REPUBLICAN FIGHTER, EX-PRISONER, PROMOTER OF HISTORICAL MEMORY

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 5 mins.)

The celebration of the memory of Eddie O’Neill, organised by Friends of the International Brigades Ireland was held in the Dublin Club building of the Irish National Teachers’ Union on 5th August, attended by many of his friends, relatives and comrades.

Eddie died 27th July 2021 but the commemoration had to be postponed until Covid precautions permitted a gathering of many of those who wished to attend, although messages were also received from those who inevitably could not attend this event.

Maureen Shiels opening the event (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Opening the event, speaking in Irish and in English, Maureen Shiels said that although Eddie was sorely missed, the proceedings were intended to celebrate the life of FIBI’s honorary President, with talks, reminiscences and music.

Eddie O’Neill had been a member of the Provisional IRA active in England, had been captured and jailed, had then become a part of the resistance within the prison system, not only with other IRA prisoners but also others within the jails.

After his release Eddie had worked to bring former Republican prisoners together for mutual support, going on to work on having the story of those in English prisons told and also working to strengthen the historical memory of the Irish who fought against Franco.

FILM

Joe Mooney showed a short fictional film but celebrating Tyrone socialist Republican and poet, Charley Donnelly, who was killed on 23rd September 1937 at the Battle of Jarama. Mooney is a history activist in his East Wall community and has organised walking history tours, talks and other events.

These have involved the social and political history of his area around the Fenians, 1913 Lockout, 1916 Rising, War of Independence and Civil War. But also connections to other actions in other areas, such as the Spanish Anti-Fascist War, in which local anti-fascist Jack Nalty1 was killed.

Shiels called on Ruan O’Donnell to give the main oration, historian and author, including of Vols. 1 & 2 of Special Category – the IRA inEnglish prisons, in which Eddie had organised the interviews, she had written them out in longhand and Maureen Maguire2 had then typed them up.

MAIN ORATION – RUAN O’DONNELL

Giving the main oration of the event, historian O’Donnell took the audience on a tour through the record of Eddie’s activism in England, actions of sabotage carefully calculated to cause disruption, publicise the on-going war yet without causing any civilian casualties.

O’Neill had been the impulse and some of the driving force behind O’Donnell’s two works (so far) on Irish political prisoners in jails in England during the the last decades of the former century and had been not only one of the prisoners but an organiser of escapes and other acts of resistance.

Eddie watched the paratroopers and colonial police attack the demonstrators’ protest march at Magilligan internee concentration camp from the roof on to which he had climbed; during the English prison protest at Gartree was again a rooftop protester and drew up the list of demands.

Ruan O’Donnell went on to speak of Eddie’s personal qualities of not only courage but also determination and his privacy, how he kept his family life separate from his military activities and also talked little about the illness that was going to end his life.

Seán Óg performing at the event (Photo: D.Breatnach)

MUSIC

A recording of The Mountains of Pomeroy3 was played, along with a video clip of Andy Irvine performing at a FIBI gala concert in the Workman’s Club in November 2018, played by Joe Mooney. Irvine worked Woody Guthrie’s You Fascists Bound to Lose into his own instrumentals.

At various times Sean Óg was called to sing and, accompanying himself on guitar, performed The Prisoners’ Anthem4 (celebrating the resistance of Irish Republican prisoners), Christy Moore’s Viva La Quince Brigada and The Peat Bog Soldiers5 (song of revolutionary prisoners of the Nazis).

At a request from Sheils that “we should remember our own Civil War”, he sang Soldiers of ‘226. I sang the Hans Beimler song to celebrate the German trade unionist and communist who had escaped Dachau, gone to fight in Spain and was killed in the Battle for Madrid in November 19367.

Right: Diarmuid Breatnach singing Hans Beimler. Left, Brenda O’Riordan (Photo: FIBI)

Brenda O’Riordan sang a rendition of Si Me Quieres Escribir (“If You Want to Write to Me” [I’ll be on the Gandesa frontline]) and related some reminiscences of her brother Manus, a foremost activist in FIBI (1949-September 26, 2021) and of their father, International Brigader Michael O’Riordan.

PERSONAL REMINISCENCES

A number of people gave personal reminiscences of Eddie O’Neill from their own experience, including one member of his family who talked about Eddie’s sense of humour and also his observance of security with regard to his Volunteer activities.

(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Harry Owens, Spanish Civil War historian and author, said that Eddie had contributed so much to remembering the war in Spain. At a commemoration there once, they had been asked why they drag up the past; Harry had replied “So we don’t let it happen again.”

FOCAL SCOIR

There is something else about Eddie O’Neill’s political standpoint of that I do not hear said about him, which is that he was not a supporter of the pacification strategy called “the Irish Peace Process”, nor indeed of the South African or Palestinian parallel processes.

It is understandable why in a “broad church” such as the Friends of the International Brigades Ireland, there would be a reluctance to mention this. Understandable but mistaken, in my opinion. It was an important facet of Eddie that he could reflect on the struggle and his and others’ sacrifices.

Section of attendance early, centre left of room. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

But he could assess mistakes also and where the leadership had taken the movement. Specifically with regard to the South African situation, we agreed that Ramaphosa and Zuma had betrayed the struggle and that Mandela had, with his personal status and silence, facilitated that8.

Nevertheless, Eddie surprised me by calling ANC fighter Robert McBride “one of the worst gangsters”, as I was recalling how I had once campaigned to save him from execution9. It seems a weakness in us if we can’t assess our errors even when one of our fighters points them out.

Eddie was all the good things that people said about him and the event was a fitting tribute to his memory and his contribution to the struggle but also a reminder to us that we are not supposed to just honour a fallen flag but to pick it up and carry it forward as far as we can. As Eddie did.

End.

Eddie O’Neill and Andy Irvine (Photo: FIBI)

FOOTNOTES

1Jack Nalty (1902-23 September 1938), Irish Republican Volunteer, socialist, trade unionist and athlete, was the last Irish Brigader to be killed in action in that war, on the Ebro the day before the Republican forces surrendered to the military coupist and fascists under General Franco. “He died heroically, after returning into danger to rescue a machine gun crew that had been left behind. As they withdrew they were hit by a burst of fascist machine gun fire and, though Jack died instantly, thankfully both British volunteers survived”(East Wall History Group). Jack Nalty is mentioned in Christy Moore’s “Viva La Quince Brigada” and on a number of plaques in public places.

2I have personal reason to know that Maureeen Maguire also did some of the interviews.

3The mountains are in Eddie O’Neill’s County of Tyrone. The song is of resistance, lyrics penned by George Sigerson (1836-1925).

4Composed by Gerry O’Glacain of The Irish Brigade group.

5As the communists and socialists were forbidden to sing their own songs, they created this one but in some cases were threatened with death to stop singing this one too, although it is has been recorded that the guards in some cases enjoyed the singing as they marched the prisoners out to work. The lyrics have been translated into many languages.

6Lyrics by Brian “na Banban” Ó hUigínn/ O’Higgins (1882 – 10 March 1963), to the air of The Foggy Dew, a popular song about the 1916 Rising.

7Lyrics in German by Ernst Busch (22 January 1900 – 8 June 1980) to air by Friedrich Silcher (1789-1860).

8Those were leaders of the African National Congress and the National Union of Miners respectively, though Ramaphosa is currently head of the ANC and President of South Africa and Zuma is in a long process of being tried for corruption. Ramaphosa is widely believed to have organised the Marikana massacre of striking mineworkers in 2012, which Zuma colluded with and which Mandela, then at liberty, kept silent about.

9 it has been suggested that McBride was an unrecognised grandson of John McBride, Mayor in the Irish Transvaal Brigade fighting the English in the Boer War and 1916 insurgent shot by British firings squad. Robert McBride was held up by IRA/Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness as an example of a former combatant who moved up into a l eadership role following the political changes in South Africa. The Wikipedia entry on his career after Apartheid will shock some people.

FURTHER READING etc

FIBI Ireland: https://www.facebook.com/fibi.ireland

Dedication by Nancy Wallach, descendant of a Lincoln Brigader: https://albavolunteer.org/2021/08/eddie-oneill-1951-2021/

FIBI dedication reprinted by ex-prisoner Anthony McIntyre, editor of The Pensive Quill blog: https://www.thepensivequill.com/2021/07/eddie-o-neill-1950-2021-irish.html

APPENDIX

Dedication of Friends of the International Brigades Ireland:

Eddie O’Neill 1951 – 2021

Irish Republican, Anti-Fascist, Internationalist

Éamon ‘Eddie’ Ó Néill, a true legend of the left republican and anti-fascist movement passed away peacefully in the company of his family in Connolly Hospital, Blanchardstown, Dublin, on July 27. Eddie was a proud loughshore native of Doire Treasc i gContae Thír Eoghain.

We send our condolences to his family in Dublin and Tyrone and to his many comrades and friends across Ireland, Spain, the Basque Country, Catalunya, the US, Britain, Canada, Cúba and elsewhere.

Eddie O’Neill represented the very essence of Irish republican resistance and its symbiotic relationship with international anti-fascist solidarity and activism. A warm, engaging, charismatic and intriguing individual, he represented all that is best in humanity, with his understated selflessness often masking a fearless determination.

Interned as a young man while serving his engineering apprenticeship at Shorts, he was incarcerated in Crumlin Road Jail, Belfast, and Magilligan prison Camp, Co Derry, where he witnessed the infamous precursor to Bloody Sunday, when soldiers fired plastic bullets and CS gas at anti-internment protesters on Magilligan Strand.

After his release, Eddie became a full-time republican activist, operating in Ireland, the US and England. He was arrested in London in 1974 on conspiracy charges and while on remand he was broken-hearted by the death of his close friend and Co Tyrone comrade, Hugh Coney, who was shot dead by British soldiers after an escape from Long Kesh prison camp that October.

Convicted as a member of the so-called ‘Uxbridge 8’ the following year, he received a 20 years’ sentence in maximum-security English prisons. Over the next 14 years until his eventual release in 1988, he would spend much of his time in solitary confinement in various jails, enduring unimaginable brutality.

Eddie held little regard for material things, but he did treasure a copy of Peadar O’Donnell’s The Gates Flew Open – although he never read it. It belonged to his comrade Frank Stagg who left it open on his locker before he died on hunger strike in 1976. Eddie had shared the adjoining cell in Wakefield Prison. In all the years he had it, he never turned that page.

He was classed as a Category E prisoner – one considered likely to escape. He made good on this classification in 1977 with an escape attempt from Wormwood Scrubs and the following year he took part in a rooftop protest in Gartree in pursuit of demands for repatriation and political status.

As a result of the relentless attempts to break his spirit, in May 1979 he was rushed to the prison hospital at Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight suffering from blinding headaches, insomnia, partial blindness and partial paralysis.

For the previous two years he had suffered an inhumane regime of sleep torture, consisting of his cell light being left on 24 hours a day and frequent night searches, even though he was forced to strip before going to bed and to leave his clothes outside his cell.

He had no sooner finished his treatment than he was transferred to Winson Green prison and put back into solitary. He subsequently received a severe beating from prison officers. When he complained about his injuries, he lost his remission. Ever the fighter, he appealed this capricious decision, and the lost remission was restored.

He took everything that the empire could throw at him.

Following his eventual release, he continued his republican activism but widened it to encompass internationalism and anti-fascism. This path inspired him, along with International Brigades veteran Bob Doyle, Harry Owens and a small number of others, to establish the Friends of Charlie Donnelly, in memory of a fellow republican socialist, Co Tyrone native and International Brigader who had fallen at the Battle of Jarama in defence of the Spanish Republic in February 1937.

The group’s motivation has never been purely historical in nature: Eddie and the other members believe that the best way to honour the International Brigades is to draw inspiration from them to encourage future generations to take up the fight against fascism and imperialism.

Thanks in no small part to Eddie’s single-minded dedication to getting things done and his ability to attract people to work with him, in 2010 the group evolved into Friends of the International Brigades Ireland (FIBI).

Eddie proved that neither borders nor languages were insurmountable barriers to activism. He forged strong and enduring links across Ireland, Britain, Spain, The Basque Country, Catalunya, and the US in particular. These relationships will be the backbone of FIBI’s work into the future.

In Ireland, Eddie and other FIBI members had been erecting and repairing monuments to International Brigaders for several years. His work extended to every corner of Ireland and in 2010, he fulfilled a long-term ambition to complete a cairn overlooking where Charlie Donnelly fell at Jarama.

Of course, he had already planned this many years before it happened, laying the groundwork for this initiative of such symbolic importance through close co-operation with the Ayuntamiento de Rivas Vaciamadrid local authority and activists in the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AABI).

The cairn, comprising stones from the 32 counties of Ireland, has been maintained and restored by the local authority after frequent attacks by Franco’s heirs and successors – a backhanded compliment to its significance. This monument has become a rallying point for internationalists, socialists, republicans, communists, anarchists, and democrats who gather every year to pay homage to those who defended democracy and freedom in the 1930s.

Eddie was committed to erecting memorials to every single Irish Brigader who served the anti-fascist cause in Spain. He researched primary and secondary sources in several countries and unearthed information on previously ‘lost’ volunteers, spending countless hours researching the labyrinthine Moscow Archives.

This research forged a path for commemorations in areas where local communities had no idea of the heroism of their forebears. Many of these ‘Volunteers of Liberty’ remain buried in unknown graves on Spanish soil, but Eddie was determined that their memories would endure.

Eddie’s determination to confront fascism became emblematic of his activism and internationalist outlook. In him, it was easy to recognise the living spirit of the International Brigaders.

His name was rightfully synonymous with the anti-fascist cause in Ireland and beyond. He planned and organised commemorative events across Spain, the Basque Country and Catalunya, where he was a regular and popular visitor in his famous green Hiace van (which served simultaneously as transport, accommodation and centre of logistics). Eddie’s name is lauded in many villages, towns, and cities across the Iberian Peninsula where he rested, laughed, talked politics, cajoled, and took part in acts of international solidarity.

Eddie stayed particularly close to his many friends and comrades in the Republican Movement and he had a deep and enduring bond with his fellow ex-prisoners, many of whom joined him as he led solidarity trips to Spain and the Basque Country from 2007 onwards.

Although a committed internationalist, he remained very proud of his Co Tyrone roots. He was the force behind the recent revival of the Charlie Donnelly Winter School in Dungannon and the annual commemorations at Killybrackey and Moybridge. He was also passionate about his beloved Fir an Chnoic (Derrytresk Gaelic Football Club) in his native parish and was extremely proud to see the team reach the All-Ireland Final in Croke Park in 2012.

Eddie leaves a powerful, inspiring legacy that will endure for those of us who follow. His energy seemed boundless and, even as his final illness took a heavy toll, he continued to carry his pain with stoicism, dignity, and humour.

His loss is devastating, not only to his family and friends, but to FIBI, of which he was the founder and Honorary President. His final message to the group urged us to carry on his work in commemorating the International Brigades and continuing the anti-fascist cause, which he considered more relevant now than ever, in the face of the increasing threat from resurgent monopoly capitalism, neoliberalism and the growing confidence of the fascist foot soldiers of hate and intolerance.

In his final days, he implored us to keep following in his footsteps. We are comforted in the belief that he knew we would continue his struggle. And what an inspiration we now have! What a legacy he has left us.

La lucha continúa!

No pasarán!

The Flowering Bars

(Charlie Donnelly 1914-37)

After sharp words from the fine mind,

protest in court,

the intimate high head constrained,

strait lines of prison, empty walls,

a subtle beauty in a simple place.

There to strain thought through the tightened brain,

there weave

the slender cords of thought, in calm,

until routine in prospect bound

joy into security,

and among strictness sweetness grew,

mystery of flowering bars.

1Jack Nalty (1902-23 September 1938), Irish Republican Volunteer, socialist, trade unionist and athlete, was the last Irish Brigader to be killed in action in that war, the day before the Republican forces surrendered to the military coupist and fascists under General Franco. “He died heroically, after returning into danger to rescue a machine gun crew that had been left behind. As they withdrew they were hit by a burst of fascist machine gun fire and, though Jack died instantly, thankfully both British volunteers survived”(East Wall History Group). Jack Nalty is mentioned in Christy Moore’s “Viva La Quince Brigada” and on a number of plaques in public places.

2I have personal reason to know that Maureeen Maguire also did some of the interviews.

3The mountains are in Eddie O’Neill’s County of Tyrone. The song is of resistance, lyrics penned by George Sigerson (1836-1925).

4Composed by Gerry O’Glacain of The Irish Brigade group.

5As the communists and socialists were forbidden to sing their own songs, they created this one but in some cases were threatened with death to stop singing this one too, although it is has been recorded that the guards in some cases enjoyed the singing as they marched the prisoners out to work. The lyrics have been translated into many languages.

6Lyrics by Brian “na Banban” Ó hUigínn/ O’Higgins (1882 – 10 March 1963), to the air of The Foggy Dew, a popular song about the 1916 Rising.

7Lyrics in German by Ernst Busch (22 January 1900 – 8 June 1980) to air by Friedrich Silcher (1789-1860).

8Those were leaders of the African National Congress and the National Union of Miners respectively, though Ramaphosa is currently head of the ANC and President of South Africa and Zuma is in a long process of being tried for corruption. Ramaphosa is widely believed to have organised the Marikana massacre of striking mineworkers in 2012, which Zuma colluded with and which Mandela, then at liberty, kept silent about.

9 it has been suggested that McBride was an unrecognised grandson of John McBride, Mayor in the Irish Transvaal Brigade fighting the English in the Boer War and 1916 insurgent shot by British firings squad. Robert McBride was held up by IRA/Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness as an example of a former combatant who moved up into a l eadership role following the political changes in South Africa. The Wikipedia entry on his career after Apartheid will shock some people.

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