In April 1933, Eoin O'Duffy was given command of the Army Comrades Association (also known as Blueshirts). O'Duffy renamed the movement the National Guard. He also organized marches, flags, salutes ("Hail O'Duffy) based on those in Nazi Germany. This led to fighting in the streets between the National Guard and left-wing groups. In August 1933 the government banned the National Guard from marching to Leinster Lawn.
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War O'Duffy began recruiting volunteers to go and fight in the war. Supported by the Catholic Church in Ireland and by right-wing national newspapers, O'Duffy and the first volunteers left travelled from Dublin on 13th November, 1936. It has been argued that the men who went to Spain were mainly motivated by a desire to defend the Catholic Church in Spain.
At the same time, the Irish socialist, Peadar O'Donnell, was urging the formation of volunteer regiments to support the Popular Front government. O'Donnell and Frank Ryan established the Connolly Column (named after James Connolly) and in December 1936, Ryan and eighty volunteers left Dublin for Spain. The majority came from the Free State but there were also a group of socialists from Belfast. Those who went included Charlie Donnelly, Eddie O'Flaherty, Paul Burns, Jackie Hunt, Bill Henry, Eamon McGrotty, Bill Beattie, Paddy McLaughlin, Bill Henry, Peter O'Connor, Peter Power, Johnny Power, Liam Tumilson, Jim Straney, Willie O'Hanlon, Ben Murray and Fred McMahon.
After travelling through southern France by train to Perpignan, they went to the training at Albercete in Spain run by André Marty. The Connolly Column suffered heavy losses at Jarama (February 1937). Charlie Donnelly, Eamon McGrotty, Bill Henry, Liam Tumilson and Bill Beattie were all killed during this battle.
Ryan was badly wounded at Jarama in February 1937 and returned to Ireland to recuperate. On his returned to Spain and was appointed adjutant to General José Miaja. Ryan was captured during the Aragón offensive on 1st April, 1938 and was held at the Miranda del Ebro detention camp. He was sentenced to death but after representations from Eamon de Valera his sentence was commuted to thirty years.
I was ordered to report to Cancela. I found him talking with some legionaries who had brought in a deserter from the International Brigades - an Irishman from Belfast; he had given himself up to one of our patrols down by the river. Cancela wanted me to interrogate him. The man explained that he had been a seaman on a British ship trading to Valencia, where he had got very drunk one night, missed his ship and been picked up by the police. The next thing he knew, he was in Albacete, impressed into the International Brigades. He knew that if he tried to escape in Republican Spain he would certainly be retaken and shot; and so he had bided his time until he reached the front, when he had taken the first opportunity to desert. He had been wandering around for two days before he found our patrol.
I was not absolutely sure that he was telling the truth; but I knew that if I seemed to doubt his story he would be shot, and I was resolved to do everything in my power to save his life. Translating his account to Cancela, I urged that this was indeed a special case; the man was a deserter, not a prisoner, and we should be unwise as well as unjust to shoot him. Moved either by my arguments, or by consideration for my feelings. Cancela agreed to spare him, subject to de Mora's consent; I had better go and see de Mora at once while Cancela would see that the deserter had something to eat.
De Mora was sympathetic. "You seem to have a good case," he said. "Unfortunately my orders from Colonel Penaredonda are to shoot all foreigners. If you can get his consent I'll be delighted to let the man off. You'll find the Colonel over there, on the highest of those hills. Take the prisoner with you, in case there are any questions, and your two runners as escort."
It was an exhausting walk of nearly a mile with the midday sun blazing on our backs. "Does it get any hotter in this country?" the deserter asked as we panted up the steep sides of a ravine, the sweat pouring down our faces and backs.
"You haven't seen the half of it yet. Wait another three months," I answered, wondering grimly whether I should be able to win him even another three hours of life.
I found Colonel Penaredonda sitting cross-legged with a plate of fried eggs on his knee. He greeted me amiably enough as I stepped forward and saluted; I had taken care to leave the prisoner well out of earshot. I repeated his story, adding my own plea at the end, as I had with Cancela and de Mora. "I have the fellow here, sir," I concluded, "in case you wish to ask him any questions." The Colonel did not look up from his plate: "No, Peter," he said casually, his mouth full of egg, "I don't want to ask him anything. Just take him away and shoot him.'
I was so astonished that my mouth dropped open; my heart seemed to stop beating. Penaredonda looked up, his eyes full of hatred:
"Get out!" he snarled. "You heard what I said." As I withdrew he shouted after me: "I warn you, I intend to see that this order is carried out."
Motioning the prisoner and escort to follow, I started down the hill; I would not walk with them, for I knew that he would question me and I could not bring myself to speak. I decided not to tell him until the last possible moment, so that at least he might be spared the agony of waiting. I even thought of telling him to try to make a break for it while I distracted the escorts' attention; then I remembered Penaredonda's parting words and, looking back, saw a pair of legionaries following us at a distance. I was so numb with misery and anger that I didn't notice where I was going until I found myself in front of de Mora once more. When I told him the news he bit his lip:
"Then I'm afraid there's nothing we can do," he said gently. "You had better carry out the execution yourself. Someone has got to do it, and it will be easier for him to have a fellow-countryman around. After all, he knows that you have tried to save him. Try to get it over quickly."
It was almost more than I could bear to face the prisoner, where he stood between my two runners. As I approached they dropped back a few paces, leaving us alone; they were good men and understood what I was feeling. I forced myself to look at him. I am sure he knew what I was going to say.
"I've got to shoot you." A barely audible "Oh my God!" escaped him.
Briefly I told him how I had tried to save him. I asked him if he wanted a priest, or a few minutes by himself, and if there were any messages he wanted me to deliver.
"Nothing," he whispered, "please make it quick."
"That I can promise you. Turn round and start walking straight ahead."
He held out his hand and looked me in the eyes, saying only "Thank you."
"God bless you!" I murmured.
As he turned his back and walked away I said to my two runners:
"I beg you to aim true. He must not feel anything." They nodded, and raised their rifles. I looked away. The two shots exploded simultaneously.
"On our honour, sir," the senior of the two said to me, "he could not have felt a thing."
On 23rd February our battalion took part in the first attack on the fascist lines. It was very dark and the olive groves were lit up with rifle and machine gun fire. We advanced too far, but dug in where we were. Paddy Power was just near me, in a section of a trench cut off from our main lines. It was here that Charlie Donnelly, Eamon McGrotty, and the Rev. M Hilliard were killed and Alan MacLarnan from Dublin was wounded. I made the following entries in my diary for 26th and 27th February 1937:
"We were holding the line. We did not get anything to eat since the morning of the 23. It is now 26 February and all our canteens are empty. We fight our way back to the main line.
The 27th February, and we attack again, led by Eddie O'Flaherty and Paul Burns. Jackie Hunt from Waterford is wounded in the ankle, and Bill Henry, that great Protestant working class comrade from Belfast, was killed in the vanguard of the attack, together with TT O'Brien. We hold the line and consolidate our positions. The road to Madrid is safe. We settle down to a stint of trench warfare, making the dugouts more livable. Our main position is among the olive groves on the hills overlooking the villages of Marata and Chinchon, where we settle down to repulse attacks and counter attack."
They have now been in the front line trenches without a break since February 19, on which date they received their baptism of fire. Since then they have been subjected to almost unceasing shell fire and bombing day after day and night after night.
We have left seven dead on the field, we have many seriously wounded, some maimed for life, and many others suffering from shell shock, pulmonary diseases, rheumatic fever, &c., developed in the trenches during the incessant heavy rains of February and March, from which complaints, I fear, some of the men may never fully recover. By the end of March we had 150 in hospital.
The greatest trial of war will undoubtedly be the danger of typhoid and other fevers from now on, but the climatic conditions during the past few months, and the almost complete absence of water for either drinking or sanitary purposes, have had serious effects on the health of the Irish troops already.
Nevertheless, neither the sick nor wounded ever made any complaints and returned to the front cheerfully immediately on their discharge from hospital.
As our brigade is composed entirely of volunteers General Franco has been concerned about the safety of minors - those under 21 years of age - and has made representations to me from time to time in regard to their repatriation. The number of volunteers under 21 is upwards of 106.
Owing to the understanding in regard to the six months' period of service, a large number of volunteers arranged with their employers to engage substitutes during their absence, and about the middle of April I received requests from upwards of 200 officers, N.C.O.s, and men to make arrangements for their return to Ireland. All expressed, however, their loyal acceptance of my decision and signified their willingness to remain here if I so desired.
The transport of volunteers from Ireland to Spain always presented difficulties, but now, with the Free State Non-Intervention Act and the activities of the international observers on the frontiers, we are confronted with the position that no further support from Ireland will be forthcoming. The Irish post offices have even refused to accept parcels addressed to members of the brigade in Spain since the passing of the Act.
Without a reserve, or any hope of a reserve, it is a very serious responsibility for any commander or leader to order men into action in modem warfare where one or two activities might result in the complete annihilation of a little band of men like this which constitutes the Irish Brigade.
No one knows better than I do the high morale, the spirit, and the bravery of the men, and I know that no danger, not even the certainty of death itself, would daunt them, but such an ending of the brigade, however, glorious, would be as bad for Spain as it would be for Ireland.
Taking all these facts into consideration, I considered it my duty as leader of the brigade to give each member an opportunity of deciding for himself as to whether he should return to Ireland now or continue on here for the duration of the war.
With the exception of a few who have made up their minds to remain in Spain, the unanimous decision has been to return to Ireland now, our obligations having been fulfilled.
Accordingly the brigade will return to Ireland as soon as its place in the front line has been filled and the men have had a rest in Caceres. Meanwhile travelling arrangements will be made.
The one thing that upsets me about the history that is written about the Irish men who fought in the Spanish Civil War is that it tends to misrepresent the ideals and beliefs which led so many of these men to fight, on both sides.
Many people mistakenly believe that everyone who joined Eoin O'Duffy was a fascist, some may have been, but the vast majority of those who did fight for Franco had no interest in fascism and were more traditional Catholics. This book (Spanish Civil War: The Untold Misery) will show that many of the men who joined Eoin O'Duffy, especially from Belfast, did so because of the fact that they were devout Catholics and as a consequence did what the church told them to do, but also they went to fight because of the unique relationship they had with O'Duffy himself.
Whatever O'Duffy's faults he obviously made an impression on a number of his old IRA comrades and when 1936 came around some joined him on the boat to Spain.