ON HOME GROUND Tommy Patten pictured at the family home in Dooega sometime in the 1930s with his mother Maimie and his niece Margaret Mary. Pic courtesy of Ger Patten
Personal letters give fascinating insight to Achill man killed in the Spanish Civil War
They came to stand beside the Spanish people
To try and stem the rising fascist tide
Franco’s allies were the powerful and wealthy
Frank Ryan’s men came from the other side
Viva la Quinta Brigada
Some 84 years after he was killed fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, personal letters from Tommy Patten give a fascinating insight into the Achill martyr.
The letters are in the possession of his nephew Ger and have never been seen outside the family circle before.
They tell you much about the man and what motivated him to fight and, ultimately, die in the Spanish Civil War.
Born 110 years ago, Thomas Patten was the tenth child of John and Mary ‘Maimie’ Patten from Dooega on Achill Island.
Tommy Patten left Achill in 1932 to work as a labourer in Guinness’s London brewery.
There he became involved with the Republican Congress, a socialist republican group.
He was, as Ger Patten recounts, a big believer in social justice. His brother Owenie said in 1986 that the poverty of Achill in the 1920s and 1930s gave Tommy a natural sympathy with the Spanish people.
Europe in 1936 was a tinder box waiting to erupt and it was Spain where tensions came to the boil, a harbinger of what was to come with World War II.
There were huge social tensions in Spain between the rich and the poor, the establishment and the working class. Tommy was full square on the side of the working class.
A new Spanish socialist republic in the early 1930s had made huge changes. Women were given the vote, workers rights were increased, the region of Catalonia was given greater autonomy, the Catholic Church lost its special status, while the monarchy had been disposed. Such reforms were far from universally popular, however.
In 1936 the left leaning Popular Front won the election by an extremely narrow majority.
It became clear they could not keep a lid on the huge growing chasm in Spanish society between the conservative opposition who wanted no change and the radical working class trade unions, both anarchists and socialists, who wanted a total transformation of Spanish society.
Matters erupted when nationalists, led by General Franco, revolted and took power. Republicans, largely loyal to the Popular Front, fought back and the Civil War was underway.
With similar social tensions simmering across the continent, the eyes of Europe were on Spain and people came from over 50 countries to fight in the Spanish Civil War, on both sides.
Tommy Patten was one of around 1,000 Irish people to take part and the first Irishman to lose his life in the war.
He departed London on his own in October, 1936. His brother Owenie recalled the departure at a 50th anniversary commemoration in 1986.
On the platform at Euston Station in London, Tommy bade what would be a final farewell to Owenie. The two swapped watches and Owenie told his brother ‘you’d want to watch them Facist bullets’ to which Tommy replied ‘the bullet that will get me won’t get a Spanish worker’. Owenie was wearing his brother’s watch at the commemoration in 1986 and it is still in the possession of the family.
Tommy wrote several letters home when he landed in Spain.
Fortunately, some of them still remain in the possession of his nephew Ger.
While much has been written about Tommy in the past by contemporaries of his, never have we heard any primary accounts.
The letters help to reveal the type of man Tommy was and what motivated him to travel to a strange land to take part in a civil war.
Writing to a family friend whom he just calls Seán, Tommy’s letters give witness to what he saw on his journey through Spain and the sense of social justice his nephew Ger refers to is obvious.
On October 23, 1936 he wrote a letter where he detailed what he had seen thus far. The chasm between rich and poor, between the establishment and the ordinary people was very apparent in one town where Tommy recounted that ‘the priest owned half the town and lived in the best house in the town’ while the workers were ‘forced up the mountains’.
This state of affairs did not sit well with the Achill man and he detailed the support the Republicans received from the ordinary people of Spain.
“I have travelled over 500 miles of this country and what I have seen I am quite sure we will win but it will take a long time and many a life lost.
“All along the line thousands of people meet us, even the school children with closed fists. The poor people are behind us and with their help we will win.
“Every day one sees hundreds of country men and women coming in to town offering their services to the militia,” he said.
‘Treated like a king’
Tommy Patten was wounded in battle subsequently and wrote another letter to Seán from hospital in Madrid on November 29,1936. It is possibly his last letter.
“Just a short note to say I am quite well again and will be joining the boys in a few days time. The people are so nice to me that I will feel ever so lonely leaving it. I am treated like a king. I get anything I were to ask for.”
He mentions he gets plenty of food and drink and also was treated to a hip bottle of whiskey.
His love for the ordinary Spaniards is as clear as his hatred for the actions of the Franco led nationalists.
“Seán if you travelled the world you would not find nicer people than the Spanish … More friendly than the Irish people.
“God is in no way just when he allows angels to fly from Franco artillery to kill these poor people who are fighting for a new world to live in,” he wrote.
The importance of the Civil War beyond Spain is clear to Tommy Patten with a Marxist reference.
“Spain has united the workers of the world. Never in history were they so united when you come to Spain you shake hands with the workers of the globe who know that Spain is the key of happiness not to Spain alone but to the workers of the world and we must fight and fight Hell to hold that key,” he wrote.
Tommy was a man of his word and, sadly, his words to his brother Owenie were prophetic. He took a bullet that could have killed a Spaniard and Tommy Patten lost lost his life on the night of December 16/17, 1936.Although his date of birth has been hard to confirm, one account says he died one day shy of his 26th birthday.
The Republicans were, ultimately, defeated by Franco’s forces and he went on to rule Spain as a dictator from 1939 until his death in 1975.
World War II would follow in the wake of the Spanish Civil War and many of the social tensions in Spain prevailed in that war too.
Tommy Patten is buried in Spain but back in his native Dooega, he has never been forgotten.
“We admire what he did. He was a very brave man. They all were. We are proud of him. He probably knew he wouldn’t be coming home,” said Ger Patten.
In the garden of the house where Tommy Patten grew up in Dooega on Achill Island sits a rose bush which has stood there for almost 100 years, despite the wild weather that sweeps in from the nearby bay.
It was brought home by Tommy Patten as a gift to his mother on one of his last trips to his native Achill Island before he went to Spain.
With his death, the importance of the rose bush grew. Its presence was keeping a part of Tommie alive.
His parents made sure to tell their son Michael and his wife Bridget to tend to it after they went. Bridget passed on the instruction to her son Ger and Ger’s wife Norma.
And so, 84 years after his death, the bush stands testimony to the fighting spirit in Tommy Patten. Battling against the odds.
This song is a tribute to Frank Ryan
Kit Conway and Dinny Coady too
Peter Daly, Charlie Regan and Hugh Bonar
Though many died I can but name a few
Danny Boyle, Blaser-Brown and Charlie Donnelly
Liam Tumilson and Jim Straney from the Falls
Jack Nalty, Tommy Patten and Frank Conroy
Jim Foley, Tony Fox and Dick O’Neill
Viva la Quinta Brigada
“No Pasaran”, the pledge that made them fight
“Adelante” is the cry around the hillside
Let us all remember them tonight
Viva la Quinta Brigada
Tommy Patten was one of 14 children. The list of siblings in full, from eldest to youngest, is as follows: Bridget, Catherine, Patrick, Martin, Julia, Mary, Anne, John, Sarah, Tommy, Owen, Margaret, Michael and Manus. The eldest, Bridget, didn’t meet her youngest sibling, Manus, until both were working as ‘tatie hokers’ (potato pickers) in Scotland.