Jams O’Donnell: Red Cushing and the Spanish Civil War

Red Cushing - Solider for Hire

[Update: Ireland and the Spanish Civil War has moved. The extract from Soldier for Hire is now here.]

On Monday, I posted that my friend Shaun Downey – described by Francis Sedgemore as ” Gentleman and Blogger of the Parish of Romford” – has died. Shaun was what I have called before a “citizen scholar”, a polymath, who rigorously researched and shared his passions. Among his interests were military history, anti-fascist partisans and Irish Republicanism.

When blogs are not attended, there is a terrible tendency for them to be hacked and become fonts for spam, which is a shameful fate for someone who has passed. Mindful of that, and in tribute to him, I have decided to re-post over time a long series he wrote on an extraordinary figure, Red Cushing. Here is the first installment, from August 2008. Shaun italicised his quotes rather than indenting them, so I have indented the whole post to make its authorship as clear as possible. I have added a couple of hyperlinks and two pieces of punctuation.

This post was inspired by recent posts by two of my favourite bloggers: Roland Dodds on the vandalising of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion memorial and Bob from Brockley’s Spanish Civil War in San Fransisco.

Irishman Thomas “Red” Cushing is almost certainly resting in his grave now (if he were still alive he would be in his late 90s) but he definitely had a life less ordinary. In the first 35 years of his life he was an IRA member, had a yoyo career in the US army with a sideline of training Sandino’s forces; served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (his sobriquet refers to his hair not his political allegiance, he has bolshie, not a Bolshevik!), joined the British army, taken prisoner during the fall of France…. and then his adventures really began!

I first came across his name in “Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen”, Adrian Weale’s excellent account of the Britisches Freikorps (the BFC) and other British traitors of WWII Cushing was mentioned in respect of the Reich’s farcical attempt to raise an Irish legion. He also appears in Mark Hull’s “Irish Secrets: Espionage in Wartime Ireland” and Terrence O’ Reilly’s “Hitler’s Irishmen”. However, he was no traitor himself and he continued his career in the British Army into the 1960s

Cushing wrote an account of his rollercoaster life in the book “Soldier For Hire”. It is long out of print but fortunately it is not hard to track down a reasonably inexpensive copy. The chapter “No Castles in Spain” which covers his time in Spain is very handily reproduced on Ciaran Crossey’s superb Ireland and the Spanish Civil War website. Plagiarism is not intended but I have a damaged wrist and anything that will cut down my typing is a godsend at the moment!

… While on demob leave, I stayed at the Army and Navy Club in Lexington Avenue, New York. I took the opportunity of visiting all the army posts where I had friends. To keep myself solvent I boxed a few times. Then, one morning in 1936, I wandered as far as the Army Base in Brooklyn, hoping to bump into somebody I knew…

My luck was out… I finished up in a saloon bar, sitting at the same table as five or six young fellows, listening to their conversation and occasionally chipping in when the talk became general. Somehow we had got on to the subject of soldiering abroad. During a lull in the discussion, an unmistakably military figure detached itself from the bar and slid easily into the seat next to mine.

‘I’m recruiting for the Lincoln Washington Battalion, now serving in Spain,’ he announced without preamble. ‘Any of you guys interested?’ ‘What are the prospects?’ I asked him. He shrugged. ‘Well, I guess that depends on what you can do. Have you soldiered before?’

I fished from my wallet the army documents I carried around with me and dropped them on the table in front of him. He scrutinised them in silence, lingering especially over an impressive list of courses I had passed. At last he looked up and eyed me appraisingly. ‘Seems to me you’re the type we want, brother. Can’t guarantee it, but with these qualifications you should swing a commission.’

‘Never mind the commission. My interests are tipple and bananas.’

… First we went to a building on the Grand Concourse, where I was medically examined and pronounced physically fit. Then, we proceeded to a dingy office not far from Union Square. There I completed a sort of application form, signed on the dotted line and was duly inducted. I received a cash advance of fifty dollars and was warned to hold myself in readiness… A day or two later, my instructions arrived. I was ordered to report to an address on Eighth Avenue and Sixteenth Street… I was introduced to a number of curious characters, all belonging to the school of thought that condemns soap and water as capitalist luxuries. Even before they opened their mouths, I knew what I had let myself in for. I had stepped into a gathering of Communist Party members.

Although I had no time for such crapology, I decided to ride along with them and find out how they ticked. I therefore listened patiently to my long-haired friend’s appreciation of the situation. .. I had been appointed conducting officer and was responsible for shepherding forty volunteers from New York to the Spanish front.

…The ‘Commissar’, as I had mentally labelled him, next led me into a dance hall, where I passed on his information to my comrades… When I first saw them, my heart sank. There were intellectuals, students from Columbia University and a generous sprinkling of Bowery bums and dead-beats, who had evidently espoused the Communist cause in order to be issued with meal tickets…. When I had finished, the Commissar gave them a long political speech, loaded with the usual Communist clichés. The workers of the world had to unite, fight for freedom, win a lasting peace and had nothing to lose but their chains. The students and the self-styled intelligentsia lapped it all up, but the talk made little impression on the bums. The squad was then dismissed and the Party members gathered round me, eager to give me a propaganda injection.

‘Gentlemen,’ I said to the shower of nanny goats, ‘I’m a professional soldier, not a politician. I’ve volunteered to go to Spain simply for the experience. As far as I’m concerned, you can stick your Communist racket up your jaxies! So cheerio, comrades! I’ll be seeing you at nine o’clock to-morrow morning.’ With an ironic bow to the Commissar, I made a quick exit…

To be continued

There are a couple of interesting comments on the post:

Anonymous Joseph Conlon said…

My dad met Red Cushing. We have a photo of him on our bathroom wall at home. I’m just reading the book ‘Soldier For Hire’ and its great so far.

I asked my dad today – Red’s dad seems like a bit of a nutter to which her replied “yes but Red’s daughter was even worse”… guess I have got more to find out…

Peter said…

I was Red Cushing’s platoon commander 9n Germany (Berlin) and Korea in the 1950’s. I have many stories about him – most of which revolved around his problem with “the drink” (he really loved his beer!). He was truly a one of a kind character, and I’m pleased to see that people are still interested in his exploits.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. from brooklyn to the grand concourse to union square in one day? that’s quite a trip!

  2. […] week, I published the first installment of Shaun Downey’s series on the great Red Cushing, as a tribute to Shaun who died last month. […]

  3. […] to the late Shaun Downey, aka Jams O’Donnell, I continue his story of Red Cushing. In the first installment, Cushing joined the International Brigade. By the end of the second installment, he had wound up in […]

  4. […] have been working my way through the late Shaun Downey‘s telling of the Red Cushing story. We started at the end of the Spanish Civil War, with Thomas “Red” Cushing, veteran Irish Republican […]


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