Heckling Dev

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Letters, Volume 22

joe Clarke2 (2)NEWSir,—Brian Murphy of UCD (HI 22.1, Jan./Feb. 2014) has provided a welcome recall of the January 1969 occasion when Joe Clarke heckled President de Valera at the state’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the First Dáil, demanding the release of the imprisoned housing activist Dennis Dennehy, then on hunger strike in Mountjoy Jail. He, however, underestimates both Dennehy and Clarke. Dennis was not just ‘also a member of the Irish Communist Organisation’. He was a driving force behind its impact on Dublin politics, a working-class theoretician who had not only published a detailed Marxist analysis of the housing crisis but who put theory into practice by his direct action of squatting, and was prepared to sacrifice his life, if necessary, in that struggle. No wonder Dennis attracted the enthusiastic support of the veteran French Communist Party activist Muriel MacSwiney, widow of Terence MacSwiney, the imprisoned lord mayor of Cork who had died on hunger strike during the War of Independence!

As Murphy notes, Joe Clarke, a veteran of the 1916 battle of Mount Street Bridge, had been usher-in-charge in the First Dáil. It was not, however, the case that Clarke ‘had managed to secure an invitation’ to the Mansion House ceremonies. It came to him unsolicited, and as of right. The obstacle to be overcome was to persuade Joe to make stra-tegic use of it, after a lifetime spent rejecting all such state commemoration invitations. I should know, for I was a participant in the meeting held for that precise purpose, only days beforehand, in my family home. Present were the Sinn Féin vice-president, Joe Clarke himself, the IRA chief-of-staff, Cathal Goulding, the IRA adjutant-general, Séamus Costello, the Irish Workers’ Party general secretary, my father Micheál O’Riordan, and myself as an executive committee member of the Connolly Youth Movement. One characteristic that both Goulding and Costello shared in common was a powerful sense of humour, and they initially adopted the ‘good cop’ approach of joking and teasing Clarke about the youthful crush he had on a young Sinéad Bean de Valera, when he had attended her Irish language classes. Judging from his bemused yet bashful response, the attraction still persisted half a century later, but Joe did not consider that a good enough reason to compromise his principles in order to heckle his heartthrob’s husband!

The serious political argument was put by my father: that Dennehy’s hunger strike was central to the exposure of how the state had reneged on the principles of the First Dáil’s Democratic Programme, and that here was a golden opportunity for Clarke to secure Dennis’s unconditional release by publicly shaming the state on live television. Clarke was impressed, but remained unyielding. It was only a resort to the military discipline exerted by Goulding that finally twisted Clarke’s arm. In 1938 the seven remaining no-compromise-with-Leinster-House members of the Second Dáil, constituting themselves ‘the Irish Republic’s Executive Council’, had transferred what they regarded as their legitimate authority to the IRA Army Council. Clarke took it that he was now receiving an order from the man he held to be de jure chief executive of the Irish Republic, Cathal Goulding, to heckle Dev the ‘usurper’. Once agreed, Clarke could not have been more impressive in the self-control and discipline he exercised, no matter how stomach-churning he felt the etiquette he had to observe en route to his objective. ‘I even had to accept a handshake from Dirty Dick’, he complained, referring to Richard Mulcahy, the IRA chief-of-staff during the War of Independence, who went on to become the Free State Army chief-of-staff during the Civil War, and minister for defence in the government that would execute 77 republican prisoners, Clarke’s own comrades-in-arms. But Joe achieved his objective, and I vividly recall the thrill of seeing him on TV interrupt a surprised de Valera and shout out ‘Release Dennis Dennehy!’ before next seeing the crippled Clarke being bundled out of the Mansion House, along with his pair of crutches.

Brian Murphy rightly refers to the ‘broad church of left-wing activists’ that had combined on this issue, and the joyful recall of the camaraderie of that January 1969 night in the O’Riordan home is not diminished by the fact that, within the year, the eruption of the national conflict into war would send those gathered in contrary political directions. Costello forced the pace of a Sinn Féin decision to tactically take seats in the Leinster House Dáil, which led Clarke to break with the Goulding–Costello Officials and become vice-president of Provisional Sinn Féin. Costello’s own break with the Official IRA in 1974, becoming chief-of-staff of the INLA, resulted in bloodletting that would include his own 1977 assassination. In 1973, as Dennis Dennehy’s comrade in the British & Irish Communist Organisation, I would be asked to be a witness, along with my late wife Annette, at his marriage to Mary, his partner and comrade-in-struggle in that historic housing agitation. After the four of us held a wedding lunch, the Dennehys departed on their honeymoon—a van tour of Northern Ireland in order to engage in dialogue with Ulster loyalists. For we had acknowledged the reality of two nations in Ireland, as had our fellow-member of the Workers’ Association for the Democratic Settlement of the National Conflict in Ireland, the aforementioned Muriel MacSwiney, widow of Cork’s martyred lord mayor.—Yours etc.,

Dublin 11


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