Spanish Civil War veterans look back

A documentary, "In the Fields of Spain", is on BBC Radio Ulster on Saturday 18 March at 1130 GMT and Sunday 19 March 1430 GMT. is where this story comes from.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in which 500,000 people died.

About 1,000 people from Ireland fought in Spain, both for and against General Franco. BBC Northern Ireland's Diarmaid Fleming reports.

General Franco and his fellow generals began a revolt in 1936 against the democratically elected socialist Popular Front government of the Spanish Republic.

It followed plans to strip the rich, including the Catholic Church, of its power and wealth and improve workers' rights.

Fascism was on the rise in Europe and, in the Irish Free State, the sacked chief of police, Eoin O'Duffy, led the right-wing Blueshirt movement.

Irish Republicans attacked their meetings, which frequently descended into riots.

O'Duffy commanded the Free State Army during the brutal Civil War in Kerry.

Troops under his command committed atrocities such as the massacre of eight republican prisoners tied to a landmine at Ballyseedy bridge in 1923.

Dan Keating, who is 104 years old, told for the first time about plans to assassinate O'Duffy on his way to a meeting in Kerry in 1933.

"We had a reception party for him in Ballyseedy, to kill him. There was a man sent to Limerick to find out the number of the car O'Duffy was travelling in." The person who was to give the number, fearful of O'Duffy's fate, got cold feet and gave false information. O'Duffy escaped.

The International Brigades fought against General Franco

The Catholic Church portrayed the war in Spain as a holy one against godless communists.

O'Duffy responded to the Irish church's call to send help to Franco and led a brigade of more than 700 to Spain. But this prompted the Irish left to respond.

One of only two surviving Irish Spanish Civil War veterans who fought against Franco, Michael O Riordan, now 89, said he went to "restore Ireland's name".

"We went for two reasons. One was the old trade union slogan, 'An injury to one is the concern of all' , and the Spanish people needed our help as they were really fighting against world fascism.

"The other reason was that Ireland had committed itself, not the people or the government, but O'Duffy who was sending a brigade to fight with Franco.

"For national, patriotic reasons we had to erase that from people's minds, and restore the good name of the country," he said.

In Belfast, people from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds went to defend the Spanish Republic against Franco.

About 45,000 international volunteers fought for the Republicans. For Catholics, going against their church was a hard decision.

Peggy Mount from Poleglass, now 93, recalled how her family in the Springfield Road area reacted when her brother Dick O'Neill, a communist and skilled print worker, said he was going to Spain.

"My mother was a devout Catholic and my father a socialist. But they stood by him because he was our lad."

The war in Spain was brutal. O'Duffy's 750 Blueshirts saw little combat and lost 12 men, but according to research by Belfast historian Ciaran Crossey, 85 - about a quarter of those of Irish origin from all around the world who fought on the Republican side - died, including Dick O'Neill and Henry McGrath from the loyalist Shankill area.

Henry McGrath's nephew, Freddie, from Glencairn in Belfast said their family was proud that he went to fight fascism.