by ehistoryadmin on November 6, 2014


Frank Conroy, who fought and died in Spain

James Durney

230 native-born Irishmen fought in the International Brigades for the Spanish republican cause – 70 of whom were killed in action, died of wounds or disease. The recognized leader of the Irish in Republican Spain was Frank Ryan, a former IRA leader. In a new book Fighting for Republican Spain 1936-38. Frank Ryan and the Volunteers from Limerick in the International Brigades its author, Barry McLoughlin, includes biographical data on the 230 Irish members. Two of those included are from Co. Kildare – Frank Conroy and Robert Charles Hepburn.

Frank Conroy was born on 25 February 1914, in Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, and baptized on 1 March 1914. His parents were Michael Conroy (born in Co. Laois) and Catherine Farrell (born in Co. Dublin). They married in Dublin South in 1908. Michael Conroy was a baker by trade and in the 1911 Census he was living with his wife and two children, John (2) and Mary, an infant, in the Guinness Trust Buildings, in Patrick Street, Dublin. Michael Conroy moved his family to Co. Kildare shortly after, probably for employment reasons, as there was a large bakery, O’Connell’s, operating in Kilcullen. Frank Conroy received his confirmation in Sandymount, Dublin, on 15 March 1928, which indicates that the family had at some stage moved back to Dublin.

Frank Conroy left for Spain on the Dun Laoghaire-Holyhead ferry on 13 December 1936 with about twenty-five other Irish volunteers, including Frank Ryan and Frank Edwards, whose removal from his position as a national teacher in Waterford caused a controversy two years previous. The men were ex-members of the IRA, the Irish Citizen Army, Irish Republican Congress, and the Six-County Socialist Party. Many of them, but not all, were communists. Frank Conroy was a former IRA volunteer and a member of Communist Party of Ireland. He gave no next-of-kin. ‘The Republican contingent,’ Frank Ryan told an Irish Press reporter at the quayside ‘besides being a very efficient fighting force, every member of it having been in action – is also a demonstration. It is a demonstration of the sympathy of revolutionary Ireland with the Spanish people in their fight against international Fascism. It is also a reply to the intervention of Irish Fascism in the war against the Spanish Republic which, if unchallenged would remain a disgrace on our own people.’

More Irish volunteers joined Ryan’s  group in London. Walter Greenhalgh, from Manchester, met Ryan’s party on the ferry from Britain to France, and said the Irishmen were in high spirits, singing rebel songs in the bar. Thirteen men, including Frank Conroy, crossed the border into Spain with Frank Ryan. (Within days six of them would be dead.) They crossed legally on buses during the night of 14 December, at the assembly point of the Internationals, the fortress of Figueras. After stopovers in Barcelona and Valencia the group arrived in Albacete, the main base of the Internationals, in the early morning of 17 December.

Frank Ryan organized forty-three of the Irish volunteers for service in the Marseillaise Battalion of the 14th (Franco-Belge) Brigade and they left for the Cordoba Front on Christmas Eve. The Irishmen, mostly Dubliners, were posted to the battalion’s No. 1 Company of 145 English-speakers. Ryan did not accompany them. He was not given a field commission, probably because he was not a communist and also had a hearing impediment. The task of No. 1 Company was to capture the town of Lopera, just south of the road between Andújar and Córdoba. The Company’s first section comprised mainly Irish volunteers commanded by Christopher ‘Kit’ Conway, an experienced IRA activist. They were machine-gunned from the air on Christmas Day and had to withdraw from their positions outside Lopera. Another attempt was made to encircle the town on 28 December. However, the reinforced and well-fortified enemy forces again resisted strongly. As the badly equipped men of the International Battalion tried to cross the ridges in front of the town they were subjected to machine-gun fire and artillery bombardments and had to retreat. They did not have magazine clips for their antiquated Austrian Steyr rifles and were supposed to depend on the French Chaucat light machine-guns, which were notorious for jamming. Five Dublin men – James Foley, Anthony Fox, Michael May, Michael Nolan and Thomas Wood – John Meehan, from Galway and Frank Conroy were killed. Almost all the other Irish volunteers in the unit were wounded.

In total 300 volunteers from nineteen nations were killed and another 600 were wounded in the disastrous attack. Efforts were made to discover why the Battalion had been so disorganized and ineffective. The French commander of the Marseillaise Battalion, Lt. Col. Delasalle, was accused of cowardice, treason and of spying for the enemy. Delasalle was quickly tried and executed. Few mourned his loss, but many volunteers who fought with No. 1 Company at Lopera believed that Delasalle was made a scapegoat. The English-speaking company was transferred back to Madrid on 11 January 1937 to contain another enemy offensive. On Christmas Eve the company had been 145 strong; when they returned to Albacete the following month only sixty-seven men remained.

My thanks to Brian Byrne for help with this article.

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