Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Irish Connections

born Co.Tyrone 1914, died Jarama, Spain, February 27, 1937

HAVING had to do a bit of walking on the way to Sunday's Cable Street commemoration I was glad the marching part was mercifully short, but I was put to shame in pleading my age when I saw veteran Max Levitas, 96 if he's a day, striding forth in the unseasonable sunny heat, before holding forth from the platform about the need to fight modern-day fascism and unite working people in struggle.

A participant in the events of October 4, 1936 and long-serving Communist Party councillor, elected in Stepney for his stand on housing and rent issues as much as against fascism, Max deserves respect for his stamina - political as much as physical - whatever differences we might have (not that these were uppermost on the day, to the chagrin apparently of some mean-spirited sectarians who came along but were disappointed nobody noticed them) .

As though being outpaced by a nonagenarian was not enough, I'd just managed to find a seat within earshot of the speakers when a friend from Newham came over asking if anybody had seen the 106-year old woman who had been marching with them! She was exagerrating of course. Hetty Bower's 106-year old birthday was not due until today, the exact anniversary of the battle in which she participated.

Anyway, later when a friend and I were debating whether the accent which Max Levitas has miraculously kept through all his London years owed more to his Dublin childhood or his Litvak roots, it occurred to me that discussing the Jewish and Irish components allied at Cable Street, the Levitas family embodied both.

Parents Harry Levitas and Leah Rick emigrated to Ireland from Lithuania and Latvia in 1912, and were married in the Camden Street Synagogue in Dublin. Harry Levitas was a member of the Tailors and Pressers Union, known in Dublin as the Jewish Union. In 1927, driven by hard times and poverty in Dublin the family emigrated to Britain, first to Glasgow then to London.

Max was working as a tailor's presser in Commercial Street when the threat of fascism in the shape of Mosley's blackshirts loomed in the East End. He had become secretary of the Young Communist League in Mile End. His younger brother Maurice worked in an upholstery shop then went out working on the building sites, later becoming a plumber.

All three Levitas brothers were involved in the fight against the fascists in east London but it was Maurice "Morrie" Levitas who went to fight them in Spain, joining the Connolly Column formed by Irish volunteers as part of the International Brigade. Captured in 1938 he was tortured by the Spanish fascists and the Gestapo, but released as part of a prisoner exchange. After serving in the British Army in World War II, Maurice Levitas took up his tools as a plumber again, but in 1948 he got the chance to train as a teacher, later going on to obtain an honours degree in Sociology, and becoming a senior lecturer in the Sociology of Education at the University of Durham.

In 1985, Maurice Levitas went to teach English in East Germany, returning to Britain in 1989. In 1991 and again in 1997 he attended events in Dublin to honour the Irish participants in the International Brigade.

Another Irishman whose activities had a bearing on the struggle in east London before he went off to fight in Spain was born Charles Patrick Donnelly in Killybrackey, near Dungannon in County Tyrone on 10 July 1914 into a family of cattle breeders. His father, Joseph Donnelly sold his farm in 1917 and the family moved to Dundalk and opened a greengrocer's shop. Joseph Donnelly became quite prosperous, running his shop, dealing cattle and buying and selling property in the Dundalk area. But Charles' mother, Rose, died when he was 13 in 1927.

Charles Donnelly received his early education in the Christian Brothers school in Dundalk, but when he was 14 in 1928, the family moved again, to Dublin, and there young Charlie managed to get himself expelled from school, and spent some months wandering the streets of Dublin during school time before his father discovered what had happened. During this time the young fellow met and befriended Republican and left-wing activists. Found an apprenticeship with a carpenter, he gave this up to enroll at University College, Dublin in 1931. He studied studied Logic, English, History and the Irish language. But his true passions were poetry, which he began to have published, and politics.

Having failed his exams, probably because he was more concerned with bigger questions, Charlie Donnelly dropped out of university in 1934, and became involved in the Republican Congress, a turn by IRA men and former IRA men towards left-wing politics. He also became romantically involved with a republican activist, Cora Hughes.

At this time police brutality in the North against the unemployed had pushed Protestant and Catholic workers together, but those who tried to break from the Loyalist sectarians were rebuffed by equally diehard Catholic nationalism. In the South many Republicans began to see their more conservative leaders as a dead-end, and looked to unite their aims with the labour movement. There were divisions in the new Congress, with Nora Connolly reviving her father's call for a Workers Republc, while others, partly coming under Communist Party influence, preferred the idea of a workers and small farmers' alliance.

The young Donnelly was elected to the National Executive of the Republican Congress, alongside experienced leaders like Frank Ryan, George Gilmour and Peadar O'Donnell. In July 1934 he was arrested and imprisoned for two weeks for his role in picketing a Dublin bakery with other Congress members. After this, his father expelled him from the family home and he spent a period sleeping rough in parks around Dublin. In January 1935, Donnelly, not a physically strong young man by some accounts, was again arrested for assaulting a Garda (policeman) at a Congress demonstration and imprisoned for a month. In February 1935, he left Ireland for London.

Here the promising poet found work washing dishes in pubs and restaurants, also managing to work for the Republican Congress London branch and writing for Imprecor, a Communist international news agency, though he may have been too independent-minded to fit party 'lines'. Together with a Dublin Jewish writer called Leslie Daikin, Donnelly also began producing a magazine called Irish Front. At a time when Roman Catholic bishops, British Tories and even some East London Labour councillors were inclined to root for Franco, and when Oswald Mosley was trying hard to woo London Irish, this radical little magazine was one of the obstacles to the reactionary tide. (see p.157 in David Rosenberg's Battle for the East End.)

From the outbreak of the war in Spain, in July 1936, Charles Donnelly argued that Irish Republicans should send fighters to aid the Spanish republic. This offered a cause to overcome their divisions and draw socialists from the Protestant north. The knowledge that arch-enemy Eoin O'Duffy was enlisting his Blueshirts to fight on Franco's side also made it a matter of pride. After returning to Dublin to raise support, Donnelly came back to London at the end of 1936, and was in Spain by January 7, 1937, meeting Frank Ryan and others in the Connolly Column at Albacete. Rather than be subsumed in the British battalion, this Irish unit attached themselves to the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion.

On February 15, the Abraham Lincoln battalion was thrown into the battle of Jarama, near Madrid. Donnelly reached the front on February 23, and was promoted to the rank of field commander. On February 27 his unit was ordered to make a frontal assault on the Nationalist positions on a hill named Pingarron. They were pinned down by machine gun fire all day. In the evening, the Nationalists launched a counter-attack.A Canadian veteran recalled, "We ran for cover, Charlie Donnelly, the commander of an Irish company is crouched behind an olive tree. He has picked up a bunch of olives from the ground and is squeezing them. I hear him say something quietly between a lull in machine gun fire: Even the olives are bleeding (quoted in Joseph O'Connor, Even the Olives are Bleeding - the life and times of Charles Donnelly, p.105).

A few minutes later, as his unit retreated, Donnelly was caught in a burst of gunfire. He was struck three times, in the right arm, the right side and the head. He collapsed and died instantly. His body lay on the battlefield until it was recovered by fellow Irish Brigader Peter O'Connor on 10 March. He was buried at Jarama in an unmarked grave with several of his comrades.

Charles Donnelly remains mourned not only by family and friends, but as the poet and principled political leader that might have been. His short life continues to inspire new genrations. . On the eve of the 71st anniversary of his death, 26 February 2008, Charles was commemorated with the unveiling of a plaque in his alma mater, UCD, attended by 150 people. The commemoration, organised jointly by a group of UCD students and the Donnelly family, was hosted by the School of English and also included a lecture by Gerald Dawe on Charlie's life and poetry. In April 2008, the UCD Branch of the Labour Party was renamed the Charlie Donnelly Branch in his honour.

Some articles on Maurice Levitas:


A collection of Charles Donnelly's work, The Life and Poems, was published in 1987
A biography, Joseph O'Connor, Even the Olives are Bleeding - the life and times of Charles Donnelly, New Island Books, Dublin 1992, ISBN 1-874597-15-4

Articles on Donnelly
3 articles by Donnelly on Irish politics, 1935-6
Photoset of the UCD Commemoration in February 2008

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