Memories of the Republican Congress 1934-84
Patrick Byrne, joint secretary with Frank Ryan and Fran Edwards
Irish Democrat, May 1984
This month we proudly present to our readers a long article by Mr Patrick Byrne giving the inside story of the Republican Congress exclusively to the Irish Democrat
At present there appears to be an awakening interest in the 1930s. The BBC has recently shown on television features dealing with the rise of Hitler, the Second World War, and a very good serial on the Spanish Civil War, when survivors were able to speak for the first time (Spain now having a socialist government) about the events in which they were actively engaged.
This renewed interest in the political and social conditions obtaining 50 years ago may be due to the similarity that exists at present to that depressing period. Unemployment then, as now, was three and a half millions. The trade union movement was under great pressure. In Germany it had been wiped out at a stroke by Hitler in 1933, as Mussolini had earlier extinguished it in Italy. In Britain a strong Conservative government was engaged in depressing the living standards of the mass of the people. Poverty was widespread in the cities and the countryside, and huge hunger marches were the order of the day.
On four occasions in the past year I have been asked to speak to Irish and Socialist groups on the subject of the Republican Congress. When I spoke at a meeting in Manchester, under the auspices of the Labour Committee on Ireland, a member of the audience, a Professor of History, told me that it was my 'duty' to commit to writing the events I had tried to describe, as a permanent record. He pointed out that very little is known from the standpoint of the rank and file of great racial movements of the past, for the same reason that working people were not always literate, and those who were, had not the time, or the means of recording the struggles in which they were engaged. So that too often what we know of the Levellers, the Luddites, the Chartists and the Fenians, has been absorbed from the unsympathetic writings of middle class hacks, and hostile bourgeois historians.
Of the Republican Congress movement in Ireland in the Thirties little has been recorded. There are two pamphlets by George Gilmore, and the splendid serial, also from his pen, that has appeared in recent issues of the Irish Democrat
. The subject is also mentioned in Frank Ryan
by Sean Cronin, and inPeadar O'Donnell - Irish Social Rebel
by Michael McInery. Of course, the files of the Republican Congress
(in the North under the heading of the Northern Worker
) and the other papers published by the Congress, The Irish People
, and The Irish Democrat
will provide a mine of information for the student of revolutionary movements of the period. Writing in London, without reference to these sources, I must rely mainly on my memory of those exciting events, and the wonderful people I had the honour and privilege of working with in the fight against Fascism and for a Socialist Ireland.
My earliest memories are of the Easter Rebellion in Dublin in 1916. I was rising four years of age at he time and vividly recall the panic and prayers within our home, and the gun fire and red skies without. Growing up in such a revolutionary era, I naturally gravitated in time to membership of Sinn Fein and its 'military wing', the IRA. The organisation then (1929) bore little, if any, resemblance to the present 'Provos'. The IRA was still a powerful, well-organised and well-disciplined organisation. It was only three years since the leadership had included Eamon De Valera, Sean Lemass, Thomas Aiken, and other civil war leaders, who deciding upon a new approach, had taken their seats in the Dail, and in June 18927 only failed by the Speaker's casting vote to bring the Free State government down. In the general election in 1932 they were victorious.
Fianna Fail had received considerable support from the IRA in the election campaign. Two days after taking office talks were resumed between De Valera and the Army Council (IRA) about the possibility of fusing the two movements. They both drew their support from the urban and rural working class and the small farming community, and their aims were almost identical. The outcome, however, was inconclusive.
This was a tome of great depression in Western Europe in general, and in Ireland, north and south, in particular. There was a quarter of a million unemployed in the island out of a population of about four millions. Conditions in the North were, if anything, worse than in the Free State. The shipyards were almost at a standstill. 20,000 workers in the linen industry were idle. In the slums of Belfast 8,000 children were declared by the Belfast Executive Committee to be suffering from malnutrition.
The South was also enduring severe economic depression There was mass unemployment, poverty and starvation in the crowded slums of Dublin, Waterford, Cork and elsewhere; stagnation in the countryside. Evictions from smallholdings, and mass emigration was on a scale unequalled since the 1880's.
The gathering storm of frustration and anger broke in Belfast. The Irish Press
of 4 October 1932, reported '10,000 unemployed marched in protest against the scale of relief paid in certain distress schemes. Eight shillings a week for a man to support his wife and family.' On 12 October the Press
reported: 'Cordon around Belfast. Street fighting in widely separated areas. Revolver and rifle firing by police on huge crowd of unemployed, especially in the Falls and Shankill area. John Greggan of Millfield shot dead. Samuel Baxter of Regent Street died of wounds received in an attack made on an armoured car that had become trapped in a trench.' The Belfast Telegraph
confessed that 'There was an exchange of mischief-makers all over the city. It was significant that for once the religious question did not enter into the trouble. Youths from Protestant areas were to be found in Catholic districts and vice versa.'
In this situation, while the revolution was being served up on a plate in Belfast, what was the IRA leadership doing? Organising a 'Boycott Bass' Campaign. Because of some disparaging remarks the Bass boss, Colonel Grettin, was reported to have made about the Irish, some IRA leaders took umbrage and sent units out onto the streets of Dublin and elsewhere to raid pubs, terrify the customers, and destroy perfectly good stocks of bottled Bass, an activity in which I regret to say I was engaged.
The Fianna Fail Party under the leadership of De Valera were now in government and endeavouring to implement the old Sinn Fein policy of 'self-reliance'. At that time agriculture was largely based on cattle ranching. Fianna Fail would speed the plough, break up the large under-utilised estates, and make the soil of Ireland available for the people of Ireland. To a great extent this policy succeeded. One spin-off was that when war came in 1939, the country was largely self-sufficient in food and as the ports had been returned in a position to remain neutral.
The battle for the Land Annuities commenced in 1933. The Land Annuities were payments made twice yearly by the farmers t meet the capital cost that had been involved in buying out the landlords at the time of the Treaty. The new Free State government had agreed to take over the collection of the tribute through the Land Commission and the sum involved some £5 millions being duly transferred to London. The payment of these annuities had been bitterly resented, and when an agitation to have them abolished commenced in County Donegal, instigated by the redoubtable Socialist-Republican leader, Peadar O'Donnell, the movement spread nationwide. The Fianna Fail government with the utmost reluctance were sucked into campaign and legislation to withhold the annuities was passed in the Dail. The National Government in Westminster, led by the Labour traitors, Ramsey MacDonald and J H Thomas, over-reacted to this measure and imposed crippling taxes on all Irish goods entering Britain.
This cold, or economic war lasted for six years. Irish industrialists were hard hit, but the farming community, especially the big cattle ranchers, sustained heavy losses.
Nevertheless, despite the hardship caused by these punitive measures, the people in general remained loyal to Fianna Fail, but not all. The opposition party then known as Cumann na nGaedheal developed a 'military wing' called the Blueshirts. This was a Fascist organisation composed mainly of disgruntled Free State officers, political opportunists, seasoned with lumpen-proletarian elements and led by a former police commissioner Eoin O'Duffy, who declared at a meeting in west Limerick in 1933 that "What the Blackshirts did for Italy and the Brownshirts did for Germany, the Blueshirts will do for Ireland." O'Duffy's "March on Dublin" was planned for 13 August and there was a general mobilisation of Blueshirts to coverage on Leinster House (the Dail). At the last moment the march was prohibited by the government, but already the city was swarming with Blueshirt bands. The I.R.A. leadership had remained withdrawn from this crisis, except to exhort their followers to avoid "party Politics", but large numbers of republicans and socialists were in the street to counter Blueshirt demonstrations. In February 1934, the Army Council (I.R.A.) issued an order that volunteers were "not to take part in any action against Fascist-imperialist organisations as this was not the policy in the Army."
This policy of isolation from the developing class struggle and non-resistance was causing great discontent in the rank and file of the Republican movement. The crisis came at the I.R.A. Annual Convention on 17 March 1934 in Dublin. Michael Price called for a declaration of a "workers republic" as the aim of the army. The Right leadership was shocked. Sean Russell said that they "were not interested in party politics." Peadar O Donnell called for a Republican Congress that would rally all shades of anti-fascist and republican opinion. This was opposed by the executive committee who won by one point. There, upon Peadar O'Donnell, Michael Price, George Gilmore and Frank Ryan left the convention and the I.R.A.
This procedure was to be repeated at similar conventions all over the country. At the Dublin Brigade convention, at which I was a delegate a motion calling for the adoption of a socialist policy was opposed by Sean McBride, who carried the meeting by a small majority. The dissidents, including myself immediately withdrew.
A special conference convened at Athlone on 7-8 April 1934, was attended by over 200 former I.R.A. leaders and prominent republicans and socialist and the call was issued for a Republican Congress.
"We believe that a Republic of a United Ireland will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots capitalism on its way. We cannot conceive a Free Ireland and a subject working class."
A supporting call was received from a special conference of Trade Unionists in Belfast.
"We are convinced that the horrors of the capitalist economic system, the menace of Fascism… the question of Irish National unity are inter-related problems, the solution of which can only be found in the solidarity of the workers, small farmers and peasants North and South."
The statement called for a Republican Congress and was signed by William McMullen, Chairman, Belfast Trades Council; William Craig (AEU); Murtagh Morgan (President IT&GWU, Belfast); J. Swindenbank (ETU); John Campbell, Daniel Loughran and P Hadden (Northern Ireland socialist party). (All Protestants)
The organisation of congress branches now proceeded throughout the country. A headquarters was established at 112 Marlborough Street, Dublin and a weekly paper "The Republican Congress" was launched. There was a new and wonderful spirit abroad, attracting especially the young. In fact some of our youthful helpers were so eager, I recall especially Miriam Gogarty, Oliver Norton and Miriam James, whom I feared were taking time off from school for congress work.
Nora Connolly in her last book wrote of the period:
"Then the Republican Congress came along, when there was a vacuum for political movement in Ireland. It was purely socialist as well. We wanted to start a new party and we wanted the Republican Congress to be the next government. We had so many people that it would have been. Everything was socialism at the time. The Republican Congress was very strong. It was a grand time. Often I would travel up and down the country with Mick Price organising branches."
In Dublin where I was actively involved, five branches were established, soon to be joined by a sixth branch composed of British ex service men with Captain Jack White as Chairman. This branch was a direct result of a new approach I had advocated to ex soldiers in an article "A message to ex-servicemen" which was published in "The Republican Congress" in November 1934. On Armistice Day a contingent of British ex-servicemen, proudly displaying their medals, marched with Republican Congress branches through cheering crowds of Dubliners in a demonstration against war and poverty. I had urged this new approach because of the disgust I felt when I saw some ex-servicemen being set upon for wearing their medals and poppies on their ragged coats.
Our past involvement with the I.R.A. weighed heavily for a time on the new organisation. An attempt was made to create a 'military wing' by resurrecting the Irish Citizen Army. We still had stocks of arms. There was more drilling in the hills and on one occasion when entering Congress headquarters in Marlborough Street, I saw through an open basement window, a class of workers engaged in small arms (revolver) drill.
This addiction to the traditional "physical force" side of the Republican Movement had limited advantages in that our members were used to discipline and quick mobilisation, but it was disastrous in that the struggle was not in a military stage and amongst other things it provided an escape route for opportunist Trade Union Leaders who were quite happy to see terrorism used as a substitute for industrial action.
For example, on one occasion when there was trouble on a public works project in a certain area of Dublin, it was decided to take action against a contractor who was behaving badly towards the workforce, by putting out of action a fleet of vehicles on the site. I was entrusted with this task; so with five men, all armed, we approached the scene of action. Bill Scott (later to serve in the International Brigade) seemed to appear from nowhere. 'Get to hell out of it, Pat. The place is swarming with the Special Branch.' I immediately 'dismissed' the squad telling them to separate and make their way quickly out of danger. I learned afterwards that the proposed sabotage had been discussed at an open trade union branch meeting. Other more ambitious militaristic adventures, including a raid on a barracks for arms, were rejected overwhelmingly in Committee.
Eventually, realistic political activity took over from militarism, and it was agreed to give the IRA their guns back (or most of them) provided they were ceremoniously received!
Congress branches everywhere took part in trade union activity, employing for the first time in Ireland the techniques of the mass picket. On one occasion 200 of our members were arrested for picketing a large store in Dublin where some employees were receiving a weekly wage of 12 shillings. The 200 served a term in Mountjoy Jail.
Tenant Leagues were formed in the cities. IN Dublin and Waterford especially shocking slum conditions were revealed. IN both cities some clerical involvement (as slum landlords) was uncovered. Every week our paper, The Republican Congress
, carried new horror stories of the Dublin slums. Thirty thousand families were living in single rooms, Forty-nine per cent of the city's housing was unfit for habitation. At this time I was Chairman of the Dublin United Tenant Leagues. I have only space to give three typical examples of life in the Dublin slums. I quote from reports in our paper:
"Climbing a rickety stairs I entered a small room over a vegetable store, or more properly speaking, a stable in the vicinity of Parnell Square. There was no fire (in April). There was one bed on which lay a married girl of 19, who was expecting a baby. The bedclothes were old coats. The husband, who was unemployed, was receiving 9 shillings a week outdoor assistance, of this sum six shillings went on rent, leaving three shillings for food and other necessities. On the day of my visit they had been living on rice for two days, but this was now exhausted."
"In the font 'parlour' of a house in Coleraine Street live the Keogh family. The room is eight feet square. It contains two beds, a table, and some chairs. At night 11 human beings pack into this den. On one bed seven of the children sleep. On the other the parents and two children rest. "
"Families of 12 are frequently found living in single rooms. In one house in Holles Street, 49 people are living."
The Tenants Leagues, run by Republican Congress personnel, organised rent strikes for better conditions. On one occasion the Third Dublin District Committee carried on a rent strike for two months affecting five streets in the vicinity of Westland Row, and finally won a 25% reduction in rent. At the same time the Fourth District Committee won rehousing by the Dublin Corporation for the tenants of Magee Court, a collection of filthy cottages fit only for the vermin abounding therein.
The rent strikes were most alarming. We told the tenants to without the rent, but no tot spend it, a difficult injunction for people on the borderline of starvation to comply with. We held street meetings in alleyways and courts, using borrowed chairs for a platform, and arranged to fight off any eviction fight.
Similar activity was taking place in Waterford where Frank Edwards ran foul of a local church dignitary. Frank was at that time a teacher in Mount Zion Christian Brothers School. He was asked by the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore to sign an undertaking that he would not remain a member in any organisation of which the Catholic Church disapproved. He refused, and was promptly sacked from his teachers post.
Frank, in an article published in the book, Survivors, recalled an issue of the Republican Congress
which displayed prominently on the front page a beautiful Red Flag with the words of Jim O'Connell's 'Red Flag' [the song] underneath. Frank wrote: "This caused nervous readers to protest that they were already under sufficient pressure from certain quarters without going out to seek it." He wondered why Frank Ryan had taken this step.
I was in the Congress headquarters in Marlborough Street with Frank Ryan when the issue arrived, bearing the red flag. I asked Frank why he had come out so strong. He told me that at the time f the truce in July 1921, he was commanded to take his unit of the Eat limerick Battalion to a local creamery that had been taken over by the workers who were flying the red flag, and to eject them. Frank carried out his orders and hauled down the red flag. This had since weighed heavily on his conscience, and he was now making amends.
The Congress branches did not confine their activities to tenant league agitation. They were engaged in assisting miners on strike at Castlecomer, taking part in hunger marches, and in rallies and demonstrations of all kinds. I was frequently in Belfast at this time and spoke at meetings deep in Shankill territory.
The movement now had to bear the full weight of reaction, lay and clerical. Connolly House, the headquarters of the Communist Party, was attacked by a mob and burned. Earlier, the Workers' College in Madame Despard's house in Eccles Street, had been their target. I was present in both places when under siege.
In Connolly House on the night of the attack I was in a room on the ground floor setting some leaflets from an antique printing press that had once been used for Connolly's Workers Republic
in 1913. I was not a member of the CP, but they allowed me this facility. There were books and papers on display in the front window. Suddenly this was shattered by flying stones. There was a mob gathering outside. I dashed out to bolt the street door. There was a meeting in progress upstairs. Paddy Flanagan of the National Union of Railwaymen was lecturing to about 80 people. Our first consideration was to get the 'civilians' out which we did by a back door, before the mob completed the encirclement of the building. We then went through the drill for a siege. Brian O'Neill was going about with a woodman's axe (I don't know where he got it). Johnnie Nolan and Jim Prendergast were barricading the stairs using benches from the lecture room.
I was on the first floor with Sean Murray and others. The lights were extinguished and we opened the windows to lessen the dangers of flying glass. We could see the mob outside. In between singing hymns and hurling abuse at us, they were chucking books and papers on a fire they had going in the middle of the street in Nazi fashion. Then bricks and all kinds of missiles came crashing into the darkened room, which we promptly hurled back. The mob was so dense we caused a number of injuries - 27 I learned were hospital cases. Some were beaten up on the stretchers before entering the ambulance by the mob who thought they were our people. Meanwhile, a hayloft had been discovered - they were still stables for horse in the area - and its contents were piled against the door and set alight. At this stage, around midnight, Sean Murray gave the order to retire, which we did across the road to safety. Connolly House, a large building four stories high was burned to the ground. The police did nothing during all the commotion, except look on, obviously sympathetic to the rioters.
I was a student in the Workers College when the mob attacked. With other students, about 80, I was taking a course in political economy (Marx). European history, and Revolution in Theory and Practice. Madame Despard, than an old frail woman with a heart of a lion, awarded a gold watch at the end of the term to the best student, which I regret to say I wasn't. The mob attack followed the usual pattern, hymn singing, swearing, and brick throwing. Leslie Daiken was in charge of the defence. At the time, structural repairs were being undertaken inside the house, so we had plenty of 'ammunition' to hurl at the crown in the street. We were saved this time by the intervention of some IRA stalwarts, principally Mick Kelly, O/C Dublin Brigade, who masquerading as police officers ordered the mob to disperse at gunpoint.
The College had been receiving the full treatment from the capitalist press, and the pulpit. A story was current that inside the door at Eccles Street was placed a 'Sacred Heart' mat for the students to wipe their boots on. This was a barefaced lie.
In June 1934, for the first time, a contingent of workers numbering about 500 travelled from the Shankill and Ballymacarret areas of Belfast in a fleet of coaches to take part in the annual Wolfe Tine commemoration in Bodenstown, Co. Kildare. On arrival in Dublin they went to Arbour hill to lay wreaths on Connolly's grave, and then travelled to Bodenstown to take part in the parade, behind their banners reading 'Wolfe Tone Commemoration 1934 - Shankill Road branch - Break the Connection with Capitalism' and 'James Connolly Club, Belfast - United Irishmen of 1934.' One of the men who carried the latter banner, Jim Straney, died crossing the Ebro, the last major offensive of the Republican forces in Spain in 1939 . The Congress branches left the assembly field at Sallins as part of the huge parade, but when our Belfast friends tried to follow us, their path was barred by a cordon of the IRA with orders to prevent them from leaving unless they agreed to keep their banners furled. This the Belfast men refused to do, but charged the cordon and fought their way through to join the Republican Congress contingent numbering several thousand and march with them through Sallins village behind the Workers Union of Ireland band playing 'The Red Flag.'
The cemetery, however, was well guarded by the Tipperary Brigade. To avoid an unseemly outcome, the wreaths were laid on the roadside, and we withdrew to Sallins. The Irish Times
commented next day on the irony of Ulster Protestants being prevented by Tipperary Catholics from honouring Wolfe Tone.
Meanwhile preparations were going ahead for the holding of the Congress. There was strong trade union support. The Workers' Union of Ireland, the second largest in the South of Ireland had affiliated. Their leader, the great Jim Larkin, was a staunch supporter and frequently spoke on Congress platforms. Other Unions giving support were the Miners, the Printers, the Seamen, the Woodworkers, the Garment workers, Plasterers, Women Workers' Union, Tram and busmen, and many others. The ITGQU in the North gave us their full support, but in the South the leaders were holding off to see how matters would turn out. Within the Congress branches a new, young team was emerging. The greatest was Cora Hughes, a beautiful, brave and eloquent girl. Other young leaders n Dublin, where I was mainly engaged, were Charlie Donnelly (killed in Spain), Bobby Walsh, Nora McGinley, Joe Leonard, Kay Fitzpatrick, Rosie Burke, Flann Campbell and Maggie Doyle. Amongst the still youthful 'veterans' were Kit Conway, Jack Nalty (both killed in Spain), Larry O'Connor, Peter Ledwith, Joe Doyle, Billy Kelly, Robert Emmet, Lorcan Leonard, Dinny Coady (killed in Spain), and many others, all in Dublin. In Castlecomer there was Mick Brennan; in the west Brian Corrigan and Tony Lavelle, and in the North Victor Halley and Jack McGougan.
The Republican Congress was held on 29-30 September 1934 in Rathmines Town Hall. When I arrived on the morning of the 29th I saw a mob taking shape in a street facing the Town Hall, numbering about 200, behind a banner reading 'God bless our Pope'. There was some apprehension inside the Town Hall, Frank Ryan asked me whether I had 'any stuff' (guns) [but] I hadn't. He felt that we should take this precaution: mobs can swell very fast and can be very dangerous. So, with Larry O'Connor, Chairman of the Dublin Congress, we went to Christy 'Sniper' Clark's house in Dominick Street, Christy was a quartermaster in the born-again Irish Citizens' Army. We returned to Rathmines with some 'stuff' - just to be on the safe side. As things turned out, the mob failed to attract the numbers they expected, and faded away.
In my view this was the first truly Socialist Conference to be held in Ireland since Connolly's death. There was a strong representation from the North. William McMullen, Chairman of the Belfast Trades Council presided. One hundred and eight three delegates were present from all parts of Ireland, from the Shankill Road to Achill Sound. Workers from the western seaboard expressed their grievances and their hopes in Irish (the only language some of them knew). There was a large number of fraternal delegates from Britain and the United States. All the resolutions were practical, dealing with employment, housing, fuel, transport, the youth, the unemployed, and the need for a Socialist way forward. There was a refreshing absence of chauvinist jargon.
On the central issue, however, the Congress was split down the middle. This was whether the Congress should resolve itself into a new revolutionary Socialist Party, or remain as a united front of all progressive forces against Fascism.
Peadar O'Donnell, Chairman of the Republican Congress, is a recent letter to me has provided a definition of our aims:
"The central idea of the Republican Congress was that an identifiable working class vanguard should mobilise all the independent forces. The other view was that we declare for a Workers' Republic. The details of the Congress you probably know better than me, but the essential feature of it was that it saw itself mobilising all the independence forces behind a clearly recognisable workers' vanguard. You will remember the depth of working class support."
The voting was 99 for a United Front, and 84 for a Socialist Party. O'Donnell, Ryan, Gilmore and Murray led for a united front. Against were Roddy Connolly, Michael Price, Nora Connolly, and others. Personally I favoured the idea of a new Socialist Party, but loyalty to Peadar, Frank Ryan and Murray determined my vote. Looking back I think it was a great mistake that we did not go for a Workers' Party. Michael Price said to me after the note: "You have put the revolution back 100 years."
From then on the movement lost momentum. Trade Union support melted away, the Connolly's and others retreated into the oblivion of the Labour Party. Roddy Connolly, was distressed, as indeed most of us were. Nora took it very hard. In her last book she had written: "The Communists did not want a Republican Congress. They were out for a United Front, but this was something Russia wanted, not what we wanted."
Although the Republican Congress had received a shattering blow, it did not succumb as some writers would have us believe. A depleted Congress organisation carried on, and was to receive a new infusion of life when the Spanish Civil War commenced in 1936. Before that, in April 1936, the Republican Congress contingent taking part in the annual Easter parade to Glasnevin Cemetery were subjected to attacks by organised Fascists all along the route. The Irish Press
"Shrieking the most obscene abuse…hurling stones and railings torn from graves, the gangsters did not shrink from pursuing the processionists into the cemetery itself and transforming it into a bedlam of hatred.
The main target of the mob was Captain Jack White. He had been injured with a blow of an iron cross wrenched from a grave., It was necessary to get him away quickly. Fortunately, the Rosary had started and this caused a lull during which Tom O'Brien and myself got him away. Captain White wrote afterwards: "By the aid of two Republican Congress comrades, who knew the geography, we left by an inconspicuous back door. Slipping under a barbed wire fence, the Congress comrades and I dropped on to the railway and soon emerged into safety and a Glasnevin tram."
On the following day, Easter Monday, Willie Gallagher, Communist MP for West Fife, was listed as one of the speakers at a Congress Rally in College Green. There was a very large crowd, mostly hostile, but no platform for the speakers (the owner of he lorry had been intimidated). Peadar O'Donnell mounted a street lamp standard and commenced speaking. This was the signal for a volley of stones, bricks and bottles which crashed against the wall of the Bank of Ireland behind us. At this stage the police stopped the meting. Peadar O'Donnell, Gene Downey and myself were taken into 'protective' custody and removed to College Street police station. We could gear the mob roaring for our blood outside in between singing hymns, 'Faith of our Fathers' was top of the charts.
Amongst other activities, the Congress continued to fight slum tenants' battles. On the night after the College Green affair, a meeting of the Dublin Tenant's League were due to meet in the new Congress headquarters in Middle Abbey Street. I expected that after the events of the weekend, which had been well covered in all the papers (with appropriate editorial comment) that few tenants would turn up. To my great surprise, there was a full attendance, and a vote of complete confidence in us was enthusiastically passed.
In Spain in July 1936, Franco commenced his revolt against the Spanish Government. The Congress became the rallying ground for all who supported the legally elected democratic government. The general election of February 1936 brought the Popular Front to power. In a Cortes (Parliament) of 475 seats, the Popular Front held 278 seats, made up of 146 Republicans, 98 Socialists, 21 Communists and 13 other Radicals. Although the Communists had only 21 seats, the press in general hailed the result as a victory for "the Reds."
The New York Herald-Tribune
of 6 September 1936 (not a radical paper) summarised the election results as follows:
"The February elections were contested on the issue which is still the issue in Spain. Shall the Spanish Republic be retained on the lines of social and agrarian reforms laid down in its founding and its constitution? Or shall it be discarded in all its fundamental elements? Seventy-five percent of 13 million Spanish voters cast their ballots for the preservation and continuance of the Republic."
On our side, an Irish battalion, to be led by Frank Ryan, was raised to serve with the International Brigade. I was not directly concerned in this, and I hope some comrade who was involved and fought in Spain will write this story. Perhaps Joe Monks, ('Spanish Joe', not to be confused with another Joe Monks, an active Congress worker in Dublin) or Alec Digges, or Mick Brennan, who served in the Republican Air Force, will undertake this task, before its too late.
A new Congress paper, The Irish Democrat
, was founded at a meeting in Dublin in March 1937. The speakers included Dr Owen Sheehy Skeffington, Sam Haslett, Chairman of the Northern Ireland Socialist Party, Sean Murray of the Communist Party, and myself for the Republican Congress of which I was now Joint Secretary with Frank Ryan. Ernie O'Malley sent a message of support. The editor was Frank Ryan. He had returned wounded from Spain in March 1937, and went back a year later.
While he was at home, I went with him, Joe Doyle, Robert Emmett, Lorcan Leonard and some others to a meeting in the Mansion Houses, Dublin, to introduce a new printing of James Connolly's works. Some clown behind us kept interrupting the speakers with the cry "What about the works of St Patrick?". Frank soon turned around, grabbed the offender by the lapels, shook a massive fist under his nose and advised him to keep his bloody mouth shut, or he'd 'get the works of Frank Ryan.'
At this time, all over Britain, Committees were being set up to send food to hard pressed Republican Spain. In Dublin the 'Irish Foodship for Spain Committee' was established, under the presidency of Fr Michael O'Flanagan, a republican priest who had been chaplain to the first Dail in 1919, and acting President of the Republic while De Valera was in the United States in 1920. The Vice-Presidents were the Earl of Listowel, Professor Rudmos Browne, Lennox Robinson, Maud Gonne McBride, Dorothy McArdle, Frank Edwards and Peadar O'Donnell. I was appointed full time Organising Secretary.
Our headquarters was at 14 Sackville Street, off O'Connell Street. The premises, which were quite large, had not been used for some time, and were in need of an infusion of fresh paint. The office telephone was connected, but there were no directories. How long would we have to wait for them? In the event, ten minutes? Dinny Coady, who was present during the inspection, had disappeared for that length of time, now re-appeared with a complete set. Naturally, I did not ask him where he got them. In the office next morning, a boy about 16 years of age presented himself. He said that he had heard that I was looking for a decorator, and if so my search was over. He was a painter by trade, and with the help of another 'man' would do the job for me. He said his name was Brendan Behan. Before long, he and his mate (another boy about the same age) had transformed the place. I paid them £50 and they were delighted. Brendan, years later, told me that this was the first wage he had ever earned, and it was his first job.
The Committee got down to the task of raising money fast. Our speakers addressed meetings all over Ireland, including Belfast where an active supporting Committee was in existence. Appeals were printed and widely distributed. I recall one slogan read "6d will buy a bar of soap. A tin of milk, and a bandage." It was difficult, and at times dangerous work. Some of our collectors were beaten up. However, there was considerable sympathy for the Spanish people, holding out in Madrid, and elsewhere, and the indiscriminate bombing of Guernica and other towns caused widespread condemnation. The open intervention by Italian Fascists and the German Nazis on the side of Franco, and the reports of refugees arriving in Dublin from Berlin and Vienna, brought into our funds generous donations from Jewish firms and the Jewish community, as well as from liberals, trade unionists and Republicans. By the time our ship was due to sail, a considerable amount had been subscribed in goods of all kinds, food, clothing, medical supplies, soap and cash, which was used in bulk buying of food on a large scale.
Early one morning in March 1938 a convoy of lorries left Sackville Place for Belfast. We flew Irish tricolours until we came to the border and then changed them for Spanish Republican tricolours. Despite an assurance that the convoy would be cleared through Customs, we were stopped by the RUC and 'impounded' in Newry barracks. Our arrest (I had 20 men with me) caused a storm in Belfast, and the local Foodship Committee (President, Lord Antrim) speedily obtained our release. The convoy of trucks was intact except for some bags of floor which had been bayoneted by the RUC, presumably looking for arms. On the dockside in Belfast next morning, we saw our ship being loaded. The dockers were friendly and made a collection for our funds. The ship beat the blockade off the Spanish coast by German and Franco's warships, and arrived safely at Almeria.
Congress activities meanwhile continued in other areas of struggle. Local branches that had been considerably reinforced by new members were engaged in renewed trade union action, tenant leagues were busy again in slum areas. The Left movement was no longer in retreat and we held meetings and rallies when and where we liked.
On 17 January 1937, a meeting under the auspices of the Congress held in the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, was packed from 'the gods' to the stalls. Father Michael O'Flanagan, a brilliant orator presided, and the principal speaker was a Basque priest, Fr Ramon La Borda, who referred to Franco as 'a blood thirsty militarist, and Fascist' whose troops had executed 25 priests when San Sebastian had fallen. On 19 February, a meeting was held in the Engineer's Hall, Dawson Street, to pay tribute to the first Irishmen to die with the Irish Battalion in the International Brigade. They were Dinny Coady, Frank Conroy, Daniel Boyle, James Meehan and William Beattie. In March a mass rally was held in the Central Mission Hall, Lower Abbey Street, to denounce fascism, and uphold the Spanish Republic.
In September 1937, Peadar O'Donnell and Brian Corrigan were organising the Irish Migratory Union along the western coast, following the tragic loss of ten young workers' lives in a bothy fire at Kirkintilloch in Scotland. Every year thousands of migratory workers, young men and women mostly, left their homes for seasonal work - potato picking - to earn enough to tide them over the winter on their return. These people represented the living Irish language, for the preservation of which so much cant and hypocrisy was spoke by successive Irish capitalist governments, but so little was done to save the people who spoke it.
In 1935 our hopes had been raised by the 'Call from America'. In June of that year representatives of the major Irish organisations in the United States issued a call from New York to all sections of the Republican movement in Ireland to meet in conference to form a united front for the achievement of 'the unity and independence of Ireland as a Republic.' The signatories were John J O'Reilly, for the American Association for the Recognition of the Republic (Fianna Fail orientated); Joseph McGarrity, Clan na Gael (IRA) and Gerard O'Reilly, for the Republican Congress Leagues of America. The call was addressed to all County Councils and political organisations in Ireland. It was savagely sabotaged. IN the words of George Gilmore, 'The James Bonds of the time did their work.' The response of the Councils and organisations that did receive it was encouraging. Donegal, Limerick and Clare Councils endorsed the call. A number of Fianna Fail branches also reacted favourably, and of the leadership Dan Breen, Dr Jim Hannigan, Paddy Rigney, Cu Uladh, and some others expressed their support initially - until 'Dev' put the boot in. The response of the trade unions was very good. However, in the face of Fianna Fail hostility and IRA obscurantism, the 'call' disappeared into the sand.
Early n 1939 it was clear that the fall of the Republic in Spain was imminent. Frank Ryan had been captured on 31 March, 1938, by Italian troops. He escaped the death sentence imposed by court martial due largely to the intercession of De Valera, then head of the Irish Government. After the outbreak of war in September 1939, he was taken by the Germans to Berlin in the expectation that he would engage in anti-British propaganda. He never did so. He was well treated, however, and acted for a time as a kind of unofficial Irish envoy until his health failed. He died in Dresden in June 1944.
With the fall of the Spanish Republic, and the outbreak five months later of the Second World War, the Republican Congress movement that had shown such promise, disintegrated.
Out of the entire Republican movement in Ireland, the Congress alone had opposed the march of fascism and supported the Spanish Republic. The Congress alone had made inroads into sectarianism in the North and had won a measure of Protestant support unknown since 1798. It had tried to extend the Irish revolution beyond the bourgeois limits set for it by consecutive Irish capitalist governments, and political parties and organisations masquerading as Republican, and to achieve by the united action of all progressive forces of the left in Ireland the Socialist Republic envisaged by James Connolly and for which he gave his life.
For more material on the International Brigadistas, etc.
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