Kildare and the Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil war was one of the most controversial conflicts of the last century and also one of the bloodiest. When the war broke out in July 1936 The Times judged it an anachronistic struggle irrelevant to modern Europe. Spain was seen as a fading power, stifled by a regressive society and subject to the sort of social and political extremism which modern Europe had outgrown. However, far from being irrelevant to Europe, the devastation of Spain by the forces of fascism, communism and nationalism foreshadowed the Second World War. It has even been argued that Spain marked the beginning of the war against fascism – an interpretation implicitly critical of the democratic states for standing aside while a fascist rebellion overthrew a legally elected government.
On 20 July 1936 reports of a rebellion by army officers in Spain appeared in Irish newspapers. The Irish Independent, which would become the loudest cheerleader of the pro-Franco lobby, warned that a victory for the Spanish government would lead to a ‘Soviet State’ and urged its readers to support the Nationalists ‘who stand for the ancient faith and traditions of Spain’. The somewhat less gung-ho Irish Press also approved of Franco. His rebellion ‘must have a large measure of public support’ because of the republican government’s anti-clericalism – ‘churches have been burned, schools secularised, Communistic schemes carried out’. Clergy, politicians and the provincial and Catholic press echoed these concerns more forcefully. The Leinster Leader was decidedly pro-Franco and Our Rome Letter column regularly dealt with events in Spain from the Nationalist side. In August Naas UDC passed a resolution expressing horror and condemnation at the shocking crimes which were being perpetrated in Spain. The mover of the resolution, Mr Lacy, said that Irish public bodies unfortunately could do very little to bring succour to those who were being murdered for their Faith by the so-called Spanish government today, but that could not prevent them from giving expression to their horror of the crimes against God and civilised society that were daily committed in that country.
Why were the Irish people so interested in the war? Essentially because Spain was seen as a religious rather than a political conflict. Most people knew little about Spain or its complicated politics when Franco’s rebellion broke out. But Spain was regarded, like Ireland, as a historically Catholic nation. For a number of years the Irish bishops and Catholic press had portrayed Spain as a Catholic state besieged by communism and atheism. When the civil war began the complexities of the conflict were largely ignored. That the Republic comprised not just communists, but socialists, liberals, middle-class progressives, landless labourers, workers, Catalonians and Catholic Basques, was little reported. Similarly, that Franco’s Nationalists comprised not just much of the clergy but a reactionary coalition of fascists, army officers, landowners and industrialists was not much remarked on. Instead public debate was dominated by the anti-clerical violence that swept Republican Spain after Franco’s rebellion when twelve bishops, about 4,000 priests, 2,000 monks and 300 nuns were murdered. The sensational press reports of these atrocities, often embellished in highly emotive accounts, had an enormous impact on Catholic Ireland.
Within weeks the Irish hierarchy was calling for Franco’s victory. In the face of this strong pro-Franco consensus, a tiny campaign of support for the Spanish Republic, organised by a small number of left-wing republicans and communists struggled to be heard. By the autumn of 1936 pro-Franco meetings were sweeping the country and two military brigades were preparing to fight each other in Spain. General Eoin O’Duffy vowed to raise an Irish Brigade, complete with the field hospital ambulance units, supported by aeroplanes, and the recognised quota of soldiers to accompany such units and there would be no objection to this country supplying such units. ‘I will lead the brigade myself,’ he said. ‘If two men go to Spain I will be one of them.’
October’s Leinster Leader had an account under the heading Irish nun’s heroism. Link with Naas. As the last British subjects left the town of Zalla, near Bilbao, as Republican forces advanced, an Irish nun stayed on saying a captain does not forsake his ship in the hour of danger.’ Mother O’Mahoney was Mother Superior of the Convent School run by the Sisters of Loreto. She was the daughter of former editor of the Leinster Leader, William Weldon O’Mahoney, and niece of Mrs J. Gibbons, Woodstock St, Athy, who was also an ex-Leader staff member. Educated in Loreta House, Dublin, Mother O’Mahoney had lived in Naas as a child for some years
The reaction of Irish Protestants to events in Spain, in contrast to Irish Catholics, was more muted. The Irish Times, to some extent still the organ of Protestant imperial opinion, adopted a mild pro-Republican stance and reported the atrocities of both sides. In Northern Ireland, unionists generally looked unfavourably on both Franco and the Republic but many unionist leaders attributed Spain’s difficulties to the malign influences of both Catholicism and republicanism. The Spanish Civil War was to be ‘a war between Christ and anti-Christ’. A branch of the Irish Christian Front was organised firstly at Naas, and then Newbridge and Athy. Meetings were well attended and in May 1937 Reverend Fr Henry Gabana, a refugee priest from Barcelona, addressed a large gathering in Naas under the heading Red Lies about Spain. Mass collections around the county were also conducted for the Spanish refugees. A collection at Naas in October 1936 yielded £50, including £12 from Sallins parish.
In August 1936 General Eoin O’Duffy, the former Garda Commissioner and Blueshirt leader, announced the formation of an Irish Brigade to fight for Franco. O’Duffy claimed he was motivated by the historic links between Ireland and Spain, anti-communism and the need to defend the Catholic Church. But O’Duffy, a failed politician, was also motivated by his fascist beliefs and a desire to resuscitate his own political career. His proposal was very popular. By late August he claimed to have received 7,000 applications although due to numerous complications, only 700 of those made it to Nationalist Spain. Most of the Brigade’s officers, former Blueshirts and member’s of O’Duffy’s National Corporate Party, were motivated by fascism or loyalty to their leader. Some of the volunteers sought adventure or, as one priest put it, a change from ‘standing around staring at the pump’. However, the great majority were genuinely motivated by the belief that the Spanish civil war was a religious crusade against communism. There were predominantly young men from rural Ireland and few of them would have been exposed to any other analysis of the conflict. As one teenager wrote to his mother:
‘I didn’t want to tell you I was coming here that day because I was afraid you wouldn’t like it… I have a feeling you hate me for it, but after all, what I have done is for Our Lord, and if I die it will only be for the best.’
Newspaper accounts convey the atmosphere of militant Catholicism as the volunteers left Ireland. Large crowds gathered to sing ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ as the volunteers were blessed by priests and handed out Sacred Heart badges, miraculous medals and prayer books. The Brigade’s organisers told the volunteers they ‘were part of a crusade prepared to fight under the banner of the Cross to help deliver Spain’. Most were to find the war a very different kind of crusade from what they imagined.
Irish Brigade recruits came mainly from small-town, rural Ireland. Though Leinster contributed nearly a third of the overall total, this was largely derived from urban Dublin as the other eastern counties showed a poor response. Several volunteers from Kildare served in O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade - known as the XV Bandera (battalion) - among them Lieut. Peter Lawler, Naas, Sgt. B. Brogan, Sgt. Pat Dunny, Newbridge, Sgt J. Byrne, Rathasker Road, Naas, Patrick Daly, St Michael’s Terrace, Naas, (St Michael’s was known locally as Blueshirt Alley), Joe Curran, Abbey Terrace, Naas, William O’Neill and W. Mooney, Naas, and Bill Doran, Curragh. A Nurse MacGoirsk, originally from Co. Monaghan, but living at Garrisker Heights, Moyvalley, also left Kildare for Spain. She sailed to Spain in mid-February 1937 and was one of those who stayed behind in June 1937 to nurse the Irish wounded. Dozens of the volunteers were men who had left the National Army after the demobilisation and mutiny in 1924 and one in five of the volunteers had previous military experience. Patrick Daly, was formerly secretary of the Co. Kildare League of Youth, and served in the National Army; Joe Curran, also served in the National Army, and William O’Neill was a member of the local Volunteers. The persecution of fellow Catholics and the destruction of churches and religious objects by the Spanish Republicans was the reason most gave as to why they joined O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade.
Peter Lawler from Halverstown, Naas, had immigrated to New Zealand in 1910 as an electrical engineer and joined the Australian marines in 1914 after the outbreak of the Great War. He served in New Guinea and the South Pacific fighting against German troops and native conscripts. Lawler later fought in the Dardanelles, where he survived twenty-four hours in the water, after his ship was sunk. He was captured by the Turks, but later escaped. After the war he returned to Ireland and fought against the British in the Tan War. He was commissioned by Michael Collins and was first OC Plunkett Barracks, the Curragh. He left the National Army during the Mutiny of 1924 and travelled to America, before returning to Ireland. He was one of the only officers to accompany the Irish Brigade from Galway, where around 500 men had embarked on their German transport, its swastika flying, during a severe storm. The storm that raged that weekend was one of the worst in living memory and for the majority of the Irish Brigade it would represent the worst ordeal that most of them would face on their Spanish crusade.
Meanwhile O’Duffy was on a sight-seeing tour rather than preparing his troops for front-line duty. On 13 December he attended a bull-fight in Seville. He wrote in his diary ‘he was not impressed’. The following day he explored the vineyards and sherry factory of a local duke - ‘most interesting’ he wrote. On 15 December he inspected the Falange headquarters in Seville and the city’s famous cathedral – a ‘wonderful structure’ O’Duffy wrote. The arrival of the main contingent of volunteers, on 20 December, precipitated a day of parades, receptions and over-boisterous celebration. He wrote addressed ‘full parade… following complaints.’
Despite his men’s arrival O’Duffy’s leisurely pace of life continued. On 22 december he motored out to the country. The following day was devoted to lectures, presentations, and getting measured for his uniform. Christmas Day was celebrated by a ‘parade to St Domingo Church, 3 masses and Benediction.’ The afternoon was spent ‘meeting and greeting local officials’ and addressing his men after dinner – a ‘remarkable reception’ he wrote ‘remained for 2 hours’. The entry for 29 December merely records: ‘Fit on uniform.’ On New Year’s Eve, O’Duffy hosted a party attended by the austere commander of the Foreign Legion, Col. Yague. New Year’s Day proved equally agreeable: ‘First parade of Irish Bde in uniform and carrying arms… Looked very smart. My own first public appearance in uniform.’ On 3 January he set out on what he described as an official tour of the province in search of a well-known Irish monastery:
‘Reception and ovation at every village en route… tricolour everywhere in evidence – parades of thousands of schoolchildren… received by Rector Franciscans’ outside church by cheering crowds… spent 4 hours viewing… church and cloisters – with £50,000 vestments, chalice, speeches by Rector, judges, military, Governor and a reply by me. Return journey – most edifying. Road lined with troops al the way from Guadalupe to Cararcas.’ The next two days were spent recovering: ‘In bed, sore throat,’ he wrote. On and on it went – parades, reviews, drives in the country.
Meanwhile, the Spanish were not impressed by the behaviour of some of the Irish Brigade. They were shocked by the sight of these idealists, and frequent church-goers, drinking and having ‘one too many’. Public drunkenness, common enough in Ireland, was taboo in Spanish society. The Irishmen had smashed up the local café on more than one occasion and the local police had to be called out several times to escort them off the premises. The war correspondent Francis McCullagh accompanied one officer to Lisbon to meet a contingent of Irishmen in late December. Moved by the sight of row after row of ruddy Irish faces at the bulwark, singing ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ as the ship entered the harbour, he recalled ‘the many ship loads of my countrymen who had come this way to France, Spain and Portugal, during the last 400 years, all of them swordsmen destined to fight under foreign leaders, in wars not theirs, and to die for causes of which they knew nothing.’ This romantic reverie was ruined, however, when some of the volunteers ‘jumped ashore, got drunk, fought the police, and caused an awful scandal along the whole waterfront.
Lt Peter Lawler, Naas, witnessed equally embarrassing scenes when the main contingent broke their journey in Salamanca, later described to Peter Kemp who wrote Mine Were of Trouble. Lawler’s men were overcome by their reception hosted by Nationalist officials in Salamanca and the readily availability of wine: ‘I knew it was going to be sheer bloody murder with the boys drinking all that wine on empty stomachs… I tried to see if I couldn’t get them some food, but it was no use. Sure enough, when the time came to get back into the train the boys were so drunk it was all we could do to push them into it. And even that wasn’t the end of our troubles… all the time the band was playing, there was one of our lads – as drunk as a coot he was – leaning out of the carriage window being sick all down the neck of an old General. And the old boy – I was watching him – stood there like a rock at the salute through it all.’
O’Duffy’s men admired but failed to emulate the Spanish custom of spending hours over a glass of beer. ‘Whatever the drink our lads consumed it without delay and left the café,’ one volunteer wrote, ‘a custom the inhabitants could not understand at all.’ Unfortunately, water was always in short supply and had to be boiled first, not always easy. Wine, unfortunately, was more plentiful and more excessible.
After a period of training and acculturation the Irish Brigade – now officially mustered at 663 men - went into the line in February 1937 at the small town of Ciempozuelos where they would spend the next five weeks. The small town, 40 miles south of Madrid, had been the scene of vicious fighting on 5 February when a battalion of Moroccan troops overwhelmed a larger Republican force. As was customary the Moors had taken no prisoners: 1,300 Republicans were killed, many by the knife, and the town had been looted. Any relief the Irishmen felt on reaching their destination must have been countered by their first sight of this town of the dead. One of the brigade’s first unsettling duties was to bury the hundreds of decomposing corpses scattered throughout the town. It was a stark introduction to the Spanish Civil War, whose savagery appalled the idealistic Irish crusaders.
The Irish Brigade’s section of the front, running just below the crest of a range of low hills overlooking the Jarama valley, was not excessively exposed, but it was shelled daily and sniped at by international brigade soldiers from the opposing lines. Some of the later claimed to have communicated with their fellow Irishmen across the trenches. One recalled that ‘Frank Ryan used to speak on the speaker, he says ‘Irishmen go home! Your fathers would turn in their graves if they knew you had come to fight for imperialism!’ Aside from such taunts, the brigade endured freezing nights and inadequate uniforms, which soon led to an epidemic of rheumatism, pleurisy and colds. At one point over 150 men were hospitalised. The shallow, poorly constructed trenches provided little protection from the torrential rain and the men also suffered from the normal privations of the front: lice, filth, bad food and shortages of water. O’Duffy did not expose himself to these conditions; during the five weeks his men were stationed in Ciempozuelos, he made only six brief visits to the front.
Joe Curran, on his return to Naas and in an interview with a Leinster Leader reporter, said that the Volunteers had to suffer severe hardships going over to Spain, but when they reached the headquarters of the forces they got a rousing reception, and all along the way they were greeted by cheering crowds. They then went into training at Caceres for two months and subsequently took over the trenches from the Moors. At Ciempozuelos an incident occurred which reflected the highest credit on all the volunteers concerned. One evening the volunteers were having a hasty meal in the ruins of a church when one of the volunteers on going to a window was greeted by fusillade of shots. Willy O’Neill, a Naas man, immediately took up his rifle and accompanied by Joe Curran, and a few more of the Bandera, went out in search of the sniper. After a thorough search Pte O’Neill discovered him hiding behind a wall, and advancing held him up with his rifle and forced him to give up the revolver, which he held in his hand. He then marched him down through the streets of the town to the camp. The next morning the man was shot dead.
The general complaint, however, was the scarcity of food, and even water was scarce, and when found was often found to be undrinkable, some of the wells been found to be full of corpses. It was around Lamoracos that the Vvolunteers went into the heaviest fighting and lost most. Advancing to the enemy lines they came under heavy fire from Russian artillery, and when came close to the trenches were met by machine gun fire. They took the trenches and captured a number of guns. It was here that Volunteer Horan, of Tralee was killed, a shell having landed practically beside him and narrowly missing some of the Naas volunteers who had just passed the place.
Legionnaire O’Neill’s story was somewhat corroborative of the others. He had found evidence of convents being ransacked and their inmates brutally murdered, while ruined churches and broken statues decorated with communistic emblems were to be found on all sides. The legionnaire showed the Leinster Leader reporter portion of the vestment of a murdered priest, which he had picked up on his way.
The complaints about the extremely bad food supplied to the volunteers was general. Not only that but they seldom got even any kind of food, while some of the men manning the front line trenches were in rags. This was in contrast to the treatment meted out to the Spanish Volunteers who were well clothed and fed. The hardship entailed induced many volunteers to express a wish to leave the country, and besides there was continual wrangling going on between the officers of the Bandera as to the rank they held. This disunity disheartened and discouraged the general body of the volunteers. Liam O’Neill stated that General O’Duffy seldom went near the front line trenches, and that the story published in the daily newspapers about the narrow escape of the General when a shell landed near a dugout which he had occupied was totally untrue.
The volunteers received pay amounting in English money to about 2 shillings 6 pence a week. They discovered that many of their letters had never been posted, but nevertheless their postage money which they had handed in with their letters had never been refunded by the responsible authorities. A bonus had been promised the volunteers when leaving the country, but it never materialised, and most of the volunteers returned much poorer than when they went. Referring to the fighting qualities of the foreign troops with General Franco, the Volunteer said that the Germans were outstanding soldiers, well-disciplined and fearless in the face of danger, while the Italians also fought well.
After an accidental brief skirmish with a unit from their own side, in which they lost two killed and several wounded, morale had plummeted and the Irish Brigade was divided on what course of action they should be taking. Most wanted to return to Ireland and two other prominent leaders had emerged to make a bid for O’Duffy’s mantle. The Spanish were also not pleased with the results of the Irish Brigade, blaming them for the mistake at Jarama when it was probably the fault of their own side. They wanted the Irish Brigade broken up and the men divided among the Foreign Legion. Spanish commanders made it clear that they preferred if most of the officers were returned to Ireland. On April 24 the XV Bandera were taken out of the line and billeted in Talavera, for their return home. On June 20 their transport tied up at Dublin’s North Wall. The reception on the quayside was muted. Customs officials and Gardai awaited them and searched their belongings for arms, seizing several handguns brought home by officers as souvenirs. The XV Bandera formed up to march into the city, not in their customary four companies, but in two rival columns, one headed by O’Duffy and the other by his disaffected officers. Outside the dock gates a large reception committee of relatives, friends and party officials awaited them. They were applauded all the way to the Mansion House where an official reception laid on by Dublin Corporation and Diocese awaited them.
Ireland’s Catholic crusade was over. Six men of the Irish Brigade had died in action, while around a dozen had also died of illness. Peter Lawler and several other officers and men stayed on after the repatriation of the Brigade. Lieut. Lawler was redeployed into another Bandera unit. He was wounded in the leg in fighting around Madrid. After contracting an illness in Caceres he was apparently released from his obligation and after a period in hospital he returned to Naas. Peter Lawler had spent eleven years in uniform, serving Britain - in the Australian armed forces - Ireland and Spain. Joe later served for many years as an ambulance driver in Naas Hospital. I asked his son Liam had he any photos of his father and he said the only one he had of Joe was in his ambulance uniform and in that he was – ironically enough – wearing a blue shirt.
Following the formation of O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade, and partly in response, a smaller contingent of men left Ireland to fight for the Spanish Republic. Around 200 Irishmen fought with the XV International Brigade, a predominantly English-speaking Brigade, which included a British battalion and an American battalion. The Irish group were led by Frank Ryan, an IRA veteran and editor of An Phoblacht. They arrived in Spain mostly in groups crossing the border with France. Frank Ryan left Ireland from Dun Laoghaire on November 11 with a group of Republicans. (O’Duffy’s men set off two days later.) The Irish left’s contribution was made up of IRA veterans, socialists, communists and members of the Republican Congress. The majority were urban working class men, veterans of the street struggles between the left and the Blueshirts. Over a quarter hailed from Dublin, while the other cities of Ireland had a big representation. Frank Conroy, from Fair Green, Kildare town, working in Dublin at the time joined the Internationals, as did Frederick Patrick Gibb, who lived for some time in Dublin and then London. He served in the British battalion from July 1937, was captured and was repatriated in December 1938, but no real record has emerged of what he did during the war. Albert Taylor, born in 1901, was originally from Kildare and then lived in Liverpool. He arrived in Spain on February 11 1937 and also served with the British Battalion.
The men of the ‘Connolly Column,’ as they became known, fought for a variety of motives – anti-fascism, the defence of Spanish democracy, revolutionary idealism, loyalty to the Communist Party and adventure. As with the Irish Brigade there was some discrepancy between the propaganda of its organisers and their real motives. Both sides, although based close to one another on either side of the Jarama front, met with very different experiences.
Frank Conroy, Kildare, was in action with No. 1 Company, of the emerging British battalion, sent to plug a gap in the front at Andalusia. On December 26, after a hasty Christmas dinner the previous day, the British company of which about 40 men were Irish, advanced towards the village of Lopera, a few kilometres west of Andujar. Fighting here was fierce and casualties were heavy. The Irish alone lost eight killed and several wounded. Among those killed was Kildareman Frank Conroy. Frank Ryan wrote that: “Frank Conroy fought like a hero that day.”A vivid account of the fighting, written by one of the participants, Donal O’Reilly, was published in the Republican Congress newspaper the Irish Democrat. He wrote, taking up the account on the day before the Irishmen went to the front, “Conroy, Fox and May can’t be stopped taking down and cleaning their “Betsy” (machine-gun). A comradeship of heroes.” (O’Reilly was writing about Frank Conroy, and Dubliners Tony Fox and Michael May, all fellow workers who had left Dublin together.)
“The company forms and moves to the attack. A V-shaped movement with the Irish advancing on the left flank. Kit Conway is fair bursting to get to grips, but first must lend two of our best gunners – May and Conroy – to the French battalion. We move through the olive groves with the zing-zung of the bullets playing a tune. Occasionally a snick as a bullet clips off a cluster of leaves. Out from the friendly trees, down a short valley crossing a stream, then up, up, among the hills … We move to the crest. The fire is terrific. The language is terrific. Joe Monks is hit. Prendergast’s and Dinny Coady’s guns are shot to pieces. Bits of guns fly and we think we’re all hit.”
However, a major crisis developed when the Irishmen found that the British officer who led them at the Lopera action was an ex-Black and Tan, who had been involved in the killing of two Sinn Fein officials in Limerick. The Irish volunteers refused to serve under this man or any other British officers. After much dissension, splits in the ranks and some violence, they were switched to the American Lincoln Battalion, which also had a strong Irish representation. Other Irishmen fought with the British battalion or in other units of the Internationals until November 1937 when the International Brigades, after suffering severe casualties, were demobilised. By then only 150 members of the English-speaking battalions were present at the farewell parade in Barcelona on November 15. Of the Irish contingent only fifteen were present at the historic occasion. Fifty-nine Irishmen would not be going home. They had died in Spain fighting for their beliefs. Another 114 were wounded while 12 were captured, including Frank Ryan, who was captured at the battle of Aragon and died in captivity in Germany in 1944. Christy Moore paid tribute to the Irishmen of the International Brigades with his poignant song Vive la quinta brigada. In the final verse he names Frank Conroy, his fellow countyman, “who fought and died in Spain”.
Notes from a talk given by James Durney on the subject of Kildare and the Spanish Civil War.