I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Witness to War


Salud! An Irishman in Spain, by Peadar O’Donnell, Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland, 174 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1527274068

Writing from London in April 1937 to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in Dublin, journalist Mairin Mitchell commented:

Reading Peadar’s book on Spain I felt that he had seen more than he was prepared to say, and that he has been shaken over the experience. I liked the book for its beautiful sensitive writing & did not feel it was less interesting because written as much about PO’D as about Spain.

She added somewhat facetiously: “[B]ut I hope he won’t get more introspective – it’s gone far enough.” The book she was referring to was Salud!, An Irishman in Spain first published in 1937 and now reissued more than eighty years after the Spanish Civil War.

O’Donnell was just one of the thousands of foreign writers, journalists, war correspondents and photographers who bore witness to what unfolded in Spain after the military uprising against the democratically elected Republican government provoked all-out civil war. The bloody conflict, which some regarded as a dress rehearsal for World War II, also saw the advent of new kinds of barbarity, such as the aerial bombings of civilians. It was a war that fired the imagination of writers and artists worldwide and was written about extensively. Among the army of writers, poets and journalists who descended on Spain as eyewitnesses or combatants in the International Brigades were a small group of Irish writers acting as either combatants, like Charles Donnelly, or medical aid volunteers, like Ewart Milne, an early accidental tourist at the war’s outbreak, like Peadar O’Donnell, or a chronicler of the pre-war era like Mairin Mitchell.

O’Donnell was a leading political figure in the Irish left, as well as being an important cultural innovator, taking an oppositional stance against stark hypocrisies in Irish society. With novels and with powerful indictments in his writing on the 1937 Kirkintilloch Bothy tragedy, he highlighted the inequities in Irish society that persisted post-independence. He also was editor of The Bell, a significant liberal magazine, from 1946 to 1954. During his long life he supported many causes with many different groups, ranging from being a key mover in the socialist republican Republican Congress, which hoped to steer post-independence Ireland in a socialist direction, to anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid groups in the ’70s. He was variously a socialist, an IRA Army Council member up to 1933, a participant in left republican groups, a novelist, journalist and editor. It was by chance that he found himself with a front row seat at the Spanish conflict, as he tells us in the opening pages of the book: “I was to search out a fishing village where I might settle down for a year or two.” That was at the beginning of July 1936. Within just a few weeks, news reached the village of an uprising in Morocco, a revolt of the foreign legion. O’Donnell’s rendezvous with history had begun.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, it swiftly made headlines round the world. The coup, led by General Francisco Franco, was an escalation of the turbulent social unrest all over Spain in the Thirties, symbolised by such dramatic events as the violence against the Asturian miners in 1934 and the election of a Popular Front government in early 1936. Spain’s Second Republic, established in April 1931, had offered the opportunity to upend the old order and wrest control of society from church, landowners and army. It was not just the shock of the coup to displace a democratically elected government. The war continued to make news because so many journalists and writers speedily dispersed to the site of the unfolding conflict. O’Donnell was ahead of the posse, he “walked into a Civil War”, one he felt had resonances with the Irish Civil War.

I am not writing merely because I happened to be in the neighbourhood of Barcelona when the fighting commenced, and kept on the heels of the fighting of the happenings over a wide stretch of country, but because of the uproar which the news from Spain caused in my own country where it rekindled the antagonisms of our own Civil War.

Events moved swiftly, and within only a short period of time after receiving new of the military revolt, the O’Donnells witnessed violence, the burning of a church in the village, an event which profoundly shocked them both. In Barcelona they were caught up in the defence of the city. Like Orwell, Peadar O’Donnell had sensed the utopian possibilities in what he witnessed in Barcelona. Orwell had marvelled at the transformation in waiters, their heads newly held high: “Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.” O’Donnell observed more succinctly: “Men felt themselves a community of brothers.” O’Donnell also noted: “Women’s voices were to be heard more and more … women were becoming a real force in public opinion.”

As noted by his biographer Donal O’Drisceoil, “his concern [was] to document the revolution as best he could as it was happening”. What is clear from this flawed but fascinating relic of that tumultuous era is that O’Donnell informed himself by seeking out a broad spectrum of diverse people: he was prepared to give even his political adversaries a hearing. In its style and intent, it is the kind of journalism or journey narrative out of vogue now, grounded as it is in O’Donnell’s multiple encounters with people from all walks of life. He was happy to spend a day with fishermen mending their nets and see what cropped up in conversation. He would seek testimony in a roadside café for workers yet feel no qualms about doing “a tour of the drawing room” to elicit highly divergent views and opinions. Commenting on his own approach, in relation to one semi-intellectual informant, he spelt out the difference between them: “Language with me leads to people, with him to literature.”

At times the narrative pace of the book is slowed by unwieldy chunks of opinions and reported speech given verbatim. The purpose is to give voice to the wide variety of opinion canvassed by O’Donnell, but it is a clunky device. Nonetheless some of what he describes is imbued with haunting lyricism as well as a sharp-eyed realism. The sections for instance where he describes the fight for Zaragoza display all the punch and thrust of an action movie, and the heart quickens speed just reading these passages as O’Donnell and his wife, Lile, are literally drawn along in the crowds’ throng. Then, suddenly, in the wake of the infectious enthusiasm, there are the dead, there are the wounded. It is not a movie after all but real life and death.

A red cross flag over a farmhouse, with cars at the gate, located the hospital. The staff, however, was only a few bewildered medical students, neither surgeon nor doctor was at hand. You never saw so many flies in a riot around bloody bandages. The rumour now that somewhere further back there was a hospital and so their comrades carted their wounded onwards, and saw in this grim setting the greatest tragedy of war, this business of men dying who need not die. And you felt too the most soul-destroying experience of all, to stand manacled by your own ignorance in the face of suffering. The war had begun on the Aragon Front.

Soon O’Donnell and Lile were in among the throng of many nationalities fleeing Spain. On the boat sailing from Marseilles, his wife saw a group of Spanish nuns confined in pitiable conditions on the third class deck, and of course there is an Irishwoman among their ranks. He allots a goodly portion of one chapter expounding on the arms issue, the blockade, the attitude of the European democracies and Britain. Sometimes it feels like being trapped between enthusiastic and voluble participants in a bar room debate. In other places, the “sensitive writing” to which Mitchell alluded is more in evidence.

O’Donnell’s book is not just a witness text to the war but also a record of the febrile atmosphere in Thirties Ireland. Ireland was one of the few countries in Europe where public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of Franco. One chapter contains extraordinary allegations about the willingness of “Catholic Action” committees to make an unholy alliance with the criminal “Animal Gang” to foment physical attacks on leftists.

For the Catholic church in Ireland, Spain represented another facet in a war against “Godless Communism”. History has revealed the atrocities on both sides, but in 1936 most of the news the Irish public received was predominantly about savage attacks on priests and nuns. O’Donnell felt he was duty bound to provide the other side of the story. By the time of his second visit to Spain in September 1936, he detected a sharp change in the air: anxiety, apprehension and confusion had crept in, in sharp contrast to the energy and jubilation he had earlier witnessed in Barcelona and the unbridled optimism of the first days of the defence of the Republic and the resistance to Franco and his henchmen.

As O’Donnell himself stated in the opening pages of the book, one of his main motives in writing the book was to counter the type of propaganda about the war circulating in Ireland. His formidable descriptive powers are only intermittently on display here. At times he lapses into default lecture mode, which is not engaging. At others he is capable of encapsulating the high drama of an incident. This see-sawing, rollercoaster ebb and flow of the narrative sometimes detracts from its power.

Focus on Ireland and the Spanish Civil War is having a moment in the spotlight with the publication of Emmet O’Connor and Barry McLoughlin’s book Spanish Trenches: The Minds and Deeds of the Irish Who Fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War and the republication of this volume. This is not a rediscovered classic of Spanish Civil Literature in the purely literary sense. It is however a reminder of Thirties radicalism, a significant cultural artefact and a witness text by a distinctive Irish leftist thinker. For anyone interested in history and cultural memory as regards the Spanish Civil War, or indeed the Irish social history of the Thirties, it will provide a window onto that contested era. Salud! An Irishman in Spain stands within that small body of Spanish Civil War writing by Irish men and women ‑ Ewart Milne, Charles Donnelly, Blanaid Salkeld, Mairin Mitchell, Leslie Daiken ‑ whose poems and texts also performed acts of witness, solidarity and elegy.


Katrina Godstone is a writer and historical researcher. Her book Irish Writers and the Thirties, Art Exile and War, with a chapter on Irish writers and the Spanish Civil War, is published by Routledge in their series Studies in Cultural History. See www.katrinagoldstone.com



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