The Tolerence of Crows
Death comes in quantity from solved
Problems on maps, well-ordered dispositions,
Angles of elevation and direction;
Comes innocent from tools children might
Love, retaining under pillows
Innocently impales on any flesh.
And with flesh falls apart the mind
That trails thought from the mind that cuts
Thought clearly for a waiting purpose.
Progress of poison in the nerves and
Discipline’s collapse is halted.
Body awaits the tolerance of crows.
The elegant title of this blog post and the moving poem above come from a Tyrone man who lost his life in the fight for freedom at the tender age of 22. He didn’t lose his life fighting for Irish freedom; instead, it was for the freedom of those oppressed in Franco’s Spain. This man’s name was Charles Donnelly.
Donnelly was born in Killybrackey, Co. Tyrone on 10 July 1914. His family moved to Dundalk in 1917 where they began to prosper as cattle and property dealers. Donnelly attended the Christian Brothers school in Dundalk until the family moved to Dublin when he was 14. He then enrolled in the O’Connell School on North Frederick Street, which he was expelled from after only a few weeks.
In the late 1920s Donnelly had become involved with the IRA, the Communist Party of Ireland and the left-Republican group, Saor Éire. In 1931 Donnelly enrolled in University College Dublin to study Logic, English, History and the Irish Language. Straight away he began to show his gift for prose and poetry with both being published in student publications. It is while at UCD that Donnelly met and become good friends with Donagh McDonagh, the son of the executed 1916 Easter Rising leader Thomas McDonagh. Unfortunately, his literary gifts didn’t reflect in his exam results; failing his first year exams three times. By 1934 he had dropped out of university but had joined the Republican Congress, becoming friends with Frank Ryan and George Gilmore, both veterans of the War of Independence and the Civil War in Ireland.
On 17th July 1936 the Spanish Civil War broke out. Donnelly, because of his Republican and left-wing beliefs, felt urged to play his part in the fight for Spanish freedom and was a member of the International Brigade by the end of 1936. Upon reaching Spain in 1937 he was reunited with his friend Frank Ryan who led the Connolly Column. This column was made up of Irish republicans who had volunteered to fight against Franco. The Connolly Column was one of a number of international columns that made up the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the XV International Brigade.
On 15th February 1937 the members of Connolly Column were embroiled in a vicious battle over the control of the west bank of the river Jarama and the surrounding high grounds, east of Madrid. Donnelly, now Field Commander, led his unit on a frontal assault on Franco’s nationalist army positioned on Pingarron Hill on 27th February. The nationalists counter-attacked pinning Donnelly and his men to the hilltop. While crouching behind an olive tree a member of the trapped unit heard Donnelly utter the words
‘Even the olives are bleeding’
Moments later while trying to retreat, Donnelly was hit by three bullets, one of which struck his head killing him instantly. His body lay on the battlefield for days until final recovered by a fellow Irish soldier, Peter O’Connor. Donnelly was buried in an unmarked grave at Jarama.
In February 2008, 71 years after his death, Donnelly was commemorated with the unveiling of a plaque in the UCD School of English, Drama & Film. Two years later, in February 2010 a monument was dedicated to Charlie Donnelly close to where the Battle of Jarama took place.
The loss of Charlie Donnelly and his gift for writing has been felt by Ireland, but maybe not fully yet. It was however immensely felt by his friend Donagh McDonagh who penned the lines
‘Of what a quality is courage made
That he who gently walked our city streets
Talking of poetry or philosophy,
Should lie like any martyred soldier
His brave and fertile brain dried quite away
And the limbs that carried him from cradle to death’s
Growing down into foreign clay.’
– from ‘Charles Donnelly. Dead in Spain 1937’
- This post was researched and written by Meadhbh Murphy, Archivist, UCD Archives.