Passage East “invasion” of 1937

Passage East, Co Waterford

Throughout Wednesday 6th January 1937 and into the night, groups of men began arriving in the small village of Passage East in Waterford harbour.  Some arrived in buses, others by car and as the day went on into evening their numbers swelled to an estimated 500.  Teenagers to middle aged, from all class of Irish society, they clutched cases or bags containing their belongings.  They had one thing in common, they all were constantly looking to the river.  But who were they?, where had the come from? and what was their purpose?

Passage East, Co Waterford earlier in the 20th Century from the Wexford side of the river
Photo via Tommy Deegan Waterford History Site

The cause of the invasion was actually several hundred miles south of Passage East; Spain, and a civil war that waged at the time between a grouping of nationalist rebels which was led by a fascist dictator named Franco and the democratically elected government of Spain.  Now being very economically in terms of the background, and perhaps under simplifying it, the Irish newspapers, church and much of the population were on the side of Franco because the democratic government were seen as anti catholic.  Imagine a state where the church did not get to dictate your every moments thought and action! A broader analysis here from History Ireland

In late 1936, the once IRA leader, pro treaty fighter, friend of Michael Collins, one time leader of Fine Geal and founder of the Blueshirts, General Eoin O’Duffy, called for volunteers to fight on behalf of the nationalist side in the war.  The response was so positive that he went on to announced the formation of an Irish Brigade.  But there was a dilemma in this.  Ireland was a neutral country, and the government of the time, Fianna Fail under De Valera did not want to be seen as taking sides.  So volunteers had to be shipped out of the country in relative secrecy.  However, about 500 were said to have left from Galway in late 1936 aboard a German ship SS Urundi flying the swastika, and were seen off by crowds from the quays, causing embarrassment to the government. 

So in January, when the next shipment of volunteers were due to leave, they made their way secretly to Passage East, their goal was to embark another German vessel and sail to Spain.  That day and into the evening and night as the men arrived, the scene grew more problematic.  According to one report[1] it was “a cold and dreary night“ and “some remained in the public houses until closing time” however “the majority had to pace the cheerless streets hour after hour”

Another report[2] stated that at least some of the men found shelter in “the local hall where, where food was provided by the villagers”  

Their ship was due by midnight, apparently a night time boarding and sailing seen as the safest means of leaving their homeland.  The ship however never materialised and by the next afternoon plans were afoot to try secure busses to repatriate the volunteers.  Many had already fled said to be “disgusted with the whole affair, decided to go home and engaged motor cars”[3]  Their ship was rumoured to have been intercepted by the Royal Navy, but I have not found any evidence of that as yet.  Other sources seem to suggest that the Spanish were less than enamoured by the quality of fighting men that were coming from Ireland and may have actually asked the Germans not to sail!

A sense of the public support, a rally in support of Franco in Cork 1936.
Raised hands in sign of a cross Via History Ireland

The newspapers had a field day with the fiasco.  And the following week the Waterford Standard published a three column synopsis of the event and its aftermath, drawn mostly from the national papers.[4]  Recriminations start to fly and argument and counterargument are rife.

Mixed accounts feature in relation to their experience at Passage East, but nothing but praise is uttered towards the villagers.  Plenty of criticism is reserved for the organisation of the event however. Here’s an example

“Mr. Thomas Crimmins, Iveagh House, Bride Street. Dublin, who gave up his employment as a scaffolder … We left Beresford Place, Dublin, at 8.30 p.m, on Wednesday, and, without food or refreshments on the way, reached Passage East at 1.30 a.m. The only public house in the village that was open had been drunk dry, and the early arrivals had eaten whatever food there was. With hundreds of others, I walked the streets for hours on end in the darkness and cold. Some young lads —they could not have been more than 16 years—collapsed from hunger and exhaustion. A few of us were fortunate. We prevailed on a lorry driver from Kildare, who had pigs in the lorry, to let us share the lorry with them. We were so weary that, amidst the grunting and smelly pigs, we actually slept.”

A young man from Cork journeyed by bus, and they were ordered not to sing or make any noise, and the lights were put out as the bus passed through towns and villages. On alighting at Passage it immediately returned to Cork. They were left to sleep on the streets or wherever they could find a place to lie on. He went on to say “I slept on the open street. I had no supper, and I was hungry and cold. After some time we broke into an old, condemned schoolhouse but there was not accommodation for a quarter of us there and many of us still had to sleep in the street. From the schoolhouse we went to a club house in Passage East.”

The organisation itself was quick to defend itself, and rebutted much of the claims made. Another volunteer offered the following, and perhaps accurate, assessment:  “I knew I was not going on a picnic, and if men grumbled about the hardship they suffered for 24 hours on this occasion I am confident that their services would not be much of an acquisition to the Irish Brigade”

From what I have read on the topic it would appear that the Galway contingent was the last to enter the conflict from Ireland on the Nationalists side.  As it happens, the men in Passage could probably be said to have had a lucky escape.  The Irish Brigade did not cover itself with glory in the conflict and within a few months of 1937 they would be disarmed and asked to leave Spain due to a variety of embarrassing incidents.  In their defence they were poorly trained, poorly led and had effectively been sold a pup as to the reality of the conflict they were entering.

O’Duffy takes a salute from the Blueshirts.

Of course Irishmen also fought on the opposite side in Spain as members of the international brigade, and with much more distinction.  A book from their perspective that I could heartily recommend is by a Waterford man Peter O’Connor and called a Solider of Liberty; recollections of a socialist and anti-fascist fighter.  

Mark Power has a series of podcasts from a local perspective on the civil war that I would recommend

I’d like to thank Clifford Elliott and his son of Passage who first mentioned this event to me and got me interested

Long form article on the conflict

A book on the era recommended here by Frank Murphy

[1] Belfast News Letter Friday 8th January 1937 P 7

[2] Northern Whig Friday 8th January 1937 p 8

[3] Belfast News Letter Friday 8th January 1937 P 7

[4] Waterford Standard – Saturday 16 January 1937 page 8