The Red Scare: Catholic Responses to the Spanish Civil War

The Red Scare: Catholic Responses to the Spanish Civil War

This week, Ross Taylor (University of Strathclyde) discusses the Irish Catholic reaction to the Spanish Civil War and the impact of Irish migration in Britain.

The Declaration of the Second Spanish Republic on 14 April 1931 would prove to be a watershed moment in the history of Europe. The collapse of the Spanish monarchy was a threat to the Roman Catholic Church in Spain, and its influence in Spanish affairs. When a new Spanish Constitution was drafted, a collision course between the Madrid government and the church was set. Tensions between Madrid and the Roman Catholic world continued unabated, which culminated in Church support for General Franco’s rebellion and the start of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936.

The new Spanish Constitution, created by the Republican government aimed to create a secular Spain. The desire to separate church and state met with stern opposition from the Spanish Roman Catholic hierarchy. Fifteen days after the republic was declared, the primate of Spain, Cardinal Pedro Segura, denounced the plans and urged Spain’s Catholics to vote against any regime that planned to dissolve the influence of the church in Spain.[i]

In any study focusing on the politics of Roman Catholicism in Britain, it is imperative to examine the role and influence of the Church in Irish society. Post-famine migration from Ireland to Britain ballooned the Roman Catholic population. The advent of the Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth century, and the expansion of industrial cities such as Glasgow, continued this trend. Extensive studies have been conducted into the impact of these Irish immigrants on Scottish society.[ii]

In Ireland public opinion on the Spanish Civil War was heavily influenced by the mainstream media, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy which maintained a firm influence upon Irish public life. Perhaps the most right-wing of the three main daily newspapers, the Irish Independent took an avowedly pro-Franco line and often carried sensationalist reports of anti-clerical violence and Republican ‘atrocities’ in Spain. Owing to its close relationship to the Irish Roman Catholic hierarchy, it is hardly surprising that the publication adopted such a stance. The paper gleefully proclaimed the war ‘a struggle to the death between Christianity and Communism’ weeks after General Franco’s forces had annexed Morocco. The newspaper maintained that a victory for the Republic would lead to the establishment t of Spain as a Soviet state and hailed the rebels by stating ‘All who stand for the ancient Faith and traditions of Spain are behind the present revolt’.[iii] Following Franco’s claim that Republicans had razed Guernica to the ground and it had not been bombed, the Independent was the only one of the three newspapers to report it under the headline ‘Another Red Lie’.[iv]

For the early half of the twentieth century, owing to the increased industrialisation, centres of population such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen were a hotbed for political activism and radical thought. The working class arena of these cities led Scots to be inspired to ‘struggle against fascism, domestic and foreign’. These cities were anointed with radicalism according to Daniel Gray; ‘entertainment and education came from the soapbox oratory of radical street preachers; a truly open university.’[v] The Catholic population of these cities traditionally were working-class Labour voters; the belief being that Labour best represented the Irish Catholics, yet the party was always viewed with suspicion by the Catholic hierarchy due to its left-wing leanings.

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War did put a strain on the relationship of the British Labour Movement and British Catholics, who were made up primarily of the descendants of nineteenth century Irish immigrants. The working class areas in which Catholics were a majority, such as Clydeside in Glasgow, Liverpool and parts of London had become Labour strongholds. Despite the Catholic Church’s hatred of the Labour Party, and disdain for its socialist ideals, they had to maintain cordial relations due to its status as the representative of their lay community. In the Spanish Civil War the Catholic hierarchy saw an opportunity to sever the bonds between working class Catholics and the Labour Movement. The Catholic Archbishop Hinsley wrote of Catholic grievances and the neglect of Catholics within Labour in November 1936.[vi] In his research which focused upon British Christian reactions to the Spanish conflict, Benjamin Edwards highlights that the outbreak of the war exacerbated the Catholic hierarchy’s suspicions of Labour as a Marxist movement. The conflict in Spain, according to Edwards, led Catholics opposing the pro-Republican support to seek greater influence within the movement in Britain. Edwards also highlights that elite Catholics used the conflict to promote the idea of Catholic corporatism as an alternative to the needs of Catholic workers in Britain. Edwards highlights that the main organ of Catholic opinion in Glasgow, the Glasgow Observer ‘believed that Labour’s pro Republicanism showed that ‘the true spirit of the Labour policy in this country’ was anti-Catholicism’.[vii]

Initially, the response to the Popular Front victory in February 1936 and the growing political uncertainty in Spain was cautious amongst the British Catholic press. English Catholics mirrored the hope of the Vatican that a peaceful resolution where the church could coexist with the left-wing forces in the republic. Catholics however maintained the view that Spain represented a conflict between Marxism and Christianity. Apologists amongst the Catholic press for the Nationalist rebellion drew justification for their position from the continued anti-clerical violence which persisted after the Nationalist uprising, and maintained that the rebellion was merely a form of self-defence.[viii] The surge in anti-clerical violence following the rebellion began to twist the tide of opinion amongst British Catholics in favour of the Nationalist cause. Furthermore the support of Soviet Russian hardened Catholic opinion that the civil war was a battle between communism and anti-communism. This assertion came from the Tablet which described anti-communism as ‘representing every class and every interest that is challenged by the doctrinaire aggression of orthodox Marxism.’ Pro-Nationalist sentiment increased throughout the Catholic media.[ix]


[i] Beevor, Anthony, The Battle For Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2006, p 23

[ii] For more information see Mitchell, Martin J, New Perspectives on the Irish in Scotland, Edinburgh: John McDonald 2008

[iii] McGarry, Fearghal ‘Irish Newspapers and the Spanish Civil War’ in Irish Historical Studies Vol. 33 No. 129 pp 68-90

[iv] Ibid

[v] Gray, Daniel, Homage to Caledonia: Scotland and the Spanish Civil War, Edinburgh, Luath Press, 2008 pp 23

[vi] Buchanan, Tom ‘The Spanish Civil War and the British Labour Movement’ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991 pp 169

[vii] Edwards, Benjamin Kyle ‘With God on Our Side: British Christian Responses to the Spanish Civil War’ PhD thesis awarded by University of Lancaster, February 2010, pp 292-3, 297-8

[viii] Greene, Thomas R. ‘The English Catholic Press and the Second Spanish Republic, 1931-1936’’in Church History, Vol 45, No 1, (March 1976) pp 70-84

[ix] Flint, James, ‘Must God Go Fascist? English Catholic Opinion and the Spanish Civil War‘, in Church History Vol. 56, No. 3 (Sep., 1987) pp 364-374

Ross Taylor is a PhD student working at University of Strathclyde. He tweets from @RT_Historian

2 thoughts on “The Red Scare: Catholic Responses to the Spanish Civil War

  1. Very good points! Glad you explained the “mainstream media” by indicating the 3 major news agencies of the day as compared to what we have today.

  2. Thanks for this. Two of my ancestors fought together in the Rising, then on opposite sides in the Spanish Civil War, one because he saw the Rising and the Republican cause as part of the struggle against imperialism and capitalism, while the other believed that 1916 and 1936 were primarily about the faith. The latter never went to Mass after his adventure with the Blueshirts was over – when challenged he would reply ‘I fought for Christ!’.

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