Kerrymen in the Spanish Civil War

The Kerryman, 30 January 1998: T Ryle Dwyer
Copyright belongs to Mr Dwyer - and I must thank him for providing the article and his permission to carry it online.
Ciaran Crossey - added online, Sept. 11th 2008.

In October 1936 General Eoin O'Duffy wrote to Irish newspapers asking for volunteers to serve in the cause of Christianity in the Spanish civil war. According to him 6,000 people quickly volunteered. ''The response was so prompt, so generous and so spontaneous that I can only regard it as a mandate to go ahead with the organisation of the Brigade,'' he explained at the time.

The Spanish Civil War was probably the last great international cause which attracted idealists to both sides. People saw the conflict as a struggle between light and darkness. For some, it was a struggle between Democracy and Fascism, while others, like O'Duffy and his followers, viewed it as a struggle between Christianity and atheistic Communism.

'Ireland is behind the people of Spain in their fight for the Faith,'' O'Duffy declared. ''Irish Volunteers are making ready to leave home to fight side by side with the Nationalist forces, convinced that the cause of Franco is the cause of Christian civilisation.''

The de Valera government was committed to the Non-Intervention policy of the League of Nations, so legislation was enacted to make it illegal for Irish people to fight in Spain without the government's permission. Hence those who enlisted in the Irish Brigade were not able to leave the country in small groups rather than as one brigade.

The first party of ten volunteers left the North Wall, Dublin, on Friday, November 13, 1936, and a larger group, which included O'Duffy left, the following week. All the men signed up for six months, or for the duration of the war in the event that it did not last the six months. Throughout November The Kerryman had been publishing photographs of the bombardment of Madrid by Franco's insurgent forces, and there was undoubtedly a feeling that the war would not last very long.

On November 27 there were seven men from Tralee among the next group of 84 Irish volunteers who sailed from Liverpool to Lisbon on the SS Aguila.'' The seven were Eamon A. Horan, a member of Tralee Urban Council, Manus O'Donnell from Bridge Street, Dan Chute from Boherbee, together with four other men - Anthony Fitzgerald, J. Broderick, Christy Halloran, and George O'Leary - from Cloonmore Cottages across from the Austin Stack Park.

The remaining 42 members of the Kerry contingent were among a group of 700 who left Galway in early December on a German ship flying the Swastika flag. A further 700 men were due to leave from Passage East on January 6, 1937, but no ship arrived from them. It was symptomatic of the poor planning that was to haunt to the whole thing. In the end only about 700 out of the 6,000 actually made it to Spain.

Despite the legislation making it illegal for Irish people to fight in the Spanish conflict, there was a quiet sense of satisfaction that some of the hot heads on both sides of the Irish political divide were taking their troubles elsewhere. On the one side there was O'Duffy and the remnants of the Blueshirts, while Frank Ryan led 145 men, mostly IRA activists, on the other side.

"The Spanish Civil War would at least have served some useful purpose if it enabled us to get rid of some of the our wild men of both varieties,'' the Irish correspondent of The Round Table journal remarked.

Eamon Horan and his colleagues were warmly greeted in Lisbon by Fr. Dowdall, OP, who had ministered at the Dominicans in Tralee for many years. He showed them historic sites of Lisbon, including the Church of St. Patrick, which is some 300 years old.The Irish Brigade arrived in Carcares on January 9, 1937. Each day the Bandera marched the six miles from their camp to their headquarters. The local bishop celebrated a special Mass for the Irish Brigade before the marched out for the Madrid front on February 17th. Capt. Thomas Hyde bore the flag in the sanctuary.

After a two day march the Irish Brigade arrived for their first taste of war. Press reports that noted two men were killed ''in fierce fighting'' on their first day at the Madrid Front. Maurice Manning described both of the victims as Kerrymen in his book The Blueshirts. Dan Chute was from Boherbee, Tralee, but Captain Tom Hyde was actually from Ballinacurra, Midleton, Co. Cork. He had carried the flag at mass just two days earlier and the same flag was used to cover his bier.

Chute, whose late father owned a public house on Boherbee, was an only son. His mother received a telegram with the dreadful news from General O'Duffy: ''GRIEVED TO INFORM YOU YOUR SON DAN KILLED IN ACTION ON MADRID FRONT, FEB. 19TH.''

''Tom Hyde and Daniel Chute were two brave soldiers,'' Captain Liam Walsh, the Secretary of the Irish Crusade against Communism, declared in a statement issued to the press. ''If God had spared them we would have been proud to welcome them on return, but as God willed that they should fall, we, like all true Irish Christians, lovingly bless their memory. We have at least the consolation of knowing they were true Irish martyrs.''

''My boy is an only son who went to fight for Christ,'' Chute's mother told The Kerryman. ''Although there is a load on my heart, I offer him to Christ for Whom he fought.''People in Ireland were not told at the time that the two men were actually killed by ''friendly fire.'' A bandera of General Franco's army from the Canary Islands did not recognise the new uniforms of Irish Brigade. O'Duffy later claimed the Canary bandera was dissolved.

The same month another Kerry man died fighting on the other side. Robert Hilliard of Killarney was one of the 145 Irish men who joined the forces of the Republican government. Of them, 61 were killed in the conflict. Hilliard, a former Church of Ireland pastor, was one of the 19 Irish men killed in the Battle of Jarama in the defence of Madrid.

The Irish Brigade spent sixty-nine days in trenches at the Madrid front, enduring severe hardships. The had no change of clothes and there was a lack of proper sanitation. To make things worse the trenches were crawling with lice and the men were actually in much more danger from disease than the bullets of the enemy.

They felt they were very badly treated. John O'Callaghan of Mary Street, Tralee, said that they were resented by the Spaniards. The only group that were really friendly towards them were the Germans, according to him. The food was atrocious. For a considerable time it consisted of ''watery coffee and black, hard bread,'' another of the men explained.

They found the monotony nerve racking as they waited and waited, with nothing really happening. In many cases they did not fire even one shot. Morale was very low. The Kerry men wanted to fight, according to one of the men, but very little ever happened. As a result there was considerable wrangling within the Bandera, which, of course, further undermined morale.

They heard numerous stories of atrocities. Eamon Horan, who returned with the rank of Brigadier General, later said ''the conduct of the Reds could not in many cases bear repetition.''

He related one particularly horrible instance in which twelve or thirteen cadets were taken prisoners by the Republican forces. Communist women asked that they be appointed executioners and the unfortunate men nailed to the wall of their prison and their clothes were then saturated with petrol and they were burned alive.

''Witnesses of this heinous crime aver that clearly defined on each portion of the wall to which the officers were nailed was a print of a cross,'' according to Horan. John O'Callaghan of Mary Street, Tralee, told of personally witnessing what the Republicans did to their Russians prisoners. ''It is a fine thing to be shot and done with the job,'' he explained afterwards. ''But in Spain no Russian prisoner is shot outright. He is absolutely tattooed with bullets from the firing squad. They start at his legs and arms and finish up by practically covering his whole body with bullets.''

Another of the Kerry men was thoroughly disgusted by the spectacle of bull fighting. ''No words,'' he said, ''could describe the frightful cruelty which is meted out to unfortunate animals, including horses, at these carnivals. Women cheer and call for music as the bulls are slain.''

Three more Tralee men were killed in another engagement on March 13th. They were Bernard Horan, 23, and John Sweeney, 21, both of Mitchell's Crescent who ''were among the second batch of Kerry men who sailed from Galway.'' A third Tralee man, Thomas Foley, 32, of Mary Street, was wounded and died in a hospital the following week.

Foley's father, a 74 year-old widower, had been in the Munster Fusiliers and had served around the world. He had seen action in Burma during the 1880s and later fought in the Boer War in South Africa as well as the first world war. He proudly produced medals for reporters.

The Irish Brigade had been promised relief but they had to wait for over three months at the front before getting a break. According to John O'Callaghan they were then withdrawn back to Carcares and replaced by 5,000 Italians. It seems that even then the Italians were more renowned as lovers or footballers than fighters.

There was an epidemic of typhoid in Carcares and over 100 of the Irish had to be hospitalised. In June when their six months were up, they were asked about staying. A vote was taken and 654 voted to go home immediately while only 9 voted to stay. Of those nine two had only just arrived.

The Brigade left Lisbon on the SS Mozambique on June 17, 1937 and arrived in Dublin five days later. Volunteers threw rounds of ammunition at Detectives who came out to meet the ship. Their luggage was thoroughly examined both by Customs and the detectives.The men then marched to Mansion House, but the Kerry continent did so separately in order to emphasise their disgust with O'Duffy. The relied on Horan, who issued a statement to the press:

''We have returned from a campaign that should have added one of the most glorious chapters to the pages of Irish history, but instead of returning with honour and renown we returned humiliated and disgraced,'' he declared. ''The rank and file of the Irish Brigade are not responsible for this loss of Irish prestige, because I am convinced that if given opportunity and well led they would have emulated the feats of 'the men who fought from Dunkirk to Belgrade.''

''The responsibility for the loss of our national prestige rests with General O'Duffy and a few of his officers,'' Horan continued. ''The men of Kerry, in answer to my call to fight for Christ and Christianity against the devilish agents of Moscow, did so on the strict understanding that the Irish Brigade was to be non-political. We were not long in Spain until we were convinced that it was a political campaign.''

''As far as myself and the men of Kerry are concerned, we have broken with General O'Duffy because we considered that we would be disloyal to our martyred dead if we allowed their martyrdom to be used for political motives,'' Horan concluded. In short, they went to fight for Christ alongside the Nazis, but they found they were merely being used by O'Duffy for his own twisted political ends.

The Kerry volunteers arrived back in Tralee on buses at 3 o'clock the following morning. There were bonfires at Cloonmore, Abbey Street and Mary Street, and there were banners stretched across the streets with ''Welcome to Our Heroes,'' and other greetings.

While they were welcomed by their friends and families, they were generally ridiculed by the local community and were mockingly dubbed the Rosary Brigade. ''We have been criticised, sneered at, slandered, but truth, charity and justice shall prevail and time will justify our motives,'' O'Duffy declared. ''We seek no praise. We did our duty. We went to Spain.''O'Duffy later toyed with the idea of forming an Irish Brigade to fight with the Nazis against the Russians on the Eastern Front during the second World War. But there were no longer enough people prepared to follow him. In Kerry, at any rate, he was thoroughly discredited.

More material about the Bandera.