Konrad Peterson/Konrāds Pētersons (1888-1981) was a Latvian-born revolutionary, socialist and civil engineer who lived for most of his life in his adopted home of Ireland.
At the age of only 17, he participated in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Forced to flee to Dublin in its aftermath, he was active in socialist and Irish Republican politics in Dublin during his time living in the city from 1906 to 1919. Returning home to a newly declared independent Latvia, he was witness to the Nazi and Russian invasions of his home city during the Second World War. He returned to Ireland in the mid-1940s to work with Bord na Móna and lived in Athy, County Kildare where he died in his 90s.
Peterson’s story is a fascinating one that has largely been forgotten. Especially in labour history and republican circles in Dublin. Sandra Bondarevska within the Latvian community and local Athy historian Frank Taaffe has done much to help ensure his memory hasn’t been totally neglected.
Note: his first name is sometimes spelt ‘Conrad’ and his surname ‘Petersen’. For the purpose of continuity, I will spell it as Konrad Peterson which is the most commonly used form and the spelling which is on his grave.
Early life (1888-1905):
Peterson was born in Riga in the Russian Empire (now Latvia) on 15th October 1888. He studied at Tilo (Tilava) primary school and then at the Mangali Maritime school from which he was expelled for refusing to speak only Russian.
According to nekropole.info, his father ran a tavern in the suburb of Zasulauks outside Riga city.
Sandra Bondarevska in an unpublished history article states that Konrad had been been a member of Revolutionary movement in Latvia from a young age and had “had close ties with the famous social democrat and renowned poet Rainis, who had emigrated to Switzerland with his wife Aspazija after the events of 1905.”
During the 1905 Russian Revolution, it is believed that Konrad participated in two major events in Riga. The first was the 10,000 strong workers demonstration on 13th January in protest at the Bloody Sunday massacre. Three days earlier in St Petersburg, Russia, over 1,000 unarmed demonstrators were shot dead by soldiers of the Imperial Guard as they marched towards the Winter Palace to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
In September 1905, Peterson was involved in the daring raid of Riga Central prison which involved the rescue of two imprisoned comrades. His involvement is in the revolutionary movement is covered in Fēlikss Cielēns memoir ‘Laikmetu main̦ā’.
John Langins (History of Science professor, University of Toronto) met Peterson in later life and retold in his memoirs how:
Conrad took part in the bloody demonstration in January. Jumping over the wall, one Kazaks tried to spear him (in the) the bottom but (the) spear (went through his) thick coat out the back.. (Konrad was) later was an active combatant in Riga and in the countryside. These revolutionary instincts remained with Conrad (his whole) lifetime.
In wake of the brutal repression following the revolution, Peterson was smuggled out of Riga in December in a cargo ship and traveled to Ireland via Scotland where he had family.
Langins memoirs elaborates how:
Konrad fled from the terror of the Tsar. (He) hid (in a) ship that traveled to Scotland with a few comrades. Some were concealed (amongst) potatoes and some Linos. Those (in) potatoes (were) found, and right there on the ship (were) shot, but those who had Linos, was moved to one (friendly) small cabin, where they spent several days and nights in meetings, motionless on one bed … When (they) jumped down from the board in Scotland, they almost could not walk and was accepted as heroes of the English trade unions.
Arriving in Dublin about 1906, he moved in with his uncle Charles Peterson, of the well-known pipe firm Kapp & Peterson, who lived on Leinster Road, Rathmines.
He was enrolled at Padraig Pearse’s famous school St. Enda’s in Rathfarnham. In the year 1908-1909, he is listed as being a pupil in Fourth Class, Division II.
Peterson would have been about 20 years of age in 1908 (!) but as he had only been in Ireland for two years, with presumably little or no English, it makes sense that he would be in a class for much younger children.
His english much have improved greatly as on 3rd May 1910, he is listed as taking part in a debate between the Irish Women’s Franchise League and the Socialist Party of Ireland. The resolution was “That an adult Suffragist should support a Bill immediately enfranchising women on the same terms of men”. Speaking in favour were Mrs. Cousins, Mrs. Bac, Miss B. Bannister and Mr. Pike of The Nation newspaper. Speaking against were Mr. Ryan Loughran and ‘Konrad Petersen’. Presumably both were representing the Socialist Party of Ireland.
Whether Peterson actually believed in that viewpoint or was speaking against for argument’s sake is unknown.
In the 1911 census, the Peterson family were living at 114 Leinster Road, Rathmines, Dublin 6. Konrad, aged 21, was listed as a scholar. He listed his religion as a “Free Thinker” as did his uncles Charles (60) and John (45), both pipe-makers. Charle’s wife was a Dublin-born Catholic called Annie Peterson (nee Forde).
The Peterson family home was just a few minutes walk from ‘Surrey House’ at 49b Leinster Road, Rathmines. This was the home of Constance Markievicz and a hotbed of revolutionary activity. Markievicz became friendly with Konrad and his uncle Charles.
Around this time, he enrolled as a Engineering student at the Royal College of Science for Ireland (RCScI). This college later absorbed into University College Dublin (UCD) as the faculty of Science and Engineering.
Peterson continued his activity with the Socialist Party of Ireland and the milleu surround it. In 1911 he offered his advice and help to Irish Republicans organising protests against the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Dublin. In her Witness Statement (No. 909) to the Bureau of Military History, Sidney Czira (aka ‘John Brennan’) recalled:
It was suggested to us by Conrad Peterson who was a student in the College of Science and who had some experience of shock tactics in Czarist Russia – he was from Riga – that we should adopt the methods used by demonstrators in Russia i.e. fold all the leaflets in two and catching them by the corner, fling them into air if we saw the police approaching. They would fan about the crowd and be picked up.
Sidney Czira (nee Gifford) was an officer of Cumann na mBan in Dublin and sister of Grace Gifford, the widow of Joseph M. Plunkett who was executed after the Rising.
He was certainly active in labour politics in Dublin in 1913 but it is not known to what extent he participated in the turbulent events of the Lockout.
In this wonderful picture from around 1913 published in Fearghal McGarry’s book ‘The Abbey Rebels of 1916: A Lost Revolution‘ you can see Konrad Peterson, Constance Markievicz, Helena Molony, Michael O’Gorman and George Doran dressed in costume for a performance or fancy dress party.
C.S. Andrews wrote that during this time Peterson:
formed close links with many of the literary and theatrical figures of Dublin … including, in particular, the famous Daisy Bannard and the man who she afterwards married, the Republican journalist Fred Cogley (‘Man of No Property, p. 188).
Peterson graduated in 1913 with an Engineering degree from the College of Scienc . Afterwards, as retold in CS Andrew’s book ‘Man of No Property’ (p. 188), he worked on a number of engineering projects. These included a survey, carried out by a group of private entrepreneurs before the First World War, into the possibility of harnessing the Shannon for Electricity Production. The project came to nothing and the idea remained dormant until revived by Dr. TA. McLaughlin in the 1920s.
On May 4th 1915, he was granted naturalisation by the British government. He was listed as ‘Konrad Peterson, from Russia. Resident in Rathmines, Co. Dublin’.
Around this time he married Helen Yeates from Dublin. From the process of elimination, I believe this is our Helen Yeates, born 9th February 1893 to Joseph and Bridget Yeates living at 10 Beresford Place. By 1911, eighteen-year old Helen was living at 107.1 Amiens Street.
Peterson was living and working in Dublin during the 1916 Easter Rising and was friends with many of its leading personalities including Connolly and Marchievicz. According to The Irish Press (24 May 1951), Peterson “helped in the organisation of communications for the Rising”. But there is no more reliable sources or references to back up claims he took an active part during Easter Week.
Many will know the story of the Finn and Swede who fought in the GPO making references to Russian and British imperialism. Interestingly, there is also some evidence to suggest that a handful of Russian revolutionaries may have visited Dublin in the immediate aftermath of the Rising.
In February 1918, Peterson was present at large meeting that took place at the Mansion House to celebrate the Russian Revolution. The Irish Times (9th February 1918), reported that those present wished “to congratulate the Russian people on the triumph they have won for democratic principles“. During the proceedings, “The Red Flag” was sung and red and republican flags were waved.
The Irish Independent (5th February 1918) wrote:
Mr. Conrad Peterson who announced himself as a Russian Social Democrat spoke strongly in support of “the great struggle for peace, liberty and bread”.
Those present also included Cathal O’Shannon, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, Countess Marchievicz and Mrs. (Maud) Gonne-McBride.
In June 1919, Peterson was listed as a committee member of the ‘James Connolly Birthday Celebration’ in the Mansion House. Tickets were one shilling and all proceeds were to be devoted to the establishment of a ‘Connolly Memorial Worker’s College’.
Latvia and Sweden (1919 – 1945):
Peterson left Dublin with his wife Helen sometime after June 1919 and returned to his native Latvia which had been since declared an independent republic. Upon his arrival, it is believed that he was honoured as a hero of the 1905 Revolution.
One can only imagine the culture shock for a Dublin woman Helen Yeates to move from Dublin to Riga, with presumably very little Russian or Latvian, in 1919.
On 1st September 1923, Helen gave birth to a daughter Izeult Pamela Peterson.
[On an important side note, Konrad’s sister-in-law Annie Peterson (nee Forde) was an active member of Cumann na mBan in Dublin in the early 1920s. She lived with her son Conrad Henry and daughter Isolda at 53 Kenilworth Square, Rathgar. Éamon de Valera’s presidential office was moved to this address in 1921 when his house in Blackrock was raided. It was in this house that Arthur Griffith presented Lloyd George’s proposals for the Anglo-Irish Treaty to de Valera four days before the Treaty was signed in London.]
In 1929, Peterson visited Ireland with journalist Patrick Smyth (aka ‘Quidnunc’) writing in his An Irishman’s Diary column in The Irish Times (19 June 1929):
I happened to meet during the week a visitor to Dublin whose name will be remembered by many of his old associates in the College of Science – Mr. Konrad Peterson, who is now Director of Public Works under the Government of Latvia.
The piece mentioned that Peterson had previously lived in Dublin “and was for several years associated with Labour politics in this city”. Smyth obviously thought very highly of him as he remarked that his “cheerful and vigorous personality has had much to do with the extraordinary progress” of the Latvian economy!
While in Ireland, Peterson visited the Shannon hydroelectric scheme and took much interest in its progress as a similar project was under consideration for the River Dwina in Latvia. Peterson also lauded the progress made in “the construction of roads in the Irish Free State”. In regard to Latvia, he said the “political future” of the country depended on the “adoption of constitutional form of government by Russia”.
Peterson, then a high official in the Latvian government, visited Dublin again in 1937. The Irish Times (11th August 1937) stated that Peterson had a special interest Ireland’s peat industry and one of the factories under his control was the State Peat Works at Liepaja, Latvia which produced some of the country’s largest quantities of peat insulation plates.
During his time in Dublin, he met his first cousin Isolde. A daughter of his uncle Charles who had first put up him in Rathmines Road when he first arrived in Ireland thirty years previously.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, Peterson was in charge of the Latvian government department dealing with bog development.
During World War Two, his country was invaded first by the Nazis in December 1941 and then by the Russians in October 1944.
When the Germans were forced to evacuate, he decided like thousands of others, to seek refuge in Sweden. Traveling with his wife Helen and daughter Pamela, their the hazardous journey across the Baltic in an open boat was safely accomplished with the help of two friends. (‘Man of No Property’, p. 188).
In Ireland, former IRA volunteer turned civil servant C.S. Andrews was put in charge of turf development when Fianna Fail had come to power in 1932 and in a few years later became managing director of the newly-established Bord na Móna .
In August 1945, Andrews was sent on a delegation to Sweden to learn more about their peat industry. He takes up the story in ‘A Man Of No Property’ (p. 188):
We were in the office of one of these peat moss factories when the discussion was interrupted by the arrival of a heavily built, middle-aged man who addressed us in a loud, cheerful voice speaking thickly accented English ‘Are you boys from Dublin? Do you know Daddy Or and the College of Science? We were astonished at this apparition. Daddy Orr was a legendary and eccentric Professor of Mathematics in the College of Science who was alleged to have believed himself to be the square root of minus one. It was surprising, to say the least, that his fame has spread to an obscure peat moss factory in a remote corner of Sweden.
Andrews had by chance bumped into Konrad Peterson. The Irish delegation took him and his wife to dinner in Malmo “and to say that his life story kept us entranced until the small hours would be an understatement” recalled Andrews.
During this time, Bord na Móna were developing a bog at Kilberry, near Athy, for peat moss production. As this was a specialised process in which the Irish government were inexperienced, Andrews asked Peterson if he would be wiling to move to Ireland to take charge of the project.
Peterson readily accepted and him and his wife and daughter moved to Dublin in circa 1946.
Dublin and Kildare (1946 – 1981):
The family first moved in with Peterson’s cousin Isolde who lived in a house ‘Allsa’ on Winton Avenue, Rathgar Dublin.
On 4th March 1948 in The Irish Times, the engagement was announced between Konrad and Helen’s daughter Pamela Peterson and Dermot Murphy. Dermot was the second son of Professor and Mrs. J. Murphy from Glanville, Newcastle, Galway.
Later in 1948, Konrad Peterson spoke at the inaugural meeting of the Dublin University Fabian Society which was focused on the current political landscape in Eastern Europe. Described as a “Latvian refugee” in The Irish Times (2 November 1948), he told the audience that “in the police state there was no freedom of speech … There was one party – the Communist Party – and God help anyone who tries to put up an opposition”. He described the regimes in Eastern Europe as “new slavery” not “new democracies”.
Peterson was obviously hostile to Stalin and the Soviet Union but a report in The Irishman’s Diary the following day is very interesting as it refers to Peterson being a member of “left wing party that was not Communist” in Latvia. So it does seem he retained some of his radical Left politics.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he was well-established as manager of Bord na Móna’s peat moss factory at Kilberry, County Kildare.
Konrad’s long-devoted wife Helen died sadly on 22nd November 1959 at St. Laurence’s hospital in Dublin and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
In the early 1960s, Konrad’s cousin Isolde Peterson was a founding member of Amnesty International along with Sean MacBride, Helmut Clissmann, Sybil Le Brocquy and others.
Konrad finished his career in Bord na Móna’s “experimental research station, developing peat moss as a horticultural fertiliser. “
After his retirement, he moved for a time to Canada with his daughter Pamela and son-in-law Dr. Dermot Murphy before moving back to Athy where the three lived in White Castle Lawns.
Konrad Peterson died in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Athy aged 93 years on 16th January, 1981. He is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery, Athy, Co. Kildare.
No obituaries followed his death in any English-speaking newspapers that I could find. It is bitterly disappointing that he was never interviewed by any journalists or historians about his long life and the extraordinary world events that he was witness to.
As he had no grandchildren, that line of his direct family died out. His grave in Athy became neglected and it wasn’t until March 2013 that things began to change. A group of Latvians living in Ireland including journalist Sandra Bondarevska and Latvian ambassador Peteris Elferts organised a trip to St. Michael’s Cemetery to clean Peterson’s grave which by then was illegible.
He deserves nothing less. John Langins, who knew Peterson in Canada in his later years, wrote:
he loved Ireland and often told me about the English violence in Ireland. He believed that Ireland was the saddest example across the English colonial history, much worse than their behavior in Africa and elsewhere. He (also) compared the Irish and Latvian situation, considering (their) very similar colonial situations.
From a daring young revolutionary in the Russian Revolution of 1905 to managing a Bord na Móna’s peat moss factory in Kilberry forty years later – Konrad Peterson lived a remarkable and long life.
If anyone has anymore information, particularly on his time in Dublin (1906-19), please leave a comment or get in touch.
CS Andrews, Man of No Property (Lilliput, 2001)
Frank Taafe, kildare-nationalist.ie (12 March 2013)
Entry on nekropole.info and lv.wikipedia.org
The Irish Press (24 May 1951; 22 Aug 1956)
The Irish Times (09 Feb 1918; 29 Sep 1923; 19 June 1929; 11 Aug 1937; 02 Nov 1948; 03 March 1948; 04 March 1948; 09 May 1951; 23 Nov 1959)
The Irish Independent (5 Feb 1918)
Votes for Women (6 May 1910)
Konrad Peterson (1888-1981) m. c. 1915 Helen Yeates (1893 – 1959)
daughter Pamela Peterson (1923-1989) m. 1948 Dermot Murphy (?-?)