IRELAND AND THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR
'A vicious unequal fight'
Michael O'Riordan in New Hibernia, Vol. 3 No. 7 July-August 1986
I was one of the 145, of whom 61 never came back, who went to fight in Spain believing that the war was a vicious unequal 'fight between the rich privileged classes against the rank and file of the poor oppressed people' of that country. I still believe.
Naturally the 50th anniversary year evokes personal memories back to the day I left my native Cork to go to Spain. Politically it was not a problem making the decision but personally it was not al that easy.
My parents were sincere unpretentious Catholics and I was conscious that they would face all the pro-Franco hysterical propaganda of which Fr. Paul O'Sullivan was but a typical example. I left a note trying to explain as simply as I could why I was going, not to the war, bit to a good job hundreds of miles from the front. Some thirty five years later when I completed the manuscript of 'Connolly Column' - the story of the Irishmen who fought in the International brigade - I dedicated it to: "The Memory of my father who, because of the propaganda against the Spanish Republic in Ireland, did not agree with my going to Spain, but who also disagreed more with 'our coming back and leaving our Commander Frank Ryan behind'."
My mother, I know, spent a small fortune getting Masses said for me. I never could get to know whether they were for my safe survival or for my 'conversion'. I suspect it was a sort of an each way bet. It is one of the good memories of my life that although there was a little tension, a degree of embarrassment with some perplexity thrown in, when I returned from Spain, the relations between the three of us resumed their normal good parents-son one. I remain ever thankful to both of them for that.
Going though Dublin I met Sean Murray, from the Glens of Antrim, the first General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland. He was accompanied by Bill Scott, the first Irishman to get to Spain in September 1936. He was a Dublin Protestant Republican Communist whose father had been a member of Connolly's Citizen Army in 1916. The Scots were well known as active members of he Bricklayers Union. Bill's parting advice was, 'keep your head down and your chances of survival will be greater.'
I went by boat to Liverpool - my first ever time on a ship - then onward to London and then to Paris with 3 Scots and one Londoner - only Eddie McCormick from Glasgow and myself survived out of that quintet.
A small hotel owned by a sympathetic family in the Rue de Combat was both the clandestine billeting and organising centre for foreign volunteers going to Spain. There one had to submit both a personal and political biography. Some volunteers were not passed as their accounts did not reflect a correct understanding of the issues of the war. To further weed out any political unreliables or adventurers a recently returned volunteer from the Spanish front spoke of the very severe conditions there, the overwhelming superiority of the Fascist forces, the very small odds of surviving. There was a last chance given to opt out of going, and so realistic was the account that three did. There were no recriminations as we understood that it was better done there than during a battle in Spain. A last advice was 'bring plenty of tobacco with you.'
Next day the volunteers went by rail to Beziers in southern France. We travelled in small groups of two or three, no one group indicating that they knew each other and all watching a man who sat by himself who was out guide and whom we were to follow when he left he train. On arrival sympathetic taxi drivers picked us up and we spent two days in a small hotel again where we waited, waited, waited…because we were not allowed to walk the streets for fear of detection and arrest by the French police. After February 1937 it was a highly illegal activity to go to Republican Spain because of the London 'non-Intervention' Agreement which Britain, France and the USA used to tie the hands and feet of Republican Spain whilst the Franco-Hitler-Mussolini Axis choked the life out of it.
Being illegal there was only one way for us to get over the frontier and so began the real first test. We had to climb over the Pyrenees in the dark of night engaged n a muscle racking endeavour whilst all the time finding the way of slipping through the armed guards on the French side. We made it. There were cases of some who did not.
The entire number of volunteers who joined the International Brigade were approximately 40,000 from 53 different countries. 5,000 died in battle. There were never more than 17,000 at any one time in Spain and never more than 6,000 in any single campaign.
On the Franco side there were far larger bodies of regular foreign troops including complete units of the German and Italian armies, and as well there was the Nazi Air Force - the Condor Legion and units of artillery and tanks. An official US Army evaluation in 1944 gave the Franco forces as having a superiority in arms of 7 to 1 over the republican forces.
My memories of the Ebro battle, the last great attempt by the Republican forces to turn the tide, was that by then the supply of French style steel helmets were n longer available. This was also the case with cartridge belts. Our rifles were way behind the quality of the fascist ones, our magazines cold only hold five bullets and they had to be hand fed because bullet clips were no longer to be got. During the Ebro offensive each volunteer was issued with 100 loose rounds, without the loading clips, and they were carried in small sacks tied around the waist. By the time of the Ebro battle one's footwear had been worn out and 'alpagatas' (rope sandals) were in. Food consisted of a slice of bread fried in olive oil and a cup of very weak coffee, with the meal being, always, 'Garbanzos', a Spanish variety of very hard chickpeas. Mess kits were often an old jam-jar or a tobacco tin and rudimentary spoons and forks were self carved out of wood. The occasional delicacy would be a lump of mule meat.
Because of the blockade that was aided by the so-called western democracies, food became so scarce that the London 'Times' (February 14, 1939) reported that five hundred people died each week in Madrid from starvation.
Each of us did our best in spite of the conditions. It would be true to say that each of the 145 were wounded in some stage or other and as stated earlier 61 were killed. They were heroes not so much as for a spectacular deed or deeds, but for sheer commitment. Such were men like Michael Lehane of Kerry, Paddy Duff and Jack Nalty of Dublin who were wounded in the early stages of the war, received inadequate medical treatment, returned to Ireland for recuperation and as soon as they could set out again quietly to make the nightmare journey across the Pyrenees and back to the war that they knew could not be won. Jack Nalty in fact died in the last hour of the last battle of the 15th International Brigade. In the meantime O'Duffy's men after six months in Spain voted to return home which they did on June 19th, 1937.
Any lessons from Spain's war? There are many but I would limit them to two. The bloody defeat of the Spanish Republic by Franco, Hitler and Mussolini, with the connivance of the British, French and US , was a prerequisite for World War 2 which broke out in less than five months after Franco marched into Madrid.
The second lesson is in fact a coincidence because the battle cry of the Spanish Republic, No Pasaran! (They shall not pass!) is today being chanted in Nicaragua against the Fascist Contras who like Franco rely on the external reactionary assistance of the powerful It is heartening for us to know that young Irishmen like those of the Connolly Youth Movement are volunteering for the International Youth Brigades to work in Nicaragua and so relieve young men and women there to man the battle points against a possible US invasion which would be the prerequisite for World War 3 - the last war to destroy humanity in a nuclear holocaust.
Reagan unlike Franco would find it difficult to use religion as a camouflage since there are so many priests in the Government of Nicaragua. However the language is the same. Reagan when referring to the Soviet Union calls it 'the Empire of Evil' and he is a self-confessed believer in the inevitability of 'Armageddon.'
This issue of New Hibernia carried several articles on Ireland and the SCW.