Book Reviews: Pro-Franco Irish in the Spanish Civil War

Crusade in Spain, by Eoin O’Duffy & Michael McCormack, 1938, republished 2019, Reconquista Press

Salamanca Diaries, Father McCabe and the Spanish Civil War, by Tim Fanning, Merrion Press, 2019

Reviewer: John Dorney

Irishmen fought on both sides of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). These two books, both published in 2019. shed a light on the larger Irish intervention, that led by Eoin O’Duffy on the right wing or Francoist side.

One, Eoin O’Duffy’s ‘Crusade in Spain’, written in 1938 while the war was still going on, is very much a work of self justification and political polemic. The other, the diaries of Fr Joseph McCabe, the rector of the Irish College at Salamanca, ably edited and contextualised by Tim Fanning, is far more nuanced and revealing insight into the Irish involvement in Franco’s ‘Crusade’.

Father McCabe and Eoin O’Duffy grew up not far from each other, in south Ulster. O’Duffy, from County Monaghan was some ten years older than McCabe, of Drumkilly County Cavan.

Both had a Catholic education and enthusiastically played Gaelic football. But their paths diverged on the cusp of the Irish revolution. McCabe, went away to the seminary at Salamanca in northern Spain to study for the priesthood in 1919. Having missed out on the nationalist fervour of 1919-21, he retained throughout his career rather pro-British attitudes, judging the Empire to be a force to progress, order and modernity. His diaries evince a certain distaste as Irish republican politics, which he judged to be largely opportunism coloured by the threat of political violence.

McCabe’s clerical career took him from Spain to the impoverished east end of London, and eventually to become rector of the Irish College in Salamanca in the 1930s.

O’Duffy became an IRA commander in Monaghan during the War of Independence, later a National Army general in the Civil War and then Garda commissioner through the first decade of the Irish Free State. Later still, after his sacking as Garda head by the Fianna Fail government in 1933, O’Duffy gained notoriety as the controversial leader of the Blueshirt movement. What appeared at first to be a quasi-insurrectionary movement of the radical right, faltered, first under government suppression and then lapsed into a kind of violent agrarian protest as O’Duffy adopted the cause of farmers who objected to paying land annuities to the de Valera government.

By the second half of the 1930s O’Duffy had been ousted, for his radical rhetoric, as leader of the Fine Gael, had lost control of the Blueshirts to his rival Ned Cronin and appeared to be a marginalised extremist figure, with his own fascist inspired group, the National Corporatist Party, operating on the fringes of Irish politics.

On the face of it, the paths of the two Ulstermen could not have been more different.  But the fortunes of war and international politics threw McCabe and O’Duffy together in Spain in 1937. McCabe was on holiday in Ireland when the Civil War in Spain broke out, but hurried back in order to evacuate the Irish students from the College at Salamanca and to prevent its buildings from being seized by the military. O’Duffy was approached, via the Irish Bishop McRory, by Spanish aristocrat de la Cierva, to raise an Irish unit for the ‘National’ cause in Spain. He arrived there in late 1936.

McCabe had lived in Spain for much of the previous decade and unlike O’Duffy, had a deep knowledge of Spanish culture and politics as well as a fluent command of the Spanish language. He was an instinctive monarchist, but viewed the polarisation of Spanish politics with great foreboding and lamented that the Spanish Church had become so closely identified with right-wing politics in the 1930s.

Francisco Franco.

He wrote that the Spanish Church was ‘a mummy’ (i.e. without life) and contrasted its identification with the landed classes unfavourably with the Irish Catholic Church’ s involvement in the Land Wars of the late 19th century. That said, he was frightened by the increasingly radical and violently anti-clerical fervour of the Spanish left and backed the military uprising of July 1936 against the Republic, as a means of ‘restoring order’.

Like his colleague at the University of Salamanca, Miguel Unamuno (who famously told the Francoists, ‘you will conquer but not convince’), he was shocked by the ferocity of the repression behind the front lines. By McCabe’s count, in Salamanca, where there had been virtually no resistance to the military coup, there were 1,300 executions in 1936, one of which was of the gardener of the Irish College. All of which, it must be said, did not stop McCabe from supporting the ‘Nationalist’ side led by Francisco Franco and welcoming a contingent of Irish Catholic volunteers, led by Eoin O’Duffy who arrived in 1937 to fight against the Republic.

There is a danger, when writing about the Spanish Civil War, to present it as a contest between good and evil, between democracy and fascism. Atrocities certainly existed also on the Republican side, which, according to Paul Preston’s figures in ‘The Spanish Holocaust’, was responsible for about 50,000 killings of civilians, including over 7,000 priests, nuns and monks, compared to over 150,000 such murders of civilians and prisoners on the Francoist side.

Eoin O’Duffy in Irish Brigade, or bandera, uniform.

Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be irked by O’Duffy’s propagandistic and often mendacious account of the war and his own role in it, in ‘Crusade in Spain’. He repeats for instance the Francoist depiction of the ‘Soviet Republic’ as a plot by the Comintern to take power, when in fact the Spanish Communist Party, though growing, was a minor part of the Popular Front coalition that won the election of February 1936.

O’Duffy also seems not to be aware that the right had held power in the Republic from 1933 to 1936. As well as vastly overstating the numbers killed in the Republican zone, he blithely denies that any atrocities were committed by the right wing side.

He alleges for instance that there were no executions in Seville after its capture by the military rebels. In fact, again going by Preston’s figures, there were over 12,000 executions there. The massacre at Badajoz, where around 1,500 people were shot by general Yague’s troops in the town’s bullring, is blithely dismissed as an invention of ‘Red’ propaganda.  What is more, O’Duffy almost certainly knew his depiction of Francoist Spain, where ‘no person has had his life threatened or been forced to go into exile’ was a falsehood. The accounts of his men, collected at the University of Limerick’s Stradling Papers, record lorry loads of executions carried out every morning at their base in Caceres.

The reader is assured that ‘general Franco has no dictatorial ambitions’, which even by the time O’Duffy was writing in 1938, was clearly untrue. O’Duffy himself of course was, at best, equivocal on the merits of democracy by this point in his career.

In short, O’Duffy’s book is useful as an insight into how he and his right wing comrades in Spain, wished to present the Civil War, but not as objective source for those events.  The reader would be strongly advised to read it in conjunction with Fearghal McGarry’s well researched biography of O’Duffy, or indeed with Fanning’s book on McCabe.

The main congruence between the two books is after the bulk of O’Duffy’s 700 volunteers landed in Spain and were put into training in Caceres. McCabe visited the troops and was at first impressed with them and with O’Duffy.

It was not long, however before he began to have doubts about both. He records serious indiscipline, including heavy drinking, smashing up local cafes and insubordination to officers. There was also discord between O’Duffy’s brigade and their chaplain, Father Mulrean (though fault, it appears, existed on both sides for this). In addition, one volunteer was badly beaten by Irish officers, McCabe heard, for not supporting O’Duffy’s party, the NCP.

None of which, unsurprisingly, the reader will learn from O’Duffy’s account, which claims that ‘I am proud to say that I did not witness one member of the Brigade under the influence of drink’. O’Duffy seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time travelling around Nationalist held Spain, where he ‘travelled tens of thousands of miles’, which makes one wonder how much time he devoted to military training or command.

In February 1937, the Irish Brigade was sent to the front at Ciempozuelos, near Madrid. Perhaps inevitably, given the lack of professionalism on behalf of its officers, its military record was less than stellar. Their first engagement was with their own side, who mistook them for the Republican International Brigades. When ordered to attack the fortified village of Titulcia, the Irish took some casualties (4 killed and 9 wounded) after which they refused to renew the attack. O’Duffy intervened to get the attack orders cancelled, much to the surprise and chagrin of the Spanish military command.

The Irish College at Salamanca, C/O Wikipedia

By July 1937 the Irish had been disarmed and sent back to Caceres. Shortly afterwards Franco acceded to O’Duffy’s request that the brigade be shipped back to Ireland. O’Duffy presents this as the fault of the de Valera government, which had passed legislation forbidding more volunteers to travel to Spain in February 1937 and replace the Brigade’s losses. He asserts that his men had signed on for a six month period and when that was up, were entitled to go home.

However, McCabe’s diaries shed a light on O’Duffy’s lack of realism in the whole affair. Among O’Duffy’s notions, according to McCabe were; that the War in Spain could be won by a campaign of ambushes such as the IRA had carried out in 1919-1921, boasting to Franco that he had commanded a million men ‘at the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932’ and, perhaps most revealingly, that he believed the Irish Brigade’s role should be as a pipe band and to go on a propaganda tour of Spain.

When McCabe, who wanted the unit to remain in Spain, proposed that they accept Spanish commanders, O’Duffy became angry and threatened not only to withdraw the Irish Brigade but also to close the Irish College.

One is left with the impression that O’Duffy viewed the Spanish War mainly as an exercise in self promotion, a perception ultimately shared by Franco and many of O’Duffy’s own men. Perhaps this explains why he did not want the Brigade to take heavy casualties. However it does not excuse his concerted support for a murderous and anti-democratic cause.

As for McCabe, he ultimately failed to keep the Irish College open. It was commandeered first by German officers and eventually sold by the Irish Catholic hierarchy. Today it forms part of the University of Salamanca. His later career seems to have been a sad lonely descent into alcoholism and depression. Tim Fanning’s book, unlike O’Duffy’s, does not shy away from such painful facts and is to be warmly recommended.


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