Mossie Quinlan: remembering an Irish volunteer in the Spanish Civil War

Lifting the veil of family secrecy to find out what motivated an Irishman to fight in Spain

Men and women who risk their lives in war are not always welcomed home as heroes. This can happen if the political climate when they volunteered has changed irrevocably while they were away and the cause they served has become unpopular.

For example, in Ireland, the young men who followed John Redmond’s call to secure Home Rule by joining the British Army and going “wherever the firing line extends” returned to a country “changed utterly” by the 1916 Rising and the executions that followed it. In Britain itself, men and women who had been promised “a land fit for heroes to live in” returned to mass unemployment and poverty. Algeria and France, Vietnam and the United States, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union – the list is considerable.

However, the 250 young Irishmen who joined the International Brigades from 1936 to 1938 to defend the democratic Spanish Republic against General Franco’s fascist rebellion knew before they even departed that theirs was a minority and unpopular cause at home. They went in secret, travelled clandestinely through London to France, over the Pyrenees by night and down into central Spain. A wave of speeches and articles from newspapers, Catholic pulpits and many national and local politicians told them that the war in Spain was between “the Reds” and forces defending the Catholic faith.

For them, the struggle of the Spanish workers and peasants to achieve modest reform under a Leftist government carried echoes of the struggle they faced in Ireland to achieve a workers’ and small farmers’ republic, as outlined by James Connolly. There was a question of honour, too.


More than 600 Irishmen had gone to Spain on the side of Fascism as volunteers in General O’Duffy’s Irish Bandera. Leaders of the Irish Republican Left, like Frank Ryan, believed that a stain on Ireland’s good name had to be redressed by volunteering to fight on the other side.

When the Irish International Brigaders returned home in late 1938 they were ostracised, forced into unemployment, sacked from jobs like teaching and eventually many of them had to emigrate. Those who died in Spain often left behind families deeply traumatised by their deaths. The family of the Tyrone-born poet, Charles Donnelly – he of the memorable phrase “Even the olives are bleeding” – was unaware of his death for some time and his distressed father was unable to talk about him for years.

One of the Brigaders killed in Spain was a cousin of mine from Waterford, Maurice “Mossie” Quinlan. In February 1937, as a volunteer in the British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade, he survived the fiercest days of fighting at Jarama, just outside Madrid – when 45,000 combatants were killed in the space of a few days – only to fall to a sniper’s bullet a little later, while rescuing a wounded comrade from between the lines.

The first his family knew about it was some weeks later when news of his death was a banner headline across the front page of the Irish Press newspaper, beside a photo and report of the previous day’s Aintree Grand National.

Mossie’s father was a frequent visitor to our home and as a child, I witnessed the pall of silent trauma that hung over him until the day he died. How hard it must have been to lose his firstborn son, named after him, in a battle in a faraway land and for a cause that, at best, he did not understand or, at worst, made him ashamed?

In From Suir to Jarama, Mossie Quinlan’s Life and Legacy, I draw aside the veil of family secrecy to try to find out who he was and what motivated him to fight in Spain. I found a family whose prosperity had been built on the buying and selling of cattle for home consumption and export, butcher’s shops and a farm for fattening animals prior to slaughter. They were politically active and influential and followed the emerging arc of history from the Young Irelanders, through the Fenians and Parnell to Home Rule, through John Redmond to Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers until they split into pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty factions in 1921.

Mossie was the first of his generation to work outside the family business and this opened him up to radical politics and action. Initially, he followed family tradition as a member of Fianna Éireann and the IRA, but then he joined a Waterford Workers’ Study Circle that ultimately produced five International Brigaders for Spain. He was in the left-wing Irish Republican Congress, the Communist Party of Ireland and, after emigrating, the Communist Party of Great Britain. He believed in a cause and died fighting for it.

Mossie Quinlan's story reminds us of the fragility of memory and how heroes and heroines may live on in some way but their deaths can leave tragedy behind them.
Liam Cahill is author of From Suir to Jarama, Mossie Quinlan's Life and Legacy, published by Orla Kelly Publications and available here.