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Below is the excellent 1976 RTÉ documentary on Irish involvement in the Spanish Civil War (Spanish Anti-Fascist War, 1936-1939) uploaded by our good friend and grandson of brigadista Michael O’Riordain, Luke in the last couple of days. Presented and produced by Cathal O’Shannon, the documentary features contributions both from Irishmen who fought for the International Brigades on the Republican side and those who travelled with Blueshirt Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade to support Franco and Fascism.

The documentary title was inspired by poet Charlie Donnelly, who remarked that ‘even the olives are bleeding’ shortly before he died fighting for the Republic at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937.

The documentary features some amazing footage, including an Eoin O’Duffy address from the balcony of the Ormond Hotel on Dublin’s Ormond Quay. Other notable contributions, apart from those with Michael O’Riordan and his great comrade Bob Doyle, came from Terry Flanagan, ex-baker and Saor Eire member and Alec Digges, a brigadista who returned to Ireland from Spain, before going on to fight in the Second World War, where he lost a leg.

Mural of Brigadista, Bob Doyle, installed on the Cobblestone Bar, Smithfield, (since removed.) From An Phoblacht.

On the fascist side, there is contributions, amongst others, from George Timlin, an NCO in the Irish Army who gave his reasons for going to Spain as “the spirit of adventure” and to quote “to oblige a friend… Eoin O’Duffy who wouldn’t have asked me if he didn’t want me to go” and Padraig Quinn, veteran of the War of Independence and the Civil War who, encouraged by the anti-communist sermon of his local bishop, joined Eoin O’Duffy’s legion.

Its sometimes easy to forget that there were Irishmen on both sides in an at times brutal war, and this documentary gives a good account of both.

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The Charge of the Light Brigade, the infamous battle that took place in the midst of the Crimean War (October 1853 – February 1856) remains one of the worst displays of military recklessness ever recorded. We’ve talked briefly about Dublin’s link to the fateful event before, in that not only was the bugle that sounded the charge made here, but the bugle call was given by a Dubliner, William ‘Billy’ Brittain of the 17th Lancers, Orderly Bugler to Lord Cardigan, the commander of the Light Brigade. Of the 673 horsemen involved in the charge, it is believed over 100 of those were Irish.

But the Charge of the Light Brigade was only one of many tactical and military errors committed in a conflict lasting more than three years. David Murphy, in History Ireland (Vol 11, Issue 1) estimated that at the time of the war, approximately 30-35% of the British army was made up of Irish troops, and that somewhere in the region of 30, 000 of those Irish troops served in the Crimea. They left Dublin with a fanfare bordering on the hysteric,  with the departure of the 50th Foot regiment on 24 February 1854 as recorded in the same article

The bands of three other regiments of the garrison led them along the line of route, one of the finest in Europe; and vast crowds accompanied them, vociferously cheering, while from the windows handkerchiefs and scarves were waved, and every token of a ‘God Speed’ displayed.

Irish involvement in the war wasn’t confined to belligerents though. Civilian medics tended to the wounded, and in a war where “frontline correspondants” arguably played a role for the first time, Irishman William Howard Russell’s first hand reports on troop welfare led Trinity College to award him an honorary degree on his return. As the war drew on, and casualties mounted (albeit mainly through disease, as cholera and malaria were rampant) the support that was granted to it as troops left the country diminished.

That is not to say that, returning victorous, the regiments were not treated to same the pomp and occasion they received as they left. The Lord Mayor of Dublin, at the suggestion of the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Carlisle, called together a committee to organise a National Banquet to pay tribute to Crimean veterans stationed in Ireland. A subscription list was established, and over £2, 000 was collected within the first nine days of it’s inception. An Irish Times report on the centenary of the event claimed that the merchants and the traders of Dublin showed great interest in the project, with offers of assistance coming from different patrons including

…a gentleman, styling himself the Wizard of the North who offered to give a performance for the benefit of the National Banquet Fund.

His offer was kindly declined. Over 3, 500 guests were invited to the banquet, (3, 628 sat down for dinner) along with over 1,000 paying spectators and such numbers caused large problems with regards finding a location.

The Banquet. held in Stack A, Custom House Docks.

The Banquet. held in Stack A, Custom House Docks

The Rotunda, the Mansion House and several halls in Dublin Castle were examined but deemed too small to fit the purpose. There was a proposal to raise a purpose built marquee in the grounds of the Castle or Leinster House, but this plan too was dismissed. Finally, a Mr. Scovell offered the use of his bonding warehouse near the Customs House (the modern CHQ building in the IFSC.) Built as a “fireproof” tobacco warehouse in 1821, it remains to this day one of the oldest iron-frame buildings in Ireland. The date was set for October 22nd, and preparations for the Banquet were set underway.

The hall itself, which can still be seen almost in its original state, measures 260 feet long and 150 feet wide, with rows of pillars supporting a magnificent roof of iron framework painted in bright coloursfor the occasion. During the banquet, the walls of the building were covered in numerous national flags, some bearing the names of the major Battles of the War- Alma, Sevestopol, and Balaclava amongst others and decorative field guns on platforms guarded the entrance to the building.

The report continued

…the total length of the tables was 6, 172 feet. The viands supplied included 250 hams, 230 legs of mutton, 500 meet pies, 100 venison pasties, 100 rice puddings, 260 plum puddings, 200 turkeys, 200 geese, 250 pieces of beef weighing in all 3,000 lbs.; 3 tons of potatoes, 2, 000 half pound loafs, 100 capons and chickens and six ox tongues…. Each man was supplied a quart of porter and a pint of choice port wine.

There were guests from every regiment stationed in Ireland, along with “500 pensioners, constabulary and marines, and 60 gentlemen of the press.” Given that Ireland was in the grips of famine not a decade previously, it is surprising to read of the joy and excitement that the banquet generated. For while across the country people had starved, here you had the gentry feasting at what must be the largest number of people to have ever sat down to dinner together in this country; and yet there are several accounts of the vans containing the steaming food being cheered and applauded as they careened down Dublin’s North Quays!

The building of course was recently redeveloped at a cost of €50 million. It has gone on the market at a price a mere fraction of that… But that’s another story!

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On Sir John Rogerson’s  Quay on the Southside of the Liffey stands a statue of Irish born Admiral William Brown. It was unveiled nearby in September 2006 by the Teflon Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, but was relocated here, with an added plinth and plaque in August 2012. The statue was lucky to have made it to these shores at all. Two bronze statues were commissioned to be cast in Beunos Aires, and then transported here for unveiling in Foxford, where the Admiral was born, and on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, where the below photograph was taken.

The statues were a gift from the Argentinian Navy to the people of Dublin and Foxford and was donated as part of the anniversary celebrations of their foundation. However, a mix up regarding who would pay for the transport of the statues meant that they almost didn’t arrive in time for their official unveiling. Given that in Argentina over a thousand streets, several hundred schools, a couple of towns and a football club bear his name, it would be a shame were he not celebrated here in the country of his birth.

Admiral William (Guillermo) Brown

Admiral William (Guillermo) Brown

Born in Foxford, Co. Mayo June 22nd, 1777, William Brown was brought to Philadelphia at the age of nine. Irish was his first language, with his first education having come from his Uncle, the parish priest in the village of his birth. Three years after arriving in Philadelphia, in an area already heavily populated by Irish immigrants, he began work as a cabin boy. Within ten years of this, his status had risen to Captain of a US Merchant Navy vessel. He was press-ganged into the British Navy, and fought several battles against the Spanish. Respect for his skill at sea grew, and in his mid-twenties, he was already the master of a large schooner.

Shortly before the Battle of Trafalgar, his ship was captured by the French and Brown was imprisoned. He was first placed in a prison in Verdun, where he contrived to escape having charmed the governor’s wife into handing over a warders uniform. He was re-captured within hours and was transferred to Metz, where he managed to burn a hole in the roof of his cell using a hot poker, and escape using a rope of knotted bedsheets and made his way to England via Germany. He was heralded a hero on his return, fell in love with the daughter of a wealthy family and married.

But the his adventures at sea were only beginning. Brown and his family relocated to Argentina at a time when the South American colonies were in revolt, with Argentina no different. Brown made his base in the town of Ensenada, not far from the captial Beunos Aires. He established several trade routes, but was constantly harassed by the Spanish navy.  This provoked Brown to take a hand in the revolt, and the Spanish quickly learned they had made a bad enemy. After several raids, with his ship was finally impounded by the Spanish, Brown made his way to shore where he procured two small fishing vessels. He rounded up as many English speaking sailors he could; Irish, Scottish and English and with a dozen or so men in each boat, he sailed out into the Estuary where a well armed Spanish Cruiser was anchored. The men boarded the unsuspecting vessel, overpowered the men aboard and captured her.

Statue of “Admirante Brown” in Argentina

His exploits earned him praise from the highest levels, and Brown was asked to take control of a small band of ships to lead the naval resistance against the Spanish. To say he succeeded in his role would be an understatement. Several times in the face of adversity with a small ragtag bunch of ships, he stood up to Spanish warships and was victorious, capturing many, burning others. Once, having taken control over a narrow estuary, he cut a new deck into one of his largest ships, lined the new deck with canon, ran her aground on a sandbank, and simply blasted an oncoming naval flotilla to smithereens.

Another occasion, on Patrick’s Day 1817, along with the assistance of another Irishman, James Kenny, forced the retreat of Commodore Romerate, one of the Spanish Navy’s prized officers. But it was not only on the sea that Brown helped the fight for independence. Any spoils he earned were sold via a businessman and friend by the name William White, and the proceeds for these bought guns and ammunition for ground assaults. And while his battles are too numerous to mention, the ones that earned him most plaudits were at Martin Garcia and Montevideo. After the declaration of Argentine independence, he went on to help the Uruguayan cause sailing against the Brazilian navy in his merchant vessels.

William Brown died on May 3rd 1857. His funeral oration, delivered by later Argentine president Bartolomé Mitré read: “Admiral Brown bears with him the admiration of all patriots, and the love of all good men; and the Argentine Navy remains orphaned of the old father who watched over it’s birth in the bosom of the River Plate, the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Plate and the Paraguay will be forever the immortal pages on which will be read his greatest deeds. And while one sloop floats on these waters, or one Argentine pennant flies above them, the name of William Brown will be invoked by every sailor as the guardian genius of the seas.”

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On August 7th 1912 four women- Gladys Evans, Mary Leigh, Jennie Baines (under the nom de guerre Lizzie Baker) and Mabel Capper were sentenced at the Green Street Special Criminal Court in Dublin accused of “having committed serious outrages at the time of the visit of the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith.” The trial lasted several days during which police came under fire for initially refusing to allow admittance to women. Given the nature of the case, this act was met with steady and mounting pressure until the ban was repealed.

The “acts of serious outrage” have been mentioned in passing here before in an article on the Theatre Royal. The visit of Asquith to Dublin in July 1912 was met with defiance from militant suffragettes, some of whom (including the four above) had followed him over from England. On July 19th, a hatchet (around which a text reading “This symbol of the extinction of the Liberal Party for evermore” was wrapped) was thrown at his moving carriage as it passed over O’Connell Bridge. The hatchet missed Asquith but struck John Redmond, who was travelling in the same carriage, on the arm. There was also a failed attempt at setting fire to the Theatre Royal as he was due to talk on Home Rule in the same venue the following day. A burning chair was thrown from a balcony into the orchestra pit and flammable liquid was spread around the cinematograph (projector) box, and an attempt made to set it alight. It caught fire, and exploded once, but was quickly extinguished. The Irish Times, as below, reported the attempt which, in any case was foiled by Sergeant Durban Cooper of the Connaught Rangers who was in attendance:

At this moment Sergeant Cooper saw a young woman standing near. She was lighting matches. Opening the door of the cinematograph box, she threw in a lighted match, and then tried to escape. But she was caught by Sergeant Cooper and held by him. She is stated to have then said: “There will be a few more explosions in the second house. This is only the start of it.” (Irish Times, July 19th 1912)

Taken from "Votes for Women," August 9th, 1912

Taken from “Votes for Women,” August 9th, 1912

The four women mentioned above were accused and charged over both actions. The then Attorney General for Ireland, C.A O’Connor conducted the prosecution, and the case was presided over by Judge Madden. It seems that the authorities were at great pains to quell the burgeoning suffragette movement, and so set out to brand the women as highly dangerous provocateurs. O’Connor spoke of the horrors the fire in the Theatre could have caused, and Judge Madden, upon passing sentence on the women, rendered it his “imperative duty to pronounce a sentence that is calculated to have a deterrent effect.” Large crowds had gathered inside and outside the court for their sentencing upon which, as seen in the Evening Post clipping below, applause rang out around a largely hostile room.

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Image from front page of Trinity News (April 21st 1966)

Image from front page of Trinity News (April 21st 1966)

In April 1966, the Irish state marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising in spectacular fashion. The state laid claim to the legacy of the Easter Rising, while Republicans fought for a voice within the year of commemoration. One unusual group who protested during the commemorations were Misneach, an Irish language activist group, who voiced their anger at the “non-achievement of the aims of the signatories of the Proclamation” by going on hunger strike for a week, frequently picketing the front of the General Post Office. Their strike began, as the Easter Rising itself had, on Easter Monday. They attracted considerable media attention worldwide, with the New York Times and others covering the protest.

In March 1966, the group Misneach used a press conference in the Clarence Hotel to outline their planned hunger strike, and noted that during Easter week they would picket the G.P.O, the newly constructed Garden of Remembrance, Liberty Hall and other sites associated with the rebellion. Their statement, which was issued in the Irish language, was signed by Micheál Mac Aonghusa (the secretary of Misneach), Eoin O Murchú, Deasún Breathnach and others. In total twelve men and one woman were committed to the April hunger strike in Dublin, with others pledging similar action in Belfast.

Micheál Mac Aonghusa told The Irish Times that Misneach did not believe “those who died in that Easter Week died to have their deaths celebrated, but rather their aims be achieved.” He asked just what the Ireland of 1966 had to celebrate. “The death of the Gaeltacht, economic independence on Britain, partition or emigration?” The protest by Misneach members enjoyed support (in the form of resolutions) from a wide variety of groups, including branches of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Éireann and the Celtic Youth Congress.

The official state commemoration marches past the General Post Office, 1966.

The official state commemoration marches past the General Post Office, 1966.

For the duration of the hunger strike, the members of Misneach slept in a small tenement room just off Parnell Street, and their protest attracted plenty of media coverage at home and abroad. Several men in Belfast staged a similar protest in Hawthorn Street, and pledged to “think, speak, write and read only Gaelic during the strike period.”

Those on hunger strike were described in the national media as “mostly people in their twenties, mild spoken. They use no English.” Many were students, primarily from University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin. Pronsais Nic Uait was the only female hunger striker, and hailed originally from Boyle in Roscommon. She was a student of Trinity College Dublin, studying English. The car of one hunger striker, Deasún Breathnach, was stolen from the north inner-city during the hunger strike, but found undamaged by Gardaí soon after and returned.

The Irish Times details the hunger strikers (April 12 1966)

The Irish Times details the hunger strikers (April 12 1966)

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Given that this week has seen the unveiling of a mural and the erection of a plaque in memory of the Irish anti-fascists that went to fight in the Spanish Civil War 1936-39, it was great to come across the clipping below when doing research for a completely different article. Reading like a veritable who’s who of revolutionary politics, Charlie Donnelly, Frank Ryan, and the sons of Thomas McDonagh and Francis and Hannah Sheehy Skeffington all appear in an article dated May 12th 1934.

The article focuses on the foundation of a society called Student Vanguard at a meeting in a room in 41 Parnell Square. The society, a joint effort between UCD and Trinity students, unveiled its manifesto at the meeting, stating:

The Student Vanguard sees in Fascism in Ireland the bludgeon of the reactionary elements against the struggle for the national and social liberation of the Irish people.

The meeting did not go entirely to plan though, and eleven Blueshirts made their presence known at the back of the room causing a scuffle to break out and the meeting to be interrupted. Bizarrely enough, it looks very much like the Blueshirts were present, somewhat under the blessing of Charlie Donnelly, who would later fight and die in Spain, on the Republican side. A Mr. K. Patton from UCD, who declared himself a Blueshirt stated at one stage “We promised Mr. Donnelly we wouldn’t cause any trouble here tonight.”

From the Irish Press, Saturday, May 12, 1934

Frank Ryan later apologized in the meeting stating that if it was the case that the Blueshirts present were indeed there under invite, then he retracted his demand for them to leave. At the meeting, it was also stated that “Fascism (means) political, economic and cultural repression; distortion and restriction of education; the crushing of all progressive movements; perpetuation by force of ‘the present economic anarchy,’ unemployment and distress.”

Despite what seemed to pass off as a rift between two groups of students, settled by a polite handshake and an apology, a couple of years later, men from both sides would be making their way to Spain to fight on either side of the Civil War. The Blueshirts left with a fanfare, and came back without a loss in combat and with their tails between their legs. Some on the Republican side, like Michael O’Riordan and Bob Doyle would come back alive, others, like Charlie Donnelly would not.

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In December 1945, sixty people attended a meeting in Dublin to form the ‘Irish Soviet Friendship Society’. It is interesting to note that both its president and its honorary secretary were women. Who exactly were they and what ever happened to them?

Well, the president of the society was a Helena Early (1887 – 1977). She made history by becoming Ireland’s first woman solicitor, having taken up law in her brother’s office in the early 1900s. In 1913, she raised money to help the families of the victims of the Church Street tenement disaster.

She became the first woman auditor of the Solictors’ Apprentices’ Debating Society of Ireland (SADSI) in 1922 and the following year she saved the records of the society, storied in the Four Courts, from destruction during the Civil War. At the time, she was a close friend of of Countess Markievicz.

After her degree, she handled district court work and later became the first woman Commissioner of Oaths in Ireland. She was active in the 1930s with the Women’s Social and Progressive League along with Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and others.

In February 1946, representing the league, she was part of a welcoming committee for the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt who was visiting Ireland. It was quoted in the papers that she asked Roosevelt how she thought ” women could extend their influence”.

She continued to work professionally and with various campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s.

In November 1970, she was interviewed in The Irish Independent where she said “This liberation movement has been taking too long. Women have be far more active than they are. They’ve been underestimating themselves for too long”. Helena passed away in 1977.

The Irish Times, Oct 28, 1970

The first Honorary secretary, Mrs Hilda Verlin, was quoted in Russia Today magazine (1948) as being a “journalist and housewife”. A trawl through the archives shows that she had an irregular column in the The Irish Times. She spoke at a public meeting, organised by the society, with Hewlett Johnson (aka ‘The Red Dean of Canterbury’) in The Mansion House in Dublin in November 1946. This meeting descended into violence. (I plan to write an article focusing on this disturbance in the near future)

She last crops up in the news in 1950 when she writes to The Irish Times from the National Hotel in Moscow. I wonder what happened to her?

Letter from Verlin to The Irish Times. 21 October, 1950

As well as this the society had a female second honorary secretary (Ms Margaret Mac Macken) and treasurer (Ms Ann Peache) but even less is known about them.

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