Liberty Hall: A centre of political and cultural radicalism.

Earlier this year I gave a talk on the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band for a conference entitled Music in Ireland: 1916 and Beyond. The FLPB would come to be seen as the ‘band of the Irish Citizen Army’, and were in their own right an important part of Jim Larkin’s  cultural  vision. This is an edited version of that talk.

Studies of the Irish Citizen Army, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and other working class organisations in the revolutionary period have tended to focus on their political histories – examining events and themes such as the Lockout of 1913, the Easter Rising  and the political ideology of leaders like Larkin and Connolly.  There is still, I would maintain, much work to be done on the culture of the radical trade union movement of revolutionary Ireland.

What James Larkin attempted to do in Dublin from the time of his arrival in the city in 1908 amounted to more than political revolution –  there was an enormous social dimension to his project. Emmet O’Connor, Larkin’s most outstanding biographer to date, contends that Liberty Hall was the centre of a working class “counter culture.” It had a theatre, a printing press, a workers co-operative shop, food facilities and more besides. To the movement of Larkin and Connolly, culture formed an important component – and perhaps no aspect of it was more important than the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band, who would lead their movement through the streets.

Jim Larkin’s arrival in Ireland:


Jim Larkin’s mugshot from Sing Sing Prison, 1920.

Jim Larkin, born in Toxteth in Liverpool to Irish parents in 1867, remains the single most important figure – and one of the most divisive figures – in the history of Irish trade unionism and labor politics .He arrived in Ireland in 1907 as a trade union organiser with the National Union of Dock Labourers, sent to organise on the docks of Belfast,  where he succeeded in doing the unimaginable and defying the sectarian divisions there, something well-documented in John Gray’s study City in Revolt. Larkin was renowned for his deployment of the sympathetic strike tactic  – believing that an injury to one was an injury to all – undoubtedly one contributing factor that led to his sacking by the NUDL and his decision to establish his own union, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union,  which he based in Dublin. This was a revolutionary union committed to the overthrow of capitalism, and modeled on the politics of syndicalism – that is a belief that workers’ could transform society through unified industrial action.  A journalist from The Times in Britain wrote of ‘Larkinism’ in 1911 that:

For the present it is enough to say that the object of Mr.Larkin’s Union is to syndicalise Irish Labour, skilled and unskilled, in a single organisation, the whole forces of which can be brought to bear on any single dispute in the Irish industrial world.

 Summing up ‘Larkinism’ himself, Jim Larkin stated:

“The employers know no sectionalism. The employers give us the title of the ‘working class’. Let us be proud of the term. Let us have, then, the one union, and not, as now, 1,100 separate unions, each acting upon its own. When one union is locked out or on strike, other unions or sections are either apathetic or scab on those in dispute. A stop must be put to this organised blacklegging.”

The rise of Liberty Hall:

Larkin based his new union in what he called Liberty Hall,  a former hotel which had fallen into rack and run. This premises offered everything an emerging movement could need;  as Emmet O’Connor has noted, it “offered rooms for band practice, Irish language classes, a choir and a drama society.” Liberty Hall would prove a tremendous resource to the labour movement, providing the location for a printing press for example, and as Christopher Murray has noted in his biography of Sean O’Casey its former life as a hotel proved invaluable on occasion, not least in 1913 when “the old kitchens were still usable in the basement.”


More than a trade union HQ: An advertisement from James Connolly’s The Workers’ Republic.

Much has been written of Larkinism in labour dispute –  little has been written of the culture that surrounded Liberty Hall.  Indeed, the Manchester Guardian was so moved by Larkin’s project, that they proclaimed “no Labour headquarters in Europe has contributed so valuably to the brightening of the lives of the hard-driven workers around it…it is a hive of social life.” For Larkin, there was an enormous emphasis on the self-respect and dignity of the working class, and in their visible orgnaisation and solidarity.James Plunkett, in an essay of remembrance, recalled that:

Torchlight processions and bands, songs and slogans and the thunder of speeches from the windows of Liberty Hall, these were his weapons, and he calculated than a man with an empty belly would stand the pain of it better if you could succeed in filling his head full of poetry. Those who previously had nothing with which to fill out the commonplace of drab days could now march in processions, wave torches, yell out songs…It was Larkin’s triumph to inject enough of it into a starving class to lift them off their knees and lead them out of the pit.

 An often overlooked but hugely important part of Larkin’s personality – and something James Connolly shared – was his commitment to a teetotal lifestyle. The public house was often denounced in the pages of his newspaper The Irish Worker, he denounced the popular politician Alfie Byrne as Alfie Bung for owning a pub, and even led the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union onto a temperance parade in 1911. As much as anything else then, Liberty Hall was designed to get men out of the pubs and to keep them out of the pubs.

This in the context in which the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band was born – the emergence of a ‘counter culture’ for the working classes, which brought learning, creativity and community into the doors of a crumbling old hotel, and invented Liberty Hall. Later, one newspaper would describe it as “the brain of every riot and disturbance” the city witnessed.

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To Remember Spain.


Charles Patrick Donnelly. Poet, republican and UCD student. He died at the Battle of Jarama in Spain, 1937.

Next week, a series of lectures will take place in Dublin to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and to highlight the Irish dimensions of the conflict.

Over a number of nights, some of the leading historians on the Irish dimensions of the Spanish Civil War, such as David Convery and Brian Hanley, will be joined by international speakers like Emilio Silvia and Soledad Fox. The meetings take place in Liberty Hall and the Unite Hall on Middle Abbey Street, and are free to attend.

I’m delighted to speak on Thursday alongside Seán Byers from Belfast. My talk will look at commemoration in 1930s Dublin, and the frequently violent nature of it all. Events in Spain shaped much of this from 1936 onwards, and certainly contributed to anti-communist hysteria. You might be feeling all ‘commemorated out’ by now, but I promise this will all be rather different from what you’ve been surrounded by in 2016!

Our congratulations to Harry Owens on producing such a magnificent programme of talks.



I must confess, that from time to time I do buy books based on their covers alone. Sometimes, it can be because of who the illustrator is, and other times for what the books capture of Dublin past. I couldn’t resist Terence de Vere White’s A Fretful Midge (1957) recently when I stumbled across it.

The front of the book shows 12 Aungier Street, today home to JJ Smyth’s pub, and the birthplace of the poet Thomas Moore. There is a great blog post on Architecture Ireland about this building through the ages. The building once had a bust of Thomas Moore in its exterior, visible in the illustration above, but it is no more today:

On the 28 May 1779, the house became the home of Thomas Moore. His father, John Moore, was a grocer and wine-merchant and ran the business from the ground floor of the family home. Moore passed the first twenty years of his life in the house, where the ‘entertainments given by my joyous and social mother could, for gaiety, match with the best.’

12 Aungier Street as we see it today is a very different building from that of the 1780s, when Moore grew up within it.  As the Architecture Ireland post notes, the 1960s brought great changes to the streetscape:

However, the arrival of the sixties heralded a period of economic growth in Ireland and historic buildings all over the city were pulled down to make way for office blocks and housing complexes. Unfortunately, number 12 did not escape the destruction, and in 1962 it was largely demolished by Dublin Corporation, despite the pleas of those who wished to have it preserved. The following year it was reconstructed to appear as it had when Moore occupied it. Some of the original features were restored, including two hall doors, however, very little authentic fabric remains. The large paned Victorian windows were replaced with Georgian replicas and the bust of Thomas Moore was again removed from the façade.

This unfortunate demolition resulted in the loss of a historic monument. The house’s reconstruction failed to respect the layering of fabric that had built up over time, telling the story of the building. Today, it appears that the house has all but lost its connection to Moore, with only low-lying plaque in the wall indicating the site’s cultural significance.


`”Reconstructed in 1963″ – Plaque on the building today (Image: CHTM)

Now I’ve admitted to buying the book just because I liked the illustration on the front, I should give it its rightful praise. Inside, it has proven a great read.Terence de Vere White (1912-1994)  was a lawyer, writer, playwright and literary editor of The Irish Times from 1961 to 1977. The book has some very colourful insights on twentieth century Dublin, for example describing how a family that were loyal in their political convictions responded to the Rising:

We were living in Marlborough Road when the Easter Week Rebellion of 1916 took Dublin by surprise….That action, call it what you please, was resented by the vast majority in Dublin at the time. We went in broad daylight with our nurse to the barricades in Donnybrook and gave food to English tommies. All round us others were doing likewise. No one protested. It must have seemed the most ordinary and normal of actions or we would not have been allowed to go out with our nurse to perform it.

From the back windows of our house we could see the tower of St Mary’s in Haddington Road.From talk overheard I thought there were snipers up in the tower and I looked at it with awe as I was going to bed; with too, too,I hope, for the lonely men up there in the tower, now a dark shadow against the flaming sky of the city which a gun-boat in the bay was pounding to rubble.


illustration dated 12 June 1921. (Click to expand)

On 25 May 1921, Dublin’s magnificent Custom House was set ablaze by the 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. The centre of Local Government for the British administration in Ireland, the building was of enormous political and symbolic importance.

That the IRA succeeded in burning the building isn’t entirely surprising, owing to the level of collusion between the revolutionary forces and Dublin Fire Brigade, well-detailed in The Firemen’s Tale (Available at this link).Not only had the IRA sought advice on how to burn the building from republicans within the DFB, but on entering the burning premises firefighters did what they could to ensure the building was destroyed. DFB historian Las Fallon has written of how the Chief Officer of the Fire Brigade, Captain John Myers, did not seek any external help from other fire services (like those of Rathmines and Pembroke) who could have assisted in bringing the blaze under control, while firemen “made down their hoses with a marked lack of speed or urgency.” One firefighter who entered the building, Michael Rogers, recalled:

We had the building practically at our mercy. And I can tell you now that many parts of it that were not on fire when we entered were blazing nicely in a short while.

Firefighter Joseph Connolly was an active member of the Irish Citizen Army at the time of the burning of the building. Following the act, ICA Captain Michael O’Kelly was actually snuck into the building disguised as a firefighter to recover weapons, remembering that about 35 revolvers were salvaged, and that “we took them out and delivered them in Fairview that night in a Dublin ambulance.”

For the IRA, the ICA and indeed the DFB, it was all in a day’s work.  Five Volunteers were killed that day, and dozens captured, but the images of the destroyed Custom House which would make their way across the world did much to counter the lies that the war in occupied Ireland was little more than unarmed policemen being shot by thugs. The capacity of the revolutionary forces was clearly demonstrated before the world, in a way that was totally at odds with the cinema newsreels of 1921.

Fire was a weapon in the revolutionary period, more often deployed by crown forces. As Las Fallon notes, the burning of co-operative creameries and community services “as a general reprisal against a local population was possibly the most targeted use of incendiarism by the police and British military. In general they struck more widely, burning towns and villages…to strike fear into the locals.”

In France, this imaginative illustration appeared in the pages of Le Pelerin days after the burning of the Custom House. A few things should be noted; perhaps the illustrator was thinking too much of the events of 1916, as the scene is more reminiscent of the GPO than the reality of the Custom House. While men entered the Custom House armed with revolvers, here we see rifles being fired out of the windows. Note also the presence of women, perhaps Cumann na mBan activists, one of whom has had the misfortune of having her dress catch fire!  Looking out one window, we see a Dublin Fire Brigade firefighter hard at work too, pointing his hose inside the inferno. It’s quite funny to think, owing to recent historical research and revelations, that may be the most ludicrous or inaccurate dimension of the work!


The plaque of the Hitschfeld Centre, part of a new exhibition at The Little Museum of Dublin.

On 6 May 1933, Adolf Hitler’s Brownshirts made their way into the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Studies) in Berlin and seized thousands of books and publications they deemed immoral. At the same time, bookshops and lending libraries were raided across the city, denounced as “literary bordellos” by  ignorant thugs.

Thankfully, the founder of the Institute, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, was on a speaking tour of the United States at the time the raiding party arrived. One witness to the raid on the Institute described how for three hours the raiders:

 …emptied inkwells onto carpets and broke, or vandalised, framed paintings and prints…They confiscated books, periodicals, photographs, anatomical models, a famous wall tapestry, and a bust of Hirschfeld. After music, speeches and songs outside at noon they departed but were succeeded at 3pm by SA men, who removed 10,000 books form the institute’s library. A few days later they carried the bust of Hirschfeld on a pole in a torchlight parade before throwing it on the bonfire with the books from the Institute.

A memorial plaque in Berlin’s Tiergarten today marks the location were the Institute stood. Unsurprisingly, Hirschfeld would never return to Germany. A Jewish sexologist stood little chance in Nazi Germany, and Hirschfeld lived out his final days in France. On his 67th birthday, 14 May 1935, he died of a heart attack in Nice. Once dubbed the “Einstein of Sex”, he was just one of many intellectual leaders who suffered at the hands of Fascism.

Hirschfeld came to be honoured by LGBT activists all over the world, including here in Dublin. A new exhibition in the Little Museum of Dublin, Brand New Retro: Irish Pop Culture 1950-1980, sees the bronze sign from the front of the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar on display to the public. This institution, which opened its doors in March 1979, retains a special place in the gay history of Dublin.  For many, seeing the sign will be a reminder of a different time entirely, both for Dublin and the Irish gay community.

 Temple Bar in 1979:

Writing in 1979, an English journalist said of the Irish capital:

Suddenly, Dublin has become a shabby city – shabby because its centre is peppered with crude concrete structures, flashy mirror-glass facades and other inappropriate schemes which have no connection at all with the spirit of the place.

There was a certain air of “tear it down and start again”, which was nowhere more obvious than in Temple Bar. Once a district synonymous with manufacturing and production, the wheels of industry had largely seized turning by the late 1970s, and urban decay was becoming a reality. In 1977, there was  a massive  proposal for the development of a new central Bus station in Temple Bar, which  would span the River Liffey, with development on Ormond Quay designed to complement that across the River. It was planned that a tunnel under the Liffey would join both sites, and it was also planned to incorporate the DART into at all. It would have spelled the end for Temple Bar as Dubliners knew it, and C.I.E (the bus company) were buying up huge chunks of property in the area – but leasing them out on short term leases, accidentally bringing a new energy to a district they wanted to demolish. Paul Knox has written:

Paradoxically, this triggered a process of revitalization. Activities which could afford only low rents on short leases moved into the district. These included artists’ studios, galleries, recording and rehearsal studies, pubs and cafes, second-hand clothes shops, small boutiques, bookshops and record stores, as well as a number of voluntary organisations. Together with the districts architectural character, the youth culture attracted by the districts new commercial tenants brought a neobohemian atmosphere to Temple Bar…


Thankfully never constructed, this was the proposed bus station development of 1977 (Image Credit: Archiseek)

Temple Bar was a district in transition, and which it seemed was up for grabs. Interviewed by Rabble in September 2012 Rabble in September 2012, historian and archivist Tonie Walsh made the point that:

It was on Fownes Street because it was so derelict. It made an ideal place for a gay community centre at a time when homophobia was endemic. It was important to get somewhere that wasn’t too in the public eye, that was a little bit discreet. Because of course you had to run the gamut of gay bashers, or people wanting to torch the place. I mean there were grills on it. A poet friend of mine from Finglas ,John Grundy,  used to refer to it as ‘Fortress Fownes’. It looked like it was totally grilled. Barricaded.

A new social centre:

The driving force behind the centre was the National Gay Federation, today the National LGBT Federation. It housed “meeting spaces, a youth group, a café, a small cinema and film club and it ran discos at the weekend where gay men, lesbian women and transgender people socialised.”In the years before this, it was clear such a premises was needed. In October 1975,  more than three hundred people attended the opening night of the Phoenix Club, HQ of the Irish Gay Rights Movement (IGRM) at 46 Parnell Square, and as the Irish Queer Archive have noted, this proved the “massive need for a dedicated queer social space in Dublin city.”


Fownes Street as it appears today. 10 Fownes Street is now occupied by Tola Vintage, beside Gourmet Burger Kitchen. (Image: Google Maps)

The plaque on the new Temple Bar premises was unveiled by Dr. Noel Browne, a TD who had bravely raised the issue of gay rights inside Leinster House in 1977, and who had clashed with conservatives forces in the past, most famously during the Mother and Child Scheme controversy.  On the day of the unveiling of the plaque, a speech heralded the centre as  “living proof of gay people’s new found pride…testimony to the fact that [we] the gay citizens of Ireland need no longer fear to be openly ourselves.”

The Irish Times reported on the opening of the centre that:

The four-storey building was once a warehouse, but has been renovated and equipped with fire escapes and fire fighting equipment as well as with more “fun” items like the massive disco speakers and imported record collection straight from New York’s most up-to-date record shop, and the brown wood-slatted cafeteria selling Bewley’s coffee.The cinema is already fully functioning.

It was reported that “NGF members will be able to get pink plastic triangles from the centre to wear on their lapels as a sign of membership” In explaining this, David Norris told the press that “Gays were the first to be interned in Nazi camps and also the first to be medically experimented on. And though half a million gays perished in the camps, both German Republics have consistently refused to compensate or even commemorate the fact.” Norris invested heavily in the new centre; indeed The Irish Times reported that it had been “very largely funded by David Norris…with money from selling his home in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, and he is resigned to the fact that he may not get his investment back again.”

As part of the new Brand New Retro exhibition in the Little Museum of Dublin, a number of contemporary handbills from the centre have been reproduced, giving a sense of the wide variety of functions played by the centre. This leaflet notes the disco nights which largely sustained the centre financially, as well as advertising the very important TAF (Tel-A-Friend) service, a “confidential information and counseling service for homosexual Men and Women”:


(Image Credit:Brand New Retro exhibition at the Little Museum of Dublin.)

Similarly, this leaflet advertises the Gay Switchboard:


(Image Credit: Brand New Retro exhibition at The Little Museum of Dublin.

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In January 2012, we had the privilege of sitting down and chatting with Terry Fagan, the driving force behind the North Inner-City Folklore Project. The Project has been responsible for a number of oral history publications, most recently a study of Dublin tenement life. The project have also put up several plaques in the north inner-city in recent years, marking the valuable contribution of the area to the struggle for independence.

Quite frankly, what Terry and the NICFP have gathered over time is one of the most important collections of artifacts of working class life and struggle on the island of Ireland.  For several years now, the material has been kept in a vacant flat at St. Mary’s Mansions on Railway Street. In recent days, the collection had a very lucky escape:



(Image Credit: Terry Fagan)


(Image Credit: Terry Fagan)

Terry notes that:

The residents of St Marys Mansions of Railway Street including local teenagers have watched over it for nearly two years to make sure nothing happened to it as it lay in the boarded up Dublin City Council flat. Only for the Council over the many years they have always helped me with a place to store the archive which keeps on growing as more artifacts are giving to me by some local people. The flat complex is not being pulled down, it is to be redesigned with the start of the art housing is to be in place for the residents when the return after moving out temporally.

The Halloween event is not too far away and the young children were out and about collecting all sorts of wood for the Halloween bonfire, they had it stored near where the archive is housed on the ground floor flat. They would tell me as I was going in and of the flat “We will make sure nothing will happen to it.”

I had them all in looking at the old black and white photographs, and some were pointing out their grandmothers and grandfathers. They were amazed looking at the old tenement artifacts; old gas lamps and oil lamps old valve radios, the old money and artifacts I found in the underground tunnels of what was old Monto.

During the night a group from another part of the area came in and set fire to the wood they had spent days collecting in preparation for Halloween. Thanks to Dublin Fire Brigade who where on the scene quickly and put out the fire which almost spread next-door to where the archive is housed. I don’t think they knew was stored next door to where the fire was, but they saved the history of the area. I thank them.

While there was “some smoke damage to some of the large photographs inside the flat”, the collection of the NICFP has survived and is being moved to a new location. These items certainly deserve to be on view to the public in the future, and we wish Terry and all his team the greatest success in their endeavors to create a local museum site.


(Image Credit: Terry Fagan)


(Image Credit: Terry Fagan)


In recent years, there has been a tremendous resurgence of interest in the work of Harry Clarke (1889-1931). Ireland’s most renowned stained-glass artist, the work of Harry Clarke and his studio team is to be found all over the capital and beyond.  HarryClarke.net provides an archive of his windows from Ireland and beyond, and The History Press have published Strangest Genius: The stained glass of Harry Clarke, a beautifully illustrated book that brings together the entire Clarke collection. For creative revisionists , there’s even a colouring book!

Mary Clerkin Higgins, a stained-glass artist and conservator, maintains that:

A complex window is like an orchestra playing a symphony. The colours must work as an ensemble; whether the artist intends them to hum a rich, beautiful melody or be a rambunctious chorus of hues, there has to be a basic structure, order and harmony….Harry Clarke was, above all else, a truly great colourist, one who could deftly combine a rich palette of colours to achieve dazzling results.

Personally, I have always hand a great fondness for Clarke’s book illustrations, in particular the rather haunting ‘The Last Hour of the Night’, which served as frontispiece to Patrick Abercrombie’s Dublin of the Future: The New Town Plan (1922). Published at a time when the city was emerging from the violence of the revolutionary period, the piece shows destroyed Dublin landmarks alongside the great shame of the city – its unsanitary and deathtrap tenement blocks:


‘The Last Hour of the Night’ (Harry Clarke, 1922)

A recent fundraiser for vital renovation and conservation works on a Clarke window in Ringsend reminded me of a damaged but ultimately salvaged Clarke piece on display today in The Little Museum of Dublin. Depicting Saint Brendan, this piece was rescued from a skip by architectural historian (and one of the real champions of Dublin history) Peter Pearson. As Pól Ó Conghaile has noted, ” Peter kept the panel’s shape by fitting it into an old bread tray. The tray remains as its frame today, with two words printed on its top side: Irish Pride.”


The odds of finding a Harry Clarke in a skip, damaged or otherwise, are slim to none today. The Little Museum of Dublin, who currently display the rescued piece, are hoping to expand their museum in the years ahead, which will allow them to display more artifacts like this one.



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