Ireland’s Wars: The Irish In The International Brigades

In last week’s entry we took the time to examine the Irish experience of the Spanish Civil War first from the perceptive of those who fought for Franco’s Nationalists. The decision to go with O’Duffy’s Brigade first was at least partly to get it out of the way: as outlined in that entry, there was very little to talk about in terms of the Brigade’s combat performance, and it left Spain with a very unimpressive legacy. The fate of the Irish contingent that become synonymous with the Republican side was very different. Fighting in multiple battles and campaigns all over Spain, it was part of an international dimension to the conflict that would be one of the most controversial of the period, and in its creation and history carried with it scars of Ireland’s previous conflicts that played out on a foreign field.

While they were distinctly in a minority, and often very unpopular, position, supporters of the Republicans existed from the off in Ireland. They came from numerous backgrounds, but can be generally defined by left-leaning political ideologies, whether they were members of the Communist Party of Ireland, the Republican Congress, trade unions or any number of other organisations and entities. For them, the war in Spain was an extension of a long-running conflict with the forces of fascism and the far-right: the secular Spanish Republic was held up as an ideal, an effort of a frequently backwards and overly-religious nation to usher in a new age. Now that it was under threat, there were plenty of Irishmen willing to volunteer to defend it.

Add in the same reasons that had people signing up with the Irish Brigade – employment, adventure, a romantic idea of war as something worthy carrying out in defence of ones principals – and it was clear that Ireland would be capable of contributing something to the Republican cause. When the Third Communist International in Paris issued a call for International Brigades to be formed to fight on the side of the Republican faction, it was answered in Ireland among many others. Undoubtedly, the large public persona of Eoin ODuffy recruiting for the other side proved an enormous motivation all of its own, as recorded by many veterans: he remained a hated figure for those on the left, and elements of the Congress and CPI were bound to oppose him at every turn.

Recruitment for the Irish contingent that would join the International Brigades largely came under the purview of the Communist Party and its general secretary Sean Murray, and the Republican Congress and its key figures of Peader O’Donnell and Frank Ryan: all three men were IRA veterans of the War of Independence and Civil War. O’Donnell had been in Barcelona attending the “People’s Olympics” – an alternative to the Berlin Olympics organised as a protest to the Nazi spectacle – when the Civil War had broken out and, impressed by the workers militias that had sprung p to defend the Republic in the city, had joined in the fighting in the Aragon region before retuning to Ireland to organise his own unit of volunteers.

Ryan, a major figure in the Sinn Fein of the 1920s, would initially be hesitant to recruit, but would find his head turned by the apparent popularity of the despised O’Duffy: once committed, he proved perhaps the single most important person of the Irish willing to fight for the Spanish Republic, in terms of his drive to recruit and then lead men. Canvassing the membership of the CPI and Congress, the Ryan, Murray and O’Donnell would be critical in recruiting the hundreds of Irish soldiers who eventually served with the Republican cause in Spain, though the initial contingent numbered around 80 (either organisation was quite small, reflecting the limited popularity of the Communist ideology in Ireland at the time). The numbers may seem small compared to those recruited by the Irish Brigade but were arguably much more committed. Ryan, despite being partially deaf, was the only one of three deemed capable of travelling to Spain, owing to the age or ill-health of the others.

They were to be part, in one way or another, of the International Brigades, a unique set of military units where martial training was put on the same level as political ideology. Nominally an initiative of the Third Communist International, or Comintern, in truth they were largely directed in their creation, organisation and financing by Moscow. 45’000 people from all over the globe would come together in those units, a mass volunteerism that has never really since been replicated in war. It was only natural that those of a left-wing persuasion in Ireland would be among those who answered the call, but we must keep in mind that they represented a relatively small portion of the overall movement.

It is here that we must briefly pause and talk about unit designations. Most of the Irish who arrived in Spain to fight for the Republic were assigned to what would become known as the British Battalion of the XV International Brigade, that Brigade assigned specifically for English speakers (things are sometimes further confused by the misidentification of the British Battalion and the XV Brigade as the same thing). To add even more to confusion over where the Irish belonged, in the early stages of the war they were attached to different Brigades, and then later split between units. I will do my best to keep things as clear as possible, but it suffices to say that the idea that a single unit of Irish volunteers fought for Republican Spain is a gross simplification of what actually happened.

The first set of men did not get the benefit of a direct sea passage, partially owing to the difficulty in obtaining passports, instead having to get to Republican Spain with an elongated route through France and over the Pyrenees. 80 or so men assembled in Madrigueras, west of Valencia, in December 1936. They didn’t have too long to acclimatise. Despite their numerical advantage over the enemy, the Republic was desperately short of experienced fighters, and there were holes in every unit and every part of the line. Within a few weeks 40 Irish were among those temporarily attached to the XIV International Brigade of mostly French volunteers and saw their first bit of combat rapidly when deployed to the Andalusian front near Cordoba, where a limited Nationalist offensive had put nearby Republicans commanders into a degree of panic.

It was a limited enough fight that took place in the last few days of the year, and saw the Irish attempting to assist in the taking of a village named Lopera. It was here that the rudimentary training, supplies and weapons of the Brigade were first shown up as inadequate for the task they had been given, with the volunteers armed with single-shot rifles, machine guns with a tendency to jam easily and supported by artillery that was replete with dud shells that failed to explode. Facing a determined enemy and suffering from air attack as they advanced, this cobbled together company of English speakers was unable to make much in the way of progress, and was pulled back after heavy casualties: eight Irish died in the fighting. It was a rude awakening, but the Nationalist offensive was halted.

From there the Irish were moved to the Madrid front, where one of the pivotal early battles of the war was being fought. The Republican control of the capital was critical to establishing their legitimacy, and its defence had taken on something of a crusade in its own right thanks to the actions of people like Dolores Ibárruri, whose rallying cry of “No pasaran!” (They shall not pass) passed into legend. Franco’s efforts use air power to bombard the city into submission also upped the ante. The Republicans withstood the assault, and would do for years more, though the fighting was fiercest at that time. Ryan had fought with the XII Brigade in and around the city already, and was joined by the Irish in January. Engagement here was limited enough, with the unit involved in the successful capture of Majadahonda, north-west of the city, and then the fighting in Las Rozas, losing one man killed.

Following this the reality of the multi-ethnic make-up of the International Brigades proved unexpectedly fractious for the Republican leadership. As soon as they had arrived in Spain hopes that some manner of Irish battalion would be formed were dashed by the limited numbers of Irishmen available for such a entity, and the arrivals from Ireland had thus been designated as part of the British Battalion of the XV Brigade. Made up mostly of English recruits, the company that contained most of the Irish was commanded by a man named George Nathan, who had served as a Section Leader of the Auxiliaries during the War of Independence. It is understandable how this state of affairs was deemed outrageous by many of the Irish volunteers, some of whom had fought with the IRA in the same conflict, and did not consider that conflict to actually be over. And Nathan was no minor figure in the War of Independence, with it commonly believed that he was among those responsible for the Limerick Curfew Murders.

The commanders of the International Brigades had no time for such divides, deeming that a commonality in language should have been more than enough to justify the men’s inclusion in the XV Brigade. After all, French and Belgians served together in other units without difficulties. Any political differences were meant to be subordinate to the broad tent of communism. But the Irish were a particular case. Some were willing to serve under British officers, even Nathan, whose battlefield performance was generally perceived as more than adequate. But plenty of others were not to be convinced, having come to Spain in the expectation they would be serving in their own Irish unit.

Despite his efforts to convince his men to serve under Nathan in the cause of socialism, Ryan had actually seen his own leadership of the Irish ended by being sent to Madrid ahead of the other Irish. Things deteriorated in the early weeks of 1937, with incidents of violence between Irish and British volunteers, and, not unlike the Irish Brigade on the other side, complaints that the Irish spent too much time drinking. Eventually things came to a head, though the exact nature and timeline of events is unclear: there are claims that some Irish forced a resolution by surrounding the British HQ with guns, but others make no reference to this. However it fell out, it became obvious that the situation could not hold, and a majority of the Irish within the British Battalion voted to transfer to the North American Battalion, better known to history, somewhat confusingly, as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Some accounts of American leaders of the unit indicate they weren’t exactly thrilled at this turn of events, as the Irish were frequently undisciplined, but they were regarded as good fighters. Complicating things further is the fact that most of the later Irish arrivals to Spain were put into the British Battalion.

Both the British and Lincoln Battalion were to participate in the Batle of Jarama, where the Irish Brigade also fought, though they were never engaged with their Irish counterparts on the other side. The XV Brigade arrived into the area five days into Franco’s efforts to cut the road between Madrid and Valence, and immediately got thrown into deadly combat with Moorish troops near the village of Morata de Tajuna. It was a terrible, confused affair where the International Brigades arrived thinking they were to be following up on an offensive, only to be almost immediately called upon to defend themselves from an assault from some of the best troops Franco had.

Irish soldiers was part of a desperate effort that halted the Nationalist advance that day, being among the first to engage with the Moorish veterans whose battlefield performance was legendary in the conflict. The cost in lives in the course of a day of bloodshed was enormous, but necessary: for a time the XV Brigade was all that stood between the Nationalists and objectives on the outskirts of Madrid. Taking what positions they could, the British Battalion, and its 40 Irish in the 1st company, absorbed the attacks from infantry and artillery. Much of the slaughter was put down to the terrain the Irish and others had to fight in, which lacked much in the way of cover and had little prepared defensive positions, while the lingering problems of inadequate guns and mis-supplied ammunition frequently meant the British and Irish were as well off throwing rocks in the direction of their opponents. But they held, perhaps aided by the limitations of an enemy unable to maintain a constant state of offensive and by the confused nature of a fight where lines were constantly forming or re-forming. Barely more than a third of the Battalion was in a position to report for duty the following day, with the 1st company commander Kit Conway, an IRA veteran from Tipperary, among the dead.

For the next few days, Irish soldiers fighting with both the British remained in the thick of things in this section of Jarama, doing their best to absorb Nationalist attacks and to perpetrate a few of their own when the occasion allowed. At times they would have to choose between withdrawal or being surrounded, and different units choose either course. The casualty list rose ever higher, but a Nationalist breakthrough was prevented. Repulse and then efforts to reclaim ground were the order of the day, with Frank Ryan, despite being assigned in the role of a staff officer behind the line, wounded repeatedly while leading a counter-attack on the 14th February, though he survived. The positions held on the end of that day became a more long-term frontline, as the exhausted Nationalists were forced to call off their offensives, and reinforced Republicans bolstered their defences.

Irish of the Lincoln Brigade would get their chance towards the tail end of the battle, as Republicans attempted a widescale counter-attack south of the British Battalion’s position, near a ridge named Pingarron, known more colloquially as “the big pimple”. A brutal back-and-forth struggle resulted as Spanish soldiers from either side left the ridge soaked in blood, with Republican commanders eventually forced to call for reinforcements from the International Brigades. The Lincolns, who contained a company that consisted of 40 Irish and a comparable number of Irish-Americans, were sent in. The results were similar to those suffered by the British Battalion a week earlier. The attack was unable to make great progress over the largely open ground, and the pimple remained untaken. A final attempt involving the Lincolns on the 27th February was especially costly, with promised armour and artillery support never arriving. By the conclusion of the battle, where both sides sustained huge losses, as many as 30 of the original 80 Irish members of the Brigade had been killed, with half of the others wounded. The Irish would remain in entrenched positions around Jarama for the next three months.

We will break at this point. There remains much to say about the Irish fighting for the Republic, more than enough to fill its own entry. For now it is enough to note that the Irish part of either Battalion’s war record to the point of Jarama was generally exemplary, in line with the larger performance of the International Brigades as a whole. They had done more than most to make sure that the Republic survived into the Summer of 1937. But the Nationalists were far from being defeated, and two more years of heartache and bitter fighting, to no positive end result for those within the International Brigades, was yet to come.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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1 Response to Ireland’s Wars: The Irish In The International Brigades

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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