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The road of courage from the Valleys to Spain

20 April, 2017 — By John Gulliver

Timothy Harrington, pictured on the Hunger March of 1932

ALL the wife Sally found was a hand-written note on the kitchen table saying: “Gone to Spain.”

And she gasped because she knew then that her husband Timothy had gone to fight with the Republicans against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, leaving her and their three children.

It was early 1937 – and Timothy was the father of our colleague columnist Illtyd Harrington, who died in 2015.

Timothy’s war against Franco came alive in a moving documentary by Illtyd’s nephew, the actor Richard Harrington, shown last week on BBC2 Wales. My Grandfather’s War retraces the journey Timothy made where he joins other volunteers in Paris eluding the police and finally illegally crossing the Spanish border several days later.

Timothy with comrades in Spain in 1937

But first, the note on the table in the small two-up and two-down terraced house in Merthyr Tydfil Wales – wasn’t it too cryptic, too cold? Couldn’t Timothy have made his farewell in a softer and kinder way?

But there was a reason for the way Illtyd’s father slipped out of the house, according to a family member I spoke to some time ago, who said: “He felt he had to go to the war, that he had to set an example, because he had been campaigning against Franco, and he couldn’t stay at home when so many of his friends had gone off to fight.

“As for the note, he said later that if he had gone upstairs to say goodbye to his wife and children he would have just broken down and cried, and would never have gone.”

Timothy’s grandson, the actor Richard Harrington

For Richard it was as much a journey of discovery about his own feelings about the war and the men who took up arms against Franco as those which drove his grandfather to go to the Spanish battlefields.

Timothy, then 40, was a committed Communist, who had led a Hunger March of the unemployed in the Welsh valleys to London in 1932. He felt he had no choice than to go to Spain.

He had been a regular army man, and had been gassed fighting in the trenches in the First World War. He was really “emaciated” and unfit for battle, documents show, but he fought in a key bloody battle near Madrid where he “collapsed” and had to be sent home.

Timothy’s son, Illtyd

Richard follows his grandfather’s war, and ends up at a monument to Franco where he interviews a fascist couple and then talks to children on a school trip – and he begins to discover his feelings about his grandfather and his own political views about Spain today.

Both Timothy and Sally died in the early 1970s. And though Illtyd may have found his father’s world view too rigid it was clear that he felt so lovingly towards a man whose courage and conviction had led him to Spain.

Richard Harrington, who stars in the TV series Hinterland, presents My Grandfather’s War which can be found on BBC iPlayer. The film is dedicated to Illtyd.


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