The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 to 1939, and involved many foreign units fighting for the control Spain and her colonies. The Republicans, supported indirectly by the Soviet Union and Mexico, fought to preserve Republican Spain and contained many Catalans and Basques. The Nationalists, led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco, rebelled against the Second Spanish Republic in order to form a fascist government and was supported predominately by Italy and Germany.
Irish troops had served among the Spanish since the 16th century in the 80 Years’ War. Later, the legendary “Flight of the Wild Geese”, the diaspora of Irish Jacobites to France in 1691, brought more Irishmen to Spain. The “Wild Geese” became a name for all Irish troops serving in foreign forces. The Irish who traveled to Spain formed a few regiments in the Spanish Army: the Hibernian Regiment, the Ulster Regiment, and the Irish Regiment. These were disbanded in 1818 at the request of the British.
By 1936, some 700 Irish Catholics travelled to Spain in order to help Franco’s forces. Ireland and Spain’s similar Catholic heritage joined the two nations together in an indirect bond, as did the “Wild Geese.” Ireland officially did not help the Nationalists, but Eoin O’Duffy, a former member of Irish Parliament and leader of the Irish National Corporate Party, led Irishmen to Spain in order to stop the rise of Communism. O’Duffy allegedly received some 7,000 applications but was only able to bring a small number with him to Spain. The Irish trained in Caceres and were formed as the 15th Battalion of the Spanish Foreign Legion.
The Nationalist Irish were deployed in the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. They were stationed long with British and Balkan volunteers along the San Martin-Morata Road, and soon defended against Republican troops. Heavy fighting ensued, but their involvement delayed the advance of the rest of Franco’s troops. A counter-attack by Republican troops pushed back the Nationalists and eventually ended the battle.
Generalissimo Franco felt he had no need for more foreign troops, as well as having political pressure against his use of foreigners, so the ‘Irish Brigade’ of the Nationalist Army was not used again, nor were any more volunteers drawn from Ireland.
O’Duffy later returned to Ireland after Franco granted his leave, but he and his troops were not received well. O’Duffy held no political power and would never do so again, and the Irish government began removing files of the ‘Irish Brigade’ in the 1940’s.
As well as fighting for the Nationalists, there were some Irishmen who took up arms for the Spanish Republic. The ‘International Brigades’ that supported the Republic began being formed in 1936, and the Communist Party of Ireland organised a movement in the country.
Frank Ryan, a former member of the Irish Republican Army, traveled to Spain with 80 men in 1936 and his socialist Irishmen became known as the ‘Connolly Column.’ They later gained more support for their cause, and the ‘Connolly Column’ fought at Jarama, Brunete, Belchite, Teruel, Gandesa, and the Ebro.
Ryan was captured during the Battle of the Ebro in 1937, and he was later sentenced to hard labour. He died in 1940. The rest of the Irish returned home in 1938, for political reasons, and they were not given any recognition, similar to O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade.
In the 1930’s, the Spanish Civil War was viewed as a war between the Church and Communism. The Irish loyalty to their Catholic beliefs illustrated the willingness of some 700 to serve on the Nationalist side. The Communist support was much more subdued. The war, realistically, was a war between Franco’s fascism and the preservation of a Spanish Republic.
Much of the Irish press in the 1930’s portrayed Franco’s forces as fighting for Catholicism and that the Republican forces were brutally murdering clergymen. In reality, there were plenty of Catholics on either side of the war. After Franco’s victory, some 6,000 members of the clergy were killed in Spain, causing outrage in the Catholic world.
Francoist Spain was dissolved in 1975 after Franco’s death, forming the modern Kingdom of Spain, and their colonies were later granted independence.