Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War, Fearghal McGarry. (Cork University Press, £16) ISBN 1859182402 The Irish & the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Robert Stradling. (Manchester University Press, £12) ISBN 1901341135

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 1999), Reviews, Volume 7

The appearance of two books on the relationship between the Spanish Civil War and Ireland is to be welcomed. It is often forgotten how deep an impact the conflict made on Irish political life, if only for a short period. Public opinion in the Free State was overwhelmingly pro-Franco, as was the Catholic church and most of the press. Thousands were mobilised in emotional anti- communist rallies organised by Patrick Belton’s Irish Christian Front, local councils passed resolutions demanding the Fianna Fáil government break diplomatic relations the Spanish Republic, and of course Irishmen fought on both sides. In many ways both these books complement each other, Robert Stradling concentrating on the Irish volunteers role in Spain itself, with Ferghal McGarry dealing mainly with the war’s impact on the Irish body politic.
The irony of the Irish military involvement in Spain is that while many more men enlisted in Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade than the republican and socialist volunteers under Frank Ryan, today the Irish Brigade is forgotten or ignored, or subject to denunciation as fascist. This is an almost complete reversal from 1936, when O’Duffy’s men left Ireland to the sound of cheering crowds, having been lauded by the Irish Independent and blessed by the Catholic hierarchy. Ryan’s men by contrast travelled quietly, often in secret, with the majority of the Irish labour and trade union movement maintaining a nervous neutrality or in many cases openly supporting Franco’s insurgents. Stradling is eager to explain the motivation of the Irish Brigade and provide a more balanced analysis of what drew these men to Spain. He has managed to interview some survivors of the Brigade and is able to question some commonly conceived notions about them. Many of O’Duffy’s men were not former Blueshirts, a few were even republican opponents of the General. Most seem to have been influenced by a desire to defend the Catholic faith, and were deeply moved by the press reports of Republican atrocities committed against clergy. All were fervently anti-communist, which despite the weakness of communism in Ireland was a feeling held by a wide section of the population. Stradling makes his case well, and it is important to stress that the Irish Brigade’s volunteers saw themselves as no less noble than their opponents. Most too, could not be described as fascists. However, O’Duffy and the Irish Brigade leadership were certainly fascist and had a wider agenda than simply saving Spain for religion.
The Irish Brigade has suffered from ridicule, some of it unfair, but it is a fact that a combination of bitter infighting, demoralisation at the reality of the war and a disastrous baptism of fire (in a clash with their own side) meant the Brigade returned home in disarray. The International Brigaders in contrast suffered high casualty rates from their involvement in some of the fiercest fighting of the war, yet held together very well. In general the activist backgrounds of Ryan’s men whether in the IRA, the Communist Party or the Republican Congress meant they had a clearer conception of their role in Spain. Stradling in his quest for balance goes as far as to describe Frank Ryan as a supporter of Nazi Germany—this is simply untrue, and no attempt is made to explain the complicated path which led Ryan from captivity in Spain to a lonely death in war-time Dresden. In general Stradling seems to have a poor grasp of inter-war Irish radical politics, referring throughout for example to the ‘IRA Congress’ when the actual title was Republican Congress. Nevertheless his work on the Irish Brigade, and on some of the nostalgia that has surrounded their left-wing opponents is significant, as is his use of Spanish sources.
Ferghal McGarry, in contrast has a surer feel for Irish political culture in this period. He examines in detail, utilising a wide variety of sources, the reaction to the war in Spain from the Republican and Socialist movements, the Catholic Church, and the influence of ‘Catholic Action’ ideas on the clergy, the mainstream political parties, north and south, and how Irish diplomatic policy dealt with the war. The rapid rise and fall of the Irish Christian Front is explained, and particularly interesting is the section on how sectarian politics influenced reaction in the north. McGarry argues that while the role of the Labour Party and the trade union movement has often been presented as a betrayal by conservative leaders of the Spanish Republic, in reality most Irish trade unionists supported the right-wing rebels, so there was little the leaderships could do, and unions which did take a pro-Republican stand lost members as a result. How de Valera managed to steer his government through the potential minefield of relations with Spain is particularly interesting for those who have seen de Valera as a servant of the church in all matters. Despite widespread grassroots Fianna Fáil support for the insurgents, and a divided cabinet (Sean Lemass was pro-Republic, Sean MacEntee pro-Franco) the Irish government maintained, along with Britain and France, a policy of non-intervention.
McGarry also looks at the regional, social and military backgrounds of the Irish volunteers on both sides, and would concur with Stradling on the irony of the current popularity of the left-wing volunteers in an Ireland that almost completely rejected them in 1936. He sees commemoration of Spain as fulfilling an important propaganda function for an otherwise unsuccessful Left, and like Stradling notes how uncomfortable questions like the role of Stalin’s Comintern in Spain are rarely discussed. However I feel that McGarry underestimates ‘mainstream’ IRA sympathy for the Spanish Republic and attributes too much importance to the marginal Sinn Féin figures who were pro-Franco. If the average IRA member cared little about Spain then Tom Barry would scarcely have needed to prohibit their joining the International Brigades. When the anti-Franco Basque priest Fr Ramon Laborda spoke in Dublin his audience was overwhelmingly republican. From the government clampdown of 1936, and the loss of its chief-of-staff Moss Twomey, the IRA was in an almost permanent state of crisis, but most of its leading figures in this period would still have been anti-fascist. Possibly Irish Politics’ greatest strength is its location of Ireland within the context of European politics of the 1930s. Too many historians see the Irish reaction to the Spanish Civil War as governed by the legacy of our Civil War, or as the IRA and the Blueshirts simply looking to have another crack at each other. But as McGarry argues:

Ireland, like other nations, responded to the ideological civil war which gripped Europe throughout the 1930s. European ideas merged with Irish circumstances;  the street fighting between fascists and communists in Germany was mirrored—albeit in a more marginal and distinctively Irish fashion—by the clashes between Catholic Action activists and left republicans in Dublin’s streets.

This makes for a refreshing approach and a highly impressive book.

Brian Hanley


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