Fascism hasn’t gone away by Joe McVeigh

Throughout Europe, in the aftermath of the Great War (1914-1918), fascism became popular –in Italy, Germany, Spain, France and in England where Oswald Mosley formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1932. It was disbanded in 1940 when it was proscribed after the start of the Second World War. The party embraced Nazi-style anti-Semitism in 1936 which led to violent clashes with opponents. The Public Order Act of 1936 which banned political uniforms had a strong effect on the BUF whose supporters were known as “Blackshirts.” It is true to say that this constituency in England never really went away.

Fascism came to Ireland of the 1930s in the form of “the Blueshirts” organised and led by a Minister in the Cumann na nGaedhal government, General Eoghan O’Duffy, a native of Monaghan.  These were first known as the ‘Blueshirts’ since they adopted a blue shirt as their uniform. After 1933, they supported General Franco in Spain who along with other generals in the Spanish army was campaigning against the democratically elected Republican government. O’Duffy had the active support of several bishops and many priests who regarded ‘godless communism’ as the greatest threat facing the Catholic Church. Many Catholic priests and laypeople organised collections in support of the Fascists in Spain. Considering the depressed state of the country during those years huge sums were collected for Franco.

During the 1930s, Catholics were active in Ireland in support of General Franco. Bishops and clergy encouraged support for the campaign to topple the republican government which had been elected in 1936. School children in Ireland were told about General Franco, who was leading an armed campaign to topple the legitimate government.

The leader of the fascist movement in the south, Eoin O’Duffy had the support of a number of Irish bishops, including the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who hailed from the same part of Ireland as he did.

Northern clergy too supported Franco. The Bishop of Down and Connor, Daniel Mageean stated in February 1937:

“The struggle is now inevitable. It must go on; for between communism and Catholicity there can be no compromise. The issue is clear-cut; for God or against God, Christ or anti-Christ”.

The bishops of Ireland had collectively denounced communism and republicanism on a number of occasions since the Irish rebellion in 1916. In an encyclical in 1931, the Irish bishops made it clear what they thought about communism:

Dearly Beloved in Christ,

Assembled in Maynooth for our annual October Meeting and deeply conscious of our responsibility for the Faith and Morals of our people, we cannot remain silent in face of the growing evidence of a campaign of Revolution and Communism, which if allowed to run its course unchecked, must end in the ruin of Ireland, both soul and body.

You have no need to be told that there is in active operation amongst us a society of a militarist character, whose avowed object is to overthrow the State by force of arms.

“Side by side with the Society referred to, is a new organisation entitled “Saor Eire” which is frankly Communistic in its aims. Its published programme as published in the press, when reduced to simple language, is, among other things, to mobilise the workers and working farmers of Ireland behind a revolutionary movement to set up a Communistic State. That is to impose upon the Catholic soil of Ireland the same materialistic regime, with its fanatical hatred of God, as now dominates Russia and threatens to dominate Spain.”

Probably because of their own hierarchical and top-down structures, the senior clergy in the Catholic Church have always had a problem with people power – and especially with the democratic ideas expressed in republicanism and socialism. They have been much more comfortable with capitalism and monarchy and strict control over public discourse even to the extent of censoring novels and plays. They were strongly opposed to revolution and revolutionary ideas. Little wonder then that the Gospel message of solidarity and community was diluted to mean ‘saving my soul’. This became the main theme of sermons and missions held around the country. Avoiding sins of a sexual nature and being obedient to the state was emphasised as important in the Catholic life. The pastoral letters of bishops of the time make interesting if not depressing reading.

The Catholic hierarchy adopted a hostile attitude to socialism and communism after the 1917 Russian revolution when the Bolsheviks sought to take control. Communism and socialism were regarded by senior Catholic churchmen, including the Popes, as threatening to the Church and to the beliefs of the faithful. The threat of communism also became an important element in sermons and writings. Prayers for the conversion of Russia were common in many Churches throughout the country.

The response from the Church in Ireland to General Franco helps explain the Irish Church’s attitude to Irish republicans all through the years until the present day. Republicans have always been seen as a threat to their power and control. This has been articulated by some priests and bishops especially during the recent so-called Troubles. Republicans were attacked for their use of violence but underlying this was a deep-seated hostility to their social policies and the fact that they were intent on taking power in Ireland at some stage when they had enough political support.

The attitude towards republicans in Spain was not helped by the reported killing of priests and nuns and the burning of churches by some individuals and groups on the republican side. However, there were brutal killings on both sides. It is estimated that one million people were killed in that civil war.

Some members of the Irish republican movement actively supported the republican cause in Spain. They joined a famous Brigade – the Quinta Brigada – to defend and support the republican forces. One of those was Charles Donnelly (1914-1937) born in Dungannon and raised in Dublin.  He was one of about 200 who volunteered to travel to Spain to defend the democratically elected government against the fascists. He and 60 others lost their lives.

The fascist and authoritarian tendency within church and state remained until recently. Much of it has been exposed in recent years along with the cruelty meted out to women and children in Church- run institutions.

The singer Christy Moore has paid his own tribute to the Irish who fought for justice in Spain:

Ten years before I saw the light of morning
A comradeship of heroes was laid
From every corner of the world came sailing
The Fifteenth International Brigade
They came to stand beside the Spanish people
To try and stem the rising fascist tide
Franco’s allies were the powerful and wealthy
Frank Ryan’s men came from the other side
Even the olives were bleeding
As the battle for Madrid it thundered on
Truth and love against the force of evil
Brotherhood against the fascist clan
Viva la Quinte Brigada
‘No Pasaran’, the pledge that made them fight 
‘Adelante’ is the cry around the hillside
Let us all remember them tonight

Bob Hilliard was a Church of Ireland pastor
From Killarney across the Pyrenees he came
From Derry came a brave young Christian Brother
Side by side they fought and died in Spain
Tommy Woods age seventeen died in Cordoba
With Na Fianna he learned to hold his gun
From Dublin to the Villa del Rio
Where he fought and died beneath the blazing sun
Viva la Quinte Brigada
‘No Pasaran’, the pledge that made them fight
‘Adelante’ is the cry around the hillside
Let us all remember them tonight
Many Irishmen heard the call of Franco
Joined Hitler and Mussolini too
Propaganda from the pulpit and newspapers
Helped O’Duffy to enlist his crew
The word came from Maynooth, ‘support the Nazis’
The men of cloth failed again
When the Bishops blessed the Blueshirts in Dun Laoghaire
As they sailed beneath the swastika to Spain
Viva la Quinte Brigada
‘No Pasaran’, the pledge that made them fight
‘Adelante’ is the cry around the hillside
Let us all remember them tonight
This song is a tribute to Frank Ryan
Kit Conway and Dinny Coady too
Peter Daly, Charlie Regan and Hugh Bonar
Though many died I can but name a few
Danny Boyle, Blaser-Brown and Charlie Donnelly
Liam Tumilson and Jim Straney from the Falls
Jack Nalty, Tommy Patton and Frank Conroy
Jim Foley, Tony Fox and Dick O’Neill

The hostile attitude of the Church towards left leaning groups and individuals resulted in the alienation of large numbers of the working class from the institutional Church-in Spain and in Ireland. The disdain felt by many on the left for Church leaders can be heard clearly in Christy Moore’s song.

Comments are closed.