Kenneth S Armstrong, The Spanish Civil War and its impact on Ireland, the decline of Labour politics

This is obviously an extract from his MA dissertation in the New University of Ulster, School of Humanities, 1984. I have not edited or changed any part of this chapter. Readers should remember that this was one of the earlier studies of the Irish in Spain, so some of his figures, etc. differ from recent estimates. It is still an interesting article, giving some insights into why volunters went out. Ciaran Crossey, 16th March 2007.

Chapter 3: The Irish in Spain

The ‘Connolly Column’

Despite the evidence of a fairly wide pro-Fascist feeling in Ireland and partly as a consequence of it, old memories and traditions of international solidarity began to reappear. Republicans remembered Wolfe Tone and the Fenians and thoughts of association with Marx and Engels through the International Working Men’s Association came to mind. The decision to send an Irish contingent to fight Franco had been taken in September 1936 and by December 11, the first unit of 80 men led by Frank Ryan had left for Spain. Before sailing Ryan made the following statement to the press:

“The Irish contingent is a demonstration of revolutionary Ireland’s solidarity with the gallant workers and peasants in their fight for freedom against Fascism. It aims to redeem Irish honour besmirched by the intervention of Irish Fascism on the side of the Spanish Fascist rebels. It is to aid the revolutionary movements in Ireland to defeat the Fascist menace at home, and finally, and not the least, to establish the closest fraternal bonds of kinship between the Republican democracies of Ireland and Spain” (1)

Although Frank Ryan remained a practising Catholic, he refused to be dictated to by the Catholic hierarchy and repeated O’Connell’s old dictum: “I will take my religion from Rome, but as an Irish Republican I will take my politics neither from Moscow or Maynooth.”(2)

Historians and commentators have always been fascinated by the motives of those men who joined the International Brigades. It was a life of submission to danger and extreme hardship but perhaps the words of Alvah Bessie, an American veteran of the Spanish War, have some relevance:

“Men went for various reasons….but behind almost every man I met there was a common restlessness, loneliness. In action these men would fight like devils, with the desperation of an iron-bound conscience; in private conversation there was something else again…..There were two major reasons for my being there; to achieve self-integration and to lend my individual strength…to fight against our eternal enemy – oppression….It was necessary for me…to work in a large body of men; to submerge myself in that mass, seeking neither distinction nor preferment…to achieve self-discipline, patience and unselfishness…and the construction of a life that would be geared to other men and the world events that circumscribed them….and for a desperate disease, a desperate cure.” (3)

Letters published in the Irish Democrat from Irishmen serving in Spain would seem to bear out the validity of Bessie’s conclusions. P McElroy, a Dubliner, wrote:

“My reason for going to fight with the Spanish Government forces was the same as that of all the Comrades I met out there. Each and every one of us had developed a hatred of the ruling class of our own countries, mainly because we workers are deprived of the necessities of life.

The literary men I met out there hated the present system because of the way capitalism looks on any project they put forward. Everything is regarded from a money point of view – they don’t seem to understand the meaning of the word – ‘Progress.’

Capitalism looks at nothing from its human aspect. The whole life of a capitalist is taken up in trying to make its own life secure at the expense of the rest of humanity.

So you see the reason was the same with the Spanish people, who had elected their own Government by peaceful means. They were prepared to utilise the resources of their country for the benefit of the people of Spain. This is why there is a war in Spain today – because the Fascists did not want to see Spain’s resources being used for the good of the whole people of Spain, but only for one section – the wealth grabbing section.

So we who volunteered, individually, came to the conclusion that if the Spanish people were to triumph over Fascist reaction, it would be a great help to every country in the world in the struggle for peace and democracy.

It is not too late to secure for the people, an intelligent, peaceful and cultured life.” (4)

For others the issue was simpler and more emotive. Some of the Irish Volunteers would have agreed with the Italian who commented “we had a greater need of going to Spain than the Spanish Republic had need for us.” (5)

Although critics and pro-Fascists have attempted to explain away the motives of the men who joined the International Brigades as a mixture of fanaticism and adventurism spiced by a promise of high pay to unemployed workers, there is no documentation whatsoever to prove that any of the volunteers joined for mercenary reasons. We do have evidence that many volunteers had been out of work bit this alone is no reason to suppose their motives to have been purely negative and lacking idealism. There was, of course, adventure in the prospect of sailing to a foreign country as ‘a knight in shining armour’, and fanaticism too, if that is to be taken as a willingness to risk life for a belief in a cause of ‘honour’ (Frank Ryan) Yet whatever their reasons in reality, Frank Ryan again was poignantly correct in saying: “the mothers of Ireland, God help Them, [they] will never understand why men leave Ireland to fight in a foreign country.” (6) As a member of a large family himself and a man well-versed in his island’s history, Ryan was in the position to comment on the significant role Irish mothers played in Irish society. He realized that they had a great influence in formulating public opinion and knew only too well the implications of what he was saying. The ‘mothers of Ireland’ had had enough of war and despite the efforts of the Irish Democrat and The Worker to educate public opinion, the majority of their readers were male and already of socialist inclination. Unfortunately, the documentary evidence on the reaction of Irish society generally to Spain, confirms the veracity of Ryan’s wry comment.

William Rust in his ‘Britons in Spain’ identifies the British volunteers as mainly working class although there were some middle class intellectuals. Politically, many were left wing Labour and Communist – especially those from Wales – but many were moderate liberal men, politically undefined and sometimes ex-pacifists.(7) This picture is equally applicable to the Irish contingent, the only difference being that more of these had had military experience of one kind or another!

Frank Ryan’s Irish unit formed the James Connolly Battalion attached to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and thus the Irish were joined with approximately 34,000 other foreigners fighting Fascism in Spain. Within two weeks of arriving in Spain, reports of Irish casualties began to appear in Irish papers but whilst not censored or suppressed, these notices did not receive wide coverage in any paper. It was partly to rectify this that the Irish Democrat was launched in March 1937. The weekly was at first edited by Ryan himself and later by Sean Nolan; it was financed by various socialist groups and managed by Sam Haslett who was succeeded by another Belfastman, Malachy Gray.

Although patently Leftist, the Democrat did attempt to present a fuller and more truthful picture of events in Spain than did many of its contemporaries. Naturally, the angle of a rebel attack on a democratically elected Government was a trump card the editor did n not hesitate to use to attract support for the Republican cause but along with this was the moral outrage provoked by authentic photographs of the destruction and death, particularly at Guernica, of women and children. The main impact of the Spanish war on Ireland had now shifted to the question of the volunteers and there was interest too in the flow of men from all the other countries who joined the International Brigades. The Irish Democrat went to some lengths to show how Mussolini and Hitler treated their native Christian Churches. By concentrating on humanitarian issues and preaching the ideological line, the paper attempted to mould Irish opinion into support for the Republican Government. A good example of Democrat style is the following extract from its report on a Socialist Party of Northern Ireland meeting in June 1937. Victor Halley’s comment:

“Is it not curious that the people of Spain were not looked upon as Reds until they voted against the land-owning and governing classes? Previous to that they were recognised as devout Christians.”

was given extra force by the Irish Democrat’s rather sarcastic addendum:

“So German planes and battleships, Italian Divisions and supplies, Moorish troops and General O’Duffy, have gone to bring Christianity back to the Spanish people.”

By January 1937, the surviving British and Irish volunteers attached to the XVth International Brigade were rushed to the Jarama river, south of Madrid, in an attempt to thwart a determined Fascist drive to take the capital. They were deployed on what became known as ‘suicide hill’, going into action on 12th February at 5.30 a.m. By mid afternoon, this British-Irish battalion had lost half of its original strength of 600 men, one of the bloodiest of the Spanish War and even a short list of the dead serves to illustrate the interesting mixture of men and beliefs who volunteered for Ryan’s ‘Connolly Column.’

Dick O’Neill, a compositor from the falls Road, was a Communist, whereas Liam Tumilson came from a typical protestant working class family with long Orange Order connections. Tumilson had changed his politics and his name – from ‘Bill’ to ‘Liam’ – in his early twenties. In 1932 during the Unemployed Riots in Belfast he acted as liaison between the Catholic and Protestant unemployed and shortly before his death on 20th February 1937, he wrote: “I would rather die as James Connolly died than to die peacefully without having fought in the cause of working class freedom.”(9)

Tumilson stands in a long and honourable tradition of Presbyterians from Ulster who espoused the Republican cause from Henry Joy McCracken to the present day. He and his comrades were converted more by the practical need for an Irish socialist state than by any romanticised myths and legends.

2 extracts from the Irish Democrat 31st July 1937 They died in defence of democracy

The Irish Democrat announces with sincere regret that it has received confirmation of the deaths of the following members of the Irish Unit of the Spanish Government forces:

Charles Donnelly, Dublin
Thomas Woods, Dublin
M L Russel, Ennis Co. Clare
Hugh Bonar, Donegal
William Tumilson, Belfast
W H Fox, London-Irish
John Scott, Liverpool Irish
Leo Green, Dublin
Samuel Lee, London-Irish

Although many of these brave men were killed in the fighting of some months back, publication of their deaths in these columns was withheld until definite word reached us.

Along with hundreds of their fellow-countrymen these men answered the call to battle against Fascism in Spain and to save their country's name and great traditions from being dragged in the mud by the Fascist adventurer O'Duffy.

These men have given their lives for a noble cause, the cause of democratic liberty against Fascist tyranny. They gave their lives on Spanish soil because Spain today is the front-line trench of the world-wide fight against Fascist dictatorship.

We mourn their loss and realise that the forces of Irish Democracy are the poorer because of their deaths, but we feel proud that they gave their lives for such a noble and great cause. They have not died in vain, for the cause of Republican liberty will triumph over Fascism.

On behalf of the readers of the Irish Democrat and all lovers of liberty, we tender deepest sympathy to the relatives of these men.

Let us pay tribute to all the Irishmen who have died for democracy in Spain, let us show our appreciation for the Irishmen who are still in the front-line trenches, let us build up and unite the forces opposed to fascism and capitalist slavery here in Ireland. This is the way we can bring victory to the cause for which these men died. This is the tribute they would ask of us.

Irish Democrat 31st July 1937

Men of all lands, from field and factory sped,
United in purpose, but of that purpose dumb
To one another, till Spain welcomed them,
And, understanding, each man thither come
First heard the word “SALUD”.

A nation’s mighty purpose in one word
That moment showed; and each one felt his heart
Uplifted, and his will and arms more strong,
And in the struggle played a worthier part
Fore hearing that “SALUD”.

A machine gun suddenly a whistling chain
Projects, and Death hurtles perilously by
WE raise clenched fists high in the riven air,
Taunting defiant, and ironic cry:
The single word “SALUD”.

Black figures glooming beneath the olive trees
Dig shallow graves for the heroic dead;
Plant two crossed laths of ammunition box,
Bearing no eulogy, above their head,
But just one word “SALUD”.

This is no mystery, and needs no priest
To guarantee us victory over Death.
That word itself bears witness time to come
Men ‘neath whatever heaven drawing breath
Shall cry to life “SALUD”

The young Dungannon poet, Charlie Donnelly, also fell at Jarama. Bright, talented and idealistic, Donnelly had joined the Communist Party on moving to Dublin and his poems from Spain were often used by the Irish Democrat and The Worker as illustrations of the horror and misery of the Spanish War:

The Tolerance of Crows, published February 1937.

"Death comes in quantity from solved
Problems on maps, well ordered dispositions,
Angles of elevation and direction;

Comes innocent from tools children might
Love, retaining under pillows,
Innocently impales on any flesh.

And with flesh falls apart the mind
That trails thought from mind that cuts
Thought clearly for a waiting purpose.

Progress of poison in the nerves and
Discipline's collapse is halted.
Body awaits the tolerance of crows."

Obvious literary flaws in this example of Donnelly’s work have no relevance to the investigation in hand. But the evocative quality of stanzas one and four is sufficient evidence of his potential for the purpose of emphasizing the wide range of types of Irishmen contained in the Connolly Column. Even literary Ireland had its representatives there and Donnelly’s friend and contemporary Donagh McDonagh was moved to eulogy when the news of the poet’s death reached Dublin.

Ignorance of eventual loss or gain.
This first fruits of our harvest, willing sacrificed
Upon the altars of his integrity
Lot to us; somewhere his death is charted –
Something has been gained by this mad missionary.
(from “He is Dead and Gone Lady”) (10)

Other Ulstermen who died were William Beattie and William Loughran, both of Belfast, at the Battle of Brunette in July 1937. The former Protestant, the latter Catholic; their deaths are typical of the many but also proof that the long time sectarian animosity between Belfast workers had been superseded.

Ultimately, some 400 Irishmen from all parts of the island, joined the International Brigades. Most fought with the Connolly Column but some also with the British (Attlee) battalion, the American Lincoln Battalion and the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. Most of these men were ex-IRA. Forty-two were killed and twelve captured on March 26th 1938 - Frank Ryan himself was among the prisoners. This record was in stark contrast to that of O’Duffy’s Brigade, as we shall see. On 21st September 1938, the Spanish Prime Minister, Negrin, told the League of Nations that the International Brigades were to be withdrawn. The Irish survivors made their way home – to a hero’s welcome from some quarters and a reluctant admiration from others. The Irish Communist writer, Sean Nolan, captured that surge of pride when he wrote: “…the Irish section had fulfilled the pledge of solidarity – and had redeemed the name of Irish people besmirched by the Blueshirts and the Christian Front.” (11)

Sadly, Frank Ryan, the man who made the pledge in a press statement before sailing for Spain remained, until his death, a captive of the Fascists.

O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade

O’Duffy’s first efforts to transport his volunteers to Spain misfired and he was forced to travel to Spain alone to reorganise his shipping arrangements. In mid-October 1936, the main body of approximately 600 men left Galway. Some 50 had a change of heart and opted out before the ship had sailed.

The unit had been formed partly as a propaganda reply to the International Brigades and it proposed to fight for the nationalists for “either six months or until the end of the war – whichever was the shorter period.” The volunteers were promised 6s 8d per day (The Worker, January 2, 1937) And the Belfast Newsletter (the Unionist paper) thought that the Brigade ‘should be of great assistance to General Franco’s forces (December 14, 1936). Things did not however go well with the ‘Irish Brigade’. Before the departure, Peadar O’Donnell had organised a small cadre of Irish Republicans to accompany O’Duffy ostensibly as dedicated volunteers but in actuality, to ferment rebellion. According to the Republican report, O’Duffy’s men needed no prompting to mutiny for they almost immediately found fault with their rations, their officers and their billets.

On February 16, 1937, after being kept for sometime in the background, the Irish Brigade were finally ordered into action on a quiet section of the fighting. Three days later, in a confused situation, they exchanged fire with a Nationalist unit from the Canary Islands which they had mistaken for Republicans. Two Irishmen were killed. Immediately, the Irish Brigade were withdrawn from the front and wasted their time forming cliques and complaining. Later, on receiving a direct order to advance, O’Duffy staged an outright refusal, claiming he was under heavy Republican artillery fire. When, at the end of the six month period a vote was taken on whether to remain ins or return to Ireland, 654 men elected to go home, whilst 9 – two of whom returned shortly afterwards – decided to stay. The Irish Democrat (8 May 1937) merely made the dry comment that the Irish Brigade had left Spain because they ‘would won’t fight for a sham cause and a sham leader’. The playwright, Brendan Behan, struck the note more accurately perhaps, when he quipped: “…they certainly made history. They seemed to be the only army that went to war, ever, and came back with more men than they set out with.” (Michael O’Riordan, Connolly Column, p107). It seems that the Irish Brigade had picked up Irish stragglers from the Spanish Foreign Legion and brought them home.

An amusing illustration of O’Duffy’s limitations was his insistence that his men could not march to Spanish music. At considerable expense, St Mary’s Anti-Communist Pipe Band was imported from Dublin so that the Irish Brigade could march into battle to the sound of authentic Irish airs. Despite an element of tragedy, “the ‘Irish Brigade’ proved what is possibly the only piece of light relief in this whole tragic period.” (12) The Ulster writer, John D Stewart recalls that his own Spanish teacher in Gibraltar who had been O’Duffy’s interpreter remembered that after Mass, the Blueshirts drank wine by the litre, being accustomed to drinking Guinness in points! Useful as they had been at first to the Spanish nationalists as a kind of showpiece offsetting all the international support on the side of the Republicans, O’Duffy’s Irish increasingly became an embarrassment and no doubt the vote for repatriation was greeted with great relief by the Spaniards.

Hugh Thomas, like many other observers at the time, makes the point that, in the Irish context, the Spanish Civil War seemed to be pre-eminently a war within the IRA. Certainly some of O’Duffy’s men had had some involvement in the 1916 Rising, but the two Irish contingents never did meet in battle in Spain. The ‘war’ as such was conducted on the political and propaganda level.

In this relation, it is an ironic and unfortunate fact that the claim made by the Irish Right to have enjoyed the support of the greatest poet of the 20th Century – W B Yeats – has long been established as an established truth. Michael O’Riordan in his book, The Connolly Column criticises Yeats for lending his great talents to the Blueshirt cause. He believes that Yeats “began to dream of new order grandeurs which inspired him to write a marching song for the Blueshirts.” (13)

This is a huge indictment of a poet whose intellect and integrity bowed before no political ideology – “Was it perhaps some words of mine sent out these men the English shot?” – except his own, highly personal and individualised concept of “nobility” which took no account of class but only “self and soul”. Yeats who throughout his life stood in agreement with his political mentor, the old Fenian, John O’Leary, in the belief that “There are some things a man must not do for his nation,”(14) despised both the mentality of mobs and posturing of mob agitators.

The Blueshirts did march to the old Irish marching tune of “O’Donnell Abu” and there is sufficient evidence to verify their use of Yeats’ poem, “Three Songs to the Same Tune”:

Down the fanatic, down the clown
Down, down, hammer them down

Yet even the briefest research into the prose writings of W B Yeats will confirm the poet’s deep distrust and hatred of mass movements, In his Memoirs he writes: “I would be a nationalist in no other country but Ireland” and aware of the accusations levelled against him of fraternizing with the Blueshirts, he tool up his pen to refute them. He said that he constructed the ‘song’ in question as a commendation of the rule of the able and educated in society; he used the line “The soldier takes pride in saluting his captain” to illustrate the Gaelic poet’s lament for his lost masters and indeed the lines above are more relevant to the histrionics of O’Duffy and his Blueshirts than those humourless crusaders ever noticed being clowns and fanatics themselves to the point of pure absurdity. Yeat’s words were misinterpreted. By 1934, he was complaining: “companies march to the words ‘Blueshirt Abu’ and a song (poem) that is all about shamrocks and harps or seems all about them, because its words have the particular variation upon he cadence of ‘Yankee Doodle’ that Young Ireland reserved for that theme. I did not write that song; I could not if I tried.” (15) The proof of this latter claim is best displayed in The Collected Poems of W B Yeats.

Along with almost everything else attempted by the Irish Right in this period, the claim to Ireland’s mot famous literary figure is ridiculous by its very extremity.


(1) The Worker, December 19th 1936.
(2) Sean Cronin, Frank Ryan, the Search for the Republic, 1980, p80.
(3) A Bessie, Men in Battle, pp337-8.
(4) Irish Democrat, December 11th 1937.
(5) Quoted in Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, 1961, p453
(6) Spanish News, Feb. 26th 1937.
(7) William Rust, Britons in Spain, 1939, p53.
(8) Irish Democrat, June 19th 1937.
(9) Mick O’Riordan, The Connolly Column, 1979, p76
(10) D McDonagh, He is Dead and Gone Lady, a poem on the death of Charlie Donnelly, 1937.
(11) Sean Nolan, Communist Party of Ireland: an outline history, 1975, p64
(12) K W Watkins, Britain Divided – the effects of the Spanish Civil War on British public opinion, 1963, footnote to p85.
(13) O’Riordan, p25.
(14) W B Yeats, Memoirs, p169.
(15) W B Yeats, The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W B Yeats, ed. P Alit and R K Alspach, p543
(16) Ibid, p837.