In this instalment of UCD Hidden History, we look at two UCD students who fought on the anti–Fascist Republican side of the Spanish Civil War…
Charles Donnelly, who grew up in Tyrone, entered UCD in October 1931 at the age of 17, to study Logic, English, History and Irish as part of an Arts degree. Within a month, he had his first poem ‘Da Mihi’ (Give Me) published in Cothrom na Féinne, a UCD student magazine which shared its name with one of the college’s mottoes. He soon began writing regularly for Cothrom na Féinne, contributing articles on “politics, literary criticism and modern philosophy” .
A year before Donnelly entered university, according to Joseph O’Connor; UCD’s Student Representative Council (SRC) was founded. (To the best of my knowledge, it was founded in 1910).
The Student Representative Council (SRC) of the time, reflecting the general mood of the country, was controlled by members of two ultra-Catholic and conservative student organisations – the Student Christian Movement and the Pro Fide group.
Donnelly challenged them by helping to form an anti-Fascist left wing student group called The Student Vanguard. Its inaugural meeting was attacked by gang of Blueshirts. Donagh MacDonagh, son of Easter 1916 leader Thomas MacDonagh and classmate of Donnelly’s, who chaired the meeting, recalls that the “the trouble started fairly soon” with “private fights” kicking off all across the hall. MacDonagh “banged on the table but nobody took much notice”; in fact, “he admits that the noise increased considerably.” It is not known to what extent the Student Vanguard was active on campus and what influence it gained amongst the college’s student body.
In 1934, while in his last year of college, Donnelly joined the Republican Congress and started a romantic relationship with another member, Cora Hughes. Hughes came from a well-respected republican family – her godfather was Eamon de Valera. She also had studied in UCD and became commander of the Cumann na mBan division on campus. Hughes was jailed in September 1934 for her work in supporting rent strikes in Dublin. Described as a “tireless housing activist” she died tragically in 1940 after contacting TB in the slums.
Donnelly failed his first year exams three times and eventually dropped out of college in the summer of 1934. He joined the International Brigades in 1936 in London and reached Spain in January 1937 to fight for the republicans against Franco’s Fascist counter-revolution. With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, he saw action at the Battle of Jarama. On the 27th February, a little more over a month since his arrival in Spain, Donnelly was cut down by enemy machine gun fire and killed. He was 23.
On the eve of the 71st anniversary of his death, February 26 2008, Donnelly was commemorated with the unveiling of a plaque in Belfield, attended by 150 people. The commemoration, organised jointly by a group of UCD students and the Donnelly family, included a lecture by Gerald Dawe on Charlie Donnelly’s life and poetry. The plaque can be seen today in the UCD School of English, Drama & Film beside J206 in the Newman Building (Arts Block).
Frank Ryan entered UCD in September 1921 on a Limerick County Council scholarship to study Celtic Studies, “an amalgam of Irish Literature and language, history and culture” He joined the IRA officers’ training corps in UCD in the summer of 1922.
Ryan was back home in Elton, Limerick on his summer holidays when the Four Courts were attacked, sparking the Civil War. He was attached to the East Limerick Brigade of the IRA and was injured by Free State soldiers during a firefight. He was interned at Hare Park in the Curragh where he edited an Irish journal called An Giorrfhiodh. The first issue came out in June 1923. Ryan had a column in the journal called Piobaire an Bhrianaigh which was later republished in An Reult, the journal of UCD’s An Cumann Gaedhealach, which Ryan himself edited in 1924-5.
Released from prison in November 1923, Ryan returned to UCD. In 1924, he won An Cumann Gaedhealach’s gold medal for oratory, presented to him by An Craoibhin Aoibhinn, Dr. Douglas Hyde (who was later to become Ireland’s first President). From 1924-5, Ryan was also reachtaire or director of Cumann Liteartha na Gaedhilge.
He was also involved in the founding of the University’s first Republican Club. Their main activities were described as “fund-raising and nominating republican candidates for the parliamentary seats allocated to the universities”. The club pressed UCD authorities to erect a memorial to Kevin Barry, another UCD alumnus. The university gave in after a decade of campaigning. It has been said that the stained glass window dedicated to Barry, which was erected in 1934, owes much to Ryan’s agitation.
Ryan recruited 80 men into the Connolly Column of the 15th International Brigade to fight for Republican Spain. He fought bravely at the Battle of Jarama and rose to become brigadier of the Lincoln-Washington Brigade. He was captured by Italian troops in 1938 and sentenced to 30 years of hard labour. After being released into the hands of German authorities in 1940, he spent the last four years of his life in Germany. He died of pneumonia in Dresden in 1944.
Finally, if you know of any other Irish volunteers who fought in The Spanish Civil War (on either side) and had connections with UCD, please get in touch.
(Note – This article relates only to the time Donnelly and Ryan were in UCD. For more information on Donnelly, I recommend Even The Olives Are Bleeding by Joseph O’Connor.
Further information on Ryan can be found in Adrian Hoar’s In green and red: the Lives of Frank Ryan and in Séan Cronin’s Frank Ryan: the search for the Republic.
For more information on the Irish who fought in the Spanish Civil War, try The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39: crusades in conflict by R. A. Stradling and Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War by Fearghal McGarry. Ciaran Crossey has an excellent, updated online resource for all things concerned with Ireland and The Spanish Civil War – http://irelandscw.com/ )
 Joseph O’Connor, Even the Olives are bleeding, the life and times of Charles Donnelly (Dublin, 1992), x
 Donagh MacDonagh, Charles Donnelly, Irish Times, March 15 1941.
 Brian Hanley, The IRA, 1926-1936 (Four Courts Press, 2002), 103.
 Margaret Ward, Unmanageable revolutionaries: women and Irish nationalism (Pluto Press, 1983), 232.
 Donal Ó Drisceoil, Peadar O’Donnell (Cork University Press, 2001), 86.
 TDorothy Bell, Missing pieces: women in Irish History, Volume 1 (Irish Feminist Information Publications, 1983), 30.
 Seán Cronin, Frank Ryan: the search for The Republic (1980), 19.
 Adrian Hoar, In green and red: the lives of Frank Ryan, (2004), 19.
 Croinn, Frank Ryan, 20.
 Croinn, Frank Ryan, 24.
 Croinn, Frank Ryan, 30.