The Irish Dead: Fighting Fascism in Spain, 1937

In the springtime of 1937, Spain was in the grip of civil war which flared as intense and as hot as the sun that hung over its skies. When the Summer arrived the sun grew hotter, the fight grew even more intense and the death toll on both sides of the conflict kept rising.

Of the many different nationalities that went to Spain to help the Republicans defeat the fascists, it was the Irish who proved to be a dominant force, but death stalked the men from the emerald isle and many of them did not see the end of that intensely hot Summer.

Hugh Bonnar was born in Donegal in 1907, the son of an agricultural labourer. Hugh would not follow in his father’s occupational footsteps and instead found employment away from the land as a plasterer. Bonnar’s left-wing convictions would see him abandon his trade and join many of his fellow countrymen in the fight against fascism in Spain in 1937.

Upon arrival in Spain in January ’37 Bonnar ascended the rank of platoon leader in the famed Lincoln battalion. Unfortunately, Bonnar would meet his end during the Battle of Jarma and fell under a barrage of bullets on the forth day of April 1937.

As spring traded itself in for summer, the lives of more Irishmen would be lost in the fight against the fascist forces of General Franco.

In July ’37 the bloody Battle of Brunete began, 24 kilometres west of Madrid. The battle started in the early hours of the morning on July 6th when Republican forces, made up of a strong contingent from the International Brigades,  broke through Francoist lines. The following weeks would see fierce fighting.

At the begining, the Battle of Brunete looked like it would be a victory for the Republicans when they took the village of Villanueva de la Canada from the fascists but, as the days went on, the casualties on the Republican side started to mount up and among the dead were several Irish brigadistas.

The July sun parched the soil and the fascist aerial bombardment resulted in wildfires engulfing the region. One of those to fall in this dusty sun scorched terraine was George Browne, an Irish born English reared trade unionist. Browne was born on November 5th 1906 in Ballyneale County Kilkenny, but was brought up in Manchester where, from the age of 14 was employed as a weaver. Browne stood as a communist candidate in the 1934 local elections in England but failed to win a seat. Three years later he was fighting with the International Brigade in Spain.

On July 6th 1937 Browne received gun shot wounds on the advance into Villanueva de la Canada. As he lay wounded on the roadside, and before any of his comrades could reach him, Browne had his life extinguished by retreating Francoists who shot him several times.

Another Irishman to lose his life at Villanueva de la Canada was William P.  Laughlin. From Conway Street in the Shankill area of Belfast, Laughlin served 13 years in the British army before joining a British battalion of the International Brigade in 1936. He was shot dead by a fascist sniper on July 7th 1937, leaving a wife behind in East Belfast.

Another ex-British army man was Stuart O’Neill. He had left the army in 1926 and emigrated from Ireland to Canada where he led a somewhat nomadic lifestyle and found himself arrested several times for vagrancy. O’Neill became involved in the Workers ex Servicemen’s League and in early 1937, the 36 year old went with a contingent of Canadians to fight against fascism in Spain. For O’Neill it would result in his death at the Battle of Brunete on July 7th 1937.

Also to die on July 7th 1937 were two west of Ireland men, Roscommon’s Joe Kelly and Mayo’s Thomas Burke. On July 8th another west of Ireland native would follow them in death.

Michael Kelly from County Galway was killed during a gun fight with a troop of Francoists and Frank Ryan, the leader of the Irish brigadistas, later wrote about the Galway man in a letter to the Irish Democrat newspaper – ” Michael participated in the capture of Villanueva de la Canada which was 24 hours of hell and culminated in desperate hand to hand fighting in the streets. He got through that and through a period of hot strafing from avions without a scratch and then, in a brief and comparatively trivial engagement , he got killed.”

On the 10th of July Vincent Hunt fell victim to an aerial bombardment from the fascists . The Carrick on Suir born Hunt had moved to London where he volunteered for a British medical unit when the civil war broke out in Spain. Hunt worked in a hospital at el Escorial helping civilian and republican injured. Hunt would die when a bomb was dropped on the ambulance he was driving during the Battle of Brunete.

On July 25th William Beattie was shot by a fascist sniper. Beattie was from Wilton street in East Belfast and  was one of the first Irishmen to arrive in Spain in December 1936. He had received wounds in the battlefield of Jarama and when he recovered he had the option to return home to Belfast or rejoin his unit. Beattie rejoined the fight against fascism at Brunete where he paid the ultimate sacrifice.

One of the last Irishmen to die at the Battle of Brunete was a young Dubliner named William Davis but he was better known as Bill to his comrades. His death was described in a report in the Irish Democrat newspaper, which summed up the determination of those fighting against fascism with the International Brigade in Spain- ” Here too died Bill Davis whose clenched fist shot up in salute as a machine gun riddled him at the storming of Villanueva de la Canada.”

As the summer of 1937 faded into Autumn, more Irish men would continue to fight and fall in the battle against fascism in Spain.

Pauline Murphy is a freelance writer from Ireland.