‘A tough nut to crack’ – An Irishman’s Diary on Catalonia and Ireland in the 1930s

The political situation in Catalonia has hit the headlines in recent weeks due to the disputed independence poll in October. During the Spanish Civil War, readers' letters and editorials demonstrated a strong connection both politically and culturally with Catalonia.

The letters provided a passionate and sometimes combative source to demonstrate that Irish readers were cognisant of Catalonia’s desire for independence.

In the first full month of the conflict, August 1936, The Irish Times argued that the situation in Catalonia was particularly dangerous and could lead to further escalation on the peninsula.

If, according to the editorial, "the rebels should be successful in Spain, one of the first results would be a war with Catalonia". It was the construction of the Spanish state that resulted in the "difficult features of the Spanish situation". The problem was "the regional patriotism which is so strong throughout the country; and, of course, the Catalans in this sense are the most patriotic of all".


Arguably, the Catalans had the most to lose from Franco's insurgency because they had achieved "a certain measure of local autonomy under the Republic, but they have nothing to hope from General Franco except absorption in a Fascist Spain".

There would be no doubt, according to the editorial, that Catalans “would fight to the last gasp rather than submit to the central authority of a Fascist Madrid”.

That prediction would in fact come true because Catalonia was the last piece of territory to fall to Franco’s forces in January 1939.

An editorial in 1937 in The Irish Times argued that if Madrid fell to Franco's forces in December 1937 that to control Catalonia, "General Franco would be faced with the problem of Catalonia, which at any time would be a tough nut to crack".

The same contradictions that have been levelled at Irish republican supporters of Catalan independence in 2017, such the introduction of borders in Spain but advocating for the end of partition in Ireland, were published in the 1930s in the Irish Independent: "It is not easy to understand the mentality of certain Irishmen who are opposed to the partition of Ireland and enthusiastic for the partition of Spain; opposing the claims of a North-East section in Ireland while supporting the claims of a North-West section in Spain. The claims for total independence made by the Basques and the Catalonians have been to a great extent the result of long years of Liberal and Masonic propaganda".

Catalonian nationalists attempted to link their drive for independence to that of Ireland. Eamon de Valera received a letter from the leader of the Catalan Youth Party that described Ireland as her "sister country".

The letter, referenced in Michael O'Riordan's book Connolly Column, described how Ireland had fought "courageously at the side of your country, the noble Ireland to which the Catalan Nationalists gave with veneration the title of sister country, because her misfortunes were ours and her sufferings were felt in our own flesh".

Other readers were well versed in Catalan history and felt that a false impression of Catalonia as a "rebel province of Spain" in the Irish media was inaccurate and fomented by "Fascist propagandists". Indeed, "Catalonia is no more part of Spain than Ireland is part of England, except that it is geographically adjacent".

Franco’s use of Moor troops during the civil war featured in Irish republican propaganda was cited in 1939 towards the end of the conflict, “in the middle ages Catalonia helped to drive the Moors out of Spain: Franco has brought them back to crush Catalonia”.

Just weeks before German planes would destroy Guernica, in April 1937, the ancient capital of the Basques people, The Irish Times warned that the excesses of Franco's regime in Catalonia was a dangerous gamble.

The warning from the newspaper was particularly apt given the violence that was witnessed during the disputed referendum last month, “the disgusting excesses of the Government’s auxiliaries, particularly in Catalonia, alienated public sympathy from [Franco’s] cause”.

In February 1939, two months before the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War, a letter by TB Rudmoss Brown, stated that Ireland would soon regret her stance during the conflict. "The time will come when Ireland will bitterly regret having backed the wrong horse in Spain, betrayed her sister nations, Catalonia and Euskadi, and ranged herself with the Imperialism, whether totalitarian or professedly democratic".

An English reader wrote to The Irish Times in April 1938 and argued that Ireland had fought for the right to use their national language in church and education so was well placed to support "the struggle of the Catalans for precisely those and other rights, for which so many Irishmen have fought, should be enthusiastic and widespread".