Scottish historian and left-wing political activist Bob Purdie (1940-2014) published a number of autobiographical passages on his Facebook profile not long before he passed away. Two were focused on Dublin and I thought they would be worth sharing here for a larger audience.
The first piece comes from 1970 and Purdie recalls his early opinions of the Dublin and the various left-wing and republican activists that he met.
“I remember … My first visit to Dublin.”
I had become deeply involved in Ireland, reading Irish history and learning about its culture, but I had never been there. In July 1970 the International Marxist Group (IMG) sent me to visit Dublin and Belfast and I left Euston Station with keen anticipation. It was a long journey – train to Holyhead, ferry to Dun Laoghaire and train to Dublin, so I took a book to read on the way. It was Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s great novel about rural life in North East Scotland, Sunset Song. I opened it as the train left London and immediately fell in. I emerged only as the Irish coast came into view and I was abruptly tipped from one world into another. What I was seeing was familiar and that puzzled me. Then I remembered Brendan Behan’s description, at the end of Borstal Boy, of sailing into Dublin Bay. It had lodged in my mind so vividly that it now it was replaying itself in my memory.
Dublin in 1970 was very reminiscent of 1950s Edinburgh. I ate in a restaurant which had waitresses wearing frilly caps and aprons, with cakes on tiered plates, just like the tea rooms of my boyhood. The Georgian squares and crescents were familiar from Edinburgh’s New Town. But it was very evidently a Catholic city. There seemed to hundreds of priests and nuns in clerical garb on the streets and, outside the cinemas, posters showing girls in bikinis were blacked out from neck to mid thigh.
It was four years after the centenary [Golden Jubilee] of the 1916 Rising and my train tickets still said “Westland Row” and “Amiens Street”, but the signs in the stations read “Pearse” and “Connolly”. I gazed at the bullet marks on the GPO and wandered round inside, trying to imagine it occupied by the Volunteers and the Citizen Army. I wandered round the National Museum looking at the relics of the Rising and, in a shop on O’Connell Street, I bought a reproduction of the Proclamation of the Republic. I also bought the political writings of Padraig Pearse and some history books. In a second hand book shop on the quays, run by Joe Clarke a veteran of the Rising, I bought a slim volume of the writings of James Fintan Lalor. That was the beginning of my collection on Ireland, which now runs to well over a thousand books, plus a couple of hundred pamphlets.
I stayed the first night in a cheap B&B in Pearse Street, it cost me a pound and I paid with an Irish note which displayed Lavery’s portrait of his wife, as Kathleen ní Houlihan. I shared the room and next morning the water in the cracked washbasin gave off a strange smell. But the Irish fried breakfast was very acceptable.
I spent three days in Dublin and on the remaining two nights stayed with Paddy Healy of the League for a Workers Republic, a small Trotskyist group which was not affiliated to the Fourth International. In his flat at the back of an Busaras (the bus station) I found the ms. of a short story by Géry Lawless which was seemed to be autobiographical. It told the story of an internee in the Curragh Camp who was allowed, as a special concession, to see Sputnik cross the sky. Surrounded by walls and barbed wire, he watched it with his armed guard who said, “them Russians have got the Free World guessing.” I thought it was well written and Géry later confirmed that it was by him, but he didn’t have a copy and was not interested in getting it published. It is, almost certainly, now lost.
I called in at the HQ of the Official Republican Movement in Lower Gardiner Street. I had a very friendly conversation with Seán Ó Cionnaith, while helping him to stuff envelopes with their newsletter. He was dressed in a tweed jacket and looked more like a 1950s schoolteacher than the long haired revolutionaries I had left behind in London. I also met Mairín de Burca, to whom I had a letter of introduction from Géry. She was friendly and reassuringly militant; very like the feminists I knew in London. At Trinity College I met Dalton Kelly (known nowadays as Daltún Ó Ceallaigh), a rising star amongst the younger Officials. He told me he expected that the movement would become completely political and the IRA would be disbanded.
I also met some Trotskyists who were more in tune with the IMG, Rayner Lysaght (still a good friend), Brendan Kelly and a couple of others. On my last day in Dublin I was sitting in a pub with them, when I was told that two CS Gas canisters had been thrown onto the floor of the House of Commons. I travelled to Belfast the next day and that fixes the date of my visit as 24th July 1970. On the Enterprise Express, going northwards, I gazed out of the window, trying to see as much of Ireland as I could. Then I arrived in the city that was going to engage my mind and heart, as no other place has ever done.
Purdie picks up the story ten years later and recollects his experience of traveling down to Dublin monthly in 1980 for meetings of the Irish Labour History Society.
“I remember … Dublin and the Irish Labour History Society.”
In the Autumn of 1980 I helped to set up the Belfast Branch of the ILHS. I had been interested in the history of the Irish working class for many years, the walls of the cellar in which the Govan and Gorbals Young Socialists met in 1961-2 were decorated with pictures of the Irish Citizen Army, their Starry Plough banner and Liberty Hall, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ HQ.
As an Edinburgh socialist I was drawn to James Connolly, who seemed to be the antithesis of that grim, grey, dreich, Presbyterian city. I had joined the ILHS soon after it was set up in 1973 and I had been receiving its journal “Saothar” since 1975. Now I was living in Ireland so I joined with a few other enthusiasts to found a branch and was elected Secretary. We then sought official recognition from the Committee of the Society in Dublin, expecting a warm welcome. We didn’t get it.
The Secretary of the Society informed us that we could not set up a branch without the prior permission of the Committee and this could only be done after it was formally placed on their agenda, which would take a couple of months. And before they could decide to recognise a Belfast Branch they would have to decide whether or not to have branches in the first place. It was all very complicated and we should wait patiently until it could be sorted out. In the meantime we could not call ourselves a branch of the ILHS. To which we responded in the spirit of Larkin and Connolly, we refused to accept this ridiculous bureaucratic nonsense. I was delegated to go down to Dublin to tell the Committee that we were a branch and we were demanding recognition. I was received with great warmth and we were enthusiastically welcomed into the fold. The Secretary had been speaking only for herself.
I became the official representative of the Belfast Branch, travelling down to Dublin for the monthly Committee meetings. It was advantageous for the ILHS to have an address in the North and the Workers Educational Association let us use their premises in Fitzroy Avenue. These regular trips to Dublin became part of the pattern of my life and I worked out a route from Connolly Station to the meeting which incorporated the maximum number of bookshops. In this way I began to build my Irish library.
Dublin had changed little since my first visit in 1970, walking along Talbot Street I passed an electrical supply shop called “McHugh Himself” and a theatre which permanently advertised a show by the Irish tenor Josef Locke. I thought it was derelict but in fact it was still packing in audiences to hear his operetta songs. This was not long after the link with Sterling had been broken and the Irish pound was worth about 0.75p of the British one. Purchase tax on clothes and food was much lower than in the UK and I could buy things for about half the cost in Belfast, except that I was too poor to take very much advantage, (I always had money for books, but that’s different). My lunch was a soda farl with cheese and another with jam, washed down by a small flask of black coffee. I picnicked in St Stephen’s Green whatever the weather, I couldn’t afford a cafe.
Dublin was starkly divided. South of the Liffey there were plush shops and prosperous crowds, from Connolly Station to the end of O’Connell Bridge it was rough. Pasty faced Traveller children sat on the steps of the O’Connell Monument inhaling glue from paper bags and once I was robbed. I carried cash and my keys in a small leather bag and someone said, “did you know these two boys have just picked your pocket?” I chased after them and a couple of well dressed young guys grabbed them. I got the bag back and they asked if I wanted to take them to the Garda Station to charge them. I looked at their scrawny bodies and the abject misery on their faces and my heart melted and I said “no”. One of the young men, with disgust, said “well, ye’re an eejit!” I would do the same again, what’s the use of being on the side of the poor and the oppressed if you join with the arrogant middle class against them?
Crossing the Bridge and walking down Grafton Street on Saturday mornings I was passing shops and restaurants I couldn’t afford to enter. But there was free entertainment from the buskers. One of them was the “Dice Man”, who became a well loved Dublin character. Actually he was a fellow Scot, Thom McGinty from Glasgow. He dressed in a long black gown and hood and his face was white, so that he looked like the angel of death. His act was to move incredibly slowly, this was before living statues appeared in every city but he was much more than that. He seemed to be moving through another dimension of time and space and he projected a charisma that drew fascinated crowds. Except that every so often he would catch a child’s eye and drop a large, conspiratorial wink.
Going back to Connolly Station at night I would pass “Holy Island” a traffic island in the middle of O’Connell Street on which a middle aged woman had set up religious images and a loudspeaker, she would appeal to the cinema and restaurant crowds to return to their Catholic duties and loudly gave out the Rosary, with which they didn’t join in. She was another Scot, and the world believes that it is the Irish who are eccentric.
Note : Thanks to Brian Hanley making us aware of these recollections.