In the Winter of 1936 many Irishmen headed off to Spain to fight fascism with the 15th International Brigade and many of them would never return home. In one of the first major battles of the Spanish Civil war, eight Irish fighters died and were buried in the sun scorched soil of southern Spain.
The Irishmen who enlisted to fight against Franco’s fascists came from all walks of life. Some were farmers and labourers, others were students and teachers but they all held left wing values and republican ideals which were severely threatened by Franco’s coup in Spain.
On December 28th 1936 the Irish of the International Brigade fell in with a French battalion to experience their first battle and it would be a baptismal of fire for the volunteers from the emerald isle.
They launched an attempt to recapture the town of Lopera from fascist forces. The engagement lasted a little less than two days with the result being a crushing defeat for those fighting the might of Franco’s forces.
The International Brigade stood little chance against machine guns and aerial bombardment, the volunteers were ill equipped and ill prepared for the onslaught that met them on the Cordoba front. Among the brigadistas who fell on December 28th were best friends Michael May and Anthony Fox.
May and Fox grew up together in Inchicore on the south side of Dublin and both joined the Dublin Brigade of the IRA. The two friends joined the International Brigade in early December 1936 but before the end of the month both were dead.
May died while covering the retreat of his comrades from a low ridge. Armed with just a single rifle against a line of machine guns, May didn’t stand a chance and was cut down . Meanwhile at the other end of that ridge Fox was dressing the wounds of his injured comrades when a fascist bullet struck his neck. The 22 year old was killed instantly.
Dubliner Henry Bonar was working as a gardener in Glasgow before he answered the call of the International Brigade and arrived in Spain on December 14 1936. He joined the engagement on the Cordoba front where he received wounds from intense aerial bombardment. The 39 year old would die of his wounds shortly afterwards in a hospital in Colmenar de Oreja.
Another Dubliner who had been living and working in Scotland before going to Spain was James Foley. The 33 year old died alongside fellow Dublin native Leo Green when a section of Franco’s troops surprised the two rifle men who had been shooting at targets from behind a ditch. Franco’s men pounced from a blind spot at the side of the ditch and slaughtered all before them.
Kildare native Frank Conroy had left Ireland with 25 other volunteers on a boat bound for Spain on December 13. The 22 year old son of a baker was already a member of the IRA and the Communist party before he joined the International Brigade but, only 15 days after departing his homeland, Conroy was killed in the battle of Cordoba.
Galway man John Meehan fell victim to the intense aerial bombardment during the engagement to take Lopera town. As both he and Dubliner Gerry Doran lay injured on the ground with several other brigadistas, first aid arrived in the form of just one stretcher bearer. Meehan instructed him to “take Gerry, he is worse hit than me.” Gerry Doran was carried away and survived while John Meehan succumbed to his wounds and died where he lay.
The youngest Irish fatality on the Cordoba front was 17 year old Tommy Wood from Dublin. He left for Spain on December 11th and died 18 days later from bullet wounds he received as he joined the advancement up the hill to Lopera town. Dublin city born Wood was shot first in the knee and as he was being carried to a first aid station a bullet pierced his head thus ending his existence.
Days before his death , Wood wrote a letter to his mother in which he informed her the fight in Spain was ‘not a religious war’ and that they were ‘going out to fight for the working class’. Wood came from a family steeped in the Republican tradition, he was a member of the IRA youth wing Na Fianna from the age of 7.
Frank Ryan, the leader of the Irish volunteers of the International Brigade, wrote to the teenagers mother to inform her of her son’s death. He wrote ‘He has given his life not only for the freedom of the people of Spain but of the whole human race and he will be remembered equally with those who have given their lives for freedom in Ireland.’ Like his other fallen comrades, Tommy Wood was buried in Spanish soil.
Tommy Wood is one of those immortalised in Christy Moore’s folk song ‘Viva la Quinte Brigada’. The song commemorates the Irish who went to fight against the rise of fascism in Spain and like young Tommy Wood and his other comrades in Cordoba, they were buried where they fought and fell.
‘Tommy Wood aged 17 died in Cordoba,
With Na Fianna he learned to hold his gun,
From Dublin to the Villa del Rio,
He fought and died beneath the Spanish Sun.’