Franco, O'Duffy and the Nazis: a Cavan man in Salamanca

In the autumn of 1936, a few months after an abortive coup by army officers against the democratically elected republican government had ignited the Spanish Civil War, General Francisco Franco established his military headquarters in the Castilian city of Salamanca. His arrival was watched with interest by the rector of the city’s Irish College, Fr Alexander J McCabe, a native of Drumkilly in south Cavan.

The Irish College had operated in Salamanca as a seminary for Irish priests since the end of the 16th century, and its rector was traditionally a well-respected figure in the city, with an entrée to the highest military, political and clerical circles. Over the course of the war, McCabe recorded in his diaries his meetings with the army officers, Nazi officials, journalists, spies, adventurers and charlatans who flocked to Salamanca. His diaries captured the creation of a cult of personality around Franco, the brutality of the repression in the nationalist zone, and the atmosphere in the Irish College, which, during the war, housed the officers of the Nazi press and propaganda department.

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Eoin O’Duffy, the founder and leader of the Irish Brigade, which briefly fought for the nationalists, was a prominent figure in the diaries of 1936 and 1937.

McCabe’s observations about the Irish Brigade revealed the ill-considered nature of its conception, the in-fighting between its officers (and chaplain), the excessive drinking and brawling, and the Spanish generals’ contempt for O’Duffy and the other Irish officers. McCabe was similarly sceptical about the political motivations of O’Duffy and the leader of the Irish Christian Front, Paddy Belton, who visited Salamanca in 1936.

The following is a selection of McCabe’s diary entries:

* On hearing about the fall of the Spanish monarchy in 1931: “We got the news from London, and also heard Alcalá-Zamora [the Spanish republican prime minister] speaking over the Madrid Radio. We feel that the atmosphere is very tense and electric, and in case the mob might attack the college, we cleaned and loaded two revolvers. We’ve seen the long-threatened fall of the Spanish monarchy, and though it’s been a bloodless revolution so far, the blood might start to flow before tomorrow morning.”

* On viewing the offices of the Nazi press and propaganda department which were installed in the Irish College at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War: “There are a few Spaniards working in the German Propaganda Department in the college. Two of them took us into ‘D’ room on the [upstairs] gallery tonight. This old room looks quite new. It is well furnished, has a gleaming waxed floor, and the walls are hung with portraits of Franco and Hitler, and German landscape scenes. They have an extraordinary collection of photographs of ‘undesirable’ European politicians and agitators, and they showed us old ‘snaps’ of Lenin and Litvinoff [sic] taken by the Swiss police.”

* On fears that officials of the Nazi press and propaganda department were bugging his room: “I sometimes suspected – without reason, I suppose – that they were able to tap the long confidential conversations that Spaniards, Irish, English – and Germans – had in my room, which I maintained as an oasis of absolute confidence and security. A friendly German told me to be careful. One night in my room, somebody challenged somebody else to give the Communist salute. Three or four stood up – one was a German – and gave the ‘clenched fist’ salute. Everybody was in good humour, and it was only fun, and daredevilry. But men were shot for less, and with high-class German technology around, one couldn’t be too sure.”

* On Franco’s oratorical skills: “He has a cold, buttoned-up style, and cannot let himself go. Besides, when he speaks, he seems to have a slight catch in his nose and he looks small and stodgy for a dictator and a generalísimo.”

* On an exchange between Franco and Eoin O’Duffy: “Franco asked O’Duffy if he had any experience of military command. O’Duffy replied that he had commanded a million men on one occasion. Franco asked him when. ‘At the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin,’ O’Duffy replied proudly, and innocently, like a child. Franco merely smiled.”

* On why O’Duffy came to Spain: “It is difficult to know what idea or plan O’Duffy had when he began to organise the Irish Brigade. Some would maintain that it was purely political. He thought that if he took part in the great anti-communistic war in Spain, he would return to Ireland, be recognised as the great champion of Christianity, that he would sweep the country, and finally, march on Dublin to establish his Blueshirt Corporate State. People that heard him address the men in Cáceres [the Irish Brigade headquarters] say that his speeches were ‘all politics’ and that he was always assuring them about what they would do when they returned to Ireland. Mussolini’s march on Rome would be nothing in comparison.”

* On O’Duffy’s idea for winning the Spanish Civil War: “O’Duffy had a ‘pet’ idea (cherished from Black-and-Tan days, perhaps) that Franco would have won the war long ago, if he had adopted a campaign of ambushes. This in a war with fixed lines and fronts, and in a country with no trees!!”

* On the Irish Brigade’s excessive drinking: “The Spanish – in these parts, at least – can’t understand drunkenness. It’s a very serious misdemeanour and loss of dignity, and they never make jokes about it. When, therefore, they see these idealists, and fervent church-goers, drinking and ‘having one too many’, they are profoundly shocked. In Ireland, people take a lenient view of drunkenness, and a rigid view about sexual excesses. On the whole, the reverse is exactly true in Spain. Here, drunkenness is regarded as unnatural and defamatory, whereas having two or three illegitimate children isn’t quite correct, but it doesn’t offend against the original commandment ‘to increase and multiply’.”

* On destroying some of his diaries in Salamanca in 1945: “Anybody reading some of the pages would feel that there is very little hope left for Western Europe and I expressed a fierce hatred for the German Nazis, who seem to have been the ‘scourge of God’ of the 20th century. Perhaps, my views were a bit lurid at times, but so were the flames that destroyed so many European cities, and have dissipated the wealth that had been accumulated for over a century.”

‘The Salamanca Diaries: Father McCabe and the Spanish Civil War’ by Tim Fanning is out now (Merrion Press, €19.95)

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