XV Bandera Irlandesa del Tercio

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The Irish Brigade (Irish: Briogáid na hÉireann; Spanish: Brigada Irlandesa; "Irish Brigade"), also known as XV Bandera Irlandesa del Tercio, fought on the Nationalist side in support of Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. The unit was formed wholly of Roman Catholics by the Irish politician and War of Independence veteran Eoin O'Duffy, who had previously organised the banned Fascist Army Comrades Association (better known as the Blueshirts) and Greenshirts in Ireland. Despite the declaration by the Irish government that participation in the war was unwelcome and ill-advised, 700 of O'Duffy's followers went to Spain. They saw their primary role in Spain as fighting for the Roman Catholic Church, some of whose priests and nuns had been attacked. They also saw many religious and historical parallels in the two nations, and hoped to prevent communism gaining ground in Spain.


Initial involvement

Main articles: Red Terror (Spain)

Word reached Ireland about the about the anti-clerical violence, rape, and murders committed in Spain by Republican side by the end of which 12 bishops, 4,000 priests and 300 nuns lay dead and mutilated in the first weeks of the war.[1]

The Irish Catholic primate Cardinal MacRory was approached in early August 1936 by the Spanish nationalist Count Ramírez de Arellano, a Carlist from Navarre, for help for the nationalist rebels. MacRory suggested that O'Duffy was the best man to help, as his politics were supportive and he had organised the enormous Dublin Eucharistic Congress in 1932.[2] O'Duffy had been a key part of Irish Independence as IRA Chief of Staff and served as the first Commissioner of the Garda Síochána, the police force of the new Irish state, afterwards. In 1935, O'Duffy had formed the National Corporate Party, a small Fascist party, and hoped that its involvement in Spain would increase its popular vote. Later in 1936, O'Duffy traveled to Spain to meet Ramírez, General Mola, and later to General Franco. One of the points of the agreement between the Irish and Spanish Generals was that the Irish volunteers would not fight against the Basques, due to the strong Catholic faith of both the Irish and Basque peoples. The Basque Gudariak soldiers would be dealt with by the Carlist Requeté soldiers, many of whom were ethnic Basque themselves, from Navarra or the Basque Country.

Support for the brigade

August 1936 saw the formation of the Irish Christian Front. One meeting in Cork in September was attended by 40,000 people, they crossed their hands above their heads and pledged loyalty to the ICF and Franco. Their aims were to oppose Communism, support Franco and raise funds for the nationalist people of Spain. The ICF was composed of Catholic action supporters anti-Communists and Fascist sympathizers.

Support for Irish involvement was based primarily on the Catholic ethos of most Irish people, as distinct from their opinion on Spanish politics per se. Many Irish Independent newspaper editorials endorsed the idea, and on 10 August 1936 it published a letter from O'Duffy seeking assistance for his "anti-Red Crusade." The Catholic Church was naturally on side. Many local government County Councils passed resolutions in support, starting with Clonmel on 21 August. While the Irish leader de Valera remained strictly neutral, in line with the multi-national Non-Intervention Committee, his publicist Aodh De Blácam wrote "For God and Spain."

This support was mirrored outside the Irish Free State. In the USA, the largely Catholic Irish American community was in a minority that supported Franco and the rebels, but a proposal in the US Congress to allow sales of arms to the Spanish Republic was opposed successfully by a campaign led by the Catholic Joseph Kennedy.[3] In Northern Ireland, support was so strong in the Catholic minority that it largely abandoned the Northern Ireland Labour Party, whose leader Harry Midgley supported the Spanish Republic (Midgley, an Anglo-Saxon by race, was greeted at one party meeting with chants of "we want Franco!").[4]


In late 1936 some 7,000 men volunteered, of whom about 700 were selected. Plans were made for the transportation of the first batch of volunteers to Spain. The newly formed Brigade was confronted by problems right from the start and despite the fact that the majority of Irish people supported the Franco because Éamon de Valera had signed up to the Non-Intervention Agreement which was the brain child of the French Prime Minister Léon Blum.

At suggestion of General Franco, the Irish who volunteered were taken to Spain in relatively small groups, by ship. When the Irish Volunteers ship finally pulled into the Spanish dock their voices rang out over the harbour singing the Hymn "Faith of Our Fathers." The biggest contingent was transported by a German ship to El Ferrol (Galicia), then by train to Salamanca, and after a day of nourishment and sleep, in another train to Cáceres, where they received their military instruction. No further ships were permitted to leave Ireland for Spain, leaving another 700 volunteers behind. Later on in the war St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral in the heart of Dublin sent a 20 strong Irish Pipe Band to fight and build morale. The full name of the Band was the "Saint Mary's Anti-Communist Pipe Band." The male parishioners of St. Mary's were active in street warfare against Communists and Socialists. Fearing a threat to Irish neutrality, de Valera banned Irish citizens from going to Spain and it was only through the intervention of Irish Catholic Bishop Dr. Browne that the Brigade was able to embark on their voyage to Spain. Upon hearing that an Irish Brigade was on its way, a Capuchin in a monastery in the Pyrenees said many of the fathers wept with joy on hearing Ireland wished to help the cause of the faith in Spain.

The Irish volunteers were devout Catholics and mostly from a rural background. Some had no military training and others had seen service with or against the British army and in some cases both. The Catholic community of Ulster—and in particular west Belfast, where O'Duffy was considered a hero for his fight against the British in the Irish War of Independence—sent a strong contingent. Bill Geraghty who had opposed the Blueshirts and was a supporter of de Valera's Fianna Fail party also joined. John Conway from Dublin, a young man of socialist inclinations joined the Brigade because of the outrage he felt at the Religious persecution in Spain. Denis Reynolds from Carlow who volunteered was later to become a Fine Gael Councillor. One teenager wrote to his mother from Spain "what I have done is for Our Lord and if I die it will only be for the best."

Training and deployment

The Irish Brigade was integrated into the Spanish Foreign Legion as the "XV Bandera Irlandesa del Tercio" ("15th Irish Battalion of the Legion") from its training base at Cáceres. Each volunteer had allowance of eleven Pesetas per day, which many used for "buying food" (too often in the form of alcoholic beverages), because they were "not used to the Spanish cuisine of the military barracks." On 6 February 1937, General Franco reviewed the Irish Battalion and commented favourably of the excellent look. General O'Duffy felt that his men were not prepared for combat yet, but Franco calmed him, saying that they would learn other military skills on the battlefield. The Legion realised that it was not realistic trying to teach them Spanish, therefore the few among them who spoke some Spanish were ranked as officers, and a small number of Spanish interpreters were also added to the unit. On 19 February 1937, the XV Bandera was ordered to advance towards Republican held Ciempozuelos. In that march they encountered their first disaster. There was another battalion ahead of them, which the two Spanish interpreters identified as National.

According to the investigation that was carried out afterwards, the Spanish National unit that was marching at some distance ahead of the Irish, suddenly stopped still, effected a quick reversal manoeuvre of its rear, turned weapons aiming backwards, and gave the Spanish cry "¿Quien vive?" ("Who goes there?"). The officers of that unit later explained that, hearing English voices behind them and knowing that the pro-Republican Connolly Column was or had been in Ciempozuelos, were afraid of having been caught in a trap. Three of the Bandera along with the two bilingual Spaniards who were with the Irish Battalion stepped forward and saluted with the Spanish standard response "¡España, la Legión!" ("Spain, the Legion!"). Without reply, the other Commander drew his revolver and opened fire, mistaking them for red International Brigadiers.

Both sides opened fire, instantly killing the Spanish interpreters, who fell yelling "¡Es un error, somos de Franco!" ("It is a mistake, we are with Franco!"). Dan Chute died as did Tom Hyde, a former IRA member from Middleton, County Cork. Another man named O'Sullivan also died as a result of injuries. It is believed that 13 Falangists died in the incident.

Between the shelling and sniping, the XV Bandera tried to settle into the normal mundane activities of army life. It was during this time that Tom McMullen was hit by a snipers bullet shattering his leg which was later amputated. During an advance in the Battle of Jarama Valley, the XV Bandera came under heavy shellfire, one volunteer was killed outright with nine others injured, three of which died the following week. Two of the dead men, MacSweeney and Horan, were childhood friends from the same street in Tralee, County Kerry. In all, four men from Tralee would die in the fighting. General Franco expressed "Deep sympathy for the Irish losses."

O'Duffy was rarely with his men and spending more and more of his time at the Spanish HQ or driving from post to post. When the Irish Brigade/XV Bandera finally reached Cáceres to sail for home nearly 30 Bandera volunteers lay in graves on Spanish soil, 20 more were not fit to travel, some of which later died never to see their homeland again.

Over a dozen elected to stay until the end of the fight. Ex-priest and opponent of Jewish criminality, Tom Gunning, stayed. He later ended up in Germany working for the Ministry of Propaganda and was believed to have been friends with John Amery, the British Free Corps leader (Amery was later executed by the British as a traitor to the crown). Volunteers Nagle, Fitzpatrick, and Peter Lawler stayed. Sergeant Michael Weyners (who went to Spain with two of his brothers), sergeants Tom Jones and Michael Cadwell (an ex-Protestant who converted to Catholicism at the front) joined the Spanish Foreign Legion. Michael Weyners was killed during the fiercely contested battle of Brunete.

At least six privates Jeremiah McCarthy, James Madden, Denis O'Dea, and Andrew O'Toole stayed. In October the other two privates, Daithi Higgins and Austin O'Reilly, died within a month of each other in the last major campaign of the war in the desperate struggle on the Ebro. O'Reilly was a member of the Spanish elite Prima Bandera when he died. Gabriel Lee was killed by shellfire during the Titalica attack. Peter Kavanagh who had spent some time in the British Royal Air force joined the Nationalist Air force. In 1938, Foreign Legion muster of foreign volunteers in Spain there were five Legionnaires identified as Irish, three of the were from the XV Bandera.

Withdrawal and reaction

O'Duffy then offered to withdraw his unit and Franco agreed. Most of the brigade returned to Cáceres and was shipped home from Portugal. On its arrival in late June 1937 in Dublin it was greeted by hundreds, not thousands as was expected. O'Duffy's political career was effectively over however, in 1938, O'Duffy wrote and published Crusade in Spain, a monograph about the Irish Brigade in Spain. Captain Liam D. Walsh, Eoin O'Duffy’s secretary and acolyte, described the book as "one of the best books in the English language."

The Irish government destroyed its files relating to the Brigade in May 1940.[5]


The Irish Brigade / XV Bandera are often ridiculed and criticized for their lack of action during the Spanish Civil War; that they "never fired a shot in anger" and "came back with more men than they left with." Both these statements are untrue. How many useless deaths are enough to secure the prestige of a fighting unit? Tight censorship has muted the impact they had in Spain and it has suited all Irish political parties since to forget their sacrifice.


Our Volunteers were not mere adventurers. Over 90% were true crusaders who left behind comfortable homes ... they were not mercenary soldiers, everyone returned poorer in the worlds goods.

—Gen. Eoin O'Duffy

... the very fact that a group of Irish men volunteered their services to help Spain in her hour of peril against the forces of darkness could not fail to have favourable reactions all over the world.

—Gen. Eoin O'Duffy

Strangers may ask why it is that Irishmen should desire to go the aid of the Spanish patriots' struggle against Communism? The answer is simple: Spain and Ireland are both based on ionic bonds. They are both Catholic countries. Their history has been a long record of friendship, unbroken for many centuries. Spain gave Ireland great leaders, Ireland gave Spain the noblest of her sons: the Chiefs of the O'Donnells, the O'Neills, the O'Sullivans, and the MacMahons. In Ireland, too, we have an ancient tradition in our foreign brigades. Irishmen have distinguished themselves for centuries in the wars of Europe, so that today young Ireland can recall with pride that on far foreign fields from Dunkirk to Belgrade lay the soldiers and chiefs of the Irish Brigade. We hope to carry on the tradition of the dead generations, we hope to serve a cause as noble as for which they ever fought and renewing our historic greeting with the great Spanish nation and strike a blow against the Communist enemy which threatens the very foundations of Christian civilization.

—Gen. Eoin O'Duffy, 28 November 1936



  1. Mike Cronin (1997). The Blueshirts and Irish Politics. Four Courts Press. ISBN 1851823336
  2. Othen, Christopher. Franco's International Brigades, London: Reportage Press, 2008, pp. 111-112.
  3. Beevor, A. The Battle for Spain (Phoenix, London 2007) p.270.
  4. Othen C., p.111.
  5. http://www.independent.ie/national-news/de-valera-ordered-top-secret-war-files-destroyed-1552754.html

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