Central among the myths that motivate leftist Irish republicans is that of Ireland’s engagement in the Spanish Civil War. Heralding Frank Ryan as an anti-fascist hero, singing songs about the Connolly Column like Christy Moore’s Viva la Quinta Brigada and screaming ¡No pasarán!, Irish leftists have farcified an anti-fascist mythos out of a conflict in which the vast majority of the Irish population actually supported General Franco and the Spanish nationalist forces.
The Delusions of the Modern Irish Leftist
Indeed, even the events surrounding the creation of the Connolly Column itself are conveniently ignored. The Irish volunteers, after discovering that their commanding officer in the International Brigades, Jewish-British soldier George Nathan, and another of his colleagues were veterans of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries’ terror campaign against Irish civilians, threatened mutiny and had to be restrained from doing so. When explaining to the Irish brigade that he had indeed been a member of the British Auxiliary forces in Ireland, he dismissed this by saying that he as a Jew was a true anti-fascist and that the International Brigades were united in socialism irrespective of national disputes. George Nathan is also believed to have been barred membership from the Communist Party of Great Britain due to his apparent homosexuality and his lacklustre commitment to communist ideals.
This thoroughly embarrassing encounter spurred the Irish soldiers under Ryan’s leadership to join the American Lincoln Battalion as an independent column which took its namesake from Irish nationalist James Connolly.
Frank Ryan’s brigades were not communists in the vein that people discuss nowadays. Anti-Treaty soldiers were ardent Irish republicans at a time in history when Irish republicanism was defined as a nationalist movement. The fact that Ryan and his colleagues chose to engage with Marxist theory in the same manner as James Connolly does not undermine their commitment to Irish nationalism, even if they should use such theories to discredit their political opponents in the Free State.
But perhaps most damning to the anti-Catholic narrative constructed by Irish leftists are the simple facts about Frank Ryan and the Connolly Column’s day-to-day lives during the war. Frank Ryan is known to have continuously attended Sunday Mass throughout his time with the Spanish republicans, and both himself and his Irish soldiers were recognisably distinct from their republican “comrades”, wearing religious keepsakes such as holy medals and crosses. Amongst the vehemently anti-clerical International Brigades, the Irish soldiers were an anomaly among those who fought for the Spanish Republic.
Ryan himself was by no stretch of the imagination a communist either, going on to collaborate with the Nazis after being released from a Spanish nationalist prison into the service of the German Abwehr, Ryan was then brought to Germany where he met with the former IRA chief of staff Seán Russell in August of 1940.
During his stay in Berlin, Ryan would develop a close friendship with Francis Stuart, who himself was working on behalf of the German government in creating pro-Axis war propaganda targeted towards Ireland. Ryan would die in 1944 of pneumonia in a Dresden hospital.
In understanding the involvement of the Irish population as a whole in the Spanish Civil War, the abuses committed by the Spanish republican forces against the clergy were at the very core of Irish support for the Spanish nationalists. Throughout the war Spanish communists perpetrated mass-burnings of churches in cities like Barcelona, and even broke into the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, destroying parts of the building and burning famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí’s workshop, destroying irreplaceable design blueprints. The morbid and immoral behaviour of Spanish republican soldiers saw even a disrespect of deceased clergy, with heinous reports of republican soldiers dancing with the disinterred corpses of nuns.
It was in opposition to such moral evils that Irish people rallied to the support of the nationalist cause, with Irish writer Aodh de Blácam writing a popular Spanish language pamphlet titled ‘For God and Spain: The Truth about the Spanish War’, in which is detailed the righteousness of Franco’s rebellion and his international Catholic support.
The above photo was taken from a rally in support of General Franco and the nationalist rebellion, held on College Green in 1936, the photo shows such a large crowd which is rarely seen nowadays.
At another pro-Franco event in Cork, 40,000 people attended, listening to speeches by figures such as the esteemed Professor Alfred O’Rahilly, who called for Irish intervention against the Spanish Republic’s savage treatment of Catholics.
“The academic, Alfred O’Rahilly, described the stripping, crucifixion and burning of Spanish nuns and criticised the Irish government’s neutrality. The crowd crossed their hands above their hands to pledge loyalty to the ICF and Franco. Violence between the crowd and a few hecklers broke out; several were beaten or thrown in the River Lee. The intensity of this response is best understood in the context of the militant Catholicism of the Irish Free State where ‘faith and fatherland’ were often seen as synonymous.”(McGarry, F., 2001)
As well as the mass demonstrations in favour of the nationalists, Ireland contributed substantial financial support to Franco’s rebellion, specifically through the works of Irish nationalist politician Patrick Belton, alongside Irish-American Catholic activist Aileen O’Brien. The two founded the Irish Christian Front to support General Franco’s forces through monetary support, doing so in the name of protecting Catholicism in Spain given the horrors of the Spanish Republic’s Red Terror campaign against the clergy.
The ICF raised over £30,000 for the Spanish nationalists, the equivalent of £2,700,000 in today’s money, as well as donating medical supplies. The committee members of the ICF aside from Belton and O’Brien, were notable in their own right, with Dr James P. Brennan, a Clann na Poblachta politician, and Alexander McCabe, a former member of the First Dáil and Cumann na nGaedheal politician. With both Cumann na nGaedheal and Clann na Poblachta politicians in support of Franco, it can be seen that the Pro-Treaty and Anti-Treaty dispute in Irish politics was irrelevant to the wholesale support of Irish people towards the nationalist cause.
These interventionist efforts were combatted by Éamon de Valera, who in the Dáil opposed direct Irish intervention on the grounds that it undermined his ongoing project to separate Irish foreign and defence policy from the United Kingdom, and saw neutrality as the most beneficial policy for Ireland’s national interests. However, this does not equate to lack of support for nationalist Spain on behalf of the Irish government, on the contrary, de Valera himself acknowledged the overwhelming support of the Irish people and government for the nationalist government. While O’Duffy’s propositions for an Irish volunteer corps were outright refused by the government, it is notable that people were legally permitted, and even encouraged by the social structures of 1930’s Irish society, to donate financial and medical supplies to the Spanish nationalists, holding monster rallies in Cork and Dublin all in the name of defending Catholicism in Spain.
For God and Country: An Admirable Effort
Another aspect of Ireland’s support for Spain was Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade, who illegally travelled to Spain despite being prohibited by the Free State government from doing so. In the book ‘The Irish and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939’ by Robert A Stradling, the true story of O’Duffy’s brigade comes to light, detailing both the virtues and motivations of those Irish soldiers who travelled to Spain, as well as O’Duffy’s foolish shenanigans with nationalist military officials.
The very concept of an Irish brigade was proposed to O’Duffy in a letter by a Spanish Carlist nobleman, Count Ramírez de Arellano, saying: ‘This heroic movement in Spain was really started by the party to which I have the honour to belong – the Carlist-Traditionalists, essentially the most Catholic movement in Spain, whose headquarters have ever been in Pamplona, the capital of Navarra… We Carlists have up to now placed in the field 30,000 armed men, and we hope to raise as many more. If your brave, noble Irish came to our help they should be placed in the Carlist command.’
Wearing old German WW1 worsted uniforms, O’Duffy’s brigade were afforded substantial luxuries for a military company at the beginning of their stay, however, the company would not be prepared for the illness and injury that they would experience during their time in Spain.
The difficulties faced by the brigade were a threefold mixture of O’Duffy’s failure to communicate with the Spanish high command, their military company’s assignment as members of the elite Spanish Foreign Legion, and the fact that many members of the Irish brigade had never faced combat before.
General Franco’s expectations of the Irish brigade, as O’Duffy had hoped to deliver, was that they were to be hardened IRA veterans of significant fighting ability. As such, he positioned the force as members of the Spanish Foreign Legion, whose ominous battle cry Viva la Muerte unnerved the Catholic Irish soldiers who were suddenly faced with the most horrific of battles at Jarama Valley, Ciempozuelos, or La Marañosa.
Coupled with the fact that many soldiers within the brigade were young Irishmen, usually from farming backgrounds, who had family that served in the Irish War of Independence or Civil War, sought to continue the nascent traditions of heroism within their family by fighting for Catholicism in Spain. With the additional support of Spanish nobility descendant from the Wild Geese, appointed as liaison officers for the group or offering financial aid in some cases, the Irish corps, it was hoped, would accrue a distinguished military record.
The Irish troops however, while by no means poor quality, were not suited to the missions of the Spanish Foreign Legion, and as such their military performance was mediocre at best. O’Duffy tried to blame nationalist military officers, such as General Yagüe, for the issues faced the Irish soldiers, whose complaints about missions and working conditions clearly indicated they were out of their depth. This issue was a clear issue of miscommunication between O’Duffy and the nationalist command, as O’Duffy had failed to notify them as to the training status of the Irish brigade’s members, even promising them tens of thousands more recruits than the 7,000 volunteers he assembled in early 1936, of which only 700 actually reached Spain.
Fighting with the Carlists at La Marañosa, the Irish soldiers were struck with deep respect for the Carlists’ devotion to Catholicism through army field-masses in the Spanish countryside, comparing them to Mass rocks. Major O’Sullivan said of the Irish brigade saying ‘it is a glorious sight and carries one back through the pages of Irish history to our forefathers fight for the Faith at home and in Penal Days.’
After being dispatched to La Marañosa, it was apparent that the Irish brigade was outstaying its use of resources for the nationalist cause, and despite a personal visit from Desmond FitzGerald, father of future Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, to Salamanca to Franco to ask him to reconsider sending the Irish brigade home, pleas to stay in Spain fell on deaf ears and the boys of the Irish brigade themselves were ready to go home.
The estimated cost of the Irish brigade from the nationalists’ finances is approximately €7,000,000 in today’s money. Even when factoring in the aid from the ICF, the financial cost to the nationalists was simply too dear for the brigade to be continued given its mediocre fighting ability, and as such it was discontinued following the events in La Marañosa.
Looking Back on Heroic Young Men
Peter Kemp, famous for his personal memoirs as a volunteer soldier for the Spanish Nationalists spoke highly of the Irish soldiers, saying as such that: ‘The Spaniards were filled with admiration for the bearing and courage of the [Irish] troops. Indeed, the quality of the men was superb. They were truly inspired with the ideal of fighting for their faith… But they had no chance with the leadership O’Duffy gave them.’
After the Spanish Civil War was over, Phil McBride, a local Newbliss Co. Monaghan was interviewed by a local radio station, and asked why he, as an Irishman, chose to participate in a foreign war. McBride’s response elucidates and reflects the mentality of the entire Irish nation at this point in time: ‘they were alright if they’d left the priests and nuns alone – I wouldn’t have went there.’ This very simple response explains in explicit terms the motivations of Irish people to support General Franco’s coup, namely to defend their Catholic faith and Christian civilisation against communism.
The support for the Irish state and people for Spain would not end with the Spanish Civil War, however, as the two countries retained strong diplomatic ties, such that in 1958 Ireland and Argentina were the only two nations who refused to participate in a diplomatic embargo of Francoist Spain.
However, whatever the military faults of the brigade itself, O’Duffy’s remarks about the Irish brigade ring true: ‘Our volunteers were not mere adventurers. Over ninety per cent were true crusaders, who left behind them comfortable homes – many left secretly lest anything should arise to prevent them carrying out their resolve. They were not mercenary soldiers. Every man made a real personal sacrifice going to Spain and every one returned poorer in the world’s goods.’ O’Duffy himself, while failing to take full responsibility for the brigade’s faults, went out of his way to assist the members of the Irish brigade on several occasions, even exhausting his entire personal finances to keep funding the Irish brigade’s activities.
The virtue of the Irish brigade in Spain is their idealism, while their military failures are in part the responsibility of themselves and O’Duffy’s incompetence. Leftists smear those soldiers who fought in Spain, hate Catholicism, love Frank Ryan and republican socialism, and the Spanish Republican cause of the international brigades. This article has quite clearly demonstrated the fallacies in the Irish left’s narrative surrounding the Spanish Civil War, and has brought to light the true motivations and thoughts of the Irish people during the Spanish Civil War, who demonstrably rallied towards support of Spanish Catholicism and nationalism.