For Franco in Spain

Billy Quirke, Wexford Echo, [December 1988]

Two Wexfordmen tell Billy Quirke of their experiences during the Spanish Civil War.

James McCarthy of Cork in a publication on his 'Adventures with the Irish Brigade in Spain in 1967 outlined the circumstances which brought hundreds of Irishmen to Spain in 1936 to take part in a war under the man who founded the Garda Siochana, General Eoin O'Duffy.

"The leaders of the (Spanish) revolution were army officers who sympathised with the Rightist political parties who were then protesting against outrages and atrocities being committed by groups led by Communist agitators," he wrote.

That is now the situation as seen by the majority of this country. However, there were Irish on both sides in the Spanish Civil War. It was a struggle between Christian and Atheistic ideologies.

Quite a few from Co. Wexford followed O'Duffy (18 according to Ned Murphy of Ballydaw) and the latter and Luke O'Rourke, Ferns, are the only survivors as far as I am aware. I know of at least one other man from Co. Wexford taking the Communist side. He died in action. The group then known as the Republican Congress Party of Ireland recruited about 300 Irishmen to the International Brigade of the Red Army.

It is quite amazing with Ireland's Catholic tradition that our government during the conflict continued to recognise the 'Red' regime, and as a member of the League of Nations supported……………

The Church, mindful of what was happening to its Spanish Religious, was supportive of the worldwide effort to assist General Franco.

The first of O'Duffy's Brigade moved out in November, 1936, and various groups landed on the Spanish coast up to Christmas. That festive season was a melancholy one for the Irish. They served under the Irish Tricolour and the Red, Gold of Spain in a German uniform.

Christmas 1936 was lonely for the Adventurous Irish, and New Year 1937 was an experience they would never forget. The only pleasing aspect, according to my interviewees, was the good weather.

The Republican side concentrated much of their efforts on the destruction of churches, convents and other holy places. They inflicted most dreadful torture and humiliation on the religious and destroyed hundreds of churches and convents and their contents.

The conflict between the troops was often bitter - but there were lighter moments. For instance, said my informants, when ammunition was low the opposing armies would hurl abuse at each other. "It helped to pass the time," said Luke O'Rourke with a twinkle.

With the Irish, the forces of Franco were also supported by brigades from Germany, Italy, [and] Portugal while the Reds generally had the support of the Communist bloc countries, and Britain.

Most of the Irish dead are buried at Caceres and the names are there to this day - Hyde, Lee, Chute, McSweeney, Foley, Horgan, Walsh, etc. the late Seasamh O Cuinneagain remembered the occasion in verse:

"…Then to beloved Caceres
And the plot of rising ground
But most of all its Cemetery
Where our dead in vaults were found
In perpetual remembrance
Of that Christ-like link with Spain
- For God! For Spain! For Ireland!
We would do the same again."

Luke O'Rourke's story

"I looked upon the call of General O'Duffy for volunteers to follow him to Spain to fight the Anti-Christ as a challenge. At the age of 25 years I was eager to give my loyalty to O'Duffy and we al feared the spread of Communism at that time."

So said Luke O'Rourke of Station Road, Ferns, when I spoke to him about why he volunteered to risk his life in the Spanish Civil War. He, like Ned Murphy, had been a member of the Blueshirts. He freely admits that he was not 'fired by strong religious fervour' and there was no money.

Luke recalls "as if it was yesterday going away from Ferns with Jim Kearns, Clologue; William Conway, Ferns and Nick Walsh, Effernongue; and they were under no illusions about the [possibilities.]

There was a family of six in the O'Rourke household, four boys and two girls. And their mother was a widow. "She gave me her blessing and I know she prayed for me every day I was away," said Luke.

While the conditions in the trenches in Spain were bad, and death was very close all the time, Luke O'Rourke considers that the sea journey on a German Cattle boat his worst experience. "At the beginning the frost was bitter," he said. "Then we encountered very bad weather in the Bay of Biscay. The table we were using broke up in a storm. It was a miracle we got there at all."

Luke sad that they were only three or four days in Spain when they were put straight into the firing line. Several of his colleagues were shot. Tom Hyde of Cork who was in 'A' Company was the first to die.

That was an occasion when the Irish were fired upon by the people they were out there to assist. "We were moving from one village to another just off the firing line, Luke related. "I was a machine gunner but I had no weapon. The guns had been moved on by road some twenty minutes earlier. Nothing like this was expected." It seems that a Spanish officer mistook the Irish brigade for Communists and attacked. He was later taken into custody by the Spanish authorities. Luke was a member of 'D' Company which was the [Machine] Gun Company. When the firing stopped that day he counted 15 dead Spaniards.

There would be days on end when the Irish would sit in the villages waiting for orders to move on and then days and nights in the trenches during the most ferocious action when they thought they would never get out alive. One night while taking shelter the roof was blown off the building. "We wore a German uniform - one almost like the Khaki of the British," he told me. "We were barracked with the Spanish and under their command, though we were drilled and trained by our own officers. The food was not good."

He also said that the Spanish officers were "great people" and not as rough or sore with the troops as were the Irish officers. Christmas in Spain was a "non event". "We had mugs of tea and bread for dinner the same as any other day," he laughed. "The weather was better than we were used to, "that was all that was good about it. I remember spending the day going around the local pubs."

When under orders Luke's contingent were generally in the trenches. There was occasional "light" duty when they were on guard duty in the village. "I would have to say that I loved the excitement of it all," he said. "We were waiting and ready for action all the time, but I never heard a man saying that he was afraid." And, he contends, there was "a lot of dirty work" going on all the time. Spanish army deserters caused havoc and led to a "no nonsense" method of dealing with them.

"I saw five such men executed," said Luke. "We would see people, perhaps relatives, congregating and then a party of soldiers would arrive. You would gather that something unusual was happening. Some of us would climb up on a wall to have a look, but later we were stopped from looking."

But Luke also revealed that not all of the Irish Volunteers were 'angels'. "Some were 'quare fellas' and were confined to cells," he said. "We could never really find out why they were in custody but I can tell you they did not go out there to 'soldier'. They simply were not 'soldier material' and I suppose they were not able for the action when it came."

Luke O'Rourke does not know what happened to the incarcerated ones when the Irish eventually pulled out. He is philosophical about they way they were called home (rather unexpectedly) and considers now that it may have been for the best.

Like many of his colleagues of those far off days, Luke considers that many of the Irish might have died in the trenches (no Wexfordman was killed) but for the aid and the 'vino' given them by the Moors. "We would wait in the dark for them to come to us," he said. "Suddenly they would be there with their bottles of wine and we would take turns buying it from them. Very often it is all we had for days at a time."

Luke O'Rourke always had the greatest admiration for the man who led them to Spain. "He was a great and straight-forward man who did great food for this country," he said. And Luke enjoyed the army life so much he joined the Irish Army immediately on his arrival home. He served right through 'The Emergency' and later worked for Bolgers of Ferns. He retired about 10 years ago.

Today he lives with his brother Larry at Station Road while not too far away at Clones Road, is another brother, Tom. Luke O'Rourke has no regrets. His army days were a precious part of his life and he loves to talk of them.

If he had his life again he would change nothing.

Ned Murphy's Story

Ned Murphy from Ballydaw, Marshalstown, is a native of Clonjordon, Ballindaggin, and when he and his good friend Dermot Jordon, Moabeg, decided to join General O'Duffy's group to fight the Communists in Spain he did not tell his mother.

He was working at Staffords of Clonjordan at the time and on that November day he went to work as usual. His mother was a widow and there were five brothers and a sister to consider. "I did not want to upset them"," he said. "I thought it best to go and to be gone when they heard about it." Ned and the youngest, Jim 'Minor' Murphy who lives in Bedford, England are the last of the family. Ned and Jim were the youngest.

Dermot Jordan died nine years ago. He 'joined up' in Ferns where he Jim O'Neill of Bolinaspect, who was the Recruiting Officer for the area, and they travelled by car to Galway. Ned recalls that there were about 18 volunteers from Co. Wexford. "I did not know many of them," he told me. "In fact the only person I really knew was Dermot. Later on we got to know Dan Walsh and Nick Potts of Killinick; Aidan Kehoe, Tincurry; Jimmy Kelly, Taghmon; Tom Kinsella, Crossabeg; Luke O'Rourke, Ferns; and there was a man named Walsh from Boolavogue." Ned said that he had been in the Blueshirts, and very many of the people who went to Spain were ex-Blueshirt. Most were in their twenties. Ned, in fact, was aged 24 in 1936.

The Wexford contingent sailed from Galway for an unannounced port in Spain. Another group left from Dublin and on the latter was the Joseph Cunningham (Seoshamh O Cunneagain), Solicitor, Enniscorthy, a long-time friend of Ned Murphy.

"I will never forget the boat journey," said Ned. "It was sheer hell. We were only two hours in Galway when we boarded the ship and the conditions could not have been worse." Ned reckons that when they survived that voyage they would be more than able for anything that Spain had to offer.

"We had to lie down on the floor," he continued. "The cold of those November nights was unbearable. And then there was a storm and the few bits of furniture were broken up. Everyone was sick and there was no food worth talking about. We realised that there was no use complaining."

On arrival on the coast of Spain there was a two and a half days journey by train to Salamanca where they had their first good meal in all of that time. "I met Fr Joe Ranson, (later Administrator at St Aidan's Cathedral) n Salamanca and meeting him was a great consolation to al of us. He was a great man."

In those first few days they met General O'Duffy and the great man made a point of taking to everyone of the Irish volunteers individually. They were in Spain until July '37 when they were 'claimed home' by the Irish Government under Éamonn De Valera.

Ned said that there had been a great deal of opposition in Ireland to two separate groups of Irishmen taking part in this war in a foreign country. Another group that was due to sail from Waterford was prevented from leaving the country. The "Irish Christian Front" that was established to aid the O'Duffy Brigade in Spain was banned. All mail to and from home was severely censored. No parcels were allowed out of Ireland to the Volunteers.

Ned's group were operating in and around the town of Caceres which at the time had a population of 30,000. The conditions in the trenches, especially in the winter and early spring were deplorable. "The rats would talk to you," said Ned. "We would go four or five days at a time without a meal and the only nourishment we could get was from the bottles sold to us by the Moors. Those people kept us alive." The Moors, with their local knowledge and inherent stealth could come "through the lines" to the harassed Irish and they would ell their bottles of 'vino' at a peseta apiece.

Right though the eight months in which he saw combat there was appalling loss of life, but Ned said that he never once knew fear. He saw many convents ransacked and the Reds would take the nuns away with them to the trenches. There was never action in the Caceres area against the Irish who threw in their lot against Franco, although rival groups would often see each other. There were occasions when one group would be pulling in by train to a station and the other would be leaving.

The people of Spain were most hospitable and friendly. There would be contact between the Irish natives in public places but the rules of army life strictly applied and there would be no fraternisation in any other way.

When the Irish eventually (in July) sailed from Lisbon for home, they 'travelled in luxury'. But only 77 out of the 600 came back as they left. Ned was one of the fortunate. Ned Murphy is extremely proud of his service with the 15th Bandea ('La Bandera Irlandesa' they were referred to in Spain). [I presume this means that over 500 were wounded or ill, etc. That is a very high figure which I've not seen anywhere else in the literature - although there were substantial numbers of soldiers hospitalised though illness. CC]

Of course, I asked him why he volunteered. "It certainly was not for the money," said Ned. There was a small allowance in Spain - 15 pesetas a week - and that in current monetary terms works out at between 7 and 8 new pence. "I suppose we had to have a sense of adventure and that is in many young men," he said. "It was an opportunity to see another land. But I was an admirer of General O'Duffy and when he put out the call for volunteers I answered. I was not a particularly religious man, though I do think that the people of my generation had a lot more religion in them than they have today."

He regrets greatly the fact that Ireland was the last country in Europe to recognise General Franco's Regime. Over the years he turned down many offers to travel back to Spain where the names of the Irish dead will be remembered forever.

He married the former Chrissy O'Connor, Duffry Gate, in 1940, and they have twelve daughters and three sons.

Asked about any little mementos of the Spanish war that he might have brought home, Ned Murphy had a sorry tale to tell. They had to surrender their uniform and other paraphernalia before leaving Spain and the items they could 'smuggle' home were very few.

"There was a night when we were looking for shelter and we made out way into the ruins of a convent," he said. "We just went in there in the pitch-black pf night and lay down wherever we could. In the morning we awoke to find we were lying amongst the dead bodies of nuns. The entire convent had been plundered by the Reds - statues were broken and other holy objects destroyed. It was the worst thing that I can recall about the war."

Ned Murphy picked up a broken wooden crucifix and he brought it home. Years later, at the request of Fr. Ranson, he handed it over to the County Museum at Enniscorthy Castle. "For some time it was on view there," he said. "I saw it here myself and there was great interest in it. But the day came when I brought some visitors to see it and it was gone. Worse still, there was no one who could say what happened to it."

Ned Murphy of Ballydaw was left with his memories.

The Gorey Echo carried a piece, June 2006, to mark Ned's 94th birthday. Thanks to Tom Mooney, Editor for his permission to carry these articles. Copyright belongs to the papers.

RTE Radio 1 - Documentary on One

Click here to listen to the show First Broadcast 1st December 2004 Ned Murphy is believed to be the last survivor of Eoin O'Duffy's Irish Brigade which fought for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. This is Ned's story, told in his own words and those of his family. Compiled by Alan Torney.

Ned was quite frail by this stage so take your time when listening to this tape, it's a bit disjointed, but worth listening to.