Spanish Inferno - O'Duffy's Bandera in Spain

TP Kilfeather writing in the Sunday Independent May 15th 1960

[Note: - I've added this series of articles to the site because this is one of the earliest histories of the Bandera that I've come across and there is little enough material about this group. Ciaran C.]

"Begins today – an epic of our own times – the exploits of the Irish Brigade in the Spanish Civil War"

Black clouds of monstrous girth rose from the Atlantic horizon and swept in unending succession across Galway Bay. Rain lashed the grey quays by Corrib. A chill wind swept through deserted streets.

Galway slept while through the night young men travelled towards the historic city, huddled in cars, crowded in buses, some on sputtering motorcycles, some even battling against the wind on bicycles. It was the night of December 13, 1936.


It was a night when ghosts walked the streets of the old sea fort of the Tribes, a night when imagination could easily have conjured up a storm-embattled fleet of Spanish galleons lurching towards shipwreck on the headlands of Ireland’s western coast.

For the young men who huddled in cars and in buses, whose eyes peered along the swathes of light cut by the headlights from the darkness, were intent on doing something which had its impetus in history and its origin in the blood of the Irish race. They were on their way to fight for Spain. In Spanish history they will be remembered as the young men of the 15th Bandera – Bandera Irlandesa del Tercio.

They were young men intent on repaying a debt which stretched back through the centuries to the long struggle of the O’Neills and the O’Donnells. They were intent on repaying a debt owed since 1601 when Spanish ships closed the Irish coast and landed military aid at Kinsale, or an even earlier debt when 800 Spanish soldiers landed at Smerwick Harbour, Co. Kerry.


Some of them, too, although none of them would put it in words, remembered a hideous day at Dunamore in Cork, when Spanish blood flowed in massacre on Irish soil. Others remembered that it was in Spain that there still remained the dust of O’Donnell.

Silent City

And so these young men travelled towards Galway – a contingent of the Irish Brigade – and some of them were to die for Spain and some of them were to have limbs and health shattered in what they rightly believed to be a crusade. Into the heart of Galway they drove, into Eyre Square where the tress were bare in winter starkness, a square where few houses showed a light.

As the engines of the cars and busses throbbed lights came on and curious heads appeared in windows. It was one o’clock in the morning and no one had expected the invasion off young men who wore trench coats and leather leggings and whose sole luggage was a small suitcase carried by each man.


Galway’s hoteliers hurried down in response to urgent knockings at their doors. Courteously they were asked for food and quickly the food was provided. There were five hundred of them and already they were a disciplined body, obeying orders with alacrity.

Half an hour went by and then the five hundred went to the docks. Moored to the quay wall was the squat little steamer Dun Aengus and even in the harbour she was lifting to the movement of the deep swell that was pounding into the bay far out.

They filed up the gangway and they lined the rails to wave to the crowd gathered on the quays. It was after 2 a.m. before the sturdy engines of the Aran Islands ferry began to beat. The quayside was lit by few lamps. Those who stood and watched huddled closer in protection against the bite of the wind that swept in from the Atlantic.


There were three shrill blasts of the siren on the stubby smoke stack of the Dun Aengus. The first of them startled the young men who were three deep at the rails nearest the quayside. In the darkness handkerchiefs waved and the darkness concealed the tears of women who had come to see brothers, husbands and sweethearts off on the start of a long voyage to Spain.

It concealed, too, the faces of the men of the Irish Brigade and for that most of them were grateful. Parting is always a time of sadness. Imperceptibly the gap between the ferryboat and quayside widened. Some body on the quayside began to sing. The wind tore at his words, but those who were nearest the singer heard what he sang. Then the crowd took up the tune. Soon a thousand voices were singing ‘Faith of our Fathers.’

On deck the men of the 15th Bandera answered with their voices and when they had finished the hymn they sang the ‘Soldiers Song.’ Their voices grew fainter to those on the quay as the Dun Aengus moved out into the darkness of the harbour. Soon there was no sound save the calls of the gulls wheeling overhead.

Back in Eyre Square the engines of the buses and the cars were restarted and before 3 a.m. they were returning to Cork, Dublin, Clonmel, Belfast and to all the villages and towns whence they had come on the long journey to Galway.


Steadily Dun Aengus drove towards the open sea. Pitch and roll increased as her bows nosed the edge of thousands of miles of ocean. There seemed no end to those gigantic mountains of cloud that rose one after the other in the western sky. With them came hissing rain that blended with the swish of the bow-wave as it surged alongside the craft which knew these waters well.

Five hundred young men – many of whom had never been on a ship before – gathered in whatever shelter they could find on the deck. Rain soaked through their overcoats, through jackets, through shirts.

No lights

Below decks were others who were experiencing for the first time the untold miseries of seasickness and the extraordinary longing for the ship to plunge beneath the waves and to stay under. On is tiny bridge captain Goggins altered course a point or two so that the lurching would be less as Dun Aengus butted into the rolling waves.

His eyes moved across the line where the horizon would be, seeking the lights of the ship that was to take his seasick, rain soaked passengers on board.

No ship

There were no lights. The blackness of Galway Bay held no ship. After two hours of searching the spume-filled darkness Dun Aengus leaved to in the shelter of Black Head. She was rising and falling in the ocean swell when the first streaks of dawn cut a gash of grey in the black curtain that shrouded the mainland at her stern.

Ashen-faced, shivering, hungry, five hundred men waited for the light to strengthen. They stood with their hands on the teak rails waiting for the first glimpse of the ship that was to meet them.

Last try

Light slowly filtered over a sea that was never at rest… but there was no ship but theirs on the waters of Galway Bay. It was disheartening. Their spirits were low. None of them sang now. Even words were few. When they did speak it was of the prospect of returning to Galway and none of them wanted that.

With their national temperament they could not stand disappointment, frustration. They wanted to get to Spain. So once more the engines of the island ferryboat began to throb with a stronger beat and the deck beneath their feet began to tremble in response to the thrust of the propellers.

To port the curious rock formations of Black Head began to slide past and the bows nosed once more towards the West. For a few moments the Dun Aengus churned onwards and then as Black Head slipped astern a black-hulled vessel was seen steaming close inshore – not a place any cautious captain would choose to if he were bound on a normal course of trade.

Boots clattered on companionways and on steel decks as those who were below decks poured up to see the ship for which they had searched all night. She was a big ship, very much bigger than the Dun Aengus. She looked none too smart and there were red rust patches at bow and stern, but she was the ship that was a counterpart of another ship that had sailed from Lough Swilly many, many years before. These men were Wild Geese too.

They were the first for very many generations to sail from Ireland for service in foreign lands because they would be fighting for something which Ireland has always held dear.


As Dun Aengus signalled to the big steamer, ‘follow me,’ none of the young men on board the ferry was concerned at that moment with historic parallels. They cheered, they danced on the deck and they clapped one another on the shoulder. Just as they could be swiftly cast into despair so, too, could they be as quickly raised to hearty good cheer.

The Dun Aengus wallowed for a moment or two as she took the Atlantic rollers broadside in her turn further back into the quieter waters of the inner bay. The big steamer followed.

Slow work

Two expert seamen on their respective bridges brought the vessels alongside. That was not an easy task for the wind lull that followed the dawn had given way to a rising gale. Both vessels were pitching hard.

At last they were made fast and rope ladders came spinning down to the deck of Dun Aengus. Numbed hands grasped the ladders as one after the other they clambered up along the lurching side of the big steamer. It was eleven o’clock in the morning.


Even experienced sailors do not like climbing rope ladders in a rising sea. It was doubly difficult for young men who knew nothing of the sea. Two ladders were used. But as only one man could use the ladders at a time the work of transfer was slow.

On the bigger vessel the crew looked with curiosity at the young men scrambling with kit bags and attaché cases on to the deck. As each man landed with a thud and a sigh of relief over the side, he was shown below and given a big metal bowl full of soup.

Steadier now

They noted with appreciation that the bigger vessel was steadier and that she gave more shelter from the tearing wind. It took more than four hours for the transfer to be completed. At last it was done.

But as soon as the two vessels were about to part, a handful of those who had boarded the Dun Aengus came to the conclusion that they had had enough of soldiering, especially when it also meant seafaring They scrambled down the ladders which they had mounted a short while before and sailed back with the ferry to Galway.

Dun Aengus sounded a three-hoot farewell. It was answered by three deep booming roars from the siren of the troopship. As the bigger vessel headed seawards, Dun Aengus slowly disappeared into the rainsqualls that were drifting over Galway.


It was a month of gales, that month of December 1936. It was a month that those who sailed to help Spain in her hour of need will never forget. For days they endured great hardship. The vessel on which they made their voyage to Ferrol, a northwest Spanish seaport, was an ordinary cargo ship.

Accommodation was cramped, crowded, stuffy and confined. For exercise they took it in turns to walk the narrow decks. The food was poor, although in fairness to those who worked in the galley, the gale made their task of feeding five hundred men difficult.

A rest

So they pitched and floundered, their horizon bounded by wave peaks that pushed the bows skywards and then they sent them slithering into green-walled troughs. Weary and with their spirits dampened by the hardships they had endured the five hundred greeted the quiet calm of Ferrol Bay much as those Spanish soldiers who had sailed to Ireland long ago must have greeted the shelter of Kinsale.

In Ferrol the men of the Irish Brigade transferred to another ship. This time she was the Domino. On board hey enjoyed their first night’s comfortable rest since leaving Ireland. They had been at sea for almost a week.

From Ferrol they went by train to Salamanca. Salamanca! That name means a great deal to Irishmen.

A symbol

The young men of the Irish Brigade walked in a town where Irish voices had spoken for centuries, a town with an Irish College where Irish priests were educated when it was not possible to educate them at home. Salamanca!

The Irish Brigade could not have passed through a more significant nor symbolic place. It would not be long before Irishmen were dying in repayment.

For Spain was in flames. At the heart of the flames there was a red core. And that red core was Communism. That fact was none to clear in 1936. It was shrouded in propaganda, in all the smoke screens which could be employed to hide real motives and plans.


But in the eyes of the majority of the young men who left Ireland to fight in Spain there was no doubt about the enterprise and adventure on which they had embarked. They left Ireland to fight in a crusade. And after the event, who can say that they misjudged the issue?

How these young men left Ireland for Spain is a story which began when general Eoin O’Duffy received a letter from London. At the moment he split open the cover of that letter, General O’Duffy had no more intention of leading an Irish Brigade to Spain that he had of taking a flight to the moon. In fact he was planning a holiday in the Netherlands.

Death Struggle

He read the letter which began:

‘My country is in the throes of a death struggle, trying to free itself from the horrible and vile Marxist rule and the ghastly influence of Soviet Russia….If we lose, God help us. Our poor, already suffering country will be utterly degraded, and reduced to a loathsome dependency on Soviet Russia with an anti-Christ government.’

The letter went on:- ‘Do you think it might be possible to raise in Ireland a voluntary force to come to aid us – purely to come to aid us – purely voluntary so as to avoid all possibility of international complications? What a glorious example Ireland could give to the whole of Christendom?

A plea

‘We Carlists have up to now placed in the field 30,000 well armed men, and we hope to raise as many more. If your brave, noble Irish could come to our help they should be placed in the Carlist command. In any case, please, I beg of you to pardon the liberty I am taking in addressing you on behalf of my country.’ Eoin O’Duffy was not the man to ignore such a plea for succour.

For the next installment of this history of the Bandera go here ....

Other Bandera material here ...