‘Even the olives are bleeding’

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A commemoration was held last weekend in Dungannon to mark the legacy of Tyrone socialist poet Charlie Donnelly, who died in the Spanish Civil War.

Charlie Donnelly has been immortalised in Christy Moore’s song ‘Viva La Quinta Brigada’. But Donnelly’s most famous words - “even the olives are bleeding” - were not written in a poem but attributed to him speaking before he died on February 27 1937 fighting Franco’s fascist forces in Jarama, Spain.

According to a comrade in the International Brigade, Charlie knelt behind an olive tree and during a lull between machine gun fire uttered those five poignant words while squeezing a bunch of olives between his fingers. Moments later, he was hit three times and died. His body lay for 10 days before he was buried in an unmarked grave.

But what led this middle-class Catholic boy to fight in a foreign war? He was one of nearly 300 Irishmen who fought in Spain against Franco between 1936 and 1939, along with others who fought on the other side. The war broke out after a faction in the army - led by General Franco - rebelled against the left-wing who had formed a republic after the abdication of King Alfonso XIII in 1931.

The cause was to inspire many writers who, like English poet WH Auden, felt that “poetry makes nothing happen” and signed up to the International Brigade against Franco. Young Spanish poet and dramatist Garcia Lorca was murdered by nationalist partisans at the outset of the war - another writer who, like Charlie Donnelly, never reached his full potential.

Meanwhile, author George Orwell was to fight but survive the war and describe his experiences in the book Homage to Catalonia. Charlie Donnelly was born in Killybrackey outside Dungannon in 1914. The family were well-off cattle dealers, a business that had provided their livelihood for generations. But Charlie’s father Joseph wanted to move his family higher up the social ladder.

He did so by relocating the Donnelly clan - including the bookish Charlie - to Dundalk where Joseph ran a shop and bought dilapidated houses to renovate and let out.

Growing prosperity was not matched by personal happiness, however, as Charlie’s mother Rose died a short time later. Charlie’s two aunts came to Dundalk to help the motherless children and grieving widower but clamped down on the future poet’s intellectual growth by refusing to allow him to read.

This set in train a pattern of rebelliousness in the boy, who smuggled books into the house. He was expelled from school in Dublin and began an apprenticeship as a carpenter instead. However, his father’s second wife recognised his true calling and arranged for him to attend University College, Dublin. There Charlie’s intellect blossomed. He read deeply on socialism, literature and Marxism and formed a Student Vanguard socialist movement.

But he was no more ready to conform at university than school. Exploring the slums of Dublin, he concluded the poor were poor because of the rich. He joined the Republican Congress and began to write about economics and Marxism, his activism alienating him from his father. When he was jailed for a month for trying to headbutt a policeman while picketing a shop in 1935, he was inspired to write his poem The Flowering Bars.

Charlie felt disillusioned with Irish life and left for London when he was released on February 12 1935. Just over two years later, he would be dead, killed fighting under a foreign sun for a cause many back at home would never understand.

Because he had lied about his age to join the international brigade, his family did not learn about his death for some time. According to writer Joseph O’Connor, Charlie’s father was so distressed he could not talk about him for years.

Communist Party spokesman Eugene McCartan says this distress was typical of Irish families who lost sons to anti-fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War.

“To be attached to someone who died was not safe in Ireland,” he explains. “The Catholic Church made a rallying cry for fascists and held collections to support Franco. It was no wonder families kept their heads down.”

Two poems found among his papers were posted, bordered in black, on the noticeboard at battalion headquarters. These were The Tolerance of Crows and Poem, the two by which he is now mainly remembered, and the second of which, written some months earlier in London, uncannily prefigures his own death:

Between rebellion as a private study and the public
Defiance, is simple action only on which will flickers
Catlike, for spring. Whether at nerve-roots is secret
Iron, there’s no diviner can tell, only the moment can show.
Simple and unclear moment, on a morning utterly different
And under circumstances different from what you’d expected.

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