I first became interested in the diaries of Fr Alexander J. McCabe, the County Cavan-born rector of the Irish College in Salamanca, while toying with the idea of writing a book about the Irish Brigade who fought for Franco during the Spanish Civil War.
During my research I came across a reference to McCabe’s diaries, and became interested in his views on the Irish Brigade and its quixotic leader, Eoin O’Duffy. McCabe witnessed conditions in the nationalist zone when Franco established his military and political headquarters in Salamanca shortly after the beginning of the war.
McCabe began keeping a diary, or journal, shortly after arriving in London to work as a curate in the middle of the 1920s and continued to do so until he returned to Ireland from Spain at the end of the 1940s. The diaries are housed in the National Library of Ireland and are in good condition, although it took me a while to decode McCabe’s idiosyncratic scrawl.
The diaries offer many clues to McCabe’s personality. The pages are covered in marginalia, notes which were written many years after the entries themselves and reflect how McCabe’s thinking about a range of subjects had changed in the intervening period.
McCabe pulls no punches in entries about those he met in Spain during the war, including O’Duffy and other senior figures in the Irish Brigade, and he was nervous that his diaries would end up in the wrong hands. This was understandable given that the German embassy was conducting surveillance operations from the Irish College in the late 1930s.
He redacted some of the more dangerous passages in the diaries. Some pages have been cut out with a scissors and passages have been (successfully and unsuccessfully) blacked out. These worries perhaps contributed to his decision, at the end of 1945, to destroy the diaries that covered the years 1938 to 1945. However, the diaries that survived provide plenty of fascinating insights about social and political conditions in Spain before and after the war, as well as observations about wartime conditions in 1936 and 1937 and McCabe’s memories of social and political change in his native Cavan during his childhood.
While reading the diaries, I became more and more interested in McCabe, and the focus of my project changed. Instead of writing a book about the Irish Brigade, I decided to write about McCabe through the prism of his observations on the Spanish Civil War. Relying principally on McCabe’s diaries entries, I have written a narrative of his life, with an emphasis on his experiences in Spain, as a clerical student in Salamanca in the 1920s, vice-rector of the Irish College in the early 1930s and, finally, rector during the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War and the late 1940s.
One of the obvious challenges I faced was the fact that the diaries covering the period 1938 to 1945 no longer exist. However, I was able to address this problem with reference to other documents in his papers, remarks about this period in later diary entries and his annual reports to the Irish hierarchy.
I have kept McCabe’s voice to the fore at all times, not least because his diary entries, as well shedding light on wartime conditions in Salamanca, the Irish Brigade, the closure of the Irish College in Salamanca and other subjects of interest to Spanish and Irish history, are witty, informed, perceptive and very entertaining.
The Salamanca Diaries: Father McCabe and the Spanish Civil War by Tim Fanning is published by Merrion Press. €19.95.