Crusade in Spain

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

Reconquista Press
ISBN 9781912853076

The Salamanca diaries:

Father McCabe and the Spanish Civil War

Irish Academic Press
ISBN 9781785372773

Reviewed by: John Dorney

Irishmen fought on both sides of the Spanish Civil War (1936–9). These two recently released books shed light on the larger Irish intervention, that led by Eoin O’Duffy on the right-wing or Francoist side.

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

The republication of O’Duffy’s book now, by the so-called Reconquista Press, may raise a few eyebrows, given the current resurgence of the far right across the western world, as might the introduction, penned by Michael McCormack of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America, who opines: ‘Before the likes of Hitler and Mussolini gave dictatorship a bad name, Fascism was the enemy of communism. And if it took Fascism to beat back the Red threat, then the enemy of my enemy is my ally; so be it!’

Father McCabe and Eoin O’Duffy grew up not far from each other, in counties Cavan and Monaghan respectively, but their paths diverged radically in 1919. While O’Duffy became a leading figure in the local IRA, McCabe went away to the seminary at Salamanca in northern Spain to study for the priesthood. Having missed out on the nationalist revolution of 1919–21, he had little sympathy for Irish republicanism and retained throughout his career rather pro-British attitudes, judging the Empire to be a force for progress, order and modernity. McCabe’s clerical career took him from Spain to the impoverished east end of London, and eventually back to the Irish College in Salamanca to become its rector 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 by the Fianna Fáil 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 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 as leader of Fine Gael, had lost control of the Blueshirts to his rival Ned Cronin, and his own fascist-inspired group, the National Corporatist Party (NCP), operated on the extremist fringe of Irish politics.

The paths of the two Ulstermen, so divergent until now, were thrown together by the fortunes of war and international politics in Spain in 1937. McCabe was on holiday in Ireland when civil war broke out in Spain in July 1936, 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 Cardinal Joseph McRory, by Spanish aristocrat de la Cierva to raise an Irish unit for the ‘National’ cause in Spain and arrived there late that year.

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. 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 War of the late nineteenth century. That said, he was frightened by the increasingly radical and violently anti-clerical 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—none of which, it must be said, stopped McCabe from supporting the ‘Nationalist’ side and welcoming a contingent of Irish Catholic volunteers, raised by Eoin O’Duffy to fight against the Spanish 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 were also committed 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.

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. 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 unaware 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, which killed around 150,000 prisoners and civilians during the war.

O’Duffy alleges that there were no killings in Seville after its capture by the military rebels, when in fact the city saw over 12,000 executions. The massacre at Badajoz, where around 1,500 people were shot by General Yague’s troops in the town’s bullring, is dismissed as an invention of ‘Red’ propaganda. Moreover, O’Duffy almost certainly knew that 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 in 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 at 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 an 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. McCabe visited the troops at Caceres and was at first impressed with them and with O’Duffy. It was not long, however, before he began to have doubts about both. McCabe records serious indiscipline, including heavy drinking, the smashing up of local cafés and insubordination to officers. There was also discord between O’Duffy’s brigade and their chaplain, Father Mulrean. 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 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’, making 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 of their officers, their military record was less than stellar. Their first engagement was with their own side, who mistook them for the Republicans. When ordered to attack the fortified village of Titulcia, the Irish took some casualties, after which they refused to renew the attack. O’Duffy intervened to get the operation cancelled, much to the surprise and chagrin of the Spanish military command.

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 home to Ireland. O’Duffy presents this as the fault of the de Valera government, which had passed legislation in February 1937 forbidding more volunteers to travel to Spain. He asserts that his men had signed on for a six-month period and when that was up they were entitled to go home.

McCabe’s diaries, however, show 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 1919–21; boasts to Franco that he had commanded a million men ‘at the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932’; and that the Irish Brigade’s role should be as a pipe band 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. While this may explain why he did not want the Brigade to take heavy casualties, 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 of the Condor Legion and eventually sold by the Irish Catholic hierarchy. His later career was 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.

John Dorney is an independent historian and chief editor and writer of


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568