Sunday, 4 December 2011

James Keogh's nephew explains why James went to Spain

MY name is Michael Harrison and James Keogh was my uncle but I never knew him personally for he was cut down in his prime trying to stem the tide of Fascism. I know him from the stories told by my family and I think to understand him better, we have to cast our minds back to the 1930's.

The Wall Street crash had taken place in October 1929 and in Europe the collapse of the Austrian Bank 'Creditanstalt' in 1931 had turned a recession into a depression. This also resulted in the strengthening of the anti-democratic Fascist and Nazi movement in Austria and Germany. Of course, Benito Mussolini had been in power in Italy since 1922, and then in 1936 fascism raised its ugly head in Spain and both Hitler and Mussolini had pledged support for Franco.

James was 21 year-old in 1936, a young man from a working class family who made a living from tailoring. He wasn't a member of a political party and yet, he and others from the borough set off for Spain a year later to fight Fascism with the International Brigades. It may have seemed like quite an adventure but it wasn't going to be a picnic. So, why would an inconspicuous young man like James join in somebody else's war? I believe that he hated Fascism, having witnessed an Italian Fascist State and then in 1933, Hitler was appointed as Chancellor of Germany. He must have felt it was now time to do his bit to stop the spread of Fascism and preserved democracy in Europe. He was a very confident young man, who wrote home from Spain:

'The Government troops along with the Internationals are going to very soon drive the Fascists out of Spain for good. We have up-to-date tanks, machine guns etc. and a huge airforce that can stand against the enemy.'

He armed himself with knowledge, much of which he obtained at this Library and he grew in confidence. It is, therefore, fitting that the Blue Plaque be placed here. Having taken a great interest in the events of his day, he saw the danger from another European country becoming a Fascist State. He felt that the time for action had arrived but he had to keep his decision quiet from his family, who only found out what he intended to do when they received a postcard from Marseille, where he was to board the ship known as the'Cuidad de Barcelona' (City of Barcelona) was torpedoed and sunk by the Nationalist submarine, 'General Sanjurjo' off the coast of Catalonia near Malgrat. More than a hundred volunteers perished in the attack and the survivors had to swim ashore at Malgrat, where they were offered assistance by local people.

James' war came to an end in March 1938 near the town called Calaceite in Aragón, when his column ran into Italian tanks and troops. I visited Calaceite in 2007 but could not find any graves for the fallen of the International Brigades. There were many British casualties in Spain and their valiant struggle could not prevent Franco from taking power. The rest, as they say, is history.

I see this Blue Plaque as a testimony to the courage of the brave volunteers from this borough and I would hope that it will also serve as a beacon to all, that there are brave men and women who will stand up to defend freedom and democracy, as did so many more when the World War II broke out in 1939. I don't think that we are finished with Fascism and we should be on our guard. Perhaps we should remember what Mussolini had to tell us:

'Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of State and Corporate power.'

James and the other volunteers understood that danger and I am pleased that their sacrifice is now being recognised. I would also like to thank all those who made today possible. Your hard work and your desire to see just recognition for the sacrifice made by others is a credit to you. Although, the Spanish Civil War took place more than 70 years ago, it isn't something that should be confined to the history books, but rather be a reminder of the many dangers that could threaten our way of life. Let this Blue Plaque be another testimony to the bravery of the people of Ashton and the wider borough.

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