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Even the olives are bleeding [Thoughts]

July 14, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

 I was on YouTube a couple of months ago looking for songs about football and among those I found was Christy Moore’s song “Joxer goes to Stuttgart”, about a group of supporters from Dublin who went to watch Ireland play in the 1988 European championship in West Germany.

The next song in the YouTube mix for Christy Moore was ‘Viva la quinta brigada’ – about the Irish who fought in the International Brigades for the Spanish Republic against Franco and his Nationalists in the civil war. One verse in the song begins with the line “Even the olives were bleeding” and, such was the impact the words made on me, I have begun what is turning into a reading marathon on the response of the people of Ireland to the civil war in Spain.

I began with Michael O’Riordan’s ‘Connolly Column: The story of the Irishmen who fought for the Spanish Republic 1936-39’ and then read Ferghal McGarry’s evaluation of the career of Frank Ryan, an IRA veteran of the War of Independence and the ensuing Civil War and for whom the Christy Moore song was written in tribute.

There appears to be no doubt that Ryan remains a compelling figure in Irish history – perhaps second only to Michael Collins as the most revered/admired patriot in Irish republican history. There may be, however, some skeletons in the closet, primarily concerning his time in Germany following his capture in Spain and his transfer to a German prison. McGarry and O’Riordan certainly hold very different views.

Currently I’m reading an earlier book by Ferghal McGarry – “Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War” but my knowledge of Irish politics in the 1930s is so bad that I have to continually stop and look up issues to which he refers. I suspected that the same would almost certainly apply to Robert Stradling’s book on the same subject. However, I discovered an extremely useful website which has made my learning of these topics a little easier. It is www.irelandscw.com. Many thanks to Ciaran Crossey for all his work on this site and also to the Irish section at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast.

I was in Mayo at the end of June and found a most wonderful book and coffee shop in Louisburgh called Books@One. The coffee was great; as was the book I found while browsing – “Strong Words, Brave Words, the poetry, life and times of Thomas O’Brien, volunteer in the Spanish Civil War”: Edited by Gustav Klaus.

This is a collection of O’Brien’s poems and plays and an account of his life. Until now, I’ve merely flicked through it briefly but there are clearly enormous conflicting emotions in his writing, summarised perfectly on the first page of the book’s introduction; a clash, Klaus suggests, between O’Brien’s passion for poetry and an unconcealed impatience with its ineffectiveness.

O’Brien writes:
I have written poems in words.
Now I shall write one in action.
I shall go and do the things
I wrote and thought about.

Yet the opening lines of another early poem read:
Beauty, we have heard your voice
And we have dared to answer.

O’Brien survived the war in Spain and returned to Ireland at its end. He was involved in printing and publishing and founded the O’Brien Press shortly before his death in 1974.

I referred earlier to the line in Christy Moore’s song – ‘Even the olives were bleeding’. This is the title of another story similar to that of Thomas O’Brien. It concerns the life and times of Charles Donnelly written by Joseph O’Connor. On 27 February 1937 Donnelly’s unit, as part of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, were involved in the battle for Jarama near Madrid . On the evening of that day the Nationalists launched a counter-attack.

From behind an olive tree where he was crouching, it seems that Donnelly picked up a bunch of olives from the ground and squeezed them. He was heard to say, in a lull in machine gun fire: ‘Even the olives are bleeding.’ – a line which would later become so well known. A few minutes later, as his unit retreated, Donnelly was caught in a burst of gunfire and died instantly. He was buried at Jarama in an unmarked grave with several of his comrades.

The writings of these two ‘brigadistas’ might make an interesting comparison. I’ve not been able to find a copy of O’Connor’s book for less than ‘silly money’ but the Linen Hall folk are ‘on the case’.

I’ll return to this at a later date, maybe when I’ve finished reading about O’Brien and Donnelly and had the opportunity to investigate the roles of Eoin O’Duffy, the ‘blue shirts’ and the Nationallists.


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