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The Irish at the Battle of Ebro

The longest and largest battle of the Spanish Civil War began in July 80 years ago. The Battle of the Ebro lasted from the sweltering days of late July 1938 into the colder climate of November. This episode in the Civil War pitted Spanish Republicans aided by the International Brigades against Franco’s troops who were backed up by the Nazi Condor Legion and Mussolini’s Aviazione Legion.

The Republicans advanced on the town of Gandesa with the intention of capturing it from the Francoists but, they met with a fierce and ruthless defense by the Fascists. The Republicans decided to target a hill overlooking the town, the hill would go down in history as Hill 481 or as those fighting there coined it, The Pimple. The hill claimed the lives of many men fighting for the Spanish Republic, including Irishman Jim Stranney.

Stranney was an active member of the Irish Republican Army in his native Belfast, he also held socialist ideals in the vein of James Connolly’s teachings. He was born on May 31st 1915 and lived at a simple red brick terrace house on John Street in West Belfast and worked as a laborer.

With his friend Liam Tumilson he carried the banner for the James Connolly Workers Republican Club at the Bodenstown Commemoration in 1934. This commemoration at the grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the father of Irish Republicanism, was generally the territory of traditional Republicans and the brandishing of a Socialist banner was frowned upon by some traditional conservative members of the Republican movement at Bodenstown. When the Spanish Civil War broke out Tumilson went to fight against fascism and gave his life doing so. Stranney then decided to go to Spain and fight in his friend’s memory.

Stranney arrived in Spain in October 1937 with the International Brigades. He fought with the British Battalion No.1 Company from April 1938 and by May he had become a Corporal. Stranney was part of the crew of the No.1 Gun Company Anti-Tank Battery. He organized a Wolfe Tone commemoration under the Spanish sun with his fellow Irishmen in the International Brigades and weeks later Stranney would meet the same fate as his friend Liam Tumilson.

On the 31st of July 1938 Stranney was gunned down by fascist troops as he led a charge up Hill 481. Stranney would not be the only Irishman to lose his life during the Battle of the Ebro in July 1938.

James Donald was born in Derry in 1916 and went to Scotland where he worked as a miner in Methil Fife. He arrived in Spain in the Spring of 1938 to fight against the spread of fascism but, by July he was deemed missing, possibly killed in action on the advance on Gandesa.

The Keenan brothers from Bangor Co. Down had all emigrated to Canada where left wing politics fueled their desire to fight the rise of fascism in Europe and one of them would sacrifice his life in that war.

William Keenan was born in 1901 in Bangor and with his brothers Archibald and Gordon emigrated to Canada in 1934. In March 1937 he travelled with the Mac Pacs Canadian unit to Spain, but he was detained in France for 20 days. When Keenan was released on the promise to go back to Canada he instead went onwards over the Pyrenees and into Spain where in July 1938 he was killed by a Stoka bomber on the banks of the Ebro river.

Jackie Edward Patterson came from the Protestant working class area of East Belfast and went to Canada where his working-class politics saw him sign up to fight for the Spanish workers against Franco’s fascists.  On the 30th of July 1938 Patterson and four of his comrades in the Canadian unit were sheltering in a vineyard when a bomb from an enemy plane landed on them and eternally scorched them into the Spanish soil.

Back in Ireland, the IRA had announced a policy of nonintervention and put a ban on its members from going to Spain, to fight on any side. Many ignored that order, including Jim Stranney who had been an active member of the IRA in Belfast during the early 1930s.

The legendary Republican leader General Tom Barry called on IRA members to desist from joining the International Brigades and instead stay at home and fight for a United Ireland. General Barry had devised a plan to attack border posts with IRA Volunteers armed with submachine guns imported from America, but his plan was dealt a blow when an informer had told the authorities in Britain. General Barry cancelled his plan and the IRA remained in a state of deflation during the 1930s while more and more members joined the Republican Congress which strongly supported the fight against fascism in Spain.

As Jim Stranney defied the order for IRA members not to go to Spain he was court martialed in his absence. Stranney, like many other IRA men in Spain, did not get the chance to return home and for years their sacrifice was overshadowed by the fight for Irish unification and those who perished in that battle. Today those who fought against fascism in Spain and those who fought against British rule at home are remembered in equal measure. In 1995 Republicans and Socialists gathered at John Street where a plaque was unveiled at the old Stranney home – “Jim Stranney, Republican and Socialist, you were of the people and for the people your life was laid.”

 

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Pauline Murphy is a freelance writer from Ireland. 

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