When the Olives Bled in Jarama Valley

The Spanish Civil War which began in late 1936 between left wing republicans and right wing fascists, had by the start of 1937 become bitterly bloody with an increase of casualties on both sides of the conflict.

General Franco had launched a large scale push in early February 1937 to eradicate republicans east of Madrid in the Jarama Valley. What followed was called the Battle of Jarama and it resulted in thousands of deaths on both sides of the conflict, including many Irishmen.

The first Irishman to fall in the Battle of Jarama was Thomas O’Brien. Born in Dublin in 1911, O’Brien went to Liverpool where he joined the Communist party. In December 1936 he went to Spain to fight against fascism  but he succumbed to a snipers bullet in the Jarama Valley on February 2nd 1937.

On February 12th 38 year old company commander Kit Conway was shot and badly wounded while leading a rifle charge over a hill in the Jarama Valley. The Tipperary native had survived the Irish War of Independence where he was part of an IRA flying column.  While his comrades were carrying the wounded Conway into an ambulance his last words to them were “continue with the battle boys, hold on.” Conway died moments later.

The day after the death of Conway a grenade ended the life of 23 year old Archie Doran while he was manning a machine gun. Doran from Ardee Co. Louth was the son of a Methodist British army officer. He moved to England from where he went to fight fascism in Spain with the British battalion of the International Brigade.

The following day Dick O’Neil from Belfast was hit by a stray bullet and mortally wounded. From the Falls Road, O’Neill was a member of the Labour Party before joining the 15th International Brigade to fight the spread of fascism.

Two days later Robert Hilliard from Killarney was badly wounded when he was hit by a number of enemy bullets. Hilliard had represented Ireland in bantam weight boxing in the 1924 Olympics and in 1932 was ordained a church of Ireland minister. Nicknamed the boxing parson, Hilliard immigrated to London where he turned atheist and joined the Communist party. 32 year old Hilliard died of his wounds 5 days after being shot and left behind a wife and children.

Although many Irish fought against Franco’s fascists in Spain many others decided to fight for them. During the Battle of Jarama a contingent of Franco supporters from Ireland called the Irish Brigade, fell victim to friendly fire. At Ciempozuelos just south of Madrid the Irish Brigade exchanged fire with a francoist unit from the Canary Islands in a case of mistaken identity. The hour long exchange resulted in the deaths of four Irish and 13 Canarians.

February 27th proved to be a bloody day which resulted in several Irish casualties of the International Brigade. Patrick Curley who had emigrated from Galway to Dumbarton Scotland fell alongside John Dolan from Donegal. Like Curley, Dolan had also emigrated to Scotland.

Another brigadista to fall that day was Pat McDaid . The Dubliner had previously fought with the IRA in the Four Courts garrison during the Irish Civil War in 1922. Maurice Quinlan from South Parade in Waterford city was better known as Roddy to those who knew him but he had his life cut short by single gun shot wound to the head fired from the gun of a francoist soldier.

Michael Russell from Ennis left his life as a farm labourer in 1929 and emigrated to Canada.  From there he went to Spain in 1937 to fight against the rise of fascism. Russell would never return to Canada or Ennis, he would die in a hail of bullets in the Jarama Valley.

Eamonn McGrotty was born in Derry in 1911 and served as a Christian brother from 1925 to 1932. McGrotty was an avid Gaelic Leaguer and was heard to deliver some of his orders in Irish while serving as company adjutant during the assault on Pingarron Hill. His body was later found on the brow of the hill, riddled with bullets but his hand still clutching his rifle.

John Campbell left east Belfast to go to Spain in January 1937 and was badly wounded on Pingarron Hill. His wounds proved fatal and he died later that night in a nearby hospital.

Another Belfast man to die that day was Bill Henry. He had served with the British army in World War One so his expertise on the battlefield saw him quickly rise to rank of commander of No. 1 company of the Lincoln battalion. While leading a charge over Pingarron Hill, Henry was shot dead. He left behind a wife and children and the last letter he sent home stated: “there are some great comrades here with me, with whom it would be an honour to go to the happy hunting ground.”

22 year old poet Charlie Donnelly went to Spain to defend the left wing values he cherished. Shot dead on February 27th, Donnelly’s body was left where he was struck until March 10th when his comrades were able to safely bury him. Born in Tyrone , Donnelly studied at University College Dublin but his dedication to Marxism made him a target by the conservative authority  in Dublin so he went to London in 1935.

In Spain, Donnelly rose to rank of field commander and on the day he died, Donnelly and his unit were sent to Pingarron hill to block the advancement of Francos troops but they met a hellish battle.

Faced by heavy machine gun fire, Donnelly took cover behind an olive tree. While crouched under the tree, the bullets from the machine guns cut branches and olives rained down on Donnelly and his comrades. Before three bullets pierced his body and ended his life, Donnelly picked up a bunch of olives from the ground and squeezed them. His last words summed up the hellish existence for those fighting fascism in Spain: ” Even the olives are bleeding.”

Pauline Murphy is a freelance writer from Ireland.