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Images of Spanish Civil War volunteers now on line

category international | history and heritage | other press author Friday February 08, 2008 03:22author by anarchaeologist - PRA Report this post to the editors

Photographs of Frank Ryan, Pat Read and other volunteers of the XV International Brigade are now on line at the link below. Thanks to the Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library in New York.
Frank Ryan and John Robinson
Frank Ryan and John Robinson

Despite his being the subject of three biographies and notwithstanding the numerous contemporary accounts to his time in Spain on the staff and on the front line with the XV International Brigade, Frank Ryan remains a relatively unknown character, whose fundamental political motivations remain obscured by the many myths that have grown up around him.
Ryan was in Spain for two periods during the war, his second stint ending in his capture by Italian troops at Calaceite in March 1938. His imprisonment and eventual removal and death in Nazi Germany have overshadowed his activities in Spain, which are heavily nuanced by the conflicting ideologies hidden by the apparent unity of the popular front aligned against Franco and his fascist allies.
The discovery of another image of Ryan from this period perhaps adds something to our perception of him as a loyal officer in the Comintern army. The discovery of two images of Pat Read, an Irish born anarchist who served in the Lincoln Battalion of the XV Brigade, questions a received concept of the political homogeneity of the International Brigades as an irrevocably Stalinist construct, a position amplified by Ken Loach in Land and Freedom.

Images of Ryan
Discounting images of his in captivity, previously published photographs of Ryan in Spain have fallen into two categories: shots of Ryan in the uniform of captain and then major in the army of the Spanish Republic and Ryan in the ‘uniform’ of the miliciano, the category within which the photograph published here belongs.
This image of Ryan as a commissioned officer in the army of the Republic is presented on the cover of Seán Cronin’s biography Frank Ryan, the search for the republic, published in 1980 by OSF comrades in Gardiner Place. Four photographs inside all appear to have been taken around the same period after Ryan returned to Spain in June 1937. One caption specifies a day in December, where Ryan stands smoking beside Ernest Hemingway somewhere ‘outside Madrid’.
Two of the other images depict Ryan in uniform, minus his officer’s headgear (on account apparently of his having a larger than normal head). In one exposure (possibly from a cropped frame) Ryan cradles a cigarette in his left hand, leaning slightly perhaps towards a conversation being conducted out of shot. Ryan was at this point, at the age of 35, quite deaf. A second exposure has Ryan drinking from a cup among a group of volunteers on ‘time out’ from the front lines. Ryan’s crisp uniform, Sam Browne belt, shirt and tie present a stark contrast to the clothing of those behind him and indeed to that of the volunteer in front of him who has a bandaged head wound.
A third image published by Cronin depicts Ryan as Latin Lothario, down on bended knee presenting a potted plant to a visibly bemused Spanish woman. Ryan apparently wrote of the photograph ‘Christ what a war! You could win Spain, but you couldn’t win a Spanish woman - not even with flowers and least of all by force of arms!’. This shot may have been taken on another occasion; he’s in uniform, but minus his Sam Browne and as per usual, his officer’s cap.
Cronin publishes another undated image of Ryan among a group of officers and NCOs in a formally posed photograph, typical of many taken of IB volunteers throughout the war. Here Ryan wears an open necked shirt under his Sam Browne belt, a look more in keeping with that of his comrades and the early political ethos of the Brigades (an image certainly not appropriated by the one formally attired officer in the group).
It is difficult to date this photograph: both Ryan and Jim Prendergast were wounded at the battle of the Jarama in February 1937 and spent some time recuperating in hospital afterwards. Ryan still had his arm in a sling on his return to Dublin in late March. Peter Daly, standing beside Ryan, was to be killed on Purburrell Hill on the Aragon front in August, which would perhaps date the photograph to the summer of 1937.

Other images of Ryan
An image of Ryan in hospital immediately after Jarama appears in Michael O’Riordan’s Connolly Column, first published by the CPI in 1979. Ryan’s left arm is in a sling, his right arm around the shoulder of another Irish volunteer, Bill Scott. Fred Copeman, the self appointed leader of the British Battalion (to which most Irish volunteers belonged) is also in the picture, sporting a similar wound to Ryan’s. Where the latter wears a polka dot sling, Copeman grins manically at the photographer, his left arm in regulation hospital gauze. O’Riordan failed to caption him in the photograph which is interesting, as Copeman was a well known Party member who surely would have been known to O’Riordan after the war. He would certainly known him by reputation. Perhaps Copeman’s dismissal of the Irish in his 1948 autobiography Reason in Revolt mightn’t have tickled O’Riordan’s nationalist funny bone. To be fair to O’Riordan though, Copeman was a bit of a headcase.
Other pictures of Ryan survive. He appears as a blurry image in several of the accounts written by former volunteers in the period immediately after the war. One written account, that of the sculptor Jason Gurney, is curious in that it has Ryan captured with the British Battalion machine gun company on the second day at Jarama. If Irish and American sources are to be believed, Ryan and Jock Cunningham, a Scottish communist and political commissar in the Battalion, rallied demoralised and shell shocked stragglers well to the rear and brought them back up the front, where they recaptured positions taken the previous evening either by Moorish troops or Spanish Foreign Legionnaires. Ryan’s subsequent capture and disappearance were well known by the time Gurney published his book in 1974. Most on the left would have known of his ‘escape’ to Berlin and death in Dresden in 1944.

The XV Brigade Photographic Unit
The image of Ryan posted here is from the archive of the Photographic Unit of the XV Brigade, some of the exposures listed on the site can be accessed at the link below. The photographers appear to have been mostly American and a good proportion of the shots depict their comrades in the Lincoln Battalion and the Canadian Mac-Paps. Although there was a small but historically vocal Irish contingent in the Lincolns, I’ve been unable to spot any other pictures of Irish volunteers, with the exception of those shots of Pat Read, an IWW activist. There appear however to be two photographs of Paddy O’Daire, who achieved senior rank in the British Battalion by the time of the Ebro offensive in 1938. O’Daire incidentally, was to survive the war and take part in a bizarre experiment in 1939 with three other comrades from the Brigade where they we locked within a ‘stimulated compressor’ (if you’re to believe Mick O’Riordan), and made experience the conditions under which submariners suffer when trapped underwater. As if Jarama, Brunete and Belchite weren’t bad enough.
In October 1937, Ryan was photographed by the Unit along with John Robinson. At this stage Robinson, an English communist, was the Adjutant Political Commissar of the Brigade. Both men squint over the right shoulder of the photographer at something of mutual interest in the distance. Robinson wears a beret and a Sam Browne over a military shirt. A rank badge of Captain in the Republican army hangs from his breast pocket. Ryan on the other hand in a leather zip-up jacket, collar up. A rebel with a cause, albeit on a bad hair day. What’s startling about the photograph is that if the Stalinists were to magically remove Robinson from the negative, Ryan could have belonged to any period in our past 80 years.

The right image for the job
I don’t wish to speculate on why Ryan went to Spain or what motivated him to come back, I’m more interested in what he did when he was in the country and the responsibilities he undertook in the midst of a social revolution. I wonder if this aspect of his career in Spain can be explored by his clothing? Two themes seem to emerge here:
Despite his seniority within the Irish contingent, Ryan never appears to have held a command position in the field. There was some consternation among the Irish when Kit Conway, an IRA volunteer and Party member, with admittedly significantly more experience as a guerrilla, was appointed leader. Ryan performed well enough though when the crunch came. As he was rounding up stragglers in the olive groves behind the lines at Jarama, Copeman was riddling a large wine barrel with a machine gun. The French volunteers who’d found it hadn’t had a drink for two days and were probably quite annoyed.
Conway was killed at the beginning of the battle along with several other personalities of the unit. Charlie Donnelly, the Tyrone poet, was killed with the Lincolns a few days later. I think that out of something like 600 volunteers (most with no combat experience and badly armed), maybe 150 were left standing at the end of the second day. Most near-contemporary accounts of Jarama don’t mention the after shock factor of the battle. Gurney’s account is the most obvious exception, where he describes his breakdown on the second day with elegance and candour.
Ryan’s presence at Jarama saved Madrid from being surrounded and despite contemporary accounts of English writers, his military capabilities must have been seen and appreciated by General Gal, who’d waved the troops over the top as they all sang the Internationale. Ryan was never given a command post, although he may have been overlooked in the rearrangement of the Brigade immediately after the initial battle. Copeman in any case took over the British Battalion.

Ryan and the Party
Ryan’s problem was that he never joined the Party; moreover, he doesn’t even appear to have made the attempt to look the part. Someone who worked on Ken Loach’s treatment of the suppression of POUM and its militia once told me that the main Irish character (played by David MacWilliams) was based on Frank Ryan. Well perhaps if their clothing is considered as a visual influence, this may well be true. I wonder though if Ryan’s disavowal of the military uniform in favour of the practical work clothes of the volunteers signalled his mistrust of the Republican army and the Communist Party which was increasing its control over it?
Ryan appears on a photograph in uniform perhaps in the autumn of 1937, entertaining Hemingway during a visit to Madrid and the front lines. He’s also seen in uniform hanging out with the troops behind the lines at Jarama or Brunete. By now, he appears to have ceased to have an already undefined function as Brigades liaison officer and was employed on the propaganda front. As a non-Party member, this was an unusual post to hold. Ryan appears to have returned to Spain to bring back those who came over with him or in his wake. To achieve this, a certain conformity was required. And if Ryan never joined the Party, he now certainly dressed as if he had. He was captured in his officer’s uniform, which nearly cost him his life.

There are many ways to read Ryan, those most critical have examined his support of physical force nationalism and his less than honest relationship with democratic politics. That’s however unfair and mostly unsubstantiated. In Spain however, he made public pronouncements supporting the Party line on the suppression of the POUM and the anarchists. He must have known the whole story. His political mentor Peadar O’Donnell was on friendly terms with both groups before the war and was attending CNT events, even as the generals rebelled. He and his wife went to the Aragon front along with the CNT militia. The anarchists were referred to among some of the Irish as ‘Peadar’s friends’, perhaps to throw any listening political commissars off the scent of dissent.
The most poignant image of Ryan appears in Cronin’s book. It’s the summer of 1941. Ryan stands erect, his shoulders slightly backwards. He’s wearing a fashionable suit but he’s terribly gaunt and by this stage profoundly deaf. He wasn’t yet 40. Helmut Clissmann, his military intelligence handler, bends forward slightly, accepting a light from Ryan for his cigarette. Creased summer suit, foppish haircut. Ryan holds his unlit cigarette in his left hand. Clissmann was, after all, an officer in a fascist army who had supplied the artillery support for the Nationalist assault on Jarama which had killed so many of his comrades in the XV Brigade.
The last known photograph of Frank Ryan has him staring-out the passport photographer, still defiant, or perhaps in shock at his situation. He died a few weeks later.

Pat Read
The two other images are of Pat Read (sometimes Reid). I won’t detain the reader any further with my musings on this lieutenant with the Lincolns who’d organised with the Revolutionary Workers’ Party in the ‘20s and had joined the Wobblies in the States. Harry Owens recently brought him to my attention and Ciaran Crossey has gathered some links on him in his Ireland and the SCW website.

Related Link:

Frank Barcena and Pat Read
Frank Barcena and Pat Read

Pat Read and Harry Fisher
Pat Read and Harry Fisher

author by Andrewpublication date Sat Feb 09, 2008 00:06author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Fascinating article and analysis of what there images mean

I'm curious about Pat Read - do you refer to him as an anarchist just because of his later membership of the IWW or there other reasons as well

author by Ciaran - Int. Brigades Commemoration Committeepublication date Sat Feb 09, 2008 19:51author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Pat Read was a member of the IWW from 1919 until at least the early 1940s, he died in 1947.

He was for several years the editor of the IWW paper, Industrial Worker, so it's a safe bet he considered himself, and was considered by others in the movement in America, to be an activist anarchist.

The initial article was interesting, one thing I'm not 100% on. The John Robinson referred to may well be English, but I think it's more likely to be John Robinson, a Belfast born, New York based dockers leader, an CPUSA member.

Related Link:
author by anarchaeologist - PRApublication date Sun Feb 10, 2008 00:10author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I'm afraid I've little else to offer on Pat Read. There's a brief sketch in one of the accounts of the Lincoln Battalion which I can't locate at the moment. I think it refers to his eating with the men, rather than with the officers and to his demanding a soldier's rate of pay. I've heard he had a bizarre sense of humour... There may well be more info out there on him.

Regarding Comrade Robinson, I'd imagine Ciaran's right and he was with the Lincolns. He's on O'Riordan's list of IB survivors as John Quigley Robinson and seems to be one of the less well known Irish IBistas, yet one with a few mug shots in the XV Brigade archive. I wonder why he's not that well known?

Getting back to Frank Ryan... The out of focus head and shoulders shot of Ryan on the cover of Feargal McGarry's Frank Ryan was well chosen. McGarry was criticised for dividing Ryan's life into neat categories. The final chapter entitled Collaborator, 1938-44 was particularly controversial. I mention it here because the book is reasonably cheap at €9; moreover it's quite thin and easily removable from one or two of the large multi-nationals selling books on Dawson Street. Have a read and make up your own mind.

Political orthodoxy within the IBs is something that hasn't really been explored in the historiography. It is quite likely that anarchists such as Read turned up in the ranks of the IBs, when an accident of train timetables or casual acquaintance may have had them as easily in the CNT militias on the Aragon front.

The Lincolns seem to have been less influenced by CP orthodoxy than the British and I've often wondered if the much vaunted Irish revolt within the British Battalion was an attempt to buy into this. There was a general assumption that the typical British officer, irrespective of his party membership, was essentially a Black and Tan, a soldier of adventure disinterested in class war.

The extant individual accounts of the war represent the ideologies of the survivors, who in turn have mostly tended to support the political agenda of the CP. A lot of volunteers didn't make it. Their stories are gone.

We're now approaching the 71st anniversary of the battle of Jarama. It will be commemorated on site on the morning of Saturday 16 February by a small anarchist contingent from Dublin.

Madrid papers please copy.

author by and Dinny Coady too..publication date Mon Feb 11, 2008 13:27author address BCNauthor phone Report this post to the editors

Christy Moore - Viva La Quince Brigada

Ten years before I saw lhe light of morning
A comradeship of heroes was laid.
From every corner of the world came sailing
The Fifteenth Inlernational Brigade.
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.
Even the olives were bleeding
As the battle for Madrid it thundered on.
Truth and love against the force af evil,
Brotherhood against the Fascist clan.

Vive La Quince Brigada!
"No Paseran" the pledge that made them fight.
"Adelante" was the cry around the hillside.
Let us all remember them tonight.

Bob Hillard was a Church of Ireland pastor;
From Killarney across the Pyrenees ho came.
From Derry came a brave young Christian Brother.
Side by side they fought and died in Spain.
Tommy Woods, aged seventeen, died in Cordoba.
With Na Fianna he learned to hold his gun.
From Dublin to the Villa del Rio
Where he fought and died beneath the Spanish sun.


Many Irishmen heard the call of Franco.
Joined Hitler and Mussolini too.
Propaganda from the pulpit and newspapers
Helped O'Duffy to enlist his crew.
The word came from Maynooth: 'Support the Fascists.'
The men of cloth failed yet again
When the bishops blessed the blueshirts in Dun Laoghaire
As they sailed beneath the swastika to Spain.


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 Doyle, Blaser-Brown and Charlie Donnelly.
Liam Tumilson and Jim Straney from the Falls.
Jack Nally, Tommy Patton and Frank Conroy,
Jim Foley, Tony Fox and Dick O'Neill.


Christy Moore wrote the song about the Irishmen who went to Spain to fight against Franco and the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. It has been sung by many singers and groups since.The tune dates back to the Napoleonic Wars according to Christy Moore in his book "One Voice", written in 1983 whilst he was in Spain and inspired by Mick O'Riordan's book "the Connolly Column".

video includes old footage

Related Link:
author by rorypublication date Wed Jun 02, 2010 12:34author email obrienrory at yahoo dot comauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

First of all, thanks for those really enlightening comments on the photos of Frank Ryan. Personally, as someone who has carried out considerable research into the SCW and particpates in the annual commemorations of Jarama and Brunete, I was glad to see you made an attempt to place and date the photographs. It's quite annoying in a lot of history books of the SCW to see pictures of "Casa Velazquez destroyed by shelling" ( for example) with no reference to where, or what, the Casa Velazquez was. (It's been restored, BTW, and is next to the Complutense University rugby grounds where the Spanish national team plays).
Secondly, I would dearly love to know more about the photo with the "bemused" Spanish woman and the flower pot. In my case I would have to agree completely with Frank's comment on this one, but let's not go there!! What I'm really looking for is the when and where of this photo. Clearly from the woman's coat it is winter, possibly 1937-38 as I presume Frank would not have had his uniform made by the time of Jarama and furthermore, no bandaged wound is visible. My theory is that the woman is a telephonist working in the Telef'onica building and the rooftop scene is possibly the open space on the 14th (top) floor of the Telefonica before it rises up into a decorative turret.
If anyone could enlighten me on that one, I'd really appreciate it.

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