The Spanish Civil War was one of the most controversial conflicts of the last century. Foreshadowing the wider conflict of 1939-45, the devastation of Spain by the forces of fascism, communism and nationalism divided Europe.

Like the later conflict in Vietnam, the war gripped international attention, compelled individuals to take sides and motivated activists whose influence would be felt far beyond Spain.

For some left-wing idealists, Spain was the last great cause. Many on the left regard the International Brigades – the 45,000-strong army of international volunteers which fought for the Spanish Republic – as one of the great achievements of working-class struggle, a testament to the idealism, solidarity and political commitment of that generation.

However, others would come to see Spain as a great betrayal rather than a glorious failure due to the suppression of anarchists and socialists there by Stalinists, an interpretation powerfully conveyed in Ken Loach’s movie, "Land and Freedom" (1995).

Compared to most other European countries, Ireland's response to the Spanish Civil War was unusual. The vast majority of Irish people supported Franco rather than Spain’s democratic government. Similarly, the great majority of Irishmen who fought in Spain did so under General Franco. The principal reason for this was that the war was widely seen as a conflict between communism and Christianity at a time when Irish society was profoundly influenced by Catholicism.

On July 20, 1936 reports of a rebellion by army officers in Spain appeared in Irish newspapers. Aside from the Irish Times (which was associated with Protestant and Unionist opinion), most Irish newspapers were strongly pro-Franco.

The Irish Independent, which would become the loudest cheerleader of the pro-Franco lobby, warned that a victory for the Spanish government would lead to a ‘Soviet State’ and urged its readers to support the Nationalists ‘who stand for the ancient faith and traditions of Spain.’

The Irish Press declared that Franco ‘must have a large measure of public support’ because of the Republican government’s anti-clericalism: ‘churches have been burned, schools secularized, Communistic schemes carried out.’ Clergy, politicians and the provincial and Catholic press expressed the same opinions.

Within weeks the Catholic hierarchy was openly calling for Franco’s victory. In the face of this pro-Franco consensus, a tiny campaign of support for the Spanish Republic organized by a small number of left-wing republicans and communists struggled to be heard. The campaigners often fell victim to anti-communist mob violence on the streets. By the autumn of 1936, pro-Franco meetings were sweeping the country and two military brigades were preparing to fight in Spain.

Most Irish people knew little about Spain or its complicated politics when Franco’s rebellion began. Spain was viewed, like Ireland, as a Catholic nation and, since the early 1930s, the Irish bishops and Catholic press had portrayed Spain as a Catholic state besieged by communism and atheism.

When the civil war began the complexities of the conflict were largely ignored. That the Republic comprised not just communists but also socialists, liberals, middle-class progressives, landless laborers, workers, Catalonians and Catholic Basques was little reported. 

Similarly, that Franco’s Nationalists were supported not only by the Catholic Church but a reactionary coalition of fascists, army officers, landowners and industrialists was ignored. Instead, Irish attention was gripped by news of the anti-clerical violence that swept Republican Spain after Franco’s rebellion (and resulted in the murder of twelve bishops, 4,000 priests, 2,000 monks and 300 nuns). The sensational press reports of these atrocities had an enormous impact on Catholic Ireland.

Support for Franco began to develop into a popular movement. In September 1936 Cardinal MacRory, primate of all Ireland, unambiguously expressed the church’s support for Franco: ‘There is no room any longer for any doubts as to the issue at stake in the Spanish conflict . . . It is a question of whether Spain will remain as she has been so long, a Christian and Catholic land, or a Bolshevist and anti-God one.’ The depiction of the conflict as a holy war continued in the following year’s Lenten pastorals in which more attention was devoted to communism and the Spanish Civil War than any other issue. One bishop spoke of ‘a war between Christ and anti-Christ,’ while another described Franco’s soldiers as ‘gallant champions of the Cross who are fighting so gloriously for Christ."

The most significant popular support for Franco came with the establishment of the Irish Christian Front (ICF) in August 1936. Its manifesto declared: “Anyone who supports the Spanish government supports church burning and priest slaughter. We should wish for the success of the Patriot arms in Spain, not that we are the least concerned with the temporal issues at stake there, but that we want the advance guard of the anti-God forces stopped in Spain and thereby from reaching our shores.”

The ICF spread throughout Ireland, organizing public meetings at which local priests, politicians and trade unionists declared their support for Franco. The success of its campaign placed Fianna Fáil in a difficult position because de Valera’s government continued to recognize the Spanish Republic.

Fine Gael was quick to call on de Valera to recognize Franco, a demand strongly backed by the ICF, the Irish Independent, local bodies and bishops. The problem for de Valera was that Irish recognition of Franco would entail joining the diplomatic company of the fascist states and undermining Irish neutrality at a critical time in international affairs. Given the public mood, de Valera’s refusal to give in to this demand was a considerable achievement. The government was to come under further pressure as Irishmen began fighting in Spain.

In August 1936, General Eoin O’Duffy, the former Garda commissioner and Blueshirt leader, announced the formation of an Irish Brigade to fight for Franco. O’Duffy claimed that he was motivated by the historic links between Ireland and Spain, his own anti-communism and his desire to defend the Catholic Church. But O’Duffy – a failed politician – was also motivated by his fascist beliefs and a desire to resuscitate his own political career. His proposal was very popular. By late August he claimed to have received 7,000 applications although, due to numerous complications, only 700 Irishmen made it to Nationalist Spain. 

Many of the Brigade’s officers, who were former Blueshirts or members of O’Duffy’s fascist National Corporate Party, were motivated by fascism or loyalty to their leader. Some of the volunteers sought adventure or, as one priest put it, a change from ‘standing around staring at the pump’ but many were genuinely motivated by the belief that the Spanish civil war was a religious crusade against communism. Most were young men from rural Ireland, few of whom had been exposed to any other analysis of the conflict. Newspaper accounts convey the atmosphere of militant Catholicism as they left Ireland.

Large crowds gathered to sing ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ as volunteers were blessed by priests and handed Sacred Heart badges, miraculous medals and prayer books. Although the Brigade’s organizers told the volunteers they were ‘part of a crusade prepared to fight under the banner of the Cross to help deliver Spain,’ they were to find the war a very different kind of crusade from what they imagined.

Following the formation of the Irish Brigade, and partly in response to it, a smaller contingent of men left Ireland to fight for the Spanish Republic. Led by the left republican, Frank Ryan, and organized by the Communist Party of Ireland, around 200 Irishmen (mainly working-class republicans from urban areas) enlisted in the International Brigades.

Members of the ‘Connolly Column,’ as they later became known, fought for a variety of motives – anti-fascism, the defense of Spanish democracy, revolutionary idealism, loyalty to the Communist Party or a desire for adventure. Like Franco’s supporters, many believed in the vital importance of Spain.

As one Belfast communist declared: ‘Spain is the acid test, on the question of victory or defeat depends the whole future civilization.’

But in contrast to O’Duffy’s followers, most of these men were experienced activists. Many had served in the anti-treaty or post-Civil War IRA and had been members of left-wing revolutionary organizations such as Saor Éire and Republican Congress. For these men, Spain represented the depth of their commitment to revolutionary goals which appeared impossible to achieve in the conservative Irish Free State.

Both sides, although situated close to one another on either side of the Battle of Jarama, met with very different experiences. The Irish Brigade was blighted by bitter infighting between O’Duffy and his officers, and Franco was unimpressed by its lack of military expertise. The Brigade’s first battle in February 1937 occurred when another Nationalist battalion mistook them for the enemy while their next (and final) action ended in failure when the Brigade’s officers mutinied, refusing an order to attack the well-defended village of Titulcia. 

Drunkenness and indiscipline added to these problems and the humiliated Brigade was disarmed and ordered out of Spain by Franco. 

But there were also some difficulties among their International Brigade compatriots on the other side of the front-line.

The great republican tradition of ‘the split’ survived in Spain. On finding themselves enrolled among the English, Scots and Welsh of the ‘British Battalion,’ some Irishmen chose to join the American contingent rather than fight alongside the British (some of whom had seen military service for the Crown during the War of Independence in Ireland). But in marked contrast to O’Duffy’s men, the ‘Connolly Column’ – motivated by more clearly defined political beliefs and forming part of the more disciplined and committed International Brigades – fought bravely on several fronts between 1936 and 1938, notably Jarama, Brunete, Teruel and the Ebro. Close to a third of their number died in Spain and many more were injured.

By the time they returned to Ireland, the Spanish Civil War was no longer an important political issue. Atrocities such as the German bombing of Guernica, a village in the Catholic Basque region, undermined the simplistic notion of the Spanish Civil War as a religious crusade. By the summer of 1937 the Irish Brigade had returned in failure and the Christian Front had collapsed under its own internal pressures. Despite this, many veterans of the Connolly Column chose not to return to Ireland where they knew they would be treated as pariahs; some of those who did return faced suspicion and discrimination for decades to come. 

The Spanish Civil War is now remembered in Ireland as a conflict between democracy and fascism rather than Christianity and communism. As a result, the veterans of the International Brigades have gradually come to be regarded as heroes, while the Irish Brigade’s crusaders have been forgotten or are reviled as supporters of fascism. Such are the vagaries of history.

The writer is Professor of Modern Irish History at Queens University, Belfast.