James McCarthy. Evening Echo, Cork, Thursday, 7th Sept. 1967: Instalment 2
The rest of this series of 9 articles will be added asap, C Crossey, 7th Jan. 2008. Copyright lies with the McCarthy family.
Lonely Christmas for the Irish Brigade in Spain
On our journey to our training base at Caceres we travelled by train. As there were no compartments reserved for use we sat wherever there were seats vacant. Being still in civilian attire we were a source of curiosity to the other passengers as we chatted in English.
During a lull in our conversation, an elderly man seated with us asked, in fairly good English, if we were British and what our destination was. We informed him that we were from Ireland and were on our way to Caceres to join the Nationalist forces. He hesitated, then remarked: "Is not Ireland one of the British Isles?"
"It is not now", we told him. "Ireland is an independent state since 1922, 14 years ago." Though seemingly puzzled, he remained silent but for a few moments, then said: "But you speak the English language."
This remark brought back to me the saying I had often heard quoted: "A country's language is the hallmark of its nationhood."
We explained, that our nation was occupied by Britain for seven centuries, that our people had been forced to adopt the English language instead of our own ancient tongue but, we told him, our language had survived and was now being taught and spoken again.
We then carried on a dialogue in Irish, among ourselves, to support our assertions and to impress our new acquaintance. We told him that Spanish soldiers had shed blood on Irish soil when defending our nation against British forces. He seemed favourably impressed as a result of our discussion and volunteered a little of his own personal history to explain his knowledge of English, which he had acquired in the US.
On our arrival in Caceres, we were met by those who had preceded us, and all marched across the city to the barracks where we were to remain for our training period. The barracks consisted of a number of blocks of three storey buildings, one of which was allocated to the Irish recruits.
Another batch of volunteers, numbering about 80, arrived a week later, travelling over the same route. They joined the men who preceded them and were soon having their first lessons in the art of warfare.
On the Sunday prior to Christmas the final party of volunteers arrived in Caceres, having travelled by a different route. They had departed from Galway on a German cargo vessel which had been temporarily fitted to accommodate passengers.
The voyage was marred by very stormy weather, so the ship had a very rough passage with the result that most of the men became ill and some received injuries from falling in the pitching ship.
They had landed at Ferrol in North-West Spain and travelled by train to Salamanca, where they had rested for a day, before resuming the final stage of their journey.
Tired and Dispirited
We paraded to the railway station to meet them and found them very tired and dispirited as a result of their trying journey. We were at full numerical strength as we marched back to our barracks. A good meal was in readiness for the new arrivals which they particularly needed, having had many delays on their journey from Salamanca, where they had eaten their last meal.
We had partaken of our mid-day meal before proceeding to meet the new arrivals, so the dining hall was ready to accommodate the famishing men. I was in charge of the dining hall on this occasion and I pay tribute to the patience of the men as they queued up for their meal. We had a second helping for each and some left over when all were satisfied.
We all found the native diet unpalatable at first, but we gradually became accustomed to the change of menu. We missed tea for breakfast, instead we had coffee, with bread and boiled eggs. Dinner usually consisted of Irish stew, with rice as a second course, while for the evening meal we again had coffee and bread.
The few remaining days to Christmas were uneventful. We were settling in and making the best of the supplies and facilities available. We spent the days on the square learning foot drill, then, until bedtime, we were free to go into the city, where we usually had a snack, or a meal, with a few drinks on occasions.
On Christmas Eve, Confessions were heard by our chaplain in the Church of Santa Dominga, which the Dominicans kindly placed at our disposal. For all of us Christmas Eve was lonely as we thought of home. We missed the family circle, the candle in the window and the cheery fire. The thoughts of every man went back to his dear ones at home and he was reunited with them again in spirit and in prayer.
On Christmas morning, all turned out early and each processed, in his own time, to one or other of the many churches in the city, where each man received Holy Communion.
All were back for breakfast after which the while party of Irishmen paraded in a body to another Mass in Santa Dominga Church, celebrated by our own chaplain. The Mass was followed by Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
The Christmas dinner, though it had some shortcomings, was enjoyed by all, as we had the luxury of a taste of the traditional turkey, with a few other treats. The preparation of the meal reflected credit on our cooking staff who worked untiringly to make everyone happy. During the afternoon, we held a concert in the dining hall, at which many of our members contributed vocal items, while a few who had brought musical instruments with them played some stirring airs.
It was generally a melancholy Christmas, but we were not dispirited, as a fine spirit of comradeship compensated to a great extent for what we missed. The volunteers, at this stage numbered about 700 and it was hoped further contingents would arrive, but difficulties frustrated efforts to supplement our numbers.
Installment 1 - Evening Echo, Monday, Sept. 4 1967
General O'Duffy Launches his Irish Brigade
Instalment 3,Friday, Sept. 8th 1967
Tablet in Spanish Church Commemorates the Brigade