An Irishman’s Diary on the Irish College in Salamanca and the Spanish Civil War
The first German officials moved into the Irish College building on July 19th, 1937, a year to the day after the military coup had taken place in Salamanca
In June 1937, with the Spanish Civil War about to enter its second year, the German ambassador to Franco’s nationalist government, Wilhelm von Faupel, arrived at the Irish College in Salamanca to inspect its suitability as the home of the German embassy.
Franco had established his military and political headquarters in the Castilian city in the early months of the war. The arrival of diplomats, soldiers, journalists and spies to the city meant that accommodation was at a premium, and so eyes turned to the Irish College.
The Irish College had been established in 1592 in order to educate Irish-born priests to carry out the work of the counter-reformation, in Ireland and abroad.
Irish clerics who had been educated in Salamanca had worked as missionaries in every part of the globe.
The rector of the Irish College during the Spanish Civil War, Fr Alexander J McCabe, from Drumkilly in south Cavan, was appointed in 1935. In July 1936, the civil war began, and the Irish clerical students who had been studying in Salamanca were evacuated from Spain.
For the first year of the war, McCabe had mostly succeeded in dissuading potential house-guests from colonising the 16th-century building. But there was nothing McCabe could do to prevent the military authorities in Salamanca from requisitioning the Irish College for the use of the German embassy.
The first German officials moved into the building on July 19th, 1937, a year to the day after the military coup against the democratically elected republican government had taken place in Salamanca.
While maintaining cordial relations with his German lodgers, Fr McCabe was distressed that the college was being used for Nazi functions and ceremonies.
There were portraits of Franco and Hitler on the wall and a collection of photographs of political undesirables
In November 1937 the embassy organised what McCabe described as “a necrological concert” in the college’s aula maxima to honour the memory of the Nazis who had died in the Munich Putsch of 1923. In January 1938, another concert was held in the college, this time marking the fifth anniversary of Hitler coming to power.
More concerning for McCabe was the establishment of the Nazi press and propaganda department. It was from rooms located on the upper gallery of the Irish College that the Nazis began disseminating disinformation throughout Spain.
German newspapers would arrive in heavy wooden crates at the doors of the Irish College for later distribution to the aviators and technicians of the Condor Legion operating bombing raids on republican targets. The department’s officials also produced a journal in Spanish, which contained articles detailing the views of Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy on a range of subjects.
Despite the sensitive nature of their work, the officials working in the press and propaganda department were happy to give McCabe a guided tour of their office. There were portraits of Franco and Hitler on the wall and a collection of photographs of political undesirables. In the anteroom off the college library, McCabe was shown the teletype machine the officials used to receive news and messages from Berlin.
Everybody was in good humour, and it was only fun, and dare-devilry. But men were shot for less
Given the nature of the press and propaganda department’s work, McCabe was worried about the possibility that his conversations with friends and acquaintances were under surveillance.
This was in light of an incident that took place one evening while he was enjoying a few drinks with friends in his room.
As the effect of the alcohol took its toll, one of the party challenged everyone to make the clenched-fist salute, the leftist greeting that had become popular on the republican side. Three or four, including a German, took the bait and raised their fists.
According to McCabe in a diary entry: “Everybody was in good humour, and it was only fun, and dare-devilry. But men were shot for less, and with high-class German technology around, one couldn’t be too sure.”
The embassy vacated the college in the spring of 1938 but the press and propaganda department remained.
At the end of the war, McCabe hoped that he would be able to reopen the college and see Irish clerical students return. The outbreak of the second World War scuppered his plans, and, in December 1942, the Spanish army requisitioned the college as accommodation for newly mobilised troops.
The end of the second World War encouraged McCabe once again to believe that he would be able to open the college but the Irish hierarchy was not convinced and Irish clerical students never returned to Salamanca.
McCabe left Spain for Ireland in 1949, traumatised by the bloodshed he had witnessed in Spain during the civil war and the Francoist repression.
In 1962, the Irish College was handed over to the Spanish state, bringing to an end a link between Spain and Ireland that had lasted over 350 years.
nThe Salamanca Diaries: Father McCabe and the Spanish Civil War (Merrion Press) by Tim Fanning has been published this week.