No Pasaran

Irish volunteers in Spain

Two weeks before Christmas 1936, many Irishmen left their homes and families to begin the long journey to
Spain
and to enter into service within the International Brigades alongside numerous other nationalities.

 

They were fighting to uphold the democratically elected centre-left government which was under military threat of being overthrown by a Nationalist army under the command of General Francisco Franco.

 

Franco had the support of the wealthy in Spain and was aided considerably by Mussolini's Fascist government in Italy who sent up to 70,000 volunteers to
Spain
.

 

The Irish volunteers of the 15th International Brigade, many of them ill-prepared for the appalling condi­tions and carnage that awaited them, had nothing materially to gain by taking part in the struggle – their participation was based purely on ideology, a belief that they were fighting against the tide of Fascism sweeping
Europe.

 

In all, some 275 Irish volunteers would serve in support of the government in
Spain
.
This total figure is made up of men that were either born in
Ireland
or had one Irish parent. They served in three different battalions: the British Battalion; the American Lincoln Battalion and the Canadian McKenzie-Papineau (MacPaps) Battalion. An overwhelming majority of the Irish had travelled via Britain, as well as from America, Canada and even
Australia
.

 

The majority of the Irish contingent came from the south, but among their ranks were also many north­erners, 61 in total. They were an interesting mix of people whose backgrounds were Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist. They were joined together by a common bond of Socialist ideals and disillusionment with the society they were leaving behind. Some were Communists and Anarchists but the majority were simply Socialist in thinking and Republicans at heart.

 

The 1930s were a time of strongly conflicting ideologies – Conservatism versus Socialism, right against left. Fascism squaring up to Communism. Working class Catholic men living in
Ireland
found themselves torn between the conservative church, to which they were bonded by faith and religion and the attractions of socialism, which the keenly felt inequalities of daily life led many of them to adopt.

 

The carnage of the first world war and the failure of the system to keep the promises of a better life to those that survived had seen the rise of working class politics in the 1920s. While Europe witnessed the grip of Fascism exerted in Germany and Italy, in
Ireland
it was the same old story – politics and religion remained inextricably bonded. However, during a period of increased working class deprivation from 1932-1934,
Belfast
saw, perhaps for the first time, a real chance for Protestant and Catholic people to bond together in the common cause of bread and butter issues. The spread of Socialist ideals proved to be a rare unifying factor against a background of outdoor relief riots, unemployment and depression.

 

But as in so many other cases, religious division won the day. Both the Stormont government and the Catholic Church would not allow what they considered to be left wing Communist politics to take prefer­ence over faith, belief and loyalty; even the IRA would not ‘officially’ rally to the Socialist banner.

 

At the time, those who went to
Spain
were largely shunned as ‘Reds’ as their fight was once a legacy tainted with painful memories. Even when they returned home, many were arrested. Willie O'Hanlon from

Woodstock Street

in the Short Strand area of East Belfast was arrested and deported to
England
where he later was imprisoned again through his association with the Republican movement.

 

The overall dedication and sacrifice of these men should not be distorted by the role of Stalinism interna­tionally. Stalin's legacy is one of brutal murder and dictatorship – these volunteers who went to
Spain
were driven by the strength of their beliefs.

 

As in any civil war, for nearly three years
Spain
was torn apart in a conflict that produced bitter division and suffering on a high scale. The conditions on the battle fronts were appalling and the terrain was rough and sparse, dotted with twisted olives trees and vines.

 

The International Brigades were withdrawn from the front on the evening of September 23, 1938, after two years of bitter fighting. The war itself came to an end on the March 29, 1939, with victory for Franco’s Nationalist troops.

 

As many as 580,000 people are thought to have lost their lives in the conflict. Following the end of the war, Franco ordered a vast number of imprisonments and executions. The precise number of the latter is incalculable but it is known tens of thousands of Loyalist prisoners either died before firing squads or perished from disease between 1939 and 1943.

 

The Spanish civil war was quickly overshadowed by the outbreak of the second world war, when Fascism swept across the remainder of
Europe. The Nazis had sent 26,000 men to help Franco and the Luftwaffe had used Spain as a training ground to improve its bombing techniques, which would be put to further devastating use in Poland in September 1939.

 

Those who had gone to fight and survived began to return to
Ireland
in mid-December 1938. There was no hero's welcome, just relief that they had survived and a sadness for their dead comrades left behind. They fought in a foreign field as generations of Irishmen had done before, compelled by the strength of their beliefs.

 

Their legacy is that what was lost then, is won now. Spain is a democracy and history has now shone light upon their exploits, although the whole question of full autonomy bordering on independence for the
Basque provinces
still remains an unsolved problem.

 

Whether in the
Jarama Valley, Brunete, Aragon or the Ebro, rooted among the olive trees is a small piece of Ballymacarrett, the Falls and the Shankill – Irish blood that ran free on the dry stony ground of
Spain
.

 

By Seán Quinn

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