A ship that was expected in October to take O’Duffy and his Brigaders to Spain was cancelled. Rather than wait for the replacement German ship Urundi to arrive in Galway, Sean travelled to Spain with a small group of men. He was itching to get some action and all of the men had been part of the fighting in Ireland in some shape or form. After an uneventful journey they had arrived at the Cáceras training base. O’Duffy and the rest of the brigade were already there.
The end of 1936 and the first few months 1937 were to be one of Spain’s wettest, coldest winters.
From the beginning Sean’s instinct was that the Irish were not that welcome. The Spanish did not like O’Duffy. Maybe they didn’t think he was up for the fight. Perhaps it was because they had the Germans and the Italians backing them. Anyone else from a more ’liberal’ political background might be construed as suspect.
By February Sean’s worst fears were confirmed.
The Irish Brigade were attached to the Spanish Foreign Legion and deployed in the Jarama battle area near Madrid. Being in the front line they came under heavy sustained fire from what they thought was the enemy.
How wrong they were.
A newly formed Franco Falangist fighting unit had mistaken the Irish Brigade for one of the International Brigades. Amid the confusion a number of men on both sides were injured but luckily there were no fatalities. This mistake further fanned the flames of mutual distrust and dislike. By now the Irish were feeling demoralised. Sean could see that a lot of the men were totally cynical about the competence of their leader and also the so-called leadership of the Nationalists. Bitter in-fighting ensued and Sean began to wonder if it was not time to head home. The atrocious weather didn’t help the mood. Finally, the Irish were sent into offensive action and Sean thought that a bit of real action might pull them all together.
They arrived outside a small village called Titulcia just before dawn. As the early morning light was beginning to show, a heavy rainstorm emptied from the sky. The storks that were nesting on top of the old church took flight as if they knew something terrible was about to happen. Sean’s company was spotted by a look-out and the battle commenced. The village was heavily protected and gradually the Nationalists were being pushed back. When the order was given to fall back a Jesuit priest came running at their lines screaming at the top of his voice,
‘Kill them! Kill them all! Kill all those anti-Christs!’
Sean had taken refuge behind a tree and watched aghast as the figure in black, with spittle flying from his mouth urged the Irish to turn and fight. His face became contorted with rage as no one listened and the Irish retreated. Sean thought the priest was going to have a heart attack. The hatred in that Spanish priest’s face would stay with him for the rest of his days. This was the same priest, who the night before had said mass for them giving them God’s blessing, in his most pious carefully annunciated Latin.
That evening the discussion amongst the men was that they would not press home the attack. Rumours were rife that they would be sent home but they ended up being placed in a defensive role.
Sean felt totally disgusted.
By now he was seeing the other side of the war as he started to filter through his mind many of the stories he had heard back in Ireland. Two wrongs don’t make a right and there had been atrocities committed by the Nationalists which Sean had witnessed. Franco’s men seemed determined to wipe out all opposition including the non-combatants who supported the Republic.
A couple of months later Eoin O’Duffy decided that the Brigade should return to Ireland. They were to be shipped back home from Portugal. By this stage Sean had decided that the war was no longer a civil war, for the Nationalists appeared to be executing their role like an all conquering foreign invader. Having been involved in one civil war Sean could see that this was much worse. He informed O’Duffy that he would return the way he had come. O’Duffy had wished him luck,
‘You’ll miss the grand reception we’ll get back in Dublin.’
‘I haven’t seen anything here that would be worth celebrating,’ Sean replied.
O’Duffy said nothing, shrugged his shoulders, turned, and walked away.
Sean had no intention of going back. He had been so sickened by what he had seen of the Falangists, his conscience now began to nag him to consider joining the Republicans. When he finally decided that he should bring his skills to help the Republicans, he worked out a fairly simple plan to join up with one of the International Brigades. Through the stories he had heard he now carried a great respect for them. At the Jarama battle they had fought Franco’s forces to a stalemate. He decided he would stay attached to the Spanish Foreign Legion and get as close to the Republican lines as possible. During battles the lines always got confused and his intention was to simply drift over to the other side, when an opportunity presented itself.
July came with a major Republican counter offensive at Brunete near Madrid. It had been a blood bath. Sean had taken up a sniper position behind some bushes on a slight rise of ground. Like an old song that was being played in his head he was to identify and take out any leaders, or just take out anyone. He had fired off a couple of shots hitting anything but a live target. He had rolled on to his side to check the Bandoleer for ammunition when there was a rush of feet and a number of Nationalist soldiers came flying past, two of whom were then killed by gunfire and lay close to where he was hidden. He realised they were part of the front line which meant the Republicans must have broken through. He ceased firing and waited until darkness was beginning to set in. Both sides had had enough and apart from some sporadic shooting the night became very quiet.
Sean crawled towards what he thought was the Republican lines and must have covered about three hundred yards when he heard voices. One of the voices he recognised as familiar and he cried out,
‘What’s a Belfast man doing in this hellhole?’
‘Sean Cunningham I want to join the Internationals and fight for the Republic.’
‘Billy Diamond from the Shankill, c’mon up and show yourself.’
Over the next couple of days Sean had been interrogated and willingly shared any information that he had. He never met Billy again and often wondered what had become of him. It had given him serious food for thought to have found an Ulsterman from the heart of Loyalist Belfast fighting for the ideals of a Spanish Republic.
Sean was then assigned to a small unit comprising English, French, Irish, American, and Spanish volunteers. The camaraderie was intoxicating and Sean felt very much at ease with this group of men and women. They clearly believed in what they were fighting for.
He got very close to two in particular, a Frenchman Paul Henri from Perpignan and the other, a young Spaniard called Rafael Tarrega. They had in common their love of singing, particularly the popular songs of their respective countries. Rafael could also play the guitar and one of his favourites was a Spanish folk song called ‘El Noi de la Mare’ (The Son of the Virgin).
He was no natural fighter, but he loved his country.
He said he was twenty-one but Sean guessed he was closer to seventeen and everyone looked out for him. His role within the squad was to support the fighters and keep them supplied with ammunition. One night, in his broken English and with great passion, he painstakingly explained to Sean why their side was right. His insights more than anything helped Sean come to terms with the fact that he had changed sides. If he had not been fully sure before, Sean was now totally committed to the Republican cause.
Paul Henri was a first class sniper like Sean and so they were paired up. They became extremely successful at picking off difficult targets, achieving a fearsome reputation amongst their enemies and hero worship from their own side including young Rafael. When the Nationalists figured out what was happening their leaders were not so reckless in exposing themselves to sniper fire. When anywhere near the battlefield they disguised themselves by wearing ordinary soldiers’ uniforms. It became difficult for the ‘Terror Tenors’, as they were nicknamed, to distinguish the Nationalist officers. Instead of operating independently they worked as a unit. Whilst one was setting up the sniper position the other was scanning the ground with a pair of binoculars picking out any individual who appeared to be giving orders. Once spotted, Paul would hum ‘J’ai Du Bon Tabac’ (I’ve good tobacco) and then give direction signs to where the target was. Sean’s in turn hummed ‘Boolavogue’.
In the evening they would not talk about any kills they may have made. Instead, with Rafael, they sat around the fire and hummed and sang the songs they loved. Many of the other volunteers would come and either listen or join in with familiar songs. As the wine was passed round everyone drew strength from this talented threesome and the horrors of the war they were engaged in were forgotten, at least for a short while.
As the Spring of 1938 unfolded everyone began to realise that Franco’s forces were too strong to continue to resist. No quarter was being offered as the Falangists pushed towards the Mediterranean and atrocities were being committed on a daily basis. As Sean and his Brigade were pushed back towards Barcelona they set up camp just south of the city. They were settling down for the evening when they were overrun by Morrocan troops. Sean and Paul Henri managed to escape in the confusion to take a stand and return fire. Between them they inflicted as much damage as they could but with the arrival of darkness it became impossible to sustain any kind of fire. Perhaps they and their comrades had fought well enough, for the Morrocans withdrew south again. When they entered the camp they found Rafael dead. He had been bayoneted and the strings of his guitar had been ripped off and used to strangle him. It was a grotesque sight and something deep in Sean was revolted. Why should someone, with such a passion for living and singing, be destroyed in such a brutal fashion? Perhaps it was a warning to the Terror Tenors. Even with all the death and destruction they had encountered, Rafael’s death affected them deeply.
This was the last time Sean Cunningham would sing.
As they lowered Rafael’s body into a makeshift grave, Sean and Paul sang Ave Maria, the tears streaming down their dirt-stained faces. After that, Sean and Paul had no heart for any campfire singing and even less for continuing the campaign but they went through the motions for another couple of months.
By October the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain. Sean and Paul made their way to the coast where they boarded a small Catalan fishing boat which landed them in Collioure just over the Border in France. Sean stayed for a while with Paul in Perpignan before making his way home to Belfast.
Christmas was difficult for Sean as the papers reported that Franco was on his last big push. Spring of the following year saw the end of the Civil War in Spain and victory for Franco. Sean was devastated and was left to ponder yet again on the futility and wastage that war brings. He never forgot Paul Henri and the talent of young Rafael whose voice still echoed in his head and made his heart ache.
Connie’s mum had listened totally rapt throughout.
Taking her mother’s hand, she said,
‘I do understand a little more now why dad was such a quiet man and very sad at times. Our civil war was very bad, God knows, and I do know Spain was a lot worse.’
Maggie Cunningham looked at her daughter.
‘Lucky for us he was not totally switched off living. He still had faith in his own family. He was though, always tortured with thoughts about what the mixture of religion and violence will do to ordinary people forcing them to perform unspeakable acts on behalf of a supposed just cause. That might explain to you why he didn’t want a church funeral, which was his last wish to me and why he never went to church. I know you disagreed with his stance.’
‘I think I understand better now. I guess none of us understand the lives our parents have lead. I sometimes think we have a very narrow view of what we think our parents should be like and we want it to suit us. But the Second World War was worth fighting for mum?’
‘Indeed it was. You and your man did your bit during that time. I wonder how many lives you actually saved by your work in the parachute factory and as for you Tommy, how many lives did you save facing the dangers of the Murmansk Run through U-boat infested waters to take supplies to the people of Russia? I suppose we‘ll never know and yet your contribution was just as vital as the men and women who fought.’
There was silence for a short while and Connie like the rest of her family sat there thinking about the devastation that war brings to families.