On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Ebro, Catalonia’s Dignity Commission has commissioned a painting for the Gandesa Civil War museum showing a boat full of brigadistes crossing the river. Vilaweb interviews Manus O’Riordan, son of international brigadista Micheál O’Riordan, overlooking the very spot at Vinebre where he crossed the river bearing a Catalan flag. It is here his ashes were scattered in 2007.
– Who was the Irishman carrying a Catalan flag 80 years ago while crossing the river at Vinebre in the Battle of the Ebro?
– It was my father Micheál O’Riordan, a member of the 15th International Brigade. Every company of the British Batallion bore a Catalan and a Republic flag to cross the river. My father was instructed to carry it by the British Battalion commander.
– What was his exact mission and why was he appointed to it?
– The aim was to liberate the other side of the Ebro and to carry that flag as deep into the recovered territory as possible. Once the action started on the other side, my father passed it over to a liberated Catalan who may have got in trouble when the fascists later came back!
– Was he chosen because he was an Irishman?
– The British Battalion to which my father belonged, was composed of British and Irish volunteers, and, indeed, volunteers from other British-ruled countries, such as Cyprus. Among successive commanders of the International Brigades’ British Battalion were two Irishmen, one of whom had been an IRA veteran of Ireland’s War of Independence in 1919-21. The final commander of the British Battalion, Sam Wild, was an Englishman from Manchester, but of Irish origin, and his family had an involvement with the Irish Republican Fenian movement of the 1860s. So he had an understanding of the national question. He thought that it was fitting that an Irishman should carry the Catalan flag.
– How did your father end up as a member of a British Battalion?
– Well there were not enough Irishmen to form a battalion of their own. Initially, in 1937, some went into the American Lincoln Battalion and others went with the British one. At the battle of Brunete, the Americans were decimated. Some Irish in the Lincoln Brigade were regrouped back in the British battalion. In either battalion there were Irishmen who were proud to belong to the James Connolly column in honour of the great leader of the Irish working class. But the British Battalion was unique in that it also had a strong anti-Imperialist leaning. Indeed, in June 1938, the battallion celebrated Wolfe Tone day, in honour of the leader of the 1798 revolt.
– Did your father believe the Spanish Republic could really be saved?
– Not when he came out from Ireland in early 1938. By then, the fascist victories were worryingly regular. My father had actually wanted to come out in 1937 but he had an appendicitis attack and needed an operation. Nevertheless, he felt honour-bound to go out to fight for the Republic as he had promised initially.
– Did he talk about the experience with you?
– Well, he wrote a book called “Connolly Column” in which he told the broader story. But his own role was anonymous in it. He does mention the flag but doesn’t say who bore it! It was rather my mother who told me of the horrors he had been through. Only in 1988, when we first came back to Catalonia, did he open up and reveal to me the individual details and horrors he had experienced in the war.
– Your father is remembered as a brave brigadista. What was he like in his family life?
– His family was certainly proud of him. In 1996 we accompanied him to the commemorative events in Madrid, Catalonia and the Basque Country, of which the most moving was undoubtedly the reception at the Catalan Parliament. He fought for his socialist ideals all his life. A fact that even got him into trouble with the Irish Government, which went as far as to interning him for four years during the Second World War.
– Revolutionary songs played a role for brigadistes, didn’t they?
– Singing was very important to them, yes. James Connolly, though born in Edinburgh, was of an Irish background. He wrote a famous rebel song in Scotland which was learned and taken up in Ireland too. Even when singing songs in unknown languages, the brigadistes would make up their own versions. For example, for the Riego Hymn, they used to sing “hurrah for Barnum and Bailey, the circus is coming to town!” It wasn’t a lack of respect. It was brigade humour!
– What brings you to Catalonia this time?
– It is the 80 anniversary of the crossing and the Dignity Commission has commissioned a painting for the Gandesa Civil War museum. My father was injured on hill 481 –known as the Pimple- in the Serra de Cavalls on August 1st and withdrawn to a hospital in Mataró before repatriation. His first trip back was in 1988 for the unveiling of the memorial monument to the International Brigades in Barcelona. It was his first trip back to Gandesa. At a bar there he drank a San Miguel beer and said “it’s taken me 50 years to have a beer in Gandesa”. So it’s fitting that his portrait is in Gandesa. He’d have liked that. The town they wanted to liberate but couldn’t because of the superior fascist weaponry.
– Can you describe the feelings that this painting awakes in your family?
– It is a Catalan recognition of my father’s contribution. Mind you, in life he never needed any form of recognition. I’m glad my sister Brenda and I saw the work in process when the Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland came over here for the May celebration. There is a fine Catalan-Irish connection that it is good to strengthen further.
– What is the goal of the International Brigade Memorial Trust?
– The IBMT is a successor organisation to the International Brigade Association, which had been formed by now deceased British and Irish veterans. We operate in both states, and I am its Ireland Secretary. We keep the memory of the Brigadistes alive through publications, regional memorials, and annual commemorations, including the holding of our AGM in a different British or Irish city each year. Indeed, when held in Dublin in 2016, our AGM was opened by the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, who gave a stirring address in honour of the International Brigades. I am also proud that during our commemoration at the magnificent London memorial this July, the theme was the 80th anniversary of the battle of the Ebro, and that the wreath in honour of the Irish Brigadistes was laid by my own three grandchildren.
– You are also on the Executive of FIBI – Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland, aren’t you?
– Yes I am. Our aim is to honour each individual Irish volunteer in both their own birthplaces and where they served. In this year’s 80th anniversary Ebro tour, FIBI honoured the Irish nurse Ruth Ormseby, outside the Barcelona building where she had been killed in a fire in a medical aid flat in April 1938. We also involve more and more families of brigadistes, this year including relatives of Andrew Delaney and Thomas O’Flaherty, two Irish volunteers in the American Lincoln Battalion, killed in action, respectively, outside Gandesa in March 1938, and outside Corbera in September 1838.
– How do you see the current situation in Catalonia from Ireland?
– Irish people shared the outrage at the state aggression brought upon voters at the October 1 Referendum. It was most horrifying to the Irish public opinion that this should have occurred.
– What is your last word on the events we are now commemorating?
– I think that it is important to underline that, as regards the brigadistes, there is no militaristic war-worshipping of any form. The spirit that guided them 80 years ago was a will to prevent a world war and the onslaught of fascism. OK, they fought a good fight but they did so to try and stop further attrocities. They felt that if they stopped the fascists here, maybe Hitler would have thought twice about being so aggressive. They knew that war is always a terrible thing in which it is the common people that suffer most.