The only memorial on Irish soil dedicated to a casualty of the Spanish Civil War is located at Dooega on Achill Island, close to the birthplace of Thomas Patten, the man to whom it is dedicated.
Patten was the first Irishman – and in fact the first fighter from an English-speaking country – to lose his life in that horrific conflict.
Born in 1910, one of a family of 14, Thomas Patten emigrated to London as a teenager. There he became involved with the Republican Congress, a socialist republican group. Imbued with a burning sense of social justice, and motivated by the hardships and deprivation he had witnessed at home, he quickly developed common cause with the Spanish people in their struggle for democracy.
It was in 1936, and at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, that he travelled to Spain on his own initiative, and even before the formation of the International Brigades. He enlisted with the anti-Franco Republican cause and found himself in action during the siege of Madrid. It was there, a week before Christmas of 1936, that he was killed.
Thomas Patten was buried in Spain, but his memory was not forgotten by those who shared his beliefs, and in 1984, the monument was unveiled at a ceremony in Dooega. It was attended by, among others, then Senator Michael D Higgins, as well as Patten’s brother, Owen, who had waved him off on the London platform on the day he left for Spain.
Patten is remembered by name in the Christy Moore song ‘Viva la Quinta Brigada’.
But also present that day in Dooega was another Achill man who had also served with the Republican forces in Spain, and who was held in the highest regard by the veterans of that war.
Patrick Burke was born in Dooagh in 1897 and had emigrated to the UK as a young man. Stirred by the struggle of the democratically elected government in Spain, he too volunteered his services to the cause, arriving in Spain in 1937 and joining the International Brigade in Albacete. Injured in the Battle of Jarama, he was subsequently discharged and returned to live in Glasgow. There he joined the Merchant Navy and travelled the world, before eventually retiring to his native Mayo where he died in 1987.
Thanks to his kinsman, Tom McNamara, his personal papers, including his notebooks listing the colleagues who had fought with him in Spain, have been preserved as an invaluable part of the Irish involvement in the Spanish conflict.
But for both Patten and Burke, and others like them, there was the added hostility at home in Ireland to their aligning themselves with the Republicans in Spain. Burke’s mother and sisters were to suffer for his allegiance to the socialists, which in turn were regarded as anti-Catholic and avowedly pro-Communist.
It was, in truth, a sweeping condemnation that fell short of the reality. Many of the Spanish volunteers, from over 50 different countries, were undoubtedly Communist, but many, like Patrick Burke, were democrats whose motivation was the defence of the elected government against the threatened Fascist coup led by Franco.
In a public statement at the height of the war, the Irish Hierarchy called for Church ceremonies of atonement for ‘the sacrilegious outrages committed against Christ’, with Cardinal McRory calling for prayers of supplication for the victory of Christianity over Anarchy and Communism.
And in a nationwide Church collection for the suffering Catholics of Spain, the largest-ever amount of £43,000 was raised to be transmitted to the Primate of Spain on behalf of the Catholic people of Ireland.