Eye witness to the shocking agony of Spain

Eye witness to the shocking agony of Spain Photo: Irish Academic Press
The Salamanca Diaries: Father McCabe and the Spanish Civil War

by Tim Fanning (Merrion Press, €19.95)

Joe Carroll


For over 300 years, Irish priests who trained in Salamanca brought back traces of Spanish culture to parishes the length and breadth of Ireland. There are references in Patrick Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn to the parish priest nicknamed ‘Salamanca Barney’.

John McGahern has written how relieving kicks by his local football team would be hailed with sideline shouts of ‘Salamanca’ which “stood as a symbol of the outer limits of the north Roscommon imagination, which is no mean leap”.

Fr Alexander McCabe, who died in 1988 at the age of 88, was the last Rector of the Irish College in the historic Spanish city which was handed over in 1962 to the University of Salamanca (of which it had originally been a part until 1820) after a prolonged legal wrangle. The Irish Hierarchy had decided in 1949 that it could no longer pay for its maintenance as there had been no Irish student priests there since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

Fr McCabe, however, had stayed on as a guardian of the 16th Century building throughout the civil war during which it served, festooned with swastikas, as the Nazi Germany embassy and the office of German information and propaganda.

He travelled widely during his holidays including to Germany, France, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Italy and the US”

This was also a time when General Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade came out to Spain to fight on the Nationalist side under Franco and the Irish College was host to visitors from Ireland on their way to the Brigade base at Carceres, south of Salamanca. During World War II, some 500 Spanish soldiers were billeted in the college.

During all this time, Fr McCabe kept copious diaries, now in the National Library, which the author, Tim Fanning, an historian and journalist, has closely studied and made into a fascinating narrative of McCabe’s life and times.

Originally from Drumkilly, a hamlet in Co. Cavan, McCabe had won a bursary to Salamanca in 1918 and was ordained there in 1925 for the Kilmore diocese. After four years as a curate in the East End of London, he was offered the post of vice-rector in Salamanca which he accepted. The alternative was a rural parish in Co. Cavan.

Although he had no academic degree, McCabe was highly intelligent and a remarkable observer and commentator on the people he met and on the momentous events then unfolding in 1930s Europe.


He travelled widely during his holidays including to Germany, France, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Italy and the US. When he succeeded as rector, he met a stream of visitors to Salamanca seeking his views on the turbulent Spanish politics before and during the Civil War. Among them was the Soviet spy, Kim Philby, then a war correspondent for the London Times.

There is still much valuable material which the author has expertly put in context”

Although he was pro-Nationalist in the early stages of the civil war, McCabe became dismayed at the scale of the executions of Republican sympathisers. He could hear the firing squads in the nearby cemetery.

It did not take him long to feel shame also at the conduct of the O’Duffy Irish Brigade for which he for a time served as an assistant chaplain. Spanish liaison officers were also disgusted at the heavy drinking in the Brigade which O’Duffy withdrew after a disastrous encounter with Moroccan troops fighting on their side.

McCabe, who observed O’Duffy at close quarters, confided to his diary that he “never intended to die in Spain or for Spain”, but was only interested in forming a ‘blueshirt’ government in Ireland by armed force, “if there was no other way”.

Although McCabe destroyed a section of his diaries in a fit of depression, there is still much valuable material which the author has expertly put in context, including on his boyhood in Drumakilly.

It was a personal tragedy that after his devoted service to maintaining an Irish presence in Salamanca, McCabe was only offered a curacy in a remote part of Co. Cavan, an appointment which only aggravated his alcoholism and led to his suspension for medical treatment. The Irish Hierarchy, aware of his at times heroic service and isolation in Salamanca, let him down badly.