Wednesday 30 November 2016

Flowers for Franco

Last week I learned that a letter from Carlow County Council will wing its way across the Atlantic to America congratulating Donal Trump on winning the US presidential election. An interesting question is did this same council propose sending a similar letter to President Obama after his electoral victory? Should I have been at all surprised? It immediately reminded me of a curious occasion when Limerick too fawned over far-right leaders. 
On the 28th of January 1939 the Irish Press reported that the Limerick Corporation congratulated General Francisco Franco on the capture of Barcelona aided by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany ‘on his fight for Christianity and freedom.’ This laudatory gesture was accompanied by a bouquet of flowers for the Spanish dictator. Furthermore this group passed a resolution demanding the Fianna Fáil government to ‘recognise the Administration of the Patriot Leader’ thus breaking diplomatic relations. The same government which unwaveringly stood by De Valera’s declaration of neutrality in the face of immense criticism and pressure from the Allies during the Second World War. Limerick was the first Irish city and one of the first in the world to recognise Franco as the legitimate ruler of Spain. This event in the Limerick story is indicative of the Spanish Civil War’s impact on Irish diplomatic policy and the intensity of Catholic religiosity in Ireland.

This short newspaper article stated that James Dalton proposed the resolution of congratulations, eventually seconded by Ald. James Reidy after Michael Hartney withdrew his secondment. Reidy took it further requesting government recognition of Franco. The Mayor Ald. Dan Bourke responded to this request with ‘We could leave that to the Government to decide.’ Ald. Reidy’s rejoinder defending the totalitarian dictator is today ironic with the benefit of hindsight ‘We are free citizens of a free country and we are entitled to make a request to our Government.’ In spite of Reidy’s appeal the Mayor was unyielding ‘That is so, but we can be assured that our Government will do the right thing at the right time’ and later would say ‘We are only giving expression to the wishes of the people, irrespective of political views.’ After receiving unanimous votes Bourke finally declared both resolutions adopted, not because of the strength of Reidy’s arguments but because of his party did not control the corporation. This proposal to recognise Franco as the Spanish head of state by isolationist Éire came a month before both Britain and France.

James Reidy and Michael Hartney would follow Dan Bourke in holding mayoral office, 1944-45 and 1945-46 respectively. Dan Bourke would be mayor for the record period of five years[1]. He joined the Volunteers in 1913 and was one of those who welcomed Pádraig Pearse, Éamon de Valera, Tom Clarke, Willie Pearse and other leaders to Limerick in 1915. He remained on the Republican side during the Civil War, was arrested in 1922 and imprisoned in Kilmainham and Mountjoy. The following year he was transferred to Tintown No.1 Internment camp at the Curragh from which he escaped through a tunnel in April 1923. He was later recaptured and held prisoner for a considerable time. In 1920 he was elected a member of the Limerick Corporation in the Republican interest and was later to become one of the founder-members of Fianna Fáil.
Michael Hartney was also a Fianna Fáil member to City Council and was one of the most active members of the Volunteer movement during the War of Independence. His home in Davis Street was blown up by the Black and Tans as a reprisal. He was twice captured by the Black and Tans and served a term in Wormwood Scrubbs Prison where he went on hunger strike. On his release he resumed his volunteer activities and after being captured by the “Tans” for a second time he was held as protection against I.R.A ambushed and was later interned on Spike Island. Hartney would be secretary for the Mid-Limerick Brigade of the Old I.R.A for over 40 years at the time of his death[2]. As the exchange described in the initial report on the recognition of Franco government implied Reidy was elected as a Fine Gael TD.

On the 25th of February both local and national press presented its readers with the extraordinary headline ‘Franco thanks, Letter to the Mayor of Limerick.’ Mayor Bourke had received the following letter from the National Government’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, dated February 3rd; Dear Sir, On behalf of Generalissimino Franco, through his Minister for Foreign Affairs, I am to convey to you the lively gratification of his Excellency for the enthusiastic message of congratulations which you sent him on learning of the magnificent victory at Barcelona. I take this opportunity of extending to you my most friendly greetings.’
Ironically De Valera gave a statement to the Associated Press which appeared in newspapers only five days previously declaring ‘the desire of the Irish people and the desire of the Irish government is to keep our nation out of war. The aim of Government policy is to maintain and to preserve our neutrality in the event of war.’ One can only imagine the reaction of readers in Limerick the recording of this exchange between City Hall and Spain. One Dublin resident, a Mr R. Jacob, addressed an indignant letter addressed to the mayor outlining his reaction to the news of the recognition of Franco ‘This must be the greatest disgrace that ere has befallen the city of Limerick.[3]’ Mayor Bourke replied to this letter stating ‘the resolution passed by the Limerick Corporation in regard to the victory of General Franco was an unanimous one, and he has, therefore, no apology to offer.’

This was not the first time that a fascist dictator involved in the Spanish Civil War had sent communiqué to neutral Ireland. A telegram from Italy’s Mussolini on the 13th of March 1937 contained a message of support for the Irish Brigade, which translates as ‘Let the Legionnaires know that I am following hour after hour their action and it will be crowned by victory.[4]

The recognition of Franco’s regime, notwithstanding the fact that Reidy had to convince his colleagues of its validity, is not remarkable when taken within social and political context. It must be remembered that the decades following the birth of the Irish State saw an unquestioning acceptance of clerical domination over education, health and public morality. This was particularly true in Limerick where the Arch-confraternity of the Holy Family attached to the Redemptorist church of Mount St. Alphonsus had the highest level of attendance not only in Ireland bit in Europe with 10,000 registered members in the 1930s. One contemporary commentator referred to Limerick as ‘one of the most pious towns in Ireland[5].’ The year 1936 saw the emergence of Patrick Belton’s Irish Christian Front and general Irish opinion was overwhelmingly pro-Franco with O’ Duffy’s men leaving these shores to the sound of cheering crowds as they left to defend Catholicism. The War in Spain was seen as a religious rather than political conflict and Spain was regarded, like Ireland, as a historically Catholic nation.  The nation took comfort in the fact that whatever divided Irish people politically, they were firmly united when it came to their Catholic faith.

The letter from the Corporation was not the only correspondence Franco received from Limerick that year. In July 1939 a Co. Limerick schoolboy, Timothy Ahern, wrote to the General congratulating him on his victory and expressed admiration of his ‘great deeds in defence of Christian ideals.’ The reply to this fan mail from Franco appeared in the local press in the September which read as follows;
‘The Colonel Secretary of his Excellency, the Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the National Army, salutes Timothy Ahern and he has the pleasure of presenting to him the thanks of the Commander-in-Chief for his congratulations on the victory of our glorious army, enclosing at the same time a photograph of the Commander-in-Chief in accordance with his desires.’

In the age of social media sites contemporary audiences have the benefit of up to the minute news reports and film footage. Armed with a smartphone any ordinary bystander can have the capability of being a wartime correspondent. Before we judge the actions of these men in the council chambers in Limerick on that day in January 1939 we must bear in mind the exaggerated claims and propaganda they were fed. Franco fully appreciated the power of the media along with letters from Limerick.

This article was written by Emma Gilleece for the Limerick International Brigade Memorial Trust (LIBMT) publication From the Shannon to the Ebro; the Limerick Men who fought fascism, published in 2014 thanks to funding from Limerick City of Culture 2014. It is available to purchase from O'Mahonys Booksellers. 

[1] Limerick Leader, 13 Oct. 1951.
[2] Limerick Leader, Funeral of the late Mr Michael Hartney, 29 Apr. 1964.
[3] Letter  dated 21 Feb. 1939 is held by Limerick Museum, Ref. No. 1987.2028.2
[4] P13/115, Robert Stradling Collection, Special Collections, (UL, 2002).
[5] Frank O’Connor, ‘Irish Miles’, (London, 1947). His impression of Limerick was written in 1939. 

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