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How the tide of history has turned


LOCAL TRIBUTE Crowds pictured at the unveiling of the memorial to Tommy Patten in his native Dooega in 1984.  Pic courtesy of Michael Patten

Those Irish who fought for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War received a mixed reaction in 1930s Ireland

Edwin McGreal

It is telling where Irish society was in the 1930s that people like Tommy Patten who went to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War were often scorned while those like Eoin O’Duffy who went to fight for Franco were more likely to be celebrated.
Traditional society in Spain – the church, the army, right-wing politicians and the wealthy – were facing hostile pressure from trade unions and left wing parties fighting for a fairer share of society’s wealth.
In Ireland, such social tensions were far less conspicuous, perhaps on account of our own War of Independence and Civil War just over a decade previously.  
The dominant Catholic Church in Ireland were four square behind the efforts of Franco’s Nationalists.
Primate of All-Ireland, Cardinal McRory, called for prayers for the victory of Christianity over anarchy and communism. A nationwide Church collection also took place.
Those who fought against Franco were pejoratively dismissed as communists.
Another Achill man who fought on the same side as Tommie Patten was Patrick Burke from Dooagh.
Burke’s family at home suffered for his allegiance to the Republicans while the ‘communist’ tag is one the Pattens had to deal with too.
“He wasn’t a communist, I’d call him a socialist. He was for all the people, that was what drove him. That’s clear from his letters,” said his nephew Ger Patten.
“He was a man ahead of his time,” added Ger’s wife, Norma.
Indeed, in time, such views would change and while history is often written by the winners, the losing Republicans have been celebrated while Franco’s Nationalists became infamous for some of the horrors they visited on the ordinary people of Spain.
In 1984 the first memorial on Irish soil to a soldier killed on the Republican side on the Spanish Civil War was unveiled in Dooega in honour of Tommy Patten.
A young Senator Michael D Higgins unveiled the memorial on a hillside on the other side of the bay from Tommy Patten’s home.
Patten never forgot his family and while the letters written to family are hard to decipher, in those to his friend Seán he always asks after his niece Margaret Mary.
Her mother, Julia, Tommy’s sister, died when Margaret Mary was an infant and Tommy was clearly concerned to see how his niece was coping.
“He seemed very kind hearted, always asking after Margaret Mary,” said Norma Patten.

It was not long after Julia’s death that Tommy Patten also departed from this world, trying to help to make the world a better place.
The sacrifice is clear when you consider his fellow Achill soldier Patrick Burke survived the war and lived until 1987, 51 years later.
It is brought into starker view when you consider Maggie Gallagher was just seven years Patten’s junior and is a hale and hearty 103 years of age and still living at home in Dooega in 2020.
She recounts how there could have been a third Achill man to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
Johnny Patten from Mweelin, Dooega, a first cousin and close friend of Tommy Patten’s, planned to go with Tommy to Spain.
Maggie, a cousin of both men, recalls that Johnny was an adventurous type. He would have been going to Spain to see the world whereas Tommy was going out of a sense of justice and knew the risks involved.
She is of the opinion Tommy might have did what he could, by hook or by crook, to prevent Johnny getting to the UK to travel with Tommy in order to protect him, more aware of the risks involved than Johnny might have been.
Eighty-four years after he died the fact that one of Tommy Patten’s contemporaries is still around to tell that story underlines just how much living he sacrificed by going to Spain, fully aware of the likelihood he would never return to his beloved Achill.