Spanish Civil War Revelations

Denis O'Shaughnessy in the Limerick Leader, 10 June 1995

Some further light has been shed on the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) involvement of the General Eoin O'Duffy by volunteer Frank B Fitzgerald, a Dungarvan man by birth but who for many years was proprietor of a supermarket in the Ennis Road bearing his name.

Frank, a former member of the Limerick Chamber of Commerce, and now retired in Jersey, made an appeal to the Limerick Leader some time ago requesting a copy of an illustrated certificate awarded to those volunteers from this country who fought on Generalissimo Franco's side against the incumbent Loyalists in that dastardly conflict.

A facsimile of the certificate, belonging to the late Volunteer Jim Frawley of Cherry Villas had been published in this newspaper and happily the Leader was able to procure a copy of the cert. and send it on to Mr Fitzgerald.

According to Frank, and contrary to popular belief, there was major involvement in the war by the Irish Brigade and its Limerick volunteers. Giving a graphic description of the blowing up of a Loyalist train outside Madrid, which had the entrenched Irish Brigade under constant fire, he writes:

"As NCO of 'A' Company, of the Brigade, with twenty-five of my men, we placed gelignite at Point A in the tracks and another lot 30 years further on. When the train passed over Point A I blew the first one and almost immediately blew the second charge. This meant that the train could not go back or forward - it was trapped. I got in touch with my brother Sean, who was OC in D Company. He was experienced in explosives….we gave covering fire, and with ten of his men he blew the train off the tracks and all of its crew were killed." [Note by CC: The OC of Company D, the machine gun unit, was Captains Sean Cunningham of Belfast.]

Frank, who was at one time chairman of the local RGDA ranch, sold his supermarket here and moved on to the Rialto in the South Circular in Dublin where he opened a newsagents shop. While there he made the headlines in 1984 when single-handed he beat off an armed gang who had attempted a robbery.

Another dramatic episode in the Spanish conflict, in which according to local historian Des Ryan, up to one hundred volunteers from Limerick City and County took part under the flag of the Irish Brigade, was related by veteran Frank:

"In a decoy action, we carried six small boats to the river edge in an area where we were pinned down by enemy fire. We placed dummies in each boat which could be seen from the opposite bank. It looked to the enemy as if we were about to attack but of course we had no such intention. We came under intense fire and suffered some causalities. Torrential rain had turned a small brook, which we had crossed during the night, into a raging torrent and a volunteer named Little from Waterford was swept away. With the help of some of my men I reached out holding on to a bush and affected a rescue….he would definitely have drowned."

Some volunteers, now deceased, from the city that took part in the war included P J Cleary from William Street, and who was afterwards ordained a Franciscan priest, taking the name of Fr Leander, and who returned to serve in Spain. He had a meeting with Generalissimo Franco with whom he was photographed. St. Mary's parish men, Bill Fitzgerald, Jim Frawley and Christy O'Sullivan served also in the Irish Brigade.

Frank Fitzgerald, whose brother Sean was wounded in action and who afterwards lived for several years in the old Desmond Hotel in Catherine Street, had some interesting points to make on the War and some possibilities in its aftermath had Franco been defeated.

"I met Randolph Churchill (son of the famous Winston), who was a war correspondent, when he came up to our lines. His real mission was to find out how the war would end. He saw that Franco had the fire-power and back-up to win and correctly reported back to England that the Loyalists would lose.

"If the Communists and Loyalists, backed by the International Brigade, had beaten Franco, and later backed by the Russians, they would have attempted to take Gibraltar and close off the Mediterranean. This would have triggered a major war and thousands would have lost their lives."

Frank's involvement in the Spanish conflict began when General Eoin O'Duffy he toured Munster calling on volunteers who expressed an interest in joining the Irish Brigade. He attained the rank of NCO shortly after arriving in Spain and was based with the Brigade in Caceres in [the] Provence [of] Extremadura, and like his brother Frank was twice promoted in the field.

"I decided to give my men the best training I could and it payed [sic] off. On field training they had to crawl towards certain targets and I fired live ammunition over them, to get them used to moving under fire. My No. 1 gunner was Paddy Smith from Cavan. We saw our first engagement in Ciempozueols….we were also in Badajoz and La Marnosa.

"Like our own civil war, there was terrible atrocities committed and treachery was commonplace. All of which led to terrible bitterness in the aftermath. I believe that with a new generation the wounds left behind have now healed in Spain."

Sadly, Frank joined the RAF afterwards, lost all his souvenirs and photographs of the Spanish campaign when the street in which he lived in Edgeware in London, was wiped out by a German V2 rocket, al who were there at the perishing.

"I would love to get a copy of a photograph, to pass on to my daughter, of myself and my brother Frank taken in Spain, and which was published in the Irish Independent in 1937," he wrote.

Mr Fitzgerald wishes to be remembered to all his acquaintances in Limerick. He has been hospitalised for some time following an accident in which he received a broken shoulder blade.