Poppy Day in Dublin in the ‘20s and ‘30s

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 1999), News, Volume 7

The commemoration of those Irishmen who died in the British forces during World War I is still a contentious issue in southern Ireland. For many, the manner in which the dead are honoured, and the wearing of symbols like the poppy carry deep political significance. During the 1920s and 1930s the issue was even more fraught. The Free State was bitterly divided between pro-and anti-Treaty forces, both of whom had been in conflict with the British only a few years previously. Also, a strong southern unionist current of opinion still existed, which helped make Poppy Day a focus for competing ideologies in the new state.


For republicans—the IRA, Sinn Féin, and after 1926, Fianna Fáil—Poppy Day was a celebration of imperialism, an affront to everything they stood for. It represented the flaunting of the despised Union Jack, the ‘butcher’s apron’, over those who had fought its representatives from 1916 to 1921. Despite the fact that some republicans had fought in the Great War themselves, including leading IRA figures such as Mick Price, and the legendary Tom Barry, Poppy Day was seen as ‘nothing more or less than homage of loyalty to England’s King’. Indeed the eve of Poppy Day became an important mobilising point for the IRA and the whole spectrum of radical republicanism. Under the aegis of the League Against Imperialism crowds would gather at College Green to hear speakers denounce ‘the flagrant display of British Imperialism disguised as Armistice celebrations’. A report by Chief Superintendent Brennan of the Detective Branch to the Garda Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy described how the rally in 1930 ‘comprised some of the roughest elements of the population’. He estimated about 5,000 attended the rally. The speakers that year represented the full spectrum of republican opinion. The main platform comprised Mick Fitzpatrick (IRA), Helena Moloney (Women Workers’ Union), Alex Lynn BL (a prominent defender of IRA suspects), Éamon de Valera (Fianna Fáil), Sean Murray (Communist) and Frank Ryan (editor of An Phoblacht). The second platform included Seán MacBride (IRA), Jack O’Neill (described as ‘communist’ in the Garda report), the feminist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Peadar O’Donnell (IRA). Violent clashes between republicans and police, or those displaying ‘loyalist’ symbols invariably followed these rallies. Shops and premises regarded as pro-British were singled out for attack, with a 1928 Sinn Féin leaflet listing Brown Thomas, Hayes Conyngham and Robinson and Trinity College as persistent displayers of ‘imperialistic’ bunting. After the 1930s rally, Gardaí fired shots in the air to disperse a mob who had chased two men wearing poppies into a tobacconist’s on O’Connell Street. It was at an eve of Poppy Day rally that Frank Ryan made his famous speech that ‘no matter what anybody says to the contrary, while we have fists, hands, and boots to use and guns if necessary, there shall be no free speech for traitors’.


However, despite the regular use of such rhetoric, republican publications and speakers were usually at pains to point out that they held nothing against ordinary ex-servicemen, only against the use of their sacrifice for the purpose of jingoism. Mick Fitzpatrick told the demonstrators that ‘Irishmen had no objection to people keeping green the memory of their relatives who had been gulled into fighting and losing their lives for the supposed defence of small nationalities, but they protested against such commemorations being made an annual excuse for the display of British imperialism in the streets of Dublin’. A resolution from Helena Moloney expressing sympathy with the relatives of the Irishmen killed in the war, and protesting against the display of British emblems was carried. A similar argument was made by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in 1932, when she said that republicans ‘grudged no honour to the dead but objected to the dead being used to carry on the traditions of imperialism’.


De Valera spoke at the anti-Poppy Day rally in 1930. Indeed a letter to prominent IRA leader Seán MacBride from Fianna Fáil secretary Seán Lemass claimed that the party had circulated all cumainn in Dublin city to attend the demonstration and ‘to do everything possible to ensure its success’. However once Fianna Fáil was in government the difficulty of taking part in an event which invariably led to the disruption of public order became readily apparent to them. From 1932 there was no Fianna Fáil speaker at anti-Poppy Day rallies and it had to consider its response to Remembrance Day in terms of its effect on the government’s position. Rank-and-file Fianna Fáil members may have still regarded ex-servicemen as traitors, but the government were aware that they were a substantial section of the electorate. In October 1933 Garda Commissioner Eamon Broy wrote to the secretary of the Department of Justice recommending that ‘all marching, as well as the proposed ceremony in the Phoenix Park be prohibited’. In his opinion only church services, without any marching to or from, should be permitted. The Department of Justice however felt that it would be wrong to arrive at a decision ‘which might give offence to the large body of ex-servicemen in this country and…is of opinion that permission should be granted for the church parades, the march on the 11th of November and the two minutes silence in the Phoenix Park’. Broy’s objections were not simply the gut reactions of a republican, but those which his pro-Treaty predecessors in the Gardaí had also raised. The opportunity Poppy Day gave for the IRA to mobilise on the one hand, coupled with what the Gardaí saw as the provocative actions of some of the British Legion’s supporters, had consistently perplexed the force. On 7 November 1928 Chief Superintendent David Neligan had complained to the Commissioner that ‘this “commemoration” is fast becoming the excuse for a regular military field-day for these persons. I think the attached programme gives these men far too much scope, and certainly if the irregulars adopted these tactics they would be arrested under the Treasonable Offences Act 1925’. Neligan was a hate figure for the IRA since the Civil War and was certainly no friend of theirs. The attached programme he referred to was a cutting from the Irish Times which outlined the British Legion’s plans to march in full military formation, under the command of their officers, to the Phoenix Park. This display, complete with shouted commands and regimental and Union Jacks, was considered of grave concern to the Gardaí. A 1932 memo to the Minister for Justice from Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy warned that the Poppy Day ceremonies were ‘a severe strain on police resources’ and that while the ‘responsible promoters’ may not desire any trouble, many of their followers ‘take advantage of such occasions to display anti-Irish and pro-British sentiments’. A particular irritant was the number of people at College Green, ‘ostensibly to observe the “two minutes silence” but who immediately afterwards indulged in a “community singing” of the English national anthem’. There is no doubt that the practice of Trinity students in particular, in closing off College Green, and singing God save the King infuriated many Dubliners. For a section at least, of southern unionists, Remembrance Day was an opportunity to deny the reality of the changes that had taken place since 1922. A further point seized upon by the opponents of Poppy Day was the presence at several parades of black-shirted ‘British Fascisti’. This peculiar group actually owned a premises in Molesworth Street, but their public appearances were limited to Remembrance Day. They applied to join the Army Comrades’ Association in July 1933, but were refused. The Special Branch regarded them as being of ‘no importance’ but their appearance was the cause of much complaint. Eventually, the British Legion was forced to prohibit them, along with open displays of the Union Jack and military commands, from its parades.


Poppy Day was declining in importance by the mid 1930s. In 1935 however several of its most notorious opponents, including Frank Ryan, marched through Dublin with ex-servicemen in an alternative Remembrance Day celebration. Under the slogan ‘Remember the dead. Fight for the living’, Flanders veterans Bob Smyth and Tom Ellis, along with Ryan and Peadar O’Donnell spoke to a largely republican audience in Middle Abbey Street. Ryan asked why the ‘Generals…observe two minutes silence on one day for the dead. For the other 364 days they are silent about those who survived 1914-18 only to starve and rot in the slums’. After the outbreak of the Second World War Poppy Day marches were banned in the South, and following their renewal in the late 1940s never again saw trouble on the scale of the 1920s and ‘30s. However, how to commemorate those Irishmen who fell in British uniforms continues to provoke strong passions. Clearly, the conflicts surrounding Poppy Day in the ‘20s and ‘30s were more complex than some present-day commentators have allowed.


Brian Hanley is a postgraduate history student at Trinity College Dublin.


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568