This article appeared in the last issue of Rabble. I have expanded on it here and included plenty of images.
If there was a monster under the bed for conservatives in 1930s Ireland, it was called communism. Among those to the right of the political spectrum, there existed a belief that Moscow was gaining more and more ground in international politics, and when coupled with the emergence of new left-wing organisations in Ireland like the Republican Congress and the rise of revolutionary forces in Spain, this was enough to spark a red scare.
Of the various anti-communist groups that emerged, the Irish Christian Front was undoubtedly the most significant. Not only did the group do its best to whip up anti-communist hysteria in Ireland, it openly championed fascist leader General Franco’s coup in Spain, by lobbying Irish political parties to recognise him as the legitimate leader of Spain, and by sending ambulances and other supplies from Ireland to the frontlines of the Spanish Civil War.
The Irish Christian Front first emerged in 1936, and in many ways was a more significant threat to the left in Irish society than organisations like it that had come before, such as the Saint Patrick’s Anti-Communist League. Crucially, the organisation was led by Patrick Belton, a veteran of the Easter Rising and a respected member of the Dáil. Irish Christian Front rallies were often addressed by members of parliament, including not only Fine Gael T.D’s but also representatives of Fianna Fáil, and even the Labour Party on occasion. Trade union bands were to found performing at some I.C.F rallies, perhaps eager to dissassociate themselves with communism.
The first meeting of the organisation took place at the Mansion House on 28 August, and was addressed by a certain Alfie Byrne. Known in the city as “the shaking hand of Dublin”, he was elected Lord Mayor nine times consecutively between 1930 and 1939. The new organisation was given strong support by the Irish Independent, who printed its manifesto after the inaugural meeting, which noted that “the Irish Christian Front has been founded by Irish working men and women to unmask Communism and to give a lead to Irish workers.”
Huge demonstrations followed the inaugural meeting. At College Green, nearly thirty thousand people mobilised on a cold October evening, and were told “we repudiate Communism as an alien importation, opposed to the religious, economic and political liberties of the Irish people.” At a meeting in Cork, reports on which were collected by Gardaí for security purposes, the Right Rev. Dean Sexton told a crowd that a “renegade Jewish gang in Russia” was seizing control of European society. This was a time when the radical left was unable to mobilise in any significant numbers on the streets without facing the risk of physical confrontation. In 1936, for example, there had been physical attacks on socialists partaking in an Easter commemoration at Glasnevin Cemetery. Jack White, a founding member of the Irish Citizen Army, recalled in the aftermath of this that “The pious hooligans actually came inside the cemetery and tore up the grave rails to attack us.”
When the first issue of the Irish Christian Front newspaper appeared, it didn’t hold back. It’s banner proclaimed that the organisation stood for “co-operation and not class war”, while the paper contained a highly alarmist article on the “red horrors” and “devilry” underway in Spain. It was reported that:
Where the Reds are in control there is murder, outrage and burnings. The Red horrors are so so far beyond description that it is no wonder that the Holy Father calls them ‘Satanic’. They are not the things that happen in any war. They are devilry. They are the climax of the campaign of devilry devised by Moscow, and carried out ever since the Republic was established. GOD SAVE CATHOLIC SPAIN.
To those on the left of the political spectrum, the Irish Christian Front was a real threat. The Worker newspaper was vocal in its condemnation of Belton, who was ridiculed as “the he-man from the midlands, the acknowledged leader of the ‘New Christianity’ in this island.” The paper noted that Belton was a former Fianna Fáil member who had been expelled from the party, and attacked Belton’s record as a property developer, claiming he had underpaid his own labourers and had poor relations with trade unions. The newspaper noted:
The ‘Front’ is a Fascist racket: Belton is and was with O’Duffy in the Blueshirts and the ‘Front’ is busy trying to disrupt the trade unions, as well as supporting the Fascist militarists in Spain, whose declared policy is to destroy all Labour organisations. Thirdly, the ‘Front is a capitalist-employers’ racket, to further the business interests of its immediate heads. It is a racket of businessmen and political careerists, composed of aliens and natives. Its attack on Communism and loud professions of Christianity is simply a smoke screen behind which the Fascist game is played for the destruction of the whole working class movement in this country. This Fascist game must be stopped by the united action of all sections of the Labour and progressive movements.
The Irish Christian Front proved capable both of lobbying the political establishment of the day and organising a grassroots campaign across the island. The group lobbied political parties to see if they were willing to “ban communism, implement a social policy based on the Papal encyclicals and recognise General Franco.” Branches were organised in many suburbs and towns. At the launching of its Phibsboro Branch, a packed meeting was told by a Father O’Herlihy that “Communism is the plague of modern times and we have an example of it in Russia today where all liberty has been lost for the individual, the family and society.” The organisations campaigning was acknowledged by General Franco. In October 1936 a telegram was read at a meeting of the organiation which noted that “General Franco very gratefully acknowledges the message of congratulations from the Irish Christian Front and their most noble help for our wounded.”
The Irish Christian Front were not alone in spreading hysteria and misinformation. The Catholic Truth Society for example produced vast quantities of pamphlets, ranging from now-comical pamphlets on issues like sexuality and the cinema, to sinister publications about communism, Freemasonry, and the invented links between the two. “Marx’s self-appointed mission was to bring Atheism to the people”, a priest warned in one such pamphlet, and such publications only played into the hands of Irish Christian Font recruiters. In 2013 a collection of covers of some of the more loony Catholic Truth Society pamphlets were republished as a coffee table book.
Even by the standards of the day, the I.C.F seems to have drifted towards more and more bizarre politics, described by historian Fearghal McGarry as “negative and often unconventional subjects”. Campaigns against things like Jewish immigration to Ireland were waged alongside campaigns to close down Dublin’s “thriving nudist clubs”. Increasingly seen as a crank, and becoming more and more anti-Semitic, Belton would lose his seat in the 1937 General Election, by which point the movement was in decline.
A disagreement over whether Irishmen should physically fight in the Spanish Civil War was decisive too, and while Belton personally opposed Irishmen going to Spain to partake in the ‘crusade’ against Communism, many members of the I.C.F were within Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade. When O’Duffy and his men returned to Dublin after their brief sojourn in Spain in June 1937, they marched to the Mansion House where Alfie Byrne was waiting. The Lord Mayor told the returning Blueshirts that he felt that he was voicing the opinions of all Irish liberty loving people when he said “welcome home” to the men.