The Siege of Connolly House

By Eugene Downing

Wednesday, 29th March 1933, was the final night of the attack which had commenced on Monday and had continued intermittently since then. In the evening during a slack period in the rioting (the main crowd gathered at 8 p.m.) Bill McGregor managed to scramble through the street door with some provisions for the besieged garrison. The door would open only a little way because of the nailed-down blocks of wood behind it to prevent it being rushed. I remember that Bill as a result of his difficult entry broke a couple of eggs and naturally somebody made a remark about 'scrambled eggs'. Later, as on the previous nights, the mob filled the narrow street and such a sortie would have been impossible.

A watch had to be kept on the rear door on the ground floor because it could be rushed from the furniture store immediately to our left. Also the rear window on the first floor landing overlooked the yard in the store. This had to be guarded. The roof had to be manned because it was accessible from the roofs around it. Strangely enough, the front door seemed the least vulnerable part of the building.

The Guards [police] were mainly indistinguishable form the spectators and seemed to be more concerned with ensuring the free flow of traffic along Capel Street and Swift’s Row than dispersing the rioters.

During the course of the night dozens of the mob were injured by missiles thrown from the windows and the roof. Our ‘ammunition’ consisted mainly of material supplied through the windows by the enemy and slates dislodged from the roof.

‘Keep your ammunition for inside fighting’ said Sean Murray which from such a humane, scholarly man sounded like St Francis of Assisi advising somebody to ‘put the boot in.’

‘If the ammo is used properly there shouldn’t be any inside fighting’, said Donal O’Reilly who was in charge. This seemed perfectly appropriate from the youngest person to force his way into the 1916 Rebellion.

About 10.30 p.m. the gate of the furniture store was smashed and the crowd rushed in to the rear door of Connolly House. When the situation got so desperate that it seemed nothing could hold them back Joe Troy shot one of them in the knee. Material in the store was then set alight by the mob and pushed against the door. Lighted material was also pushed through the front door. The Fire Brigade arrived on the scene.

The situation gad now got so bad it was impossible to defend the building it was decided to abandon it and leave by the skylight.

We retreated to the attic. Brian O’Neill and Christy (‘Sniper’) Clark, who were armed, were already on the roof covering the escape route. Charlie Gilmore with a Colt automatic pistol guarded the way to the skylight covering our retreat. (In view of the number of people ion Connolly House who were armed at least six, to my knowledge it was a great tribute to their discipline and self-control that there was no loss of life or serious injury. Three’s nothing easier than emptying a gun into a mob.)

Of the couple of dozen people in the building most made their way along the roofs to the St. John’s Ambulance Hall about 4 or 5 doors away from Connolly House.

I was one of a group of four which included Tommy Watters of Belfast. For some reason which is not clear to me now, we continued along the roof’s past the St. John’s Ambulance Hall until eventually we descended into a yard at the rear of the shops in Capel Street. This was quite an achievement for Tommy Watters whose sight was so bad he was known to swim wearing his glasses.

There was no way out except through the buildings in front of us. Peering our way forward in the darkness we came to a backdoor and knocked.

The door was opened by the Italian proprietor of the fish and chip shop which was near the corner of Gt. Strand Street at that time. Tommy explained that all we required was quiet access to the street where we could mingle with the crowds. We were told to wait for a short while and the door was closed. After we had spent a couple of minutes speculating as to the likely outcome the proprietor, who seemed quite unperturbed by the whole business, returned and beckoned us into the rear part of the restaurant. He instructed us to enter the restaurant one at a time in a casual manner and sit at the nearest table. The customers already there were so interested in the turmoil outside that the extraordinary sight of customers entering the premises from the proprietor’s private residence caused no remark. We had an excellent meal of fish and chips at Tommy Watter’s expense as nobody else had any money. We then strolled casually out into the street.

A swirling mass of howling people filled St Strand Street and overflowed into Capel Street. One of our party was greeted by a casual acquaintance who was unaware of his involvement with the Revolutionary Worker’s Groups and who related very excitedly how they were knocking hell out of the Reds. Having listened to this recital with what we hoped were looks of approval on our faces we drifted slowly through the crowd towards Capel Street Bridge and went our several ways.

About a week afterwards several of us visited the stricken building where Denis Larkin took a number of pictures of the smashed interior just for the record. I was pleased to see that the electric lamp bracket which I had installed over the street door only a few weeks before had survived; an accident no doubt but I liked to think it had something to do with my own sound workmanship.

The main elements in the attack consisted of the Blueshirt/lumpen-proletarian types. Of course there were also perfectly sincere people who had been inflamed by propaganda lies of the most vicious kind concerning religion. It was very noticeable that the rioters who were unfortunate enough to be arrested and charged were of the latter type or merely spectators who had been swept into the excitement of events.

Some of the leading lights in the attack later marched through the city and jeered and shouted hostile slogans as they passed Unity Hall in Marlboro Street. Since Unity Hall was the headquarters of an ordinary trade union this showed the fascist/Blueshirt inspiration behind the violence.

The whole business was one of the sterile excitements of the time which had nothing to do with what was really happening in society. The establishment itself condemned the attack calling it ‘a disgrace’ thus emphasising their confidence that the Workers’ and Small Farmers Republic was not around the corner as we deluded ourselves it was. Only Spain, later on, saved the Irish Left from complete oblivion and provided them with some niche in the history of the period.

Other articles about these events

Bob Doyle - with the attackers!

The Storming of Connolly House. Written by Brian Hanley - an historian's report.

Return to the Int Brigades Page

There are 2 obituaries available about Eugene:

One by Manus O'Riordan, the other appeared on the Indymedia site.

In addition to this letter by Eugene there are a few other pieces written by him now available online.

In September 2000 Eugene was interviewed by Ciaran Crossey and
John Quinn about the SCW. Here is Eugene's 5 page version of the notes from that discussion.

A [funny] article about Eugene's street politics in the mid 1930's - Street Journalism.

A letter to the Irish Times about Mattie Ryan, Pandit Nehru and a shooting exhibition.

The Plaque on the Wall, a report of a visit back to the hospital in Spain.

Letters from Josefina
[about his time in hospital and letters between him and Josefina, one of the nurses.]

A 1992 letter to the Irish Times about the refusal of the catholic church to do a
funeral service for Tony Fox, an IB vol. killed in Spain.

A letter to Saothar, the journal of the Irish Labour History Society, about Bill
McGregor, the International Lenin School and the SCW.

A very funny piece about the moment When I was in Charge.

The IB and the Ebro

Would anyone who knows of further articles by Eugene please get in touch.

Ciaran Crossey

Belfast, 3rd May 2016.