When we think of the Civil War that raged in Spain from 1936-1939, a generation of idealistic writers come to mind. We might think of George Orwell as he walked Las Ramblas, Ernest Hemingway who reported on the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA), or even the young Tyrone poet Charlie Donnelly. The later, a former student of University College Dublin, would lose his life at the bloody and brutal Battle of Jarama. A Canadian anti-fascist volunteer who fought alongside young Donnelly recalled being there, and that “I hear him say something quietly between a lull in machine gun fire: Even the olives are bleeding.” The words have become iconic.
Yet, did the Spanish Civil War unite an entire generation of writers and poets against Fascism? Things are never so straightforward. One remarkable document from the period of the war, which has interesting Dublin dimensions to it, is the 1937 survey of writers entitled Authors Take Sides of the Spanish Civil War. It can be downloaded by clicking on the title. The brainchild of Nancy Cunard, the survey asked writers and poets from across these islands to comment on what was occurring in Spain. There, a Nationalist uprising sought the overthrow of the Spanish Republic.
To the writers and poets of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales:
The equivocal attitude, the Ivory Tower, the paradoxical, the ironic detachment, will no longer do. Are you for, or against, the legal government and the people of Republican Spain? Are you for or against Franco and Fascism? For it is impossible any longer to take no side. Writers and poets…we wish the world to know what you, who are amongst the most sensitive instruments of a nation, feel.
Cunard is a figure who in some ways has fallen through the cracks of history, as remarkable women in particular tend to do. The daughter of Sir Bache Cunard, a heir to a lucrative shipping business, she was born into the upper-echelons of British society in many ways. Anne Chisholm, her biographer, has noted that:
Cunard was not just a fashionable poor little rich girl and muse, patron or mistress to many of the writers and artists of the 20s and 30s – including Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound, Louis Aragon, Samuel Beckett, Wyndham Lewis, Constantin Brâncusi and Oskar Kokoschka, but a published poet and a fierce campaigner against prejudice and injustice. She had style in more sense than one.
Cunard was a committed anti-fascist, something which sat poorly with some in her own family. As Lydia Syson has noted, “her mother – a close friend of Oswald Mosley – disinherited her fairly speedily in 1931.” As a publisher, she was responsible for the publication of Negro in 1934, a celebration of black writers, with poetry, fiction and non-fiction contributions. Of the Spanish Civil War, she rightly predicted that “events in Spain were a prelude to another world war.”
In asking writers and poets to give their take on what was occurring in Spain, Cunard received replies that fell into three categories. 127 of the replies were ‘For the Government’, 16 were deemed ‘Neutral’ and only 5 were ‘Against the Government’, not entirely surprising given the wording of the question asked.
I was quite surprised that one of those who fell into the category of ‘Neutral’ was Sean Ó Faoláin, one of my own favourite writers. Responsible for The Bell journal and the classic The Irish: A Character Study, Ó Faoláin is today regarded as one of the great intellectuals of twentieth century Irish public life. He knew a little about Civil Wars himself, having played his part in the Irish Civil War as an Anti-Treatyite. “Don’t be a lot of saps.”, his reply began. “If X and Y want to cut one another’s throats over Z, why on earth must people who do not believe in the ideas propounded by either X, Y, or Z have to choose between them?”
For other Irish writers, it was much more straight forward. For Samuel Beckett, a simple “UP THE REPUBLIC!” did the trick. His fellow Dubliner, Sean O’Casey, likewise delivered stirring words: “I am with the determined faces firing at the steel-clad slug of Fascism, from the smoke and flames of the barricades.”
Tom Buchanan, in his history of Britain and the Civil War in Spain, believed that “the pamphlet was ostentatiously an exercise in propaganda”, and while I agree with that statement, it’s a very interesting little piece of history nonetheless. For Samuel Beckett, the following decade would bring some excitement with the French Resistance, proving that his opposition to Fascism was more than mere words on paper.
In Ireland, public opinion during the Civil War in Spain was very much against the government of the Republic. The Irish Independent constantly referred to the war as a conflict between “reds” and “patriots”, praising those who helped in “the fight for Faith”. Previously on the site we’ve looked at anti-communism in 1930s Ireland, for example in this piece on the Irish Christian Front. On the other side, check out our piece on the commemorative banner of the Irish men of the International Brigades.