Fighting Franco: the First Irish Casualties of the Spanish Civil War

In 1936 Spanish democracy was attacked when General Franco led a fascist coup against the elected Republican government. What followed was a bitterly fought fight over the next few years between left wing Republicans and right wing fascists. This conflict saw an influx of fighters from other countries fight on behalf of the Republicans, including many from Ireland who never came back.

The first Irish men to die fighting against fascism in Spain were Tommy Patten and Jack ‘Blue’ Barry.

Patten was born on Achill Island off the West coast of Ireland in 1910, one of 14 children who grew up in an Irish speaking home. As a teenager, Patten and his brother ventured across the Irish sea to find work in England.

Patten laboured on sites across England, including the building of the Guinness brewery in London, which became his last job before heading to Spain in 1936.

Patten had rebel blood flowing through his veins, so while in England he joined the London branch of the Republican Congress and when Franco’s fascists started to lay waste to democracy in Spain he decided to take a stand.

In October ’36 Patten travelled alone to Spain. On the platform at Euston station, Patten bid his brother goodbye and the two swapped watches. Patten’s brother quipped to his departing sibling ‘to watch out for them fascists bullets’, to which Patten replied ‘ the bullet that will get me won’t get a Spanish worker.’

When Patten reached Spain he joined a local militia to defend the city of Madrid from Franco’s troops who were besieging it.

Jack ‘Blue’ Barry was born William Jack Barry in Dublin on August 23rd 1889 but like many an Irishman then and now, he found a new life in Australia. Barry was employed as a seaman in Melbourne but like Patten in London, Barry held left wing Republican views and joined the local Communist party.

In July ’36 Barry arrived in Barcelona to take part in the Workers Olympics but it was cancelled due to the fascist coup. Barry refused to go back to the safety of Australia and within a month he had enlisted in a unit of the Republican forces to fight the might of Franco’s fascists.

The December 26th issue of The Worker newspaper contained a late report regarding the fate of Tommy Patten and Jack ‘blue’ Barry. It reported how Patten was reported missing after he volunteered to hold off advancing troops at the gates of Madrid with a mere rifle while his comrades tried to dismantle machine guns and make good their get away. It stated that ‘ hopes are held that Patten may have succeeded in escaping capture by the fascist enemy.’ That same report stated that Patten’s comrade ‘Barry was found dead with his rifle still clasped in his hands.’

Those reading that news report didn’t know it then but like Barry, Patten had also succumbed to fascist’s bullets on December 18th, just a day before his 26th birthday.

The siege of Madrid lasted two and a half years, from October 1936 until it fell to Franco’s forces in March 1939. The famous slogan synonymous with those fighting fascism in Spain  ‘ No Pasaran!’ (they shall not pass) was coined during the defence of Madrid and became a rallying call for those like Barry and Patten who stood against Franco.
Both Patten and 47 year old Barry were laid to rest in Spanish soil. In 1986 a monument was unveiled in honour of

Tommy Patten on Achill Island which overlooks his homestead at Dooega. It’s inscription reads that Patten had ‘ fought bravely and died in the defence of Madrid 1936 for the Spanish Republic and all oppressed people.’

A year after Barry died in Madrid, the secretary of the Spanish Relief Committee in Melbourne, Len Fox, wrote a short poem in memory of the Dubliner:

Barry is dead, we clench our fists who know
He died for freedom on the fields of Spain,
His grave among those ancient hills will show
Eureka’s spirirt lives and burns again.

Tommy Patton and Jack ‘blue’ Barry became the first Irish causalities of the Spanish Civil War, but they would not be the last. Many more Irishmen would take up arms against Franco’s fascists and pay the ultimate sacrifice for doing so.

Pauline Murphy is a freelance writer from Ireland.