Irish News, November 02, 2004,
Shunned volunteers now seen as heroes;
A new magazine, Irish Volunteers for Spain, tells the story of the men -
both Catholic and Protestant volunteers - who travelled to Spain to fight in the
civil war purely for their beliefs.
Graeme Neill reports "I am still alive, although reported dead, as you know,
once. We of the Belfast party are upholding our share in this fight for freedom. The Spanish are so cool and game, they wouldn't give in to Franco and Hitler and Co. Don't forget comrade, our fight is your fight."
THREE months after writing this letter to the Irish Democrat newspaper, Bill
Beattie died in battle at Guadarrama in July 1937. Beattie, who was from the Shankill area of west Belfast, had been a former British soldier but travelled to Spain to serve with the British Battalion in
protecting the ruling socialist government.
The Spanish Civil War is seen by some as a hint of the bloodshed that was to
follow during the Second World War, with more than half a million people losing
their lives. Following the elections of the socialist Popular Front government in the
mid-1930s, an outbreak of violence and attacks against Catholic churches caused
the Prime Minister Santiago Casares Quiroga to fear a conservative backlash.
He exiled generals who he suspected of conspiring to topple the government,
including General Franco, the eventual leader of the nationalist forces. Although both civilians and the military were involved in the rebellion, Franco had help from both the German and Italian fascist governments of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, who sent troops and weapons in support.
German generals admitted that they used the war as a testing ground for the
weapons they used to devastating effect in the Second World War. But while many European governments stayed neutral during the war, a large number of individuals travelled to Spain to fight in the international brigades.
According to Raymond Quinn's magazine on the war, Irish Volunteers in Spain,
275 Irish volunteers travelled to Spain to fight with forces supporting the
government. Mr Quinn said the Spanish Civil War was a period of interest because men
from both sides of the community fought on the same side.
"Here was men from both sides of the community fighting for what they
believed in, " he said. "Some men were veterans of the First World War but some came from a
republican background in Belfast. The one thing that bound them together was
their belief in socialism." He said that the journey to Spain took a lot of effort and many who fought
were shunned by their community.
"You have to admire what they decided to undertake. There was no glory in
this and a lot of them went out not knowing whether they would get back home, "
Among these men was Willie O'Hanlon from the Short Strand area of east
Belfast. Upon his return from Spain he was arrested and deported to England where he
was later imprisoned due to his involvement with the republican movement. Many of those who travelled to Spain were sent by republican and socialist Frank Ryan and became members of the international brigades.
The men served in one of three different battalions - the British, the
American Lincoln and the Canadian McKenzie-Papineau (Macpaps) battalions. The majority of the Irish forces came from the south, but 61 of their number were made up by northerners.
These men were quickly sent to the front line to try and halt the march of
Franco's forces. In February 1937, Republican forces were cut to shreds at the Battle of
Jarama. General Franco, having failed to take Madrid by frontal assault, sent 40,000
nationalists to take one of the major roads out of the city. His forces faced Republican opposition including the British Battalion.
At what became known as Suicide Hill, only 160 men from the British
Battalion out of the original 600 survived as nationalists cut a swathe through
them. The Lincoln Battalion received orders to cut short its training and
immediately join the battle. One of the many casualties during combat was Dick O'Neill, a Catholic from
the Falls Road.
When the International Brigade was formed to lend support to the Spanish
government, O'Neill was one of the most keen to enlist, saying that if he was
not sent with the brigade, he would travel to Spain alone. He fell victim to a stray bullet behind enemy lines at Jarama on Valentine's Day 1937.
However, not all Irish volunteers who travelled to Spain fought with the
Republicans. Many Irishmen, led by General Eoin O'Duffy and angry about attacks on the
Spanish Catholic Church, took a stand in support of Franco's army. Mr Quinn said that during the second half of 1936, thousands of churches and other religious buildings were damaged or burned.
"Religion was a very strong element in both communities and they felt very
strongly about what was happening in Spain at that time, " he said.
"But there was a lot of propaganda at that time about what was happening and
I think that it's difficult to prejudge their actions in supporting fascism." One of the pro-Franco Irishmen was Sean Cunningham, who came from the Short Strand area of east Belfast. The former IRA member held the rank of captain in charge of a heavy machine gun company, and on one occasion was personally complimented by General Franco. One of the few Irishmen to return home alive, he settled on the Falls Road in Belfast and died in 1963.
However, while the pro-fascist Irishmen were supported in their efforts to
fight for the Catholic Church in Spain, the events of the Second World War
changed people's attitudes to fascism. Many of O'Duffy's men faded into the background as they sought to hide what they had fought for in Spain.
But for the men who fought for the Spanish government, many of whom had been
shunned in their communities for their socialist beliefs, history looked at
their sacrifices in a kinder light.
"Even though the socialist volunteers lost the war, they won the history, "
Mr Quinn said.
"Those who fought with the republicans were shunned at that time but now
they are seen as heroes."
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