On the road from Coalisland to Dungannon a memorial plaque stands on the face of a very large stone. The plaque commemorates the life of Charlie Donnelly who was born in the nearby townland of Killybrackey on June 10, 1914. Charlie was a writer, poet and a left wing political activist who fought and died in the battle of Jarama in February 1937 fighting on the side of the Spanish republic against Franco’s fascists.
Charlie is mentioned in Christy Moore’s Viva La Quinta Brigada as are two Belfast men, Liam Tumilson and Jim Stranney. On Sunday I listened to John McAlea and Blackstaff sing this ballad. His interpretation brings the story to life and, given the date, it was a unique experience. Sunday last was the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in which Irishmen fought on both sides. The 1930s was a time of great depression in Western Europe in general, and in Ireland, north and south, in particular. There were a quarter of a million unemployed in the island out of a population of about four million.
Conditions in the north were worse than in the Free State. The shipyards were almost at a standstill. 20,000 workers in the linen industry were idle. In the slums of Belfast 8,000 children were declared by the Belfast Executive Committee to be suffering from malnutrition.
The south was also enduring severe economic depression. There was mass unemployment, poverty and starvation in the crowded slums of Dublin, Waterford, and Cork. Mass emigration was ongoing.
The gathering storm of frustration and anger broke in Belfast. The Irish Press of October 4, 1932 reported ‘10,000 unemployed marching in protest against the scale of relief paid in certain distress schemes. Eight shillings a week for a man to support his wife and family. On October 12 the Press reported: “Cordon around Belfast. Street fighting in widely separated areas. Revolver and rifle firing by police on huge crowd of unemployed, especially in the Falls and Shankill area.
John Greggan of Millfield shot dead. Samuel Baxter of Regent Street died of wounds received in an attack made on an armoured car that had become trapped in a trench.” The Belfast Telegraph stated: “There was an exchange of mischief-makers all over the city. It was significant that for once the religious question did not enter into the trouble. Youths from Protestant areas were to be found in Catholic districts and vice-versa.”
Despite the conflict the leadership of the IRA did not involve themselves in the outdoor relief riots as a matter of policy. They made themselves busy organising a Boycott Bass policy. Because of some disparaging remarks the Bass boss, Colonel Grettin, was reported to have made about the Irish, some IRA leaders took umbrage and sent units out on to the streets of Dublin and elsewhere to raid pubs, terrify the customers, and destroy perfectly good stocks of bottled Bass.
This policy of isolation from the developing class struggle and non-resistance was causing great discontent in the rank and file of the republican movement. The crisis came at the IRA Annual Convention on March 17, 1934 in Dublin. Michael Price called for a declaration of a “workers’ republic” as the aim of the army. The leadership of the Right was shocked. Sean Russell said that they were “not interested in party politics”.
Peadar O’Donnell called for a Republican Congress that would rally all shades of anti-fascist and republican opinion. This was opposed by the executive committee who won by one vote. Thereupon Peadar O’Donnell, Michael Price, George Gilmore and Frank Ryan left the convention and the IRA. A special conference convened at Athlone on April 7-8 1934 was attended by over 200 former IRA leaders and prominent republicans and socialists and the Republican Congress was formed. Secretary of the Republican Congress was Charlie Donnelly. After a spell in London he returned to Dublin in July 1936 at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and urged Frank Ryan to recruit men to fight.
In September 1936. Cardinal MacRory, Archbishop of Armagh, publicly denounced Frank Ryan for showing support for the Spanish republicans. An outraged Ryan in an open letter replied: “May I assure your eminence that as an Irish Catholic I will take my religion from Rome, but as an Irish republican I will take my politics from neither Moscow not Maynooth.”
Ryan was undeterred and began to organise men to go to Spain, and the Irish contingent left Dublin, Belfast and Rosslare between December 12 and 14, 1936, travelling through London and France to Spain. Around thirty men from Belfast went to fight in Spain, ten of whom died in action. Catholic and Protestant socialist republicans fought and died together in war, something that had not happened since the Battle of Antrim in 1798 .
General Eoin O’Duffy led an Irish movement with curiously similar aims to those of Adolf Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy and General Franco in Spain. They were originally known as ‘Blueshirts’ and later became known as ‘the Irish Christian Front’. O’Duffy raised £30,000 to help Franco’s revolt and recruited an Irish Brigade of 600 men to fight for Franco’s fascists.
Those who joined knew little of Spain and their short stay on the Iberian peninsula was an unhappy one. They arrived in December 1936 but Franco stood them down in April 1937 as they were deemed unsuitable. A number of Belfast men served under O’Duffy including Sean Cunningham from Clyde Street, John Jones, Whiterock Road and Peter Fanning from Springfield Road.
Prominent among those on the Republican side were William James ‘Liam’ Tumilson. He emigrated to Canada but returned to live at 9 Thorndyke Street off Templemore Avenue. Commandant Tumilson was in charge of a section of machine gunners and was killed in action in Jarama on March 14, 1937 and was buried in Morata 20 miles south of Madrid.
Born of Protestant parentage he strove to unite Catholic and Protestant workers against their common enemy, the capitalist class. His close friend was Jim Stranney, Thompson Street, whose parents lived in John Street. He was killed on July 31, 1938 at Gandesa. Harry McGrath from Tobergill Street off Tennant Street was killed in the Sierra Cabals on September 23, 1938. Dick O’Neill, Falls Road, Danny Boyle, Billy Henry of 31 Bradford Street, Old Lodge Road all died in Jarama.
Just before he was struck down in Jarama, it was Charlie Donnelly who is reputed to have uttered the immortal line: “Even the olives are bleeding.”