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Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War

Fearghal McGarry. Cork University Press, Cork, Éire. 1999.  ISBN 1 85918 240 2   £14.95stg

WHAT WAS IT about the Spanish Civil War that caught the imagination of so many Irish people when it broke out in 1936? Fearghal McGarry - who lectures in modern history at Trinity College, Dublin - seeks to answer this question and punctures more than quite a few myths in this well-researched book.ireland and spain.jpg (11255 bytes)

Today, the relative handful of men who fought for the Spanish Republic are lionised in song and are well commemorated by all strands of the Irish left and the ICTU. This is quite ironic, given that the Irish Labour Party and the trade union movement refused to back the Spanish Republic at the time. Sinn Féin and PIRA also claim to inherit the mantle of the so-called ‘Connolly column’, despite IRA leader Tom Barry’s ban on IRA members joining the International Brigades. Jim Straney’s name appears on an IRA memorial in Short Strand (unveiled by Gerry Adams in 1995) despite his in absentia IRA court-martial for enlisting in the international brigade.

Despite all this latter-day identification with those who went out to fight for the losing side in the Spanish civil war, public support at the time was overwhelmingly in favour of General Franco and the Spanish nationalists. The Irish Brigade, led by General Eoin O’Duffy who founded the clerico-fascist Blueshirt movement, was only one small part of nationalist Spain’s Irish supporters. Such support was generally not ideologically ‘pro-fascist’ but given on religious grounds. Reports of republican outrages against priests, nuns and churches stirred up strong anti-communist sentiment in favour of Franco who was seen as a defender of Christianity.

Support for Franco and opposition to Red Spain was strong across the whole Free State political spectrum, much of the press and among the Catholic clergy and lay groups. One such lay group, the Irish Christian Front, held massive public meetings in support of Franco. In contrast the leftist Republican Congress and the Communist Party were unable to hold public meetings without danger to life and limb from ‘Catholic Action’ groups. In Ulster, most Catholic nationalists, the Irish News and the Derry Journal supported Franco. This wrecked the Northern Ireland Labour Party as Catholic voters withdrew their tactical support. The NILP’s leader Harry Midgely - a strong supporter of the Spanish Republic – lost his parliamentary seat in the 1938 general election to a unionist after nationalists campaigned against him. Unionists generally viewed both sides in the Spanish conflict with disdain and the Orange Order detected the hand of Rome behind it all.

In this thorough book, McGarry takes a detailed look at those who went out to fight on each side of the Spanish conflict and examines the rapid growth and decline of the Irish Christian Front after Patrick Belton, its ambitious and charismatic leader, over-reached himself. In a separate section, the author looks at the stance of the Irish Catholic hierarchy, each of the major political parties in the Irish Free State and the adroit diplomatic response of the deValera government to the Spanish crisis. If you want to know more there are plenty of footnotes and a superb bibliography. You’ll not find a better treatment of this subject, no matter which side you think was right. Buy it!

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