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The story of the Irish who fought for Republican Spain

There was no escaping the Spanish question in Ireland in the twelve months after the summer of 1936, write Barry McLoughlin and Emmet O’Connor

ON 20 JULY 1936, reports appeared in Irish newspapers of an attempted coup d’etat in Spain. It would come to be led by General Francisco Franco.

Trouble had been brewing since the left-wing Popular Front won the general election in February. Political violence was increasing, and the government was losing its grip on the country. Spain had a long history of army intervention in politics, and seemed a backward, isolated country. But things were different in 1936 because of the way events in Spain intersected with European politics.

At this time Hitler was re-arming Germany and threatening another world war. The Spanish people rose up against fascism and all democrats should now stand with them. If fascism wasn’t stopped in Madrid, it would have to be fought in Prague, or Paris, or London.

By August 1936, hundreds were heading for Spain to join the militias opposing Franco. In September, the Communist International agreed to the formation of International Brigades. Some 35,000 men from 53 countries would eventually serve in the Brigades.

Ireland was as engaged as anywhere else. Arguably, the Irish were more European in those days. Certainly we were less Americanised. There was no escaping the Spanish question in Ireland in the twelve months after the summer of 1936. The war made a special impact because of the way it affected two major forces in Irish society and politics: Catholicism and republicanism. The Catholic Church led the support for Franco, and was backed by nearly all newspapers and Fine Gael.

On 31 August the Irish Christian Front was formed in Dublin’s Mansion House by Fine Gael TD Patrick Belton with the encouragement of the Church and the Irish Independent. Few would defy its chief aims to defend Franco and ‘unmask communism in Ireland’.

Great emphasis was placed on the anti-clericalism of the Spanish left, and Franco was presented as a Christian knight saving the Church from ‘the reds’. Former Garda Commissioner General Eoin O’Duffy led an ‘Irish brigade’ – in fact a battalion of about 640 men – to Spain to fight for Franco.

Éamonn de Valera and his Fianna Fáil government endorsed the Non-Intervention Pact sponsored by France and Britain. Facing intense clerical and media support for Franco, the Labour Party and the Irish Trade Union Congress also tried to say neutral on Spain.

Rallying support for the Spanish Republic was left to the Communist Party of Ireland initially. Then, partly in response to O’Duffy’s intervention, the Republican Congress made common cause with the communists. So too did a few middle-class liberal groups, like the Secular Society.

The Communist International was currently promoting ‘Popular Front’ alliances against fascism and something of a Popular Front atmosphere developed in Dublin and Belfast, as liberals and radicals united in projects like the Left Book Club, the Spanish Aid Committee, and the Progressive Publications Society. Spain also provided a political platform for feminists at a time when the conventional wisdom – and Ireland’s new constitution – was urging women to return to ‘home duties’.

In Spanish Trenches: The Mind and Deeds of the Irish who fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War (UCD Press) is the first book to detail what the Irish actually did in Spain. Based on research in five countries and using Irish, British, German, Russian and Spanish archival sources, our work looks closely at communist control of the brigades, the day-to-day experiences of the volunteers and portrays the major battles in detail. Most battles the Republican Army fought ended in either stalemate or defeat.

Casualties

Three times the English-speaking brigades suffered over 80% casualties: Jarama (February 1937), Brunete (July 1937), and near the Ebro on their last day of action, 23 September 1938.

A central figure in the book is Captain Frank Ryan, a non-Communist and a practising Catholic, the acknowledged leader of all Irishmen in the brigades. With new evidence, we were able to reconstruct his incarceration and trial, which was based exclusively on the ‘evidence’ of his Irish enemies.

Two hundred and forty-seven Irish-born men fought in the International Brigades. Only 62 went directly from Ireland and 134 went from Britain. The Irish contingent among the Canadian volunteers (31) is surprisingly high and the number travelling from the United States (12) relatively low. The bulk of the exiles were politicised abroad.

Fatality rates in Spain were enormous for a 20th century war. In World War I, about 13% of combatants in the British Army were killed in action or died of wounds or disease. For the Irish in the International Brigades, the equivalent rate was at least 29%. Of those who survived, almost all were wounded, many more than once. Conditions of service were usually grim.

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Brigadistas had to put up with inadequate training, poor weaponry, a monotonous diet that went from bad to worse as the war progressed and food-shortages became more acute in the Republic, and make-shift clothing. As boots wore out, ‘alpargatas’ or rope-sandals became standard.

During the last months of the war, medical supplies were so short that many operations on the foreign volunteers were carried out without anaesthetics. In these circumstances it is not surprising that not all Brigadistas were stainless heroes of ‘the good fight’.

In the British contingent almost 300 volunteers (15%) were recorded as deserters. In the case of the Irish, who fought largely in the British Battalion and the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion, about 40 (or 16%) deserted, and 24 managed to exit Spain illegally.

In September 1938, the Spanish government decided to repatriate the International Brigades in an effort to win the support of Britain and France. It expected a European war over the Sudeten crisis, and hoped the war would see it allied with London and Paris against Franco and Hitler.

Instead, the Anglo-French caved in to Hitler at Munich and Franco took Madrid in 1939. As the Brigadistas expected, the world war came anyway.

In Spanish Trenches: The Mind and Deeds of the Irish who fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War is published by UCD Press.

About the author:

Barry McLoughlin and Emmet O’Connor

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