The Shankill versus Franco: Working-class Protestants’ fight against Spanish fascism
by Stevie DOWNES for Northern Ireland Foundation
1 February 2014
On Saturday 1st February, a plaque was unveiled in the Shankill Library to seven men from the area who went to fight against Franco in the 1936 Spanish Civil War. Of the seven, four died out there, yet it has taken 75 years for any formal recognition. This is a testament to how long it can take to come to terms with history. And we still haven’t, which is why history is still politics here.
It is politics that raises an eyebrow when it hears that working-class Protestants would have been so motivated by socialism that they would have been prepared to give their lives for it.
Of the seven who fought in Spain — William Beattie, William Henry, William Laughran, Harry McGrath, James Hillen, Joseph Lowry and Andrew Molyneaux — only the last three returned.
Politics might not expect us to read about this and we don’t, unless we see it on a plaque in a public arena. After all, street politics gives a different story. The nearest mural to the library on the Northumberland Road depicts the UVF and the Protestant Boys. At the Catholic end of that road, the murals cover a range of Left and radical politics, including a Catholic and a Protestant who fought together in the Spanish Civil War. Current politics would argue that socialism sits uneasily with Protestantism. And history can be recast by those who review it. History is not just told, it is interpreted.
History was the topic at the AGM of the International Brigades Commemoration Committee on the same day at the Shankill Library. They are commemorating all those from different parts of Ireland who fought in the Spanish Civil War. As part of the unveiling at the Shankill Library, they invited Connal Parr to speak on the ‘Radical Protestants from the Spanish Civil War to the Sixties’, entitled ‘The Undefeated’. He explored more of the surprises.
In 1936, Franco’s military (with support from large corporations and landowners) had ousted a democratically elected centre-left government. Hitler and Mussolini were very quick to offer military support and assistance to Franco. The elected government were the Republicans, because they had scrapped the monarchy. Franco’s military overthrow was by the Nationalists.
Connal began with the 80 Protestants from the North who fought against Franco. He referred to the influence of socialism in Belfast. One strong opponent of fascism was Harry Midgely, who was eventually elected in the Docks area in 1933. He had also been an MP for the Labour Party in 1923.
An example where cultural and religious divides superseded socio-economic class interests happened in 1921. Midgley, Baird and Hanna held a Labour meeting in the Ulster Hall as part of the election. Loyalist shipyard workers disrupted it. Those workers informed James Craig that they had ‘captured the Ulster Hall from the Bolsheviks’.
But by the 1930s the economic recession had hit hard. Unemployment was increasing to beyond unprecedented levels. It was working-class unity that brought victory in the Out Door Relief (ODR) strike in 1932. In 1934, the Unemployed Workers Movement brought 3,000 out onto Customs House square.
Elsewhere, there was a James Connolly Workers Republican Club in East Belfast. This group went to Wolfe Tone commemorations and marched through Dublin. Robert McVicker from the Shankill gave the oration at Connolly’s grave. It is no surprise that this radicalism would have produced socialists who would have fought against fascism in Spain. But there were other events in Belfast in the thirties that would, and did, fracture working-class unity.
The Ulster Protestant League (UPL) formed in 1931 opposed the ODR strike, on the basis that it was a cover for “the communist Sinn Fein element to attempt to start a revolution in our province”. Throughout the summer of 1934, sectarian street violence became more evident. Forty Catholic homes were attacked in New Dock Street and shots were fired at Catholics in North Thomas Street. By 1935, the UPL told the Stormont government to deal with the ‘communist threat’ or they would. By the end of 1935, 430 Catholic families houses had been burned, 514 Catholic families had to leave Protestant areas, and one Protestant family had to leave a Catholic area. The fear within sectarianism states than anything originating in the other side must be suspect. Socialism was either reasonably well-established in Protestant Belfast or it could not fit into the sectarian box at that stage.
In the Catholic community the story is not straightforward. In 1934, a motion put to the IRA Annual Convention to declare the aim of the movement to be a ‘Workers Republic’ was counter to the IRA leadership’s efforts to ‘avoid party politics’. The Left within the IRA left to set up their own organisation, the short-lived ‘Republican Congress’.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church was hostile to communism, with the example being set in Soviet Russia. In 1936, when Franco overthrew the elected government, the Catholic Church highlighted the restrictions imposed on their church by the centre-left elected government. Sermons, like that of the Rev. Burke, C.C. in Newry 1936, became common: “The present war in Spain is not an attack by rebels on a legitimate government, but a defence of their lives by Catholics of every shade of political opinion against a Government which has ceased to govern and the mobs which it has armed. The attack on the Church is not made for any reason whatever other than the hatred of religion which Communism inspires.” Leads in the Irish News followed up on this: “Today she (Russia) is helping a Government to overthrow Christianity, in the hope that Spain will speedily become the Russia of Western Europe.” Many Catholics across Ireland and Britain supported Franco.
It is to this radicalism from both communities that Connal Parr addressed his lecture, so well attended that it overflowed onto an outdoor landing.
There is considerable interest in looking at surprises such as this episode of shared experience. But then history does that sometimes.