted by the twin threat of a fascist revolt led by Franco and its supporting foreign invasion of armed forces from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In response, anti-fascists throughout the world resolved to come to the defence of the Spanish Republic through the formation of the International Brigades.


It was sixty five years ago this month that the first Irish anti-fascist volunteer arrived in Spain to participate in the heroic defence of Madrid. He was the Irish Bricklayers’ Union activist Bill Scott. Bill hailed from a very politically-conscious Dublin Protestant working-class family and his father had fought in the 1916 Rising as a member of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army. Up to 200 other Irishmen were to follow him - men of all religions and none, drawn from the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish working-class traditions of our cities and towns and the Republican and Land League traditions of both town and country. They were, in the words of Christy Moore’s song "La Quince Brigada" – which he wrote in honour of the Fifteenth International Brigade – "a brotherhood against the fascist clan".


With the roll of honour of the Irish section of the International Brigades comprising atheist and Jew, a Church of Ireland clergyman and a former Irish Christian Brother, Communist activists, IRA veterans and a former Orangeman – the true Republican vision of Wolfe Tone was achieved in its ranks – the unity of Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman.


I am now one of only three surviving Irish veterans of the International Brigades. I accept this Conference’s recognition of the stand we took over sixty years ago as a tribute to all of my fellow comrades-in-arms, and in particular to the 63 of them who gave their lives in the struggle against fascism. In that fight they suffered the added wound of having the vast majority of Irish public opinion opposed to them at that time, whipped up by the hysteria of the William Martin Murphy press. And it was a hysteria that also engulfed the Labour Party itself. Any attempt to raise the issue of the defence of the Spanish Republic was shouted down at Labour Party Conferences, and a prominent Labour Party TD actually graced the platform of Paddy Belton’s so-called Irish Christian Front in order to show his support for Franco.


Speaking as I am in my native city of Cork, I should also mention from personal experience how that hysteria affected the families of volunteers. My parents, who had migrated into the city from the West Cork Gaeltacht of Ballingeary, were not responsible for the stand I took in volunteering to fight in Spain, but they were nonetheless made to pay painfully for their son’s actions. In August 1938, I was wounded outside Gandesa in the battle for Hill 481. Some time later, as I recovered in hospital, I was able to send a telegram to my Cork home on Pope’s Quay in order to re-assure my anxious parents that I was now safe and well. They were, of course, much relieved. But my genuinely religious mother also met the full venom of religious bigotry on her own doorstep when the postman who delivered that telegram spat out at her the curse: "It’s dead he should be, for fighting against Christ!".


As that great Irish Republican priest, Father Michael O’Flanagan so often pointed out, we were not of course fighting against Christ, but against the perversion of religion to justify the oppression of the Spanish people and the subversion of their democratic will. Father O’Flanagan declared "the fight in Spain is a fight between the rich, privileged classes against the rank-and-file of the poor oppressed people of Spain". But it took over half a century for that fact to be appreciated in Ireland. As part of that process of education I wrote ‘The Connolly Column – The Story of the Irishmen who Fought for the Spanish Republic 1936 – 39’. And in my 1979 dedication I wrote:


‘To the memory of my father, who, because of the propaganda against the Spanish Republic in Ireland, did not agree with my going to Spain, but who disagreed more with your ‘coming back and leaving your commander, Frank Ryan, behind’’.


I came back to four years of internment. Following my release from the Curragh Camp and my return to Cork in 1943, I was among those who founded the Liam Mellows Branch of the Labour Party in the hope that it might become the political voice of Irish anti-fascism in this city. I was named secretary of that branch but unfortunately the chairman we were given by the Party leadership was a Cork City Councillor who would debase the name of Labour in 1944 by a vitriolic attack on what he called "the Jew boys" of Cork. It was in opposition to such anti-Semitism that I insisted on giving a public lecture under the auspices of the Liam Mellows Branch on the subject of the Jewish question. A number of prominent members of Cork’s Jewish community attended that public meeting and the future Lord Mayor of Cork, Gerald Goldberg, said from the floor: "I came here to defend my people, but when I heard the lecturer I saw there was no need".


But the anti-Semitic Labour Councillor did not give up. When Gerald Goldberg subsequently made a donation to branch funds I was accused of attempting to ‘subvert the Party with Jewish money’. An investigating committee was established, presided over by a Labour TD. The complaint against me was sustained and I was expelled from a Party that was not prepared to support my continuing anti-fascist stand in 1944.


I know that the present Labour Party has totally shed such anti-Semitism, and that in the person of Mervyn Taylor you have had a member of Jewish community not only as Chairperson of the Party but also as Minister for Equality and Law Reform. But it should not be forgotten how long it took for that change to materialise. Even as late as twenty five years after my own expulsion, a prominent Labour Party TD got away with making an infamous anti-Semitic outburst for which he may have been criticised but was certainly not expelled. As I have said, that is now passed. And the Labour Party provided not only Ireland’s first Jewish Government Minister, but also its first Muslim TD, Moosajee Bhamjee.


In mentioning the need to learn from the past, I must, however, pay tribute to one Cork Labour leader who did take a noteworthy stand against fascism. Jim Hickey, who was a close personal friend and fellow striker with my father on the Cork docks in 1920, served several terms in Dáil Eireann. He was also my own branch secretary in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union when I earned my living as a bus worker in this city. It was as Lord Mayor of Cork that he hit the international headlines for all the right reasons in February 1939. When the Nazi warship "Schlesien" visited Cork that month, Jim Hickey adamantly refused to accord it the civic welcome that was normally due to such a so-called courtesy visit. And how right he was! Seven months later, on the 1st of September 1939, this self-same warship fired the first artillery barrage in the port of Danzig which, in turn, began World War II with all the Holocausts of the millions upon millions that followed.


I genuinely appreciate the tribute now being made by this Labour Party Conference to the memory of that small band of Irishmen who took their stand in fighting fascism sixty five years ago in an effort to halt its onward march towards a wider European and World War. But it is also necessary to appreciate how far we International Brigaders have travelled – from military defeat in that Spanish War to our subsequent vindication not only by history but also by the acclamation of Spanish democracy itself five years ago.


Sixty three years ago the withdrawal of the International Brigades in September 1938 ended the period of service of the Irish anti-fascists in the ranks of the Spanish People’s Army. In December of that year they set out for home. They had fulfilled the pledge of solidarity and had redeemed the honour and freedom-loving traditions of the Irish people. Their struggle was a natural expression of traditional links between the Irish national liberation movement and the cause of international solidarity.


Compared numerically with the contributions of other countries to the International Brigades, that of Ireland was not large, but the difficult political conditions under which the Irish joined the movement must be borne in mind. Of the approximately 200 Irish volunteers who came to the aid of Spain, 63 laid down their lives.


They were finally honoured nationally by a memorial plaque unveiled by the Lord Mayor of Dublin on the 5th of May, 1990 at Liberty Hall, Dublin. The location was particularly appropriate, since Liberty Hall had also served as headquarters of James Connolly’s own Irish Citizen Army which he led in the national revolutionary Rising of Easter 1916. Local memorials were also unveiled in Waterford to the ten volunteers who came from that city; on Achill Island, Co. Mayo to Tommy Patten, the first Irishman to fall in Spain when defending Madrid; in Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry to International Brigader Michael Lehane who gave his life in the continuing struggle against fascism when serving with the Norwegian Merchant Navy in 1943; and in the ATGWU office in Dublin. And a further ceremony marked our handing over of the now 63-year-old Memorial Banner of the Irish International Brigaders to the safekeeping of the Irish Labour History Museum.


As the 60th anniversary of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War was marked, the greatest honour to be received by Connolly Column veterans was from the Spanish people themselves as we shared with our fellow International Brigade veterans in the award of entitlement to Spanish citizenship – by unanimous vote of the Spanish Parliament - and as we participated in the nation-wide commemorations throughout Spain in November 1996. But there was also an even greater awareness at home of how we had upheld Ireland’s honour in that struggle. In 1937 it had been those Irishmen who had served Franco fascism who had been acclaimed with a civic reception by the then Lord Mayor of Dublin. Now, if those forces are recalled at all, it is with a sense of national embarrassment. The wheel has turned full circle. Even if it was 60 years late in coming, it was indeed an honour for the surviving Connolly Column veterans to have their anti-fascism at long last honoured by a civic reception from the Lord Mayor of Dublin on the 14th of February, 1997. The motion to hold such a reception had been proposed by Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey and unanimously agreed by Dublin City Council. We have also been particularly honoured by our own class with ceremonies organised by the trade union councils of Dublin, Waterford and Clonmel. On the 11th of May, 1997 we were again present in Kilgarvan when the Norwegian ambassador to Ireland posthumously presented his country’s War Service medal earned in the Norwegian Merchant Navy by our comrade-in-arms Michael Lehane who gave his life at sea in the struggle against fascism in 1943.


It was a great source of joy to me that present on all of these occasions was Peter O’Connor of Waterford, the last Irish survivor of the battles of Jarama and Brunete, a one time Labour Party Councillor in his native city and a veteran of my own Communist Party of Ireland. It was Peter O’Connor and his fellow-Waterfordmen, Paddy and Johnny Power, who had crawled out onto the Jarama battlefield to bring back the body of the Irish poet-volunteer Charlie Donnelly for burial in Morata de Tajuña. And it was Peter who spoke on behalf of all of us at the ceremonies marking the unveiling of the memorial to the heroic dead of Jarama in Morata cemetery in October 1994. Also present at the Dublin and Morata ceremonies - as well as at the 60th anniversary commemorations - was the Dublin Jewish veteran Maurice Levitas who fought on the Aragon front and was imprisoned for a year in the fascist concentration camp of San Pedro de Cardeña. Regrettably Peter died in June 1999 and Maurice died in February of this year.


It is also a matter of particular regret that two of my closest personal and political comrades had passed on before the vindication of those 60th anniversary commemorations. Back in my native Cork, I now wish to pay special tribute to two sisters from the West Cork town of Clonakilty. My late wife, Kay Keohane-O’Riordan, who passed away in December 1991, was both a convinced Christian and a convinced Communist who bravely stood by me in our common struggle and who courageously confronted all the Red-baiting attacks that rained down upon us during the Cold War era. Kay’s sister, Máire Keohane-Sheehan, was chairperson of Cork Branch of the Communist Party of Ireland at the time of her death in September 1975. But many a Labour Party Conference was also roused by her eloquence during the 1960s when, for a time, she was the sole female member of its Administrative Council. Máire – who served as Secretary of the Cork Branch of the Irish Nurses’ Organisation - had also been a co-founder of the Liam Mellows branch of the Labour Party and went on to support me when I was a candidate for the Cork Socialist Party in the 1946 by-election. When I was Red-baited by a Fianna Fáil Government Minister during that campaign for having fought against Franco, it was Máire who came to the fore in defence of my anti-Fascist stand. Her powerful oratory drew thousands to hear her speak at public meetings on the streets of this city and won the support of the close on 4000 who voted for me. Both sisters had been reared in the tradition of that great Clonakilty ballad, "The Wife of the Bold Tenant Farmer", and I salute their memory here today.


More than sixty years after the Spanish anti-Fascist War the ranks of surviving Irish veterans of the Fifteenth International Brigade now number only three:

Bob Doyle who also fought on the Aragon front and was imprisoned in San Pedro de Cardeña; and Eugene Downing and myself who fought on the Ebro front where we were both wounded. But we survivors have lived to see the sacrifice of our comrades who gave their lives in Spain finally vindicated at the highest level in our own country. And both Peter O’Connor and Maurice Levitas also lived to see that day.


It was on the 12th of May 1996 that a monument was erected outside Liberty Hall to the Irish Socialist leader, James Connolly, on the 80th anniversary of his execution by British Imperialism. The monument was unveiled by the then President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, who is now the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Connolly Column veterans of the International Brigades were present with our banner displaying the red, yellow and purple colours of the Spanish Republic. And during the course of her speech President Robinson paid tribute to us as a group who, to use her own words, "fought – inspired by Connolly - in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War". When the President subsequently greeted us one by one, she also said: - "You did yourselves proud". I have one qualification to make to that. It was the Spanish people themselves who did us proud and it was an honour to fight alongside them.


I will conclude by sincerely thanking your Party leader Ruairi Quinn for his invitation and welcome, and Conference delegates for this tribute.


Salud y venceremos!