The Connolly Column refers to the Irish volunteers who fought for the Second Spanish Republic in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. The Irishmen who fought for the Spanish Republic were named the Connolly Column, after James Connolly, the executed leader of the Irish Citizen Army. They made up the 15th Brigade, inclusive of the US, British and Latin American battalions in Spain.
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, the Irish Republican and socialist, Peadar O'Donnell was in Barcelona for the "People's Olympics" - held in opposition to the Olympic Games being held in Berlin under the Nazi regime. O'Donnell sympathised with the anarchist workers militia that defeated the attempted military coup in the city and joined one of their militias on the Aragon front.
On his return to Ireland, O'Donnell urged the formation of Irish volunteer regiments to support the Popular Front government. Most of the Irish volunteers came from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or the more left-wing group, the Republican Congress. Some of the IRA leadership had been oriented towards left-wing and often communist politics since the late 1920s, so the sympathy of many of its members with the Spanish Republic was unsurprising.
As well as sympathy for the Spanish Republic, many Irish Republican volunteers were also motivated by enmity towards the Irish Brigade, an 800 strong force that volunteered to fight on the Spanish Nationalist side. This antagonism dated back to the Irish Civil War, when the predecessors of the two factions had fought on opposing sides. In 1932-33 the IRA and the Blueshirts had fought each other in the streets with fists, bats and occasionally guns. Men on both sides saw the Spanish conflict as a continuation of Ireland's own civil war. Neither group had any considerable support base in the Irish electorate.
Not all the volunteers were Irish Republicans, however, as the Irish International Brigaders included many other strains of socialist and left wing ideology.
Bill Gannon, former IRA member who had been among the killers of Justice Minister Kevin O'Higgins in 1927 and who later joined the Irish Communist Party, had a major role in the recruitment and organizing.
In December 1936, led by former IRA officer Frank Ryan, eighty volunteers arrived in Spain. The majority came from the Irish Free State but there were also a group of socialists from Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland. Those who went included Michael O'Riordan, Charles Donnelly, Eddie O'Flaherty, Paul Burns, Jackie Hunt, Bill Henry, Eamon McGrotty, Bill Beattie, Paddy McLaughlin, Bill Henry, Peter O'Connor, Peter Power, Johnny Power, Liam Tumilson, Jim Stranney, Willie O'Hanlon, Ben Murray and Fred McMahon. Many were members of the Communist Party of Ireland.
After travelling through southern France by train to Perpignan, they went to the training at Albacete in Spain run by André Marty. Some Irish volunteers refused to serve in the British Brigade due to their Irish Republican convictions. Indeed Frank Ryan on one occasion threatened to shoot an English volunteer when he found out that he had served in the Black and Tans in the Irish War of Independence. As a result of these tensions, some of the Irish left the British to join the American battalion. These volunteers are the Irishmen usually referred to as the Connolly Column, although they were not a formal unit and other Irish volunteers fought in other units of the Brigades. The Connolly Column suffered heavy losses at the battle of Jarama, near Madrid in (February 1937). Charlie Donnelly, Eamon McGrotty, Bill Henry, Liam Tumilson and Bill Beattie were all killed during this battle.
Frank Ryan was badly wounded at Jarama in February 1937 and returned to Ireland to recuperate. On his return to Spain he was appointed adjutant to the Republican General José Miaja. Ryan was captured during the Aragón offensive on 1 April, 1938 and was held at the Miranda del Ebro detention camp. He was sentenced to death but after representations from Eamon de Valera his sentence was commuted to thirty years hard labour. Irish Volunteers also took part in the Battle of Ebro in July 1938, the last, doomed, Republican offensive of the war.
The surviving Irish volunteers were repatriated to Ireland after September 1938, when the Republican government disbanded the International Brigades in the vain hope of securing military aid from other democracies and of getting the fascist troops from Italy and Germany to withdraw. Michael O'Riordan went on to become General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland in 1970.
Christy Moore's song "Viva la Quinta Brigada" is about the Irish volunteers who fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War and was inspired by Michael O'Riordan's book, Connolly Column.