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.
Goodbye, Twilight and Goodbye Dublin:
In 1936, a Daiken edited the collection Goodbye, Twilight: Songs of the Irish Struggle, which brought together poetry from a generation of up and coming Irish writers, mainly drawn from radical political backgrounds. The work had a clear political purpose, arguing that:
Here is the authentic voice of the people, peasants, workers and intellectuals, united in the common aim of the struggle for freedom; political and economic freedom.
Patrick Kavanagh was among the writers to contribute, while the book also included beautiful woodcut images by Harry Kernoff, another political radical to emerge from Dublin’s ‘Little Jersualem’. While the standard of poetry was wildly uneven, Goodbye, Twilight was an ambitious undertaking. The Irish Press described it as “forty young poets…with blazing eyes and clenched fists.” The great poet Louis MacNeice described the book as a “collection of proletarian poems – some communist, some Irish republican, and all written in a defiant spirit of opposition … a violent reaction against Yeats and all that he stood for”.
By the time of the publication of Goodbye, Twilight, Daiken was well-established in London. There, he was actively involved in radical politics with the London branch of the Republican Congress. Established in 1934, the Republican Congress was an attempt to bring together all strands of republican, socialist and anti-fascist thinking in Ireland into a broad front. Former leading IRA figures, including Frank Ryan, Michael Price and Peadar O’Donnell, were all centrally involved in this initiative, and so were a number of young female activists including Nora Connolly O’Brien (daughter of the executed James Connolly) and Cora Hughes, goddaughter of Éamon de Valera, who would be remembered as “a beautiful and determined Joan of Arc figure in the slums, who, within a few years, would be dead from tuberculosis contracted in the hovels where she exercised her vocation.”
At its inaugural meeting in Rathmines Town Hall, the Congress split on the question of what direction it should take. It would be easy to dismiss it as a failure outright, but in truth it struggled on in a variety of forms and on a number of fronts, and was particularly successful in leading opposition to slum landlords and the tenement shame in Dublin. The London branch appears to have been particularly active, and Daiken was centrally involved in its cultural efforts. In December 1935, it was reported that his dramatised version of Patrick Pearse’s work The Rebel was performed in Camden Town. The Irish Times praised Daiken’s work, and the manner in which he “carries Pearse’s theme beyond his idealistic conclusion to the revolutionary viewpoint of the Irish workers.”
In London, Daiken edited The Irish Front newspaper with Charlie Donnelly, a young poet and radical from Dungannon who had also been active in radical politics in Dublin at the same time as Daiken. Donnelly was a student at University College Dublin, though he failed to graduate, and having spent some time imprisoned in Dublin for his involvement in a trade union dispute, Donnelly left Dublin feeling somewhat demoralised in 1936. Daiken remembered that Donnelly arrived in London one morning “straight from the Euston train, and before the milk…thinner, paler, more set at the cold eyes” and told him”I just had to get out of that bloody place.”
In a 1987 talk on Irish and Jewish Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War which discussed Daiken’s relationship with Donnelly, Manus O’Riordan quoted from Donnelly’s own assessment of Ireland in the 1930s. While Eoin O’Duffy is today seen as something of a joke, Donnelly recognised the potential for a fascist movement to grow here:
The germs of Fascism are present in Ireland; organisations, institutions and sentiments which could be welded into a fascist movement … General O’Duffy may seem a joke at present. The joke is merely that he is without a paymaster… If the General can create a movement worth taking over, his unemployment may be only temporary.
The young poet would die at the Battle of Jarama in the Spanish Civil War, something which had a profound impact on Daiken, who would remember his lost friend and comrade in verse:
I too have heard companion voices die –
O Splendid fledglings they, in fiery fettle,
Caudwell and Cornford and Cathal Donnelly
Stormcocks atune with Lorca, shot down in battle!
Young Charlie’s cenotaph – Jarama’s olive trees.
There remains a lot of work to be done on The Irish Front. Historian David Convery has slowly but surely been tracking down editions of the paper. The contribution of the Irish to radical politics in 1930s Britain is an area that deserves more attention, and something that recently came to the fore with the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, a showdown between Oswald Mosley’s fascists and an East London community that included many Irish migrants. Daiken’s paper heralded the day as one when the working class “dealt a blow to the aspirations of fascism.” One legacy of the Republican Congress in London was the Connolly Association, of which Daiken was a founding member. It still exists today, and can be seen as the inheritors of the Congress vision in London.
Beyond editing the paper, Daiken was also a regular speaker in London’s Irish community, speaking in December 1936 on “rebel Irish poetry” before the Roger Casement Sinn Féin Club in December 1936 for example. Though out of Ireland, Daiken remained a commentator on Irish life in the years that followed his departure, and frequently returned, in particular in the years of the Second World War. Writing during that conflict in a Belgian journal, Message: Belgian Review, he took aim at Fianna Fáil for its “policy of Cultural Isolation, with the avowed aim of keeping Éire morally pure, of immunising her to radical,scientific or agnostic ideas emanating from an utterly Immoral Universe.”
If proof was needed that Daiken was regarded as a part of the fabric of Dublin life, it came in 1940,with the Alan Reeve cartoon ‘Dublin Culture’. This appeared for the first time in The Irish Times, and it shows the great and the good of Dublin society (including Harry Kernoff, Paddy Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien) sitting and standing around the backroom of The Palace Bar on Fleet Street. Fittingly, there is a copy of it to this very day in the back of that great pub. Listed among the names for the men sitting at one of the tables is Leslie Daiken.
Daiken’s work on childhood, play and toys:
In the post-war years, Daiken came to public prominence for his work as a historian and folklorist of childhood, play and toys. Today, there are museums of toys and childhood dotted around Britain, for example Edinburgh’s excellent Museum of Toys, but this was an almost totally new endeavor in the days when Daiken began.
Daiken would publish a number of books on childhood and play, including Children’s games Throughout the Year (1949), Children’s Toys Throughout the Ages (1953), Out She Goes: Dublin Street Rhymes with a Commentary (1963) and World of Toys (1963). Out She Goes was well-received in Ireland, with the Sunday Independent reprinting one well-known verse of Dublin childhood:
Tell tale tit,Your tongue will be split
.And all the dogs of Dublin town.
Will have a bit of it.
Janey Mac, me shirt is black.
What’ll I do for Sunday
Go to bed, and cover me head.
And not get up til Monday.
His work on childhood brought him back to Ireland on occasion; in December 1958, he brought a BBC team to Kerry specifically to record young ‘Wren Boys’, a Christmas tradition. Some of Daiken’s work is available on YouTube today, uploaded by the BFI. Here we have an excerpt from 1957’s One Potato, Two Potato:
Filmed over a 12-month period by Leslie Daiken, this study of children’s games played in London streets and playgrounds stands out for its freshness and spontaneity, and records the bomb sites that pockmarked London and provided many urban children with a place to play. This extract captures the post-Halloween rituals of 5 November – Guy Fawkes Night – including the once familiar call of “penny for the Guy”.
Daiken began building a museum of childhood and toys in his London home, but by April 1959 it was too much to house there. The Irish Press reported that the collection numbered some 20,000 items, including Irish materials. The earliest toys in the collection dated from the early eighteenth century.
His work was by no means restricted to Britain and Ireland, as he also published research on Jewish children, including the book Let us play in Israel. Of Israel, a place to which he felt a strong affinity and spent a significant amount of time, Daiken would state that “the parallel between the Hebrew war in Palestine and the Irish war against the Black and Tans is striking.” He repeatedly drew such parallels between Ireland and Israel, even stating that “the bitter flood of Israel’s tears, that in myriad cascades have ceaselessly swept down the steep decline of the ages, has ever exceeded the flow of [Ireland’s] woes.”
The death of Leslie Daiken:
In October 1963, Daiken took up a position with the University of Ghana in Accrea, taking up the organising of a new department in the Faculty of Education. He had been invited there by the Vice Chancellor, Connor Cruise O’Brien. Sadly, Daiken died in 1964 during a holiday visit home to London, at a time when his plans for his position in Ghana were still at an early stage, though Africa had already opened new research opportunities. As Paul Rouse notes,”shortly before he died, his film The Piano, which documented the educations of white and black children in an African school, had been premiered at the Cork Film Festival.”
He was survived by his wide Lilyan and their two daughters, Melanie and Eleanor. As a ‘Proletarian Poet’ and a collector of folklore, he left much behind him. His work on childhood and play was pioneering, and his contribution to Irish radical politics in London more than significant.
Note: My thanks to Dr. David Convery for providing some interesting insights and material for this post, including the image of Daiken. David is editor of the collection Locked Out: A Century of Irish Working Class Life (Irish Academic Press, 2013). Not for the first time, I’m indebted to David for sharing some of his own research.
Thanks also to Manus O’Riordan for uploading the text of his speech at a recent commemoration for the Battle of Cable Street in London, in which he quoted Daiken’s poetry and The Irish Front. The work of Cormac Ó Gráda and Ray Rivlin on Jewish Dublin was useful too, and Paul Rouse’s entry to the Dictionary of Irish Biography.