Ireland pays tribute to IBers
The voices of British Battalion’s Charlie Donnelly, Bob Doyle, John Cornford, Jim Haughey and Dolores Ibárruri (La Pasionaria) were heard again at the Shankill Road Library in Belfast this August. Moving readings of their poetry and memoirs were delivered by Marlene Sideway, IBMT President and actor, Dr. Sinead Morrissey, Belfast’s first poet Laureate, and Dawn Purvis, former Belfast assemblywoman and women’s rights activist, presently director of the Marie Stopes Clinic. IBCC’s Lynda and Ernest Walker, whose vast library served as a resource for many of the selected works, organized the program. It was one of a varied program of events that took place during August’s month long Feile an Phobail Irish cultural festival. The Shankill Road library was a most fitting venue for this program, as it is the setting for the latest plaque installed by the IBCC commemorating six Brigadistas from the Shankill Road neighborhood of Belfast.
John Gray, retired director of the Linen Library, began the program by posing the question “Why has so much poetry been written about the Spanish anti-fascist war?” He set the readings to follow in context by characterizing the writing of poetry as “a movement of the passionate conscience.”
The overflow crowd at the library, most if not all of whom had not yet been born in 1936, were nonetheless able to draw inspiration from the long ago voices of these anti fascist heroes thanks to the moving presentations. While the present day government of Burgos makes no mention of the International Brigade concentration camp which existed at the now restored monastery at San Pedro de Cardena, even removing a commemorative plaque installed by the Burgos anti fascist committee in 1998, the audience in Belfast heard first hand accounts of the horrific conditions taken from the memoirs of Bob Doyle and Haughey. Dawn Purvis read the former’s Brigadista and the latter’s Lion of Lurgan, both of which related how the IB prisoners ameliorated their own conditions through the same solidarity and internationalism that they had exhibited on the battlefields of Spain. Dr. Sinead Morrissey read the prophetic words of John Cornford, the great grandson of Charles Darwin, who wrote “We are the future” in his account of front line battle in Full Moon at Tierz: Before the Storming of Huesca.
Listening to their words, learning of their individual histories and in some instances personal connections to the IBMT members whom I’d met at past commemorations both in Spain and here in Ireland, really brought home the international character of the Brigades, and the internationalism that motivated them. I was asked to speak about the Americans in the arts who supported the republic and the International Brigades. Selecting a few to introduce to the Irish audience was a difficult task, as so many generations of writers, artists and musicians had responded to what the visual artist Robert Motherwell termed “the most moving political event of the time”, the decisive moral issue they would go on to engage with from the deepest core of their lives and their art. I focused on three artists whose lives spanned three centuries. I began with Paul Robeson, born in 1898, who called his visit to the front in Spain “the turning point of my life.” The spirit of internationalism he shared with the International Brigades made him an artist who belonged to the peoples of all the 52 countries who went to Spain. This was equally true of Pete Seeger, the next artist to whom we all paid tribute and honored that afternoon. I concluded with the words of John Sayles, a filmmaker still working into this quarter of the 21st century, sharing the speech he delivered at the VALB 1985 reunion, “What About the Guys in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade?”
That stirring address, in which Sayles related how the heroism of the Brigades helped him to counter the cynics of his day, underscored the value of programs such as the IBCC’s “In Their Own Words”, which let the voices and deeds of the Volunteers continue to ring out loud and clear.
ALBA Board Member Nancy Wallach is the daughter of Abraham Lincoln Brigade Veteran Hy Wallach.