I became interested in the Spanish Civil War about fourteen years ago when I began to make frequent visits to Spain. Between 2007 and 2008, I lived in Palma de Mallorca, working in an English-language newspaper. It was a fascinating time to be in Spain. The Socialist government of Zapatero was introducing legislation which officially recognised the victims of Francoism and made provision for the removal and replacement of Francoist statues, coats of arms, plaques and place names.
Meanwhile, across the country, local associations were busy with the work of reinterring the bodies of loved ones who had been executed during the war and the repression behind the front lines. For some, this meant that they could finally arrive at some form of closure. On the other side of the political spectrum, there were those who believed that Zapatero’s government was reopening old wounds and should leave well enough alone.
To many foreign observers, there was a sense that after years of the main political parties consciously ‘forgetting’ its recent past – what became known as the pacto del olvido – Spain was ready to close a chapter of its recent history. Eleven years later and the political establishment in Spain is still wrestling with the legacy of the civil war and Franco’s regime.
The fact that the civil war continued to engender such bitterness in Spanish public life first drew me to the subject. As I read historical accounts of the war, I was struck by the passionate commitment of many of the foreign soldiers who volunteered to fight in Spain, especially those in the International Brigades.
This led me to find a curious opposition in the often inglorious story of the Irish Brigade, who came to Spain under Eoin O’Duffy to fight for Franco. It was while contemplating the idea of writing a book about the Irish Brigade that I came across the diaries of Fr Alexander Joseph McCabe, the rector of the Irish College in Salamanca during the war, who developed a close acquaintance with the officers and men of the Brigade.
I was interested in McCabe’s views on O’Duffy and the Irish Brigade and these contribute to the central part of my book. But equally revealing were McCabe’s memories of his childhood in rural County Cavan in the years leading up to the First World War, his experiences working as a curate among the impoverished Irish in the East of London in the mid-1920s and his observations about the chaotic political situation in Spain before the outbreak of the war in 1936.
McCabe’s diaries contain perceptive observations about many of the major figures who flocked to Salamanca during the civil war, including senior Spanish army officers, such as Franco, Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, Juan Yagüe and José Millán Astray, as well as German ambassadors, British and American journalists, and the most prominent members of the pro-Franco movement in Ireland, most notably O’Duffy and the leader of the Irish Christian Front, Paddy Belton.
McCabe’s pro-nationalist views mirrored those of the Catholic Church in Ireland and Spain, but he was also repelled by the brutal repression in Salamanca, and there is little doubt that the bloodshed he witnessed in Spain, both during the civil war and its aftermath, were to leave a profound mark on him for the rest of his days.
The more I read McCabe’s diaries, the more I became interested in the man. His great misfortune was that he became rector of the Irish College in Salamanca a year before the outbreak of the war. In July 1936, the Irish clerical students were evacuated from Salamanca, never to return. Efforts to reopen the Irish College after the end of the civil war were thwarted by the outbreak of the Second World War and a lack of will on the part of the Irish hierarchy. However, McCabe was to remain rector of the Irish College until 1949, rattling round on his own, becoming increasingly frustrated and isolated.
McCabe was an erudite, cultured man who moved in academic, diplomatic and political circles in Salamanca. Except for a very brief spell working as a curate in Cavan at the end of the 1920s, he had spent the whole of his adult life in Spain, and was ill-suited to the demands of rural parish life in Ireland.
At this stage of his life, McCabe was drinking heavily. As a form of punishment, the Bishop of Kilmore appointed McCabe to poor, remote parishes in Cavan and Leitrim before finally sending him to Belmont Park hospital in Waterford for treatment.
By the late 1960s McCabe had recovered and spent the last two decades of his life in St Joseph’s Nursing Home in Virginia, County Cavan. Fittingly, in 1986, two years before he died, he was invited to deliver an address of welcome to King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain during their visit to St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
My book draws heavily on McCabe diaries, which are perceptive, colourful, full of gossip, sometimes poignant and always entertaining, to draw a sketch of a man who had, perhaps, both the fortune and misfortune to have been an eyewitness to one of the most tragic events in twentieth-century European history.
(c) Tim Fanning
The Salamanca Diaries: Father McCabe and the Spanish Civil War is published by Merrion Press. Price: €19.95.
About The Salamanca Diaries:
In July 1936, an army-led coup against the democratically elected republican government ushered in the Spanish Civil War. Father Alexander J. McCabe was rector of the Irish College in Salamanca when General Francisco Franco seized power a few months later and established his GHQ in the medieval city.
McCabe recorded the arrival of the nationalist war machine in his diaries, vividly documenting the horror of the repression and his encounters with Franco, Nazi officers and diplomats, British and American spies and journalists, and adventurers and charlatans from around the world who flocked to Salamanca. He also observed the implosion of General Eoin O’Duffy’s ill-fated Irish Brigade, first as one of its chaplains and later mediating between the nationalist high command and O’Duffy. He unsuccessfully attempted to dissuade a disillusioned O’Duffy from returning to Ireland with the Irish Brigade in 1937.
Historian Tim Fanning uses McCabe’s diaries to provide a fascinating account of life in Spain before, during and after the war, as well as McCabe’s memories of growing up in Ireland at a time of momentous change. This is the troubling and enthralling story of an eyewitness to one of the most tragic episodes in twentieth-century European history.
Order your copy online here.