Claremen in the Spanish Civil War

By Peadar McNamara, Kilmaley parish magazine, [1997]

Thanks to Peadar for his permission to add this article. It appeared in a local parish magazine in County Clare. It gives a small amount of information on one local volunteer, Michael Russell, and gives a good short overview of the SCW itself. An updated version of the article will also be available soon. CC, 8th January 2007.

Updated 1st March 2007 - the additional notes and references to Moroney

In February 1937, Michael Russell of Clare died in action at the Battle of Jarama, one of the bloodiest battles of the Spanish Civil War. Russell was a volunteer in the International Brigade which fought to support the democratically elected Republican Government. In all 133 Irish volunteers fought on the Republican side and of those 63 were to die. The volunteers came from all counties, but some had been living abroad when they joined up, so while it is possible that others from Clare defended the Republic, there are no definite records to suggest any others. [Two other local volunteers did serve, William O'Donnell arrived in Spain on 16th March 1937. A 22 year old with an address given as 4 Newtown, Killaloe, County Clare, a shoemaker. Brendan Moroney, originally from Ennis, travlled to Spain form London. CC] There was also an Irish-America section in the American Lincoln Battalion which may have had Irish-born among their ranks.

At Jarama thousands died with Russell and other Irish volunteers, who included the Rev. R M Hilliard, a Church of Ireland pastor, from Kerry, Eamon McGrotty (Derry), Hugh Bonar (Donegal), Maurice Quinlan (Waterford), Charlie Donnelly, a poet from Derry [Coalisland, CC] and from Belfast, Dick O'Neill, Bill Henry, Danny Boyle and Liam Tumilson ended their lives on the battlefield. Nine other Irish fell also whose names are unrecorded.[see below, cc]

On the insurgent or Nationalist side, some 700 volunteers went to fight in Spain 'for God and Spain'. This unit suffered six deaths in action and four died due to conditions in the trenches and the unaccustomed diet. The motive of this Bandera was to fight against communism and while the whole venture was ill-starred, many felt that they had done their duty in the battle against international communism.

Causes of the War

Prior to the outbreak of the war the country had, for a period, been ruled by a military Government which was replaced by a coalition of socialists, communists, anarchists and regional political parties. The new Government began to effect social reforms such as land redistribution, which was opposed by the landowners. In the Republican area, anti-Church feeling ran high with attacks on clergy and Church property. The military commanders felt that the country was falling into chaos. Spanish fascists wished to put the country under firm control and both Republicans and Nationalists were given to acts of terrorism and political assassination. The wealthy industrialists also felt threatened by the socialist programmes of the Popular Unity government. In general the changes proposed were resisted by entrenched ruling interests and fascism, which sought to establish order and stability with each class - workers, farmers and industrial interests accepting their defined roles - while the Republicans sought to control all wealth and distribute it equally.

While lines of division were clearly drawn, some leaders and ideals were acceptable to opposing factions. In the beginning much of the Fascist programme covered similar grounds to that of the socialist parties.

The Conduct of the War

Initially, the generals under Franco's leadership revolted in July 1936. While they enjoyed some successes, their popularity was low. The main body of insurgent troops were in Morocco and the Spanish Navy, which remained loyal, prevented their going to Spain, Hitler and Mussolini provided air transport, which just about paid any hope of a quick crushing of the revolt. While many countries argue about non-intervention pacts, the insurgents benefited much more by supplies from abroad - Germany and Italy being the chief suppliers of both materials and men. The insurgents also had large contingents of Moroccan troops fighting by their side, while on the Republican side supplies mainly came from Russia, but in much lesser quantities. Towards the war's end on 1st April 1939, France, sensing the threat of Germany, opened supply routes to the embattled Republican enclave, but this had come too late. The casualty rate was very high and aerial bombing of civilian areas was used for the first time. At Guernica 1,600 civilians were killed by German bombs. In 1967 a young priest from Navarre was charged with 'calumny' for writing about the event. In all some 1,000,000 it is claimed died in the fighting and only the passing of Franco has made it possible for Spain to recover from terrible carnage of the Civil War.

The Irish Attitude

Officially, the government of Eamon de Valera maintained a neutral stance and prevented Eoin O'Duffy from sending larger numbers of volunteers to Spain. The government and most of the people identified with the Nationalists in their claim of defending the Catholic Church. Many clerics and lay dignitaries campaigned through the Irish Christian Front for support for Franco. On the other hand the small numbers of communists, socialists, liberals and Republicans identified with the Spanish Republic. At a Labour Party conference of the period a young Conor Cruise O'Brien was howled at by delegates when seeking to pass a resolution supporting the Republican government and only the intervention of William Norton enabled him to continue his resolution. Father O'Flanagan, the President of Sinn Fein, who had long identified with the men of no property, campaigned against the O'Duffy crusade. He said "The Spaniards did not send any people to join the Black and Tans here and they did not make any collections in their churches to help the Black and Tans in Ireland." He also said "The fight in Spain is a fight between the rich, privileged class as against eh rank and file of the poor oppressed people of Spain. The cause of Spain was nearer to us that was realised. The Foreign Legion and Moorish troops were to Spain what the Black and Tans were to Ireland."

Father Ramon Laborda, a Basque priest addressing a meeting in Dublin stated "When I read that the Catholics of Ireland were offering men and money to Fascist Franco, the personification of the most brutal imperialism, I exclaimed indignantly, it is impossible! Ireland could not do that unless she had been miserably deceived".

The Republican Supporters

While this group were branded as communist, not all of them could be described as such. Some were militant Republicans, perhaps motivated by a need for action. In the main all felt that the Spanish Republic should be preserved since they subscribed to its democratic and progressive outlook. One veteran spoke of the many casualties inflicted on their own side during infantry night fighting. Many were disheartened and saddened by the communist actions in Spain which aimed to dominate the assorted armies of trade unions, regional and other socialist political parties.

The Nationalist Supporters

Of those who went to Spain, some went to defend the Church, others for adventure and some, sadly, for what they could gain. Their experiences were equally sad. Some claimed they were political pawns in the service of O'Duffy's political ambitions. The brother of Capt. Tom Hyde of Cork, who was one of the two volunteers killed by mistake by another detachment of foreign volunteers, was approached to stand in the general election of 1937, but refused to do so. Some claimed that O'Duffy planned to lead home an honour laden detachment of hero candidates.

The Irish Brigade did not see much action and their leaders did not wish to create ill-feeling at home by leading them into bloody engagements which would have resulted in high casualty figures. The Spanish High Command endeavoured to have the unit split up and sent to different fronts, but O'Duffy was not agreeable to this since it would have left him as a commander without a command.

One Ennis veteran joined the German Condor Legion, but the Germans had to seek the permission from O'Duffy, who refused and had the man imprisoned. He had a narrow escape shortly afterwards when he was mistakenly taken out to be shot. But luckily, somebody cleared up the misunderstanding. The man in question joined the German unit because of its efficiency along with an ex-member of the Irish Guards Regiment. Both felt that the average 40% casualty rate would be much reduced in the German Unit.

It is reliably reported that O'Duffy's secretary stated that 8,000 Irishmen in Ireland and Britain had volunteered for duty in Spain. The proposed plan was that these battle experienced veterans would be an invasion force to attack Britain in the forthcoming World War 2. However, some feel that this claim is without substance, given the small number who went to attempted to go to Spain.

The Lessons

One commentary at the time wrote: "The Spanish Civil War would at least have served some useful purpose if it enabled us to get rid of some of our wild men of both varieties." Whether about the accuracy of that comment, both groups of men volunteers to fight and die, as some did, for their ideals, and deserve acknowledgement of their courage and dedication. However, when one looks at the carnage and the futility of the whole affair, one wonders at the uselessness of violence and the hopes of creating new orders. The communists and the fascists both have inflicted tremendous brutalities on their opponents. Stalin, the Ogre of the Kremlin, was the Champion of the Republic. Hitler, the Mass Murderer, and Mussolini were the friends of Franco along with the Spanish Hierarchy of the day.

Now, with Franco dead, democracy is restored to Spain with similar political divisions that existed before the Civil War.

Spain recently honoured the members of the International Brigade, both left and right joined in tribute. Democracy has been restored and peace prevails. Michael Russell's sacrifice was not in vain.

Michael Russell: Spanish Civil War casualty

Michael Russell worked as a labourer on the farm of J B Lynch in Lisroe during the 1930's. He was a native of Old Mill Street in Ennis. Old Mill Street stretched from the roundabout at Hermitage to the Lahinch Road. The street consisted of rows of small thatched cottages which were the typical dwellings of the poor.

The construction of the water scheme at Gortnaganniv offered an opportunity of local employment in the 1930's. Michael Russell walked the six miles from Lisroe to Gortnaganniv to seek work on hot August days. Local labourers pelted him with stones and shouted abuse at him, to the effect that no Ennis man would get work before Kilmaley men.

Sometime later he went to England to seek employment. He later enrolled in the International Brigade which was formed to fight the Fascist insurgents who rebelled against the democratically elected Government in Spain. J B Lynch's father recalled that he was 'a likely recruit for an army'. 19th Century British officers had warmly welcomed the poor of Munster towns to see as colonial garrisons.

Peadar McNamara

[Note by CC - Russell went on to go from England to America as it was from there that he travelled to Spain in January 1937.].

Jarama deaths

Notes by CC: Additional research since 1997 has clarified some of the dates these Irish soldiers died. 15 Irish died at Jarama, 7 correctly listed by Peadar (Russell, Hilliard, McGrotty, Quinlan, Donnelly, O'Neill and Henry) and these additional men. John Campbell (Belfast), Christopher (Kit) Conway (Tipperary), Patrick Curley (Galway), Andrew Doran (Louth), James Leo Green (Dublin), Eddie Jackman (Liverpool), Paddy McDaid and Thomas T O'Brien (Liverpool.)

Hugh Bonner survived Jarama to die in April 1937; Danny Boyle died in Sept. 1938 and Tumilson in March 1937.

Brendan Moroney

This war has thrown up some strange characters, none more so that Brendan Moroney. The best that can be said for him is that he spent a lot of time in jail in Spain, for various reasons. After Spain he put his name to a very hostile article in a magazine, Hibernia, attacking the International Brigades, etc. In later years he wrote a series of letters to the Irish Post defending the Brigades and creating the impression that he played a full role in the war, I must leave the readers to make their own judgements on this volunteer.