Spanish Civil War: The Untold Misery

North Belfast News, Saturday, 20 October 2001, pages 14-15

[Slightly amended, Ciaran Crossey.]

A new book based on the experiences of the Irishmen who fought in the Spanish Civil War promises for the first time to uncover the beliefs and ideals which saw friends and neighbours take opposing sides in one of the bloodiest wars in recent history.

Nearly 1,000 men from the North and South, Catholic and Protestant, went to fight in the

Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. But while Ireland’s involvement in the battle between Franco and the Spanish socialists has been well documented over the years, little or no attempt has been made to uncover why so many men from these shores actually chose to fight.

A new book, being compiled by a trio of respected historians, could soon dispel 70 years of myth and mistaken folklore to put straight the record for those who fought and died beneath the blazing Spanish sun.

Local historians John Quinn and Ciaran Crossey have joined up with London-based author Jim Carmody to tell the story of those men who joined both the International Brigade and Eoin O’Duffy’s controversial Irish division.

Little or nothing has been written about what drove so many men to go off to Spain to take part in the Spanish Civil War more than 60 years ago. Ironically the 1,000 odd men who did make their way to Spain from 1936 onwards often found themselves fighting on either side of the trenches.

"The men who went from these shores roughly number 1000," explains local author John Quinn, "749 followed O’Duffy and around 277 joined the International Brigades who were dedicated to upholding the democratic Republican government against Franco. Many were from Belfast, at least ten men came from North Belfast, both Catholic and Protestant and again they chose to fight on either side."

North Belfast men who joined Eoin O’Duffy’s ranks included Brendan Kielty from Greencastle as well as brothers Dennis and John O’Keefe from the New Lodge.

On the Republican side Pat Hall from the Bellevue area went to fight in Spain as well as Bill Henry from Bradford Street near the Old Lodge Road. James Hillen and Henry McGrath from Tobergill Street, Hugh Hunter from Grove Street, William Beattie from the Shankill and Samuel Martin from Lepper Street.

But while historically those who chose to fight with Eoin O’Duffy’s column have been labelled as being fascists, John Quinn argues that the real truth is a lot more complicated.

"The one thing that upsets me about the history that is written about the Irish men who fought in the Spanish Civil War is that it tends to misrepresent the ideals and beliefs which led so many of these men to fight, on both sides.

"Many people mistakenly believe that everyone who joined Eoin O’Duffy was a fascist, some may have been, but the vast majority of those who did fight for Franco had no interest in fascism and were more traditional Catholics. This book will show that many of the men who joined Eoin O’Duffy, especially from Belfast, did so because of the fact that they were devout Catholics and as a consequence did what the church told them to do, but also they went to fight because of the unique relationship they had with O’Duffy himself."

Eoin O’Duffy is first understood to have come to Belfast as Michael Collins’ emissary in the 1921. It was around that time that he ordered IRA men from all over Belfast to North Queen Street and York Street when loyalists and B Specials were attacking nationalist homes.

"O’Duffy was fighting alongside men like Sean Cunningham from the Short Strand, who was the IRA Commander of the 2nd Battalion, which would have taken in the east and south of the city as well as the New Lodge and the Bone.

"Whatever O’Duffy’s faults he obviously made an impression on a number of his old IRA comrades and when 1936 came around some joined him on the boat to Spain.

"The important thing that has to be brought across is that for many of these men the Spanish

Civil War was more about religion than politics or fascism." Greencastle man Brendan Kielty joined O’Duffy’s ranks as did the O’Keefe brothers from the New Lodge.

While an IRA order banned any of its volunteers from going to Spain many did go to fight with both O’Duffy and the International Brigade. "The IRA line was that anyone who went to Spain would be court-martialled upon their return. Anyone who did go had to face a board of inquiry upon their return, but in reality the majority of the 700 IRA volunteers in Belfast in the 1930s stayed in Ireland."

On the Socialist side there was a mix of IRA men, Socialists and Communists. "While O’Duffy’s men sailed from Galway to meet with a German vessel which took them to Spain the journey, for the men wanting to join the International Brigade was much harder.

"Don’t forget that this was the Hungry ‘30s, if you didn’t work you didn’t eat. The working classes had been promised huge improvements after World War I, but in reality they got less than nothing. People like Jim Larmour from Torrens Gardens and Hugh Hunter from the North Queen Street area and Bill Lord from Carrick Hill had to go to Liverpool first to join the International Brigade before they trudged their way through France to finally make it to Spain. Making it to Spain was an achievement in itself, but once they got there they were faced with almost certain death."

One typical member of the International Brigade was Bill Henry from Bradford Street. The 41-year-old arrived in Spain in December 1936; little over two months later he was killed at the battle of Jarama. On the morning of 27 February ‘37 the International Brigade charged against Franco’s lines and within minutes 147 of them were cut down. Henry died at Pingarron Heights when he was hit on the head with an explosive bullet. His widow Rosina recalled how in his last letter home, he had written: "There are some great comrades here with me, with whom it would be an honour to go to the happy hunting ground."

North Belfast man William Beattie, who had addresses at Ardglen Crescent and at Wilton Street in the Shankill. was injured in the arm during a battle at Lopera, less than a month after having arrived in Spain. After being hospitalised in Albacete for two months he rejoined the International Brigade and died at Brunette four months later, along with Belfast man James Hillen.

Albert Fulton had moved to Australia in 1928 and arrived in Spain to fight with the International Brigade in May 1938. Later he was wounded at the Ebro and was finally sent home to his Alexandra Park Avenue home.

"One thing that people tend to forget is the fact that the International Brigade was made up of a broad section of men with varying political beliefs. Many were Protestant socialists, others were communists, others were IRA. What joined them together was the political belief that what was happening in Spain was wrong, for them religion didn’t come into it."

While the International Brigade were involved in some of the heaviest fighting O’Duffy’s men ironically saw little or nothing of the war, being sidelined for much of their time in the civil war by bad planning on Franco’s part. When the war eventually ended they returned in controversy over the fact that they had seen little or no action in the war.

But the fate of those members of the International Brigade who did make it home was not much better. As soon as Willie O’Hanlon arrived back in Belfast he was arrested and deported to England as a subversive.

Veteran Republican Michael O’Riordan was immediately interned by De Valera in the Curragh. "Despite being branded as subversives many of the Spanish Civil war veterans were soon offered commissions in the Free State Army at the beginning of World War II. Some accepted, many refused.

Still interned in the Curragh in the early 1940s Michael O’Riordan found it strangely ironic when he noticed the face of a former comrade of the International Brigade, by this time he was a Lieutenant in the Free State Army. For any of the men that made it back to Belfast, International Brigade or O’Duffy’s, there would be no medals. Many kept the memories of days spent fighting in the Spanish sun to themselves.

Paddy McAllister, the last remaining Belfast man to have fought in the Spanish Civil War died in 1998. Of the 277 who went to fight on the Republican side, only two are still alive, Eugene Downing lives in Co Wicklow, while Michael O’ Riordan keeps the fire burning in Dublin and Bob Doyle is active in London.

The ideals and beliefs, which led 1,000 men, Catholic and Protestant, from both sides of the border, to fight in another nation’s civil war, lie buried somewhere on a Spanish hillside.

[Note by C Crossey:- I would also say that I do not agree with the concluding remarks. This would seem to ignore the struggles by Mick Lehane and Jim Haughey who died fighting fascism in World War 2; it ignores the efforts by Michael O'Riordan, Paddy Duff, and countless others who continued to be politically active in the labour or republican movements in Ireland and internationally for decades. Ciaran Crossey, 26.11.1]