It has been a while since we discussed Irish involvement in conflicts outside of Irish soil, something which, owing to the Irish military diaspora and Irish named units of the British military, comprises a significant section of Irish military history all of its own. I suppose we must look back nearly 200 entries or so to the close of Irish involvement in the First World War really, to see examples of Irish units and Irish soldiery engaged outside of Ireland. Now, in the late 1930s with Ireland self-governing and independent in all but name, the opportunity for such operations in an official capacity were limited: the Irish Defence Forces, as the very name implies, were not meant to be a military that would take part in wars and conflicts outside of Irish borders.
Instead, the study of the Ireland’s military history abroad must now step back into the realm of those recognised Irish units that served in other armies. Soon enough we will examine such things in the context of the British, and to a lesser extent American, war machines that fought in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific from 1939 to 1945. But first, we must consider Irish involvement in what has often somewhat unfortunately been dubbed the “dress rehearsal” for that conflict: the Spanish Civil War, fought between 1936 and 1939.
If wars are complicated, and civil wars are especially complicated, then the Spanish Civil War can be described as one of the most complex in history. Boiled down to its very basic points, it was a war fought between the mostly left-wing Republican government and a mostly right-wing Nationalist rebellion, but there was so much more to what erupted in Spain in 1936 than that. There was an element of class struggle, of conflict between the Catholic Church and non-believers, of competing ideological philosophies as it pertained to democracy, a counter-revolution to the Second Spanish Republic’s earlier revolution and war between the poles of fascism and communism, which inevitably drew in several of the major powers in Europe at the time. To get a full picture of the level of complexity we are talking about, one only has to look at the list of combatants per faction: the Republicans who included the various left-wing socialist and communist political parties of the Popular Front, militant trade unions of several different political persuasions, not least the anarchist CNT, independence movements from Catalunya and the Basque Country, and the famous International Brigades provided by a host of different origin points worldwide; the Nationalists meanwhile included the Falange union of Carlist monarchical, ultracatholic and fascist factions, conservative political parties, the Alfonsism monarchical groupings, support from Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy and most of the pre-rebellion military. The attempted nationwide coup of the Generals against the Republican government in July1936 was only partially successful, and left Spain divided, with the Republicans holding much of the east, south and centre (including Madrid), and the Nationalists holding sway in much of what remained.
Reaction in Ireland when the war broke out was mixed. The Republican government had long been a bogeyman of the Catholic Church throughout Europe, owing to that governments efforts, sometimes extreme, to create a more secular civil and public society in Spain. Because of this, the Catholic Church in Ireland and elsewhere rowed in firmly behind the Nationalist cause, especially as it coalesced around the figure of Francisco Franco. They were helped by the press, with major newspapers like the Independent and Irish Press espousing pro-Nationalist opinions almost as soon as the military coup became common knowledge. For them it was a case of Catholic civilisation coming up against communist barbarism, and the combination of print and church helped to whip up a widescale movement that supported Franco’s faction. They were not entirely unopposed of course, with numerous trade unions, left-wing groups and others agitating for support for the recognised Spanish government, but it’s undeniable that they were in the minority.
The crux of the thing was how what was, in reality, an immensely complicated war was boiled down to what was bound to appeal to many Irish: religion. The Nationalists were depicted as modern-day Crusaders, the soldiers of Christ fighting the legions of the anti-Christ, their opponents as monsters who were intent on continuing a reign of terror that involved the burning of churches, the murder of priests and the raping of nuns en masse. Such things certainly did occur in the early weeks of the war as anti-clerical violence sweat across parts of Spain as a response to the coup: somewhere in the region of 6’500 priests, monks, nuns and bishops were killed in those days, and the legacy of this bloody campaign remains one that, for many, tarnishes the heroic image the Republican side attempted to adopt and whose supporters still attempt to paint it with to this day. But reports of anti-Catholic atrocities were also undoubtedly exaggerated across the media, worldwide and in Ireland. In this regard it is helpful to realise that the outcome of the conflict in Spain was one of immense worry for Catholics all over the world, who feared the rise of secular communism. In Ireland, the Church saw organisations like the Republican Congress and somewhat more left-wing IRA as a foreshadowing of a similar violence, and so were happy to trumpet what was happening in Spain into the minds of the Church going faithful as much as possible, as a warning of what might occur.
Much of the pro-Nationalist sentiment would coalesce under an organisation dubbed the “Irish Christian Front”, a collection of clergy, former Blueshirts, right-wing politicians, trade unionists, anti-communists and fascists. The group organised huge meetings of supporters who were compelled to pledge a manner of allegiance to the Nationalists, with violence breaking out at one meeting in Cork that saw hecklers of the days speakers beaten and thrown into the River Lee. Aside from whipping up pro-Falange sentiment, the ICF went further in organising for financial support and supplies to be sent to Spain.
On an official level, the Spanish Civil War put the Fianna Fail government in something of an awkward position. Eamon de Valera was, of course, a devout Catholic, and the leader of a legislature that contained many devout Catholics within and outside of his own party. As such, it was only natural that their sympathies would extend primarily to the Nationalist side. Further, the Republican side was heavily associated with communism, a political ideology that de Valera has placed himself against, as had the main opposition group in the form of Fine Gael. On the face of it, support for the Nationalists would have seemed to be something that Fianna Fail and Fine Gale could have agreed upon. The collapse of the Republican diplomatic system in Ireland – the ambassador would resign “for family reasons” very early in the conflict, and not be adequately replaced – meant that Madrid had little in the way of voice in Ireland as well, so it was not as if de Valera was in constant contact with a legitimate ambassador.
But the issue was more complicated than that. For one thing the Republicans constituted the official government of Spain as recognised by Ireland, which was not something so easily cast aside (though plenty demanded such a course). Choosing to switch recognition to Franco’s faction would set a dangerous precedent, especially in a country where Fianna Fail had been forced to face down a potential threat from a fascist grouping that may have attempted a coup against the state. Further, de Valera’s interactions with the League of Nations compelled him to back the Anglo-French policy of non-interventionism in the conflict, after an offer to be a mediator in the conflict – with de Valera attempting to frame his Spanish ancestry as a benefit to such a proposal – had gone nowhere.
The non-interventionism policy hoped to insure that Spain would be left to settle the matter internally, with no outside interference, and the League presumably to deal with whomever came out on top. Such a course of action naturally appealed to de Valera, who held the concept of Irish neutrality in high regard when it came to international relations. But non-intervention was largely stillborn as a concept really, given Soviet assistance to the Republicans and German/Italian assistance to the Nationalists, which the League was unable or unwilling to really stall from one end of the conflict to the other.
In the end, the government managed to get assent in the Dail for the “Non-Intervention Act” when it was debated in February of 1937. Despite a torrent of anger from the ICF, the Church, Fine Gael inside the Dail chamber and numerous branches of Fianna Fail outside of it, the affirmation of the act guaranteed that Ireland would take no official position on the war, and that the Republican government would continue to be the officially recognised leadership of Spain, at least for the time being. But the Act on its own came too late to stop Irishmen from leaving the country to go and fight on either side: something I will cover in more detail, for either side of the Civil War, in the next few entries. The Act’s passing made it easier for the state to intervene with such things, though it would never be able to halt it completely.
Over time, opinions changed and fervour died down. As the war dragged on over three years enthusiasm naturally waned, and large crowds willing to assemble to express support for Franco became difficult to find. Nationalist alliances with fascist powers, and atrocities and controversies such as the infamous bombing of Guernica, also turned public opinion against Franco in Ireland, though never to the extent where it could be said that the Republicans were favoured by the majority. But such things allowed de Valera and Fianna Fail to weather the storm, though their loyal adherence to the work of the Non-Intervention Committee was just one aspect of the larger scale failure of that entity and that policy. The political tightrope walked between maintaining this semblance of relations with Republican Spain and not condemning Nationalist Spain, or its supporters, was difficult, but de Valera just about managed it. With the victory of Franco and the collapse of the Republican regime in March 1939, it was easy for Dublin to follow the European consensus and recognise the Nationalists.
We must now move on to the actual outline of events in Spain, as experienced by Irish soldiers who choose to fight for Franco or for the Republican government. First up will be the Nationalists, with the forces arrayed to travel to Spain from Ireland giving one of the most controversial personalities of Ireland’s first few decades as a self-governing nation his last time in the spotlight. Eoin O’Duffy was down but not out, and through the Spanish Civil War had yet another opportunity to lead men into militancy.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.