Hobsbawm --> Kim Philby, & Frank Ryan

Chris Brady cdbrady at attglobal.net
Fri Sep 20 02:52:34 MDT 2002

Mark’s mention of Kim Philby reminded me of a conversation I had with
Carl Geiser who was the 15th Internationale Brigade commissar for the
MacPaps captured by Italian fascists on April 1, 1938.  Geiser had known
about Frank Ryan but got to know him well in the San Pedro monastery POW
camp.  It is Geiser’s belief that Kim Philby played an important role in
publicizing Ryan’s predicament as a red officer in the custody of
Franco’s jailers.  As Franco preferred officers to be executed, and that
Irish pressure was mounted to save Ryan, such publicity may well have
rescued Ryan from the fascist firing squad.

San Pedro POWs said Frank Ryan led classes in Gaelic for fellow POWs,
settled disputes with sensitivity, intelligence and good humour, and was
a constant morale builder.  That makes the following review of two books
in Ireland History magazine that much more interesting, and complements
our discussion of Hobsbawm’s failures in the Irish nationalism
question.  Note the social and political situation in Ireland at the
time of the Spanish Civil War

Irish Politics and The Spanish Civil War
  by Fearghal McGarry
(Cork University Press, £16) ISBN 1859182402

 The Irish and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939
 by Robert Stradling
(Manchester University Press, £12) ISBN 1901341135

Reviewed by Brian Hanley
Post-graduate student at Trinity college Dublin

  The appearance of two books on the relationship between the  Spanish
Civil War and Ireland is to be welcomed. It is often  forgotten how deep
an impact the conflict made on Irish political  life, if only for a
short period. Public opinion in the Free State  was overwhelmingly
pro-Franco, as was the Catholic church and  most of the press. Thousands
were mobilised in emotional anti-  communist rallies organised by
Patrick Belton's Irish Christian  Front, local councils passed
resolutions demanding the Fianna  Fáil government break diplomatic
relations the Spanish  Republic, and of course Irishmen fought on both
sides. In many  ways both these books complement each other, Robert
Stradling concentrating on the Irish volunteers role in Spain  itself,
with Ferghal McGarry dealing mainly with the war's impact  on the Irish
body politic. The irony of the Irish military  involvement in Spain is
that while many more men enlisted in  Eoin O'Duffy's Irish Brigade than
the republican and socialist  volunteers under Frank Ryan, today the
Irish Brigade is  forgotten or ignored, or subject to denunciation as
fascist. This  is an almost complete reversal from 1936, when 0'Duffy's
men  left Ireland to the sound of cheering crowds, having been  lauded
by the Irish Independent and blessed by the Catholic  hierarchy. Ryan's
men by contrast travelled quietly, often in  secret, with the majority
of the Irish labour and trade union  movement maintaining a nervous
neutrality or in many cases  openly supporting Franco's insurgents.
Stradling is eager to  explain the motivation of the Irish Brigade and
provide a more  balanced analysis of what drew these men to Spain. He
has  managed to interview some survivors of the Brigade and is able  to
question some commonly conceived notions about them.  Many of O'Duffy's
men were not former Blueshirts, a few were  even republican opponents of
the General. Most seem to have  been influenced by a desire to defend
the Catholic faith, and  were deeply moved by the press reports of
Republican  atrocities committed against clergy. All were fervently
anti-communist, which despite the weakness of communism in  Ireland was
a feeling held by a wide section of the population.  Stradling makes his
case well, and it is important to stress that  the Irish Brigade's
volunteers saw themselves as no less noble  than their opponents. Most
too, could not be described as  fascists. However, O'Duffy and the Irish
Brigade leadership  were certainly fascist and had a wider agenda than
simply  saving Spain for religion.

 The Irish Brigade has suffered from ridicule, some of it unfair,  but
it is a fact that a combination of bitter infighting,  demoralisation at
the reality of the war and a disastrous baptism  of fire (in a clash
with their own side) meant the Brigade  returned home in disarray. The
International Brigaders in  contrast suffered high casualty rates from
their involvement in  some of the fiercest fighting of the war, yet held
together very  well. In general the activist backgrounds of Ryan's men
whether  in the IRA, the Communist Party or the Republican Congress
meant they had a clearer conception of their role in Spain.  Stradling
in his quest for balance goes as far to describe Frank  Ryan as a
supporter of Nazi Germany–this is simply untrue, and  no attempt is made
to explain the complicated path which led  Ryan from captivity in Spain
to a lonely death in war-time  Dresden. In general Stradlng seems to
have a poor grasp of  inter-war Irish radical politics, referring
throughout for example  to the 'IRA Congress' when the actual title was
Republican  Congress. Nevertheless his work on the Irish Brigade, and
on  some of the nostalgia that has surrounded their left-wing  opponents
is significant, as is his use of Spanish sources.

 Ferghal McGarry, in contrast has a surer feel for Irish political
culture in this period. He examines in detail, utilising a wide  variety
of sources, the reaction to the war in Spain from the  Republican and
Socialist movements, the Catholic Church, and  the influence of
'Catholic Action' ideas on the clergy, the  mainstream political
parties, north and south, and how Irish  diplomatic policy dealt with
the war. The rapid rise and fall of the  Irish Christian Front is
explained, and particularly interesting is  the section on how sectarian
politics influenced reaction in the  north. McGarry argues that while
the role of the Labour Party  and the trade union movement has often
been presented as a  betrayal by conservative leaders of the Spanish
Republic, in  reality most Irish trade unionists supported the
right-wing rebels,  so there was little the leaderships could do, and
unions which  did take a pro-Republican stand lost members as a result.
How  de Valera managed to steer his government through the  potential
minefield of relations with Spain is particularly  interesting for those
who have seen de Valera as a servant of  the church in all matters.
Despite widespread grassroots Fianna  Fáil support for the insurgents,
and a divided cabinet (Sean  Lemass was pro-Republic, Sean MacEntee
pro-Franco) the  Irish government maintained, along with Britain and
France, a  policy of non-intervention.

 McGarry also looks at the regional, social and military  backgrounds of
the Irish volunteers on both sides, and would  concur with Stradling on
the irony of the current popularity of the  left-wing volunteers in an
Ireland that almost completely  rejected them in 1936. He sees
commemoration of Spain as  fulfilling an important propaganda function
for an otherwise  unsuccessful Left, and like Stradling notes how
uncomfortable  questions like the role of Stalin's Comintern in Spain
are rarely  discussed. However I feel that McGarry underestimates
'mainstream' IRA sympathy for the Spanish Republic and  attributes too
much importance to the marginal Sinn Féin figures  who were pro-Franco.
If the average IRA member cared little  about Spain then Tom Barry would
scarcely have needed to  prohibit their joining the International
Brigades. When the  anti-Franco Basque priest Fr Ramon Laborda spoke in
Dublin  his audience was overwhelmingly republican. From the  government
clampdown of 1936, and the loss of its  chief-of-staff Moss Twomey, the
IRA was in an almost  permanent state of crisis, but most of its leading
figures in this  period would still have been anti-fascist. Possibly
Irish Politics'  greatest strength is its location of Ireland within the
context of  European politics of the 1930s. Too many historians see the
Irish reaction to the Spanish Civil War as governed by the  legacy of
our Civil War, or as the IRA and the Blueshirts simply  looking to have
another crack at each other. But as McGarry argues:

  "Ireland, like other nations, responded to the  ideological civil war
which gripped Europe throughout  the 1930s. European ideas merged with
Irish  circumstances; the street fighting between fascists  and
communists in Germany was mirrored–albeit in a  more marginal and
distinctively Irish fashion–by the  clashes between Catholic Action
activists and left  republicans in Dublin's streets."

 This makes for a refreshing approach and a highly impressive  book.

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