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Home Uncategorized The Boys of the Blue Brigade

The Boys of the Blue Brigade

Michael Lillis

The Salamanca Diaries: Father Alexander McCabe and the Spanish Civil War, by Tim Fanning, Merrion Press, 280 pp, €19.95, ISBN: 9781785372773

General Eoin O’Duffy from Co Monaghan had intermittently been chief of staff of the IRA during the War of Independence, head of the Blueshirts and of Fine Gael, and commissioner of the Garda Síochána (1922-1932). In December 1936 his Irish Brigade, comprising some seven hundred men and twenty-five officers arrived at El Ferrol, home town of General Francisco Franco in Galicia. They journeyed on by train to Cáceres, capital of the aptly named province of Extremadura in the arid southwest, which was to be their military base and which was probably for them the most inhospitable corner of Spain and the least like home .

On the way they stopped at the ancient and beautiful city of Salamanca, legendary in Ireland as the home of the first of the three famed Irish seminaries in Spain (there were thirty-four throughout the Continent). Since its foundation under royal patent in 1592 as El Real Colegio de San Patricio de Nobles Irlandeses (St Patrick’s Royal College for Irish Noblemen) many hundreds of Irishmen had been instructed there for the priesthood, for the first two centuries in defiance of the penal laws and later as a part of a powerful and cherished tradition going back to the Flight of the Earls. Among the welcoming party were the bishop and municipal authorities of Salamanca and the rector of the Irish College, Father Alexander McCabe, son of the headmaster of a tiny national school in Drumkilly in Co Cavan, himself an alumnus of the Colegio. McCabe, at the age of thirty-six, was for one in his distinguished position much younger than most senior clerical appointees by the Irish hierarchy and a true original: conventionally loyal to his church and its cause in Spain, but a stubbornly independent judge of events and of character. His diaries, with their almost day-by-day entries, and principally those that he allowed to survive, provide a unique perspective on the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, as well as on its dramatic pro-Franco Irish dimension and on the shocking inadequacies of the Irish Catholic hierarchy.

On February 20th, 1936 after years of political conflict and confusion, the leftist Popular Front won 34.3 per cent of the vote in the Spanish general election and formed a minority government under Manuel Azaňa. Their right-wing enemies of the National Front won 33.2 per cent. As McCabe noted, “the body politic seems to be possessed by several demons, all struggling for power”. Large sections of the military rose against the new government in July 1936, instigating one of the bloodiest civil wars in history. General Franco had been exiled by the government to the Canary Islands as a precautionary measure, having established a reputation for ruthlessness through his pitiless suppression of the miners’ strike in Asturias in 1934. He brought the “Army of Africa”, the battle-hardened foreign legion and battalions of the ferocious local Moroccan (Muslim) mercenaries back to the mainland. They rampaged with unrestrained cruelty through the traditional centres of the right, occupying Seville, Cáceres, Valladolid, Zaragoza and Santiago – and Salamanca, where McCabe calculated that 1,300 individuals had been summarily executed by them by November 1936. Franco adroitly manoeuvred several more senior military and political rivals out of contention and was declared generalísimo of the nationalist and Catholic crusade by September and head of state by October. He immediately organised logistical and air force assistance on a strategic scale from Hitler and Mussolini and established his military and political base in the local bishop’s palace in the heart of McCabe’s Salamanca. He continued as an unelected all-powerful dictator or caudillo until his death thirty-nine years later in 1975. After their first encounter in November 1936 McCabe summed up his first impressions: “He’s small and dignified. He has large intelligent eyes, but he hasn’t the face, jutting jaw-bone or sledge-hammer style of Mussolini.”

Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao and all of industrial Spain were still under government control. Republican resistance to the military revolt indisputably involved widespread burning by working class mobs of churches throughout the government-held cities (except in the fervently Catholic Basque provinces) and the murder of hundreds of priests and nuns. These attacks were reported around the world, but most prominently in Ireland.

The reaction to these reports in the Irish Independent and the Catholic media led to the creation of the O’Duffy Brigade at the instigation of several Spanish aristocrats of Irish descent, notably the duchess of Tetuán, Blanca O’Donnell, a descendant of Red Hugh, and Count Ramírez de Arellano, who first wrote to Eoin O’ Duffy through the intermediacy of Cardinal McRory urging him to set up a fighting force of Irishmen to defend the Catholic cause. Public opinion and the Fine Gael opposition preponderantly supported Franco, but the de Valera government adhered meticulously to the non-intervention pact of the League of Nations, in part out of Dev’s embryonic neutralist convictions and his determined support at that time for the League, in part out of opposition to O’Duffy’s unconcealed ambition to come to power at home through his vaunted Spanish crusade for Christianity and against atheistic Bolshevism. O’Duffy appealed for recruits throughout the country and met with enthusiastic responses, particularly in counties Cork and Tipperary and his native Monaghan.

There can be no doubt about the genuine and selfless motives of the vast majority of the 730 or so Irish members of O Duffy’s brigade, any more than there could be about the much smaller numbers, approximately sixty, either making up the “Connolly Colum”’ or otherwise dispersed among the International Brigades on the opposite side, as exemplified by Frank Ryan, Peadar O’Donnell and the gifted poet Charlie Donnelly. They all hazarded their lives out of passionate conviction in a savage foreign war which was not theirs.

“The Phalangists (sic) on this side,” wrote McCabe, “seem to have behaved like the ‘Reds’ on the other. They shot people by lorryfuls. They used to go to a village, for instance, drag out their victim, make him dig his own grave, and then shoot him. Or they put the dead man in the middle of the road, got into the lorry, and ran over the corpse to iron it out properly.”

McCabe, sequestered in Salamanca, knew almost nothing of the Republican side. On one occasion he broke the law and listened to Madrid radio: “The speeches were fierce, with a real revolutionary ring to them and a high pitch of revolutionary defiance. They have no speakers like that on this side ‑ so hot and passionate in appeal and invective. But after half-an-hour of it, I had a genuine pain in my head.”

Inevitably, because of his position as rector of the Irish College, appointed by the Irish hierarchy, McCabe was closely involved with the O’Duffy brigade, whose headquarters lay a few streets away, in their relations with the Franco regime. .Franco warmly welcomed the Irish soldiers at first, incorporating them with the elite foreign legion under the command of the notoriously ruthless Colonel Yagüe: thus they enjoyed better pay and conditions than in the regular army and the right to have their own Irish officers, chaplains, doctors and cooks.

Fr Joseph Mulrean, a native of Mullingar who had been trained in Spain and Gibraltar, was appointed principal chaplain to the brigade when they arrived. “Fr. Mulrean is a fine fat, cheery priest but, but as I discovered later, he might have been reared in one of those houses with the squinting windows,” noted McCabe. I knew Fr Mulrean in the late 1960s when he was chaplain to the socially elite girls’ school run by the Irish Loreto nuns in the fashionable Barrio de Salamanca in Madrid (several of Franco’s grandchildren attended) and I was a lowly third secretary in our two-man Madrid embassy: McCabe’s estimation of his character in 1936 needed little updating except that the embassy archives and indeed McCabe’s diaries provided ample examples of Mulrean’s bullying proclivities: he constantly complained directly to Dublin about the embassy and its minuscule staff and had caused the removal and demotion of one of our ambassadors in the 1950s.

Fr Mulrean had a number of obsessions, notably with his soldiers’ transgressions of the sixth and ninth commandments (Catholic enumeration) and with their indulgence in the demon drink. At the Irish base in Cáceres, McCabe was astonished that Mulrean made each man accept a slip of paper to prove that he had gone to confession. “In the pulpit, he doesn’t preach. He growls at them, worries them in canine fashion, and is always denouncing them. He does this when the Spanish officers are present in the Church, and it humiliates the Irish officers.”

During the war period McCabe met a wide range of Spanish and other personalities, noting in his diaries vivid, sometimes acerbic, pen-pictures of many of them, including several of the officers and men of the O’Duffy brigade, Franco and his wife and children, who visited the Irish College, the great philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, rector of the university of Salamanca, the notorious and crazed Falange propagandist General José Millán Astray, the perhaps equally crazed General Quiepo de Llano, a highly effective military commander who harangued the people of the Andalucía in his nightly radio broadcasts with threats of the lurid sexual intentions of the Africa brigade against leftist women but who secretly despised Franco, Colonel Yagüe, the sanguinary commander of the foreign legion, the Conde de Alba de Yeltes, friend of Randolph Churchill who murdered six of his own peasants as mere subhumans before the war and his own two sons afterwards, José Antonio Sangroniz, head of Franco’s diplomatic service, who was apparently in dalliance with Aileen O’Brien a right-wing Irish-Chilean hanger-on who attached herself to the Irish brigade despite the efforts of Fr Mulrean to exclude her, Arnold Lunn the Catholic polemicist, Kim Philby, who disguised his communist commitment so successfully as war correspondent for the London Times that he was decorated by Franco, the activist if somewhat naive Irish ambassador Leopold Kerney and his boss, Joe Walshe, the permanent head of Ireland’s diplomatic service. These descriptions add hugely to the interest of Fanning’s selections from McCabe’s diaries and nourish the reader’s sense of McCabe’s own considerable intellectual gifts and personality.

On February 2nd, 1937 Mulrean wrote to McCabe from Cáceres telling him that he expected the Irish brigade to be sent to the front the following week. But the Spanish authorities were “unwilling to take the responsibility of sending so many men with officers unfit to lead them”. He added:

The attendance at the Kips (brothels) has increased, to my knowledge, from 5 in the 1st fortnight to over 40 a week now. Several cafés were broken this week , the proprietor of one injured, a Spanish major ditto. Our name is now below 0.

The Irish brigade was in action on the front on two occasions. On February 17th, 1937 as they marched from the village of Ciempozuelos on the outskirts of Madrid they came under friendly fire from a Falangist battalion: two Irishmen, Lieutenant Tom Hyde from Midleton and Private Dan Cute from Tralee, were killed and others were injured.

On March 12th, the brigade was ordered to take the village of Titulcia on the other side of the fiercely contested Jarama valley. Despite eleven hours of intense Republican shelling the brigade, led by Major Diarmuid O’Sullivan, reached the river, a significant achievement. O’Sullivan then ordered a retreat to regroup. Next morning O’Duffy incomprehensibly countermanded orders from Colonel Yagüe to resume the attack, despite objections from his own officers.

This crisis, less than four months after their arrival in Spain, was really the end of the road for the brigade. Colonel Yagüe, the overall commander, visited the brigade some weeks later and wrote to Franco recommending that it be disbanded: he cited indiscipline, drunkenness, disobedience and a lack of military efficiency. On April 9th O’Duffy wrote to Franco requesting transport to bring the brigade home to Ireland. He blamed the Spanish liaison officers for causing discontent and undermining loyalty. Franco wrote to General Orgaz, the commanding officer on the Jarama front, on April 13th, announcing the disbandment of the brigade.

McCabe, the duchess of Tetuán, the marques de Hoyos and his nephew the duke of Almodóvar (both descendants of O’Neill) , General Kindelán (also an O’Neill descendant), and Salvador Gómez Beare (a descendant of Dónal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, a legendary seventeenth century exile, who himself later proved to be an important British spy in deceiving the Germans about D-Day) as well as other prominent friends of the Irish College made repeated efforts to conciliate O’Duffy and his deputy, Paddy Belton (“a boor” in McCabe’s estimation), and the Franco authorities. O’Duffy was obdurate. So, at this stage, was Franco.

The bishop of Gibraltar, Richard Fitzgerald, a former vice-rector of the Irish College, came to Salamanca to try to persuade Franco to save the Irish brigade. Franco agreed to receive him. McCabe spent the previous evening with Fitzgerald and reluctantly explained why the lax discipline and military unpreparedness of the brigade had destroyed the reputation of the Irishmen. Franco, when they met, was immoveable.

General Kindelán was head of the nationalist air force. He met again with McCabe, the duchess of Tetuán and Fitzgerald. McCabe as usual gives a vivid description of Kindelán but cites him as courteously remarking that the men had “exceeded the measure”, that is had drunk too much, an excess which was as incomprehensible to most Spaniards then as it is now.

McCabe wrote in his diary that the Spaniards had assumed that Ireland would send “a crack regiment, veterans of the Great War”. In fact many of the men had no military training whatsoever and little experience “except what some of them got in cross-road ambushes in Ireland, during the Black-and Tan struggle”. Arthur O Farrell, a member of O’Duffy’s staff, told McCabe that the Irish officers “couldn’t read a map, know nothing about triangulation or range-firing and some of them couldn’t understand how a shell could be fired directly to a target out of sight”.

The expedition of O’Duffy’s brigade in Spain was a disaster and ended in humiliation and disgrace. The ungainsayable fact is that the brigade, apart from its indiscipline, was completely unprepared and untrained for the brutal confrontations of the Spanish Civil War. O’Duffy in his bumptious arrogance had a conviction, as he told McCabe, that “Franco would have won the war long ago if he had adopted a campaign of ambushes”. McCabe’s comment: “This in a War with fixed lines and Fronts, and in a country with no trees!!” Another note by McCabe of a conversation between O’Duffy and Franco summed up the absurdity: “Franco asked O’Duffy if he had any experience of military command. O’Duffy replied that he had commanded a million men on one occasion. Franco asked him when. ‘At the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin,’ O’Duffy replied proudly, and innocently, like a child. Franco merely smiled.” McCabe on reflection dismissed the fanfare that had launched the whole project as “a lot of talk, clap-trap and codology” and dismissed the unit as “a complete wash-out”.

With the official departure of the O’Duffy brigade in the summer of 1937 McCabe found himself virtually alone in the college for the next thirteen years. Most of his energies were engaged in the struggle to preserve the institution from collapse or from being requisitioned by the Franco administration or its Nazi allies or indeed the university of Salamanca or by the Spanish hierarchy. It was a losing struggle on all fronts.

He loved the old college and its legacy of ancient books which he steadily perused and the beautiful old town. Returning from a visit to Ireland by train, he wrote in his diary:

As it dies out, the familiar landscape recovers its solidity and stability. How heedless and indifferent landscape is to the tragedies of History. Here we are in Tejares again, making a great noise on the high iron bridge. From the carriage windows, I can see the silhouette of Salamanca standing up dimly against the black rain-soaked clouds. There isn’t any strange gap in the familiar sky-line, and all the towers and domes still crown the town, and give it the same old air of majesty and serenity.

He could not however ignore the brutal oppression now rampant around him:

Lying awake at dawn, with my windows open, I can hear the sparrows chattering in the garden. Then suddenly I hear the cars whirring in second gear as they climb the hill. When they have come around the Faculty Corner, they change into top, and I can hear them racing past outside the old City walls, which bound the College garden and ‘corral’. Then the sound gets lost on the Cemetery Road. In about ten minutes afterwards, the silence is broken by the sharp crack of the volley, and I know that one or two or three souls have gone somewhere into eternity. The sharp report sounds like little bits of iron, smashing glass to pieces. Then, in about half-a-minute, two or three isolated pistol shots ring out. They are the “golpe de gracia”, a “coup de grace’’ – funny word ‑ fired into the victim’s brain to finish him off if he be still alive, and to make sure of his death. On these beautiful mornings, when there is a touch of divinity about the Earth, all these killings in Spain are a diabolical mystery.

From June 1937 to the end of the civil war in April 1939 the college was occupied by Franco’s allies in the Nazi press and propaganda department. The staff gave the Nazi salute uninterruptedly and a British consular official in Vigo later remarked to McCabe how “amused” he had been to receive Nazi propaganda from the Irish college. McCabe, trying to maintain his rights and those of the Irish hierarchy in the building, lived alone in a small separate quarter within the college.

In January 1939 Barcelona fell to Franco’s forces and the war ended. The Germans finally departed and McCabe wrote to the Irish bishops saying he hoped that the Irish students could return the following September. But Cardinal MacRory decided to postpone this indefinitely in view of the Second World War.

For thirteen years McCabe was in charge of a building with no students until in 1949, deeply disillusioned, he resigned as rector and returned to Ireland. During his last years in Salamanca he felt (and indeed was) abandoned by the Irish hierarchy and unhappily began to resort to alcohol. The hierarchy basically gave the keys to the college to the Spanish church for nothing (two scholarships for Irish students in Spanish universities). This shameful transaction exemplified its neglect of the enormous legacy of the Irish Colleges throughout Europe. In my role as an official I witnessed the rescue of the Irish College in Paris in spite of the insistence of Cardinal Wojtyla, the powerful head of the Polish hierarchy (later Pope John Paul II), that it be surrendered to him for use as a Polish seminary. The resistance to the formidable future pontiff owed far more to the indefatigable patriotic determination of the great Celtic scholar Proinsias Mac Cana of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (supported by Iveagh House) than to any Irish bishop.

In Ireland, McCabe, now aged forty-nine, brilliantly intelligent and experienced at dealing at the highest political and academic levels of society, was treated with singular brutality by his diocesan boss, the bishop of Kilmore, Austin Quinn. He was appointed curate in the hinterland parish of Lurgan in south Co Cavan . Almost inevitably, he continued to resort to the bottle. Four years later Quinn sent him to Corlough on the border. From there he was transferred five years later to Ballaghameehan in Co Leitrim. In 1961 Quinn removed him from ministry and sent him to Belmont Park near Waterford city, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Here he was several times subjected to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) by a brutish medic. Seven years later he was admitted as chaplain and patient to St Joseph’s nursing home in Port Lurgan in Co Cavan. A local man who knew him told Tim Fanning that he was surprised that such a cultured and well-educated man had no books in his room. He died there aged eighty-eight on November 29th, 1988.

On June 13th,1946 McCabe had recorded in his diary:

I started to keep a Diary in January 1927, when I was in England. Since then, I have written 1,600,000 words. The best Diaries and the most faithfully kept were those for 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945. I never missed a day and sometimes I wrote several pages to a day. I put down everything that I thought to be interesting about life in the College, in Salamanca, and in Spain during those eventful years. They would make an interesting record of all this period. But there were some crudely bitter pages, especially about the cruelty of the Spanish Civil War, and so before I went to Ireland at Xmas, I brought all these journals down to the furnace and burned the whole record. Perhaps nobody would have the patience to read it, and if somebody had, he might be shocked at my comments and judgements on all this tragic period, and at the badly expressed cynicism, with which I regarded certain aspects of it … In all I destroyed 800,000 words … I expressed a fierce hatred for the German Nazis, who seem to have been the “scourge of God” of the 20th Century.

Tim Fanning has established himself as Ireland’s leading expert on the role of the Irish in the liberation of the Spanish colonies in the nineteenth century in Latin America. His Paisanos: The Forgotten Irish who Changed the Face of Latin America, is already a classic, a compendious and brilliantly researched and narrated work, recounting the vital role of Irish soldiers, sailors and politicians – and that of Eliza Lynch the Cork-born national heroine of Paraguay ‑ in liberating or struggling to liberate more than nine countries (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Uruguay, Mexico, Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador) from the Spanish crown or the depredations of their neighbours.

In the course of his work Fanning came upon the diaries of Fr McCabe and, while his title emphasises their link to the Spanish Civil War, his book is a full biography. It is wonderfully illustrated. The diaries are in no sense “confessional”, or focused on sexual or other private miseries, but rather a constantly vigorous account of McCabe’s career from his days as a student in Salamanca, to his experience as a young priest in the East End, where he engaged with the poor with good humour and respect, and his return to Salamanca as vice-rector suffering under the tyranny of an aging and embittered boss, to the turbulent years of his rectorship. Throughout, his intellectual curiosity, love of the classics and modern literature and architecture and his enthusiasm for travelling the world sustained his spirit. Though patriotic in his own way and unostentatiously devout, he was stubbornly independent of both clerical and Irish nationalist mindsets. Fanning has assembled an engaging biography from the surviving journals and McCabe’s extensive correspondence which belatedly honours the talent and life of a cruelly ill-treated humanitarian. It has deservedly earned the lavish praise of Sir Paul Preston, currently the most admired historian on the left of the Civil War and author of The Spanish Holocaust and of Franco’s definitive biography in English, and of Ian Gibson, author of The Death of Lorca. Fanning does not conceal his personal animosity towards the Nationalists’ campaign or cause; it is a key merit of his book, however, that he does not allow his personal view to obtrude or to influence his narration of the historical facts.

A personal postscript. In late 1969, during the absence from Spain of the Irish ambassador and when I was chargé d’affaires ad interim (unmarried, penniless, carless and aged twenty-three) at our embassy, I was summoned at a few hours’ notice by Franco’s chief of staff to accompany the caudillo’s granddaughter attired in “white tie” (I raced to hire the necessary garb) “and decorations” (I had none) to the opera that evening and to dine afterwards with her family. It turned out that Franco wished to send his seventeen-year-old granddaughter to Catholic Ireland to improve her English and wanted suggestions for schools. We travelled in the head of state’s splendid motor, a Hispano Suiza, with a motorcycle police escort and sat in the royal box accompanied by the young lady’s duenna, an elderly marquesa (complete with netted mantilla) during La Bohème, returning later to the El Pardo Palace around 10.30, the normal Spanish hour for dinner in those days and even today. Franco, though clearly suffering from Parkinson’s, made me welcome, as did his wife and family. In a squeaky high-pitched voice he spoke warmly about Ireland, about the ancient friendship between the two countries and his admiration for “our fellow countryman President de Valera”. It happened that through a series of accidents I had been invited to tea two years previously by the President and Sinéad Bean de Valera; this allowed me tell a story which gave me a measure of countenance at the table. After dinner I was asked to make some enquiries about schools and invited to come to dinner again some days later. It being the duty of every diplomat to cultivate the circles of power in his country of accreditation, I obviously accepted with alacrity. The fact that I had been invited to dine en famille with the Francos, an unheard of honour even for the members of his own government or the US ambassador, leaked out quickly through Franco’s staff and transformed my access to the higher levels of the Palacio de Santa Cruz, the foreign ministry, and throughout the government system.

I should add that during those days I was having the time of my life, frequently joining French, Italian, German and British junior diplomats meeting ‑ during the day or evening and regularly at my own unsuspected minuscule flat ‑ opposition leaders, for example Felipe González (later the socialist prime minister), all of whom were “on the run” from Franco’s government.

At the end of the next dinner at the Pardo Palace Franco invited me at the coffee stage to sit beside him on a sofa. He asked me if I had heard of “La Bandera Irlandesa” (that is the O’Duffy brigade) in Spain’s Civil War. I said I had: as it happened I had never got accustomed to sleeping during the Spanish afternoon siesta and often used those hours instead to gorge on the fascinating embassy files on the war period and its aftermath. “Era muy complicado,” Franco said. Complicado in Spanish has a wider and far more negative connotation that its English homonym, ranging from “challenging” to “completely disastrous”. Indeed.


Michael Lillis was diplomatic adviser to the Taoiseach (1981), head of the Anglo-Irish Relations division of the Department of Foreign Affairs (1982-85), Irish head of the Anglo-Irish Agreement Secretariat, Maryfield, Belfast (1985-86), ambassador to the UN in Geneva (1986-88), managing director for Latin America for GPA (1988-90) and for GE Capital Aviation (1990-96), board member VivaAeobus Airlines Mexico 2007 to date. His Scandal and Courage: the Lives of Eliza Lynch, co-authored with Ronan Fanning, was published in 2009.



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