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.
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.
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.