A forgotten night at Galway Docks

When Christy Moore sings his well known song, “Viva la Quinta Brigada”, in honour of those who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War one of his sardonic verses includes the lines:

“When the Bishops blessed the Blueshirts in Dun Laoghaire As they sailed beneath the swastika to Spain”

While it is historically true that some members of General O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade left from Dún Laoghaire to fight in Spain; the vast majority of that force secretly departed Galway Docks, on a dark winter’s night in December 1936.

It was an interesting time. Young Irishmen, most of whom held polarised political views at home, sailed to Spain to fight on both sides for what they believed in. The Spanish Civil War was a complex confluence of power, politics, principle, and faith which reached far beyond the Iberian Peninsula. Many of the Irish who took Franco’s side in the conflict did so out of religious as much as political conviction.

The Church of Christ the King in Salthill was first dedicated in August 1936. The opening sermon prompted the banner headline “Christ or Chaos” reported The Connacht Tribune. In his homily, the Bishop of Clonfert pointed out that ‘Russia, Mexico, Spain and other nations, in a less blatant manner perhaps, have risen in open rebellion against God.’ Many Catholics were outraged that Mexico had endured the Cristero-Calles war, and was despised for its treatment of Catholic clergy. Russia was home to godless Communism; while Spain had just begun a bitter war between absolute forces, intent on total victory.

At home Taoiseach DeValera, adopting a neutral stance, took a non–intervention path. This political policy did not deter those committed on both sides from making their way to Spain. General O’Duffy (the leader of the Irish ‘Blueshirts’, a quasi- military movement, which ideologically, and in terms of its rituals, had much in common with European fascism of the time ), announced in November 1936 that Galway offered the best embarkation port for the majority of his volunteers. He urged his followers to assemble there.

Arrival in Galway

On the second Friday in December 100 of Franco’s Irish supporters left Dún Laoghaire bound for Liverpool, before making their way to Spain via Lisbon. When questioned by reporters at the quayside in Dublin, the departing volunteers refused to give their names, and were seen off by the man in charge of the operation: Captain Walsh, secretary to General O’Duffy.

The following day, on a cold, wet and stormy Saturday (December 12, 1936 ), up to 700 of O’Duffy’s volunteers arrived late in Galway. Recently deceased Murt Rabbitt, of the famed Forster Street bar, often recounted that the only time the Garda Síochána requested him to open his premises after-hours was on that miserable night. He was asked to give shelter to men - the majority of whom were in the 20 to 35-year-old range – on their way to a war in Spain.

‘Extraordinary scenes’

We can see from the photomontage, on this page, some of the 700 Irish volunteers, gathering on the quayside on that Saturday night, while medical supplies were being loaded on the tender which would later meet the mystery ship. More of that in a moment, but note the four volunteers wearing the Irish Brigade cap. (Irish Independent December 14 1936 Page 3. )

The Irish Times described “extraordinary scenes” as cars, buses and lorries heavily laden with men descended on the city. They came from all parts of the country with 22 volunteers arriving from north of the border. County Galway, according to the Irish Independent report, supplied 14 of the volunteers, far below the more sizeable Cork (104 ), and Dublin (201 ) contingents.

The Dún Aenghus which then serviced the Aran Islands was to transport the men to rendezvous in the bay with the mystery ship. The familiar Galway boat was loaded with medical provisions, socks, pullovers and other necessities from a lorry, aided by car headlights. The medical supplies were furnished by the Irish Christian Front.

By two o’clock in the morning almost 50 cars and 15 buses had arrived at the docks. The departure was delayed by a mishap to a bus from Kerry en route to Galway. Waiting men paced up and down the quay to keep warm and calls of “Viva Franco” could be heard. At three o’clock the volunteers were marshalled by Captain Liam Walsh, secretary to General O’Duffy, down the gangway of the Dún Aenghus.

‘Where is Tighe?’

The Irish Press reported that three Galway men, standing alongside, were suddenly swept along by the enthusiasm of the scene and departed for Spain: “They ran up the gangplank and volunteered their services. They were Kevin Geoghegan, Ely Place, Galway, Ml. Donoghue, Fairhill, Galway, and J. McGrath whose father is a porter in the Munster and Leinster Bank, Galway.”

One scene touched all who saw it. Somebody called out “Where is Tighe?” “Here I am,” shouted a young fellow from the belly of the boat, and a member of the Civic Guard said; “You are wanted at home, your mother has taken ill.” The boy who was only sixteen years of age, returned with his father, Seán Tighe, proprietor of the Phoenix Cinema, to Dublin.

Two priests on the dockside blessed the departing men who sang “Faith of Our Fathers” and “A Soldier’s Song”, before the Aran tender headed out into a dark, and windswept bay. “Rev T Fahy, Professor of Latin UCG, and Rev Fr Donohue CC, Galway, were among those present to bid the men farewell,” reported The Irish Press which also recorded that “Blue shirts were waved and cheers raised for General O’Duffy as the tender left the quay.”

Side by side

The voyage out into the bay was far from a pleasant experience. The tender was tightly packed. Many below deck became seasick while those on the exposed deck were wet through. On reaching Black Head at 4.30am there was no sign of the promised ship which was to meet them. This disappointment greatly added to the discomfort of the men. The Dún Aenghus cruised around for an hour before Captain Goggins decided to bring the boat back into the shelter of the Clare coast and wait ‘till dawn for the delayed rendezvous.

At sunrise there was still no sign of the expected ship. Three members, seeking to find the cause of the delay, put ashore on a small boat in an attempt to contact London by telegram. But the mystery vessel did appear at 10.30 on Sunday morning and the three men succeeded in rejoining their comrades. The German ship, at the invitation of the Dún Aenghus, came into the bay to make the transfer of volunteers more manageable.

When the two vessels were moored side by side, rope ladders provided a difficult ascent in a gale for the drenched and departing Irishmen. Hot soup awaited them on the larger vessel. As the Aran tender turned for home its hooter sounded three times in farewell to O’Duffy’s volunteers.

The SS Urundi

The German ship, which sailed under the Swastika flag, was called the SS Urundi. A cargo steamer of the Deutsche Ost-Africa Line (German East Africa line ). It was built in 1920 in Hamburg, the port from which it left on December 8, 1936.

While on its journey to Spain there was a blank opposite the Urundi’s name on the daily sailing list. It was reported to be “not on the usual service at present”. The Connacht Tribune (December 26, 1936 ) carried a letter from the Limerick Steamship Company pointing out that the Urundi was not a steamer of the Hamburg American Line, which they represented. The same newspaper reported that the German East Africa Liner Company denied any knowledge of the voyage to Spain: “We don’t know anything about her being due at Sanlucar de Barrameda in Spain, and we are not aware that she is carrying 500 Irishmen. We understand the ship will be back at Hamburg next week.”

The Nazi emblem

Press reporting of the departure was interesting. Locally The Galway Observer and East Galway Democrat gave the story a prominence not afforded it by the Connacht Tribune. However a photograph of volunteer Thomas Walsh was carried in the December 26 edition of the Tribune, in a picture story which reported that Walsh “was one of the Roscommon men who sailed from Galway”, to fight in General O’Duffy’s brigade.

The Irish Times and The Irish Independent featured the story on the inside pages of their Monday editions. The Irish Press alone afforded it front page status and carried banner headlines proclaiming “Liner Flies Emblem of German Nazis”. DeValera’s paper, unlike the others, also reported that 80 Republicans left the country that same weekend to fight against Franco, 40 of them “on the same ship to Liverpool with General O’Duffy’s volunteers on Friday night”. “Mr Frank Ryan, the well known Republican, will be their leade.”

Hidden from history

The Galway contingent of O’Duffy’s brigade arrived in Caceres, and the Christmas Eve edition of the Irish Independent records a spirited welcome: “The Bishop, the Mayor, the civil and military governors and a huge cheering throng greeted the safe arrival of the Galway and Lisbon contingents marching in mass parade on Sunday.”

Their leaving was inauspicious on a dreary December night in the darkness of Galway Bay. The cause, now largely forgotten - drove young men on both sides to defy government orders and fight on foreign fields against an enemy that might include fellow Irishmen.

Of the 693 men who set out the night before, 50 returned to Galway on the Dún Aenghus. They were unable or unwilling to transfer from one boat to the other. Perhaps the experience of that first night at sea convinced them to return to the quayside. The Irish Times reported that on their return, without money, this group made its way to Eglinton St Garda Barracks. Supt Seán O’ Murchadha, Sgt O Hanluain and other guards made a collection to provide enough money for a meal. The gardai advised the returned volunteers to leave the town, which they did on foot.

But the rest of the Blueshirt departure from Galway, clandestine in its preparation and execution, has remained to this day hidden from history and shrouded in the mist of forgetfulness. The promised glory they sought proved evanescent. They were not to be numbered with the Wild Geese of legend.


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