Irish women and the Spanish Republic

Post date: 14/02/2024

Lynda Walker writes…

Few Irish women volunteered to go to Spain. This is in contrast to the First World War, when thousands volunteered. 

At that time the British government had to set up a special fund for the women who were stranded on railway stations and ferry terminals making their way to the field hospitals and other places. Over 5,000 Irish women served as professional nurses, while others volunteered for the Voluntary Aid Detachment and the Red Cross.

Though few in number, several Irish women made a valuable contribution to the Spanish Republican cause during during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

A letter to Irish International Brigader Tom O'Brien in Spain, dated 2 August 1938, states that a ‘Doctor Lynch is now at Perpignan doing some hospital work and she may be useful in getting them [cigarettes] across.’ Although Perpignan is in France, she was obviously providing aid for the Republican cause. She appears in a photograph of the returning Irish Brigaders in December 1938 at Dun Laoghaire. 

Ruth Ormsby.

Mary Elmes.

Hannah Rutledge Ormsby (1901-1937), known as Ruth, is remembered as the only Irish woman to die in Spain. She was a nurse in Glasgow at the time she decided to go to Spain in the summer of 1937. 

An article about Ruth written in 2018, states that the news of her death did not receive much coverage in Ireland as at that stage scores of Irishmen had died in Spain. 

However, in 2018 a plaque was unveiled to her in her native Dromore West. Speaking at the event, Cllr Declan Bree said it was ‘fitting that the people of Dromore West should come together to remember one of their own, a nurse who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war against fascism in Europe’. 

The only other Irish nurse was Cork-born Mary Elmes (1908-2002). She was living in London and studying at the London School of Economics when in 1937 she volunteered to join the London Ambulance Unit in Spain. 

She worked with Quaker organisations and ran a children's hospital in Alicante, before escaping across the border to France in early 1939, where she settled. During the Second World War she rescued many Jewish children from southern France and arranged for them to be smuggled through Spain to safety.

In 2006, historians Angela Jackson and Myrtle Hill spoke in Belfast on International Women’s Day on the 70th anniversary of the fight against fascism in Spain.

Edwina Stewart, daughter of Sadie Menzies, who was involved in Spanish Aid, spoke about the women in Ireland who were involved collecting aid and also holding solidarity meetings. 

These efforts also included Eleanor Midgely and others from the labour movement, trades unions and Communist Party. In Belfast, a committee was formed around Betty Sinclair, WH McCullough, Jack Magougan and Victor Halley. 

Harry Midgely, a member of the Stormont parliament and alderman of Belfast City Council, declared his stand against Franco.

In the south Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, (Bobby) Aileen Walsh, later to be married to Frank Edwards, who went to fight in Spain, Dorothy Macardle and Nora Connolly, James Connolly’s daughter, Robin Tweedy and Mai Keating were also involved.

Lynda Walker is active in the Belfast-based International Brigade Commemorative Committee.

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