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The Irish Brigadista

In Ireland there is a place called Morley’s Bridge and it is located on the border between County Cork and Kerry. At this remote spot there is a plaque in memory of a local man.

The plaque reads:

In memory of Michael Lehane, a member of the International Spanish Brigade, who gave his young life at seas that the underprivileged of all nations would enjoy a happy and prosperous existence.

Michael Lehane from Morley’s Bridge died tragically too young but he had lived an action packed life dedicated to fighting fascism and promoting socialist ideals.

Michael Lehane was born on September 27th 1908 and at the age of 19 he left Morley’s Bridge for the agricultural college in Clonakilty. Lehane had to drop out due to financial strains and he then went to Dublin where he found employment as a labourer.

During this time, an economic depression was sweeping the world while across Europe fascism was on the rise. In Dublin, Lehane became a member of the United Builders Labourers Trade Union. He was politically aware of what was brewing across Europe and what was happening in Spain where fascist army generals led a coup against the democratically elected republican government. Appalled by the actions of right wing rebels in Spain, Lehane joined the International Brigade in December 1936 to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

Lehane’s first taste of war came on Christmas Eve when he saw action on the Cordoba front where nine of his fellow Irishmen fell.

Lehane survived the bloodshed at Cordoba and a month later went on to fight in the Battle of Los Rozas de Madrid. Shortly afterwards he travelled back to Ireland.

Lehane picked up where he left off in Dublin and went back working on building sites around the city. In April 1937 a builders strike was called and all tools were downed. This gave Lehane the chance to re-volunteer for the International Brigade.

By willingly returning to take part in what was unfolding in Spain as an utterly vicious civil war, is testament to Lehane’s steadfast character. He was determined to fight the good fight and so he left to join up with the International Brigade once again.

Lehane made his route back to Spain by undertaking an arduous trek over the Pyrenees mountains in order to evade authorities. Lehane then took part in the Battle of Brunette which lasted throughout the sweltering month of July. During this battle, Lehane and his comrades found themselves under heavy fire from a machine gun that was manned from a church tower in the town. Lehane managed to rescue many of his injured comrades from a hail of bullets before being struck down himself.

Lehane recovered from his injuries and by the Spring of 1938 he was back in Dublin again and working as a labourer. The call to arms was too much for Lehane to resist and by July he was back in Spain fighting Franco’s Fascists.

On July 25th the International Brigade crossed the Ebro River to advance on the town of Gandesa but a hill, known as Hill 481, stood in their way and it was heavily controlled by Franco’s troops.

The International Brigade suffered heavy losses against the might of Franco’s army on Hill 481 and Lehane was one of a number injured there.

By mid December Lehane and his comrades left Spain for the last time as the war was coming to a close and Franco was proclaiming victory.

Lehane arrived back in Dublin on December 21st 1938 but his stay would not last long before he left in the new year to go live with his brother in Birmingham England.

Lehane’s political convictions did not wane while in England and authorities viewed this Irish man, who was involved with The Daily Workers newspaper, as nothing more than a subversive, so his brothers house became the scene of police raids during his few years lodging there.

When the war against fascism took on a whole new form in World War II, Lehane made the decision to continue his fight against it. He would not join the British army and wear the uniform of what he saw as an imperialist force so instead he enlisted in the Norwegian Merchant Navy.

Lehane was registered as a fireman aboard the Norwegian steamer ‘Brant County’ on October 2nd 1941. In March 1943 he went down with the ship when it was attacked in the mid Atlantic by a Nazi submarine. Along with Lehane, 24 crew lost their lives.

Lehane was just 35 years old when he met his end but in his short life, the man from a wildly remote part of the Cork and Kerry border fought non stop against fascism, so that the underprivileged of all nations would enjoy a happy and prosperous existence.

Lily Murphy lives in County Cork. She can be reached at: Lilymurphycork@gmail.com