Éire, España, and the Connolly Column

Irish Anti-Fascists in the Spanish Civil War



Spain, 1936.

A conspiracy against the established Spanish Second Republic is being engineered. The head of the conspiracy, which would end up being a coup d’état, was General Mola, aided by other important Spanish military figures such as José Sanjurjo, Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, Juan Yagüe, and Francisco Franco. The coup d'état started in the Spanish colonies of Ceuta, Melilla, and Tetuán in the afternoon of the 17th of July, 1936, and carried on into the rest of Spain on the 18th of July. Since it initially failed to succeed in all of the Spanish peninsula, a civil war ensued.

The reactions of Irish society to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War were widely influenced by both the Catholic Church and the newspapers’ reports of the time, which focused solely on atrocities committed by Spanish communists and anarchists to members of the Church—some of which were fabricated. Eoin O’Duffy (founder of the fascist association commonly known as the Blueshirts, the political party Fine Gael and later the National Corporate Party in 1935) was a strong voice in favour of the Alzamiento, the Spanish coup d’état. The National Corporate Party’s (and thus O’Duffy’s) final act (before its disappearance in 1937) was to organise support for Franco and the rebels in Spain. General Eoin O’Duffy led around 700-800 Irishmen to fight against the democratically established second Spanish Republic. These men would form the Irish Brigade.

Although O’Duffy was an open and proud fascist, the support that the Spanish rebel forces received from the majority of Irish society was backed by a Catholic sentiment and not a political one. The Irish Church was prominently anti-communist, influencing society, both publicly (in mass) and privately (during confession). According to Donal Donnelly, “the Irish public were subject to persistant propaganda designed to to pain the Spanish Republic as anti-Catholic... Many of the wildest, most blood-curdling incidents reported were fabricated or exaggerated.”1 Although the Irish government had the official say in the matter, the Church carried an unofficial, personal stance on the subject that people were more willing to listen to. Phil McBride, a member of the Irish Brigade, told an interviewer that his parish priest encouraged his enlistment to O’Duffy’s brigade. The same priest told a friend, during confession, that McBride was doing a fine thing because he was “going to fight anticlericalism in Spain.”2 Confession was an effective way for priests to privately influence men, and the defence of Catholic Spain was recommended as an adequate penance for their sins.3

Clerical, pro-Nationalist (how the Spanish rebels described themselves) magazines were also very popular. These cheap magazines would spread false and exaggerated reports of the Spanish Republicans’ crimes against nuns or priests. A particularly gruesome and exaggerated (invented) tale comes from The Cross, which related how a Spanish Republican woman bit into the neck of a priest and drank all of his blood.4

The Irish government, led by Éamon de Valera, decided to stay neutral and participate in the European Non-Intervention Agreement. Nonetheless, while the official position of the government might have been one of neutrality, de Valera did not ignore the overwhelming pro-Franco sentiment of Irish society. Franco was unconditionally recognised by the Irish Free State at midnight 10 February 1939, more than a month before the British and French government and almost two months prior to the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Due to the framing of the conflict as inherently religious, O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade, which only spent a few months in Spain and saw almost no action, was widely supported by Irish society. Due to the fact that O’Duffy appealed to the men’s faith and not politics, the Brigade members held varying political views, and some had even fought each other during the Irish Civil War. It was considered a Catholic brigade by Irish conservatives, sent to Spain to save the Spanish Church, which was allegedly under attack by the communists. For example, Phil McBride, one of the Irish Brigadiers, claimed in a radio interview with Jim Fahy broadcasted by RTE Radio in 1988 that “if they had left the priests and nuns alone, I wouldn’t have went there”. Nonetheless, the Church and the Brigadiers were pro-Franco, and fascism was openly accepted. While it is true that not all Catholics who joined the Brigade were fascists, all the fascists were Catholics. Despite being framed as a Catholic Crusade, O’Duffy was himself a fascist, thereby steeping the organization in fascist values and putting it to work for a fascist cause.

The Irish Brigade was an overall failure: excessive drunkenness due to the cheap Spanish wine, mutinies, refusal to go back to the battlefield, fights between members due to differing political views. Not even Franco, the person they had gone to Spain to to help, was happy with them. According to historian Tim Fanning:

The Irish Brigade was an ill-conceived adventure and its officers woefully unprepared. Less than a handful of officers had any idea about the historical and political context of the war. Only one or two of them could speak Spanish or made any attempt to learn it. More forgivable, perhaps, was their lack of mili- tary preparedness. Arthur O’Farrel, who was on O’Duffy’s staff, told [Father] McCabe after the brigade had gone home that the Irish officers could not read a map, knew nothing about triangulation or range-finding and some of them couldn’t understand how a shell could be fired directly to a target out of sight. [...] That lay with O’Duffy, who deceived the nationalist high command about the military training of his officers and men. 5

However, amidst the overwhelmingly conservative climate fostered by the Church, a different group of men, inspired by radically different ideals than those in the Irish Brigade, decided to travel to Spain. A few years back, the IRA had suffered one of its many secessions. In an anti-Treaty IRA convention in 1934, Michael Price, IRA’s director of training, proclaimed that the Irish Republican Army should strive to create the Irish Republic that James Connolly had wanted to establish. His vision of an Irish Republic was influenced by his Marxist ideology, an ideology that Price’s supporters in the 1934 convention, including Frank Ryan, also subscribed to. However, Michael Price’s proclamation was met with a heated argument by those opposed to Connolly’s vision, and Price ended up withdrawing from the convention. Peadar O’Donnell and George Gilmore, two of Price’s supporters, claimed that the IRA should create a Republican Congress which would support the creation of a Communist movement in Ireland (following the example of the international United Front and the Comintern).

Nonetheless, their calls fell on deaf ears, triggering the secession of O’Donnell, Gilmore, Frank Ryan, and Michael Price from the IRA. On the 8th of April, 1934, the Republican Congress Bureau Committee was formed in a meeting attended by approximately 200 former IRA officers, members of the Communist Party of Ireland, soldiers of the republican women’s organization Cumann na mBan, and several trade unionists. The new Republican Congress Bureau Committee had the obligation to form a Republican Congress and create a manifesto. Thus, the Republican Congress (An Chomhdháil Phoblachtach in Irish) was created. The political organisation’s ideology was established as Marxist-Leninist, and it served as an attempt to join Republicanism and Socialism in one organisation.

Nonetheless, An Chomhdháil Phoblachtach was a short-lived organisation. Outnumbered and repressed by fascist and Catholic organisations such as the Blueshirts and the National Corporate Party, their Marxist ideology was repudiated by the vast majority of Irish society. Their last campaign was the organisation of support for the Spanish Republic at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Frank Ryan, one of the founders of the Congress and ex-IRA member, travelled to Spain with around 80 other Irishmen to fight for the Spanish Republic. These Irishmen would be known as the Connolly Column. They were Irish Republicans, communists, socialists, and even anarchists. These men did not subscribe to the ideology of the overwhelmingly conservative Irish society of the time, and therefore saw the conflict through a political, rather than a religious, lens.

In September 1936, the Irish branch of the pro-Republican Spanish Medical Aid Committee was founded by the Communist Party of Ireland and the Republican Congress. However, the committee was not popular amongst Irish society. With the creation of General Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade, Ireland’s leftists realised a more direct action had to be taken.

Bill Scott, an Irishman who had found himself in Barcelona during the Alzamiento and immediately joined the fight against fascism, frequently wrote home to his friends, including Séan Murray, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI). In his letters he would describe the situation of the Spanish Republicans who were fighting against Fascism and the horrors the Spanish civilians had to endure. In one of those letters quoted in the The Irish Worker’s Voice, the CPI’s official newspaper, Scott wrote:

I was free for a few days and decided to see Madrid. Here is what I saw: On December 4th, thirty low flying Fascist planes loomed over the city as if considering where to release their loads of death. Suddenly, a succession of terrific explosions shook the city, and dense volumes of smoke were seen rising about a mile from the centre. I went to the scene of the raid. I saw firemen and militiamen endeavouring to rescue dying men, women and children from the burning pile, which half an hour before had been a block of tenement flats. I saw the mutilated bodies of children wedged between heavy beams. In the midst of the street I saw what on examination proved to be a child’s cot containing a mangled body. People in adjoining streets, not fortunate enough to be killed outright, were blinded and shell-shocked by the explosions. 6

Scott’s words were a wakeup call for Irish leftists. Thus, the idea of creating an Irish Unit of the International Brigades came to life and recruitment and logistics fell into the hands of Bill Gannon, a popular ex-IRA veteran member of the CPI. Tommy Woods, a seventeen-year-old Dubliner who had learned to use weapons with Na Fianna Eireann (the Republican Boy Scouts) left a letter for his mother after enlisting. In this letter, he wrote that the Irishmen, including himself, “are going out to fight for the working class” and that it was “not a religious war, that is all propaganda.”7 On the 12th of December 1936, Frank Ryan left Dublin with a group of approximately 80 other Irishmen. Many more other Irishmen would join them in the following months, travelling to Spain from Ireland and places such as Australia or the United States of America, where they had been forced into exile after the Irish Civil War.

Frank Ryan, a respected ex-IRA member and one of the founders of the Republican Congress, was unanimously regarded as the leader of these departing Irishmen. Due to his nationalist, anti-British, and anti-treaty views, Ryan was imprisoned many times, including once when he was arrested due to his involvement in the Irish Civil War. He spent 1922 and 1923 at Harepark Internment Camp and was one of the last prisoners to be released. Other legendary anti-treaty IRA members such as Kit Conway and Jack Nalty joined Frank Ryan in the Spanish Civil War. Ryan, however, was regarded by the Irishmen as their commanding officer. Unlike Eoin O’Duffy, Frank Ryan was present in the front, fighting alongside the other Irishmen and the International Brigadiers.

A few days after leaving Ireland, the men arrived at the International Brigade headquarters in Albacete. The Irishmen were sent to the base of the English-speaking Brigade, which in December 1936 was only formed by the British Battalion. By February 1937, however, it would be known as the XV International Brigade, formed by men from other English-speaking countries such as the United States of America along with Belgian, French, and Balkan soldiers. The base was located in Madrigueras, thirty kilometres north of Albacete, and served as a military training camp. Their commander was Captain George Nathan, a British army veteran. Being part of the British Battalion, however, did not sit well with the Irishmen. They were (ex-) IRA members, soldiers who had led a war against the British occupational forces in their homeland, and having to obey British officers went against what they had fought for in the Irish War of Independence. Tensions heightened between the Irish and the British when it was discovered that George Nathan, their commander, had been an important member of the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary—an imperialist paramilitary unit that worked closely with the Black and Tans, and had personally murdered two Sinn Féin members in 1920.8

Class solidarity and the fight against Fascism, however, were regarded by some of the Irishmen, such as Charlie Donnelly, as more important than the historical enmities. Frank Ryan, although himself a dedicated Irish Republican, tried to defuse the tension addressing the problems in a New Year statement:

An Irish unit of the International Brigades is being formed. [...] This unit will be part of the English-speaking Battalion which is to be formed. Irish, English, Scots and Welsh comrades will fight side by side agai