Danny Conlon,The News of the World, January 5, 2003



THE ideological maelstrom of Ireland's Civil War was to be cruelly repeated - in Spain. The bitterness of the homefront divide took more than 3,000 lives in 1922.

In 1936 legions of Irishmen joined sides in the Spanish Civil War to fight the same battles of faith and passion all over again. More than 300 were killed. Hundreds more were maimed. And none escaped jarred minds and mental scars of the savagery.

A cruel chapter for the history books pitted brother against brother and father against son in trenches in a foreign land. For the Irish there were no victors.

A Dublin historian said: "It was a terrible tragedy that Irish soldiers were once again fighting against each other, and this time in a foreign land."

Around 2,000 men took boats to Spain in organised groups. Many more, either singly or in small parties, joined the conflict. The seeds to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) were sown in 1931 when monarchist candidates were voted out and a republic was proclaimed.

The cruel rule of a wealthy elite backed up by brutal military police was over - for a while. People looked for land reform and an end to poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition. Bloody

By 1936 Spain was entering a bloody chapter in its history as Fascist leader General Franco led a revolt against the Republican government. He was backed by Hitler's Germany and Italy. Little did people know at the time how devastating this war would turn out to be for the whole of Europe. The Republican government had been strongly opposed by the middle classes and Catholic Church of Spain who saw them as anti-Catholic Communists in the grip of Russia.

Franco's group, known as the Nationalists, had their stronghold in the Spanish colonies of Africa from where they launched their offensive on the Spanish mainland. The conflict became truly international when Hitler unleashed the German air force on Left-wing supporters. Nazi planes transported Franco's men to battle. Italy sent tanks, warplanes and 47,000 men. And the German Luffwaffe carried out its first blitzkrieg - using Stuka dive bombers to bomb civilians and obliterate the town Guernica.

Russia replied in kind, supporting the Republican government with arms and financial aid to conduct the war. It was now a battle between two ideologies, Fascism on one side and Communism on the other.

In Ireland, the bitter political divide over Spain became a cause. But the realities of war soon ruined the romantic notions of the young men as the Spanish Civil War turned into a bloody conflict. The backdrop was an Ireland where rebellion was in the air as the Blueshirts led by charismatic Eoin O'Duffy clamoured for a Right-wing coup of Dail Eireann.

O'Duffy was a former commander of the IRA and Commissioner of the Gardai until 1933 when President de Valera, shocked by his Fascist beliefs and admiration of Hitler, sacked him from his post. O'Duffy, one of the founding members of Fine Gael, now began to attack his former comrades-in-arms. He made countless attacks on the IRA, infuriating leaders of the organisation by calling them Communists.

This led to pitched battles between the two groups as tensions spilt over into the streets of 30s Ireland. O'Duffy saw the perfect battle ground for his Nazi-style Blueshirts would be in Spain and he began to recruit volunteers under his command to fight in the bitter war on the side of Franco.

Left-wing parties in Ireland along with many IRA volunteers now began to recruit for what they saw as the socialist and democratically elected Republican government which needed to be defended against the Fascists.

So they set sail for Spain believing their cause to be right to the point where they would lay down their lives.

O'Duffy and his 750 men became part of the XV Bandera Irlandesa del Terico of the Spanish Foreign Legion. Survivors claimed after the war they had simply gone to defend the Catholic faith and not in support of Fascism.

In 1937 a Republican brigade surrounded Duffy and his men at a town called Jarama. The Irish battalion suffered huge losses as they were shelled unmercifully. More than 30 were killed and 250 badly injured.

O'Duffy then issued a statement on why the Irish Brigade was leaving Spain. He said: "My men have now been in frontline trenches for three months without a break. It has been a baptism of fire. They have been subjected to almost unceasing shell fire and bombing day after day, night after night. "We have many dead and many seriously wounded, some maimed for life. Many others are suffering from shellshock, pulmonary diseases, rheumatic fever developed during weeks of torrential rain." He spoke of a lack of drinking water and the onset of typhoid.

The passing of the Free State Non-Intervention Act in Ireland forbidding men and women from fighting overseas meant that there was no more support from home for fighters.

O'Duffy said: "No further support from Ireland will be forthcoming. The Irish post offices have even refused to accept parcels addressed to members of the brigade in Spain since the passing of the Act." So the remnants of O'Duffy's little army called it a day in late 1937 and struggled home.

Survivors later told of being annoyed by falsehoods about why men went to Spain to fight. Everyone who joined O'Duffy was not a Fascist. The majority who fought for Franco had no interest in Fascism and were traditional Catholics. They did what they did because the Church told them to.

The Irish volunteers who had joined up with the International Socialists Brigade on the side of the Republicans were fairing no better than their bitter rivals. The Irish International Brigade was made up of trade union leaders and IRA volunteers representing all walks of life in Ireland.

They put up with unimaginable hardships as Hitler's planes supported Franco by bombarding the Irish forces in a new type of war from the air that the world had not witnessed before. They participated in the defence of Madrid which was a stronghold of the Republican forces. The volunteers witnessed death rain down from the skies daily in the form of Stuka divebombers. They never forgot the horror of what they saw as Madrid was wrecked by the relentless onslaught.

One Irish volunteer who fought hard in the chaos of Madrid remembers sending a telegram to his mother and father in his native Cork as he recovered from serious wounds.

He said: "I felt bad about the worry I had put them through and I sent a telegram to tell them I was OK." Later he came to realise that in certain quarters in his homeland he was seen as a traitor. The postman who delivered the telegram spat out these words to his mother: "It's dead he should be, fighting against Christ."

But there were still men in the Church willing to speak out in favour of the Irishmen who had gone to battle for socialism and the Republicans. One such man was the Irish Republican priest, Father Michael O'Flanagan, who could not be silenced.

He said: "The fight in Spain is a fight between the rich, privileged classes and the rank and file of the poor, oppressed people of Spain."

O'Duffy would die in 1944 and receive a full State funeral but history has recorded him as a Nazi who trained his men to give him Nazi salutes.

The Irish on the Republican side would continue their fight until the eventual defeat of the socialist forces of Spain by Franco's forces in 1939. He ruled Spain with an iron hand until his death in 1975.

The war in Spain would leave many remembering Irishmen on both sides for their bravery and humanity in the face of the sheer horrors of war.

But, ironically, while the rest of the world marched off to the Second World War, Ireland entered a time of peace that had escaped it for generations.