Culture & History

3 Alternative Ways to Learn About Irish Soldiers and the Spanish Civil War

Irish soldiers and the Spanish Civil War are deeply connected.

Roughly 1,000 Irish men fought in the conflict, with around 700 fighting for Franco and the rest for the International Brigade.

Eoin O’Duffy’s proto-Fascists did not distinguish themselves in the war and, after firing on their own men, they were swiftly taken off the front line, only to be deployed again for propaganda purposes.

On the other side of the political divide, those in the International Brigade had more of an impact, though – according to some memoirs – these international fighters were sometimes sidelined so the native Spanish troops could take an objective and, in turn, take the glory.

While the legacy of the Spanish Civil War still looms large in the Iberian country, there are also many families in Ireland that have direct connections to this great political rupture. Personally, I know of several friends whose antecedents fought for the Brigade.

While personal accounts abound, the purpose of this blog post is to show how the Irish presence in the war can make itself known in surprising ways; this historical and narrative feat will also further the notion that Irish identity has a broad internalism embedded in it.

An African American Nurse and an Irish Husband

Invisible Heroes is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. The scope of this film is huge, yet it never loses its grasp on who the men and women were and why they were fighting.

Irish soldiers in the Spanish Civil War

So, how did African-Americans find themselves in this particular theatre of conflict? Because they fell for a lie, a big one at that, but their credulity was borne from idealism and misplaced hope. It was the same lie that convinced Irish sons to sacrifice their lives for the ‘rights of small nations’ during World War One, with the idea being that their contribution to that cause would strengthen Ireland’s claim for sovereignty.

Unfortunately, for the African-Americans and the Irish, racists laws and British imperialism were not so easily moved.

Some amazing stories come out of the documentary. Ernest Hemingway, for one, emerges with little credit. When he visited the Republican lines, he was generally dismissive of the African-American volunteers, and he would – of course – go on write For Whom The Bell Tolls, a book with a protagonist who is not particularly representative of the typical Republican fighter.

And to deepen the Irish connection, one of the African-American nurses fell in love with an Irish soldier and married him.

Christy Moore, Irish Soldiers and the Spanish Civil War

Christy Moore’s song Viva la Quinta Brigada is remarkable for two reasons: it scathingly criticises the Catholic Church, and it gives names to the Irish men who went abroad to fight Franco.

Here are some of the men:

This song is a tribute to Frank Ryan
Kit Conway and Dinny Coady too
Peter Daly, Charlie Regan and Hugh Bonar
Though many died I can but name a few

Danny Boyle, Blaser-Brown  and Charlie Donnelly
Liam Tumilson and Jim Straney from the Falls
Jack Nalty, Tommy Patton and Frank Conroy
Jim Foley, Tony Fox and Dick O’Neill

The song was inspired by a Spanish one with roughly the same title, and it was also inspired by the ‘Connolly Column’, as detailed in Michael O’Riordan’s book of the same name.

Based on real characters, events and on accurate eyewitness accounts, this song is elevated into more than just a ballad. It’s a raw and emotional tribute to the men that fought for a cause they believed in during a bitter civil war where many people lost their lives and in a country where ‘even the olives were bleeding’. The song also shows how they fought side-by-side with people from all over the world.

What is more, it identifies men who have been largely forgotten in Ireland and it keeps their memory alive.

Laurie Lee’s Memoir

Lee’s A Moment of War is a fascinating book. He’s a renowned poet and he offers a poetic, novelistic portrait of the Spanish Civil War. But is it true? Some have cast doubt on the veracity of the tale, and online detectives point to inconsistencies in the story. I am not in a position to say whether this memoir is fact or fiction, or partially so, but I am working on the basis that it’s true, particularly as I am a fan of his other work.

There are problems with the narrative, both for the reader and the other characters. Lee arrived in Spain through his own means and not through official channels – a fact which saw him incarcerated a handful of times. For the reader, his prose can often be lacking. In the book, he boasts about romantic encounters, acknowledges that many see him as being too frail to fight, and he recounts how he clumsily kills one person; often he pulls back out the scene, either through discretion or embarrassment. The reader is then left with a vague, frustratingly hinted at moment.

Overall, it is still a good book. Lee excels at describing the organization of the war and the type of men drawn to it. This disparate band are hungry and often poorly motivated. They only find their spirit through marching and singing. And it’s here where we see how the International Brigade fought, ate and killed time.

While the Irish characters flit in and out of the story near the end, it’s easy to imagine that their travels and travails were similar to those of Laurie Lee.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, the story of the Irish at war for and against Franco is a long one. There are numerous sources to draw on and I would highly recommend checking out the three mentioned in this article as they are not exclusively dealing with the theme of Irish soldiers. As such, you will get a more complete picture of the International Brigade’s fighting story, music commemorating the war, and the historical and political context which compelled African-American soldiers to enlist.

If you are aware of other material that could be on interest, you can leave suggestions in the comments.

Irish soldiers and the Spanish civil war

If you want to watch a few movies, you could check out Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, which a stellar piece of filmmaking. Though, it always is with Loach. For a more complete list – replete with plot summaries – check out this list from The Local.

And Remember…

This blog is relatively new so you can expect more articles with a historical interest. We will flesh out more details of Irish soldiers and the Spanish Civil War, while also keeping an eye on Iberian-Hibernian links either side of the conflict, delving deep into myth and reaching out into the present day.

For more cultural content, you can find our podcast on RadioPublic and many other platforms.


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