Spanish Inferno - O’Duffy the organiser

Sunday Independent, 22nd May 1960

He came out of retirement to lead a crusade. An epic of our time.

General O’Duffy laid down the letter, inviting him to lead an Irish Brigade to the assistance of Spain, and then briefly acknowledged its receipt in a letter which he posted that day. For him it was a difficult decision, He wanted time to think, and he did think if that appeal from an unknown Spaniard who had unconsciously struck a note of memory in the mind of the Irishman.

It was an appeal that echoed down the corridors of the centuries. It was made to a man who had proved himself to be an organiser of brilliant talents but who, also, was sympathetic to that mysterious impulse of a message from the pages of history.


He was a man who came upon the Irish political scene with the flashing speed of a meteorite, a man of boundless energy and administrative ability, a man who just had to be in leadership for he had all the indefinable qualities that made for dynamism in leading others.

At the time the letter arrived from London he was in his mid forties and at the peak of a career of intense activity. Born in Laragh, near Castleblaney, he was the son of a farmer.

The pattern of his early life is familiar. In fact, it is the pattern of life of many men who dominated Irish affairs – military and political – in the time when Ireland was about to make and did make another tremendous effort for full freedom.

He joined the Gaelic Athletic Association, that nursery of nationalism, when he was 17. Administration, cool, efficient, painstaking was part of his nature. Soon he became Secretary of the Ulster council of the GAA and soon he sat on the Central Council of the organisation, a seat which he was to hold for almost twenty years.


An engineer by profession, he became deputy County Engineer in Monaghan and later Engineer to Clones Rural District Council. It was then a rather humdrum career with nothing to mark him out from his fellow workers in local government save his seemingly endless energy.

That boundless activity found an outlet when he met Michael Collins and when he began an association with the Volunteer movement which ended only with the death of Collins.


General O’Duffy became one of the most active figures in the Volunteers – he became Director of Organisation for the Volunteer army and ultimately Deputy Chief of Staff, a position he retained until the Truce with Britain in July, 1921. Twice during this time he was elected a deputy of the Dail.

His work had been done in the shadowy background into which the leaders of the independence movement had to shrink. It was not until he became liaison officer for the Ulster counties and for Co. Louth that he first became popularly known.


He had his headquarters in St. Mary’s Hall, Belfast, and while the rest of the country was peaceful the pogroms in all their blind hatred began in Belfast. There in that city of divided loyalties he had a difficult task, but he emerged as a man with a reputation for keeping a cool head when most of those around him were losing theirs.

After the Treaty, he was appointed Chief-of –Staff of the Army of the Irish Free State, succeeding General Mulcahy, who had been appointed Minister for Defence in the Provisional Government.


This time – in 1922 – it was the turn of Ireland to undergo the terrible experience of a civil war and General O’Duffy was appointed General Officer Commanding South-Western Command. He led the army of the free State in much of the fighting that took place in the South.

Towards the end of the year there came an offer which was to have consequences which even he did not foresee. He was offered by Kevin O’Higgins the post of Chief Commissioner of the Civic Guards with the task of developing the new police force. He accepted.

What the Garda Siochana of those days, and the Garda Siochana of today owe to that acceptance cannot be recorded in account book fashion. A man who breathes a tradition, who instils espirit de corps, who creates an organisation out of nothing and gives it an entity and a pride which survives long after he himself is dead is worthy of honour.

And for the work which he did in forming the first really Irish police force, General O’Duffy deserves to be remembered.


This is what General O’Duffy did. The men who first joined the Garda Siochana had no uniforms. They manned police stations in civilian clothes with cloth caps and an armband.

By the long-sighted vision of the man who was their Commissioner, they were unarmed in a country where there was a Mauser or Lee Enfield rifle, a Webly or a Luger automatic under the thatch of most houses. General O’Duffy – single-handed – created the police force we know today.


In 1933 there came a sensation as newspaper headlines blazened the news that general O’Duffy had been removed from his post as police Commissioner by the Fianna Fail Government. No reason was given. An offer of alternative employment was refused by him. That seemed to be the end of his public career.

But those who knew Gen. O’Duffy intimately suspected that the reservoir of energy which the man from Monaghan still possessed would find a fresh outlet. They were right. It did.


In the same year, he resigned his Presidency of the National Athletic and Cycling Association, an organisation he had led form heavy debt to solvency. His resignation came five days after he had been elected Director of the National Guard.

This body had grown out of the Army Comrades’ Association, a movement formed with the object of ensuring free speech for those opposing the Government. It was the harbinger of a stormy period in Irish political life.


Despite opposition, often resulting in physical conflict, Gen. O’Duffy’s movement grew. The National Guard was outlawed by Dail decree and the wearing of blue shirts by its members was banned. In the meantime, the Cumann na nGaedheal party had joined with the Centre Party to become Fine Gael and Gen. O’Duffy was elected President of the new organisation.


It was inevitable that efforts should be made to find a way around the political ban on the National Guard. A way was found – simply by changing its name. It became the League of Youth. Meetings became more stormy. Tension mounted throughout the country.

In one of the wildest political meetings ever held in Irish history at Westport, Gen. O’Duffy was arrested – ironically by the Garda Siochana, the force he had founded and led for so many years.

The Split

A writ of habeas corpus was obtained and it was held that his arrest was not legal. In 1935 General O’Duffy broke finally with the world of politics. Differences arose between himself and Mr W T Cosgrave, and other leaders of Fine Gael. General O’Duffy resigned from the Presidency of Fine Gael. The League of Youth was split.

Some of the members followed General O’Duffy. Others followed Commandant Edward J Cronin, who was elected Director–General by the Fine Gael supporters. With the disruption came the end of the League of Youth.


Within a year, General O’Duffy went into retirement. This, then, was the man who had heard the call of the Spanish patriot who pleaded for help of a nation undergoing martyrdom.

General O’Duffy was not the kind of man to hesitate in making up his mind. True, he did ask some friends what they thought of the project of forming an Irish Brigade to fight on the side of General Franco in Spain. He got scant encouragement. They told him that he would be setting himself an impossible task.

But he himself was no so unsure that it would be impossible. And so he wrote a letter to the newspapers suggesting the formation of an Irish Brigade. Having done that he went on holiday to The Hague.

When returned he saw a heap of letters from young men all over Ireland and from Irishmen in Britain and in other countries offering their services in a voluntary Brigade.


This was only the beginning. Hundreds of young men sought to meet him personally to offer their services. The letters grew in volume until they reached hundreds a day. They came from men of all classes – labourers, teachers, tradesmen, craftsmen, soldiers, civic guards.

Nothing could now stop the formation of the Irish Brigade. So it was that General O’Duffy communicated with General Franco’s headquarters and received in return a request to travel to Spain to meet General Franco himself.


General O’Duffy flew to Spain and the result of this conference at general headquarters was brief – ‘General Franco gladly accepts Ireland’s offer of a voluntary brigade.’

Back in Dublin, General O’Duffy found that the letters were still poring in. Six thousand of them had to be acknowledged and a form of application sent to each volunteer.

It was agreed at the conference n Spain that the Brigade would be officered by Irishmen.

Privates all

Each man who volunteered was told that he did so at his own risk. If he was killed his dependents could not be provided for. If he were wounded and incapacitated from taking up work in civil life he would receive no pension – no help save medical treatment in a Spanish military hospital. Neither would previous rank count. If a volunteer had been a commandant or captain in any army, Irish or British, he would join as a private in the Irish Brigade.


The terms were explicit and no volunteer left Ireland without the knowledge that he was, in fact, a volunteer doing what he could to aid Spain in her hour of agony. In Dublin, in Cork and in a few other centres volunteers who were selected were medically examined. After acceptance they were told to hold themselves in readiness to travel on short notice.

But the troubles of the Irish Brigade were not over with medical examination and final acceptance. The Brigade had still to be transferred to Spain. And in getting the 15th Bandera of the Spanish Legion to Spain, General O’Duffy performed a miracle of improvisation and organisation. The difficulties would have dismayed a lesser man.

In the case of General O’Duffy they only seemed to increase his iron determination that Irishmen would fight by the side of Franco’s troops. How he achieved that object is one of the most remarkable features of his self-imposed task.


Behind a flag of emerald green with the emblem of an Irish wolfhound in saffron marched the Irishmen of the 15th Bandera who fought with General Franco’s troops. They were permitted to wear the Irish harp emblem on each lapel of their tunic.

The fact that they were able to get to Spain at all was a tribute to the organising genius of General O’Duffy who led them. There were few ships sailing for Spain from British ports and none at all from Ireland.

When it seemed that transport could not be found and that the volunteers would have to be told that their services could not be availed of, there came news from London the Spanish ship Domino with accommodation for a thousand men would be sent to an Irish port.


That post was Passage East, a few miles from Waterford. Its name was never mentioned save in code. It was arranged that the Domino would berth at Passage East on Friday October 16, 1936. The hour was fixed at 2 a.m.

The Government in Dublin did not wish to see the Brigade leave Ireland. Throughout the war in Spain the Irish government maintained an attitude of non-intervention, and, in fact did everything to prevent young Irishmen from joining Franco’s side in the conflict.

For that reason every move General O’Duffy made had to be shrouded in the closest secrecy. This was the task he had to undertake.


Throughout the country there were groups of men waiting for him to name the day and the place. They could not be informed until the last moment. Key men were appointed in each area and to them General O’Duffy arranged that he would send a message when transport had been arranged.

Everything was ready to receive the Domino when she called at Passage East. Secretly a pilot was engaged and in secrecy motorboats were charted to bring the volunteers from shore to ship.


A few days before October 16 General O’Duffy sent the eagerly expected message to his key-men – the Domino would sail and he gave instructions how each group should proceed to Passage East. Men carrying ash-plants in their right hands would be on the line of the route of some of the groups at Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir and Waterford to give guidance.

The groups were to arrive at one o’clock in the morning, not before or after. Key-men were to ensure that cars would make no stops at towns during their journey, and when passing through towns absolute silence would have to be maintained. Under no circumstances was the port of departure to be revealed until the groups had begun their journey.

General O’Duffy felt that at last everything was in readiness. He was wrong.

Next Section: Disappointment.