Eddie O’Neill (1951-2021)

Post date: 02/08/2021

The International Brigade Memorial Trust is saddened to learn of the death, on 27 July, of Eddie O'Neill, the Founding President of the International Brigades in Ireland (FIBI). 

We extend our sincere condolences to Eddie's wife Maureen and the O'Neill family, to his comrades in Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland, and to all his comrades and friends worldwide. 

IBMT Ireland Secretary Manus O'Riordan has provided the following tribute to O’Neill.

Eddie O'Neill (right) with Manus O'Riordan.

I first met Eddie O'Neill in 2009 on the occasion of Brigadista Bob Doyle's funeral procession through Dublin. Eddie had co-founded Friends of Charlie Donnelly with Bob, and in 2010 their objective was realised with the unveiling of the Charlie Donnelly memorial cairn at Rivas-Vaciamadrid, adjacent to the Jarama battlefield. 

Friends of Charlie Donnelly was transformed into Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland, and in May 2013 Eddie invited me to join FIBI and to speak at the unveiling of an Anti-Fascist Action memorial plaque in honour of International Brigade volunteers from the Dublin suburb of Inchicore. A close comradeship and friendship was formed over the succeeding eight years, notwithstanding differing political backgrounds.

Eddie O'Neill hailed from the County Tyrone townland of Derrytresk, close to the Killybrackey birthplace of Charlie Donnelly. In the late 1960s Eddie campaigned for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland as a member of People's Democracy. 

Interned without trial in 1971 while serving his engineering apprenticeship at Shorts, Eddie was incarcerated in Crumlin Road Jail, Belfast, and Magilligan prison Camp, County Derry. It was there, on the weekend preceding the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre of January 1972, that Eddie witnessed its precursor, as British paratroopers fired plastic bullets and CS gas at anti-internment protesters on Magilligan Strand. 

Following his release, Eddie became a full-time Irish Republican activist, operating in Ireland, the US and England. He was arrested in London in 1974 on conspiracy charges and convicted the following year, receiving a 20 years’ sentence in maximum security English prisons. Over the next 14 years, until his eventual release in 1988, he would spend much of his time in solitary confinement in various jails, enduring unimaginable brutality, and being subjected to vicious beatings that would result in lifelong injuries. 

From the outset of our acquaintanceship, I told Eddie that I had opposed the war in which he fought and during which he had suffered so much. It did not matter to him, and we had a number of frank conversations about that war. He was not trapped in the past. But he drew on past history in order to understand the present and shape a better future. The Eddie O'Neill I came to admire and love as a true comrade and friend was a man of peace who had come to a deep understanding that the Second World War, with all its previously unimaginable horrors, could have been prevented had not the UK and the USA, in particular, stabbed the Spanish Republic in the back, as it fought to defend itself against the ultimately victorious onslaught of the combined forces of Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. The imperialist warmongers of today could be better confronted with a thorough understanding of how International Brigade volunteers, derided by both UK and US authorities as ‘premature’ anti-fascists, had, in their defence of the Spanish Republic, fought to halt the onward march of Hitler. 

Eddie O'Neill organised Irish solidarity visits to the Jarama battlefield on an annual basis. His cairn honouring Charlie Donnelly, who was killed in action while serving as a James Connolly Unit platoon leader in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, was followed by a Jarama cairn honouring Tipperary volunteer Kit Conway, killed in action as a company commander with the British Battalion. Eddie was responsible for further memorial cairns in Ireland itself, beginning with one for Charlie Donnelly in his Killybrackey birthplace, another for Brigadista Ben Murray at Moy Bridge, County Tyrone, and yet another on the mountain slopes of Slieve Foye, County Louth, dedicated to seven Brigadistas associated with that county. 

An important cross-community event took place in Dromora West, County Sligo, in September 2018, when Eddie's memorial cairn honouring volunteer nurse Hannah Rutledge (Ruth) Ormsby, a member of the local Anglican community and the only Irishwoman to perish in the Spanish anti-fascist war, was unveiled by her relatives. 

Eddie had a remarkable capacity to involve families in FIBI commemorations. I worked closely with him on the refurbishment of Frank Ryan's tombstone in Dublin's Glasnevin cemetery, whose 2016 rededication ceremony was attended by both a Ryan grandniece and his goddaughter. Eddie's 80th anniversary delegation to Andalusia in 2016 included the children of Brigadistas Gerry Doran, Frank Edwards and Joe Monks, who had all fought on that front. His 2017 Jarama delegation included the children of Jarama veteran Peter O'Connor. His 80th anniversary Ebro commemorative tour in 2018 not only included Brenda and myself as children of an Irish veteran, but also relatives of two Irish Brigadistas killed in action with the Lincoln Battalion. Among our party was the County Louth nephew of Andrew Delaney, KIA in April 1938, as well as a niece and two nephews of Kerry-born Thomas O'Flaherty, KIA in September 1938, whom Eddie had tracked down in the USA.

Eddie sometimes holidayed on Spain's Orihuela Costa at times when my partner Nancy, daughter of Lincoln vet Hy Wallach, and myself were there during the summer, and we'd met up socially. While Eddie was there again in late 2018, and had just checked on ‘Casa Miguel’, the house named in honour of my father, he suddenly took ill and just about managed to drive to a hospital car park. Had he not, he would have been dead there and then. A previously undetected tumour had burst, and an air ambulance would subsequently be required to bring him safely home to Ireland.

Through bouts of heavy and excruciatingly painful chemotherapy, Eddie soldiered on relentlessly in the years left to him. In 2019 he threw himself into the making of a documentary on Irish Brigadistas, not only travelling the length and breadth of Ireland, but also returning to Spain and Catalunya for further filming. Eddie had also initiated the Charlie Donnelly Winter School, held over several years, and the 2019 School was particularly eventful. Eddie had unearthed details of John Finnegan, killed in action while serving with the Canadian Battalion, and he presented a commemorative plaque to the local community in Finnegan's native village of Corduff, County Monaghan. The Charlie Donnelly School also travelled to the largely Unionist village of Caledon, County Tyrone, where a Presbyterian clergyman addressed us and a lecture was held on the 1919 millworkers' industrial dispute in Caledon, where ITGWU organiser Peadar O'Donnell had been supported by the local Orange band. The School was also warmly welcomed to Caledon by a man whose Unionist family actions had provoked a Nationalist Civil Rights protest in 1968. The charismatic Eddie O'Neill had a unique capacity to reach across the divide and break down barriers. 

In 2020 the feather in Eddie's cap was to bring to fruition his many years of work in ensuring the publication of a second edition of Peadar O'Donnell's 1937 eyewitness account, ‘Salud! An Irishman in Spain’, which I reviewed for the IBMT in the May 2021 issue of ¡No Pasaran! magazine. Finally, this January, Eddie was able to participate in the 2021 AGM of FIBI, held via Zoom. Last week, when I informed singer-songwriter Andy Irvine, composer of ‘The Ballad of Frank Ryan’, that Eddie had passed on, he commented: ‘A better man I never met.’ I heartily concur.

The Executive of FIBI have also posted an obituary to Eddie O’Neill on their Facebook page here.


Posted on 2 August 2021.

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