Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2021), Volume 29

UCD Press
ISBN 9781910820582

Reviewed by Maurice J. Casey

On 14 April 1938, William McGregor, a young Dubliner with a background in the IRA and the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI), was killed in action while fighting in the Battle of the Ebro, a major battle in the Spanish Civil War. Later, in February 1939, an Irish Garda surveillance report mentioned an Irish radical’s change of residence. The officer noted that Seán Murray—then a leading figure in Irish communism—had left his usual residence owing to a disagreement with the homeowner, Esther McGregor. The discord resulting in Murray’s departure, the officer noted, was ‘a difference with Mrs McGregor over the death of her son, Willie, with the International Brigade in Spain’. This comment in a surveillance report is suggestive of what makes Ireland and the Spanish Civil War an absorbing topic: here was a conflict on foreign soil that ricocheted in Ireland in unexpected ways, like a Dublin mother’s response to the death of her son in Spain upturning a living arrangement.

William McGregor is one name among more than 240 Irish volunteers listed in Barry McLoughlin and Emmet O’Connor’s book. In Spanish trenches is a richly detailed study of the Irish who fought in the International Brigades, the Comintern-organised battalions of foreign fighters mobilised to defend Spain’s democratically elected government against a far-right military coup in 1936. Often referred to as the ‘Connolly Column’, the Irish brigadistas and the cause that engaged them has long attracted academic and public interest. Scholars such as Fearghal McGarry, David Convery and Daniel Gomes, to name only a few, have explored the subject from a variety of angles, including domestic reactions, the experiences of Irish medical personnel and Irish literary responses. Both McLoughlin and O’Connor have also previously contributed valuable and relevant studies.

In Spanish trenches is the culmination of many years of research. The ‘acknowledgements’ section provides an interesting pre-history of the book project itself, which had its origins in visits to the Moscow archives by the authors in the 1990s. In its title, the book outlines an ambitious project: to chart both ‘the minds’ and ‘the deeds’ of the Irish who left Ireland or their site of emigration to participate in a foreign conflict. As the introduction explains further, the book sets out to detail each battle that featured Irish brigadistas, to do justice to those often ignored by partisan narrators, such as deserters and dissenters, and to place the Irish contingent within the political and military history of the International Brigades as a whole.

The early chapters of the book depict the international setting in addition to the domestic situation in Ireland, North and South. Threaded through these chapters is an argument that Ireland was a profoundly globalised society in the 1930s. McLoughlin and O’Connor join other scholars, including Anne Dolan and Elaine Sisson, who have dispelled the stereotype (still obstinately present in popular understandings of the period) of an isolated interwar Ireland. These chapters on the ‘war at home’ provide detail on less-often-considered groups, including the Left Book Club and the New Theatre Group.

As the focus turns to Spain, the narrative places the Irish in the Brigades within a broad context. An analysis of data on Irish volunteers provides readers with such information as the county and country origins of the volunteers, their political affiliations and their past military experience. Commendably, further material has been made freely available on McLoughlin’s personal website. The authors define motivations broadly, stating, for example, that the politically conscious Irish volunteers saw Spain as a struggle both against fascism and for the defence of a republic.

The fifth chapter charts the processes of recruitment and the travel routes that brought Irish volunteers to Spain, in addition to detailing the defection of a number of Irish volunteers from the British battalion to the US Abraham Lincoln battalion. The everyday life of the soldiers is described, with references to outdated weaponry, weak coffee and incompetent officers.

Several chapters explore the military conflicts of the Spanish Civil War as experienced by the Brigades. This focus on military engagements sets In Spanish trenches at odds with recent trends in the historiography of the International Brigades. A transnational and emotional turn in the wider discipline has transformed recent scholarship on global radicalism. Methodologically innovative studies such as Lisa Kirschenbaum’s history of international communist involvement in the Spanish Civil War and Fraser Raeburn’s recent work on Scots in the conflict avoid detailed descriptions of battles. Instead, recent scholarship beyond Ireland has sought to reconstruct the emotional worlds of the volunteers and to trace their local and transnational networks. Engaging with this scholarship might have opened avenues for comparison and allowed McLoughlin and O’Connor to relate their findings to global scholarship beyond Ireland.

Biographical case-studies of how individual radicals lived idiosyncratic lives are a recurring motif in recent histories of international communism. In Spanish trenches is not without such case-studies. Nuanced biographical treatment can be found in particular in the fascinating chapter on discipline. In both its detail and its telling, the story of one figure featured here, Maurice Emmet Ryan, is among the most compelling sections of the book. It speaks to the complex interactions between class, national identity and personal charisma that shaped how brigadistas navigated their world.

Hints of remarkable lives elsewhere in the narrative suggest how a similarly detailed biographical approach to other obscure volunteers might have further illuminated the ‘minds’ referenced in the book’s title. What, for example, distinguished the motivation and experience of someone like Maurice Levitas, a Jewish Dubliner and Communist Party of Great Britain member, from someone like Hannah Rutledge Ormesby, a Sligo-born nurse with no political affiliation who joined the British ambulance battalion? When such lives are subsumed in general overviews of affiliations, places of origin and political contexts we risk losing sight of how factors such as gender and class profoundly shaped the lived experience of involvement in radical causes—before, during and after Spain.

Ormesby, the only known Irish woman in the International Brigades, suggests the question: where else do women feature in the book? They are found in the study primarily through the careers of writers, republicans and leftist intellectuals such as Rosamond Jacob, Mairin Mitchell and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. Mitchell, in particular, is an oft-neglected figure and the authors rightly point to the remarkable volume of references to Irish radicals contained in her 1937 book Storm over Spain.

Frank Ryan, a leader among the Irish in Spain who commanded respect from many on the Irish and international left, is the major figure of In Spanish trenches. The concluding chapters detail the attempts to secure his release and seek to answer the question of why Ryan agreed ‘to work for the fascist German State’. Remarkable material on his trial and imprisonment is presented here, including a strange incident involving a Nazi-inspired race science experiment performed upon Ryan and his fellow prisoners to determine whether a ‘Red gene’ could be isolated. The authors’ conclusion is that Ryan was ‘not a collaborator but rather an adviser to German foreign office experts’.

On certain points my own interpretations differ from those of the authors, such as the political genealogy of the ‘diverse elements of the liberal middle-class’ beyond the CPI and Republican Congress who engaged in solidarity with the Spanish Republic. The authors describe this engagement as novel, but the antecedents of these broader solidarity groups can arguably be traced back through 1920s groups like the Radical Club to the circles surrounding the feminist journal The Irish Citizen during the Irish revolutionary period. A small yet well-networked Irish radical élite continuously expressed their interest in socialism and internationalism through journalism, theatre and writing. Several veterans of this long-standing Dublin-based leftist intelligentsia joined the broader enthusiasm for the defence of the Spanish Republic.

While certain conclusions may be challenged, the impressiveness of the archival source base for In Spanish trenches is incontestable. The study draws on material from archives in five countries. A command of Spanish, German and Russian is evident from both the primary and secondary source citations. Studies drawing on multilingual sources remain unfortunately rare in modern Irish history. While citations of the Comintern archives are now common in histories of the Irish left (thanks to McLoughlin and O’Connor’s donation of their own research microfilms to Queen’s University Belfast), In Spanish trenches demonstrates how Irish historians can cast fresh light on the history of the left through linguistic skills and the use of foreign archives.

Irish memoirs of the Spanish Civil War are also cited throughout, including an Irish-language memoir by Eoghan Ó Duinnín. Judgement is offered on the relative merits of these. Joe Monks, we learn, contributed a gripping account, while Ó Duinnín’s work shows his comrades ‘to be more human than the stainless heroes of Legend’. The approach to the memoir literature is emblematic of the authors’ broader engagement with the sources: balanced and critical.

In Spanish trenches is handsomely produced by UCD Press and available at an accessible price. Many of the illustrations included will be unfamiliar even to those well versed in this history. There are, however, a few issues with the index, which lacks some notable figures. Ormesby, for example, appears in the text but not in the index. Likewise, Nora Connolly O’Brien, Rosamond Jacob and George Nathan, each of whom are part of the narrative, do not register in the index. Mairin Mitchell is mentioned in the text on several pages but only listed in the index with a single page number. Such omissions can prove an obstacle to targeted research.

Although In Spanish trenches is unlikely to be surpassed in its detailing of the ‘who, what and where’ of Irish involvement in the International Brigades, the broader topic will certainly inspire future dissertations and books. The commemorative culture of the Spanish Civil War in Ireland, explored by the authors in the epilogue, is deserving of further study. Further explorations of Irish diasporic participation in the conflict and Irish women’s involvement in solidarity initiatives would be valuable. Future comparative studies between Irish and other foreign fighters could also yield new insights and In Spanish trenches will be a useful companion for such comparative work.

McLoughlin and O’Connor’s book will become indispensable for all who are interested in Irish participation in the International Brigades—and deservedly so. The vast array of archives consulted and the fluent interweaving of Irish volunteers through military, national and international contexts combine to create an accomplished work. Future scholars, influenced by emerging methodologies in the historiography of international communism, may yet find new stories to tell with the sources skilfully marshalled by McLoughlin and O’Connor. It is difficult to imagine how a more authoritative account of ‘the deeds’ of the Irish in the International Brigades could be told, but ‘the minds’ of these Irish fighters and those they left at home can still mobilise archival adventurers.


Maurice J. Casey is the Department of Foreign Affairs Historian-in-Residence at EPIC, the Irish Emigration Museum.



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