Biographies/Michael "Bill" Patrick McLaughlin

Tags: Canadian Irish Member Of Communist Party Aragon Front Brunete Offensive Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion

Researcher: Justin Murdock, Stuyvesant '21

Michael “Bill” Patrick McLaughlin was an Irish-Canadian-American who fought alongside the Republic against Franco’s fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, which were in the Fifteenth (XV) International Brigade. McLaughlin was born to a devout Catholic Irish family on September 24, 1890, in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo, Ireland. The repercussions of the Irish Famine were still drastic, and Ballyhaunis was still held back in an agrarian, rural society, which resulted in McLaughlin’s life in poverty. He was the son of James McLaughlin and Mary Nolan. He had a large family, with four other siblings (Delia McDonough, Bernhard McLaughlin, James McLaughlin, and Jack McLaughlin), which was common in rural societies. The socioeconomic disparities in Great Britain, especially between the British and the Irish, would eventually spur him to be a passionate Marxist communist, thereby motivating him to fight for the Communist Republican forces on behalf of Canada and America in the Spanish Civil War a few decades later. Not much is recorded about his adolescence or time before his residency in Canada, but it is assumed that he helped his family through agriculture, which was very common in late 19th, early 20th century Ireland. Due to the bucolic nature of Northern Ireland at that time, it is likely he did not get an education. The known schools in Ballyhaunis would be founded in the late 20th century. 


As was common with many Irish people, he emigrated elsewhere in hopes of finding employment opportunities and a better standard of living. He moved to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and married Ellen Costello (1894-1974) in 1915. They had four children together: Margaret Stevens (1916-?), John Thomas McLaughlin (1917-2006), Eileen Jordon (1925-?), and John James McLaughlin (1927-?). He was a humble man, working as a coal miner in Canada, seeking political and social clubs to support his large family. Throughout his time in the Western Hemisphere leading up to his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, he would travel to and from Canada and the USA, developing his passion for communism and anti-fascism. Accordingly, he resided in New York City, New York, USA on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He would join the American Federation of Labor in 1918 and become the New York Secretary of the Communist Party of the USA in 1935. Conversely, he was a member of the Communist Party of Canada in 1935.


Being spurred by his comrades in the Communist Parties, he became dedicated to the interests of the Popular Front-led Republic in Spain. Still living in poverty, he decided that his calling would be in Spain to resist the evils of fascism and potentially implement communist ideals in the shattered Republic. Along with many other volunteers in the XV International Brigade from NYC, he boarded the Washington on March 10, 1937. It is recorded that he arrived in Spain on April 8, 1937, likely at Albacete, due to the time of his journey and the fact that Albacete was the center for the International Brigades. He was assigned to the Abraham Lincoln Battalion on June 5, 1937, which was predominantly American-composed and named after famous American President Abraham Lincoln. McLaughlin, along with other Canadian immigrants and Canadian natives, named themselves the Mackenzie-Papineau Section, after the famed William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau of Canada, who led the Rebellion of 1837-1838 in Canada. 


He first saw action with his comrades during the Brunete Campaign in July 1937, which was a devastating failure for the International Brigades. He witnessed the deaths of many of his peers during that time, and he was badly wounded in his head and hip. After the unfortunate results of the Brunete Campaign, he pushed for the formation of a Canadian Battalion with some of his Canadian comrades, which led to the formal establishment of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion in July 1937. After being transported to northern Spain, he witnessed his second major battle, the Aragon Offensive in March 1938. He was often characterized as being lighthearted, carefree, drunk, and physically weak by his colleagues, which contributed to his dwindling war performance. This became such an issue that during the Aragon offensive, he was arrested by Republican officials in April 1938 at Las Presas for drunkenness and jailed for 15 days.


As the Nationalist forces continuously pressed on the International Brigades, McLaughlin sought to exit the war out of exhaustion and misconduct. He traveled to the Pyrenees mountains and snuck through them to get into France to ultimately return to America. He rode by train all the way up to Le Havre, France, where he would return to New York City clandestinely aboard the Britannic by October 13, 1938. He would become officially naturalized as an American citizen on December 15, 1938. He would stay in the USA for the rest of his life, living a hidden and peaceful life in his humble apartment on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. He died on February 26th, 1974, and he was buried in the Calvary Cemetery of Queens, New York City. 



As with many volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, there was a lack of photographic records of them; the most that has been discovered at this time for the common soldier would be a group picture, like the one with the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion provided by ALBA's The Volunteer ( Unfortunately, this truth holds evident with McLaughlin, whose precise identity has still not been found. From some of the provided portraits in the archives, a considerable amount of volunteers in the group photo could be eliminated as being McLaughlin. Additionally, from contemporaneous, written archives, one could deduce McLaughlin to be the man in the third row because of his short stature and considerably weak physique, as noted by his peers. As the world continues to draw note of the implications of the Spanish Civil War and give a deeper dive into its history and the valiant men and women who fought within it, hopefully, McLaughlin's identity could be definitively pinpointed. At this moment, though, this unknown person appears to be a plausible candidate for McLaughlin.


Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. “McLaughlin, Michael.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, 12 June 2020,

Brooks, Chris. “Jarama Series: Canadians in the Lincoln Battalion.” The Volunteer, 16 June 2016,

“History of Ballyhaunis Co. Mayo.” Mayo Ireland, 2019,

Mikalson, Kaarina. Michael P. McLaughlin.

“School History.” Ballyhaunis Community School, 13 Oct. 2019,


University of Barcelona. "McLAUGHLIN, Michael P." SIDBRINT,