A brief account of life in the Bandera - Franco's Irish volunteers

I thought that I would pull together a short document outlining life in the Bandera for an average volunteer in the unit. The problem is that for most of these men there is very little information available, something this site hoeps to correct.

I decided to pick on one man, in this case Mick Gaffney of Sligo, and slot in a few details here and there.

Ciaran Crossey, Belfast, Sept. 1st 2008.

Mick Gaffney is one of the hundreds of members of the Irish Bandera, Eoin O'Duffy's military expedition to support Franco, of who very little is known. The records of this group are very fragmentary and, as they supported the side in that war associated with Hitler, they later melted from the pages of history. I've been engaged in research for the past 10 years in an attempt to get biographical information on all the men from Ireland who went to Spain, from whatever side.

O'Duffy began to organise his troops in the autumn of 1936, helped by massive propaganda in the Irish Independent and from the pulpits. The standard propaganda image of these men is that they were fascists, but it is now my impression that the vast majority were activist catholics, concerned about repression of their church in Spain, though there was a hard-core of fascists in the leadership of the Bandera.

The initial groups of volunteers left from Dublin via Liverpool for Lisbon, Portugal, then onto Spain. Mick, like the majority of the men, is not listed among the earlier groups so it is an assumption, a safe assumption, that he was one of the 500 plus who travelled from Galway on December 12th 1936. There are 9 names listed from Sligo.

There are very few accounts of the Bandera, but I've added one to my website, extracts from the Sunday Independent, May-June 1960. The first extract deals with the terrible experiences the men had actually leaving Ireland, all I can say is rather them making this trip than me!!

Spanish Inferno - O'Duffy's Bandera in Spain

TP Kilfeather writing in the Sunday Independent May 15th 1960

Black clouds of monstrous girth rose from the Atlantic horizon and swept in unending succession across Galway Bay. Rain lashed the grey quays by Corrib. A chill wind swept through deserted streets.

Galway slept while through the night young men travelled towards the historic city, huddled in cars, crowded in buses, some on sputtering motorcycles, some even battling against the wind on bicycles. It was the night of December 13, 1936.


It was a night when ghosts walked the streets of the old sea fort of the Tribes, a night when imagination could easily have conjured up a storm-embattled fleet of Spanish galleons lurching towards shipwreck on the headlands of Ireland's western coast.

For the young men who huddled in cars and in buses, whose eyes peered along the swathes of light cut by the headlights from the darkness, were intent on doing something which had its impetus in history and its origin in the blood of the Irish race. They were on their way to fight for Spain. In Spanish history they will be remembered as the young men of the 15th Bandera - Bandera Irlandesa del Tercio.

They were young men intent on repaying a debt which stretched back through the centuries to the long struggle of the O'Neills and the O'Donnells. They were intent on repaying a debt owed since 1601 when Spanish ships closed the Irish coast and landed military aid at Kinsale, or an even earlier debt when 800 Spanish soldiers landed at Smerwick Harbour, Co. Kerry.


Some of them, too, although none of them would put it in words, remembered a hideous day at Dunamore in Cork, when Spanish blood flowed in massacre on Irish soil. Others remembered that it was in Spain that there still remained the dust of O'Donnell.

Silent City

And so these young men travelled towards Galway - a contingent of the Irish Brigade - and some of them were to die for Spain and some of them were to have limbs and health shattered in what they rightly believed to be a crusade. Into the heart of Galway they drove, into Eyre Square where the trees were bare in winter starkness, a square where few houses showed a light.

As the engines of the cars and busses throbbed lights came on and curious heads appeared in windows. It was one o'clock in the morning and no one had expected the invasion off young men who wore trench coats and leather leggings and whose sole luggage was a small suitcase carried by each man.


Galway's hoteliers hurried down in response to urgent knockings at their doors. Courteously they were asked for food and quickly the food was provided. There were five hundred of them and already they were a disciplined body, obeying orders with alacrity.

Half an hour went by and then the five hundred went to the docks. Moored to the quay wall was the squat little steamer Dun Aengus and even in the harbour she was lifting to the movement of the deep swell that was pounding into the bay far out.

They filed up the gangway and they lined the rails to wave to the crowd gathered on the quays. It was after 2 a.m. before the sturdy engines of the Aran Islands ferry began to beat. The quayside was lit by few lamps. Those who stood and watched huddled closer in protection against the bite of the wind that swept in from the Atlantic.


There were three shrill blasts of the siren on the stubby smoke stack of the Dun Aengus. The first of them startled the young men who were three deep at the rails nearest the quayside. In the darkness handkerchiefs waved and the darkness concealed the tears of women who had come to see brothers, husbands and sweethearts off on the start of a long voyage to Spain.

It concealed, too, the faces of the men of the Irish Brigade and for that most of them were grateful. Parting is always a time of sadness. Imperceptibly the gap between the ferryboat and quayside widened. Some body on the quayside began to sing. The wind tore at his words, but those who were nearest the singer heard what he sang. Then the crowd took up the tune. Soon a thousand voices were singing 'Faith of our Fathers.'

On deck the men of the 15th Bandera answered with their voices and when they had finished the hymn they sang the 'Soldiers Song.' Their voices grew fainter to those on the quay as the Dun Aengus moved out into the darkness of the harbour. Soon there was no sound save the calls of the gulls wheeling overhead.

Back in Eyre Square the engines of the buses and the cars were restarted and before 3 a.m. they were returning to Cork, Dublin, Clonmel, Belfast and to all the villages and towns whence they had come on the long journey to Galway.


Steadily Dun Aengus drove towards the open sea. Pitch and roll increased as her bows nosed the edge of thousands of miles of ocean. There seemed no end to those gigantic mountains of cloud that rose one after the other in the western sky. With them came hissing rain that blended with the swish of the bow-wave as it surged alongside the craft which knew these waters well.

Five hundred young men - many of whom had never been on a ship before - gathered in whatever shelter they could find on the deck. Rain soaked through their overcoats, through jackets, through shirts.

No lights

Below decks were others who were experiencing for the first time the untold miseries of seasickness and the extraordinary longing for the ship to plunge beneath the waves and to stay under. On is tiny bridge captain Goggins altered course a point or two so that the lurching would be less as Dun Aengus butted into the rolling waves.

His eyes moved across the line where the horizon would be, seeking the lights of the ship that was to take his seasick, rain soaked passengers on board.

No ship

There were no lights. The blackness of Galway Bay held no ship. After two hours of searching the spume-filled darkness Dun Aengus heaved to in the shelter of Black Head. She was rising and falling in the ocean swell when the first streaks of dawn cut a gash of grey in the black curtain that shrouded the mainland at her stern.

Ashen-faced, shivering, hungry, five hundred men waited for the light to strengthen. They stood with their hands on the teak rails waiting for the first glimpse of the ship that was to meet them.

Last try

Light slowly filtered over a sea that was never at rest… but there was no ship but theirs on the waters of Galway Bay. It was disheartening. Their spirits were low. None of them sang now. Even words were few. When they did speak it was of the prospect of returning to Galway and none of them wanted that.

With their national temperament they could not stand disappointment, frustration. They wanted to get to Spain. So once more the engines of the island ferryboat began to throb with a stronger beat and the deck beneath their feet began to tremble in response to the thrust of the propellers.

To port the curious rock formations of Black Head began to slide past and the bows nosed once more towards the West. For a few moments the Dun Aengus churned onwards and then as Black Head slipped astern a black-hulled vessel was seen steaming close inshore - not a place any cautious captain would choose to if he were bound on a normal course of trade.

Boots clattered on companionways and on steel decks as those who were below decks poured up to see the ship for which they had searched all night. She was a big ship, very much bigger than the Dun Aengus. She looked none too smart and there were red rust patches at bow and stern, but she was the ship that was a counterpart of another ship that had sailed from Lough Swilly many, many years before. These men were Wild Geese too.

They were the first for very many generations to sail from Ireland for service in foreign lands because they would be fighting for something which Ireland has always held dear.


As Dun Aengus signalled to the big steamer, 'follow me,' none of the young men on board the ferry was concerned at that moment with historic parallels. They cheered, they danced on the deck and they clapped one another on the shoulder. Just as they could be swiftly cast into despair so, too, could they be as quickly raised to hearty good cheer.

The Dun Aengus wallowed for a moment or two as she took the Atlantic rollers broadside in her turn further back into the quieter waters of the inner bay. The big steamer followed.

Slow work

Two expert seamen on their respective bridges brought the vessels alongside. That was not an easy task for the wind lull that followed the dawn had given way to a rising gale. Both vessels were pitching hard.

At last they were made fast and rope ladders came spinning down to the deck of Dun Aengus. Numbed hands grasped the ladders as one after the other they clambered up along the lurching side of the big steamer. It was eleven o'clock in the morning.


Even experienced sailors do not like climbing rope ladders in a rising sea. It was doubly difficult for young men who knew nothing of the sea. Two ladders were used. But as only one man could use the ladders at a time the work of transfer was slow.

On the bigger vessel the crew looked with curiosity at the young men scrambling with kit bags and attaché cases on to the deck. As each man landed with a thud and a sigh of relief over the side, he was shown below and given a big metal bowl full of soup.

Steadier now

They noted with appreciation that the bigger vessel was steadier and that she gave more shelter from the tearing wind. It took more than four hours for the transfer to be completed. At last it was done.

But as soon as the two vessels were about to part, a handful of those who had boarded the Dun Aengus came to the conclusion that they had had enough of soldiering, especially when it also meant seafaring. They scrambled down the ladders which they had mounted a short while before and sailed back with the ferry to Galway.

Dun Aengus sounded a three-hoot farewell. It was answered by three deep booming roars from the siren of the troopship. As the bigger vessel headed seawards, Dun Aengus slowly disappeared into the rainsqualls that were drifting over Galway.


It was a month of gales, that month of December 1936. It was a month that those who sailed to help Spain in her hour of need will never forget. For days they endured great hardship. The vessel on which they made their voyage to Ferrol, a northwest Spanish seaport, was an ordinary cargo ship.

Accommodation was cramped, crowded, stuffy and confined. For exercise they took it in turns to walk the narrow decks. The food was poor, although in fairness to those who worked in the galley, the gale made their task of feeding five hundred men difficult.

A rest

So they pitched and floundered, their horizon bounded by wave peaks that pushed the bows skywards and then they sent them slithering into green-walled troughs. Weary and with their spirits dampened by the hardships they had endured the five hundred greeted the quiet calm of Ferrol Bay much as those Spanish soldiers who had sailed to Ireland long ago must have greeted the shelter of Kinsale.

In Ferrol the men of the Irish Brigade transferred to another ship. This time she was the Domino. On board they enjoyed their first night's comfortable rest since leaving Ireland. They had been at sea for almost a week.

From Ferrol they went by train to Salamanca. Salamanca! That name means a great deal to Irishmen.

A symbol

The young men of the Irish Brigade walked in a town where Irish voices had spoken for centuries, a town with an Irish College where Irish priests were educated when it was not possible to educate them at home. Salamanca!

The Irish Brigade could not have passed through a more significant nor symbolic place. It would not be long before Irishmen were dying in repayment.

This account does leave out a couple of small details: the stormy transfer from one ship to the larger one did see at least 50 potential volunteers deciding that this was all too uncomfortable and dangerous. The other, and more important detail, was that the ship they transferred to was the Domingo, a German ship flying the Swastika.

James McCarthy, another Bandera volunteer, has described where his group went after Lisbon:

"We disembarked on the morning following our arrival in the port. Our passports and baggage were checked at the customs barrier and we then boarded special buses which had been chartered to take us to the Spanish frontier. We travelled along the right bank of the river Tagus for some distance. Then we crossed the estuary by a ferry boat, which carried our busses also. On board our buses again, we headed towards the Spanish town of Badajoz, stopping en route by prior arrangement at a hotel, where we were entertained to a sumptuous meal provided by a family of Irish ancestry.

We eventually arrived at the frontier at about midnight and having crossed to the Spanish side we travelled in army trucks to the barracks in Badajoz, where a meal and a rest awaited us.

The town of Badajoz had been the scene of fierce conflict in the early days of the war. The barracks and mush of the town bore evidence of a grim struggle, with bloodstains, bullet marks and wrecked buildings. It was a very depressing sight as we looked around the place in daylight.

We spent another day and night in this town before proceeding to our training base at Caceres. We were permitted to ramble about the town during the day. It was a heavily garrisoned town and was a training centre for recruits for the army."

Evening Echo, Cork, 4th Sept. 1967

McCarthy's group had gone out a few days before Mick.

McCarthy went on to say that: "On our arrival in Caceres, we were met by those who had preceded us, and all marched across the city to the barracks where we were to remain for our training period. The barracks consisted of a number of blocks of three storey buildings, one of which was allocated to the Irish recruits.

Another batch of volunteers, numbering about 80, arrived a week later, [inc. Bill] travelling over the same route. They joined the men who preceded them and were soon having their first lessons in the art of warfare."

Evening Echo, Cork, 7th Sept. 1967

In Caceres they spent Xmas and through January into February they received some basic training, with instructions in Spanish as well as English. By mid Feb. it was judged that they were capable of proceeding to the front.

The Sunday Independent, May-June 1960 carried a series of articles called the 'Spanish Inferno' and this describes their advance to the front:

"In his Hotel Alvarex headquarters, General O'Duffy studied the orders. He called the officers of the Irish Brigade and in a quick conference he told them the news for which they had waited for weeks; the Brigade was to go into action at once. It was February 16, 1937.

General O'Duffy smiled as he learned how the men under his command heard their orders. Spontaneously hundreds of Irishmen began to sing the 'Soldiers Song.' The Bandera made ready to march from Caceres at noon the next day. Before they left on the march from which some of them were not to return they attended Mass in the Church of Santo Domingo.

As they marched from the town where they had made many friends they were cheered and from many windows hung the Irish Tricolour. The journey to the battle scarred area was long and arduous. It was war time and the roads and railways were carrying abnormal traffic.


For twenty six hours the train in which they travelled jolted and bumped over uneven tracks little faster than walking pace. Cramped on hard wooden benches the men of the 15th Bandera wondered if the journey would ever end. Torrijos was passed. Plasencia faded into the distance. As it did so the crumps of exploding bombs could be heard. Red planes had swooped on the rail junction they had just left.

There was no doubt that war had passed over this area of Spain. On their route lay wrecked villages, by the roadside dead mules, upturned cars, shattered lorries. For the Irishmen Terrejon was the end of the line. Weary, stiff and hungry they climbed down from the train. After half an hour they began the two hours march to Valdemora. It was dark, it was cold.

They had not eaten since the previous morning. That was not the fault of the Quartermaster, whose role had been taken over by the army of Franco. It was a situation which General O'Duffy made certain would not recur.

The Irish Brigade sank to rest on the floors of their billets and within a few minutes few of them were awake. They slept while the sound of gun-fire drummed in the air - an ominous sound that seldom ceased in the ears of those who still lived in Valdemora."

Essentially the men were directed to a quiet section of the front and guarded it for the following 3 months. They had a few military engagements, with a handful of men dying. There were also 4 who died of various illnesses contracted in Spain. Thankfully Mick didn't feature in any list I've seen of the wounded or the sick.

By May 1937, with some men having served nearly 6 months, the mood among the men was that it was time to go home and on June 22nd they returned to Dublin onboard the SS Mozambique. Mick is one of the men listed in the O'Duffy papers in the National Library as having been on that boat.

The bottom line, we know he was definitely there, but that he's not listed among the dead or wounded, and on as being on the return boat.