On Monday we carried a request from a reader in Spain for information regarding the visit of an Irish band to Spain in 1937. We are grateful to Dublin-based piper Ronan Maguire for alerting us to the following information about the band and their controversial trip……
According to an article in ‘Dublin Life and Culture Magazine’ the majority of Irishmen who fought in the Spanish Civil War did so on the side of General Franco – though an estimated 300 fought for the new republic in the International Brigades, 75 of them never returning home.
Those standing with Franco during this bitter conflict sent a request for a band that could pipe them up to the line and back, a tradition from the British Army. (Many Irishmen served in British Regiments during the Boer and First World Wars.)
The Irish Brigade leader Eoin O’Duffy wrote: ‘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. The band created a splendid impression everywhere it went, enhancing our prestige.’
The St. Mary’s Pipe Band, pictured top, took their name from a city centre cathedral in Dublin, but at the time they were widely referred to as the ‘St. Mary’s Anti-Communist Pipe Band’. A newspaper reported their arrival in Spain: ‘Their kilts and bagpipes caused more excitement than a bombardment by Government aeroplanes.’
One of the pipers in the band wrote to the ‘Irish Press’ saying that, ‘The band has been very popular and General O’Duffy has always done his best to bring it before the public. I hope all Ireland will work hard for the Irish Brigade when they return.’
The magazine reports that St Mary’s church featured prominently in anti-communist street agitation in 1930s Dublin. One member of the congregation remembered being in the cathedral on the night a Jesuit priest declared, ‘Here in this holy catholic city of Dublin, these vile creatures of communism are within our midst.’
The general feeling espoused was, ‘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’. This attitude and belief led to attacks on communist party headquarters in Dublin with the police intervening.
At one particular demonstration the St. Mary’s band were joined by several others ‘including the Postal Workers’ Band, O’Connell Fife and Drum band, and a band from Maynooth’.
In February 1937 the ‘Irish Independent’ newspaper reported that, ‘a chaplain, two nurses and the members of the St Mary’s Pipers’ Band left Dublin last night for Spain, via London. In Spain they will join the Irish Brigade.’
The paper also named those who had gone and our Northern Ireland correspondent Gilbert Cromie is now researching this. He says, ‘I have located the names of the band members who travelled to Spain and I intend contacting the IPBA to see if they had any contacts in Dublin who could get in touch with relatives of any of the band members. I understand that the organisation in Spain who contacted Piping Press want to make a documentary.’
When, in June 1937, the men ultimately returned from Spain, they marched into the city centre to a warm welcome, Irish and Spanish flags waving. However a few months later they were ridiculed in the pages of the left-wing ‘Irish Democrat’ newspaper:
‘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 answered the call and they sailed away to Franco’s 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……’
The article talks of the band losing its uniforms, hinting that they have been misappropriated. ‘No doubt many of the people around that area are now beginning to realise that the gentlemen who have displayed such great religious fervour are not so religious after all.’
The ‘Dublin Life and Culture Magazine’ magazine concludes: ‘……O’Duffy’s men may have significantly outnumbered those [Irishmen] 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 across the island of Ireland. Those interested in the history of Ireland and this conflict will enjoy the Ireland and the Spanish Civil War website.’