The Round Room of the Mansion House has witnessed many historic gatherings, but also a few good scraps in its time. In January 1947, the Reverend Hewlett Johnson visited Dublin and spoke there on the subject of religion in the Soviet Union. Known as the ‘Red Dean’, Johnson’s lecture was interrupted by student protestors and broke down into physical violence, with arrests and plenty of column inches following. The meeting had been called by the Irish-Soviet Friendship Society, who enlisted supporters as bouncers on the night, with some coming from the ranks of the IRA. One of the bouncers was none other than Brendan Behan.
The Dean of Canterbury was a somewhat unlikely supporter of the Soviet Union, and his visit to Ireland attracted significant media attention. Months before his arrival, The Irish Times reported Johnson’s views in detail, including his claim that Josef Stalin “has nothing of ruthlessness in his face, nothing of dominance in his manner.” The Dean had met Stalin for almost an hour privately during a visit to Moscow, and was enthusiastic about all aspects of the Soviet Union.
One of those who showed up to disrupt the meeting was Ulick O’Connor, who later became a biographer of Brendan Behan, on the other side of the debate that night! In his biography of the writer,O’Connor wrote:
On the night of the meeting, the street outside the Mansion House in the centre of the city was packed with police and members of the public.Brendan had been hired as a chucker-out and he shouted cheerily to members of the Special Branch as he marched into the meeting: “it’s good to see you here protecting us instead of attacking us for a change!”
O’Connor remembered that half way through the speech, “a group of students rose in the balcony and, walking down the stairs, announced they were leaving as a protest against the meeting. The bodyguards sprang into action and, in the melee which took place as the students left, some of them were taken to an ante-room and beaten up.” While O’Connor stressed these students were not part of any right-wing group, he did note that there were “right-wing groups present who came with the object of breaking up the meeting.” The Irish Times reported on the presence of Nazi flags, along with shouts of “Up Franco!” and”Down with the Jews!”
Brendan Behan wasn’t involved in the melee between the students and event security (though he would later boast otherwise), but on leaving the venue he was apprehended by the familiar face of a Detective Officer from the Special Branch. On Behan’s suggestion the two quickly found themselves in the Dawson Lounge opposite the Mansion House.
While Behan was a bouncer that night, another great Irish writer was an audience member. Seán O’Faoláin, editor of The Bell, sat beside Patrick Lynch, a young contributor to the journal. Lynch later remembered that the ‘Red Dean’ had clearly forgot to amend his speech for an Irish audience, informing the crowd that the people of the Soviet Union were “praying for the British Empire.” This led to “laughter, indignation, exasperation and dismay.” On stage, the chairman of the meeting, Peadar O’Donnell, “buried his head in his hands.”
One newspaper said that the Dean had “brought his wares to the wrong market”, attacking Russian divorce laws, which they claimed made it easier “to obtain a divorce than a new pair of boots.”
Days after the madness, students met at University College Dublin to protest the rough treatment of the student protestors by event organisers. Hearing of the meeting, Behan himself arrived and delivered a speech which O’Connor described as “a tour de force which lasted twenty minutes and ended by the audience cheering him loudly for five minutes after he sat down.”Seán Callery, who was there at the student debate, remembered things differently. In his account, an “unkempt but handsome Brendan roared from an elevated tier at the rear of the amphitheatre and demanded to be heard…he was loudly denounced on all sides and, if memory serves, forced to leave.” O’Connor would give evidence at the trial of two men sentenced for attacking the students, something Behan wouldn’t forgive; on being introduced later in Davy Byrne’s pub, he announced O’Connor to be a “effing informer”.
These were mad times in the life of Behan. Mere months after the Mansion House debacle, he was imprisoned in Manchester’s Strangeways Prison, having violated the terms under which he was released from the British Borstal system by returning to Britain. Separating fact from ‘lore with Behan can be difficult, but his night as a bouncer for the ‘Red Dean’ is certainly one strange story from an always interesting life.