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The Death of Liam Tumilson, an Irish Anti-Fascist in Spain

Approximately 30 Belfast men went to Spain in the 1930s to fight against the spread of fascism. It marked the first time since the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion that Laganside Catholics and Protestants came together to fight for a common cause. One of those was Liam Tumilson whose life expired March 14 1937 on the Jarama Front during the Aragon offensive.

Tumilson arrived in Spain in 1936 on the Winter solstice December 21st. Back home in Belfast he worked as a Crane Driver, in Spain he was a driver of revolution.

William James Tumilson was born and reared in the mainly Protestant East Belfast but religion didn’t matter to him, the only side he was interested in was the side of the working man.

In 1929 he joined the Short Strand IRA and in 1934 followed the left wing of the organisation into the Republican Congress. That same year he was one of those who carried the banner of the ‘Shankill James Connolly Socialists’ at the Wolfe Tone commemoration in Bodenstown. This caused controversy when some members of the east Tipperary IRA tried to grab the banner. There had been a rule on ‘no banners’ at Bodenstown.

Tumilson was a well known face to hold banners and flags at events and was seen at the annual May Day trade unionist rally in Belfast proudly holding up the banner with the words ‘break the connection with capitalism’ emblazoned across it.

In October 1932 10,000 unemployed men held a protest in Belfast against the low relief paid in distress schemes but the protest quickly turned into a riot which went down  in Belfast history as the Outdoor Relief Riots and of course,  Tumilson was in the thick of it! The Outdoor Relief Riots pushed many working class protestants towards socialism and would lay the foundations for many of them supporting the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.

Tumilson emgrated to Australia where he joined the Communist party. His migration was a brief one and he would return to his home on Thurndyke street in Belfast.

In 1933 Tumilson was in Dublin where he joined his fellow comrades in defending Connolly House from a contingent of rightwing blueshirts who were hell bent on besieging it. The defenders of Connolly House won out but this minor event would play out in a much larger scale three years later when opposing ideologies would clash in the Spanish Civil War.

In early December 1936 Tumilson left his Belfast home for the last time and made his way to Dublin from where he departed to Liverpool on a ferry. His intended destination was Spain and the fight against Francos fascists. His comrades in Belfast had a slogan associated with him for years: ” Wherever the fight is , Tumilson will be there.!”

By the time he reached Liverpool Tumilson found he did not have enough of money to get to London and only had enough for his passage to Spain so he decided to hitchhike to London. Such was his determination!

In Spain, Tumilson showed tremendous character on the battlefield, it was a hardy steadfast one built on the streets of working class  Belfast, and he rose to rank of adjutant in the famous Liam Mooney machine gun company.

Tumilson had left a fiancé back in Belfast, Kathleen Walsh, but wrote almost everyday to her. In his last letter, dated March 11, he informed Kathleen: “we are still driving the fascists back and still confident of victory.”

Three days after writing his last letter home to Kathleen, Tumilson and his comrades entered  the hellfire of the Jarama front and would fall in the Aragon offensive. On March 14 1937 fierce  fighting occured between francos forces and the International brigades for possession of the Valencia Road. Supreme pressure was being put on the International brigades as the Francoists were closing in.

In a break in machine gun fire Tumilson stood up on a hill to view the situation. He needed a clear view of where he could get his men out safely from the advancing enemy. As he turned to give orders a francoist sniper shot him in the head.

The 33 year old Tumilson was buried in  Morata town, just south west of Madrid. By the time his last letter to his fiancé Kathleen reached her, Tumilson was already dead and buried in Spanish soil. His last words written to his fiancé eexudes his steadfast character: “I’m still determined to stay here until fascism is completely crushed. Impossible to do other than carry on with the slogan of Cathal Brugha– no surrender!”

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Pauline Murphy is a freelance writer from Ireland. 

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