BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra
On 9 August 2017, I introduced a number of readings relating to the International Brigades, movingly delivered by actors Christopher Ecclestone and Yolanda Vazquez and by Margot Heinemann’s daughter, Jane Bernal.
On Sunday 26 September 2021, the respected and popular Trade Unionist, political activist and writer, Manus O’Riordan, died suddenly of a heart attack. Among many to pay tribute was the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, who remarked that. ‘It was a privilege to have known him and his father, Mick O’Riordan, particularly for their testimony to the bravery of those who served in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.’ As the son of a former volunteer, Manus grew up steeped in his father’s world of politics, of which Spain was always a significant part.
Born in Dublin in 1949, Manus was raised in the Portobello area of the city. Having earned a secondary school scholarship, he went on to take a degree in economics and politics from University College Dublin and a Masters in Economics and Labour History from the University of New Hampshire, USA. After graduation he returned to Dublin to work as a researcher and economist for the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (later merged into SIPTU, the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union), becoming the Head of the Research Department. It was a job to which he dedicated the entirety of his working life and where he met Annette, who he married in 1974.
The couple regularly accompanied Manus’s father to International Brigade commemorations and reunions in Ireland, Britain and, following the death of Franco in 1975, Spain itself. Continuing the work of his father, who wrote a history of the Irish in Spain, Manus penned numerous articles and reviews defending the reputation of the former volunteers, notably his fellow UCD alumnus, the Irish Republican leader, Frank Ryan. Soon after the International Brigade Memorial Trust was formed in Britain in 2001, Manus joined as a trustee and Executive Committee member. In 2010 he officially took on the role of Ireland Secretary and, three years later, he took on a similar role in the Friends of the International Brigades of Ireland.
Both organisations were very fortunate to have him, for Manus possessed a unique skillset. He was extremely knowledgeable, with a prodigious memory and his presence and gravitas commanded fellow committee members’ respect. He was dedicated and hard-working, organising the IBMT’s AGM in Dublin on two separate occasions: in 2005 when Irish President Mary McAleese invited a group of veterans, including Manus’s father, to meet her at her official residence and in 2016 when President Higgins opened the meeting and delivered a beautifully crafted and heartfelt speech on the volunteers’ political legacy.
Erudite, cultured, with a mischievous sense of humour, Manus was always entertaining company. He was a brilliant linguist who translated poetry between English and Irish and, like his wife Annette (who sadly died in 2013), was an accomplished singer. He often performed the wonderful Spanish Civil War ballad, Si me quieres escribir, to captivated audiences. Somehow he also found the time to be a devoted supporter of Bohemian Football Club. On the day after Manus’s death, fans of both sides observed a minute’s silence, paying their affection and respect with a large banner: ‘RIP Manus – ?No Pasarán!’
It’s always sad when someone dies prematurely, but there is some consolation that Manus’s final hours were spent doing what he loved and to which he dedicated much of his life. On the day before he died, he had attended the annual International Brigade commemoration at Omeath, County Louth, proudly bearing the flag commemorating the Irish veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Jim Jump, Chair of the IBMT, expressed the view of many when he paid tribute to his former colleague’s life and work:
Manus made an enormous contribution to the work of the IBMT. He brought a scholarly wealth of knowledge about the volunteers from Ireland to our deliberations and did much to raise awareness about the large Irish contingent in the British Battalion in Spain. He was also a warm and loyal colleague and his loss will be painfully felt by his many friends in the IBMT and beyond.
Above all, the loss will be felt most keenly by his family, to whom he was devoted: his partner Nancy Wallach (also the child of an International Brigader); his sister Brenda; his children, Jess, Neil and Luke and his grandchildren, Amaia, Rory, Caleb and Eli. Hopefully the widespread demonstrations of affection and respect with which Manus was clearly held will provide them with some small measure of consolation.
Micheál Manus O’Riordan, 30 May 1949 to 26 September 2021.
Leanann an streachailt – la lucha continua – the fight goes on.
In the autumn of 1991 an event occurred which was to transform the understanding of the role of the International Brigades in Spain. The opening of the archives in the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Recent Historical Documents in Moscow opened up a colossal amount of material to scholars, which had been virtually untouched for fifty years. Initially boxed up and shipped to the Soviet Union just shortly before the end of the civil war, the archive contained thousands of highly controversial files relating to the operation of the Brigades and military and political assessments of the units and individuals within them. The involvement of the International Brigades was, at last, able to come under detailed scrutiny from researchers.
Since the opening of the archives, a number of books have used the material in studies of the national groups within the International Brigades. The process began with Peter Carroll’s ground-breaking study of the American volunteers, published in 1998. As the material was only opened up to overseas scholars immediately prior to publication, the author did not have time to research extensively in the archives. However, he did manage to look at a number of documents and his book remains the set text on the Americans.
The following list – arranged alphabetically by country – is of the most recent studies of the various national groups within the International Brigades.
Argentina: Lucas González et al. Voluntarios de Argentina en la Guerra Civil Española. 2008.
America: Peter Carroll. Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. 1998. (Adam Hochschild’s excellent Spain in our Hearts is more recent, but is not specifically about the Lincolns)
Australia: Amira Inglis: Australians in the Spanish Civil War. 1987.
Canada: Michael Petrou. Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War. 2008.
China: Hwei-Ru Tsou and Len Tsou. Los brigadistas chinos en la Guerra Civil: La llamada de España 1936-1939. 2013.
Cyprus: Paul Philippou Strongos. Spanish Thermopylæ: Cypriot Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. 2009.
France: Rémy Skoutelsky. L’espoir guidait leurs pas. Les volontaires français en Espagne républicaine. Les volontaires français dans les Brigades internationales, 1936-1939. 2000.
Germany: Josie McLellan. Antifascism and Memory in East Germany. 2004.
Great Britain: Richard Baxell. Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle against Fascism. 2012.
Ireland: Robert Stradling. Crusades in Conflict: The Irish and The Spanish Civil War. 1999.
New Zealand: Mark Derby ed. Kiwi Compañeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War. 2009.
Scotland: Fraser Raeburn. Scots and the Spanish Civil War. 2020.
Wales: Graham Davies. You Are Legend: the Welsh volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. 2018.
Organised and hosted by the Limerick International Brigade Memorial Trust, the weekend 0f 12-14 September 2014 saw three days of events related to the Spanish Civil War, culminating in the unveiling of a new memorial to the volunteers from Limerick who served in the International Brigades.
Friday evening began with the launch of an edited volume, From the Shannon to The Ebro at the Mechanic’s Institute in Limerick. The event proved to be hugely popular, with people spilling not just out of the reception room, but out of the building itself. The launch was followed by a screening of the musical GoodBye Barcelona with a Q&A with myself and the producer, Karl Lewcowicz. While most of the questioners focused on the history of the Brigades and Spain, there was also an interesting philosophical discussion on the nature of good and evil in civil wars such as Spain and Syria. One contributor wryly noted that there had been no mention of the Irish volunteers for Franco, who outnumbered those for the Republic by more than two to one. I’m glad he did; while I personally believe that O’Duffy’s volunteers fought on the wrong side, I don’t doubt their commitment or bravery.
Saturday was taken up with a day of lectures and discussions on the civil war and the involvement of the foreign volunteers:
For many, I suspect, Sunday was the highlight of the weekend. Again, a huge number of supporters and well-wishers turned out for the unveiling of a memorial to the six volunteers from Limerick for the International Brigades: Paddy Brady, Gerard Doyle, Emmet Morris Ryan, Frank Ryan, Joe Ryan and Jim Woulfe. There is a full report of the unveiling in the Irish Times.
I’d like to thank the organisers from the Limerick International Brigade Memorial Trust, first, for inviting me to speak and, second, for all their hard work in making the weekend such a great success.