In Ireland, there is a tendency to view the 1930s in an overwhelmingly negative light, not least when it comes to culture. Yet in spite of sometimes suffocating conservative attitudes and a censorship regime that presented real obstacles to creativity, remarkable talents did find some space in Irish life. Celebrated names like Liam O’Flaherty, Harry Kernoff, Seán O’Faoláin and others worked hard at their craft, often in a hostile political environment. Indeed, looking at it now, the 1930s was arguably something of a golden age for Irish progressive talent in the arts.
One figure who is now largely forgotten from this period is Leslie Daiken, though his contributions to it are deserving of real credit and analysis. Born in Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem’ in 1912, Daiken would collaborate with some of the most interesting artists of his time, while also involving himself in radical politics. In later years, he became a historian of childhood play and toys, even opening a museum of toys and childhood in the basement of his 1950s London home. He collected the street games and rhymes of children, and never lost touch with his home island and city. Daiken was active in the London Dublinmen’s Association, and a frequent contributor to newspapers like The Irish Democrat in London. Known to friends as Yod, he was remembered at the time of his passing as “a lover of children and the child-mind, [and] as a loyal friend and a cosmopolitan Irishman. Yod has made his contribution to his country and his time.”
Little Jerusalem Beginnings:
Leslie Herbert Yodaiken, later to become known as Leslie Daiken, was born into Dublin’s Jewish community in 1912. The district known as ‘Little Jerusalem’, located in Dublin’s Portobello and South Circular Road area, had been attracting Jewish migrants in significant numbers since the 1890s. Largely composed of those fleeing religious persecution in Tsarist Russia, the Jewish population in Ireland stood in the region of 4,800 people by 1901, mostly concentrated in Dublin.
In the area which would become known as ‘Little Jerusalem’, most of the housing had been constructed by the Dublin Artisan Dwelling Company in the 1870s and 1880s. These distinctive red brick houses (also to be found in places like Stoneybatter across the Liffey) were built by what was a semi-philanthropic body, keen to improve public housing and public health. Rent for the homes was above what an unskilled labourer could generally afford, and the DADC houses tended to attract skilled and craft workers.As Cormac Ó Gráda has noted, “the brand-new houses in Portobello came on the market at exactly the right time for clusters of Jewish migrants ready to pay the 6s to 8s weekly rent.”
For children growing up in the area, life was good and the sense of community was strong, something captured beautifully in Nick Harris’s memoir Dublin’s Little Jerusalem. Many of the Jewish children attended St Peter’s National School in Bride Street, and Daiken would immortalise its headmaster, Joe Sleith, in a 1960s publication:
Auld Joe he is a bo,
He goes to church on Sunday,
He prays to God to give him strength,
to bash the kids on Monday.
Daiken was educated at St Andrew’s College and Wesley College, before attending Trinity College Dublin, where he was an award-winning student specialising in linguistics. Daiken involved himself in the Dublin University Socialist Society, and attended the Sheffield Youth Anti-War Congress in August 1934 as a delegate. Some of Daiken’s earliest poetry appeared in TCD student publications, in particular T.C.D: A College Miscellany.
Daiken continued to involve himself in socialist and anti-fascist politics after his student days, knowing that fascism posed an enormous threat to the Jewish community in the 1930s, and not only on the continent. Paddy Belton, a 1916 veteran and a TD prone to anti-semitic hysteria, told one gathering of his Irish Christian Front that “the Jews are the propagandists of Communism and it is time there was restriction or even prohibition on undesirable immigration”, while on another occasion the crowd at a Christian Front rally were told that a “renegade Jewish gang in Russia” were seizing power in Spain and could do likewise in Ireland.
Yet the greatest threat of violence at the time came from those opposed to his politics and not his faith. 1930s Dublin witnessed some ugly mob violence directed against communist and socialist organisations. In March 1933, the Saint Patrick’s Anti-Communist League and other defenders of faith and morality laid siege to Connolly House on Great Strand Street, the headquarters of the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups, which was a forerunner to the Communist Party of Ireland. Days later, they attacked the Workers’ College at 63 Eccles Street. Patrick Byrne, a young radical in the Dublin of that time, remembered that “the house was a great six-storey Georgian mansion that had seen better days.” He recalled that “the attack followed the usual pattern, hymn singing, swearing and missile throwing. Leslie Daiken assumed command of the defence.”On that occasion, the mob weren’t successful.
After a short spell working as a teacher in Dublin, a young Daiken departed for London in 1935. It was not the end of his activism.