Ulstermen and the Spanish Civil War

by Ciaran Crossey in "Due North"

"Due North" is the journal of the Federation for Ulster Local Studies
This article appeared in Vol. 1, Issue 5, Spring-Summer 2002

This article, written 5 years ago, is generally sound. One difficulty is that the number of volunteers given, 275 for the Republican side and 680 for Franco, both underestimate the levels revealed by current research which gives these figures as 320 and 720.

One minor correction to make now, before it gets repeated elsewhere; The Fermanagh contingent included Campling and Scallon, but no-one called Scullion.

[A couple of paragraphs have been left out where they are not relevant to the main article. C Crossey, 18th March 2007.]

Between the two world wars Europe witnessed the emergence of a new type of conflict. The old order that had dominated the continent prior to the Great War had been dealt a fatal blow by those years of carnage. The new ideologies of the Left and the Right were moving centre stage and the old powers were beginning to falter under the strain. Italy and Germany had already fallen to dictatorship and communism, fascism and nationalism were competing for the control of the new democracies born out of the confusion of 1918. One old power however did hold sway as before and that was religion.

As the left wing Government of Spain came under attack from the right the League of Nations declared no official interest in the outcome of the inevitable conflict that would result. Instead this was viewed as a Spanish problem and one that should be contained within Spain rather than one that should involved the whole community of nations. National governments therefore were prepared to officially wash their hands of this issue.

Two governments, those of the Italian and German dictatorships, did lend support to the insurgents. This assistance, although it came in the shape of military hardware and personnel, can also be seen more in terms of their own dress rehearsals for the world war to follow.

During the course of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) nearly one thousand people from Ireland and the Irish Diaspora saw service in connection with the conflict. This article is an attempt to highlight those from Ulster who made that journey, many of whom were never to set foot on this island again. It would, of course, be impossible in a piece of this length to give a full picture of either those men or their activities. It is possible, however, to begin to cast again some light on the lives of these people, many of whom have been lost from the annals of history and forgotten. Indeed the author openly admits to having only a fraction of the information relating to these men and would be happy to receive additional material that might lie in the hands of the reader. So who were these men?

Support for Franco

Ireland witnessed widespread support for the insurgent forces in Spain. Stories abounded about the alleged burning of churches, murder of clergy and the rape and even crucifixion of nuns by the ‘communists’. Both the national newspapers and the Irish Catholic Hierarchy portrayed this war as a struggle for the very existence of the Roman Catholic Church. Collections at church doors authorised by the clergy across the island raised some £43,000 for the pro-Franco forces whilst there were less than veiled appeals for support form the Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal MacRory.

Much of this support crystallised around a Monaghan man, the former Police Commissioner, General Eoin O’Duffy, leader of the Blueshirts. They had emerged from the Army Comrades Association earlier in the decade and were overtly modelled on their Italian contemporaries. This private army were given a degree of credence by favourable press and academic comment on the merits of the ‘corporate state’ as it had emerged under Mussolini. However, although it would be true to say that there was a layer of fascists within the upper ranks of the Blueshirts, the core of the Irish Brigade which went to Spain were driven not by their support for Fascism but by a much stronger notion that they were taking the lead in defence of their church. O’Duffy, it would later merge, had been encouraged to establish the Brigade by MacRory and by the second week in September 1936 was boasting that 6,000 men had volunteered to fight in Spain.

There were in due course fewer than 700 Blueshirts who travelled to Spain. Of the 680 who did go, 77 are known to have come from Ulster. Almost half of this number came from O’Duffy’s home county of Monaghan. Little is known of these men but they included the likes of Dr Kearns from Newbliss and Capt. Paddy Hughes who had spent much of his time in Dublin where he owned the Midlands Hotel.

In 1938 Hughes was one of a band of about 50 pro-Franco men who attempted to seize control of three Spanish vessels in Derry. The ships had been held at the port following a dispute which arose after the Spanish government moved to nationalise them.

Along with 11 men from the neighbouring county of Cavan, at least four men travelled from Donegal. Among these was Eunan McDermot who die din Salamanca from TB (from which he had suffered for a number of years.) Another 24 came from the North. Within the latter it is possible to identify two groups. The first of these contained 13 men from Belfast led by Captain Sean Cunningham.

Cunningham had been the Officer Commanding the IRA in Ballymacarrett, east Belfast during the 1920s before taking up an officer’s post in the new Free State army. The Belfast contingent included several active IRA members including John Jones and Peter Fanning from the west of the city. Two chemists, Brendan Kielty and John Cleary were further included in this group.

The second discernible group came again from a neighbouring county of O’Duffy’s, Fermanagh. Originally it had been hoped that as many as 30 men would travel from Enniskillen but in the end just 8 made the journey. These included William Scallon, Jim Scullion and Charles Campling. It was for some time thought that these men were led by Fr. Cathal Daly but more recent research has revealed that he in fact travelled later and acted only as chaplain to the troops.

Whilst Catholicism and the defence of their co-religionists may have been the mobilising factor for many of these men, such enthusiasm for the church cannot explain the participation of Capt. Tom Smyth. This ‘Ulster protestant’ landed in Lisbon en route to Spain at the head of a corps of 100 men on 17 December 1936. This was surely a sign that this war like all civil wars was much more complicated than would first appear. It was said that fear was the greatest factor in the precipitation of this conflict; fear of Russia and Communism on one side and the fear of Fascism on the other.

¡No Pasarán! Volunteers for the Republican Government

Whilst Ulster provided only a small minority of the men who travelled with the Irish Brigade, a larger percentage of the smaller pro-government forces came from the province. Of the 275 men who went to Spain on the Republican side, the roots of 80 can be traced back to Ulster. Whilst Fermanagh and Monaghan had provided groups for the pro-Franco forces, they appear to have been the only counties in Ulster not to have provided soldiers for the cause of the Spanish Government.

A substantial number of the men with an Ulster connection travelled from Britain, Canada, the United States and even Australia. Only about half of those on the Republican side left directly from Ireland. One reason for the higher overseas recruitment may have been that most of those who volunteered were already active in the Republican movement or in the labour movement in their host countries. Irishmen overseas who were involved in Clann na Gael faced expulsion from the body if they refused to disavow the Republican Congress of which Frank Ryan, the eventual icon of Irish Republican involvement in, was the joint secretary. Many, although Catholic, were steadfast in their support for the ideals of the socialist democracy which they clearly saw as under attack from Fascism in Spain.

In Ulster most of those who volunteered were members of the Socialist Party, the Northern Ireland Labour Party or the IRA. Such political backgrounds meant that these men would inevitably be drawn from both of the two main religious traditions in the province. The geography of this recruitment was centred on Belfast and Derry, although men were drawn from every county with the earlier mentioned exceptions of Fermanagh and Monaghan. William Meeke, Bushmills; David Pritchaird, Newtownards; brothers William, Archibald and Gordon Keenan, Bangor (via Canada); James Haughey and Pat Magill, Lurgan, and Robert McAleenan, Banbridge could all be counted among the ranks on this side.

Of the five men on the Republican side who came from Cavan, one Peter J Brady of Breffney Terrace, Cavan town, actually travelled from Manchester. He was captured and held as a prisoner of war from March until October 1938. Another of the Cavan men was Pat Hamill from Knappagh. He had emigrated to the United States and it was from there that he sailed to Spain aboard the SS Normandie on St Stephen’s Day, 1936.

The men from Donegal who went to Spain are amongst the most interesting in terms of their background and experience. Brian Goold-Verschoyle’s brother Niall was a prominent member of the Communist Party in the 1940s. Brian went to Spain when the war developed in 1936 where he acted as a radio operator. He was taken out of Spain by the Soviet intelligence services and ended up in Russia where he was dispatched to a Gulag in which he died during World War 2.

Others from Donegal included Paddy O’Daire from Glenties, he went to Spain from Liverpool, and John Kelly who went from Canada; both survived the war. O’Daire went on to become an accomplished soldier who, in spite of his politics, rose to the rank of major in the British army during World War 2 Philip Boyle who was born in Donegal Town was a carpenter in Scotland and in England before the war in Spain but little is known of his fate afterwards. Two men who did not return were Hugh Bonar and Pat Glacken.

The bulk of the Ulstermen to have gone to Spain saw military service but four of them served in medical units. Joseph Boyd and Fred McMahon from Belfast went there with the Spanish Medical Aid unit in September 1936 only to be captured by Franco’s forces in November of the same year. They were about to be executed when a wounded soldier was brought in and they treated him saving not the soldier’s bur their own lives in the process. The two men shared the horrific experience of trying to save children during a bombing raid by Franco’s air force on Getafe, outside Madrid. Seventy children die din the raid. The other medical workers were Alex Donegan also of Belfast and Captain Jack White of Ballymoney (who had earlier been involved with the Irish Citizen’s Army in 1913.)

The Human Cost

War is never glamorous and the idea of a ‘good war’ has more to do with romantic ideology than historical fact. Casualties were inevitable and not everyone survived the conflict or returned home uninjured. Of the 80 men who went out to support the Government at least 21 died in Spain. The dead included people from both protestant and Catholic backgrounds. William Beattie from Wilton Street off the Shankill Road arrived in Spain in December 1936 and was wounded within days. He was hospitalised for a period before returning to the fight again and he was killed in July 1937. Thomas Kerr from east Belfast died of typhoid. Liam Tumilson, also of a protestant east Belfast background, had been active in the Belfast Outdoor Relief riots of 1932, then joined the Republican Congress and attended the 1934 Bodenstown rally. In Spain he was commander of a machine gun company when he was shot in the head in Jarama on 14 March 1937.

Tumilson’s history reveals a couple of strange threads. A friend of his in Spain was Paddy Roe McLaughlin from Moville in Inishowen who had gone to Spain from New York. Because the two men had been close friends McLaughlin was the person who broke the news of Tumilson’s death to his fiancée, Kathleen Walsh. This led to McLaughlin and Kathleen becoming friends and he was to marry her in due course. Back in Belfast, another friend of Tumilson’s, Jim Stranney, was so impressed by his actions that Stranney decided to go to Spain where he also died in July 1938.

Other men who paid the ultimate price for their ideals included the well-known poet Charlie Donnelly from Dungannon. One of the strange details in the history of this war is the deaths of Eamon McGrotty, an ex-Christian Brother from Derry, and Bob Hilliard, a former Church of Ireland minister who had served in Dunmurray and in St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast during the 1930s. Both ex-clerics died fighting against forces backed by the Catholic Church in Spain.


The battle against Fascism and for democracy did not stop for everyone at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Jim Haughey of Lurgan went on to join the Canadian Air Force and was killed in a crash in September 1943…………………..

While most of those who joined the Government forces fought with the International Brigade, two men, Paddy Donavan from Belfast and Jack White served with two smaller militias. White had originally gone to Spain with the Spanish Medical Aid Committee but after a period moved over to give military instructions to the CNT militia, the main anarchist group. After his time in this war he continued to be active in solidarity campaigns in London. Donavan fought from the autumn of 1936 with the Tom Mann Centura and then the POUM militia, an anti-Stalinist military force. For a period he was a sergeant in a company that included George Orwell………………………..

The objective of this article has been to generate an interest in the men who fought in the Spanish Civil War and to rescue them from anonymity. Anyone who holds information on these or other men who may have gone to fight in Spain in the 1930s is invited by the author to contact him at