Portrait of an Irish Anti-Fascist
Manus O’Riordan Portrait of an Irish Anti-Fascist
On June 7, the death occurred in Ireland of Frank Edwards, veteran of the heroic fight of the International Brigades to defend the Spanish Republic in 1936-39. Frank was indeed a man of many parts. A member of the Communist Party of Ireland, it was he who more than anybody else could claim the credit for ensuring that Catholic Ireland would bring itself to the point of finally establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1974. For thirty years he was also a teacher in the Dublin Jewish community’s Zion National School.
Frank Edwards was born in 1907 to a Belfast Catholic family which afterwards moved South to the city of Waterford. When Imperialist rivalry led to the Great War of 1914-18, Frank’s father enlisted in the British Army. Along with 50,000 other Irishmen and millions of his fellow-workers across Europe, he perished during that War -
Frank’s elder brother Jack took a different course. He was the chief organiser in Waterford of the one-day general strike in April 1918 which prevented the British Government from imposing military conscription on Ireland. He subsequently fought in the Irish War of Independence, and when Civil War erupted in 1922 upon the establishment of the Irish Free State, he took the anti-Government side. He was captured by Government troops in mid-July. What next happened to his brother Jack, made a deep and lasting impression on Frank Edwards, as he himself recounted: "He was taken to Kilkenny Jail where, after a few weeks, he was shot dead by a sentry on 19th August. It was known to be a reprisal for the shooting of a Free State Officer in Waterford. Someone called Jack to the window of his cell. A sentry had his rifle pointed and fired it. ‘Shot while attempting to escape’, they said, but we knew differently. I went to Kilkenny to claim his body. In spite of everything there was a great turnout when it arrived in the city, but the doors of the Church were shut against him. The Christians and the Provisional Government, you could say, were hand in glove. " (As related to Uinseann MacEoin in Survivors, 1980)
Little more than a decade later, Frank Edward’s own political development brought bin into contact with the Communist Party of Ireland and the writings of Marx and Lenin. When Eoin O’Duffy, formerly the Irish Free State’s first Commissioner of Police and prior to that a General in the War of Independence, thought of emulating Hitler’s Brownshirts and Mussolini’s Blackshirts with his own Blueshirt Movement -the response of people like Frank Edwards was uncompromising. In 1934 he became the Waterford leader of the newly forced Republican Congress which had been sot up by Frank Ryan and Peadar Q'Donnell in order to combat the Fascist O’Duffy and the forces he represented. (Among the Irish Diaspora, the founder of the Transport Workers’ Union of America, Mike Quill, was responsible for establishing a support section of the Republican Congress in New York.) As a teacher in a 95 per cent Catholic society where publicly funded schools were completely under clerical control, Frank Edwards was particularly vulnerable to victimization by the Church authorities for engaging in such anti-Fascist activities. He recalled how he was fired from his job in January 1935:
"As soon as Congress was founded, we tackled the question of slum landlords in Waterford ... Archdeacon Byrne, who was acting bishop at the time, was co-manager of the school where I worked, Mount Sion Christian Brothers School. ... This same priest was trustee of some of the slum property I had investigated though I did not know that at the time ... Be made some reference to the anti-slum campaign ... My major sin obviously was to have mentioned his property...."
Frank Edwards refused to be intimidated by Archdeacon Byrne’s warning not to attend the September 1934 Convention of the Republic Congress, nor would be sign a declaration that he would belong only to organisations of which the Catholic Church approved. He continued: "Following my return from that Congress I received three month ‘s notice... Bishop Kinnane, a dyed in the wool Tory, issued a rescript in January condemning me...On Sunday 26th January, there was a protest meeting. Despite a statement read in all the churches forbidding attendance, over 5,000 attended. It was a sock in the eye for the bishop, but despite the tremendous support I received from every quarter, I was bested. I had to leave Waterford. They would not leave even my mother alone. She had a post as a public health nurse. They boycotted her and she had to resign, dying very shortly afterwards."
The Washington-based Irish journalist and historian, Sean Cronin, has summed up as follows the strength of those forces of reaction: "Clerical condemnation (of the Republican Congress) was strong, ‘Its objects are the negation of all that is patriotic and Catholic’, said Monsignor Byrne, replying to Frank Ryan in the Irish Times of January 17, 2935, during the campaign to have Frank Edwards, a Waterford teacher and delegate to Congress, reinstated at Mount Sion Christian Brothers School. The Mayor of Waterford told Frank Ryan that 90 per cent of the people were behind Edwards. But the clergy won and the Corporation (City Council) affirmed its ‘fidelity’ to the Bishop, Most Rev. Dr. Kinnane, who charged that Congress had abandoned ‘The Republic’ and wanted to put ‘The Russian model’ in its place" (Frank Ryan: The Search for the Republic, 1980)
When Franco began his revolt against the Spanish Republic in 1936 he had, of course, the full backing and support of the Fascist powers of Germany and Italy. In Ireland, Dr. Kinnane and his fellow Catholic Bishops gave their blessing to an Irish Brigade of 700 which the Fascist 0’Duffy also brought to Spain on Franco’s behalf.
In the face of the pro-Franco hysteria at home1 Frank Edwards was in the first group of a much smaller but incalculably braver group of Irish anti-Fascists who set of f to defend the Spanish Republic that same year. Readers who served with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in Spain will either have known Frank Edwards personally or have met him in the pages of The Book of the 15th Brigade which Frank Ryan edited for publication in Madrid in 1938. Another Irish veteran of the International Brigades, Michael O’Riordan, has written as follows of the impact made by Edwards and his comrades from the very outset of their arrival in Spain: "The national-revolutionary background of the Irish, their fighting traditions, political conduct, and the keen desire to master military techniques, attracted to their ranks many English speaking volunteers who could by no stretch of the imagination claim any relationship with Ireland. Among such was Samuel Lee, a young Jewish volunteer from London, later to die with many of his Irish comrades in the battle of Jarama, February 1937." (The Connolly Column: The Story of the Irishmen who fought for the Spanish Republic, 1979)
Michael 0’Riordan is the proud custodian of the Memorial Banner to the Irish dead of the Brigades, which was unveiled in 1938. He points out: "It also bears the name of two dead who were not Irish, but these were inscribed because they fell in action in the ranks of the Irish Section. They were the young Jewish Londoner, Samuel Lee, and John Scott of South Africa"
A more controversial figure for the Irish in Spain might have been the commander of the British Company, George Nathan. During the First World War, Nathan became, in 1918, the only Jewish officer in the Brigade of Guards. He, however, also served in the British Black-and-Tans during the Irish War of Independence 1919-21. On March 24, 1961 the New Statesman of London carried an article by a Richard Bennett which produced circumstantial evidence identifying Nathan as one of the two British officers who had murdered both the Mayor and ex-Mayor of Limerick in March 1921. Sensationally entitled "Portrait of a Killer", the article ended with the rhetorical question "What was the ex-member of the Dublin Castle Murder Gang doing in the International Brigade? Expiating his past? Or like many another, just playing a part to death?"
An Irish response to the elements of character assassination in Bennett’s article came like a shot. In the New Statesman of March 31, 1961, Joe Monks wrote: "I remember George Nathan telling us Irish members of the ‘First Company’, which he commanded in the International Brigade, that he had served as an intelligence officer with the British forces in the Limerick area during the Irish War of Independence. He made this statement in the presence of Frank Ryan, who was a native of Limerick. Perhaps it is fair to say that Nathan, the volunteer for liberty, who gave such magnificent service to the anti-Fascist cause in the last year of his life, did not seem in character with the officer portrayed in Mr. Bennett’s article."
A week later, on April 7, a British veteran, W. Greenhalgh, shed the following light on Nathan's political development: "It may be that the answers to the final questions posed by Richard Bennett were given to me as we lay in a fox-hole dug into the hill-side somewhere on the Cordoba front. It was December arid the British Company was in its first action...Our talk had turned to Socialism, to the cause for which we were fighting. No, George Nathan was not a Socialist, at least he hadn't, up to now, given it much thought. He was a soldier, was proud of the fact that he had worked his way through the ranks and had held a commission in the Guards. And then ‘that bastard Mosley’, (leader of the British Union of Fascists), waving a Union Jack, had the nerve to suggest that Jews were aliens. He, a Jew, had done his bit, and more than his bit, for the Old Country. In London he had joined the Jewish Anti-Fascist League and had eventually found his way to Spain because this was an anti-Fascist war. Two days before he was killed I was told that George Nathan had applied for membership of the Communist Party."
And how did Frank Edwards respond when he met up with a former Black-and-Tan in the person of George Nathan? Two of Frank’s brothers had after all fought against the Tans, in the Irish War of Independence and., in reprisal the Edwards family were evicted from their Waterford home. There could not, in fact, be any more noble tribute paid to George Nathan than that paid by Frank Edwards in his own account of the Spanish Inferno: "There was a total of 132 Irish direct from Ireland. There were in addition other Irish-born from England, Scotland and America. Many others claimed they were Irish merely to get in with our section. At Lopera, we were 150 going in, after ten days there was left of us, active and still able to fight, only 66.... After ten days fighting and heavy casualties we were pulled out and taken to the Madrid front, to a place called Las Rozas, ten miles north of the city. Talk about out of the frying pan into the fire! I was at Las Rozas only one night when I was wounded. The XII and XIV International Brigades had been thrown in to prevent a Franco advance which would have cut off Madrid. We just managed to block them though there were thousands of men lost on both sides. The German Thaelmann Battalion fighting for us was almost wiped out. If you could forget that it was war, it was beautiful to look at. An immense and ever-changing fireworks display rolling along the hilltops in the dark Spanish night. And we were expected to advance into that. I felt bad under heavy artillery fire. George Nathan came up and removed his helmet. Pointing at a hole in it, he said: ‘You know this is not much good. A stone did that. Still', fixing it back on, ‘I suppose it is better than nothing. Spread out now,’ said he. ‘We have lost two men already’. Shortly after Dinny Cody and myself got hit. I did not feel too bad as I walked down the hill. ‘Send up stretcher-bearers’, I told them, but Dinny was already dead. I was soaked in b load myself from a wound in the body.... It was one hell of a rough ride over stony road to the first-aid hospital. Later I was transferred to a proper hospital in Madrid. Nathan was a brave soldier, no matter what is said or may be suspected of him. He was killed, still rallying his men in that devil-may-care manner of his, in the Brunette salient north of Madrid, in July 1937" (Survivors, 1980)
In October 1937 Frank Edwards and the other Irish members of the International Brigades issued a Manifesto to their fellow-countrymen which, among other questions, asked: "Are Irish teachers and others engaged in cultural work to take sides with those who aped Hitler-barbarism by burning the works of Spain’s greatest thinkers, who dragged Spain's greatest poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca, through the streets of Granada before killing him, who hurtled bombs upon the Prado?"
When Edwards’ own labour union, the Irish National Teachers Organisation, had dropped their defence of his right to teach, they handed a significant victory to the forces of reaction as represented by the Bishop of Waterford, Dr. Kinnane. In 1939 the poison spewed forth by the Irish Catholic Church reached a peak when Bishop Kinnane formally endorsed and sponsored a work by one Father Denis Fahey entitled The Rulers of Russia. Fahey proclaimed: "The book shows Bolshevism in its proper perspective, namely, as the most recent development in the age-long struggle waged by the Jewish Nation against the Supernatural Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ, and. His Mystical Body, the Catholic Church". He went on to quote the following extract from the Victory Speech of General Franco in Madrid on May 19, 1939: "Let us be under no illusion. The Jewish spirit, which was responsible for the alliance of large-scale capital with Marxism and was the driving force behind so many anti-Spanish revolutionary agreements, will not be got rid of in a day".
When Frank Edwards returned to Ireland he was, of course, blacklisted by such Church authorities from receiving a teaching appointment in any Catholic school, and the Archbishop of Dublin confirmed that ban in writing. Having settled in Dublin, it seemed as if he would never again teach. He recalled: "My task now was to get a job, any sort of job; it was not going to be easy... I got a job with Pye Radio, but got thrown out when I tried to start the union in it. Then...I got a job as a labourer, digging and laying pipes. I was about six months at that when I got the opportunity to get back into teaching. It was in the Jewish national school on the South Circular Road. It was July, 1939, and the war clouds were enveloping Europe. I got one week’s work there, before the holidays in July, earning ten pounds. On the strength of that, and the promise of more, I got married in August".
Zion National School had only been established a few years previously, as one of the crowning achievements of the decade and a half served by Dr. Isaac Herzog as the Irish Free State’s first Chief Rabbi. The new school was established just a few doors away from the Dublin home where the Rabbi had reared a family which included his distinguished sons, Chaim and Yaacov Herzog, before he left Ireland in 1935 in order to become Chief Rabbi of Palestine. In March of this year Irish-born Chaim Herzog was, of course, the successful Labour Party candidate in the election for President of Israel.
Frank Edwards was to remain in the employment of Zion National School for the remainder of his teaching life, until his retirement thirty years later. After the 'honeymoon' of the Soviet Unions vitally important support for the new State of Israel had become past history, it is true that the political outlook of most Irish Jews was probably not any less anti-Communist than that of their Catholic fellow-countrymen. But there was an ideological world of difference between Mount Sion School and Zion School, in more ways than one. It can be summed up in one word, the democratic spirit of Toleration. Even the waging of the class struggle in school was conducted in a highly civilised, if often amusing, form! Knowing both the teacher as a family friend and his Jewish students as my neighbours on the South Circular Road, I sometimes heard both sides of the same story. On one occasion, on learning that it was the birthday of the son of a Hasidic small businessman, Frank Edwards - as was his generous nature - put his hand in his pocket and gave the boy some money to buy himself a present. The next day, as if to convince his Communist teacher of the merits of private enterprise, the boy informed him that after discussing it with his father, they had decided to invest the money! The point scoring did not end there. Frank subsequently received a Christmas present from the same hasidic family of a set of bright Red handkerchiefs!
While Frank Edwards taught by day, he devoted his evenings to the struggle required to create an atmosphere for some sanity to prevail in Irish-Soviet relations. Formally, of course, Southern Ireland has always been neutral. But while the Irish Government of Eamon de Valera had pursued a policy of friendly neutrality towards Nazi Germany, vitriolic abuse and hysteria were reserved for the Soviet Union. When de Valera went out of his way to sympathise with the German Ambassador to Dublin on hearing of the death of Adolf Hitler, Irish Republican Congress veteran Mike Quill wrote the following bitter response in the official bulletin of the Transport Workers’ Union of America, of which he was President: "Not since Padraic Pearse and James Connolly were forced to surrender the Dublin Post Office at the conclusion of the 1916 Rebellion, did the Irish people live through a darker day or suffer such great shame as they did on May 2, 1945... It can no longer be argued that de Valera did this in order to maintain any pretence of neutrality. There are many other countries that have remained neutral in this War, but their leaders did not try to stain the hands of their people with the blood that Hitler spilled so freely until Tuesday, May 2, as did de Valera".
In glaring contrast with this behavior, de Valera was to boast, smilingly, to a New York Times reporter on July 31, 1947: "We have no diplomatic relations with Russia". It was no wonder, then, that Soviet Union representative Andrei Gromyko made a speech on August 17, 1947 in which he declared: "We cannot fail to observe the following. As we all know, Ireland was on very good terms with the Axis Powers and gave no assistance whatsoever to the Allied nations in their struggle against the Fascist States. Apart from this Ireland has not and has never had normal relations with the USSR, whose part in the war against the aggressor States and in gaining victory over them is well known. For these reasons, the USSR delegation feels unable again this year, to support the proposal that Ireland be admitted to the United Nations".
Against the background of irrationality that dominated Irish thinking about the Soviet Union, Frank Edwards faced an uphill battle when establishing the Ireland-USSR Friendship Society in 1946. Indeed there was a riot when the Society held its first public meeting, summed up in the Irish Times headline on November 26, 1946: "Nazi Flags at Dean’s Lecture (What I Saw in Soviet Russia)". The newspaper’s account continued: -"While the Dean was speaking, some young men in the balcony stood up and flung two Nazi German flags over the rails.... Shouts of ‘Up Franco’ and ‘Down With Jews’ were heard as the stewards battled to keep back the crowds".
Frank Edwards battled on against such forces of darkness, although he did not formally become Secretary of the Society until 1955. When no Dublin cinema would dare show a Soviet film during the 1950s, I remember as a child accompanying my father to a small room where Frank would show such Soviet film classics as Maxim Gorky’s trilogy, while outside the building the political police took careful note of everyone who attended such films. Needless to say, I remained utterly bewildered as to how the parents of my Catholic school-friends could regard as diabolically sinful my attendance at such morally uplifting films as Gorky ‘s Childhood and The Mother.
Through decades of vilification, Frank Edwards finally reaped his reward when embassies were exchanged between Dublin and Moscow in 1974. And the Counselor of the Soviet Embassy naturally paid tribute to Frank Edward’ s pioneering work when he spoke at the funeral ceremony on June 9. Pride of place at the ceremony went, of course, to Frank’s fellow veterans from the Spanish battlefield against Fascism - Joe Monks, Peter O’Connor and Michael O’Riordan, who presided over the proceedings. The funeral oration was delivered by the 90-year Old Irish writer and veteran of the War of Independence, Peadar O’Donnell. It was O’Donnell who in 1936 was to the forefront of the solidarity campaign with the Spanish Republic. Thirty years later, it was my privilege to serve as a representative of the Connolly Youth Movement on the committee of the Irish Voice on Vietnam which O’Donnell had established in order to protest as loudly against Johnson’s bombings of Hanoi as he had against Hitler’s bombing of Guernica. And yet it was O’Donnell himself who in all humility pronounced the following last farewell to a departed comrade: "I think Frank Edwards will become a legend and his legend and his name will live on long after most of us here are forgotten ".
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