Royal Irish Academy

A Revolution in Profiles - Co. Offaly

In association with The Royal Irish Academy

Gabriel Patrick/ Gabe Lee 1904-1937

Gabriel Lee was born at Kilcormac in 1904. The youngest of eleven children. His father James was the local RIC sergeant and a Limerick man, his mother Elizabeth (nee Conroy) was a native of Galway. The family moved to Birr when James was appointed bridewell keeper and were living at Townsend Street by 1911. Following James retirement, the family relocated to Dublin.

Gabriel Lee’s earliest political involvement is difficult to trace. On his death, a newspaper obituaries reported he had been active in the War of Independence. Lee’s activities during the revolution remain unclear. Despite his youth, he may have been involved with the Dublin Brigade of the IRA or perhaps a slua of Fianna Eireann. It was not unknown for enthusiastic republican recruits to lie about their age to gain admittance to IRA.

Two months shy of his eighteenth birthday, Lee enlisted in the National Army in March 1922. He went on to serve as an infantry corporal on the pro- treaty side throughout the Civil War.  He was stationed in Mallow, Co. Cork when the Army Census was taken in November 1922. 

In August, National Army troops had captured Cork City after a naval landing and quickly dislodged anti-treaty forces from their positions throughout the county. After blowing up the viaduct over the Blackwater River in Mallow republicans retreated to remote rural areas. Nevertheless, throughout the Autumn of 1922, the area was scene of several anti-treaty operations, often targeting the rail network. 

Leaving the army Lee was politically involved in Cumman na Gaedheal, Fine Gael and the Blueshirts under their various incarnations. After the expulsion of Eoin O’Duffy from the organisation, he acted as North Dublin representative the League of Youth under Commandant Ned Cronin.

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 invoked differing opinions in Ireland. Those on the left viewed the conflict as an attempt by the military, church, and economic establishment to overthrow a democratic government. On the right, the war was presented as a response to communist attempts to attack Christianity. De Valera’s government pursued a policy of non-intervention; but the church, press and many politicians were openly pro-Franco. Addressing a pilgrimage at Drogheda Cardinal MacRory stated…

‘It is a question of whether Spain will remain as she has been so long, a Christian and Catholic land, or a Bolshevist and anti-God one.’ (1)

By late 1936 two Irish units had been assembled to fight in Spain. The Connolly Column consisting largely of communist, socialists and ex-IRA men volunteered to fight with the International Brigades in support of the republican government.

Meanwhile, Eoin O’Duffy had recruited an Irish Brigade made up of orthodox Catholics, former pro- treaty soldiers and members of the Blueshirt movement to fight alongside the nationalist forces of General Franco. Lee was among those to join O’Duffy’s Brigade. The recruits left Galway in December 1936. These Irishmen enlisted with the XV Bandera of the Spain Foreign Legion and Lee was appointed Sergeant-Major.

In February 1937, the unit suffered its first causalities after a friendly fire incident with pro-Franco troops from the Canary Islands.  A month later Lee was wounded in an artillery barrage at Ciempozuelos. He died some days later in a Madrid hospital and was buried at Cáceres. In a statement dealing with the death of Lee and Tom Foley from Tralee, the Dublin office of the Brigade stated…

‘Gabriel Lee was all his life a brave and gallant solider, loved and respected by all who knew him.’ (2)

Several masses were held in Dublin to Lee’s memory, including one at St. Columba’s church on Iona Road, attended by W.T. Cosgrave and Richard Mulcahy.

The Irish Brigade returned to Ireland in the Summer of 1937, after a series of internal disagreements, disciplinary issues and Francoist disillusionment with the detachment in general and its leader in particular.

A pew was dedicated to Lee’s honour in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral. In April 1939, when the Archbishop of Dublin officiated at a mass held in ‘thanksgiving for the victory of the catholic cause in Spain’ veterans of the Brigade choose to forego their place in specially reserved seating to sit in the bench honouring Lee.

The author wishes to acknowledge the very substantial existing work carried out on Gabe Lee’s life by Sam McGrath.


Sources:

1901 and 1911 Census online at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/

National Army Census online at https://census.militaryarchives.ie/pdf/Mallow_1_Western_Division_South_Western_Command_Page_30.pdf

Michael Hopkinson. Green against Green, the Irish Civil War (Dublin) 1988.

Sam McGrath ‘Gabriel Lee (Gabriel Lee(1904-37) and Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade’ online at https://comeheretome.com/2018/08/21/gabriel-lee-1904-37-and-eoin-oduffys-irish-brigade/ 

John Dorney. ‘Gods Battle’ O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade in the Spanish Civil War online at https://www.theirishstory.com/2018/10/24/gods-battle-oduffys-irish-brigade-in-the-spanish-civil-war/#.W-CnwTGYTIU

Anglo- Celt. 29 April 1939.

Derry Journal. 21 September 1936.

Irish Independent. 23 March 1937. 5 April 1937.

Irish Press 10 October 1934. 1 April 1937.

(1) Derry Journal. September 21, 1936.

(2) Irish Independent. March 23, 1937.

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