East Cork, Ballyhooly and the Spanish Civil War

In 1931 the King of Spain was forced to leave his country and a Republic was declared. Between that time and 1936 there was great opposition to the Catholic Church in Spain.Religious orders were treated very badly and the Jesuits were banished from the country in which they had been founded. In 1936 there was absolute chaos in Spain. Political assassinations were very frequent, there were all kinds of strikes, 170 Catholic churches were burned and attempts were made to burn 251 other churches.

The Spanish civil was started in July, 1936 when General Franco led a revolt against the Republic. The war attracted tremendous interest in Ireland. It was seen as a straight fight between Catholicism and Communism. General Eoin O’Duffy, who had split with the Fine Gael party and who was the leader of the Blueshirt movement was invited by Spaniards in Great Britain to found an Irish Brigade which would go and fight for General Franco and the Catholic cause in Spain. Captain Tom Hyde of Midleton, Tom Shaw of Ballincurra, Tom O’Riordan of Ligoold and James Ahern of Midleton volunteered to join the brigade.

O’Duffy immediately set about organising his brigade but met with huge difficulties. The Free State Government wished to remain neutral and enacted regulations opposing the effort. Consequently, much of the preparations had to be done secretly. Money was scarce and communications were bad. Volunteers, from all over the country, joined up but had to travel to Spain as private citizens and about 700 men eventually arrived in Spain. The uniforms which they were given were not suitable and the food completely disagreed with them. They got one month’s training and were then sent to the trenches near Madrid. The trenches were very badly made and were infested with lice which made life very difficult for the brigade.

On February 19, 1937, as they were preparing to launch an attack at the front they were mistakenly fired upon by a Bandera of General Franco’s army from the Canary Islands.

Apparently, the latter did not recognise the uniform of the Irish brigade and thought they were enemies. Tom Hyde was mortally wounded . The other Midleton men went to his assistance but could not save him. Father Mulrea, chaplain of the brigade, quickly rendered spiritual aid, and he passed away peacefully to his eternal reward. He had proved himself a faithful and sincere officer of O’Duffy’s brigade. Three weeks later, there was another death among the Midleton contingent, when John William Walsh died of pneumonia. He had been on the clerical staff of Midleton Distillery.

A successful businessman of the Hyde family of Ballinacurra – Tom had been educated at Midleton CBS and at Rochestown College. He had been a member of B Company, 4th Batt., 1st Cork Brigade of the IRA which he had joined in 1916. He subsequently joined the National Army in 1922 when he was promoted to the rank of captain, and had narrowly escaped death when his company had been ambushed at Bruff, Co Limerick, during the Civil War. He was later very prominent in the Blueshirt movement.

The men enlisted for a term of six months and when that time had passed they were given the option of staying on but on a vote as it decided that they would return to Ireland immediately.

In the Autumn of 2003 I spent some time in Spain researching the Spanish Civil War and the Irishmen who fought, the men of the 15th international brigade and their arch rivals, the Irish Brigade who became a battalion of Franco’s Spanish Foreign Legion – Bandera Irlandesa Del Tercio.

In the course of my travels I came across the name of Daithi Vincent Higgins, Cpl. Ballyholly, Co Cork who was killed in action while serving with the elite Spanish Foreign Legion during the last major campaign of the Spanish Civil War, the desperate struggle on the Ebro.

Further research revealed that Cpl Higgins was part of a group of at least 12 members (banderista) of the Irish Brigade who opted to remain in Spain when the Bandera returned to Ireland in June 1937, transferring to the Spanish Tercio VII Bandera, 26th Company as a legionary.

Sadly three of these men did not survive what could be described as some of the great set piece battles of the Spanish Civil War. Ex Irish Army Sergeant Major Michael Wymes (Mullingar) died, cut down in a hail of machine gune fire leading his men at Villafranca del Castillo during the fiercely contested Battle of Brunete.

Robert A Stradling Professor of History at Cardiff University of Wales states in his excellent book ‘The Irish and the Spanish Civil War 1936 – 1939’ that legionary Daithi Vincent Higgins, Ballyhooly, Co Cork and Legionaryn Austin O’Reilly, Kilmessan, Co Meath died during the fierce fighting that raged from July to November, 1938 on the river Ebro.

Further reference is made to Daithi Higgins in other accounts of the Spanish Civil War. In his book “La Batalla del Ebro’ (The Battle of the River Ebro) Jorge M Reverte states that Higgins died on the 8th of September, 1938 when he was taking part in an assault on a heavily fortified strong point on a ‘Cotau 356’ (height above sea level). This ‘cota’ is between Camposines and Corbera, two villages in the province of Terragona near the towns of Gandesa and Villalba de los Arcos. In the Ebro battles the town of Gandesa was the main scene of action and July, 1938 elite Legionary and Moroccan units were rushed to the points of greatest danger in an effort to stall the republican advance.

Francisco Cabrera Castillo author of ‘Del Ebro a Gandesa, la Batalla del Ebro Julio – November 1938 (from the river Ebro to Gandesa, the battle of the river Ebro July – November 1938) states that Daithi Vincent Higgins was buried in Bot another village near Gandesa.

During the Ebro Battles the Nationalist Army had 6,500 killed and nearly 30,000 wounded . These were the worst casualties of the war but it finaly destroyed the Republican Army as an effective fighting force.

While in Spain I was anxious to try and locate Daithi (Higgins’) grave but time ran out on me unfortunately. However, I was able to organise a Mass to be celebrated for Daithi Higgins and his comrades of the Irish Brigade in the Church of Santo Domingo, the church where the 730 Irish soldiers worshipped during their stay in Caceres prior to moving to the Jarema Valley on the Madrid Front on the 17th February, 1937.

On the 31st January 1937 a tablet commemorating their stay in Caceres was unveiled in the nave of the Church of Santa Domingo. The tablet is of bronze and bares the shields of Ireland and Spain on either side. At the top is a Celtic Cross and at the foot of a miniature Madonna and child, shamrocks and Irish designs fill the corners. The inscription in Irish, Spanish and English reads ‘To the glory of God and the honour of Ireland, in remembrance of the 15th Bandera Irish Brigade, of the Tercio which worshipped in this church while serving the cause of the faith and Ireland’s ancient ally and protector Spain’ (This tablet is the work of the famous sculptor Eulogio Blasco ‘The Dumb.’)

Many members of the Irish brigade had served in the IRA and National Army. Men like Captain Tom Hyde (Ballinacurra, Midleton) Captain Tom O’Riordan (Lisgoold), Sergeant Major Tom Shaw (Ballinacurra, Midleton) had served with distinction with the active service unit (ASU) of the 4th Cork 1st Brigade IRA and were the backbone of the National Army in the south of its formation. Sadly Captain Hyde did not return from Spain. Having narrowly escaped death twice before, once during the tan war prior to the Clonmult Massacre and again in 1922 when his company was ambushed at Bruff, Co Limerick during the civil war, Captain Hyde was killed in action on the 19th February 1937 in the Jarama Valley as the Irish Brigade was preparing to launch an attack they were mistakenly fired upon by a Bandera of General Franco’s Army from the Canary Islands.

Captain Hyde was mortally wounded. He is interred in Caceres. Capt O’Riordan an utterly fearless officer who had took part in many of the major engagements in East Cork during the War of Independence survived the Spanish Civil War as did Sgt Major Shaw.

As Daithi Vincent Higgins was promoted to NCO rank in an elite formation of Franco’s forces it is possible that he had military experience prior to joining the Irish Brigade. Members of the Spanish Foreign Legion were called the ‘Bridegrooms of Death’ (translated from the Spanish) and were used by their officers in situations where normal infantry of the line would not survive. Used to harsh conditions and treatment and hardened by their wars against the Riffs in North Africa, retreat was not an option for these troops.

Of the 12 members of the Irish Brigade who transferred to the Spanish Legion proper at least 8 were ex Irish Army men and/or had served in the IRA. One Bandera officer Captain Peter Lawler (Naas) has been appointed by General Michael Collins in 1922 as the first commanding office of Plunkett Barracks, the Curragh. He had served with the Australian Marines in New Guinea, the South Pacific, in Gallipoli, was captured by the Turks, escaped, returned to Ireland, joined the IRA and fought in the Tan War and the Civil War. Joined the Irish brigade in 1936 and transferred to another Bandera of the Foreign Legion, wounded in the leg in the fighting outside Madrid he returned to Ireland in 1938 having survived 4 wars before his 45th birthday.

Sgt Major Michael Wymes was one of 3 brothers who served in the Bandera. A tough, hard drinking NCO he believed in leading from the front and demonstrated incredible bravery when he stormed an enemy machine gun post durig the Battle of Brunette –dying in a hail of fire.

Daithi Higgins died in much the same fashion taking part in an assault on a heavily fortified strongo point on the “Cota 365” near the town of Gandesa on the river Ebro.

The fact that he is mentioned in three reference books on the Spanish Civil War is most interesting as Daithi Higgins was just one of the many thousands (6,500) on the Nationalist side who were killed on the Ebro. The fact that two Spanish authors have made referece to him in their definitive histories of the battle of the Ebro is incredible and worthy of much further research.

Comrades of Daithi Higgins who served in the Bandera Irlanes Del Terico or the Irish Brigade who were killed in Spain are interred in Caceras and Salamanca.

Now almost 70 years on I was informed by the staff at the graveyards that people still make the journey from Ireland from time to time and pay their respects to the Irish soldiers who are interred there. People also visit the Church of Santa Domigo where the Bandera worshipped and gaze upon the plaque in the church.

While in Spain I received expert guidance and help from Snr Antonio Rubio Rojas, Municipal Archivist of Caceres; The staff of the Archivo Historico National (Civil War Department) Salamanca; Major Miguel Fernandez Diaz, Spanish Army Delegation Del Defence; Professor of English Caceres University Jose Luis ONCIS Martinez, (who studied at UCG); Snr Severiano Montera Barrado, International Brigaders Association (Madrid); Irish and Spanish Embassies Madrid and Dublin; some very helpful people at the Dept of Foreign Affairs, Kay and Professor David McKenzie Dept Hispanic Studies UCC; The staff of the municipal graveyards Caceres and Salamanca who tend the graves of the Irish Brigade. I was also very fortunate to be introduced to a young Spanish student of history who gave several symposiums on the Irish Brigade in Caceres and whose grandfather a Carlist Officer during the civil war served in Caceres with the Irish and has committed his memories to tape.
I intend to return to Spain next year (2008) to continue my research and would appreciate any further information on Cpl Daithi Vincent Higgins, a very brave soldier from Balyhooly, Co Cork.
Poignantly the Mass in Caceres which was offered up by Fr Francisco Tapio Delgado OFM was celebrated on the 8th September, 2003, 65 years to the day that Daithi Higgins lost his young life fighting for a cause for which he obviously was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Battle hymn of the Spanish Foreign Legion or La cancion del Legionario (Translated from the Spanish):

My motto is ‘know no fear’
My fate is to suffer
My banner is to fight bravely
Till victory or death

I have recently received correspondence from a Mr Michael Skaggs, Paris, Tennessee, an american historian, who is preparing a University report on the Irish Brigade. I would welcome any information for Mr Skaggs from relatives, or please God surviving living members of the brigade. All letters, documents, photographs etc will be safely returned to sender or if necessary I will travel to meet people who might be able to help with this research.

Courtesy of Denis Morgan and The Avondhu