University College Dublin and Spanish Fascism—an unlikely partnership?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 5 (September/October), Volume 22

General Francisco Franco—his brother-in-law and minister for the interior, Serrano Súñer, appointed Oliveros (opposite page) as civil governor of Barcelona in January 1939.

General Francisco Franco—his brother-in-law and minister for the interior, Serrano Súñer, appointed Oliveros (opposite page) as civil governor of Barcelona in January 1939.

In September 1949 Dr Wenceslao Oliveros arrived in Ireland on a scientific mission to visit UCD and its president, Michael Tierney. Richard Mulcahy, minister for education in the first interparty government, had been in correspondence with his Spanish colleague, José Ibáñez Martín, and had approved the trip, despite Oliveros’s acquired reputation. Dublin welcomed the arrival of such a prominent Spanish official on a mission aimed at enhancing the ‘fertile intensification of the cultural relations between our beloved universities’. Mulcahy hoped that it would pave the way for major change in bilateral cultural interaction. Oliveros was deeply moved by the warm reception given by the Irish government and Michael Tierney. He found Ireland to be a mirror image of Spain—a conservative, nationalistic, insular and rural society.

He met the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, and admired the latter’s efforts to insert the church into every facet of public life. McQuaid’s preference for a more orthodox and interventionist church was respected by Oliveros and he wrote a report on his mission findings to Franco. The Caudillo approved the report’s recommendations to make Ireland a centre of study and cultural exchange for Spanish students abroad. Trinity College aside, the Spanish believed that Ireland was the ideal location for their youth to study English and to experience a different cultural environment that was also safe from the evils of Communism, Freemasonry and materialism. The Spanish minister in Dublin, however, the marquess of Miraflores, was not happy to see an outsider come into his exclusive field of expertise and overshadow his mission. Together with his secretary, Adolfo Martín-Gamero, he worked to undermine Oliveros’s credibility for his own purposes.

Proposal for three hostels

The façade of the University of Alcalá—on Franco’s suggestion, the three proposed Spanish hostels at Belfield would replicate this Spanish baroque style

The façade of the University of Alcalá—on Franco’s suggestion, the three proposed Spanish hostels at Belfield would replicate this Spanish baroque style

On 9 December 1949 Leo McCauley, Ireland’s man in Madrid, met Oliveros to sound him out on his perceptions of Ireland and UCD. Oliveros told McCauley that he spoke on behalf of his government, which wanted to propose the establishment of three hostels, two for men and one for women, for Spanish students studying in Ireland. Oliveros was aware that UCD’s main residence was located on Earlsfort Terrace, but he recommended situating the proposed hostels around Belfield House. UCD had bought this property in 1934 and had purchased some of the adjoining land surrounding it. He knew that the university was struggling to accommodate its growing number of students and that a move to Belfield offered significant scope for large-scale construction of buildings in that area. Incredibly, without prior consultation with the Irish authorities, Franco had also agreed to the proposed architectural design of the hostels: ‘It was intended that the façades of these hostels would be reproductions of famous buildings in the Universities of Salamanca, Valladolid and Alcalá [de Henares]’. In addition, the stonework for the façades was to be crafted by Spanish sculptors using the same stone quarries as those used for the original façades. Once shipped to Ireland, they would then be assembled by Irish workers ‘under the supervision of Spanish technicians’. The entire project was to be completed in two years.

McCauley was shocked that the entire project had been examined at the most senior level of the dictatorship. He now realised the enormous influence that Oliveros had, yet he doubted whether the Irish trade unions would ever allow their members to work under foreign supervision and could foresee only conflict between the workers and the Spanish technicians. Still, he welcomed the idea that only ‘well-mannered’ students from ‘good social classes’ would be selected for admission to the hostels. Oliveros told McCauley that the Ministry of External Affairs would officially recognise the hostels and that the probability of establishing a diplomatic school abroad for trainee diplomats was another of his government’s ideas.

Communist infiltration

Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid—Oliveros admired his efforts to insert the church into every facet of public life. (UCD Digital Library)

Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid—Oliveros admired his efforts to insert the church into every facet of public life. (UCD Digital Library)

On 11 February 1950 McCauley was ordered by Dublin to meet Oliveros again and get an outline on specific details behind his proposal. Oliveros stated that the president of UCD would exercise ‘complete disciplinary authority’ over the hostels and had the right to ‘refuse admission’ to any students coming to the university. Dublin believed that the chances of any communists infiltrating the Irish education system was low, but it still wanted assurances that Spanish students coming into the country would be vetted. Oliveros answered these concerns by declaring that the protection of ‘Irish students from contamination’ was a major aim of his government and that the authorities could guarantee that all their students were of sound moral and religious character. Therefore there was no need to fear ‘an attempt to send communists to Ireland’, as his government had repeatedly shown its resolve to unmask and punish all such social undesirables. Oliveros himself had built his reputation on this specific issue.

President of UCD Prof. Michael Tierney (left) and his wife, Eibhlín, with Pope Pius XII on the occasion of Tierney’s being made a Knight of St Gregory. (UCD Digital Library)

President of UCD Prof. Michael Tierney (left) and his wife, Eibhlín, with Pope Pius XII on the occasion of Tierney’s being made a Knight of St Gregory. (UCD Digital Library)

The two men did not meet again until 18 March, with Oliveros proposing another idea that would see the two countries working more closely together to promote deeper cultural relations. Nineteen-fifty was a holy year, and both nations had been striving to outdo one another in displays of religious faith. Oliveros dreamed of chartering a ship, the Ciudad de Sevilla, to pick up Irish pilgrims and transport them to the religious sites of northern Spain—Loyola and Santiago de Compostela. From there they would re-embark for their onward journey to Rome and on the return journey pick up Spanish students who wanted to study in Ireland. The ship was equipped with an altar and the services of a chaplain. It had accommodation for families and a sizeable restaurant on board. There was no doubt that there were economic and cultural benefits to the idea, but McCauley dismissed it on the grounds that the lengthy time at sea made the proposal unworkable because both nations placed restrictions on the amount of currency a citizen could take out of the country.

Dublin wrote to McCauley on 20 April 1950 requesting specific student numbers from Oliveros, as only the Jesuit hostel in Hatch Street was capable of accommodating the increased numbers of students then attending UCD. Oliveros guessed that the first group of 100 students would visit during the summer. Michael Tierney was enthusiastic ‘about roping the group into his summer school’, as the university had been receiving small numbers of Spaniards for its summer courses for some time. Miraflores had helped to organise this small interaction and behind the scenes he plotted Oliveros’s downfall. Miraflores disliked being upstaged by an outsider and dispatched Gamero to Iveagh House to secretly inform senior officials there that ‘Oliveros is regarded as a highly impractical person—brilliant at conceiving elaborate plans but quite incapable of recognising or dealing with any difficulties’. Dublin was becoming increasingly ‘alarmed’ that Oliveros could think that UCD could move its centre of operations to Belfield and build the necessary infrastructure in just two years. Just where the financing for such an ambitious scheme was to come from had yet to be clarified.

Experimental farm

Leo McCauley (right), Ireland’s man in Madrid—McCauley was shocked that the entire project had been examined at the most senior level of the Franco dictatorship. (New York Public Library

Leo McCauley (right), Ireland’s man in Madrid—McCauley was shocked that the entire project had been examined at the most senior level of the Franco dictatorship. (New York Public Library

It was not until a year later that McCauley, with the legation’s secretary, Máire MacEntee, met Oliveros again to discuss the project. On the Spanish side, Oliveros said that the universities of Madrid, Salamanca and Valladolid would have a state representative overseeing everything from their end. He proposed himself for this cushy job. Each of the hostels would have a director and be answerable to the president of UCD, who would have the final say over any issue, especially if subversive ‘undesirables’ infiltrated the campus disguised as upstanding Spanish students. After discussions with the minister for agriculture, he could confirm that the minister wished to establish ‘an experimental farm or garden of say 30,000 sq. metres’ on the grounds of the hostels for scientific purposes and for growing food to feed the students. Oliveros proposed that the hostels should be allowed to import wine freely, but McCauley disliked this suggestion in case it encouraged drunkenness and debauchery on the campus. Oliveros promised to speed up the architectural plans for the project and claimed that, despite the lapse in time, the foundations for the hostels could be in place by the spring of 1952.

Although swayed by Miraflores’s arguments, Dublin still held onto the hope that the project could be completed because Oliveros, despite his ‘eccentricities’, was an ‘extremely influential’ individual who made things happen. One of the major flaws in Irish policy in Spain was a lack of influential contacts in the regime. Oliveros seemed to be a lucky break: the most senior man in charge of Spanish education policy was interested in Ireland and had easy access to Franco. For this reason, the department and the Irish government continued to give serious attention to the project. McCauley was told that another meeting should be arranged that would provide them with ‘tangible proof’ that the building plans and designs for the project were near completion. On 11 July 1951 he met Oliveros, who was as ‘enthusiastic as ever’. He told the ambassador that an architect by the name of Valcarcel had drawn up the proposed designs and that a copy was with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition, the minister for education, Joaquín Ruiz-Giménez, who was a close friend of his, was ‘definitely decided’ on the idea and that building work should commence quickly. He stated that so long as the project could be kept ‘out of politics’, its completion would change Irish– Spanish relations forever.

In 1952, with no sign of any advancement in the proposals, Michael Tierney wrote to the legation’s secretary to inform her that Belfield would probably become the chosen site for the expansion of the university in the future, as Oliveros had predicted. But the project had long since foundered, despite the desire of Ireland’s élite to see it happen. Whether the NUI’s governing body could ever allow such a visible display of Spanish architecture on Irish property is debatable because of the powerful presence of John Charles McQuaid. Despite all his calculations, Oliveros had not taken into account the attitude of Dublin’s archbishop. At this time McQuaid was involved in a major church-building programme. He oversaw the development of a unique Hiberno-Romanesque architectural design for his churches, and it is unlikely that he would have approved of sixteenth-century Spanish plateresque architecture, with its lavish motifs and intricate fusion of Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance décor, on the proposed site for the expansion of UCD. He had long dreamed of raising the reputation and prestige of UCD to that of its Protestant equivalent, Trinity, but such a striking example of Spanish architecture on Irish soil would have been unlikely to meet with his approval. As influential as Oliveros was in his country, McQuaid was considerably more powerful in his own. It is ironic that when the university transferred to Belfield in the 1960s it chose a rather communistic architectural form to define its campus, but by that time attitudes had changed and McQuaid’s power was on the wane.

Barry Whelan teaches contemporary European history at Dublin City University.

Read More: Oliveros’s background

Further reading

J. Cooney, John Charles McQuaid: ruler of Catholic Ireland (Dublin, 1999).
D. Ferriter, The transformation of Ireland, 1900–2000 (London, 2005).
P. Preston, The Spanish Civil War: reaction, revolution and revenge (London, 2006).
M. Vincent, Spain 1833–2002: people and state (Oxford, 2007).

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