Unveiling of the memorial to Ben Murray at Aughnacloy, Co. TyroneSpeech by Eugene McCartan, general secretary, CPI
Comrades and friends,
First of all I would like to thank Eddie O’Neill and his comrades for the invitation to address you today at the unveiling of this memorial to Ben Murray, who died “in the heroic stand on the banks of the Ebro River” in 1938.
Ben Frederick Murray was born on the 19th of July 1895 in Enniskillen. His family lived in Aughnacloy, at Moy Bridge. The son of an RIC man, he was reared in the Methodist tradition.
Ben was only fifteen when he emigrated to Canada. Like tens of thousands of young men, he enlisted in the Canadian army to fight in the First World War, that barbaric inter-imperialist slaughter, a war to re-carve the world between the various imperialist powers. Ben was clearly affected by what he experienced during that war but also with events in Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution. He joined the Communist Party of Canada and set up his own local communist newspaper, living and working in Montréal until his return to Ireland in 1933.
On returning to Ireland he joined the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups, an all-Ireland network of revolutionary workers’ organisations that came together to form the reconstituted Communist Party of Ireland.
Ben was both a thinker and a doer. On his return he threw himself into the great outdoor relief struggles in Belfast, seeing the necessity for winning unity among workers, both Catholic and Protestant. That unity, he saw, was necessary to break the grip of reaction and imperialist interference in the affairs of the Irish people.
It was a combination of reactionary unionism, in the form of the Stormont regime, using sectarianism and the forces of the state and the hostility of sections of the Catholic hierarchy to the “threat” of communism, that broke that unity.
Ben was recognised as a hard worker and a great public speaker. After the defeat of the outdoor relief struggle, in 1935 he moved to London, taking the cattle boat to Liverpool and cycling from there to London, where he became a force in the working-class politics of that city and was a regular speaker on Sunday mornings at Speakers’ Corner.
He went to Spain in February 1937, putting to use the fighting skills he learnt in the service of imperialism, turning those military skills against imperialism’s allies, the Spanish fascists led by Franco and their German and Italian allies.
During his time in London and, most importantly, when under fire in the trenches in Spain, Ben Murray found the time to maintain contact through letters with his friends and contacts in and around Aughnacloy—evidence of a man with a great sense of place and the importance of friends and neighbours.
Comrade Ben Murray died in the Battle of Aragón on the Ebro River on the 14th of March 1938. He is buried in an olive grove in the crater made by the bomb that killed him.
The story of Ben Murray is the story of many of those who left their homeland to travel to Spain, who answered the call of the Spanish people, who answered the call to defend democracy and defend the Spanish people from the onslaught of fascism.
Those Irish volunteers are the noblest expression of that great desire of our people to put behind past dissent, to lay to rest the false divisions created and nourished by a foreign power.
Irishmen answered that call of democracy, coming from Cork and Waterford, from Dublin, Kerry, Belfast, and Derry, from Newry and Moy Bridge. Our people came from the Falls and the Shankill, fighting together in unity; and many died together, their blood flowing together to nourish the Spanish soil: Ben Murray from the Methodist tradition, Éamonn McCrotty, the Christian Brother from Derry, the boxing parson Robert Hilliard from Killarney, the working men of the Shankill and the Falls, from the slums of Dublin and the small farms of Achill Island.
What these people have shown is that people can change: people learn from their own experience if we give them room to breathe and to expand their understanding.
Today we as a people, north and south, are experiencing a great economic crisis, one similar to the one that blighted the lives of millions of working people in the 1930s, conditions experienced by the young Ben Murray.
To those courageous men who left our soil and travelled to Spain, and those courageous men and women who stayed behind at home to continue the struggle here against exploitative working and social conditions, against the backbreaking employers and greedy slum landlords, we owe them all a debt of gratitude. It was they who put brick upon brick in the struggle to get better pay and better working conditions, to win the right of our children to go to school, the right to a doctor if sick, the right to a pension after working long, hard years, the right to shelter.
There are lessons for us today. It is better to stand on your own feet with dignity and to struggle for a better world than to live on your knees, cowed before the forces of imperialism—the European Union, the United States, and the British intervention in this part of the country—to be corralled and herded by their instruments of control, the ECB and the IMF.
What Ben and others like him saw, and it is a view I share, was that what was and is central to the defeat of imperialism is not the actions of a courageous few but the mobilisation of a risen, conscious people. They had the courage to dream that a better life was possible. Their dreams were greater than the small minds that have controlled our people, that have crippled and blighted us as a people, intellectually and culturally.
We could not and should not let this day pass without saluting the giant who has just left our ranks, Hugo Chávez, and expressing publicly our solidarity with his family, with the government and people of Venezuela. He dared to dream of a better land; he gave hope where once there was despair. He truly cherished all the children equally, by putting into practice policies that brought it about.
We know from experience that imperialism has not given up its desire to drive back the thing they fear most: a risen and proud people. No doubt the agents of imperialism are busy at work there, attempting to create and foment instability and division. The victory of the Venezuelan people or of the Cuban people is a victory for us all; a defeat for them is a defeat for us all.
People like Ben Murray believed and fought for the belief that our world could be a better place if division and exploitation could be dumped into the rubbish bin of history, that Catholic, Protestant and dissenter could put aside past division and strive to build a better country together and to fulfil the legacy of Wolfe Tone, of James Connolly.
People like Ben Murray, Michael O’Riordan and Frank Edwards—whose son, Seán, is with us today—wrote their own pages of history. They did not leave it to others nor stand on the sidelines of history. Those courageous men and women of the International Brigades took their destiny into their own hands.
We know from the experience of Ben Murray that people can and do change, that change itself is the only constant thing in life. As we we stand here today we are duty-bound to stretch ourselves and our vision, to reach out and bring others forward, so that some day, not too far in the future, we can gather on the Shankill Road and on the Newtownards Road and unveil a monument like this one to the men who walked those roads and died on the battlefields of Spain. They are our history; they are our people; they are our comrades.
The challenge facing us today is to consign the two failed states that have so painfully failed, that have blighted the lives of our people, to the dustbin of history—to build a new republic, a republic that banishes the exploitation of one human by another, a republic that cherishes all our children equally, that gives comfort and security to the old; a republic that embraces all our people and not just the rich few, that promotes and takes pride in our history and culture, that stands alongside the oppressed of this world in the fight against imperialism. As James Connolly put it, “our demands most moderate are: we only want the earth.”
We must rise to the challenge, as Ben Murray and his comrades did, to dream and, most importantly, to act for a better tomorrow, to mobilise and struggle together for a new all-Ireland democracy that draws our people together, working and co-operating together to build the people’s democracy that James Connolly gave his life for. For, as Connolly said, “Ireland without its people means nothing to me.”
We salute you, Ben Murray, an honoured son of the Irish people.