Northern Ireland and the Spanish Civil War

Almost 100 men from Northern Ireland fought in the 1936-39 Spanish civil war

Memorials to the dead of the first and second world wars dot villages and towns across Northern Ireland. Local men have fought in nearly every war of the past 200 years. What is often forgotten, though, is that almost 100 men from Northern Ireland fought in the 1936-39 Spanish civil war.

The 1930s were a period of global political tension. In July 1936 General Francisco Franco launched an attack on the left wing government of the Spanish republic. Catholic opinion in Ireland broadly supported Franco’s far right nationalists because of the perceived threat of communism and the reports of repression of the church.

Before Christmas 1936, nearly 600 men left Ireland for Spain: 500 with General Eoin O’Duffy’s Bandera to support Franco, 100 to join the newly formed International Brigades on the government side. Out of 1000 or so Irishmen who left Ireland for Spain during the three years of the civil war, almost 100 were from Northern Ireland.

Among the first to go were Joe Boyd and Fred McMahon, both members of the Socialist Party group within the Northern Ireland Labour Party. Volunteering for the Scottish Medical Unit, they arrived in Spain on October 1, 1936. On November 8, they were captured in no-man’s land near Madrid, escaping summary execution only when Boyd treated a wounded fascist. After six days in custody, witnessing daily executions, they were brought to the Portuguese border and expelled from Spain.

The best known of the Northern Irish volunteers on the republican side was Charles Donnelly, a Dungannon born poet. Donnelly left London on December 23, 1936 and was killed at Jarama on February 27, 1937. Among his surviving poems, some of the most powerful deal with his experiences in Spain.

Jim Haughey from Lurgan was taken prisoner and, as a practising Catholic who had fought against Franco, expected problems. Haughey exchanged identities with a Cypriot who was going to Canada, and joined the Canadian Air Force in 1941. He died during a training flight on September 12, 1943.

Twenty-four men from Northern Ireland went to support the fascist uprising. Sean Cunningham of Hawthorne St, Belfast, had been an officer in the Irish Army in the 1920s before joining the Bandera machine gun company. Gilbert Nangle was a professional soldier who joined the Spanish Foreign Legion on the outbreak of the war and transferred to the Bandera when O’Duffy brought his men over. Nangle served at the relief of the siege of Alcazar in late 1936, and the capture of Toledo by Franco, being mentioned in dispatches for his bravery. Fr Charles O’Daly from Enniskillen served as chaplain to the Bandera, inspiring a detachment of five other locals to go to Spain, the only group from outside Belfast.

Among the non-combatants from Northern Ireland who experienced the Spanish Civil War were two Queen’s University students, an artist, Edward Gribbon from Knock, and at least seven holidaymakers. Seamus MacCall, from Tyrone, served as a Land Observation Officer in Le Perthus, on the Spanish-French border for 2 years with the Irish detachment of the Non-Intervention Committee.

Further Reading

The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39: Crusades in Conflict (1999) by Robert Stradling; Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War (1999) by Fearghal McGarry; The Connolly Column (1979) by Michael O’Riordan.

Consult the Linen Hall Library catalogue.