Sympathy for Spain, Ancient Ally and Protector
History; Posted on: 2008-03-17 12:47:06 [ Printer friendly / Instant flyer ]
How the people of Eire helped save Spain
by James McCarthy
In July 1936, the revolt which led to the Spanish Civil War occurred. The leaders of the revolution were army officers, who sympathised with the Rightist political parties who were then protesting against outrages and atrocities being committed by groups led by Communist agitators.
It was claimed that the Government in power was permitting mob law to run riot. With murder, savagery and arson going perpetuated without hindrance or punishment.
Faith and morals were assailed as organised propagandists, while priest and religious communities were being attacked and churches were attacked and burned.
From its earliest stages the conflict took on an international flavour with the Communist dominated countries rallying to the aid of the Government in Spain with armaments, volunteers and material aid. A few non Communist countries did offer support of the group in revolt.
The League of Nations, precursor the UNO, tried to arbitrate to prevent the conflict from spreading and becoming a world conflagration. The hostilities, however, did not spread beyond the boundaries of Spain, but in the lives of both sides were foreign volunteers who saw in the issue, a struggle between Christian and atheistic ideologies.
Ireland was a member of the League of Nations and our Government supported a policy of non-intervention, while continuing to give official recognition to the Government of the old regime. The forces of the Government in Spain were now being described as 'Reds' and the rebels as 'Nationalists' in Irish publications.
The Communist bloc countries were not alone in supplying arms to the Government regime, but had resort to the recruitment of an international force to serve beneath the emblem of the hammer and sickle, the symbol of world revolution.
This force was recruited in Ireland, Britain, France, USA as well as in all communist dominated countries. Here in Ireland, conflicting views were held. A group known as the Republican Congress Party of Ireland contributed about 300 recruits to the International Brigade of the Red Army.
This gesture, coupled with the fact that the Irish Government still continued to recognise the old regime, was looked on by those who felt there was justification for the revolt as a misrepresentation of the Irish nation.
A month had elapsed since the revolution, when a proposal was made through the columns of an Irish newspaper that an Irish Brigade be formed to serve in Spain in support of the Nationalist cause.
The proposal was widely acclaimed and many young men expressed their willingness to serve the cause. This idea of a Brigade stemmed from a meeting between the Spanish Ambassador to Britain, who was pro-Nationalist, and General Eoin O'Duffy, the leader of the National Corporate Party in Ireland.
General O'Duffy suspended the activities of his party and undertook the task of recruiting the volunteers and leading the proposed Brigade. He had been a leader in our national struggle for independence, a general in our national army and later the first Commissioner of the Gárda Síochána.
He now travelled to Spain, where he met the rebel leader, General Franco, who was enthusiastic about accepting support form Ireland. The Spanish Command decided that the Irish unit would be attached to the force which had been under the command of General Franco, prior to the revolution. This force was called 'El Tercio', which means, 'The Legion; it was a regular unit of the army.
It was agreed that the proposed Brigade would serve for the duration of the hostilities, or six months, whichever period was the shorter. The Brigade would have Irish officers, but would be subject to the Spanish command. The transportation of the volunteers would be the responsibility of an Irish Committee, while the Spanish authorities would equip and train the force on arrival.
A recruiting office was set up in Dublin, from which instructions were given to volunteers. Those accepted were advised to obtain passports and to hold themselves in readiness to travel at short notice. Passports were not being issued for travel to Spain so we applied for permission to travel as tourists to Portugal. Crossing the frontier into Spain presented no difficulty as the Portuguese Government was pro-Nationalist.
Meanwhile, General O'Duffy was endeavouring to find transport. He discovered shipping companies were either unfavourably disposed, or were unwilling to risk involvement, with its possible hazards. Eventually the Yeoward Line, which plied regularly between Liverpool and Lisbon, agreed to convey a number of volunteers on each of their sailings to the latter port.
Local committees of well wishers were formed in each county to facilitate the volunteers in their preparations. These committees continued to befriend the volunteers by sending comforts such as socks and underwear, by providing traditional Christmas fare at the festive season, and on occasions they would send a treat in the form of tea, which was unobtainable in Spain, and cigarettes, as good quality varieties of these were seldom procurable in the shops.
To these generous people the volunteers felt much indebted.
The Irish Government, in fulfilment of a pledge to the League of Nations, sought to prevent the intervention of this group in the conflict. A bill was passed in the Oireachtas for the purpose of preventing this volunteer force from leaving Ireland. Hundreds had travelled before the bill became law.
The advance part, consisting of 10 men, sailed early in November 1936. They travelled to Liverpool, then boarded ship for Lisbon, crossing Portugal to the Spanish frontier.
The training base arranged by the Spanish authorities for the Irish troops was at a military base in Caceras. This city had been in Nationalist hands since the revolt, and conflict had not taken place there. The advance party duly arrived at the base and proceeded to prepare for the arrival of the main body.
A week or so later a second group of about 40 men travelled by the same route. Most of the personnel of this and the earlier group were experienced soldiers. The officers of the Brigade were drawn, largely, from these groups.
A third contingent of about 80 men followed, leaving Dublin on November 27. I was included in this party, which was composed of men from practically every county in the four provinces. Travelling with this party was the priest who had been appointed to act as chaplain for the Brigade. He was Rev. Fr, Mulrean, a native of Co. Westmeath, who had ministered in Gibraltar and who spoke Spanish fluently.
Liverpool to Lisbon
Having arrived at Liverpool all boarded the Yeoward Line steamer, the S.S. Aguila, which then took us to the port of Lisbon. The ship had a party of British tourists on board. An unfriendly Dublin newspaper [Irish Press] had a reporter on board to collect first-hand information on some matters that his paper wished to have.
Another passenger was Commandant Cronin of North Cork, who was on his way to seek an interview with General Franco, with a view to obtaining consent to the fielding of yet another military unit of Irishmen, which would be independent of the Spanish army.
He canvassed among our party for recruits for his proposed Brigade and created a measure of uneasiness by suggesting that we were being enlisted in a foreign legion with no hope of return. He was, however, refused permission to enter Spain.
The weather during the voyage was good, with the sea calm, except for the crossing of the Bay of Biscay, when there was a swell which caused some seasickness amongst us. We enjoyed the trip as our boat was very comfortable, with the cuisine good and pleasant company.
We got to know each other and some lasting friendships were developed. I celebrated my 27th birthday on our first day out from Liverpool.
Our ship docked in Lisbon, about noon, on the fourth day of our voyage and we were informed that we might go ashore in a few hours as we would not be disembarking officially until the following day. Most of availed of this opportunity of viewing the city, which we found very interesting. We travelled around, unguided, in small groups, noting many unusual features in this beautiful capital.
Visit to Dominican
The Kerrymen among our number had a letter of introduction to the Rector of the Dominican College, so they availed of the opportunity of paying him a visit. He was a Tralee man, Very Reverend Pail O'Sullivan, OP, who had played large part in the defence of the Faith in Portugal during the Masonic persecutions of 1910.
General O'Duffy and the first batch of volunteers had the pleasure of meeting Fr O'Sullivan when they visited his friary on the occasion of their stay in the city.
He expressed to them his deep appreciation of their act in rallying to defend what he termed 'a holy and noble cause'. He gave them his blessing and assured them of his prayers and those of his community. Fr. O'Sullivan died in Lisbon in 1958.
Some of the Irish priests from the Dominican College visited our ship on the evening of our stay in Lisbon, when we entertained the, with an impromptu concert. They were pleased to meet people form the homeland and we felt happy having a visit from them.
We disembarked on the morning following our arrival in the port. Our passports and baggage were checked at the customs barrier and we then boarded special buses which had been chartered to take us to the Spanish frontier. We travelled along the right bank of the river Tagus for some distance. Then we crossed the estuary by a ferry boat, which carried our busses also. On board our buses again, we headed towards the Spanish town of Badajoz, stopping en route by prior arrangement at a hotel, where we were entertained to a sumptuous meal provided by a family of Irish ancestry.
We eventually arrived at the frontier at about midnight and having crossed to the Spanish side we travelled in army trucks to the barracks in Badajoz, where a meal and a rest awaited us.
The town of Badajoz had been the scene of fierce conflict in the early days of the war. The barracks and mush of the town bore evidence of a grim struggle, with bloodstains, bullet marks and wrecked buildings. It was a very depressing sight as we looked around the place in daylight.
We spent another day and night in this town before proceeding to our training base at Caceras. We were permitted to ramble about the town during the day. It was a heavily garrisoned town and was a training centre for recruits for the army.
There was practically no civilian population in the town and only a few shops were open. In the afternoon, a number of us were befriended by a Spanish army sergeant, who spoke English.
He conducted us about the town, showing us places of interest, telling us of the history of the town, which had been held by the Moors in former days and which still had a Moorish residential quarter.
In our tour of the town the sergeant took us through the wards of a military hospital, where the wounded soldiers took a curious interest in us. Our guide told the soldiers where we were from and what our mission was.
They asked him many questions and then conversed excitedly among themselves. He told us afterwards that he had difficulty in convincing some that we were genuine friends.
We were surprised at this, but he explained the causes of their misunderstanding and doubt. He gave three reasons, namely the Irish Government continued to recognise the Red regime; an Irish detachment was serving with the Red army in Spain; we spoke the language of Britain, the traditional enemy of Spain and a strong supporter of the Red Government.
We experienced a pleasant surprise in the hospital as our guide brought forward a nurse who had told him that she had Irish ancestors and bore an Irish name, O'Reilly. The Irishman whose name she bore had hailed as one of the 'Wild Geese'. We were thrilled to think we had found a link with our historic past. As she could not speak either Irish or English and we could not speak Spanish, our conversation was carried on with the help of our guide, who acted as interpreter.
News Source: James McCarthy