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On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, the Irish Republican and socialist, Peadar O'Donnell was in Barcelona for the "People's Olympics" - held in opposition to the Olympic Games being held in Berlin under the Nazi regime. O'Donnell sympathised with the anarchist workers militia that defeated the attempted military coup in the city and joined one of their militias on the Aragon front.
On his return to Ireland, O'Donnell urged the formation of Irish volunteer regiments to support the Popular Front government. Most of the Irish volunteers came from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or the more left-wing group, the Republican Congress. Some of the IRA leadership had been oriented towards left-wing and often communist politics since the late 1920s, so the sympathy of many of its members with the Spanish Republic was unsurprising.
As well as sympathy for the Spanish Republic, many Irish Republican volunteers were also motivated by enmity towards the Irish Brigade, an 800 strong force that volunteered in late 1936 to fight on the Spanish Nationalist side. This antagonism dated back to the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, when some of the predecessors of the two factions had fought on opposing sides. In 1932-33 small groups of IRA men and Blueshirts had fought each other in the streets with fists, bats and occasionally guns; the Blueshirts were outlawed in 1933.
Some of these men on both sides saw the Spanish conflict as a continuation of Ireland's own civil war. Neither group had a candidate elected in any Irish elections, despite the hardships of the Great Depression. Already a small group, some left-leaning IRA or ex-IRA men had formed the breakaway Republican Congress in 1934, which also divided later that year.
Not all the volunteers were Irish Republicans, however, as the Irish International Brigaders included many other strains of socialist and left wing ideology. They even included a communist ex-clergyman, Robert Hilliard.