Fascists? What Fascists? Merseyside’s International Brigaders highlight hypocrisy of Liverpool’s Left……..


 

On Saturday 15th September 2012 I was at a very packed Casa Bar for the opening of a photographic exhibition remembering the approximately 200 men from Merseyside who fought in the International Brigades for the Spanish Republic against Franco’s fascists 1936-1939. It was a very good meeting, especially with the surviving family members of late volunteers. The sacrifice of those volunteers was proudly remembered and finished off with a rousing chorus of the Internationale (above).

Of note, several speakers spoke about the very real sacrifices made by these volunteers who made no financial gain from their ventures, but who rightly saw the need to confront and defeat fascism wherever it manifested itself. However, time and time again, speakers spoke about what the volunteers would do in today’s world and how they would be confronting the ConDem Government’s policy of attacking the working class. However, what was noticeable was the almost complete lack of acknowledgement of this years attacks against the Irish Community including Trade Unionists by the fascists of the Combined Ex-Forces, National Front, Infidels of Britain, English Defence League and Liverpool’s Loyalist/orange community. Only one speaker from the International Brigades Memorial Trust specifically mentioned Liverpool’s current threat from Fascists. It was shameful to say the least, especially for those members of Liverpool’s Irish community who were present in large numbers at the event that this was the case. Shameful even more so given that many of those volunteers from Merseyside originated from Liverpool’s Irish community in the first place and shameful again that it would surely be a given that these men would have been out on Liverpool’s street’s this year confronting fascism and protecting the right of Liverpool’s diverse communities and Trade Unionist’s to peacefully organise at a street level??? The hypocrisy of those speakers who ignored this was truly abhorrent to say the least and highlights the very real ‘head in the sand’ approach by some in the British left in Liverpool.

Many speakers made specific mention of the life and legacy of Frank Deegan, Liverpool-Irish Volunteer and i re-produce below an excellent interview with Frank Deegan from the Irish Post Newspaper and leave you to decide where Frank would be in these times…drinking pints in The Casa while progressive events are being attacked by fascists?? Somehow I think not……….

 

Brothers in Arms

Irish Post, August 30 1986

Tony Birtill has been talking with Liverpool Irishman Frank Deegan, who, half a century ago, fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Fifty years ago this summer, General Franco led the Spanish army officers in a revolt against the Republican Popular Front government, which had been elected the previous February. Thus started the Spanish Civil War, a complex and bloody conflict which was to drag on for three years.

Newspapers like the Irish Independent and The Daily Mail represented it as a struggle between Christian civilisation and Godless Communism. However, this was far from the truth. The Communist Party had only a handful of seats in the Popular Front government, which mainly consisted of Socialists, left-wing Republicans and other radicals and regional groups. The Basques, who were probably the most fervently Catholic people in the patchwork of nations known as Spain, were also the most determined supporters of the Republican government. Franco, on the other hand, numbered among his allies the Moors from Spanish Morocco as well as regular troops from Fascist Italy and Germany.

Support

The democratically elected Republican government attracted support from all over the world and thousands flocked to join the International Brigades. The Irish were heavily represented in the Brigades. Frank Ryan, veteran of the Tan War and the Republican side I the Irish Civil War, led the contingent of 80 which travelled to Spain from Ireland in November 1936.

Other Irish, like Paddy Roe McLaughlin from Donegal, and the three ‘fighting O’Flaherty brothers’ from Boston travelled from the United States. Thomas Patton of Achill and William Barry of Dublin came via Melbourne. [In case anyone misreads this part, Patten travelled from Britain, not Australia, CC] And there were those like Frank Deegan, Paddy O’Daire and Tommy O’Brien who travelled from Liverpool.

I spoke to Frank Deegan the other evening after his weekly Merseyside Pensioners’ Association meeting in the Transport and General Workers’ Union HQ in Liverpool. He is now 76 but still very sprightly. The Pensioners’ Association, he informed me, ‘is not a bingo outfit or a tea and buns gathering, but a very political campaigning organisation open to all OAPs willing to fight for an improvement to their lot.’

I could see from the outset that Frank Deegan’s views had not gone soft over the years. He told me that he was born in Bootle, at the north end of Liverpool. His father was from Portlaoise and came to Liverpool in 1894 when he was 17 years of age. His mother was born in Bootle, her parents being from Cloghough, near Newry.

Frank was one of 11 children – six daughters and five sons. Three of the boys died in infancy. His father worked as a casual dock labourer and then in an iron foundry, often for 18 hours a day in order to provide for the 10 of them in the two-up, two-down house.

When Frank was 19, TP O’Connor, the Irish National Party MP in Liverpool died and this marked the end of that party in Liverpool, where it has been founded by John Denvir and Isaac Butt, and had once been the main opposition party on the City Council. Frank Deegan’s political energies were, however, attracted in another direction.

‘The Unemployed Workers’ Movement was the most active and important political movement in Liverpool in the Thirties,’ he said. ‘I was much involved in its activities, including the Liverpool to London hunger march in 1936.’

The poverty and unemployment of those years led Frank into the Communist Party in 1931, being recruited by Owen Kelly. ‘The docks and Bootle branches of the CP were nearly all Liverpool Irish; Leo McGree, Joe Byrne, Albert McCabe, Alec McKechnie, and ever so many more. In the docks area, the working class community was often 75% Irish and they were great rebels,’ he recalled.

At the same time as Frank Ryan, Peadar O’Donnell and the Republican Congress in Ireland were denounced as ‘red monsters’, the CP and the Unemployed Workers’ Movement were similarly denounced in Liverpool. ‘We were regarded as people with two heads and horns protruding from both,’ said Frank. ‘When Joe Byrne, a practising Roman Catholic, stood as a Communist in the Council election in my ward, the Labour Party ran a religious campaign for its candidate, Bill Keenan, even though he was a professed atheist. Nevertheless, Keenan won.’

In the autumn of 1936, when Frank Ryan was organising the Irish contingent for Spain, Frank Deegan was coming to blows with Fascists closer to home. Oswald Moseley held a rally in Liverpool’s boxing stadium. The first speaker was William Joyce, later to become known as Lord Haw Haw. ‘When I heard him my Irish blood boiled over,’ said Frank, ‘and I got up and started heckling. The Blackshirt stewards grabbed me and used me as a battering ram against the locked doors!’

The anti-Fascists that day were led by another young Communist. James Larkin Jones, who was, as Jack Jones, to become general secretary of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union in the Sixties. ‘He was always known as JL in the Thirties,’ said Frank, ‘we never called him Jack. He got that name after the war.’

Frank and JL were active together in the struggle against unemployment and Fascism in Liverpool; fought together in the Spanish Civil War; worked together in the TGWU when Jones was general secretary and Frank was a shop steward on Liverpool docks; and are now active together in the TGWU retired members’ association.

Jones’ parents were militant trade unionists – his father being a member of the National Union of Dock Labourers, His mother’s family was Irish. When their son was born during the great Dublin lockout of 1913, the Jones’s gave him the Christian names of James Larkin.

It was in May 1937 that Frank Deegan decided to go to Spain. ‘My best pal, Barney Mumford, had already gone to join the International Brigades and the newspapers were full of news from the Battle of Jarama.’

It was in that battle that the leader of the Irish section of the British battalion, Kit Conway, from the Glen of Aherlow, was shot dead as the Internationals retreated from Franco’s advancing Moorish troops. (The Internationals were divided along language lines – some of the Irish ended up in the British Battalion, while others, like Tommy O’Brien, were in the American Lincoln battalion.)

Frank Ryan then took command of the battered and depleted Battalion and, aided by Jock Cunningham, a Glasgow-Irishman, rallied the men. Singing the Internationale, the Battalion – swelled by French, Belgians and Spanish – stormed their previous positions, driving back the Moors.

There were, of course, Irish fighting on the Fascist side. General Eoin O’Duffy had organised 500 men to fight for Franco. They left Galway on a ship flying the Swastika at the same time as Frank Ryan was departing with his men. O’Duffy’s contingent was mobilised for the Battle of Jarama, but their first engagement ended in farce when a Francoist Canary Islands unit, mistaking them for Internationals because of their foreign uniforms and language, opened fire and killed two of them. The Irish pulled back and to man trenches and then lost four dead to republican artillery fire.

Frank Deegan arrived in Spain in June 1937 – the month O’Duffy’s men, disillusioned by their experiences, returned to Ireland. On his first day in Spain, Frank was enlisted in the International Brigade in an old fortress town of Figueras in the Pyrenees. Hundreds of men had passed through the fortress and had carved their names on the walls. Frank recognised many names from Liverpool and added his own, pointing out that ‘I was Liverpool-Irish.’

Soon he was among friends, including two outstanding commanders. Peter Daly from Wexford and Paddy O’Daire from Glenties, Co. Donegal. ‘In fact I knew Paddy before Spain as he lived in Bootle for a couple of years. We had been involved in the unemployed movement together’, he recalled. ‘When Peter Daly was commandant of the British Battalion, Paddy was his adjutant. Other Irishmen I got to know were Mick Lehane and the brothers Paddy and Tom Murphy. Jim Larne used to lecture us on the history of the Irish republican movement and the struggle for freedom. Then, of course, there were the Power brothers from Limerick – John, Paddy and Willy.’ [CC – they were really from Waterford.]

Both Peter Daly and Paddy O’Daire fought at Jarama. Frank Deegan fist saw action at the battle of Brunete in July 1937. Some time afterwards, at Quinto on the Aragon front, he first met Frank Ryan: ‘He was a stocky, powerfully built man who was somewhat deaf. Some years later when my wife, Ellen, was expecting our first child, she was attended by a doctor in Liverpool named Ryan. Later, when I visited my dentist, H J Madden, a real old Irish rebel, he told me that Dr Ryan was Frank Ryan’s brother. Unfortunately, he had died in the interim.’

The fighting was particularly heavy at Quinto and Frank Deegan and his friend Albert McCabe were caught in machinegun fire. ‘Albert was killed instantly and I was wounded in the knee. When I made my way to the doctor, I found him attending our commander, Peter Daly, who had a serious wound. A few days later I heard that Peter had died. He was a very courageous soldier.’

Disaster

He saw action at Teruel and Belchite, before disaster at Calcite on Thursday, March 31, 1938, when a column of Internationals walked around a bend in the road and into a cluster of Italian tanks. Over 100 Internationals were killed, and many others, including Frank Ryan and Joe Byrne, captured. Others like Frank Deegan and John Power from Waterford wandered for days through the Aragon countryside with no food and only what water they could find. Frank remembers nine awful days in that no-man’s land. But in time he made it back to his own lines.

In September 1938, Frank Deegan heard that Socialist Prime Minister Juan Negrin in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to persuade the League of Nations to persuade Hitler and Mussolini to withdraw their troops from Spain, had agreed to pull the International Brigades out of action. ‘Fighting was so fierce at the time that I only heard on the day we were supposed to have left. I was at the front line at the time and was told by one of our lads. I remember remarking that it was still going to be a long day,’ Frank recalled.

A few hours later he was badly wounded by a hand grenade. But he had mended by the time he left for home in December of that year.

He wasn’t long back in Liverpool before he met Paddy Roe McLaughlin. Paddy had fought in the Tan War and the Irish Civil War, served in the New York National guard and had fought in Spain with the James Connolly section of the American Lincoln Battalion. Paddy’s best friend in Spain was Liam Tumilson, a Belfast Protestant Republican who had accompanied the Shankill Road delegation to the Wolfe Tone commemoration in Bodenstown, Co. Kildare, in 1934. Paddy had the sad duty of writing to his fiancée, Kathleen Walsh.

When Paddy left Spain, he settled in Liverpool and afterwards married Kathleen. ‘Paddy was very committed to the Irish cause and sold the Irish Democrat until he died,’ said Frank.

By an old quirk of fate, Paddy’s eldest son, Mick, became a Fascist – eventually becoming leader of the British Movement in the seventies. Frank Deegan remarked how strange it was to see on television an unemployed Liverpool-Irish milkman receiving Nazi salutes from ranks of London skinheads. Mick has, however, retired from such activities and now runs an army surplus store in Wales.

In 1981 Channel 4 brought Frank Deegan back to Spain for the making of its series on the Civil War. ‘It was very moving visiting all the old battlefields. On May Day I was in Barcelona and was able to march with the Catalan veterans,’ he said.

One thing Frank was not able to do was to visit the graves of his fallen comrades. He explained that, after his victory in 1939, Franco ordered that the graves of the fallen Internationals be desecrated – the bodies burned and the ashes scattered. Perhaps Franco was haunted by the words of Dolores Ibarruri (La Passionaria) to the departing Brigadiers: “Mothers! Women! Speak to your children. Tell them of the International Brigades. Tell them how they gave up everything and they came and told us ‘we are here. Your cause, Spain’s cause, is ours. It is the cause of all advanced and progressive mankind.’ Today they are going away. Many of them, thousands of them are staying, with the Spanish earth for their shroud.”

Of the 48,000 who served in the Brigades, 12,000 were killed, including 526 from the British Battalion. Despite the heavy losses, Frank Deegan still feels that going to Spain was the correct thing. ‘The defeat of the Spanish government was a step on the road to Fascism in Europe. World War 2 might have been avoided if Franco had been defeated. Mussolini and Hitler aided Franco to strengthen Fascism in Europe. They prepared for World War 2 in Spain.’

Frank is still very much involved in politics, as are many of his surviving comrades from the Brigades. Last month he was the principal organiser of a Communist Party meeting in Liverpool at which the main speaker was Silverio Riuz, a former Republican commander in Spain who spent 14 years in Franco’s jails.

Spain now has a Socialist government and Frank derives some satisfaction from that. But, in Liverpool, things haven’t changed. There, Frank’s battle still goes on.

Reclaiming the streets – Understanding the historical basis of Irish community street presence in Liverpool.


The above headline is from the Daily Post newspaper of the 18th march 1996. It describes the previous days attempts by the Far Right and members of the local Liverpool Orange/Loyalist community to prevent the liverpool Irish community from staging its first St Patrick’s Day parade in the city for nearly 30 years. The parade assembled at the Old Irish Centre on Mount Pleasant but never made its original route through the city due to the ‘protests’ and violence of Liverpool’s local bigots and racists. It was re-routed by Merseyside Police instead.

Needless to say, anger within the Irish community was immense. However, one of the positive reactions to that days events was the formation of an Irish flute band (James Larkin Republican Flute Band – disbanded 2008). Ironically, the protests by racists and bigots that day emboldened  the Irish community so that Irish community parades have been a regular occurrence every year in Liverpool since 1996.

Here’s an article that I’ve found that was published in the Celtic FC Fanzine Tiocfaidh Ar La from the year 2000 that perfectly sums up how fascists/loyalists aggression leads to a positive Irish community response, and of course, this has lessons for those of us today who face a renewed attempt by the combined effort of Fascists/Racists/Loyalists/Orange Order to drive the Irish community back off the streets……

Interview with the famous ‘Tiocfaidh Ar La’ – Celtic/Ireland Fanzine

Issue 27 Autumn 2000

 

It’s often said that the cities of Glasgow and Liverpool have much in common, for example both cities history of working class militancy and politics, and of course both cities links to Ireland due to massive immigration during the past two centuries. In particular, both cities experienced near identical histories when it came to the Irish. The Irish communities in both cities faced hostility and racism stemming mainly from Loyalist/Orange organisations and the wider public as a whole. However, when one looks at the state of play today one sees that the development of the Irish in Glasgow compared to Liverpool has significantly altered since the middle of this century and that the mirror image often highlighted no longer exists today.

Given this recent history it is all the more remarkable that in June 1996 a republican flute band was formed in the city of Liverpool for the first time. Liverpool has no real history of Irish fife & drum marching bands, instead pipe and brass bands associated with the Irish Forrester’s and catholic based organisations being the order of the day over the years. The following is an interview with Niall, a member of the James Larkin Republican Flute Band.

Q. How & why was the band formed?

In 1996, The Liverpool Irish Centre organised a St Patrick’s Day Parade. The first to be held in the city since the late 1960’s. The parade was subsequently confronted by up to 100 combined members of the Liverpool Orange Order/Loyalists/fascists on Hope Street, who’s intent was to attack the parade and prevent the parade from following its city centre route. The fascists did in fact succeed in halting the parade. The police on the day decided to re-route the parade over a much shorter distance around the outskirts of the city and failed to properly confront the fascists to ensure the parade followed its intended route. This success by Loyalist/fascists had a profound effect upon our community, and lead to a debate as to how best to respond to this threat. We were certainly determined that this would never happen again and that Loyalist/fascists would never be able to prevent the Irish community from using the streets again.

The formation of a flute band in Liverpool had long been an ambition of many with the community, and as a result of this debate a few individuals decided to form a band who’s primary aim at that time was to challenge the apparent loyalist/fascist supremacy of the streets of Liverpool. The question we would ask ourselves always was, why only march on St Patrick’s Day, why not other days? The band became a vehicle for many who shared these same sentiments and we had our first meeting in the Irish Centre in June 1996.

Q. What were the particular difficulties in starting a republican flute band in Liverpool, or in England for that matter?

The problems all those years ago still remain with us, in that while there is a very strong history of radical Irish republicanism/nationalism in Liverpool, for instance the Scotland Road area of the city constantly elected TP O’Connor, Irish Nationalist MP from the late 1800’s to the 1920’s and there was very strong support for the IRA during the Tan War with an active brigade in Liverpool openly parading, organising and carrying out operations against British forces in Liverpool until the end of the war; that level of activity waned over the years for a wide variety of reasons such as the destruction of wide areas of social housing in the city centre, causing Irish communities to be disbursed outside of the city, hence the band has no true republican base from which to organise from and this leads to difficulties in raising funds etc. If only we had a Celtic FC of our own down here! Ironically, the band has had little contact with Loyalist/fascists interfering with the band’s activities, which is something we always thought would be a problem, especially given that we openly parade around the city promoting Irish republicanism and socialism. Since, the band’s formation we have seen increasing radicalism within the Irish community in Liverpool and support for the band and republicanism in general has grown.

Q. What are the band’s political leanings?

The band quite openly supports the republican movement and has over the last 4 years travelled extensively throughout England, Scotland and Ireland supporting republican events/parades. We are also very much aware of the need to support other struggles and show solidarity. For instance, the band lead the last big Dockers Strikers March in Liverpool in 1997 were nearly 10,000 people marched through Liverpool. The band received a great reception from the organisers and also from trade unionists around the world who obviously made the connection between the struggle in Ireland for national self determination and the rights of workers every were to have a job and earn a decent wage. The band has continued to support such events and this year lead the Liverpool May Day Rally on the 1st May.

Q. Finally, how does the future look for the James Larkin RFB?

The band has continued to grow despite the odds against us. Our main parade for the year is the James Larkin Commemoration March & Rally which we started in 1998 and has grown in size ever since. This year’s parade will be held on Saturday 30th September and as always we welcome bands from Ireland, the Bands Alliance in Scotland and supporters from across England, Scotland and Wales to Liverpool in making it the largest republican rally to be held in England.

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