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This year, the 100th edition of the Liffey Swim will take place in Dublin. The event was famously captured by Jack B.Yeats in 1923,a year when the press reported that the swim was “witnessed by many thousands, who defied the rain and cheered the leading swimmers at the finish.” The terrible weather of that year is absent from the beautiful depiction of Yeats, and so too are the stubborn swans, who “cruised about with proud majestic mien in the water in front of the barge” for half-an-hour before the men contested the swim.

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Jack B. Yeats – The Liffey Swim (1923)

The first Liffey Swim, competed in 1920, was instigated by swimmer Bernard Fagan. A mere 27 men contested the first race, won by J.J Kennedy. It was a time of war and revolution of course; in his statement to the Bureau of Military History, Alfred Burgess, brother of revolutionary leader Cathal Brugha, remembered watching the swim one year, a welcome distraction from the politics of the day:

On one occasion I was looking at the Liffey Swim, from the southside of the Liffey, right opposite Lalor’s. Down under Lalor’s was a lorry load of Auxiliaries, and in one of the windows in Lalor’s was Cathal, looking out of the window at the Liffey Swim also.

For Dubliners, the Liffey occupies a centrally important place in our identity. We define ourselves partly by which side of it we call home, while the “the brewery tugs and the swans” made their way into the poetry of writers like Louis MacNeice. To Joyce, the river was Anna Livia Plurabelle. In more recent times, Damien Dempsey would sing of how “the Liffey cuts the city like a meandering blue vein.” No matter how much we love to gaze at her from Grattan Bridge, jumping into the Liffey is another thing entirely.

From the humble beginnings of 1920, the race has grown into a spectacular event, attracting international swimmers. Last year, 320 men and 219 women completed the Liffey Swim. As a spectator event, it has long drawn crowds too. More media coverage in the past went on Dubliners watching the event than Dubliners competing in it. Take this from 1928:

From windows and roofs the progress of the competitors was keenly watched, and hundreds of people availed of lorries, motor cars, hackney cars, in fact, vehicles of every description to view the swimmers.

Youngsters evinced no trepidation in taking up hazardous positions on the ladders leading to the river and on the parapets of bridges.Their enthusiasm was unbounded, and with them the Lifey Swim is an event that is eagerly anticipated each year. They greeted the victor with wild cheers when he ascended the steps at Butt Bridge, and the Gardáí had to make a passage to enable the competitors to make their way to Tara Street Baths.

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1928 coverage of the Liffey Swim, Irish Independent.

Between 1936 and 1939, the Liffey Swim took place from Bull Wall to Dollymount Strand, at a time when there was real concern about the health risks of pollution in the River Liffey, fears which would later lead to the race being moved upstream in the 1977-1979 period. C.J Smyth, the leading authority on the Liffey Swim, has written about these concerns:

The deterioration of Irish rivers, the increasing incidents of pollution, the seeming indifference of official bodies and the ineffectiveness of advisory boards to the governmen twere a time-bomb waiting to explode. Pollution levels in the Liffey would reach crisis point in 1977 when the river was declared unsafe for humans to swim in.

While the location has shifted, there has been perfect continuity in so far as there has been a race each and every year.

The competition has produced its own heroes too. The youngest ever winner, Francis ‘Chalkey’ White, was eleven at the time of his victory in 1966,and would go on to repeat the achievement the following year. The son of a Guinness brewery worker, he represented the Guinness Swimming Club, and was described as a “wisp of a boy” in the press. Even younger, Mairéad Doran would emerge victorious in 1979 in the equivalent ladies competition at the age of ten.

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Francis (Chalkey) White, 1966 winner (Irish Independent)

The involvement of women in the Liffey Swim has not been without controversy, indeed it was not until 1991 that women were permitted to compete in the same course as men. Prior to this in the 1970s, women contested for the The Tommy May Cup, named in honour of a 1950s winner of the Liffey Swim. As early as the 1920s, some championed the idea of women participating in the event in letters to the press,though unsurprisingly there was later clerical opposition to this idea from Archbishop McQuaid and others. To McQuaid, “Mixed athletics are a social abuse, outraging our rightful, national tradition.”

The crowds observing the event may be somewhat smaller than in earlier decades, but the race maintains an important place in the identity of the city. In 1988, during Dublin’s Millennium celebrations, they raced towards the Dyflin, a reconstructed Viking longboat which served as the finishing line. Still, contemporary accounts are not unlike those of the 1920s, with The Irish Times noting of the 2014 race:

Crowds lean over river walls and bridges along the way cheering them on, while some supporters jogged along foot-paths cheering on their man or woman, all the way through the city centre.

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Brendan and Beatrice Behan, September 1959 (NPG)


In the world of arts and culture, a good name will get you far. So it was for The Pike Theatre in Herbert Lane, with co-founder Alan Simpson remembering:

After much discussion, we fixed on ‘The Pike’, meaning the long pole with a spike on the end, which was used by the Irish insurgents of 1798 to discomfort the slick English cavalry. In other words, we wanted our theatre to be a revolutionary force of small means which, by its ingenuity, would stir up the theatrical lethargy of post-war Ireland.

With seating for just 55 audience members (one British reviewer would recall the audience “Jammed together tight as bricks in a wall, sweating, sticking our elbows into our neighbours, digging our knees into the people in the row in front”) The Pike was hidden away in a Dublin laneway, though what it lacked in size it made for in ambition. While primarily remembered today for a disgraceful raid by Gardaí in May 1957 during a production of The Rose Tattoo, the theatre has a much richer story, bringing the work of respected international playwrights to the stage in Dublin,including Eugène Ionesco, Jean Paul Sarte, Samuel Beckett and others. The theatre hosted the world premiere of Brendan Behan’s The Queer Fellow, a work which had been rejected by the Abbey Theatre.

The Pike was created by Alan Simpson and his wife Carolyn Swift. Both had a history of working with The Gate Theatre of Hilton and MacLiammóir, a theatre which Simpson remembered “brought all the more exciting dramatists of Europe and America to the Dublin stage.” Entering the world of theatre managers themselves, the premises they found in Herbert Lane proved you can do much with little; Simpson recounted “we found a premises which, though not suitable, was just possible – just within our means.” With the outer appearance of a shed,The Pike’s size was something that would be seen both as a pro and con through different eyes. Certainly, it was intimate, and the close proximity of the audience to the stage, and the small size of the stage itself, would impact on The Pike. Speaking in the Dáil at the time of Swift’s passing in 2002, Michael D. Higgins would recount that “The 1950s was an absolute barren place where all the shutters were down”, but that small theatres like The Pike emerged, bringing something new and invigorating to Dublin cultural life.

Despite being housed in a refurbished old Georgian coachhouse,the Pike was more concerned with the contemporary than the past, and stated that “the aim is to stage productions which, for one reason or another, would not be seen in the commercial theatres in the city.” A few things set The Pike apart from its Dublin competitors, including the introduction of late revues, where George Desmond Hodnett (author of the satirical song ‘Take Her Up To Monto’) entertained visitors to the theatre on his piano. “The Follies of Herbert Lane”, packed with humour and performance, filled the tiny little theatre, as revelers made their way home from the pubs of nearby Baggotonia. Actors, including a young Milo O’Shea, made their names before that audience.

Some plays sat better with Dublin audiences than others. Simpson recalled that during performances of Sarte’s Men Without Shadows, “we regularly used to have to bring out female members of the audience in a fainting condition to the lane outside, where they were draped across the bonnets of parked cars, for lack of any better means of dealing with them, sometimes as many as three cars being pressed into service at one time!”

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Hoddy performing on stage at a Pike Theatre late revue.

In England, the maverick theatre director Joan Littlewood would identify the talents of Brendan Behan, but in the same way as her Theatre Workshop championed a writer some would rather keep at arms length, The Pike in Dublin was a welcoming institution for Behan. On reading the play which became The Queer Fellow, Simpson recounted that “the construction was loose and in places repetitious, but it was immediately clear to me that here was dialogue that could grip an audience and twist the emotions this way and that, as only O’Casey had done before.” Behan made rehearsals for the play difficult:

As the momentous day drew nearer,the atmosphere became too much for Brendan, and he took solidly to the bottle, appearing at intervals accompanied by some friendly but uncomprehending soak whom he had acquired in his perambulations through the various pubs in the area. The latter, puzzled as to why he had been dragged away from his creamy pint to this strange, cold garage in a back lane, would sit in the auditorium, muttering amiable obscenities,while Brendan dug him in the ribs and repeated again and again, ‘I wrote that!’

To the audience of The Pike, Behan interruptions would sometimes become a feature of actual performances too. There was no such risk with the work of Samuel Beckett. Though a Dubliner, there was a feel of bringing an international work to Dublin in performing Beckett in the theatre.Waiting For Godot had divided opinion when performed in London, Simpson recalling that “the popular press dismissed it as obscure nonsense and pretentious rubbish”, but in Dublin the response was much more favourable. Godot ran, and ran, and ran, breaking all records and becoming the longest continuous run in Irish theatrical history to that point.

The story of the 1957 production of The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams has been well told elsewhere, but unfortunately it has become the primary memory of the Pike Theatre in Dublin. The use of a condom on stage as a prop was enough to cause indignation, and to lead the Pike Theatre into the criminal courts, though as Hugh Oram rightly notes, “the fact that the Pike Theatre put on works by the likes of Brendan Behan and Samuel Beckett became overshadowed by a controversy that to modern eyes seems utterly ridiculous.” One actor in the production later recounted how “I brought a nightdress and a toothbrush with me to the theatre each night, in case I would end up in Mountjoy.”

The play had been met by positive reviews, the Irish Press insisting that “once again, The Pike must be highly recommended for giving Dublin a remarkable piece of theatre”,but that counted for little when the Gardaí arrived, arresting Simpson and bringing him to the Bridewell, where he was formally charged with “presenting for gain an indecent and profane performance.” While the trial would subsequently collapse, it has a real impact on many involved in The Pike, perhaps discrediting the immortal words of Pike writer Brendan Behan, of their being “no such thing as bad publicity, except your obituary.” One outcome of the lunacy was a stifling of creative output, Simpson recounting that “I had, for obvious reasons, to avoid the presentation of any play which could possibly be considered even faintly controversial.”

Writing of 1950s Dublin cultural life, the critic Brian Fallon has maintained that “Undoubtedly, most of the laurels for the decade belong to the gallant little Pike.” Today, no plaque in Herbert Lane marks the spot where a tiny little theatre attempted to reinvent Irish theatre, but closed its doors in 1961. In less than ten years, the little theatre of Swift and Simpson had done so much.

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Upper Grand Canal Street, 1967 (National Library of Ireland)

Having spent a lot of time in recent months in Belfast, I became accustomed to the iconography that celebrates King William III’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne. Billy on the walls is always depicted upon a white horse. Perhaps Benjamin West’s iconic 1778 painting, The Battle of the Boyne, has been most important in establishing this in popular memory, though some historians have disputed the claim. Regardless of what colour the horse at the Boyne was, the fact of history is that William was victorious (with Papal blessing no less), and Seamus a’ chaca (“James the shit”, as the defeated King James II was derisively known in Ireland) has a bad day out in a field in Louth.

Images of white horses adorn Orange Order banners, murals, commemorative tea towels and everything one can imagine. More forgotten is the fact they were once a frequent sight in the fanlights of Dublin houses. There is dispute over just what the white horses once fashionable in parts of Dublin meant, but many suggest they denoted a Protestant home and identity.

In 1934, a writer to The Irish Press insisted that “away back in the days when Orangeism was rampant in Dublin, houses which displayed the white horse of Hanover in their fanlights were left unmolested”, something also mentioned in a piece from the Evening Herald around the same time, suggesting that “during the height of the 1798 terror, bands of Orange Militia roamed the streets seeking Croppies, and every Catholic house was suspect. In order to distinguish themselves, the loyalists displayed a drawing, or effigy, of a white horse prominently on their houses, the white horse being an Orange emblem representing William’s charger at the Boyne.”

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Evening Herald, February 1937.

Other accounts suggest that the primary reason to display such a symbol was to make a polite but clear point towards those carrying out Catholic church collections or other such door to door activities. One 1930s source claims that “these ornaments are most numerous in the neighborhood of Prussia Street.”

Whatever they once meant, as time went on these symbols lost their political significance of course (if they ever had any to some who displayed them). Within the collections of the National Folklore Collection, housed in University College Dublin, some inner-city Dublin Protestants tell of “displaying statues of white horses that, to their eyes, represented William of Orange, while to onlookers they appeared to be merely decorative items (thus allowing them to display important iconography after Independence without exposing them to problems with their Catholic neighbours.”

The diversity of Protestant identity in Dublin should never be forgotten too, something beautifully captured in the autobiographies of Sean O’Casey. A few white horses survive in Dublin today, while during regular banking hours one can walk into the House of Lords in the Bank of Ireland College Green and see the eighteenth century tapestry displayed there, depicting Billy’s victory on the Boyne. Note the horse:

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Tapestry in the House of Lords, Bank of Ireland.

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A little Vietnamese boy, his sallow face pinched with exhaustion, led a plane-load of boat people ashore to their new life, as the first group of refugees arrived in Ireland yesterday.

So wrote the Irish Independent of 10 August 1979. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the arrival of the so-called ‘Boat People’ from Vietnam in Dublin. They arrived by aeroplane, but the images of people fleeing Vietnam in boats had made their impact on popular consciousness. At a time when the Irish public were more accustomed to emigration than immigration, there was enormous public interest in the plight of the Vietnamese who came here against the backdrop of political violence in their own country, though the dialogue around them in the press was sometimes curious.

Mark Magire, author of the the book Differently Irish: A Cultural History Exploring 25 Years of Vietnamese-Irish Identity , gives brilliant insight into the contemporary discussion that surrounded their arrival here. Eamonn Casey, Bishop of Galway, called on the state to do more,attacking what he termed the “meager response” at first to the crisis in Vietnam. Others attempted to emphasis the quality of the people coming to Ireland. One commentator – a historian of all people – argued that we were importing “a ready made creative minority”, and even noted that “naturalised their very grandchildren… would doubtless vote Fianna Fáil.”

The images of the Vietnamese Boat People in the 1970s were broadcast into the homes of millions. It’s estimated that some 800,000 people left the country from 1975 onwards, seeking sanctuary across the world. The idea of global responsibility to assist those in war torn regions was almost unheard of, and when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees requested the Irish Government resettle three Vietnamese families in 175, the request was refused on economic grounds.

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Sunday Independent, 5 August 1979.

Under pressure to play a significant role in the worsening crisis, the Irish state accepted some 200 Vietnamese people from August 1979 onwards, who were to be housed primarily in the James Connolly Memorial Hospital at Blanchardstown, with two spacious ward units converted to housing. Jim Kennedy, an Irish Red Cross beteran of some forty years who had assisted in the rehousing of 3,500 refguees who fled South to escape from sectarian attacks in the North, was optimistic, telling the Sunday Independent that “the food won’t be a problem. These people eat rice, pork, chicken, fish, vegetables and all sorts and, of course, they are great tea drinkers.” Some later arrivals would be housed by the Christian Brothers in Swords. The Vietnamese would be taught English, before being spread across the island. The real fear was ghettoisation, but as was rightly pointed out, the outcome may have been social isolation.

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Irish Independent, 10 August 1979.

Despite the fact the island of Ireland was experiencing its own political turmoil, frontpage news in some parts of the world, there was almost no awareness of Ireland among the Vietnamese themselves who arrived here. One of them later recounted:

None of us knew very much about where we were going or even exactly where it was. When we arrived in Dublin Airport we thought it was only a stopping off point. We did not believe that a national airport of a country could be so small.

Media interest in the personal stories of those who arrived here was significant, the Irish Independent reporting the harrowing words of one arrival,that “we were sailing for three days and three nights when Malaysian fisherman took us in. I have left everything behind. I still have four sisters working in labour camps near Saigon.” There had been considerable media interest in Ireland in Vietnamese refugees in Britain in the months before their arrival in Ireland, a Mayo-born volunteer working with Vietnamese families in Liverpool reassuring Irish Independent readers that “the Vietnamese people are a reserved and quiet race but they have great enthusiasm and energy and would contribute more to Irish society than they would take.” There were widespread calls from across the political divide to take in more Vietnamese families, and when the families were spread into communities beyond Blanchardstown,local press reported on them with interest.

Some in the community would enter the food industry, focusing on providing take away food, in particular Chinese food, across Dublin. In Maguire’s study, one member of the community reflected that this was a difficult business to get ahead in:

Some friends and me got the money to put one family into the business and we tried to leam about the cooking, the grub! There was very little Chinese food in Ireland at that time. I learned to cook from some people who worked in a Chinese restaurant and after that I showed other people how to cook. In 1984,1 was working on a comer near a bus stop— we were only making a living.

Many of the Vietnamese families who arrived here in 1979 ultimately settled in Ireland. In an excellent 2015 piece on the original families who settled here, Erin McGuire noted that the popular Pho Viet restaurant on Parnell Street is maintained by one of the 1979 families.

Póg Mo Goal Nua

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Pearse Street Play Centre kick about, at Pearse Square. Dublin City Public Libraries (for more footballing images from the city collections see here)

Soccer was Sheriff Street – that’s all we played there. Soccer was working class. Soccer was ballet. Soccer was skill. Soccer made sense. Soccer was Manchester United. Soccer was the Busby Babes. Soccer was the Munich Air Disaster. Soccer was grief. Soccer was joy. Soccer was Spurs doing the double. Soccer was the past and the present. Soccer was Jackie Carey and Liam Whelan and Noel Cantwell. Soccer was Drums and Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers and Saint Pat’s. Soccer was Tolka Park on a Sunday with Shea and Johnny and Da. Soccer was Dundalk and Ma crying when they won the FAI Cup. Soccer was life itself…

So writes Peter Sheridan in Forty Four: A Dublin Memoir. Perhaps nobody has captured what football means to this city so elegantly.

Póg Mo Goal is a beautifully produced football magazine, from right here in Dublin. With an emphasis both on the local game and football culture internationally, it occupies a unique place in the world of Irish print magazines, while it also enjoys a lot of support from fans of good design, owing to the emphasis on the aesthetics of the publication. It looks – and reads – unlike any other football magazine this island has ever witnessed.

With a strong emphasis on fan culture, articles have examined things as diverse as the European ‘Ultras’ movement, football in war-torn regions, fan ownership of clubs and more besides. There’s plenty of strong historical content, and I tip my hat especially in the direction of Cian Manning.

I’ve been fortunate to write some pieces for Póg Mo Goal to date, ranging from Dublin City FC (RIP), to the history of women’s football in Ireland (big up to the Ballyfermot All Stars and Finglas side Suffragettes FC!) as well as a piece on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s love of the beautiful game, something entirely different from the norm for me.

The latest edition of Póg Mo Goal is Issue 5. The magazine, which is published annually(ish), has taken a new direction, moving from newspaper format to a spined magazine. Writers include Kevin Brannigan, Jelena Đureinović, Edd Norval and Mé Féin on ‘Gentleman John’, the great Jackie Carey. You can support the magazine here, and you can even buy a brilliant John Aldridge t-shirt while you’re at it.

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Jean Ritchie recording Séamus Ennis

Today is the centenary of the birth of the magnificent piper Séamus Ennis. This anniversary has been marked with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque in Finglas, where Ennis hailed from, and a pop-up exhibition and series of talks in the local library. Ennis is commemorated with a beautiful statue at the Séamus Ennis Centre at the Naul, where the finest tribute to his memory is the fact the music continues to play.

In recent years, Dublin has witnessed something of a renaissance of traditional and folk music, which has even propelled acts like Lankum to international attention. Central to all of this is the oral tradition, as songs and reels make their way through the generations and find new audiences. There is perhaps nobody as significant to the story of collecting that oral tradition as the great Séamus Ennis, born a hundred years ago today. Born in North County Dublin, Ennis was not only a legendary uilleann piper but a collector of songs and tunes, traveling all over Ireland on a trusty bicycle in search of ceol dúchasach (native Irish music), against the backdrop of the hungry 1940s and ’50s. His collections are today deposited in the National Folklore Collection, capturing an Ireland that could well have vanished in his absence.

The life of Séamus Ennis would have been very different were it not for his father, civil servant James Ennis, chancing to enter a pawn shop in London. Drawn immediately to a set of uilleann pipes on display and for sale, he purchased them without hesitation, discovering later that they had been made on Thomas Street in Dublin. Beginning at the age of 13, Séamus learned the complex instrument from his father. In time, the younger Ennis developed a keen appreciation for the need to capture Ireland’s rapidly vanishing disappearing oral tradition. At the age of 23, in 1943, with Europe at war and rationing a feature of Irish life, Séamus Ennis took off on an amazing journey through Ireland. Giving him “pen, paper and pushbike”, the Irish Folklore Commission entrusted this young Gael with the task of recording and documenting the oral and music traditions of rural Ireland.

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New commemorative plaque to Séamus Ennis, Finglas. (Image Credit: DCC Historians in Residence)

As Ríonach uí Ógáin notes in the introductory essay accompanying Ennis’s diaries, by the 1940s modernisation and emigration appeared to threaten a rich heritage, heralding “a speedy decline in many aspects of a hitherto relatively unchanged lifestyle and its associated traditions, especially in storytelling in Irish”. Ennis was paid almost £3 a week, and it was difficult work – the rural communities that he visited were sometimes insular places, and he cut a funny shape, one account remembering him as “long in the leg, famished looking, thin-shouldered and nervous”.

Reading Ennis’s diaries from his years traveling Ireland in search of songs and stories, it is evident that the Dubliner cherished each moment.Take his account of visiting Carna in Connemara in July 1944, where “a few lads and girls gathered in and we had a great night’s music and dancing in a house. The man of the house – Breathnach – is one of the great old-style dancers. We left the house at 5.30am after a great night’s sport and music and dancing. Went to bed at eight o’clock.”

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Séamus at the Willie Clancy Festival. Liam McNulty image via Willie Clancy Festival site.

In time, Ennis went from being the curator and gatherer of oral traditions to the subject of another collector. In 1951, the famed American folklorist, oral historian and archivist Alan Lomax arrived in Ireland, in the company of folk singer Jean Ritchie. Lomax, keen to capture the musical traditions of all cultures, believed Ireland’s heritage particularly worthy of recording, as “the last notes of the old, high and beautiful Irish civilization are dying away. A civilization which produced an epic, lyrical and musical literature as noble as any in the world.”The images of Ennis captured on that trip are beautiful, including him playing his uilleann pipes before an audience of curious children in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

Ennis had a pivotal influence on a generation of young Irish musicians, including both Liam Óg O’Flynn and Christy Moore of the pioneering group Planxty. Liam Óg, a piper himself who inherited the pipes of Ennis, remembered that it was his love for capturing tradition that set Séamus apart, as “he was this incredible musician, but most incredible musicians like that don’t tend to go into the background of things in any sort of academic or structured way…Ennis combined the two.”

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From the ‘Masters of Irish Music’ LP series.

As a recognised expert of his field, Ennis presented As I Roved Out for the BBC, an important moment in the history of folk-music broadcasting, bringing Irish voices into thousands of British homes. Ennis played before packed halls in the UK’s thriving folk-music scene too, with Bob Davenport remembering the electric effect of his playing of audiences, as “like watching a cowboy film where the marshal walks in and everybody looks round. When he played, there was nobody ever comes close. It stood your hair on end. It was just absolutely devastating.” As the folk- and traditional-music revival of the day began, Ennis was a respected elder around younger musicians, performing at events like the Newport Folk Festival and Lisdoonvarna. A festival appearance is brilliantly captured in this archive footage brought to the internet by TG4.

Ennis died in October 1982, having lived out the later years of his life in the familiar surroundings of north County Dublin, in a caravan he christened Easter Snow. In a song of the same name dedicated to his memory, Christy Moore recalled how “He called up lost verses again”. And yet, the verses were not lost. It was Ennis who captured them, ensuring their place in the archives and the continuation of ancient tradition. In the words of traditional musician Tony MacMahon, “He made me realise music is magic and a spiritual experience. It cannot be taught in any university. It is beyond that.”

The President of Ireland, Dr. Patrick J. Hillery, unveiling the monument of Jim Larkin, June 1979 (Image Credit: Dublin City Public Libraries Digital Depository)

There is something magic about the monument to trade union leader James Larkin in the centre of O’Connell Street. Monuments to political leaders tend to capture men and women in a particular pose, which is relaxed but commanding. By comparison, Larkin is captured in Oisin Kelly’s monument exactly as he was in life. It calls to mind the words of biographer Samuel Levenson, who insisted that Larkin was “revolution incarnate; a man able to set crowds aflame while seeming to speak to each listener individually.” In a similar vein, Seán Ó Faoláin would recount him as a man who “burned with a simplicity of belief in his fellow-man, and his speech to them was like a lava.”

The monument to Larkin, in popular memory, is most synonymous with the days of the 1913 Lockout, calling to mind the defiant meeting held on Sackville Street despite a police proclamation prohibiting the gathering at the end of August 1913. In reality, the depiction of Larkin is based on a later image of the union later, captured by the photographer Joseph Cashman in 1923, as Larkin returned from the United States and a period of grueling imprisonment which had played its toll. He returned to an Ireland partitioned and a Dublin where Liberty Hall was in the hands of a new union leadership. In some ways, he was at his lowest ebb, far removed from the heroic spirit of 1913 Dublin a decade earlier.

It was perhaps in the spirit of Jim Larkin that when the President of Ireland unveiled the monument on a summer evening in 1979, there were a few dissenting voices in the crowd. Placards reading “the inner-city has not changed since 1913” were reportedly carried by some. Among the great and the good gathered for the unveiling were the Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin, the Soviet Ambassador to Ireland, leaders of the Workers Union of Ireland and Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and the leaders of the major Irish political parties. Hillery proclaimed:

This statue is a monument to the achievement of so much of what Larkin laboured for. In the ages to come it will stand, a work of art raised to the memory of a great man who spent his energies and talents in the cause of his fellow-man, an inspiration to all who gaze upon it to strive on behalf of their brothers and sisters everywhere.

Larkin would have found humour in the Irish Independent describing him as “the greatest of our Labour leaders” in its report on the unveiling of the monument, given the role of the paper in the 1913 dispute. Much had changed, and a dead Larkin was no threat. Press coverage was overwhelmingly positive on the artistic merit of the monument, depicting a bronze figure of Larkin, weighing almost a ton and some nine feet high, standing proudly upon his plinth.

Denis Larkin, President Patrick Hillery, Russian Ambassador Anatoli Kaplin, Fintan Larkin attend the unveiling of the monument (Dublin City Public Libraries Digital Depository)

Within days of the monument being unveiled, camera crews were filming for Strumpet City in the vicinity of the monument, struggling to keep Larkin out of sight. There were other issues too; an Irish Press reporter noted of filming that “Jim Larkin’s cab was pulled by a very sweet-natured horse, who couldn’t quite get the hang of stopping in the right place. I fear his career in show-business could be quite short lived.”

What strikes many people immediately about the monument is the size of the hands of Larkin. As art historian Paula Murphy has noted, this is a distinctive feature of Kelly’s work, clearly demonstrating the artists awareness of how important they were to capturing the spirit of the subject:

Hands are an important device in Kelly’s work generally, and perhaps nowhere more obviously than in the Larkin statue, where they have immense presence. Fergus Kelly remembers his father worrying away at the hands and the difficulties of them being seen from below. Although the sculptor never knew Larkin, he clearly recognized not just that the man had what were described elsewhere as ‘great hands like shovels’, but how important they were to the passionate nature of the depiction.

By 1979 Oisín Kelly was considered the leading public sculptor in Dublin. His work included the stunning Children of Lir monument in the Garden of Remembrance, ensuring his standing in Irish artistic life. On O’Connell Street, his bronze statue would be joined by the immortal words of Seán O’Casey and Patrick Kavanagh on either side of the monument, while a bronze plaque below Larkin includes words borrowed from the French Revolution, and which once appeared in the masthead of radical newspaper The Workers’ Republic:

The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!
Ní uasal aon uasal ach sinne bheith íseal. Éirímis!
Le grands ne sont grands que parce que nous sommes a genoux. Levons-nous!

A curious feature of the monument, still visible today, concerns the year of Larkin’s birth. At the time of the unveiling of the statue, this was listed as 1876, though later historic research has established 1874 as the year of his birth with certainty. The correction of this mistake is still visible in the plinth today.

Jim Larkin died in January 1947. In a memorial piece entitled ‘The Catholic Communist’,capturing many of the complexities and contradictions of the giant of Irish Labour, Bertram D. Wolfe wrote that:

During a bitter blizzard on January 30, 1947, Jim Larkin died. Despite the cold and snow, the tumult of Irish crowds which be so loved surrounded the approaches to Saint Mary’s Church on Haddington Road, Dublin…He lay in state in the church while those who loved him, and many who did not, passed the coffin where one could see the brown rosary beads in his hand, given him by the Archbishop of Dublin.

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