The tale of the Derry man, the Gorbals and civil war in Spain

Militiamen during one of the many battles of the Spanish Civil War.
Militiamen during one of the many battles of the Spanish Civil War.

The remarkable story of a Derry man who fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War is revealed in an updated version of a fascinating booklet penned by his great nephew. ‘When the Gorbals Fought Franco’, by MARK GILLESPIE, tells the story of JJ Lynch, originally from Derry’s Waterside but reared in the Gorbals area of Glasgow.

The second edition of Mark Gillespie’s ‘When the Gorbals Fought Franco’ is being published, says its author, to mark the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War.

JJ Lynch pictured in 1947.

JJ Lynch pictured in 1947.

The conflict was fought from 1936 to 1939 between the Republicans, who were loyal to the democratic, left-leaning Second Spanish Republic, and the Nationalists, a falangist group led by General Francisco Franco. The Nationalists, eventually, won, with Franco then ruling Spain for the next 36 years, until his death in November 1975.

‘When the Gorbals Fought Franco’ is the story of John Joseph Lynch - Irishman and Glaswegian - volunteer in the International Brigades during the civil war.

Mark Gillespie says: “Why emphasise Irishman? Well, of all the non-Axis countries who saw their citizens fight in the Spanish Civil War, Ireland saw an abnormally high percentage fight on the side of the fascists.

“This was two or three times the number who fought on the Republican side. Over six hundred men enlisted with O’Duffy’s Fascist Bandera, and while their involvement was minimal and largely ineffective, the fact that they sided with Hitler’s Nazis, remains an embarrassment to many.

'When the Gorbals Fought Franco', by Mark Gillespie.

'When the Gorbals Fought Franco', by Mark Gillespie.

“While many notable Irishmen fought under the Republican flag, such as Frank Ryan, it is worth identifying the many Republican volunteers who have their origins in Ireland. JJ Lynch was born in Ireland and shaped in the Gorbals of Glasgow.”

Mark Gillespie reveals that his great uncle was born in Derry in December 1917 where he “entered a world rife with conflict, a state that would endure throughout almost all of his life.”

He adds: “His father, after whom he had been named, was, at the time, playing his part in the Great War, fighting as a private in their local regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.”

At that time, Derry was, writes Mark, a “dangerous place in which to raise a family and seemed to offer little in the way of opportunity, especially for Catholics like the Lynchs.”

JJ LYnch during his Royal Navy training.

JJ LYnch during his Royal Navy training.

“Once John’s father had left the army, the family decided to do what hundreds of thousands of their countrymen had done before them. They left Ireland.”

Leaving Derry, says Mark, must have been a considerable wrench for the family as both of JJ’s parents had close ties with the city.

His father, the son of an illiterate cattle dealer and butcher, had moved there in 1903 from St Johnston in Donegal with his parents and eight siblings.

JJ’s mother, Theresa Bradley, one of eight children, lived in Chapel Road and, then, in nearby Clifton Street.

By 1911, both families were living only around a mile or so apart.

Mark says: “The family ties with the area may have been loosening by the time John and Theresa left Ireland behind. John’s mother had died only a couple of years after moving to Derry and, between 1915 and 1916, two of Theresa’s brothers had died while serving in the British Army while another had immigrated to America. Just a few years later, the Derry riots and arrival of the Black and Tans signalled what appeared to be an intensification of sectarian hostilities at home... By 1920, the family left Ireland and were living in an area [of Glasgow[ that would they call home for the rest of their lives.”

Fast forward to the late-1930s and JJ’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, Mark Gillespie reveals that it was in January 1937 that the “man from the Gorbals” was logged as volunteer number 58 in the 16th (British) Batallion of the XV International Bridgade in the Republican army of Spain.

The Derry-born volunteer was among the international units that, in February 1937, were tasked with stemming the flow of nationalist forces - at Jarama on the outskirts of Madrid - which included Germans from the elite Condor legion and battle-hardened Moors from the Spanish Army of North Africa.

The Republican side, says Mark, included a similar number of infantry units, though many of the men in them had no previous military experience.

“JJ had been a railway worker and nurseryman prior to joining up and most of the British had similar civilian backgrounds.”

He adds: “Hampered by poor organisation and insufficient training, the British Battallion was up against it from the start... of the 400 men who entered the battle, only 125 were left after seven hours of fighting around what would later be called Suicide Hill. JJ was one of the few who came through this physically unscathed.”

Jarama subsequently turned into a month-long “trudge of trench warfare” and would, says Mark Gillespie, have been a sobering experience for the Gorbals volunteers.

JJ, reveals his great nephew, ended up in the No 1 American Hospital at Saelices, Madrid, in June, for reasons unknown.

A month later, JJ’s battallion mounted an unsuccessful attack on a hill called Mosquito Ridge with the Derry man escaping the carnage with only a slight head wound.

Mark Gillespie says that, with another hospital admission just days later, “JJ must surely have been significantly aware of the fragile nature of his own mortality.”

His safety was also a concern for his mother back in Glasgow who pressed for his repatriation which was given the green light at the end of August. Twenty years old JJ arrived back in Scotland the following month.

“He was sent home for being under age,” says Mark, “and he returned with black and white photographs of the communal grave of his comrades from Jarama, later desecrated by Nationalists, his military cap with a golden tassel and a small scar on his head as the only physical reminders of his time in Spain.”

According to Mark, JJ, on his return home, “got on with life despite the building realisation of an impending war that Britain would this time be directly involved in.”

He also met and married a local girl, Elizabeth Gilmour.

He applied to join the Royal Navy, was accepted in 1941, and, having completed his basic training, was posted to HMS Nimrod at Campbeltown in the North West of Scotland. According to Michael, JJ “managed to negotiate his time in the Royal Navy without observable harm.”

Now a father of a young son, he became, in March 1946, a “civilian for the first time in five years, having fought in two wars before reaching 30 years of age.”

Within three years, however, JJ Lynch was dead.

With his marriage seemingly over and his only child dead - killed in a tragic accident - the Derry man passed away of bronchial carcinoma at Knightswood Hospital in the west end of Glasgow on December 12, 1949. He was just 32 years old.

JJ and the other volunteers from the Gorbals who went to fight in Spain were, says Michael Gillespie, “helping people they saw as their community, as their own, as just like them. All in the search for a better life, just as their own families has done when moving to the Gorbals.”

Mark Gillespie can be contacted at