The Spanish Civil War occurred at a time of intense political conflict between the Left and the Right across Europe, and many Irishmen would partake in the war, both in defence of the Spanish Republic and on the side of Franco and the fascist coup. The majority of those from this island who fought in the conflict fought with Eoin O’Duffy and the Irish Brigade, though in excess of 300 Irishmen did fight with the International Brigades. A quarter of those Irishmen who fought against fascism in this war would die on the battlefields of Spain.
Perhaps the most unusual group to travel to Spain were the St. Mary’s Pipe Band, who set off from Dublin for the frontiers of Spain on a mission: to ensure that O’Duffy’s men could march to and from the frontlines to the sound of Irish airs. At the time they were widely refered to as the ‘St. Mary’s Anti-Communist Pipe Band’. A contemporary newspaper report on the arrival of the band in Spain noted that their “kilts and bagpipes caused more excitement on their arrival than a bombardment by Government aeroplanes.”
The St. Mary’s band took their name from St.Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, at the heart of Dublin city centre. The church features prominently in anti-communist street agitation in 1930s Dublin. It was a particularly heated sermon in this church in March 1933 that would lead to hundreds of Dubliners laying siege to Connolly House on Great Strand Street, the headquarters of the communist movement in Ireland, starting three nights of anti-communist violence in the city. Bob Doyle, a young Dubliner who would later fight on the republican side of the Spanish Civil War, remembered being in the Pro-Cathedral on that night:
I had attended the evening mission on Monday 27 March 1933 at the Pro-Cathedral, during the period of Lent where the preacher was a Jesuit. The cathedral was full. He was standing in the pulpit talking about the state of the country, I remember him saying – which scared me – “Here in this holy Catholic city of Dublin, these vile creatures of Communism are within our midst.” Immediately after the sermon everybody then began leaving singing and gathered in a crowd outside, we must have been a thousand singing “To Jesus Heart All Burning” and “Faith of our Fathers, Holy Faith”. We marched down towards Great Strand Street, to the headquarters of the socialist and anti-Fascist groups in Connolly House. I was inspired, if you could use that expression, by the message of the Jesuit. There was no attempt by the police to stop us.
The St. Mary’s band were a feature at several anti-communist demonstrations in Dublin, appearing for example at a huge Irish Christian Front demonstration at College Green in October 1936. At that meeting Desmond Bell told the crowd that “if Spain fell to communism today, Europe would fall to it tomorrow” and that “the frontiers for Irish Christianity today are the trenches around Madrid”. The St. Mary’s band were joined by several others at that meeting including the Postal Workers’ Band, O’Connell Fife and Drum and a band from Maynooth.
In February 1937 it was reported in the Irish Independent that “a chaplain, two nurses and the members of the St.Mary’s Pipers Band, Dublin, left Dublin last night for Spain, via London. In Spain they will join the Irish Brigade, of which General O’Duffy is the leader.” The paper also named the members of the band who had gone to Spain as follows:
We know a little about the experiences of the men in Spain, as a letter from one of them was published in the Irish Press in June. In it, he claimed that “the band has been very popular and General O’Duffy has always done his best to bring it before the public.” He went on to note “I hope all Ireland will work hard for the Irish Brigade when they return.”
Eoin O’Duffy noted upon his return from Spain that “our troops could not march properly to Spanish music and bands, and I was requested to get an Irish pipers band out. The committee of the St. Mary’s Pipers’ Band, Dublin, very generously offered their services, fully equipped with new pipes, drums and costumes, free of charge.” O’Duffy also claimed that the band “created a splendid impression everywhere it went, enhancing our prestige.”
When the men did ultimately return from Spain in June 1937, having seen little fighting, the band were prominent in his return march in the city of Dublin. Having arrived at the Alexandra Basin, the men marched into the city centre, with “the pipers at their head and carrying the Tricolour and the Spanish flags.” It was also noted that the Dublin Tramwaymen’s Band joined them, as they marched to the Mansion House. O’Duffy was welcomed at the Mansion House by Dublin’s Lord Mayor Alfred Byrne. Byrne went as far as to state he felt that he was voicing the opinions of all Irish liberty loving people when he said “welcome home” to O’Duffy and his men.
In August, the band were ridiculed in the pages of the left-wing Irish Democrat newspaper, in an article entitled ‘The Band With No Uniforms’:
General O’Duffy, while in Spain with his ‘defenders of Christianity,’ formed the opinion that ‘his troops’ were not able to march properly to Spanish music and bands. He had a brainwave and sent word home that he must have an Irish pipe band to lead ‘his troops.’
St. Mary’s Anti-Communist Pipe Band, with headquarters at Waterford Street, Dublin, answered the call and they sailed away to Franco Spain, all dressed up in nice kilts and ribbons flying. They came back with the rest of O’Duffy’s braves, disillusioned and sad, after their sojourn in Franco Spain.
Since its return things have not gone too well with the band. Recently they had a public collection, but rumours are current in connection with the result. It is also rumoured that the band would find it very difficult to fulfil any engagement just now, since it has no uniforms. And we understand the members of the band and the people in Waterford Street and neighbourhood are all talking of what happened to the uniforms. They have been deposited with ‘uncle,’ but the band members weren’t acquainted about this ‘arrangement.’ Of course there are lots of other things the bandsmen and neighbours are talking about, but for decency’s sake we won’t mention them.
No doubt many of the people in Waterford Street and around that area are now beginning to realise that the gentlemen who have displayed such great religious fervour are not so religious after all.
While O’Duffy’s men may have significantly outnumbered those who came to the defence of the Spanish Republic, history has not been kind to the fascist regimes who backed the coup in Spain. Many men would die on the republican side of the conflict, and they are honoured today with many monuments not only in Dublin but across the island of Ireland. The most recently erected monument in Dublin can be found in Inchicore. Those interested in the history of Ireland and this conflict will enjoy the Ireland and the Spanish Civil War website, a brilliant resource which proved helpful in writing this piece.