The Irish BrigadeBy
Matt Beckett, Westport, 1990
Since the upheaval in Eastern Europe and the friendship that has arisen between the two Germanys and between the USA and Russia, there has been a new thinking about Communism and Socialism and in time this may show that Fascism (as it was conceived, but perhaps not practised) may not have been such an evil thing at all, while Communism has been revealed in all its brutalities in Rumania, East Germany, Hungary, etc.
Perhaps also it will show that the Irish Brigade with O’Duffy in Spain was fighting for an ideal far nobler and more important to mankind that the International Brigade. It maybe that Spain was used as a testing ground for the German Air Force and for the Italians also, but things were bad in Spain before Franco took the field and [the] attitude of Britain and France who allowed the Communists free access through to Spain and used every possible means of propaganda to present the Reds as “the legitimate government” and cover the violence that was being committed in the name of Democracy.
Over three years ago – the summer of ’87 – I had a phone call from Joe Cunningham, who told me [that he] had retired from his legal practice in Enniscorthy and was living in Dublin. He did not mention his reason for retirement, so I took it that it was a matter of age, because he was in his seventies. His main reason for ringing me was to tell me of the death in Wexford of Dan Walsh ( Dan as we used to call him.)
I wrote to Mrs Walsh and sympathised with her in her bereavement and she said she had two booklets about [the] Brigade (written by Joe Cunningham) and would send them on. [These were War in Spain and The Saga of Spain.] A month later they arrived and also the news that by then, Joe Cunningham, had also passed away.
Both Joe and Dan were in the Irish Brigade in Spain. Joe was a Lieutenant Quarter Master in D Company and Dan was a Legionnaire in C Company. Joe had been a professor in some Northern Ireland academy before going to Spain and he was deeply committed to Nationalist causes north of the Border. Among his very good friends in D Company was one Tom Jones, who had left the RUC to join the Brigade. Indeed, contrary to the usual opinion that all who followed O’Duffy to Spain were Blueshirts, there were many who were identified with other parties, like Captain Quinn, C Company, who was a Fine Gael man. Ward and Mooney, who were Northern Nationalists, Eamon Horan (Kerry), Dermot O’Sullivan (Dublin), Mick O’Brien (Dublin) were all prominent in Fianna Fail and of course there were many who had no connection with any particular party here. Priests like Father Mulrean [and] Fr. Daly, clerical students and indeed most trades and professions were represented. We went to Spain to support the Christian (or Catholic if you will) call for aid against Communism and Anarchy. The Church in Ireland supported the Brigade idea and we were met on our return by the Archbishop of Dublin and the Lord Mayor of that city (Alderman Alfie Byrne). The Irish people on the whole supported the cause of Franco and the Nationalists against the red regime of Cabalerro, Azana and “La Passionaro”. In past centuries Catholic Spain had helped out the cause of Irish nationalism and many Irish had found refuge and support in Spain.
Fianna Fail were in government in Ireland in 1936 and like other League of Nation members did not approve of the idea of the Irish Brigade fighting in Spain. Britain, France and Russia were also anti-Franco, but allowed new armaments through to the red Government in Madrid and Barcelona.
Much has been said about the exploits of the International Brigade and here in Ireland it has been poplar to laud men like Frank Ryan, etc. who served in the Brigade and escaped to Germany afterwards. The Irish Brigade, on the other hand, has got a poor press and O’Duffy has been classed as an adventurer, and as not really capable of making a sound judgement.
I know there were some (from Dublin and Clonmel) who betrayed certain criminal tendencies, but on the whole the members of the Irish Brigade were honest, sincere men who were there with the blessings of the hierarchy at home and in Spain.
Among those I remember best – apart from the Mayomen were Tom Jones (Belfast), Dan Walsh, Joe Cunningham, Tom Shaw (Cork), Sean McNamee (Clare), Tom Hyde.
I travelled on the B&I to Liverpool and [from] there with a number of others we met on board a ship called the “Ardesla” and set off for Lisbon, Portugal. (It was October [November] 1936 and a mild month.) When we landed in Lisbon we were greeted by some government officials and priests who welcomed us n behalf of the Irish Community. The thing I remember best about Portugal was the beautiful blue colour of the sea and picturesque colouring of the houses on the hills above the Bay. The journey to the Spanish Border was uneventful, but I recall one lovely little village Setabal (I think) where we had a rest and a meal before crossing the Border and staying in Badajoz for our first night in Spain. In Badajoz we had the first glimpse of the kind of war we were going into. The town had been captured by the Nationalists and recaptured by the reds and had again been recaptured by the Nationalists a short time before we arrived. It bore the marks of war on many buildings – bloodstained walls, scribbled mottos on buildings, some of which were just shells. The church had been used as a stable for mules during the red occupation and it was badly smashed and statues burnt and defaced. A number of nuns from the adjoining convent had been tortured and shot.
The following morning we set out for Cáceres, which was to be our headquarters for the training period. We met those Irishmen who had travelled out in the two ships that sailed a fortnight and a week before we arrived. We went into training with rifles and trench mortars, when weather permitted. On Christmas Eve 500 men arrived in Cáceres. They had arrived in Ferol in Northern Spain aboard a German boat which had picked them up in Galway Bay. Among them were Joe and Lenny Chambers, Mick Burns, Tom McMullen (all from Westport), Padraic Cavanagh (Ballinarobe), Jack Moran (Shrule), Mick Munnelly (Ballina), Jack Caughan (Belmullet). It was hoped that there would be two Banderas (Battalions), but the League of Nations watched the Irish coast so that there were no more recruits and all had to be accommodated in our Battalion (plus spares). Major Dalton (Dublin) was in charge. In C Company, to which I belonged, Captain Paddy Quinn was O/C. Denis Kelly (Roscommon), was Lieut. Tom Hudson was S/M. Other sergeants were “Quip” Deleney (Tipperary), Sean McNamara (Clare) Tom Shaw (Cork). T Hudson was S/M. The Irish Battalion was known officially as [the] 15th Bandera del Tercio. The Irish got on well with Requettes (Carlists) and the Moors, who had followed Franco from Morocco but we were never very fond of the Falange (Fascists).
The first fortnight of February was perhaps the worst of ‘the campaign’. The men were restive, anxious to get into the fight and receiving letters from home saying how they envied us ‘picking oranges in the sunshine’, while they had bad weather. Actually we had rain and cold. One incident showed the difference in ‘the material’ that formed our Bandera. One volunteer had received a letter about the fine time we were having in Spain, while at home it was bitter cold and wet. This put him in such an upset mind, accompanied as it was by ribbing from some of the lads around him, that he took a grenade from his back and threatened to blow himself and the billet up. At first the chaps laughed but then they saw that he really meant trouble and edged away from him towards the exit. As it happened Sean McNamara and I entered the room at the time and we shouted to him to put back the grenade but he insisted that he was pulling the pin and ordered us out. I thought he was bluffing but Sean kept coming closer to him, and taking to him and I also kept talking – but from afar. Then Sean walked to him and somehow took the grenade out of his hand, but not before the volunteer had pulled the pin, but luckily not released the lever. Sean took the grenade, kept the lever pressed, walked the length of the room and down into the yard. Some of us followed him, others went to shelter. It was not far to the wall around the parade ground, but it seemed ages before Sean reached the wall and threw the grenade over it and we heard the explosion. I was nearest Sean and I rushed to him, as did most of the others, shook his hand and I think it was the bravest action I saw while in Spain.
On February 17th, the order came to go to the Front. Right from the start we were in trouble. The train started off at a break-neck speed that on a turn would have derailed it. But the train was signalled to stop and shunted to a siding. As it came to a halt the driver and his mate jumped off and ran, but were quickly captured and we were informed that they were Red Army members. At Plaventia, we had another halt so that the line ahead could be repaired as it had been damaged in an air raid a short time previously. We disembarked at Torrejon and went on to Valdenora for a brief rest before resuming the journey to Ciempozuelos, which is on the main Madrid-Valencia line. While advancing on Ciempozuelos we were attacked by a Brigade from the Canary Islands who mistook us for Reds. Tom Hyde, Lieut. Bovey, Sgt. Calvo were killed by rifle fire. In a second burst Chute, Foley, Horan and Lee were killed and a number of the Canary Island Brigade were also wounded or killed. By this time, they had discovered their mistake and left the way open for us to enter Ciempozuelos. While we were moving in there was an air raid and some of us got ‘marks’ from the ricochets. I had a handkerchief around my head for a couple of days, but it was only a slight scratch (by shrapnel), a cut on the eye-lid. I was so sad over Tom Hyde’s death, I did not much care what was to happen next. He had expressed a feeling to us one night in Cáceres, that ‘he’ would not survive the war in Spain, and told us that he had made his will before he left Middleton!
For the first stage, C Company and D Company (part) were in reserve, the remainder of D Company being on a hill guarding a German Battery. The Reds had mounted an armed unit on the railway line that ran between our front trenches and theirs and this came along at intervals to shell our lines. Titulcia, across the railway, was in red hands. A dawn attack now planed on the town by A and C companies. This was to have the support of the Calvary, but again bad planning had left us at the mercy of the Red Artillery and we a lost a number of men from B company which was on our right. Casualties included Sgt. Gabriel Lee and three lads from Tralee. We were then ordered to retreat back to our own lines.
I was in charge of supplies (as Headquarters Corporal) and this meant supervision of stores and food preparation when we were in reserve. In the lines, it meant that we brought the food by mule cart and distributed it. The company in reserve cooked in the village and the headquarters section of the company in the line collected and distributed it. Sometimes this had to be done during shelling, but I did not hear of anybody being hit in the process - though the mules and carts often got stuck in the mud and floods!
Saint Patrick's Day still found us in Ciempozuelos, but rumours that we were to be changed over proved correct a week later. However it was not a rest, but a new area of the line nearer Madrid, a place called La Maranosa, where the Carlists were holding the line beside us. It was a much more open and fluid line and was near Madrid, as [we] cold see the Hill of Angels and Pingarron. We had to repel a number of attacks by Red Militia and Red planes strafed us every day and some times more than once., but the only casualties they inflicted were on the buildings. One of the planes crashed just short of our lines.
Maranosa was much nicer than Ciempozuelos and the weather was improving rapidly, sunny practically all the time. There were changes in command as we reached Maranosa, Major Dalton had returned on sick leave to Dublin. Captain O'Sullivan was promoted Major in charge of the Battalion and Captain Quinn was moved from C Company to take over A. Captain Paddy Daly went with him. In C Company, Lieut. Nangle was promoted OC and I was appointed Company Clerk in place of Corporal Daly. While this meant that I was on duty "all the time", it also meant that I had no longer to worry about supplies. It meant that I drafted company orders, named the Orderly Officer in charge each day, Orderly Sergeant and the men to go on "Police Duties". The routine orders were then signed by the OC and posted up. Captain Nangle (as he now was) was very easy to get along with. A quiet spoken man he had arrived in Spain before the brigade and was in the Tercio as he was fluent in Spanish as in English, he was transferred to the Irish Brigade. The official Spanish Legion officer attached to C Company was Lieut. Falco, an excitable man who spoke more with his eyes and hands than with his tongue.
While we were in La Maranosa the six months period for which the brigade had enlisted was terminated and many of the lads were anxious to get home. We would also like to see Ireland again, but there was still the majority of us who felt that we should stay until final victory was achieved. At home, though we were not aware of this, the Government (urged on by the League of Nations) demanded the return of the Brigade, under the threat of taking away the right of our citizenship. As a result, O'Duffy and his advisors at home, decided to bring back the Bandera to Ireland. It had been unable to bring out a second Brigade to replace us because of Government restrictions. Some men who were to have been in that 2nd Brigade, including Captain Hughes (Broadstone), Rev. Fr. Daly and some others had to return with us.
We had the option of joining a Spanish bandera, but very few of us fancied this idea. The only ones that I knew that stayed behind were Tom Jones (ex RUC, Belfast), a splendid soldier and singer too, and Davy [Denis] O'Dea, Offaly, a young lad who was friendly with us in La Maranosa. He was in B Company. Him and Lenny Chambers were so alike, that we thought that it was Lenny who had opted to say with the Tercio!
During active service, many of the great "Parade Soldiers" in Cáceres turned out useless in combat, while those who were not so admired or popular on the parade ground became heroes, or at least good soldiers in Ciempozuelos and La Maranosa. I have already referred to Sean McNamara's bravery and he was a good man in action also, as was the extremely unpopular Sgt. Tom Shaw (who was hated in Cáceres), Denis Kelly (Roscommon), Joe Cunningham (Belfast), Joe Chambers, Michael Cusack, Jack Moran, Munnelly, the Wexford men, Dan Walsh and the Kilkenny men (the Comerford brothers, etc). [The] Dublin contingent, with a few honourable exceptions, and the Cashel-Clonmel section, were liabilities and blackguards. Their idea was more to escape things at home than to help the national cause in Spain!
After coming back to Cáceres from the front, we handed in our equipment and uniforms (what was left of them after trench living). The real friendships were revived. I was able to see Joe Chambers and Lenny regularly, and Michael Burns, Mick Cusack, Jack Moran, etc. We'd wait until the day came when we returned to Ireland, via Portugal. The end of a dream perhaps, but we can see it as a gesture of Ireland's gratitude to Spain for what Spain had done for Ireland in the past. The cynic might well say "Both efforts were failures". We did not feel that way.
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