A 1939 Michael O'Riordan letter on history and politics

First published in Irish Political Review, July 2007


On 11 November 2006 [on the eve of what would have been my late father's 89th birthday] I received an email from a New York friend, Arieh Lebowitz, informing me:

"Gail Malmgreen, who is an archivist at the Robert E. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University, found something she thinks might be a letter from your father in the collection of the Transport Workers' Union. It was apparently in a file of material associated with Michael Quill. At any rate, she asked me to scan images of the first and last pages, and to send 'em to you to see if they possibly are from your Dad. So, please take a look at the attachments, and get back to me. It's my understanding that if there is a family connection, she'd be glad to have the letter copied and sent to you."

I promptly replied: "It most certainly is a letter from my father - I recognised his handwriting immediately and then, of course, my grandparents' address. The signature 'Mike' slightly puzzled me at first, until I realised he was writing to a Yank. For I can also tell you who the 'Dear Bill' was: Bill Gandall, a Lincoln Brigader, to whom my Dad became very attached in Barcelona. So, it goes without saying that I would love if Gail could send me the full letter!"

On 7 March, Gail Malmgreen herself, as Associate Head for Archival Collections at the Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at NYU, posted the following notice, under the heading of "O'Riordan letter found", in the Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archives Digest:

"Members may be interested to know about a newly discovered letter written by Irish volunteer Michael O'Riordan to his good friend, US vet Bill Gandall in 1939. The letter was just discovered, not in any of our ALBA collections, but in the papers of Mike Quill, long-time President of the Transport Workers' Union of America. The handwritten letter is actually 24 pages long and gives a detailed account of the labor movement and political struggles in Ireland, from a Communist Party point of view. There are also scattered references to their shared experiences and comrades in Spain. The letter can be found in the TWU Records (Wagner Archives).

By 24 March Arieh Lebowitz had completed the painstaking task of making jpeg scans of every single page of that letter and forwarding them to me, one by one. That this letter had been found among the TWU records was indeed most appropriate. In 1934 Irish Republican and Communist workers in New York's Transit System had founded a new union and, inspired by the legacy of Larkin and Connolly's ITGWU, had named it the TWU. Its International President was Michael J. Quill, from Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, while the President of its key section, New York Local 100, was Austin Hogan from Cork. In 1937 Quill went on to be elected to New York City Council, as an American Labor Party candidate. Returning home briefly to Kerry for his wedding during Christmas 1937, Quill also made a particular point of meeting up in Cork with a 20 year-old Michael O'Riordan who was about to set out to fight in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War. [Here's my own assessment of Quill.]

Quill's Kilgarvan neighbour and my father's closest comrade-in-arms on the Ebro front in 1938, Michael Lehane, was to be killed in the anti-fascist service of Norway on 11 March 1943. Lehane would be belatedly honoured by both the Irish and Norwegian Governments, as well as by both Irish and US International Brigade veterans, at a commemorative ceremony held in Kilgarvan's Michael J. Quill Memorial Centre in May 1997. Read about him here.

My father's 1939 letter is here reproduced in full, the personal as well as the political. For the personal was itself political. In that letter he expressed his concerns about the welfare of two of their female comrades from the Spanish War, Jeanne from France and Amparo from Spain itself. I have no knowledge of their subsequent fate during the Second World War. I do, however, at least know the surname of Amparo, whose escape from Barcelona ahead of its occupation by the Fascists was greeted by my father with such relief, though coupled with ongoing concern about survival under the harsh conditions of the camps into which Spanish refugees had been herded by the government of the French Republic.

My father, having carried the flag of Catalunya across the river Ebro on 25 July 1938 in the final offensive of the Spanish Republic, had been wounded on 1 August during the ill-fated battle for Hill 481 outside the town of Gandesa. Hospitalised along with British volunteer Jack Jones and Irish volunteers Eugene Downing, Andrew Flanagan and Tom O'Brien, he was to form a very close friendship with another wounded Brigadista, the New York Jewish volunteer Bill Gandall. [When later stationed with US forces in Northern Ireland during World War Two, Gandall was able to send some parcels of provisions down South across the Border to my father while the latter was imprisoned in the Curragh Internment Camp 1940-43.] As my father had not yet fully recovered from his wounds, he was unable to participate in the final parade of International Brigaders through the streets of Barcelona on 16 October1938, but he watched it from a window. It was also in war-ravaged Barcelona that he passed his 21st birthday on 12 November, just weeks before his evacuation from Spain on 7 December 1938.

After my father had been wounded on the Ebro, he cabled his mother to tell her not to worry, that he'd pull through. The post office worker delivering the telegram to my grandmother venomously thrust it at her, saying: "it's dead he should be! He's fighting against Christ!" This was a double hurt for a deeply religious mother. So, the gift that my father brought my grandmother home from Barcelona was to be particularly welcome to her. It was a cloth portrait of a characteristically ornate Spanish statue of Mary and her infant son Jesus, being serenaded by a guitarist. But this was a rather unique religious icon, for the Madonna and Child were adorned with a plentiful supply of ribbons that bore the red, yellow and purple colours of the Spanish Republic!

My father had also brought home a second copy of that same cloth portrait for himself. In the bottom left corner it was signed "A mi querido camarada Miguel (To my dear comrade Michael), Bill Gandall, NYC." At the top right corner it was signed "Suerte en tu trabajo (Good luck in your work), Sola Rodríguez." But it was the top left corner that carried the date 5.11.38, coupled with the warm dedication of "Siempre te recordaré con cariño (I will always remember you with love and affection), Amparo Niemro".

Anthony Beevor's 2006 history, The Battle for Spain - The Spanish Civil War 1936 - 1939, notwithstanding its relentless anti-Communist thrust, coupled with a sustained animosity towards the Spanish Republic itself, tells it like it was following the fall of Barcelona to Franco's troops on 26 January 1939. Beevor quotes the following account of a Young Communist militant, Teresa Pàmies: "Of the flight from Barcelona on 26 January, I will never be able to forget the wounded who crawled out of the Vallcarca hospital. Mutilated and covered in bandages, half-naked despite the cold, they pushed themselves towards the road, yelling pleas that they should not be left behind to fall into the hands of the victors. Those who had lost their legs crawled along the ground, those who had lost an arm raised the other with a clenched fist, the youngest crying in fear, the older ones shouting in rage and cursing those of us who were fleeing and were abandoning them".

But flee they must. All fighting had ceased, yet Beevor recounts: "The nationalists and their supporters killed some 10,000 people in the first five days of 'liberation'. Italian [Fascist] officers were shaken by these massacres in cold blood." As Franco's brother-in-law Serrano Suñer told the special correspondent of the Nazi German newspaper 'Volkischer Beobachter', "The city is totally bolshevized. The decomposition is absolute. The population, whose deeds I myself have checked up on, is morally and politically sick. Barcelona and its citizens will be treated by us in the way one would attend to someone who is ill." (pp. 377-8).

Amparo was among the 450,000 Spanish Republican refugees - including 170,000 women and children - who, over the next few weeks, would embark on a horrendous mid-Winter climb over the Pyrenees mountain range. But their reception by the French Republic was to be no less horrendous. The reference in my father's letter to the sand holes of the refugee camps indicates some knowledge of what awaited them, yet it is doubtful if he was then aware of the full scale of horrors that they contained. Beevor recounts:

"The places to which the defeated republicans were sent consisted of stretches of coast, wet, salty and without any protection from the wind. The first camp to open, in the middle of February, was at Argelès-sur-Mer. It was little more than a marshland divided into rectangles of a hectare apiece and surrounded by a perimeter of barbed wire guarded by Senegalese troops. There was a shortage of drinking water, many resorted to drinking sea water, and nothing was done to provide washing facilities or latrines. The food they received was scarce and of bad quality. The men suffered from scabies and lice. The 77,000 refugees, many without proper clothing, belongings, money or food, had to build huts for the sick and wounded. The rest dug into the sand to shelter from the wind. Only after the first few weeks were they given drinking water in cans and wood to make latrines next to the sea …"

"In an attempt to improve the wretched conditions in the large camps, the French authorities tried to move some of the inmates to the initial sorting camps of Arles and Prats de Molló in the mountains, but they had to stop the practice because too many died literally of cold. The camp of Vernet-les-Bains … was a punishment camp from the First World War cut off form the outside world. About 50 hectares in area, and divided into three sections all surrounded by barbed-wire fences, it held those republicans the French authorities considered 'a danger to public safety', among them … 150 International Brigaders segregated in a sector known as the 'leper colony'. Under the Vichy government the camp passed to the Germans, who rebuilt it according to their own concentration camp guidelines. Yet Arthur Koestler wrote [in 1946] that 'from a point of view of food, installations and hygiene, Vernet was worse than a Nazi concentration camp'. In such conditions it was predictable that many thousands of refugees should have died." (pp. 410-3).

Beevor also reproduces the eyewitness account of a personal friend of my father's in Spain who would end up in such a French concentration camp. In his 1979 book 'Connolly Column', my father recalled the final month of preparation that had led up to the Ebro offensive:

"[At the end of June 1938] some of the Irish were sent with others to a 'Cabos' [Corporals] School in the nearby [Catalan] town of Marsá. There many of them were to meet for the first time a Soviet Volunteer. He was Emil Steinberg, the instructor who lectured on many aspects of warfare. To the combined classes of Spanish and varied English-speaking soldiers he spoke in Russian, being translated into English by a comrade from the Canadian Battalion of Ukrainian extraction, whose translation in turn was rendered into Spanish by Manuel, Mexican-American officer attached to the 'Lincolns - Washingtons' US Battalion. At the conclusion of the course there was a 'breaking-up' celebration which developed into an international concert at which the two best vocal renderings were judged to be the traditional ballad, 'Kelly from Killane', by an Irish volunteer (naturally), and 'Stenka Razin', the song about the famous Russian peasant fighter, by Emil". (p.125).

Some years later my father was in fact to have a Moscow reunion with his friend Emil, where he clarified that his surname was actually Shteingold, and that this International Brigade and Red Army veteran was originally of Latvian Jewish origin. Beevor was to retrieve from the Russian State Military Archive in Moscow - and proceeded to quote from it in detail - a document entitled 'My Last 10 Days in Spain' by Emil Voldemarovich Shteingold, in which my father's teacher and comrade bore witness as follows to his treatment in the largest French concentration camp of them all, Saint-Cyprien, into which up to 90,000 men had been herded:

"Imagine a gloomy sandy spit of land with no vegetation, which was about two kilometres long, and about 400-500 metres wide. It was washed by the Mediterranean Sea on one side and ended up in a swamp on the other. This area was fenced by barbed wire and divided into square corrals. Machine-guns were placed along the perimeter of the camp. A latrine was erected on the beach, which consisted of a long log fixed on piles, under which the tide flowed back and forth. This was how we were welcomed by republican France with its socialist government. As a sign of gratitude for this warm welcome, we decided to call the latrine area 'The Daladier Boulevard' … The sand looked dry, but it was only dry on the surface. We had to sleep out on it in groups of five to ten men. Some of the greatcoats and blankets we put underneath, and with other coats and blankets we covered ourselves. It was not a good idea to turn from one side to another, as the wet side would freeze in the cold wind, and this could lead to pneumonia … Wounded and sick men were brought here too. The mortality was very high, it reached 100 people every day." (p.411).

Some international context has hereby been provided for the political analysis in my father's 1939 letter. I will let the letter speak for itself, without either taking issue with, or adding any further arguments in support of, whatever of his formulations might be considered controversial. I have also retained my father's use of capital letters as his own form of emphasis, and left his few errors of dating uncorrected. "Warts and all", as Cromwell had first put it.

But I must note one element of false hope in his letter which came to nought within a fortnight of having been written. My father had referred in it to his renewed IRA membership as a CPI "sleeper", and how he could not openly criticise those IRA policies with which he disagreed. He presented the IRA's own logic for the 1939 bombing campaign in England, but we can infer - from the suggested welcome in his statement of belief that the campaign had already come to an end by that April - how he had been in fundamental disagreement with it. He was, however, very much mistaken in assuming - notwithstanding IRA Chief-of-Staff Seán Russell's wishes towards that end - that it had been undertaken with the support of Nazi Germany [as previously Russell had sought military assistance from the Soviet Union, being ideologically indifferent in the most honest-to-God manner]. The January 1939 IRA bombing campaign had actually taken Germany's intelligence services by complete surprise. Indeed Tom Barry had effectively sabotaged an earlier effort by Russell in that direction. For, driven as much by his own firm anti-Nazi convictions as by his fears that Russell was about to embark upon a type of campaign to which he himself was utterly opposed, Barry, as the then IRA Chief-of-Staff, had in fact paid a 1937 visit to Germany in order to scotch that earlier Russell plot.

Jim O'Regan was a fellow-Corkman who had been a close comrade-in-arms of my father during the Spanish Anti-Fascist War. O'Regan had fought through 1937 as a member of the Organising Committee of the Irish Section of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, before transferring to the British Battalion for the 1938 Battle of the Ebro. I know from conversations with my father that he had tried to dissuade O'Regan from volunteering for the 1939 bombing campaign in England. Even though Jim himself may not have fully agreed with that campaign, his IRA loyalty and discipline - unlike that of my father - was unconditional and remained intact. Arrested and charged with conspiracy and possession of explosives, O'Regan was tried at London's Central Criminal Court in October 1939 and sentenced to 20 years penal servitude. When my father married my mother Kay Keohane in November 1946, their honeymoon took the form of a journey to Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight in order to visit Jim O'Regan and his fellow Irish Republican prisoners.

My father's mistaken view that the bombing campaign had come to an end by April 1939 was understandable, as not alone had there been a lull in activities, there had also been mounting opposition within the ranks of the IRA itself. Moreover, Russell had departed on a fund-raising mission to the USA on 8 April. His chosen successor as Chief-of-Staff, Stephen Hayes, was, however, to set the bombing campaign in motion yet again on 5 May. And so it continued throughout that summer. Although targeted at property and not people, the campaign precipitated its own downfall on 25 August when a bomb in Coventry resulted in five civilian deaths. The campaign fizzled out after that.

My father took four full days to write this 24 page letter to Bill Gandall in April 1939, beginning in black ink, next switching to pencil when that ink ran out, and then switching back to newly obtained blue ink. In the wake of his direct personal experience of 1938 as a year of savage warfare, this 21 year-old veteran of Spain was obviously experiencing 1939 as a year of considerable unreality and frustration. He therefore welcomed the opportunity of writing such a letter as an expression of political release. I am accordingly extremely grateful to Gail Malmgreen and the Wagner Archives for permission to publish my father' s letter hereunder - and in full - for the very first time.

1939 was also to be my father's last year of liberty for quite some time. On 22 February 1940 he was imprisoned without trial in the Curragh Internment Camp by an order signed by the Minister for Finance (and future President of Ireland) Seán T. O'Kelly. It was not until 9 August 1943 that he was finally released from internment by the Minister for Justice, Gerald Boland. But that is quite another story in its own right.

Manus O'Riordan

Mick's Letter is available here.