There have been numerous excellent books produced on the Irish Republican and Socialist movements in the 1930s. The below is a brief post on two days of interesting Anti-Communist violence in April 1936, when the Left was attacked firstly on a broad republican march to Glasnevin Cemetery, and then the following day at a rally on College Green. It is intended as a brief insight into Anti-Communism in Dublin in the 1930s.
On 12th April 1936 Communists and left Republicans attending an Easter commemoration at Glasnevin Cemetery came under attack at various points along the route to Glasnevin from the city centre, during an event which was plagued by violence. It was not the last anti-Communist violence in April 1936, and just who was responsible for the violence was unclear, though the left-wing Republican Congress laid the blame at the feet of the far-right, the ‘Animal Gang’ and “other such defenders and faith and morals”.
The procession marched from the Carmelite Church on Whitefriars’ Street, following a mass for the requiem of the souls of fallen comrades, and made its way for Glasnevin. Within the sizeable procession was a contingent of a few dozen members of the Communist Party, who the Irish Press noted “wore red tabs attached to Easter Lillies.” Led by Sean Murray and Captain Jack White (a founding member of the Irish Citizen Army), this contingent included Willie Gallacher, the Scottish Communist M.P. In addition to the Communist Party, members of the Republican Congress marched in the procession. There were five bands in total in the march, and all shades of Republican opinion were represented.
The Communist contingent in the march, though small in the context of the demonstration, came under attack firstly on Westmoreland Street when about 20 people attempted to rush the crowd, and, newspapers reported by the time O’Connell Bridge had been reached a sizeable crowd were shouting “We want no Communists in Ireland!” at their targets. By the General Post Office, the attacking crowd was said to number 200 people, and police were forced to draw their batons. A hostile crowd tailed the Communists all the way to Glasnevin, and some leading left-wing activists of the day sustained injuries, with George Gilmore receiving nasty wounds as a result of the crowds stone throwing.
The Irish Independent reported that on reaching Glasnevin, the shout was raised that “this is a Catholic grave yard. Don’t let the Communists in!” The great irony of Glasnevin being non-denominational was lost on someone! Outside, sellers of the English Communist paper the Daily Worker found themselves attacked by the hostile crowd. In a letter to the Irish Press days after the violence, one member of the public noted that while such violence was unfortunate, it was the natural outcome of an attempt to stage an “anti-God display” at Glasnevin.
Patrick Byrne, a leading activist with the Republican Congress, recalled years later that:
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.”
The following day, on the 13th April, a left-wing meeting at College Green came under siege when thousands gathered for a rally featuring speakers from the left including Peadar O’Donnell and Willie Gallacher. Garda reports estimated that the crowd numbered between four and five thousand. They estimated that 98% of this crowd were hostile to the left-wing speakers at College Green. Prior to this meeting even beginning, newspaper reports noted that Gardaí lined College Green 100 strong. Peadar O’Donnell would be the only speaker on the night, addressing the crowd from a lamppost. In an obituary printed at the time of O’Donnell’s passing at the fine old age of 93, it was claimed that O’Donnell was met by “potatoes (with razor blades embedded in them), bottles and stones.”
Historian Fearghal McGarry has noted that following this event an anti-Communist mob laid siege to targets in the city centre, attacking the offices of the left wing Republican Congress and also attempting to attack other buildings associated with the left, although police prevented this. Interestingly, McGarry notes that targets included Trinity College Dublin and the Masonic Hall, and this indicates a spirit of militant Catholicism among the crowd.
Peadar O’Donnell would later comment that
After all it wasn’t the tycoons of Dublin who tried to lynch me in College Green during a Red Scare but poor folk who had been driven out of their minds by a month’s rabid Lenten Lectures.
On April 27, a demonstration of several hundred was held at Cathal Brugha Street and described as a “Republican-Labour demonstration against Fascism”. At that meeting, O’Donnell blamed the Blueshirts for the recent violence and told the crowd that “there was nothing new about the attacks that had recently been made on Republican demonstrations in the city.” Newspapers reported a few shouts of “Down with Russia!” and “Up the Pope!” met Frank Ryan when he spoke to the crowd, but there was no violence like witnessed in the weeks prior.
Just who was responsible for this violence? While Gardai noted that some individuals connected with the Catholic Young Men’s Society would not hesitate to use such force against communism, and even noted the respectable nature of many in the crowd at College Green, some have placed the much feared ‘Animal Gangs’ of the 1930s at the head of this violence. In his brilliant biography of Peadar O’Donnell, Donal Ó Drisceoil notes that the left-wing contingents on Easter Sunday had been attacked by the ‘Animal Gangs’, and Frank Ryan and George Gilmore would publicly blame them for the violence in a letter sent to the national media by the Republican Congress:
In a 1934 Garda report on the then emerging ‘Animal Gang’, Gardaí believed the origins of their name was in the fact Frank Ryan had accused them of being ‘little better than Animals’ in their behaviour following young newsboys attacking the offices of the Republican Congress.
Had the ‘Animal Gang’ been responsible for this violence in 1936? While the initial ‘Animal Gang’ that emerged in 1934 had consisted of young Dublin newsboys who had attacked the offices of An Phoblacht and the Republican Congress, those attacks were owing not to politics but rather the wholesale cost of the left-wing newspapers. Dublin had been crippled by a print strike in 1934, and this was devastating for the newsboys of the capital. The Irish Press wrote in the aftermath of the strike that while it had affected many, none were to suffer as greatly as the young Dublin newsboys left without a livelihood.
The term ‘Animal Gang’ was applied liberally to mob violence from that point onwards, a situation made all the more confusing by the fact it appears the moniker was adopted by ‘self styled’ gangs across the city, with ‘Animal Gangs’ in places such as Ringsend and Drumcondra emerging over 1935 and 36 in newspaper reports, with no evident crossover of membership.
Still, many who were active on the left at this point recall a particular ‘Animal Gang’ they insist attacked left-wing demonstrations with regularity, with Bob Doyle even claiming in his memoir this gang wore British Legion poppies to provoke republicans. Peadar O’Donnell would refer to them as a ‘terrorist’ grouping, noting that this gang consisted of ‘very fine fighting material from the slum basements’.
Can we say the ‘Animal Gangs’ attacked the Glasnevin commemoration and the College Green meeting? In short, no. As Brian Hanley has noted in his history of the IRA between 1926 and 1936, these gangs have entered Irish left wing folklore today, blamed for almost all attacks on the left in the troubled decade of the 1930s.An Phoblacht, the organ of the IRA, had asked in 1933 following the siege of Connolly House on Great Strand Street “who are the direction faction behind these dupes?” By 1936, similar questions remained.
What such attacks illustrate however is the sheer scale of anti-Communist feeling in 1930s Ireland. By the winter of 1936, huge crowds were attending meetings of the Irish Christian Front across the country, where Communism was condemned as being “anti-religious and anti-God,the enemy of nationalism and democracy, and subversive of morality and public order” (Irish Independent, Nov. 16 1936) Within months of the violent scenes at College Green, many Irish men would go to Spain to fight what they saw as a red menace looming over Europe, while others would enlist through the Communist movement to defend the Spanish Republic.