Charlie Donnelly – Poet, Socialist, Revolutionary
by NJ McGarrigle
‘Even the olives are bleeding’ – the vivid phrase that springs to mind as we see the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Middle East. Migrants flee the countryside, while bombs and blood scar its soil.
I recently looked at the words again in one of my notebooks; words both forceful and moving. The phrase is attributed to Charlie Donnelly from Killybrackey, near Dungannon in Co Tyrone. Donnelly was a young
poet and socialist who, like so many idealistic Irishmen, stood up to fight fascism and Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. He left behind a small body of work, although his most famous words were never written down: Donnelly supposedly said them to his International Brigade comrades as they came under heavy fire on the frontline.
I had read a snippet about Donnelly years ago, and a touching poem written in his honour by Michael Longley, but details of his life were scarce and sketchy – which is somewhat understandable, as he was killed in action at the tender age of 22, at the Jarama Front on February 27, 1937. Thankfully the Lagan Press published a book on the young poet called ‘Heroic Heart: a Charlie Donnelly reader’, edited by his sister-in-law Kay Donnelly and Gerald Dawe. The book documents a worthy figure in Irish history that (along with thousands of others) chose to fight in another land’s war for no other reason than their anti-fascist principles (Joseph O’Connor has written an earlier biography of Donnelly in 1993).
In 1917 the Donnellys sold the family farm in Tyrone and moved to Dundalk to open a greengrocers, which prospered, and ended up living at Mountjoy Square in Dublin by 1928. It was here that young Charlie developed his taste for radical politics, becoming involved with left-wing republican youth movements. He also found an apprenticeship as a carpenter, but soon packed the trade in to study English, History, Logic and Irish in UCD in 1931. But after failing his exams he dropped out three years later and continued his journey on the road of socialist politics: joining the Republican Congress, relocating to London and writing for its newspaper and other left-wing publications. There may have been good reason for Donnelly crossing the Irish Sea, for in Dublin he had developed a taste for civil disobedience: he was arrested and imprisoned for two weeks for picketing a Dublin bakery in 1934, while a year later he was arrested again for assaulting a guard at a Republican Congress demonstration and imprisoned for a month.
After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he joined the International Brigade following his arrival in Spain in January 1937 – meeting up with the Irish Connolly Column led by Frank Ryan. The Irishmen were attached to the American Abraham Lincoln battalion and it was not long before they reached the front line; as a talented military strategist, Donnelly was soon given the rank of field commander.
The action came quickly. On February 27 Donnelly’s unit launched a frontal assault on Nationalist positions on a hill named Pingarron, but were pinned down by machine gun fire for most of the day. While evening approached, Franco’s men counter-attacked and as Donnelly’s unit retreated, he was shot dead. His body was later buried at Jarama in an unmarked grave with his fallen comrades.
It is a gesture that is hard to fathom at times; how someone would readily walk towards destruction, deprivation and death in a strange land, for their belief in an ideal. But we also know it’s not such a far-fetched idea from events of the last two years in the Middle East. The Irish contingent that fought in the Spanish Civil War is an important part of our history and, like those Irishmen who fought in the Great War, deserves more recognition for their bravery and convictions; they thought they were fighting for a better future: for a fairer society and the right to self-determination. George Orwell’s account of his time fighting in Spain, ‘Homage to Catalonia’, is rightly lauded for its depiction of trench life and the revolutionary fervour that swept parts of the country, which ultimately descended into confusion, counter espionage and betrayal by the Russians and communists within the republican movement.
Orwell saw with his own eyes the socialist cause being sold out by the very people who should have been on its side. He wrote, ‘You had all the while a hateful feeling that someone hitherto your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police’.
Aside from its historical importance, ‘Homage to Catalonia’ is a wonderful read, as a combination of diary and political journalism – Orwell’s lucid description of being shot will stay with anyone who has ever read his prose. In the midst of this fratricide, Charlie Donnelly, like Orwell, wanted to lend a hand in holding back the onset of totalitarianism; as socialists they obviously believed in a better future and a fairer world for everyone. Like many who joined the International Brigade, Donnelly probably hoped that a victory for republican forces in Spain might have sparked a socialist revolution across Europe. Instead, of course, we had a much different outcome; which is why we will always have a place for Charlie Donnelly’s phrase, ‘even the olives are bleeding’. They are words that echo down the ages: and in the face of totalitarianism and oppression, so too will the poet, and revolutionary.