Captured or Killed: The Irish Anti-Fascist Fighters at the Aragon Front

After the Battle of Teruel in the Spring of 1938 Franco’s forces began the Aragon offensive which pushed into Catalonia and severely hampered the Republican cause. From March 7th through to April 19th the Francoists, who were backed up by the Nazi Condor Legion and Mussolini’s volunteer corps, brutalised the exhausted Republicans.

The Aragon offensive was conducted with severe force by the Francoists.  From the air Nazi planes conducted a campaign of terror bombing while on the ground Italian expeditionary forces crushed a deflated Republican force. Amid all this chaos and destruction were brigadistas from Ireland who continued the fight against fascism.

James O’Connor from Dublin was killed in action at the Aragon front on March 11th. Born in 1905 on Lower Gloucester Street, he emigrated to Canada where he worked as a labourer in Vancouver. O’Connor joined the Communist party there and in the Summer of 1937 he travelled to Spain to defend its republic against the fascist coup.

Thomas Sheehan was born in Skibbereen, West Cork, in 1904 and went to England to work as a shop assistant in Brighton. Sheehan joined the British Communist party in 1935 and in February 1938 he arrived in Spain with the International Brigade. A month later he fell under a barrage of fascist bullets on the Aragon front.

Ben Murray from Monaghan had served with a Canadian Cavalry regiment during WWI and when he returned to Ireland he joined the Irish Communist Party. Murray became a familiar face in West Belfast where he would cross the divide and go door to door selling the Daily Worker newspaper in the Protestant Shankill Road and the Catholic Falls Road. Murray went to Spain to fight  against General Franco and  received wounds at the Battle of Brunette but, once he recovered he got back into the thick of action and on the 14th of March he was killed by a bomb in Abalate. He was buried in an olive grove by the Ebro River, in the crater made by the bomb that extinguished his life.

During the retreat in Belchite Matthew McLaughlin was gunned down by advancing fascists. Born in Derry city in 1908, he emigrated to Canada at the age of 19 where his left wing ideals flourished through the Canadian Communist party. In the summer of 1937 McLaughlin went to Spain to fight, and subsequently die, for the Republican cause.

Another Derry man to lose his life in the same retreat was James Donald. Born in 1916, his family relocated to Scotland where he worked as a miner in Fife. With the British battalion of the International Brigade, Donald arrived in Spain in January but by March he was buried in a mass grave in Belchite.

Alexander Madero from Dundalk Co. Louth, was wounded during the retreat from the Aragon front and was captured by Franco’s troops on March 17th, St Patrick’s Day. He died of his wounds a month later in a fascist concentration camp.

John Finnegan was born in 1909 in Castleblaney Co. Monaghan and emigrated to Canada at the age of 20. He worked as a blacksmith and joined the Communist party before going to Spain in 1937. In April 1938 he went missing in action on the Aragon front.

Another Irishman to disappear in the hell of the Aragon offensive was Francis Ash from County Down. Ash was born in 1909 in Downpatrick and was still an infant when his family moved to Glasgow. Ash was a merchant seaman and emigrated to Canada where he joined the Canadian reserve rifles. He also joined the Communist party and arrived in Spain in January 1938. Two months later he went missing in action during the Aragon retreats.

Those who did not die or escape were captured and placed in concentration camps. Joseph Leo Byrne from Dublin was one of those who was captured by Franco’s troops during the Aragon offensive. A welder by trade, Byrne had gone to Liverpool to seek employment but left wing politics diverted his attention to stopping the spread of fascism on the Iberian peninsula. Byrne arrived in Spain in February 1938 but, just weeks later he was captured and made prisoner near Calaceite. Another Dubliner by the name of Byrne also fell into the clutches of Francos troops in March 1938. Patrick Byrne from Dame Street in Dublin City was a seaman who deserted his ship The Florentine on route to Barcelona at Christmas 1937 but his adventures in Spain were cut short in March 1938 when he was rounded up with hundreds of other anti fascist fighters and imprisoned.

Thomas Heaney from Galway was just 19 years old when he was taken prisoner during the Aragon offensive in March 1938.  Heaney was the son of a butcher from Galway’s Upper Abbey Gate Street but emigrated to London in 1937 where he worked as a van guard in Bishopsgate station. David Kennedy was a house painter from Armagh who arrived in Spain in February 1938 but was imprisoned only a month later. Both Heaney and Kennedy, like many others captured during the Aragon offensive were later repatriated back to their homeland where, unfortunately, many faced blacklisting.

Jackie Lemon from Waterford was working at the HMV gramaphone factory in London when he joined the Communist party and went to Spain in the summer of 1937. He was captured in March 1938 and repatriated a year later.  William McChrystal from the Waterside in Derry was a tailor but on St Patrick’s Day 1938 he was captured during the Belchite retreat and repatriated in 1939.

Maurice Levitas from Warren Street in Dublin was a plumber who joined the British Communist party when he moved to London. On the 31st of March he was captured with Frank Ryan, leader of the famed Connolly column of the International Brigade. Ryan was leading over 300 men on the road between Gandesa and Alcaniz when Italian troops surrounded and arrested them. Ryan was sentenced to death but was later allowed to escape and died in Dresden in 1944. Levitas was repatriated a year after his capture in Spain but his fight against fascism did not end there, he would later serve in the Royal medical corps during WWII.

Frank Ryan had left Ireland in December 1936 with 80 volunteers to defend the Spanish Republic. By spring of 1938 the defence of the Republic was in tatters and Ryan, along with many other Irish men fell into the hands of Franco while others fell into Spanish graves and as the months passed many more would join them.

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Pauline Murphy is a freelance writer from Ireland. 

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