Laurence O’Dwyer
Civil War Butterflies

Cover Image - Collserola, Barcelona

Collserola, Barcelona Photo by Laurence O’Dwyer

Head Note: This album of Civil War Butterflies is part of a larger mosaic of poems and stories that have flowed alongside my journeys through Spain. A chance encounter with a butterfly researcher in the Pyrenees who described himself as an anarchist lepidopterist provided the initial spark for a series of portraits of humans and butterflies that inhabit a shadowy province of the earth. These tales led me in turn to the Spanish Civil War. In truth, that ‘little’ war is an incomprehensibly large canvas. Looking more closely, I found a multitude of smaller scenes and it is these smaller units that I have tried to distil under pressure into this album of Civil War Butterflies.   — LO’D


 Sexual Habits of Savages
 Besugos, Pagellus bogaraveo (Brünnich, 1768)
 Fortuitous Death
 Natural History
 Sequin Dress
 The Opening of the Spanish Civil War
 The Marvellous Non-intervention Pact

Sexual Habits of Savages

Spaniards! Citizens of Burgos! The government
which was the wretched bastard of liberal
and socialist concubinage is dead, killed by
our valiant army. The true Spain has laid
the dragon low, now it lies writhing on its belly.

      So says Mola, the foxy general,
whose favourite words are dragon, virgin, whore;
his colleague in propaganda Queipo de Llano
ends equally colourful speeches with tender asides
to his wife and daughter in Paris. Senoritas!
I raise a glass to your honour! Tonight I take a sherry;
            tomorrow Malaga!

Around him he gathered a coterie of bull-breeders,
sherry producers and falangists. He loved to extoll
the sexual powers of the Requetés who he promised
would skewer all the widows in Gijón; his nightly broadcasts,
smacking his lips after a slurp of wine, drove the besieged
half-mad. Even the rats were thirsty.
      But it was Mola who outdid them all
describing Azaña — the titular head of the Republic —
as a monster who seems more the absurd invention
of a doubly insane Frankenstein than the fruit
of the love of a woman. Azaña must be caged up
so that brain specialists can study the most interesting
case of mental degeneration in the history of Spain.

Like a bull raging out of a mirror in reverse,
the Republic was a Babel of tongues — debates about
what side of the road to drive on, strikes and skirmishes.
Novembrists, Decembrists; the Generalitat was a lounge
of snakes and lizards — when the scaffolding union collapsed,
Euclid was denounced as an enemy of the people;
the right-angled triangle, an imperial spy. In Vallecas,
a young woman cut the testicles off a priest and stuffed
them in the mouth of a nun. It is the eleventh of August,
1936 — the Eve of the Virgin of Carmen and La Pecosa
is roaming the streets wearing the uniform of the Republic —
jump-suit or mono — The Freckled One and her best friend
The Wallop are inspecting the cargo from Jaen.
Described by Hugh Thomas as half-insane, a hag;
she was no such thing — eighteen years old and bonita,
she used to pass by the Casa de Campo with her mother
to see the besugos or dead bodies with glassy eyes —
the park is a waterless aquarium or open-air morgue
beside the Royal Palace where Azaña paces furtively;
the window is open — he can hear gunshots.
Publicly he declares: all the churches of Spain
are not worth the life of a single Republican.

To his diary: vermin leave rats by my door.

The cargo includes the Bishop of Jaen and his sister
Teresa. Livestock destined for Alcalá de Henares.
Anarchists unhook the carriages. La Pecosa grabs
her prey by the hair — Not so pure now Teresa! Not so pure now!
By the swampy ground of Uncle Raymond’s Pool
the water is warm and foul. Drink! Drink like a cow!
The men gather round, firing pistols to heaven.
O angel face, so wicked and so pure, down we go
to the cemetery, let Franco say a prayer for your soul!

She cuts a ring from the finger and waves it in the air.

Besugos, Pagellus bogaraveo (Brünnich, 1768)

The Generalitat wheezes like a bellows — alliance of spit and camouflage. An ominous message from Moscow — Political adjustment between comrades should await victory — a message that should never be translated into Spanish or Catalan.
      The Socialist Party is afraid that the poor will turn to the anarchists — so they militate for reduced working hours. This has the desired effect — it irritates García Oliver — who needs labour for the war.
      Between the two — the POUM is the favourite of school boys from Eton and Cambridge; half-Trotsky, quart Lenin, a bit of cock-eyed Bakunin — a frightful cock-a-doodle-do — hatched from tedious arguments far, far away on the steppes of Russia.
      Ingenious Quixotes charge towards utopia with the earnestness of dons who have never handled pistols in their lives.
      A knife is for cutting pheasant at high table.
      Along the Costa Brava, churches go up in flames. The middle class bring their icons to bonfires with long faces. Only children like to chip noses off saints.
      The Casa de Campo fills with besugos — fish on the sand, dead bodies with glassy eyes — a thousand miles from the ocean.
      Churches are granaries. Soldiers sleep on altars. Cathedrals look like sand dunes. Rats become explorers of the desert.
      In the Venn diagram of Spain hunger unites everyone — cats are afraid of mice.
      A soldier pounces on a moggy and hey presto — chicken soup on the menu tonight.
      From lonely promontories in Andalucía, the Guardia Civil support Franco whose eyes are icy intellectual zeroes.
      How to draw lines on this map?
      The ebb and flow of the war; the Nationalists gnaw at the hide of the Republic.
      The anarchist rank and file are dismayed; their leaders look more and more like little princes and czars.
      In the forgiveness of night, the culling of so many species.
      Now that Catalan is banned, I fear my own tongue.
No wonder the history of Spain is a snake vomiting windmills, crosses, cats.

Note: POUM; Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification

Fortuitous Death

Portraits of Lenin alongside the local boy, Largo Caballero.
Durruti and García Oliver waltz into the office of Lluìs Companys.
What happens next, recorded in García’s autobiography,
is too eloquent, too neatly squared to be the truth:
If you don’t need me tell me now, and I shall become
one more foot soldier in the struggle against fascism.

You can hear him clearing his throat, what he says next
is more in tune with the times; the brass-tax of holding onto power:
but if I can be of use, then you can count on me who desires
that Catalonia should henceforth stand among the most
progressive countries in the world.
Who talks like this when
faced with a pair of militiamen? Sweating profusely, he stops.
They don’t shoot him. At this moment, summary courts are being
set up in the Casa de Campo. General Mangada has a chance
to execute men he’s always hated. In Coruña, the Nationalists
capture the Civil Governor; his wife has an abortion performed
upon her
before being lowered into a grave. Over the border,
the dapper Sanjuro is preparing to return from exile. Estoril
is the place for our man — roulette wheels and brothels of quality.
With a lugubrious sigh and a feather in his cap, he waves to his friends.
A fat man to begin with, though by no means the fattest in the army
(that honour goes to General Romerales in Melilla) the pilot warns him
that his wardrobe, loaded with dress suits, is too much for the plane,
but the General insists: I need to wear proper clothes as the new caudillo
of Spain.
The bumble bee struggles to take off, fails to clear the trees
and bursts into flames. With equal plausibility the accident is attributed
to Republican sabotage or Franco’s cunning luck. Mola will go down
two months later in a similarly fortuitous crash while General Balmes
has kindly kicked off the civil war by shooting himself in the foot in Las Palmas.

Natural History

Two funerals in the East Cemetery — clenched fists for Castillo — fascist salute for Sotelo, four more dead after running battles through the day.
      The Grand Hotel becomes an orphanage. Sixty-one murders and ten bank robberies in six months; Unamuno urges Azaña to commit suicide as a patriotic act. Aristocrats hot foot it to Burgos, while the Cockroach waits for the Dragon Rapide in Las Palmas.
      At the helm is Captain Bebb — an adventurous sprite. Along the way, he loses a radio operator, dead-drunk in Casablanca while his passengers celebrate immoderately at Cape Yubi. And what passengers!
      Captain Hugh Pollard, author, journalist, adventurer — Bertie to his friends: one of those romantic Englishmen who specialise in other countries’ revolutions . . . he looked like a German Crown Prince with a habit of letting off revolvers in any office he happened into.
      Dining at Simpsons-on-the-Strand, Luis Bolín asks an MI6 middle-man to find him ‘two blonds and a trustworthy gentleman.’
      Depends on the girls, says Pollard when approached for the job.
      With Diana and Dorothy in tow — very pretty, very sassy, very blond — they have a jolly time in Cape Yubi before landing in Las Palmas.
      (Later they will be given gold stars for ingenious service to Spain-Our-Lord.)
      Next, General Balmes’ fortuitous death gives Franco an excuse to cross the water.
      Half an hour after midnight, with Lady Carmen, and ten year old Carmencita, he boards the old steamer, the Viera y Clavijo — Tenerife to Gran Canaria.
Look papa! How beautiful the stars!
      Lorca is travelling this self-same night on a sleeper to Granada.
      In the morning the Cockroach opens an investigation into the death of the Cricket. (The committee is still working on its report).
      Now he boards the Dragon Rapide while Pollard and the girls stay behind for a week of sunshine and tequila.
How pure is history, how terrible the stars.
Cold as a moth, spangled with ducats and gold; in his sunset years, old Bottlecaps liked to gaze at lepidoptera in the Natural History Museum.
Protector of cheerful girls,
pretty as butterflies
each one with a needle
through the thorax.

Sequin Dress

A nun trades her habit for a sequin dress,
the city’s on fire and the sky is full of trilce.

A postmaster has his head lopped off
for the habit of making us stand a glass
of wine while we wait for stamps.

So the loafer becomes the loaf,
so the bread becomes the wine

Masters of onomatopoeia,
from time immemorial the Dominicans
had the finest knowledge of anatomy;
they opened heretics like oysters.


Cockroach — do you see what I see?

A half-moon skirt!

Cockroach, whose ring is that?

It’s my mother’s ring.

Cockroach, that’s a lie!
I saw Teresa wearing it last night.

I tied her legs good and tight,
cut a heel from her shoe,
and pegged it in his mouth.

Your father says you carry a pistol,
your mother says you carry a knife.

Let the Crickets fall silent!
Let the Cockroach rule the world!


Not seven years ago we packed her off
to a convent. Last Sunday, Fernando
de los Dios changed his name to Frankie
Rivers. No one says Adieu anymore.

A ring of smoke curls round the steeple
and the night is full of crickets.

It was all I could find in the ruins;
it isn’t safe to wear a habit
and my village was far away.


Afraid of her glittering breasts
they stoned her to death.

So the loafer becomes the loaf,
so the bread becomes the wine.

Now the moon is full of worms
and the sky is full of trilce.

The Opening of the Spanish Civil War

So many guns in the salon, the piano player tinkles a medley called The Shootout.
      Captain Bebb meets Il Duce in Rome — I’m glad to see that Italy is horrifying the world by its aggressiveness for a change, not serenading it with guitars.
      On the other side, Stalin is busy with multivariate analysis, triple-handed duels.
      The Hungarian Ernö Gerö, known as ‘Singer’, changes his name to ‘Gure’ — a minor cog in the Big Wheel: Willi Münzenberg controls the funfair — friend of duchesses, bankers and generals.
      He set up Innocents’ Clubs for Oxbridge dons — these people believe they are part of the revolution. This belief must be preserved at any price.
      Murdered in 1940, strangled with rosary beads; the needle points to the pole — a block of magnetite and a cat cleaning its whiskers in the shadow of an onion dome.
      As for the ‘intellectuals’, as usual, a joke. They can barely play tick-tack-thumb.
      When Auden published ‘Spain, 1937’ a great purring could be heard.
Good translations came from the censors’ office. A fine ear for cadence, also cant.
      The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion.
Tomorrow the bicycle race through the suburbs . . .
today the struggle.

The one with the whiskers laughed — it reminded him of his juvenilia.
      For weeks to come in the Kremlin: Did you hear the one about the Tour de France?
The war is two years old — before it all began, rumours of a rising in Madrid.
      Bah, café gossip — says Azaña — where did you hear that?
      In the Cortes.
      Ah, that’s one big café.

The Marvellous Non-Intervention Pact

In Saint Cloud, airplanes trace PAIX across the sky.

Sir George Clark — ambassador of the old school,
‘elegant, aristocratic, arrogant’,
meets with his French counterpart:

if you don’t close the border and war breaks out,
we will not support you.

Trucks pass daily over the Pyrenees.
Spanish planes landing on French soil
are attributed to ‘errors of navigation.’

The German ambassador in London,
says no arms will be sent to Franco.
Junkers arrive the next day in Seville.

It’s Mexico’s first time at the table:
the naïve perfume of spring — they declare it
an honour to supply arms to the Republic.

The Soviets do double, triple, somersaults,
assuring comrades that while it may appear
like a retreat before the fascists, they have joined
the pact to forestall Hitler’s advance in Spain.

To complete the circus act,
General Tom-Tom of the Third Reich
leaves a Moroccan port on an Italian cruiser
from whence to Seville
and a banquet with Franco.

Every diplomat on the continent
is busy breaking his word while Eden,
good little school boy, calls them to order.

The committee will graduate from equivocation
to hypocrisy and humiliation.

What butterflies!
What camouflage!

Sawing a woman in half,
the coffin is dripping in blood.


Many works were consulted before, during and after the writing of these poems. Among those disparate theses, monographs, memoirs and tomes, the influence of Hugh Thomas’ magisterial and often darkly comic The Spanish Civil War has been disproportionate. His work was the initial key, and it remains a constant companion.

Sara Alejandra Labrador Hayas’ fluid and meticulously researched doctoral thesis Las grietas de la secularizaciòn: identidades y violencia anticlerical durante la Guerra Civil en Madrid (Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2018) provided essential background for characters and voices in Madrid, especially for the character of La Pecosa.

Soon after an impromptu field-trip with the anarchist lepidopterist who picked me at the Coll de la Pedra del Cantó in the Pyrenees, I bought a small but lovingly produced reference book of butterflies, Papallones by Marià Pou Nadal (Editorial Alpina, 2016) in a bookstore in Andorra la Vella. Later, I drafted preliminary sketches for each of the species in Nadal’s book. Those sketches led to lyrical poems which in turn led to historical poems.

Catalan Butterflies premiered at the Imagine Festival (Waterford, Ireland) in October, 2021, where various tales, set to music by Phil Soanes (Resonating Wood Recordings, Slovakia) were narrated by Dónal Gallagher (Asylum Productions, Ireland). Craft work created by Adele Pound (Northern Ireland) in response to the poems were displayed on stage during the performance. A sample of the music from that evening can be found in the first link below, while some of Adele Pound’s craft work in response to the poems can also be found in the second link below. An expanded version of this performance will premiere at the Imagine Festival in October, 2022.

Audio hyperlink:

Artwork hyperlink:

Laurence O’Dwyer’s first book of poetry, Tractography (Templar Poetry, 2018), received the Straid Collection Award. His second collection, The Lighthouse Journal (Templar Poetry, 2020), received a Van Cleef & Arpels Special Fellowship in Poetry from the Bogliasco Foundation. He is the recipient of the AUB International Poetry Prize (2021), the Ireland Chair of Poetry Project Award (2021), the Yeovil Poetry Prize (2018), a Hennessy New Irish Writing Award (2004) and fellowships from the Rensing Center, MacDowell and the Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Trust. He holds a PhD in paradigms of memory formation from Trinity College Dublin.

Other O’Dwyer Mudlarks: Poems from Haiti, Flash No. 66 (2012); Poems from Lapland, Poster No. 140 (2016); Poems from Litløy Fyr, (Poster No. 158 (2018); and from The Lighthouse Journal, Flash No. 131 (2019).

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