Margate’s Tommy Rhattigan is a best-selling author, poet, songwriter and now ‘accidental artist’ having only discovered that talent in his mid-60s.
By any standards these are achievements to be proud of but for Tommy they are a spectacular V sign to a system that literally taught him nothing other than how to survive the most brutal circumstances and a brush with death at the hands of vile Moors murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady.
Born in Athlone, Ireland, into an Irish Gypsy family, he was just 10-months old when he was snatched out of the arms of his 10-year-old sister by the local priest and Garda and incarcerated in an Industrial School for almost six-years.
Tommy, a dad of three and grandad of 11, said: “It was an era when the Catholic church was taking children away from unmarried mothers including Travellers. I was in a home for six years and then reunited with my parents who then moved to Manchester.”
But that was just the beginning for Tommy who was one of 13 siblings of an abusive and alcoholic father and a drunk negligent mother.
The move to the slums of inner-city Hulme in Manchester was a learning ground for surviving crippling poverty and brutal abuse – and the place where an eight -year-old Tommy escaped the clutches of the notorious Moors Murderers in November 1963.
Those years, and that brush with pure evil, feature in Tommy’s first book – 1963: A Slice of Bread and Jam, which was published in 2017 by Mirror Books and which is a Sunday Times bestseller.
Tommy said: “The book is about my life as a kid living in poverty in Manchester and an unfortunate meeting with Myra Hindley, who took me back to her grandparents’ house.
“I went with her, whilst Brady had followed a short distance behind. When I was in the house, she brought me some bread and jam but there was something not right about the way she slapped the plate down on the table.
“Her demeanour had changed. When I first saw her, she had an air of confidence about her, but in the house she’d seemed very nervous and there was something about her I didn’t like. This had set alarm bells ringing and so, when she went back into the kitchen, I managed to open and climb out of a window!”
But that meeting was not the most traumatic period of Tommy’s life. That same year Tommy, a persistent truant and having spent only two years living with his family, was placed in the care of the local authority and spent the rest of his childhood in children’s homes and later in approved schools until he was 15, where he encountered horrendous abuse.
Tommy’s second book, Boy Number 26, was published in 2019 and charts those years in ‘care’ in a mix of brutal honesty but also mischief and humour.
He is now writing the third, and final, book in the trilogy, In The Name of The Father and of The Nun, with a target publication date of next Summer.
In 2009/10 Tommy also co-wrote a song with former 10cc star Graham Gouldman.
He said: “Graham wrote the lyrics for the chorus, and I wrote the verses. The song is called Good Planets are Hard to Find and is about global warming and the world we are living in now. He told me he’d been jamming the song with ‘Paul McCartney!”
Tommy has been part of several documentaries about Hindley and Brady and has also done TV and radio interviews including with Piers Morgan, Lorraine Kelly and Loose Women.
Some three years ago Tommy also found he had a talent for painting and dubbed himself The Accidental Artist.
His work in acrylics consist of varied subjects from nuns, Christ, religion to industrial Manchester and local scenes, and recently, a painting called ‘Me, painting Pete the Street, painting Banksy’s St Valentine’s Day Mascara (below),’ which met with a swell of approval including from artist Pete the Street himself.
Tommy said: “Until almost three years ago I had no interest in art at all.
“After a heart attack in 2020 I saw a call out for local artists and just decided to have a go and see if I could do something.”
That resulted in a painting depicting the impact of Covid on NHS staff.
Tommy added: “That wasn’t actually my first painting though, the first one was an image of Christ, which I couldn’t believe was something I could have done.”
The works created by Tommy include portraits, smoky industrial landscapes and more recently street scenes reminiscent of an LS Lowry style.
He has exhibited in Margate – at the Red-Light exhibition in the former Primark building. He had asked a priest to come and bless his Rogues Gallery exhibit but when the priest arrived, he fled after viewing the subject matter! That reaction was [unbeknown to the priest] part of the exhibition! He and several family members, including his children, have also had work in the Tate Modern London exhibition focused on the mass eviction of Traveller families from Dale Farm in Essex.
Next up is a planned multi-media installation next Spring which will be called ‘Echoes of a Childhood Passed’
Tommy said: “It will be based on my memories as a child in Ireland and being a victim of the abuse run by the Catholic church and its Sisters of Mercy.
“In Tuam there was a mother and baby home where almost 800 skeletal remains of children aged from birth to four-year old were found thrown into a disused cesspit. The exhibition will also be an acknowledgement of those children who never had their voices heard.”
Daughter Tamara is helping with that exhibition and is looking for a suitable venue.
The exhibition will show work from Tommy’s life now and back into his younger life as the visitors move through the site and will bring Tommy’s memoirs to life through words, music, paintings, and art installation.
*The Moors murders were carried out by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley between July 1963 and October 1965, in and around Manchester, England. The victims were five children—Pauline Reade, John Kilbride, Keith Bennett, Lesley Ann Downey, and Edward Evans—aged between 10 and 17, at least four of whom were sexually assaulted.
The bodies of two of the victims were discovered in 1965, in graves dug on Saddleworth Moor; a third grave was discovered there in 1987, more than twenty years after Brady and Hindley’s trial. Bennett’s body is also thought to be buried there, but despite repeated searches it remains undiscovered.
The pair were charged only for the murders of Kilbride, Downey and Evans, and received life sentences under a whole life tariff.
Hindley was never released and died in 2002 in West Suffolk Hospital, aged 60, after serving 36 years in prison.
Brady died in 2017, at high security Ashworth Hospital, aged 79, having served 51 years.