The Shankill, a road synonymous with strong community bonds, good pasty suppers and intense loyalist sectarianism. The beating heart of Belfast’s working class protestant community, for the past 100 years, escalating during “The Troubles”, the Shankill became known for its paramilitary death squads, bombings and elaborate murals depicting balklava’d men with assault rifles. But the story of its people is one of complexity, which is often and somewhat understandably, written out of the history books.
In 1936, over a thousand miles away in Spain, a Republican alliance of socialists fought against Franco’s Fascist coup, aided by “International Brigades” made up of antifascist volunteers from around the world.
In December 1936, Communist Party member and WW1 Veteran Bill Henry arrived at the frontline of the Civil War, from his home on Bradford Street (off The Shankill), within a month he was made Commander of the No.1 Company, Lincoln Battalion, a racially integrated grouping founded by American communists. Less than 3 months after his arrival in Spain, Henry was killed fighting the fascists in Jarama. Before he left for Spain, Bill was in the Irish Distributive Workers Union and worked on a market. In a letter to his wife Rosina before his death he wrote “There are some great comrades here with me, with whom it would be an honour to go to the happy hunting ground.”
The story of Shankill volunteer Bill Henry was not an isolated one, infact, Henry was one of 7 other Northern Irish Protestant volunteers from the Shankill Road alone. William Beattie, from Wilton Street, was in Spain 6 months, serving with the XIV International Brigade in Lorepa where he was wounded only days after his arrival in Spain, he also fought in Jarama and Brunete where he was killed in action on the 23rd of July 1937. Beattie has been honoured alongside fellow volunteer Dick O’Neill from The Falls road with a mural on Northumberland Street, a road which connects their two communities.
At Lorepa, Beattie fought alongside Conway Streets William Laughlin, a former labourer who had also served with the Irish Guards before becoming an activist. At Madrigueras he was appointed a Machine Gun instructor, he then went on to fight in Las Rozas and Villanueva de la Cañada, where he was mortally wounded on the 6th of July 1937.
At sea, Henry (Harry) McGrath, from Tobergill Street fought with the Republican Navy on a destroyer, before transferring to an infantry unit in July 1937, he gave the ultimate sacrifice at Sierra Cabals in September 1938.
Of the 7 Volunteers from The Shankill, only Andrew Molyneaux, Joseph Lowry and James Hillen returned home.
Molyneaux, of Silvio Street, had emigrated to Canada prior to the war and joined the Communist Party, he took part in the On-To-Ottawa Trek Strike, in which over 1000 unemployed men who had been put into work camps fought for wages. When In Spain, he became Platoon leader and was wounded in Aragon.
Lowry, of Hanover Street, who worked as a fitters helper, fought with the British Battalion at Brunete and the Anglo-Irish Company 12th & 14th at Madrid and Cordoba.
Hillen, Originally from Greenock in Scotland. Served in the “Commune de Paris Battalion” and was wounded on the Cordoba front, then went on to fight in Jarama and Brunete were he was wounded again before being repatriated.
All the volunteers (except Laughlin) were card carrying communists, they fought for democracy and socialism in the face of fascist terror.
The horrors of the upcoming conflict in Northern Ireland would sow deep sectarianism into the working class communities at the centre of it, overshadowing the stories of the 80 Irish Protestants who served side by side, united with 240 of their Catholic countrymen in the face of Franco’s Fascist Forces.
For those from the Ulster Protestant community, unlike that of their Catholic neighbours, it can feel like history started and ended with the Troubles, the only pieces from before allowed through come from the distant and obscure past. For some it may be hard to imagine, but there was once a tradition of dissent, rebellion and even antifascist martyrdom up The Shankill.
A plaque commemorating the Shankill volunteers was unveiled at the Shankill Road Library in 2014