Mutiny or sabotage?

The Irish defection to the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (1)

Emmet O’Connor

‘Comrades, we are being blackguarded’, Kit Conway.(2)

By 31 January 1937, over 100 men had left Ireland to join the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. (3) Other Irishmen had gone to Spain from homes outside Ireland. Some were communists; more, like the man that most regarded as their leader, Frank Ryan, were leftwing republicans. Ryan intended that they would be the nucleus of a distinct Irish unit in the war, and meanwhile form part of the 16th (British) Battalion, XV International Brigade. On 12 January 1937, the Irish voted not to serve with the British, and most went over to the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion. As the International Brigades were supposed to be the embodiment of proletarian internationalism, steeled by Bolshevik discipline, the incident generated derision, bemusement, and embarrassment.

Commissars of the British battalion blamed it on Irish fecklessness and truculence. Ryan accused the commissars in turn of instigating the vote in order to divide his troops and sabotage his plans for an Irish unit. Was he right, or was he blaming the British for the immaturity of his men? Born in 1902, Ryan had been active in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) since the War of Independence and emerged as a leading socialist republican in the late 1920s. His courage and commitment in Spain earned him widespread respect in the XV Brigade. Nonetheless, there has been little support for his critique of the ‘mutiny’. Historians of the British battalion have rationalized the trouble as a by-product of Irish anglophobia.(4) One might expect the Irish to take a different view of it. Over the past thirty years they have shown a lively interest in the Connolly Column – the name which has become a blanket term for all Irish who fought for the Spanish Republic – and Ryan has become a folk hero on the left, hailed in songs by the likes of Christy Moore and The Pogues. Yet Irish veterans of Spain and their memorialists have treated the ‘mutiny’ as an embarrassment. Connolly Column, an official history from the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) noted simply that the Irish ‘were divided between [the Lincoln] and the British Battalion’.(5) Academics have been more forthcoming, but sceptical or tentative on Ryan’s allegations. In three biographies of Ryan and two academic studies of Ireland and the Spanish Civil War, Stradling – who is concerned to debunk what he regards as the hagiography of the Connolly Column – goes furthest in saying that ‘his interpretation must be considered seriously’(6). Before doing just that, it is worth considering two factors which had a bearing on events: Irish exceptionalism, and British communist suspicion of Irish republicanism.

Irish exceptionalism

The Irish were exceptional, though not, of course, exceptional in their exceptionalism. The average International Brigader regarded himself as fighting for the future of his own country as much as for Spain. The Irish were no different in that regard, but by the same token they had their particular perspectives. Lyons overstated the case in 1971 in writing of ex-Blueshirts and ex-IRA men reprising the Irish Civil War in ‘the will-o’-the wisp of the Spanish Civil War…that had nothing to do with any of them’(7). Recent researchers have been more impressed with how European Irish mentalities were in the 1930s(8). For all that, Ireland was unique in the level of its support for Franco, and in that the majority of those who set out from Ireland to join the International Brigades were not communists.

Between July 1936 and the summer of 1937 there was no escaping the Spanish question in Ireland. It is possible that per capita the Irish accounted for more volunteers in Spain than any other nation. While most fought for Franco, and almost half of those on the other side were emigrés, the Irish contribution to the International Brigades was remarkable for a country with a communist party of about 150 members, confined organizationally to Dublin and Belfast (9). The explanation lies in the way Spain impacted on two forces in Irish society and politics, Catholicism and republicanism. Inflamed by lurid accounts of anti-clerical atrocities, crowds of up to 50,000 thronged the rallies of the Irish Christian Front, formed in August 1936 to support Franco and combat communism. The Irish Catholic hierarchy raised £43,000 in church gate collections for Spanish Catholics, and backed the creation of an ‘Irish Brigade’ to fight what it represented as a religious crusade. The brigade was commanded by General Eoin O’Duffy, chief of police from 1922 to 1933, then leader of Ireland’s ‘shirted’ movement, the Blueshirts, and for a time the president of the main opposition party, Fine Gael. About 680 strong, with its own pipe band, it attracted widespread curiosity as the only unit of foreign volunteers in Franco’s army other than a scattering of individuals and the state-sponsored auxiliaries from Germany, Italy, and Portugal. Such was the intensity of anti-communist feeling, that Labour declined to take a stand on the war. After doing its best to avoid the issue, the Labour Party published an evasive pamphlet, Cemeteries of Liberty: Communist and Fascist Dictatorships (1937), written by party leader William Norton. Skirting both Spanish and Irish politics, Norton treated fascism as Nazism, and equated Nazism with Stalinism. Labour, as Norton would have it, was anti-fascist and anti-communist equally, but not pro-or anti-Franco. The Irish Trade Union Congress took a similar stance (10).

The twin pillars of opposition to Franco in the Irish Free State were the CPI and the Republican Congress. Alliance with republicans had been a strategic aim of the Communist International, or Comintern, the controlling body of all communist parties, in its Irish policy since 1920, and republicans had been providing the cadres for communist fronts in Ireland since 1925. The Republican Congress was formed in April 1934, when leftists abandoned the IRA to launch a ‘congress of progressives’. The CPI affiliated to the Congress in September. Within weeks the Congress split over whether to continue as a ‘united front’ or become a political party. What remained of it was so close to the CPI, and vice versa, that both organizations could be said to have shared a mutual ‘communist republicanism’, which might be encapsulated as a belief in the politics of anti-imperialism at home, and the popular front internationally. It was fortuitous for Congress-CPI collaboration that the Comintern adopted the popular front strategy in 1935, when it commended affiliates to work with all anti-fascist forces. Little more than their conviction in the party and the Comintern separated the CPI from the Congress. Only in Northern Ireland, where Catholics constituted a beleaguered minority and the climate was more tolerant in relation to Spain, was it possible to find anti-Franco activism outside the ‘communist-republican’ rubric, in sections of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and the ginger-group within it, the Socialist Party.

Republicanism is particularly marked in the composition of the Connolly Column. The CPI decided to contribute to the International Brigades in September 1936, and leaders of the Republican Congress, notably Peadar O’Donnell and Ryan, were instrumental in the recruitment of what was intended to be a distinct Irish unit. O’Duffy’s brigade, raised with the encouragement of all that republicans regarded with hostility – Fine Gael, the Blueshirts, the Catholic hierarchy, and the Irish Independent newspaper – acted as a stimulus. O’Duffy himself was something of hate-figure for republicans, blamed for the massacre of IRA prisoners at Ballyseedy in 1923 and Garda harassment in his days as chief of police (11). And having been excommunicated in 1922 and 1931, the IRA was cynical about the theological integrity of clerical politics. In respect of those who left from Ireland, the table below almost certainly understates the proportion of volunteers with an IRA background, who are likely to account for the bulk of unknown affiliations(12). By contrast, it is possible to be reasonably accurate on the CPI members, and say that the communist percentage was low in comparison with other countries (13). Most republicans were in the batch that went to Spain with Ryan in December 1936. Communists dominated the subsequent trickle of recruits.

The origins and politics of the Connolly Column

Residence before Spain Total Known affiliation Communist (with a previous republican affiliation) Other republicans Labour/ socialist (with a previous republican affiliation) Non Party
Ireland 142 57 31 (13) 26 7 (1) 3
London 32 24 13 (7) 8 1 2
Canada 27 20 20 (3) - - -
USA 19 5 4 (1) - 1 -
Elsewhere 32 13 7 (4) 4 2 -
Total 252 119 75 (28) 28 11 (1) 5


Various lists of the Connolly Column have been compiled on the basis of snippets gleaned from a range of sources, and it is impossible to be exact on figures. All lists include all those born in Ireland as, while many of the expatriates were politicized abroad, others were the product of Irish politics, and some, notably those in the London Republican Congress, were still engaged with Ireland. This table does not include second generation exiles or the ‘honorary Irish’, foreigners who associated with the Irish in Spain.

The total of 243 includes five who served with the POUM, the CNT, or the Madrid militia, five who served in medical units, and one driver on a supply convoy. The others were International Brigaders. ‘Communist’ refers to membership of any communist party before Spain. ‘Previous republican affiliation’ means former membership of the Citizen Army, IRA, or Republican Congress. ‘Labour/socialist’ includes an anarchist and members of the Irish and Northern Ireland Labour Parties, the Socialist Party, the (British) Independent Labour Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World. ‘Non-party’ includes volunteers designated as such or known to be of no political affiliation.

(Sources: RGASPI, Moscow, International Brigades in the Spanish Republican Army, 545/6/-; Marx Memorial Library, London, International Brigades Memorial Archive; newspapers, especially the Irish Democrat; O’Riordan, Connolly Column; and

The Irish were unusual too in their policy on recruitment. O’Donnell said he wanted just enough men to make a credible counterpoint to O’Duffy. His claim that hundreds had offered to fight but ‘he selected only 145’ was echoed by Ryan (14). ‘Hundreds’ may have been an exaggeration, but divers persons attest that O’Donnell, Ryan, and the CPI dissuaded them from going to Spain, and the essential point is that the Irish sought to balance commitment to Spain with conserving their forces at home, whereas communists elsewhere aimed to maximize recruitment for the International Brigades(15). Tacitly accepting special treatment for the Irish, Ryan was allowed to repatriate those he deemed to have done a reasonable tour of duty.

British suspicion

One reason for the scepticism about Ryan’s allegations of sabotage is that while historians are familiar with Irish exceptionalism, they are less conversant with Irish communist history, and the chronic suspicion of Irish republicanism in the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Committed to the survival of Ireland’s fledgling communist parties – there were several, sequentially – the Comintern concluded that collusion with republicans was an operational necessity for its Irish sections. The CPGB on the other hand, to which the Comintern delegated a ‘fostering’ role over the Irish parties, was rarely sanguine about the prospects for a Leninist party in Ireland, and reckoned that Irish comrades would be better off forming a communist fraction within a trade union based workers’ party. More generally, and despite its formal anti-imperialism, the CPGB felt uneasy about Irish nationalism. Arguably, the British left had an endemic problem about nationalism per se: English nationalism being associated with the Conservatives and imperialism; and Scottish and Welsh nationalism being seen as eccentric threats to the unity of the British working class. Conversely, in the mid 1930s the CPGB decided to combat its unpatriotic image by identifying with English history, which did nothing to improve its empathy with the Irish. One Irishman who joined the party at this time recalled:

Many an argument [we] had with [the branch secretary] over Cromwell, especially when we saw his banner carried in a progressive demonstration depicting the various stages of the struggle in the English revolution. Cromwell was certainly no progressive when it came to Ireland(16).

Friction between the Irish and British on the national question occasionally led to appeals to Moscow. In 1925 the British refused to accept an agreement between Irish communists and the Comintern entailing communist support for the withdrawal of British trade unions from Ireland. In 1932 the Comintern directed the CPGB’s Daily Worker to be less critical of Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government, and save its venom for British imperialism. British and Irish communists clashed again in 1933 on whether de Valera or imperialism should be regarded as ‘the main enemy’(17).

As communist-republican co-operation intensified in the 1930s, the CPGB was concerned that the former would end up joining the latter, rather than vice versa.

In a letter to the CPI on 19 September 1934, the CPGB described the upcoming inaugural conference of the Republican Congress as ‘a most dangerous situation’, and sent a senior comrade, Willie Gallacher, to Dublin to ensure that the CPI did all it could to prevent the Congress from being transformed from a ‘united front’ into a rival political party(18). With the split in the Congress, the threat abated, but personal tensions remained. In 1935, the general secretary of the CPGB, Harry Pollitt, secured the cancellation of a proposed visit to Soviet Russia by O’Donnell. Pollitt also had his differences with Seán Murray, his counterpart in the CPI, an old IRA man, and a close friend of O’Donnell. In July 1938, in Murray’s presence, Pollitt told the CPGB’s central committee that the CPI’s position was ‘absolutely catastrophic’ and regretted that it could not be liquidated. The outbreak of the world war disrupted communication between Ireland and Moscow, leaving the CPI at the mercy of the British, who finally had the party wound up in neutral Ireland following the Nazi invasion of Russia(19).

It is highly unlikely that the communists who controlled the British battalion in Spain would have been amenable to the creation of a unit under the command of Irish republicans. Despite his IRA experience in a milieu where there was ‘a real shortage of officers’, and much to his disappointment, Ryan was not given a field command(20). Neither would the CPGB have wanted heroics in Spain to redound to the glory of the Republican Congress at the expense of the CPI. Peter Kerrigan, commissar of English speaking volunteers at the International Brigades training base at Albacete, was conscious of the value of Spain to politics at home(21). On 4 January 1937 he urged Pollitt to press their common preference for the creation of an ‘English battalion’ – oddly, for a Scot, he used ‘English’ rather than ‘British’ – and said he would oppose the despatch of more troops to the front lest it reduce his men below battalion strength. He also called for more Welshmen, ‘as apart from Scotland and London only Liverpool and the Irish are really showing any great recruitment for the Brigade’(22). André Marty, chief commissar at Albacete, would also have been aware of the ramifications of Spain for Irish politics. Marty had been seconded to Spain from Moscow, where he headed the Comintern secretariat which monitored anglophone parties, including the CPI(23). At the same time, the presence of Irish republicans in Spain complimented the Comintern’s policy of projecting the war as a struggle against fascism rather than for communism. As a prominent non-communist, Ryan was treated as a prized asset. Assigned to high profile liaison and propaganda work, he was soon a legend in the International Brigades, though many volunteers were not sure why.

Joining the Lincolns

The bulk of Ryan’s men trickled in to Albacete in December 1936. On Christmas Eve, forty-five were rushed to the front as part of the 100 strong No.1 company, Marseillaise battalion, XIV International Brigade. Ryan was assured that they would be allowed to form a distinct section within the company. Meanwhile, the remaining Irish at Albacete were forwarded to nearby village of Madrigueras, where the British battalion was being assembled(24). Ryan issued a statement to his compatriots on New Year’s day, which is worth quoting at length.

A chairde [My friends],

As most of you will have read in the newspapers before leaving home, an Irish unit of the International Brigades is being formed. It may be necessary to make clear to some why all Irish comrades are not just now together. The fact is that the military situation does not allow the war to be held up so that all Irishmen can be collected and formed into a unit. At the earliest opportunity that will be done. The unit now at the front, the unit now in training, and the other comrades now on their way to us will be united in one unit.

This unit will be part of the English speaking battalion which is to be formed. Irish, English, Scots and Welsh comrades will fight, side by side, against the common enemy – Fascism. It must also be made clear that in the International Brigades in which we serve, there are no national differences. We are all comrades. We have come here as soldiers of liberty to demonstrate Republican Ireland’s solidarity with the gallant Spanish workers and peasants… [A]t the first available opportunity I will, in co-operation with the officers of the English speaking battalion, re-unite all groups in a distinctive Irish unit. Until then, I ask every man to play his part as a disciplined and eager soldier....(25).

On 3 January, or soon after, Ryan was given work to do in Madrid(26). On 12 January, in Ryan’s absence, all Irish volunteers at Madrigueras were summoned to a meeting, and asked if they wished to transfer to the Americans, who had begun to arrive at Villanueva de la Jara, twelve kilometres away, in the second week of January(27). According to Peter O’Connor, who was present:

About forty five comrades attended and decided, by a majority of five, to join the Lincoln Battalion.

The main reason given by those who voted to join the Americans was the wrongs done to Ireland by the English in the past. They claimed that though they were anti-fascist, they still looked on the English as the enemy. Those of us who were not only class conscious but politically conscious as well [sic: he meant not only politically conscious but class conscious as well]…pleaded passionately for a distinction to be made between anti-fascist or working class comrades from England and British imperialism. British imperialism and international capitalism, we pointed out, was the enemy of both the Irish and British working class. Here was a golden opportunity to show we had something in common with our British comrades.....(28).

Both Dave Springhall, acting political commissar of the battalion, and Kerrigan, attributed the decision to ‘bad elements’. Springhall reported to Pollitt on 19 January:

Re Irish. In accord with the wishes of the Brigade HQ [Head Quarters] in dealing with national groups, we [illegible] to the Irish Section in our Battalion (not the lot that came out with Ryan) they were given the opportunity to discuss whether they would prefer to go with the American Battalion or stay with us. All the Cds [comrades] who had any connection with IRA or IRC [Republican Congress] or TU [trade union] movement elected to stay with us but they were in a minority of 11 against 23. They have now gone today to the Americans and we are frankly glad. We know that it can be bad politically both in Ireland and England but they were an awful lot of [illegible] Irish exiles from Edgeware Rd [London], petty criminals – hooligan types. So all had to go and again I will say we are glad – and knowing the Americans I am sorry for the Irish(29).

Kerrigan wrote to Pollitt in a similar vein on 24 January, blaming the vote – which he put as 26-11 – on ‘bad elements’, and ‘very many non [Communist] Party people’(30) . The unpublished official history of the British battalion, deposited in the Comintern archive in Moscow, was more negative still. Noting several problems with drunks and lumpen elements, it concluded that many of the British comrades were glad to see the Irish go(31).

The accounts by O’Connor, and Springhall/Kerrigan, are the only descriptions of the split which are both first hand and original. The first published CPGB history, Britons in Spain (1939) avoided the controversy altogether, and noted simply that ‘The Irish divided themselves between the British and American Battalions’(32). The next CPGB history, British Volunteers for Liberty (1982), offered some politically tactful excuses for the Irish – ‘a number of Irish agitated to go to the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion…inevitable against the background of Irish oppression’ – before citing the damning indictments of Springhall/Kerrigan(33). Subsequent histories of the British and Lincoln battalions merely rationalize the conflicting evidence, surmising that the dispute was sparked by a combination of disciplinary problems tout court and a more politically driven anglophobia. Memoirs and recollections should not be discounted as a source of mentalities, but are a second set of false friends on the facts of the matter. Many are in contradiction, or patently inaccurate. Some British volunteers recalled tensions with the Irish, but accounts vary as to their importance. In Stradling’s summation, veterans who ‘had shuffled off political allegiance’ played them up for their narrative value, while the ‘ever-solids’ played them down(34). It is also likely that memories were coloured ex-post facto by the fall-out from the crisis.

Why the Irish voted to join the Lincolns is secondary. The key question is why the meeting on 12 January was called. There are three possible explanations. The first is that it was brought to a head by routine misconduct. However, in four reports to Pollitt between 4 and 10 January, the commissars made no reference to disciplinary problems with the Irish other than with two London-Irishmen: one had refused to obey an order, and the other was described as a drunk and an anti-semite(35). By contrast, trouble with the Scots was noted by Kerrigan on 4th, and Springhall complained on 19th: ‘Glasgow or at least Tounhead so called CP [Communist Party] members have been like a plague to me…Their reaction [to the Irish vote] was to simultaneously put in written requests to go to the Irish section!’(36). Crucially, Springhall sourced the 12 January meeting in ‘the wishes of the Brigade HQ in dealing with national groups’, and not in problems created by the Irish. Springhall’s account of the meeting is worth parsing for its disingenuousness. ‘In accord with the wishes of the Brigade HQ in dealing with national groups’: International Brigades policy was to avoid divisions along national lines and group volunteers by language merely as a matter of convenience. Why should there be a special position on the Irish? ‘[T]he Irish section in our Battalion (not the lot that came out with Ryan)’: here Springhall implies that only the men sent to the front on Christmas eve were Ryan’s. It is true that these were disproportionately from Ireland, and the others were more likely to have been resident in Britain before travelling to Spain, but all of the Irish looked on Ryan as their leader. Were the majority of Irish volunteers in Madrigueras apolitical hooligans with no communist, republican, or trade union background, a characterization never repeated in records of the British or Lincoln battalions? Why would the ‘criminal-hooligan types’ bother about the nationality issue, and all the republicans wish to stay with the British? And why did ‘all [have] to go’? Plausibly, Springhall seized on the trouble with the two London-Irishmen to play the old trick of depicting dissidents as criminal rather than political. The gratuitous insult to the Americans suggests he was a man under pressure.

The second explanation is that the Irish wanted to go, for nationalist reasons. O’Connor’s account has been cited as evidence, but it is evidence on the vote, not on why the meeting was called. O’Connor, a member of the Republican Congress, the CPGB, and a life-long admirer of Ryan, insisted that that there was no demand among the Irish for meeting. He himself was incensed that it had taken place at all, and made several enquiries to find out who was responsible. All he could elicit was that some believed it was Springhall, and others thought it was Kerrigan, an odd obfuscation in a command structure run on Bolshevik lines(37). The measure of Irish anglophobia was tested when it emerged that a company commander, George Nathan, had not only served in the Auxiliary Division during the War of Independence but had been active in Ryan’s native Limerick(38). Nathan was not a member of the communist party and was directed, probably by Marty, to explain himself to Ryan and his colleagues. He admitted that he had been an intelligence officer in the Auxiliaries, said that being a Jew he had become implacably anti-fascist, and that they were all on the same side now. The defence was accepted, and Nathan earned the respect of the Irish as a good man under fire(39). Ryan, at least, also believed that the British battalion commander, Wilfred Macartney, had been in the ‘Black and Tans’, another infamous counter-insurgency unit in the War of Independence, and raised no objections(40).

The third explanation is Ryan’s. On his return to Madrigueras, Ryan was outraged to find his men divided between two battalions. Writing in March from Paris, where his letter was not subject to International Brigades censorship, he had no doubt that he had been removed from the scene deliberately, and that ‘the representatives of the British CP wrecked the Irish unit’(41). Unfortunately, he did not say why, other than blaming Macartney and others for failing to appreciate his political strategy of keeping the Irish in the British battalion: ‘the English send out the worst officer-type. The leaders of the CP of Great Britain and the rank and file understand our (Irish) position. It just happened that we got the in-between crowd of the swelled-headed adventurer type…’(42). This sounds naïve, but the Comintern archives reveal that Ryan – and O’Donnell – were naïve in presuming the goodwill of the CPGB leaders towards the Republican Congress. Stradling suggests that Marty instigated the split, and McGarry speculates that Marty may have been paranoid about fifth columnists among volunteers from a strongly pro-Franco country(43). Springhall, of course, claimed to be acting for Brigade headquarters, and it is unlikely that he would have called the meeting without Marty’s approval. But there is no supporting evidence, while there are indications that Marty was mildly sympathetic to the Irish, and there is conclusive evidence that the Comintern was more favourable towards communist-republican collaboration in Ireland than the CPGB. On the reasons for the vote – not the meeting – Ryan had two explanations. First, his locum, Terry Flanagan, had been arrested as a political ‘suspect’, pending repatriation (44). In Ryan’s opinion, Macartney had ‘framed’ Flanagan to provoke the Irish. The arrest is certainly curious. Flanagan was a member of the CPI as well as an ex-IRA man, and Ryan got him released quickly. In April, Springhall refused a request from Flanagan to return home(45). Secondly, Ryan believed, the Irish were irritated by insensitive officers who treated them as ‘British’(46).

The Irish had left Madrigueras to join the Lincolns on 19 January, and it was too late for Ryan to do anything other than complain. He at least had the consolation of some backing from Marty. Kerrigan reported on 1 February:

The Irish trouble cropped up again yesterday. It was raised very sharply by one of no.1 coy [company] who have returned from the front. He accused the military and political leadership of the Bn [battalion] of being responsible for it and threatened to raise it in England and Ireland. He was supported by Ryan who was present and he demanded unity of all Irish no matter where they were. At the same time he declared they had been driven out of the Bn and talked of Chauvinism etc.

M (not Macartney) [Marty] who was present proposed a commission and it meets today to finally solve this problem. Springie [Springhall] will present the facts to the commission (47).

According to Ryan:

To the International Brigade authorities I pointed out that Ireland’s nearest enemy is British Imperialism…therefore Ireland’s nearest ally must be the British working class…the Irish and British must be side by side in the International Brigades. I was able to convict the British of having made a grave political error(48).

In February, Springhall was replaced as political commissar by George Aitken. Aitken, later wrote, in protest to the CPGB politburo about a critical estimation of his work in Spain:

I would remind Comrade Springhall that they do not hide removals in the Int[ernational] Brig[ade]s when they consider them necessary. They did not hide his own removal from the position of Political Commissar of the Brigade because of his grave political mistake in helping the Irish Section of the British Bn to transfer to the American Bn(49).

Ryan retained the confidence of the International Brigades, and was chosen to edit The Book of the XV Brigade: Records of British, American, Canadian, and Irish Volunteers in Spain, 1936-1938 (1938). He was captured by the Italians in March 1938, and later transferred to Germany. He died in Dresden in 1944.


Augmented by a few Irish-Americans, the Irish in the Lincoln battalion formed the James Connolly Centuria, and fought with the Americans from Jarama in February 1937 to Brunete in July. After Brunete, they were too few in number to sustain the Centuria and were returned to the British battalion. Meanwhile, the Irish seconded to the Marseillaise battalion at Christmas 1936 had stayed with the British, and were joined by all incoming Irish recruits. The nationality problem never surfaced again. There is no conclusive proof for Ryan’s view of the split, but the circumstantial evidence is strong, and it deserves greater credence than the self-serving slanders of the British commissars, the colourful recollections of veterans retailing hearsay, or the second-guessing of historians struggling to rationalize conflicting accounts.


1. I am obliged to Ciarán Crossey, Jim Carmody, Gerard Duddy, and Barry McLoughlin for help with this paper. None are responsible for the views expressed.

2 Conway’s response on being told that his commanding officer, George Nathan, had been a ‘Black and Tan’. On Nathan and the ‘Black and Tans’, see below. Quoted in Robert A. Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39: Crusades in Conflict (Manchester, 1999), p.242, footnote 28.

3 Ciarán Crossey, Belfast International Brigades Commemorative Committee, and editor of the most authoritative and comprehensive website on the topic,, estimates that fifty-four had left Ireland to join the International Brigades by 12 December 1936, and a further fifty-three arrived in Spain between 12 December and 31 January 1937.

4 Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty: Spain, 1936-1939 (London, 1982), pp.68-9; James K. Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire: The British Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (Stanford, 1998), pp.173-6; Richard Baxell, British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War: The British Battalion in the International Brigades, 1936-1939 (London, 2004), pp.63-4.

5 Michael O’Riordan, Connolly Column: The Story of the Irishmen Who Fought in the Ranks of the International Brigades in the National Revolutionary War of the Spanish People, 1936-1939 (Dublin, 1979), p.67; O’Riordan was CPI general secretary and a veteran of Spain. The same phrasing is used in the chapter on Ireland in I. Nesterenko (ed), International Solidarity with the Spanish Republic, 1936-1939 (Moscow, 1976), p.197.

6 Seán Cronin, Frank Ryan: The Search for the Republic (Dublin, 1980); Ferghal McGarry, Frank Ryan (Dublin, 2002); Adrian Hoar, In Green and in Red: The Lives of Frank Ryan (Dingle, 2004); Fearghal McGarry, Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War (Cork, 1999); Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, p.160.

7 F.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine (London, 1971), p.533.

8 McGarry, Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War, p.234

9 See Emmet O’Connor, Reds and the Green: Ireland, Russia, and the Communist Internationals, 1919-43 (Dublin, 2004).

10 McGarry, Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War, pp.182-90.

11 Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, p.132.

12 McGarry, Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War, p.58 estimates that half of recruits to the Connolly Column in Ireland had been in the post Civil War IRA.

13 Communists accounted for approximately 60% of French, 62% of British, and 70% of United States volunteers. Richard Baxell, British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War: The British Battalion in the International Brigades, 1936-1939 (London, 2004), pp.15, 23; Andy Durgan, ‘Freedom fighters or Comintern army? The International Brigades in Spain’, International Socialism, 84 (autumn, 1999).

14 Michael McInerney, Peadar O’Donnell, Irish Social Rebel (Dublin, 1974), p.179; McGarry, Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War, p.58.

15 O’Connor, Reds and the Green, p.281; Uinseann McEoin, The IRA in the Twilight Years, 1923-1948 (Dublin, 1997), p.769.

16 Peter O’Connor, A Soldier of Liberty: Recollections of a Socialist and Anti-Fascist Fighter (Dublin, 1996), pp.12-13.

17 O’Connor, Reds and the Green, pp.113-14, 178, 182.

18 On the CPGB and the conference see O’Connor, Reds and the Green, p.101-2.

19 O’Connor, Reds and the Green, passim.

20 The quote is in National Museum of Labour History, Manchester (NMLH), Kerrigan to Pollitt, 4 January 1937, CP/Ind/Poll/2/6. I am obliged to Barry McLoughlin for papers from the NMLH.

21 NMLH, Kerrigan ms, CP/Ind/Misc/18/06.

22 NMLH, Kerrigan to Pollitt, 4 January 1937, CP/Ind/Poll/2/6.

23 O’Connor, Reds and the Green, pp.209-37.

24 Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, p.150.

25 Quoted in O’Connor, A Soldier of Liberty, pp.16-17.

26 Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, p.160.

27 Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, p.155.

28 O’Connor, A Soldier of Liberty, pp.14-15.

29 Marx memorial Library, London (MML), International Brigades Archive (IBA), Box C, file 9/8, Springhall to Pollitt, 19 January 1937.

30 MML, IBA, Box C, special files, 9/11, Kerrigan to Pollitt, 24 January 1937.

31 Baxell, British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, p.62.

32 William Rust, Britons in Spain: A History of the British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade (Pontypool, 2003, first ed. 1939), p.37. Rust was then editor of the Daily Worker.

33 Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty, Spain 1936-1939 (London, 1982), pp.68-9. Alexander was a veteran of Spain and a former assistant secretary of the CPGB.

34 Stradling, The Irish in the Spanish Civil War, p.242, footnote 33.

35 MML, IBA, Box C, special files, 9/6, Springhall to Pollitt, 10 January 1937.

36 MML, IBA, Box C, file 9/8, Springhall to Pollitt, 19 January 1937.

37 Information from Peter O’Connor.

38 The Auxiliary Division was an elite counter-insurgency unit comprised of ex-British officers, and acquired a notoriety for indiscriminate reprisals. Nathan was one of a team which shot dead the mayor of Limerick and two others on the night of 7 March 1921. See Richard Bennett, ‘Portrait of a killer’, New Statesman, 24 March 1961, and correspondence in the New Statesman, 31 March and 9-21 April 1961.

39 Hoar, In Green and Red, pp.166-7.

40 Cronin, Frank Ryan, p.91.

41 Quoted in Cronin, Frank Ryan, p.90.

42 Quoted in Cronin, Frank Ryan, p.91.

43 Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, pp.156-7.; McGarry, Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War, pp.67-8.

44 McGarry, Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War, p.68. Controversy surrounding the arrest may explain grossly exaggerated recollections that the entire Irish section had been arrested, or that the Irish had arrested the British officers.

45 MML, IBA, Box C, special files, 12/1, Springhall to Pollitt, 21 April 1937. Cronin, Frank Ryan, p.91.

46 MML, IBA, Box C, special files, 10/1, Kerrigan to Pollitt, 1 February 1937.

47 Quoted in Cronin, Frank Ryan91.

48 MML, IBA, Box C special files, 17/1, undated statement by Aitken [probably September 1937. I am obliged to Jim Carmody for this information].