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Irish newspapers and the Spanish Civil War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Fearghal McGarry*
Department of Modern History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth
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Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed.

George Orwell (1943)

The Spanish Civil War was one of the most controversial conflicts of recent history. For many on the left, it was a struggle between democracy and fascism. In contrast, many Catholics and conservatives championed Franco as a crusader against communism. Others felt Spain was the beginning of an inevitable conflict between fascism and communism which had increasingly threatened the stability of inter-war Europe. Spain has remained a battleground of ideologies ever since. Many supporters of the Spanish Republic attribute its defeat to the failure of other democratic states to oppose fascism, a policy of appeasement which ultimately led to the Second World War; for others on the left, including Orwell, Spain came to symbolise the betrayal of socialism by the Soviet Union — a disillusioning suppression of liberty repeated in subsequent decades in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. Ireland was no less drawn to Spain than other European nations. Within months of the war breaking out, close to one thousand Irishmen were fighting among the armies of both sides on the frontlines around Madrid. But for most Irish people, influenced by the Catholic church and sensational newspaper reports of anticlerical atrocities, the ideological conflict was perceived to be between Catholicism and communism rather than left and right. The outbreak of the war was followed by an immense outpouring of popular sympathy for Franco’s Nationalists. During the autumn of 1936 the Irish Christian Front organised mass pro-Franco rallies which attracted the support of opposition politicians, clergymen and much of the public. The dissenting voices of support for the Spanish Republic emanating from the marginalised Irish left were ignored or, more often, suppressed. De Valera’s Fianna Fáil government expressed its support for Spain’s Catholics while, somewhat awkwardly, adopting a position of neutrality for reasons of international diplomacy.

Research Article
Copyright © Irish Historical Studies Publications Ltd 2002

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1 Orwell, George, ‘Looking back on the Spanish war’ in idem, Essays (Harmondsworth, 1994 ed.), p. 223.Google Scholar

2 See McGarry, Fearghal, Irish politics and the Spanish Civil War (Cork, 1999)Google Scholar for an overview of Irish responses. See chapters 3 and 6, respectively, for analysis of left-wing and northern newspapers, which are not discussed in this article.

3 Irish Independent, 6 Aug. 1936; Irish Times, 19 Aug. 1936.

4 Morrissey, Thomas, William Martin Murphy (Dundalk, 1997), pp 325Google Scholar; O’Donnell, Donat [Conor Cruise O’Brien], ‘The Fourth Estate — 3: The Irish Independent’ in The Bell, ix, no. 5 (Feb. 1945), pp 386-94Google Scholar.

5 See This is what the ‘Irish Independent’ told the people about Russia, 1919–1939 (Dublin, 1940) for anti-communist editorials.

6 Irish Press, 16 Sept. 1936.

7 Irish Independent, 3, 6, 19 Aug. 1936.

8 Ibid., 6 Aug. 1936.

9 Ibid., 20 Feb. 1937.

10 Ibid., 28, 29 July 1936.

11 Ibid., 23 July 1936.

12 Stradling, R.A., The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 (Manchester, 1999), p. 7Google Scholar.

13 Mercier, Vivian, ‘The Fourth Estate — 2: The [Irish] Times’ in The Bell, ix, no. 4 (Jan. 1945), pp 292-5Google Scholar; Gray, Tony, Mr Smyllie, sir (Dublin, 1991), p. 62Google Scholar.

14 Irish Times, 29 July 1936.

15 Ibid., 19 Aug.l936.

16 Ibid., 26 Aug.l936.

17 Catholic Bulletin, xxvii (1937), p. 578. The Irish Times may have been influenced by The Times (London), which was unsympathetic to Franco. However, insiders’ accounts attribute its unpredictable editorial outlook to the eccentric editorship of Bertie Smyllie. Few national newspapers, for example, would have allowed one of their journalists (Myles na gCopaleen) to regularly parody its own editorials. Smyllie’s succinct instructions to his Spanish correspondent were ‘I don’t give a bugger what your conclusions are, so long as they’re honest’ (Mercier, ‘The [Irish] Times’, p. 295; Fleming, Lionel, Head or harp (London, 1965), p. 169Google ScholarPubMed).

18 Irish Rosary, Feb. 1937, p. 81.

19 Irish Times, 26 Aug. 1936.

20 Ibid., 19 Aug. 1936.

21 Lee, J.J., Ireland 1912–1985: politics and society (Cambridge, 1989), p. 177Google Scholar.

22 Quoted ibid., p. 218. Its outlook has been described as ‘vintage (and thus ill-defined) republicanism: it comprised such elements as virulent anti-Britishness, a sense of moral superiority over the Free State governing party, and a claim to the inheritance of the Easter week rebels; it appealed to a broad spectrum of opinion in Irish society, encompassing small farmers and labourers at the one end to large farmers and businessmen at the other’ (Walker, Graham, ‘ “The Irish Dr Goebbels”: Frank Gallagher and Irish republican propaganda’ in Jn. Contemp. Hist., xxvii (1992), pp 14965CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Mercier, Vivian, ‘The Fourth Estate — 4: The Irish Press’ in The Bell, ix, no. 6 (Mar. 1945), pp 479-80Google Scholar. The Press employed a number of radical republican and socialist journalists and sub-editors including R. M. Fox, Geoffrey Coulter, Maire Comerford, Tom Mullins and Brian O’Neill, a fact of some concern not only to Catholic groups but also G2 (Irish military intelligence) during the ‘Emergency’ (N.A.I., DFA, Secretary’s Office, A8). The Independent’s more radical employees, such as Eoin O’Duffy’s acolytes Thomas Gunning and Liam Walsh, tended to represent the opposite ideological extreme.

24 Irish Times, 20 Sept. 1936.

25 Ibid., 11 Aug. 1936.

26 Irish Independent, 22 Aug. 1936.

27 Irish Press, 2 Jan. 1937.

28 The subtle use of headlines to bias reports caused problems for the Irish censors during the Second World War (Drisceoil, Donal Ó, Censorship in Ireland, 1939–45 (Cork 1996), pp 117-19)Google Scholar.

29 Preston, Paul, Franco: a biography (London, 1995 ed.), p. 164Google Scholar.

30 This view has been challenged in recent years. Both Hugh Thomas and Herbert Southworth have recently stated that there is no evidence that the bombing was carried out for anything other than tactical military reasons (cited in Knightley, Phillip, The first casualty: the war correspondent as hero and myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo (London, 2000 ed.), p. 226Google Scholar.

31 Southworth, Herbert, Guernica! Guernica! A study of journalism, diplomacy, propaganda, and history (Berkeley, Calif., 1977), p. 31Google Scholar.

32 Knightley, First casualty, p. 220.

33 Irish Independent, 21 Feb. 1938. One of the Nationalists’ key witnesses in refuting the bombing of Guernica was Cecil Gerahty, an Irish war correspondent for the staunchly pro-Franco British Daily Mail. Gerahty was one of a number of right-wing Catholics associated with the Eyre & Spottiswoode publishing house, which had close links with the Nationalists. (See Southworth, Guernica, pp 102–5, and Knightley, First casualty, ch. 9, for analysis of Gerahty’s unimpressive contribution to war journalism).

34 Irish Independent, 16, 17 Oct. 1936.

35 McCullagh to Bp Daniel Mageean, 3 Apr. 1937 (Down and Connor diocesan archives, Mageean papers, EP 5/2/37).

36 McCullagh, Francis, In Franco’s Spain (London, 1937) pp 320-21Google Scholar.

37 See Southworth, Guernica, p. 58, for censorship in the Nationalist zone.

38 Irish Independent, 10 Feb. 1937.

39 William Warnock to Joseph Walshe, 12 Dec. 1939 (N.A.I, DFA 244/22).

40 London to Secretaría General, Salamanca, 22 Dec. 1936 (Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, Madrid, Archivo de Burgos, R. 1105–10).

41 Kerney to Walshe, 29 Dec. 1939 (N.A.I., DFA, Madrid Embassy, 19/4). Thomas Grehan was the Irish Independent’s advertising manager until his retirement in 1938 (Oram, Hugh, The advertising book: the history of advertising in Ireland (Dublin, 1986), pp 3867Google Scholar. My thanks to Patrick Maume for this reference.).

42 Ontiveros to Madrid, 3 June 1939 (Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, Archivo de Burgos, R. 1056–10).

43 Irish Independent, 2 Jan. 1937; McGuinness, C. J., Nomad (London, 1934).Google Scholar

44 Department of Justice, ‘Memo for government in connection with application by Charles McGuinness for remission’, 4 June 1945 (N.A.I., DT S 12860).

45 Irish Independent, 8 Feb. 1937.

46 Ibid., 6 Jan. 1937.

47 Consul General, Barcelona, to Foreign Office, 24 Nov. 1936 (P.R.O., W 16991/9549/41).

48 N.A.L, DFA, Passport Office Letterbooks (2) 1936–7.

49 For Starkie’s politics see Cronin, Mike, The Blueshirts and Irish politics (Dublin, 1997), pp 589Google Scholar.

50 Starkie, ’s paean to Mussolini’s Italy, The waveless plain: an Italian autobiography (London, 1938)Google Scholar, was critically well received — not least because of the author’s academic credentials. Starkie boasted to his Italian sponsors of being informed by an Irish government official that his articles had ‘changed the opinion of the Irish people’. In return, he received cash payments and probably also a new Ford car (Archivio Centrale dello Stato, Rome, Ministry of Popular Culture, Dir. gen. propaganda, folder 33.1, b. 138).

51 Gaffney may have been selected because of her ‘remarkably close professional relationship’ with her editor, Frank Geary (Oram, Hugh, The newspaper book (Dublin, 1983), p. 188Google Scholar).

52 Irish Independent, 5 Feb., 1 Mar. 1937.

53 Irish Press, 29 Dec. 1936.

54 Irish Times, 10 Sept., 29 Aug. 1936.

55 The Cross, Oct. 1936, p. 187.

56 Brown, Stephen, The press in Ireland (Dublin, 1937), p. 49Google Scholar.

57 lrish Press, 13 Oct. 1937.

58 Irish Independent, 9, 24 Sept. 1936, 20 Feb. 1939.

59 Entry for 22 June in ‘Record of Irish ecclesiastical events for the year 1937’ in Irish Catholic Directory and Almanac for 1938.

60 In Cork the more exotically titled Angelic Warfare Association of St Thomas of Aquinas seized and destroyed foreign newspapers (Maume, Patrick, D. P. Moran (Dundalk, 1995) p. 44)Google Scholar.

61 O’Reilly to Rev. Patrick Dunne, 19 Jan. 1935 (Dublin Diocesan Archives, Byrne papers, C.T.S. file).

62 O’Reilly to Eason, 8 Mar. 1934 (ibid.). On 21 March, following a lengthy exchange of letters culminating in Eason’s refusal to cease acting as distribution agent for the Free Thinker’s eleven Irish customers, O’Reilly informed Eason that he had decided not to expose him, as ‘it might affect your business, and I have no intention of acting in any unfriendly or uncharitable way’. On the same day he forwarded their correspondence to Father Dunne, Archbishop Byrne’s secretary, for the attention of the hierarchy, advising: ‘If this firm persists, I think in justice to Catholicism, and as a vital principle is involved, all Catholic business, or at least all clerical business, should be withdrawn from the house; and if all priests and nuns stopped dealing with the firm, they would probably be prepared to change their tune.’ This form of unofficial censorship was quite a problem for both the left and liberal intellectuals in this period. In 1932 Peadar O’Donnell complained that ‘the solitary Dublin publisher is helpless in the hands of clerics because of publishing school books, & a few swear words in a book are enough to make him reject it in fear of losing their custom’ (Rosamund Jacob’s diary, 27 Apr. 1932 (N.L.I., Jacob papers, MS 32582/69)). For examples of C.T.S. pressure on printers and the left’s response see N.A.I., DJ 8/322, DJ 8/692.

63 Report on Communist Activities in Ireland, c. 1940, no. 3, app. b, pp 3–1 (Holy Ghost Provincialist Archives, Temple Park, Dublin, Fahey papers, box 5).

64 Ibid.

65 Report on Communism in Ireland, Oct. 1937, pp 6, 9 (ibid.).

66 Report on Communism in Ireland, c. early 1940s, no. 3, app. b, p. 9 (ibid.).

67 Irish Catholic, 18 Feb. 1937.

68 Irish Monthly, Sept. 1936, p. 647.

69 O’Donovan to Rev. C.C. Martindale, 23 Mar. 1937 (N.L.I., O’Donovan papers, MS 21987).

70 O’Donovan’s dropping of Sheehy Skeffington also alienated the periodical’s more radical supporters who were eager for a stand against clerical pressure. The majority of the periodical’s committee opposed O’Donovan, partly because only two advertisers had withdrawn their custom as a result of the controversy. See Rosamund Jacob’s diary, 3, 4, 22 Mar. 1937 (N.L.I., MS 32582/81).

71 Fleming, Head or harp, p. 169.

72 Rosamund Jacob’s diary, 19 Oct. 1936 (N.L.I. MS 32582/80).

73 Allen told McQuaid that he believed the editor of the Irish Times, was acting ‘in sympathy with his Masonic brethren in Barcelona’ (Cooney, John, John Charles McQuaid — ruler of Catholic Ireland (Dublin, 1999), pp 9091Google Scholar).

74 See O’Toole, Michael, More kicks than pence: a life in Irish journalism (Dublin, 1992) pp 42-7, 179–82Google Scholar, for interesting examples of press subservience to clerical authority in more recent times.

75 Mageean to de Valera, 21 Sept. 1936 (Down and Connor diocesan archives, Mageean papers, EP 5/2/37).

76 De Blácam to MacRory, 24 Feb. 1937 (Cardinal Ó Fiaich Memorial Library and Archive, Armagh diocesan archives, MacRory papers, XV: miscellaneous, folder 13).

77 MacRory’s diary, 17 Apr. 1937 (ibid., VI: Joseph Cardinal MacRory, Diaries, 1929–45).

78 Ibid., 14 Nov. 1937.

79 Irish Press, 5 Sept. 1931.

80 Irish Independent, 2 Jan. 1905.

81 Oram, Newspaper book, p. 13; Hartigan, Maurice, ‘The Catholic laity of Dublin, 1920–1940’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, 1992), p. 257Google Scholar.

82 Hartigan, ‘Catholic laity’, p. 257.

83 Irish News, 10 Nov. 1936; H. C. O’Neill to H. J. Kennedy, 22 Apr. 1938 (Down and Connor diocesan archives, Mageean papers, EP 5/2/37).

84 See McGarry, Fearghal, ‘Limerick and the Spanish Civil War: a regional study’ in Bullán, v, no. 1 (summer-fall 2000), pp 2347Google Scholar, for analysis of the local press in Limerick.

85 Berardis to Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 27 Feb. 1939 (Archivio Storico Diplomatico, Ministero degli Affari Esteri, Rome, b. 4, Rapporti Politici 1939); Berardis to Ministry of Popular Culture, 14 Jan. 1943 (ibid., b. 4, Rapporti Politici 1943).

86 Berardis to Ministry of Popular Culture, 14 Jan. 1943 (ibid.). I am grateful to Giulia Cecere for translating these documents.

87 O’Donnell [O’Brien], ‘Irish Independent’, p. 393.

88 Ibid., pp 388–94.

89 Stradling, Irish & the Spanish Civil War, p. 88; O’Donnell [O’Brien], Irish Independent’, p. 391.

90 O’Donnell [O’Brien], ’Irish Independent’, p. 389.

91 Whyte, J.H., Church and state in modern Ireland, 1923–1979 (Dublin, 1984 ed.), p. 373Google Scholar.

92 Gray, Smyllie, p. ll5.

93 Phelan, Michael J. S. J., The young priest’s keepsake (Dublin, 1909 ed.), pp 113-14Google Scholar.

94 Inglis, Tom, Moral monopoly (Dublin, 1987), cited in O’Toole, More kicks, p. 192.Google Scholar

95 Brown, Terence, Ireland: a social and cultural history, 1922–1985 (Dublin, 1987 ed.), pp 204-5Google Scholar.

96 I should like to thank David Fitzpatrick and Gerry Cronin for their comments on an earlier draft of this article, and also to acknowledge the assistance of the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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