Thursday 21 November 2019

Fiona Dillon: 'Why Irish rallied to fight for both sides in civil war'

A picture shot during the Spanish Civil War
A picture shot during the Spanish Civil War
Fiona Dillon

Fiona Dillon

Many people will be wondering just what possessed hundreds of Irish men to ship out to fight for General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Figures suggest around 900 went to fight for his nationalists, while an estimated 300 fought for the Spanish Republic.

Many rank-and-file volunteers who went believed they were embarking on a mission to defend the Church on the pro-Franco side, as he was seen to be on the side of Catholicism.

To understand why, you must look through the lens of a predominantly Catholic Ireland in the 1930s.

Those who departed to fight for Franco left in several different contingents, belonging to an organisation led by Eoin O'Duffy, and organised by his National Corporate Party.

The pro-Franco organisation was known as the Irish Crusade Against Communism.

On the other side, some would have gone because they would have felt they were defending Spanish democracy from fascism.

The Spanish Civil War began on July 18, 1936, when troops under Franco's leadership began an uprising against the democratically elected Government of Spain, lasting for three years.

Professor Fearghal McGarry from Queen's University in Belfast, author of 'Irish Politiics and the Spanish Civil War', explained: "Men from all over Europe and some women joined the International Brigades. What happened was probably in line with what happened in Scotland and England and France."

He said there were much lower numbers of people who volunteered to fight for Franco. "Most of Franco's foreign soldiers weren't volunteers, they were from the Italian and German army," he told the Irish Independent.

"There is nowhere really that comes close to Ireland in terms of producing hundreds and hundreds of genuine volunteers."

The summer of 1936 saw a lot of press reports of killings of priests and nuns, he said. "The other thing that maybe helps to explain the very particular response in Ireland is the fact that the Catholic Church in Ireland was so influential, but also particularly pro-Franco.

"If you were a young man in the summer of 1936, you would have been exposed to a huge amount of pro-Franco propaganda like pictures of Franco in shop windows. It was really emotive.

"By the following spring it had sort of faded away and people began to see the Spanish Civil War was a little bit more complex than they had been led to believe, but for a short period of time there was a sense this was an important Christian crusade against communism but also against atheism.

"The Irish response was really quite unusual."

Irish Independent

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