Taking International Solidarity to its Heights Spain 1936-1939

[Reprinted from Unity, paper of the CPI, March 2006]

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the fight against fascism in Spain. It is therefore fitting that International Women’s day, a day dedicated to International solidarity, peace and progress, should be in held to remember those who fought and died to save democracy in Spain. In the 1930’s the force of fascism was growing when a government was elected in Spain, one that would defend democracy and push forward land and industrial reforms for the benefit of the majority of people. These reforms were not to be as Franco and his allies from Germany, Italy and elsewhere, tacitly supported by the non-interventionist policy of Britain and France, set their sights on the violation and abolition of democracy. The Soviet Union and Mexico were two of the few countries that helped Spain.

It was in 1936 that women and men throughout the world responded to the needs of the people of Spain and went to join the anti fascist fight. They came from all countries, Dolores Ibruari (The Autobiography of La Pasionaria) writes “ We hear a command given in a strange tongue cutting the air like a whiplash; ‘Good god is this a dream?’ asks women sobbing. The men marching through the streets of besieged Madrid sing the ‘Internationale’ in French and Italian, German and Polish, in Hungarian and Rumanian”, it was the International Brigades who had arrived. (Page 253) The majority of the fighters were men but women played a crucial role as well.

This role is less well documented but some material is coming to light in recent years. Angela Jackson has written a book that documents and gives analysis to the role that British women played, she was a guest speaker on, the 8th March, in a 70th anniversary event being held in the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education. Angela’s book shows the work that women did as nurses, broadcasters, writers and solidarity work collecting for food for Spain and so on. Women like Mollie Murphy, who incidentally was born in 1890 on the 8th of March. Molly’s mother is described as being from “Anglo Irish stock”. Molly was born in Leyland Lancashire, she was active in the Women’s Social and Political Union and when she moved to Sheffield she became the Suffragette organiser for the WSPU. In Spain she volunteered to serve as a nurse and left in January 1937. She suffered ill health as a result of her work in Spain.

The book is mostly about those women who were against Franco but there are references to some women who supported the Franco regime, most of whom did not play leading roles, Ms Jackson notes that “ the absence of women holding prominent positions in some of the best known right-wing groups is apparent in an article published by the Labour Research (1938), ‘Franco’s followers in Britain’. In the article a diagram links the members of The Friends of the National Spain to the Cliveden Set and so to the Cabinet, through to the Londonderry’s” Angela noted that only one woman is mentioned in the “list of inter-connected Lords, Viscounts, Dukes and other prominent men”, and that is Lady Londonderry. (Page50) Research carried out by Ciaran Crossey and Angela also mentions a few women who worked as nurses with Franco’s side

Irish Links

Some of the women that Angela writes about have Irish links like for example Rose Kerrigan who was born in Ireland. Rose married Peter Kerrigan who joined the International Brigade. She was active in solidarity work collecting for Spanish relief. Some details are also given in Michael O’Riordan’s book Connolly Column, he writes about the Spanish Aid Committee formed in Dublin with Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, renown for her work in the Irish suffrage movement, its secretary was (Bobby) Aileen Walsh later to be married to Frank Edwards who went to fight in Spain, Dorothy Macardle and Nora Connolly, Connolly’s daughter, Robin Tweedy and Mai Keating. Michael writes, “In Belfast, a committee was formed around Betty Sinclair, W. H McCullough, Jack Magougan, and Victor Halley. Harry Midgely…. Member of the Stormont Parliament and Alderman of the Belfast City Council declared his stand against Franco.” (Page 36)

Ciaran Crossey shows the involvement of other Irish women who went to Spain. These include Ruth Ormesby from Sligo who helped to set up a mobile hospital1937, along with English nurses.…. “they turned four wooden huts which had no electricity or water supply into a hospital." Ruth was killed in an accident while staying in the Medical Aid flat in Barcelona in April 1938. In two long letters to Ciaran Crossey, John de Courcey confirmed that his wife Beatrice de Courcey traveled to Spain in a delegation from Manchester in late 1937 early 1938. “In 1936 she was living in Manchester, very active in the Anti-Partition movement, which largely split over Spain, sadly, I have to say, the majority taking Franco's side”. By late 1937 early 1938 the Manchester pro-Spanish republican movement had "collected the money to send a big delegation to Barcelona with a large quantity of medical supplies of which my wife was in charge and various other domestic items to be delivered officially to the Republican government in Barcelona. They went by train via Paris and the east coast of Spain (the west coast line being in Franco's hands). My wife had learned a little Catalan and a lot about the Catalan political movement and was evidently a great favorite in Barcelona where she spoke several times on the Republican radio to all Spain emphasizing her sympathy as an Irishwoman with the national movements, Catalan, Basque, etc. in Spain. When she got back she spoke on the movements and on what she had seen and experienced in Spain (Barcelona was air-bombed while she was there) - Manchester, Bolton, Liverpool and a particularly big huge one in Bradford.”

Katherine Lynch is another Irish women who appears in a photograph of the returnees’ delegation, December 1938, at Dun Laoghaire. A letter to Tom O'Brien in Spain dated 2nd August 1938 says that "Doctor Lynch is now at Perpignan doing some hospital work and she may be useful in getting them [cigarettes] across." Although Perpignan is in France, she was obviously providing aid for the republican cause and so is included. She spoke at a reception for Rev. R Laborda in Dublin on April 15th 1937. This was held at 38 St. Stephen's Green where an exhibition of civil war photos had been on display. Peadar O'Donnell said that Kathleen 'did such Trojan work for the Republican cause in critical days when the winning of influential American opinion was so vital.’ (C. Crossey)

International Solidarity Continues

One piece of information that I received from Ciaran was that fact that Salaria Kee who features very strongly in the film “Into the Fire” (about American women in Spain), a served a nurse in Spain, she was the only Afro-American woman to go to Spain. She was to become Salaria Kee O’Reilly, when she married the Irish volunteer John Paddy O’Reilly, taking international solidarity to its heights.

Another young woman who went to Spain was Kathleen McColgan she was a BA graduate of Oxford. She joined London University Ambulance Unit in February 1937. She served in the Murcia hospital, near Malaga. Kathleen and Frida Stewart, daughter of the Dean of Trinity College Cambridge arrived with an ambulance, donated by miners at Cambuslang. Kathleen Mc Colgan spoke at meetings in Belfast on March 23rd, 1938 and later in April as a member of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. She spoke of “her experiences in Spain and the problem of Spanish refugees." The Belfast Weekly News reported “Miss Kathleen McColgan spoke at the Presbyterian War Memorial Hostel yesterday… emphasizing the horrors of the Spanish war by referring to the blockade of Government territory and explaining that Franco had the food producing parts of the country” The report describes the situation of the suffering that the population are facing and the need “whatever our views whether for Franco or against-to see that women and children sufferers are looked after.”

These details are a small reminder not just of the sacrifices that these women and the International Brigades made but also of the need to continue the fight against fascism.

Belfast Weekly News 23rd March 1938
Ciaran Crossey Information and photographs received
Ibarruri Dolores (1976) They Shall Not Pass; The Autobiography Of La Pasionaria International Publishers:
Angela Jackson (2002) British Women and the Spanish Civil War. Routledge:
Peter O’Connor (1996) A Soldier of Liberty-Recollections of a socialist and anti-fascist fighter. Manufacturing and Service Finance Union:
Michael O’Riordan (1979) Connolly Column New Books Dublin (republished 2005 by Warren and Pell
William Rust (1939) Britains in Spain. Lawrence & Wishart:
Frank Ryan (Ed) (1939 republished 2003) * The XV International Brigade. Warren & Pell.
*Warren & Pell has republished the three above named books. The Connolly Column has additional material and some new appendices. Those interested should also check out the following web site: (This is a new address for the site Ireland and the SCW, Ciaran Crossey).

[Note added by Ciaran Crossey: The IWD Lecture by Angela Jackson is now available here as well. Thanks to her for giving permission to add it on the site.]