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The Irish At Teruel

From December 1937 through to January and February 1938, Spain experienced harsh weather but, the biting cold and driving snow did little to cease the raging Civil War. As one of the worst winter’s in Spanish history took hold, one of the bloodiest battles occured at Teruel in South Aragon.

The Battle of Teruel lasted from Christmas ’37 until the end of February ’38 when heavy bombardment from the troops of General Franco drove the Republican forces into retreat. Teruel was won by the Republican side during Christmas and it was held going into the New Year as the unruly weather deterred the fascist forces from going into the mountainous area around Teruel. But the victory of the left wing Republicans would be short lived and by the middle of January Franco’s troops unleashed a barrage of fierce fire on the left wing fighters. It resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries for many civilians as well as Republicans, including many Irishmen who went to fight against Franco.

Francis Duffy O’Brien was born in Dundalk, County Louth in 1909 and emigrated to London while still a teenager. In England’s capital he became a bus mechanic and lived at Langby Lane. Duffy O’Brien became active in the British Communist Party and by the Autumn of 1937 the bus mechanic was in Spain to fight for the left wing cause against fascism. He rose to become Sergeant in a machine gun unit, but his life was extinguished by a hail of fascist bullets on the 17th of February at the ancient spa town of Seguera de los Banos while retreating from the bloodshed at Teruel.

David Walsh came from Ballina in County Mayo and lost his life in action at Tureul on the 19th of January 1938. During the last days, as a Republican held Tereul, all the efforts and resources of the left wing fighters had been exhausted as the Francoists bombed the area with aerial help from Germany and Italy. When Francos forces recaptured what was left of Tureul they found thousands of dead Republicans. Among them was the lad from the west of Ireland, David Walsh. Today in his hometown of Ballina a black marble plaque comemorates the left wing fighter in the town’s Peace Park of Remembrance.

On the 20th of January 1938 Peter ‘Paddy’ Glacken from Donegal was cut down by machine gun fire in Teruel from advancing Francoists. Born in 1913 on the wildly rugged Inishowen peninsula, Glacken left for Scotland as a youth. In Scotland he seeped in left wing ideals and joined the Scottish Labour Party. In October 1937 Glacken arrived in Spain with other like minded individuals with the aim of fighting the rising Fascist tide. On the 4th of January Glacken and  Sergeant Allen Kemp, a Scottish native, deserted their camp in Teruel. Glacken was concerned with the lack of resources the Republicans had against the might of the advancing Fascists and he, along with Kemp, decided to leave their posts. Glacken and Kemp were caught by their comrades and faced a court martial. Glacken and Kemp were sentenced to death and on the 10th of January Kemp faced the firing squad. Glacken’s life was spared when his death sentence was commuted, he denied deserting the fight against Fascism and agreed he would fight on, even if he did consider the fight at Teruel a lost cause. Glacken was sent back to fight the Fascist forces at Teruel where his fears would transpire.

Glacken was no coward, he was a man of action who saw no long term victory in acting like sitting ducks at the fortress town of Teruel. The Donegal man would have his life expired at the hands of  fascists troops when he fell in action at Teruel on the 20th of January.

Philip Boyle, from Donegal, was a carpenter who was active in the Irish Republican movement in Ireland during the War of Independence and the native Irish speaker fought with the IRA in Tipperary during the Civil War but, in the years after when he was unable to find employment in the country he had fought so hard for, he went to England where he joined the Communist Party. His left wing politics took him to Spain in September 1937 where he became Company Quartermaster at the Battle of Teruel. He received wounds there on the 19th of January during an aerial bombardment but managed to survive and was promoted to the rank of Corporal. Unlike many of his comrades, Boyle saw out the last days of the Spanish Civil War and left Spain with his life intact at the end of 1938.

John O’Shea was born in Ireland in 1904 but emigrated to Toronto at a young age. Known as Paddy, he was a cobbler by trade and his politics lay on the far left of the political spectrum. The card carrying member of the Canadian Communist Party went to Spain in the Summer of 1937 where he became a platoon leader in a Canadian company of the Lincoln Brigade. During the Battle of Teruel O’Shea received wounds during aerial bombardment and during the retreat he disappeared. His body was never recovered and was thus declared missing in action.

Another Irish man to go missing in action was John O’Sullivan. Born in Bandon West Cork  in 1908, O’Sullivan went to America where he became active in the Seattle branch of the  American Communist Party. He went to Spain to fight Fascism in November 1937 but during the last days of the Battle of Teruel in February 1938 O’Sullivan disappeared under a barrage of fascist fire.

The Battle of Teruel in 1938 was a savage affair. Amid the bloodshed, the battle drew famous names such as Ernest Hemingway who reported on the devastation at Teruel and folk singer Paul Robeson who entertained the Republican troops before Francos forces arrived to quell the melody of a Republican victory. The British poet Laurie Lee who was there to witness the rise and fall of Republican hopes summed up the Battle of Teruel in the following words:

“The gift of Teruel at Christmas had become for the Republicans no more than a poisoned toy. It was meant to be the victory that would change the war, it was indeed the seal of defeat.”

 

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Pauline Murphy is a freelance writer from Ireland. 

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