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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Carlow Militia

Denis Holden of Carlow
and the Spanish Civil War
Source: Terry Curran

Spanish Civil War
Irish Democrat 28th August 1937
Franco Fascists use Women and Children as Cover

Frank Ryan describes recent heavy fighting on the centre front

I have sent today an appreciation of the four lads of ours who were killed in July – William Beattie and William Laughran, Belfast; Bill Davis, London; Michael Kelly, Galway. Richard O’Neill of Belfast who was also killed at Jarama on February 14, was overlooked. Assure relatives of the safety of Michael Lehane, Lowry, Duff and Peter O’Connor, now back at the base.

Our boys were all in the big push on the Centre Front. Their first objective was Villaneuva de la Canada, a town nearly as big as Bray, Co. Wicklow. To get there they had to drive in outposts, capture a line of trenches strongly fortified with barbed wire. Break through a line of pill-boxes, and finally storm the trenches at the entrance to the town.

Paddy Duff commanded a machine-gun section. He got as far as the block-houses. While dashing between two of them he got a bullet in the ankle. (Same old leg as before!) He rolled into a shell-hole, would let nobody near him, yelled them onward and waited for the First Aid men. Great, cute old soldier, Paddy.

The final storming of the town was a desperate affair carried out just at nightfall. (The whole attack was carried out between dawn and dusk.) The Americans and ourselves were trying to find cover in flat ground a few hundred yards from the houses. Our aircraft and artillery had pounded the place well, but the church (which, of course, dominates every landscape here) kept standing. And from its tower machine-guns seriously hampered us.

Just at dusk a crowd of women, children and old men, and about 40 young men, came out the road, hands outstretched, calling ‘Camaradas.’ Pat Murphy (Sean’s old pal) and some others were behind a dung-pit. They thought the crowd were refugees. Pat got up and went to meet them, telling them to drop their arms if they had any.

Just as he approached, a revolver barked, then grenades started to fly. For five minutes there was pandemonium, guns cracking, grenades bursting, and women and children shrieking. Pat, engaged in a hand-to-hand struggle, fell into a drain with his opponent, where he dispatched him. Beside him fell a little girl of about ten years who had been at the head of the group. ‘Lie quite, girlie,’ said Pat, and she smiled back as if she understood. A grenade burst in the drain and Pat was severely wounded in the groin.

In five minutes it was all over; the last of the Fascists was accounted for. When the lads went around to collect their own and the non-combatants, they found the little girl, two old women and three old men dead. It was at least a satisfaction that every single one of the Fascists who had driven them in front of them as cover was also dead.

A few minutes later the town was stormed from two opposite points. It was dark by then, with bursting grenades – it was almost all grenade work – to light the way. It was done so well that the two storming parties were within an ace of storming each other. The mopping-up continued through the night, the Fascists mostly dropping their guns and becoming innocent peasants, in the cellars with the women and children.

There were weird sights. In one house you went to talk to three men lolling on chairs. Not a scratch on them. They had all been killed by the concussion of aerial torpedoes. And every Fascist prisoner, if you could believe him, was either a Communist or a Socialist. It was the most People’s Front town in all Spain!

Michael Kelly was killed that day. He was a Battalion runner, and was out with the Observation Officer. He was killed instantaneously by a bullet to the head. He was a good type, always full of energy, always linking up the struggle here with the struggle at home. He was the chief organiser of the Connolly Commemoration held in the Jarama trenches last May. And he never shirked work; he was actually an embarrassment by his habit of volunteering for dangerous work for which he was not capable. His loss is universally regretted here. Unfortunately the papers he was carrying with him (he was a walking library) were lost. I have just a few things he gave me the day before.

Bill Davis, of Dublin, one of those wandering Irish fighters of whom there are quite a few here, was killed in the final rush on Villaneuva, as was Laughran. Bill was in the Irish Guards fro years, being dismissed for ‘Red activities.’ He worked with Tom Murphy, of Belfast, another ex-Guardsman, in London, where both were in the Camden Town Communist Party. Bill caught a burst of the machine gun from the church tower as he was charging forward. Tom was by his side. ‘He curled up,’ says Tom, ‘his fist shot out, clenched. ‘Salud, camaradas,’ he smiled, and died.’

Our Wild Geese of olden days went out to fight with any army that was fighting their old enemy. But our Wild Geese like Davis, and Tom Murphy and ‘Dublin’ Hayes and Dinny Holden of Carlow, learned as they wandered that there is one common enemy, and all of them who fought and those of them who fell here, have not done their wandering nor fighting nor dying in vain.

I wish that I could give you certain pictures of the fighting – and there’s some I try to forget myself. At times I saw it all like a panorama in front of me; then there were some hours when my nose stuck further and further to earth. Ludwig Renn (the German author, an officer in a Saxony regiment during 1914-19, Irish Dem. Ed.) says it was like the Somme, only a bit worse.

One sure thing is you never get inured to bombardment; used to it – certainly. But every time the torpedoes start to fall, you feel your guts contract, and the blood gets sucked up out of your body. Of all the reading matter, what should I have in my hand one such day but the story of Guernica. Then I really realised what it must have been for the women and children.

And Oh! I picked up in one of the captured villages a magazine published in Salamanca. Which had some terrifying pictures of Guernica after the bombardment. And the hounds out of hell who had done that ghastly destruction brazenly attributed it to us!

War’s hell. There’s little glamour in it when you’re there, especially when you see what’s left – after shell and the heat – of fellows that were joking with you a few hours before/ But this one has got to be done and won, so that makers of war can never again cause Guernicas and Almerias and Bilbaos.

It was on the 23rd, in the height of the Fascist counter-attack, that Beattie got killed. Hillen (also from Belfast) was wounded the same time. Pour old Beattie; he survived a report of his death last December, and he was the last man to die in this campaign.

In the last few days of the battle we were outnumbered three to one in artillery and airplanes. The more planes our fighters knocked down, the more kept coming on. And for all their bombardment – which was terrible in its intensity and duration – they only regained one village and a few square miles of territory. We hold the greater part of a wedge we drove into their lines. And we have plenty of manpower; the enemy relies on planes and artillery to make up for his poor-quality troops. The offensive is certainly a victory for us: we came best out of it by a long chalk. (That’s not propaganda; that’s for your information.)

Here is propaganda that’s true. Peter O’Connor and Michael Lehane and Jones, of Gorey, Co. Wexford, were among those who went through three weeks of hell. And on the evening we finally for out of that scrap there was a rumour that we were to go right back in again. Men, good men, were just too exhausted to stir, and those three guys I heard with my own ears complain that they were exhausted, but if they were to go back that’s just b[lood]y well do it.

And they meant it. It wasn’t heroics. After those three weeks heroics wouldn’t fool even themselves. Some of the finest men in the world are in our little gang. (I can hear myself cheer, nearly.) [Note by CC. The lines of this paragraph were mixed up in the actual newspaper, this is how it should read.]


Frank Ryan

Partition bridged

Early in January the Irish were on the Centre Front participating in a counter offensive on the northwest of Madrid. Majadahonda captured after a brilliant attack. Las Rozas was the next objective. Dinny Coady, Dublin worker, died at the head of his section. It was a very depleted Unit that returned to the base at the end of January, when the survivors of the various formations were drafted into the 15th Brigade, which had just been formed.

The Irish Unit was representative of all Ireland. Belfast and Derry sent their sons as well as Dublin and Cork, for the anti-fascist cause bridged partition. All parties and professions were represented. Communist, Socialist Labour Party members and Republicans; dockworkers and teachers, far-labourers and city-clerks.

Their Commander was Frank Ryan, Irish Republican Army veteran, and a leader of the Left Wing Republican and Labour Movement in Ireland.

They came primarily to fight Fascism, enemy not merely of the people of Spain but of liberty and progress the world over. They had added incentive in that a careerist ex-General, discredited in Ireland, had induced a body of Irishmen to go to fight for the traitor Generals ‘in defence of Christianity.’ Irish honour thus besmirched they would redeem. Irish sympathy thus misrepresented they would express aright.

So they threw their bodies as battle-gages into the conflict in Spain.

The Unit fought in two Sections, and at one period there was a third Section. While the First Section was on the Madrid Front in January a Second Section which was being formed at the base was drafted to reinforce the Lincolns, not yet at that time a battalion strength. Subsequently a Third Section was for three months on the Cordoba Front with the 86th Brigade.

Contrary to opinions held by narrow nationalists, it was easy and natural for Irish and British workers to unite in the common struggle against fascism. The unity forged between them on the battlefields of Spain will have far-reaching results in their respective countries, in days to come. I was fortunate and fitting, too, that military exigencies should have brought the Second Irish Section to serve with the Lincoln battalion. They Irish have played an important part in the history of America, and have contributed much to the advancement of the American labour Movement.

And there are already a number of Irish exiles, and Irish-Americans and Irish-Canadians with the Lincoln battalion – Paul Burns, Boston labour journalist and Irish Republican Congress leader, afterwards twice wounded in action; Michael Blaser, better known in New York as Micky Brown (subsequently killed at Jarama); Patrick R McLoughlin, formerly of the Clan na Gael in New York; Stuart (Paddy) O’Neill of Vancouver (killed at Brunete), and veteran Joe Kelly.

Of the original members of that Second Irish Section, which went into action with the Lincolns at Jarama, the survivors included the three power brothers, of Waterford, and the three Flaherty brothers, of Boston, gallant fighters all. Peter O’Connor holds the record for the Irishman who came unhurt through the most engagements.

Dinny Holden, 56 year old soldier from Carlow who ‘deserted’ so often from the rear to the front lines, that he was eventually allowed to remain there; ‘Dublin’ Hayes, the canny veteran whom every Section Commander wanted to have with him – all these and a few others survive.

Charlie Donnelly, University student from Tyrone, young revolutionary poet and working class militant, fell a few yards from the Fascist trenches in that terrible charge of the Lincolns, on February 27. Hugh Bonar, rugged Donegal fighter, and Liam Tumilson, who stowed away from Belfast, and hitch-hiked across Britain, ‘to be with the boys in Spain’; Bill Henry, Belfast Socialist, a Company Commander – these and other Irish died in action at Jarama

Note the reference of Dinny desertion was because of his age, he was made rearguard, but in true Irish fashion the man wanted to be up front in the fight.

Sent in by Terry Curran c2007

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