The Storming of Connolly House

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 1999), News, Volume 7

Over several nights during late March 1933 crowds attacked buildings in Dublin associated with the far left. Connolly House on Great Strand Street, headquarters of the Communist Party, or Revolutionary Workers Groups as they were called at the time, was eventually stormed and set on fire on the night of Wednesday 29 March. Gardaí estimated that the crowd numbered five or six thousand. Attempts were also made to attack the Workers’ College in Eccles Street and the Workers Union of Ireland office in Marlborough Street. These events were a dramatic illustration of the strength of anti-Communist feeling in 1930s Ireland. Such feeling was not dependent on an actual Communist threat: the numbers involved in the Irish Communist movement were tiny. Nor was fervent anti-Communism the preserve of the extreme right—it permeated almost all Irish political forces, including the mainstream Labour Movement. The violence of March 1933 must be seen in the context of an atmosphere of anti-Communist hysteria whipped up by the Catholic Church.
As early as October 1931 the Catholic hierarchy had issued a pastoral warning against the spread of left-wing ideas in Ireland. Its target was the IRA, which had just adopted the radical ‘Saor Éire’ programme, but its language conjured up images of Bolshevik hordes on the loose destroying the Irish people’s faith and way of life: ‘You cannot be a Catholic and a Communist. One stands for Christ, the other for Anti-Christ’. In his Lenten pastoral for 1933, the Bishop of Kildare warned his flock: ‘Be prepared to fight…There is no reason why anyone who undertakes to propagate Communism should be allowed do so’. Also in the background was the campaign in Leitrim against James Gralton, accused of introducing Communist ideas into his native Drumsna.
That the siege of Connolly House was clerically inspired is confirmed by several very different sources. The first attack followed a particularly vitriolic sermon at Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral on Monday 27 March. Unsuccessful, the mob returned on the Tuesday evening, and finally sacked Connolly House on the Wednesday night. Nora Connolly O’Brien, daughter of James Connolly and a left-wing activist in her own right, collected statements from churchgoers on the sermons given in Dublin churches that week. At Aughrim Street the priest allegedly told his congregation, ‘If you meet an individual whom you know to be a Communist in the street, attack him, for if you don’t he will be burning your churches’. At Clarendon Street the congregation were told to ‘take the law into your own hands’, and at Marlborough Street the Redemptorist Fathers preached against Communism all week. Moss Twomey, the chief-of-staff of the IRA, noted that ‘in all the churches, at the Lenten lectures or missions, nine-tenths of the sermons are dealing with Communism’.
This is confirmed by official sources. Garda Commissioner Éamon Broy wrote in a report to the secretary of the Department of Justice that those involved in the attacks ‘collect at Great Strand Street usually after the services terminate each evening, and are easily led or incited by remarks by irresponsible members of same’. Eight years later a confidential Department of Justice handbook on events during the 1930s described how ‘following the Lenten lectures in the city churches in which the activities of the Communists were strongly denounced from the pulpit, crowds, mostly of the young hooligan type, attacked the headquarters of the revolutionary groups’. Contemporary Garda reports conflict with the last statement in one important detail, however: Thomas Clarke, the district inspector, claimed that ‘the crowd who assembled in Strand Street last night was made up of persons of different walks of life in the city, including a large percentage of respectably dressed young women’. Gardaí had already noted the large number of young people joining the newly formed St Patrick’s Anti-Communism League from Catholic young men’s and women’s societies.
The League had been launched in early March by an eighty-year-old former butler, Patrick Glennon. Its main object was ‘to supply strenuous and efficient workers to [the] anti-Communism cause, these workers to rely on prayer and the sacraments to aid them in their heroic work’. Members were encouraged to ‘publicly wear a distinctive badge…with the device of the Sacred Heart thereon’. However, the League condemned the violence in Great Strand Street, and it was still in its infancy when the attacks occurred. It was summer before the League held any public meetings, and these passed off peacefully. Therefore we can assume that the organisation of the violence came from elsewhere. There must have been some level of organisation because, although thousands marched to Connolly House, cheered on the rioters and sang hymns, notably ‘Faith of our Fathers’, while the fighting raged, only a hard-core of a few hundred were actively involved. Moss Twomey’s opinion of those involved in the attack was low: ‘such a gang of rowdies…they know how weak the Communist group here is and that they are safe. I must say the “storm-troops” I saw last night were the poorest stuff imaginable…twelve men would have scattered…the mob’.
But the gangs were capable of serious violence, including the breaking up of left-wing meetings with knives and clubs. The Irish Times of 29 March reported that two men had to be rescued by Gardaí after a mob on Aston Quay beat them and attempted to throw them into the Liffey. However, the occupants of Connolly House mounted a stern defence of the building. Among those inside were Seán Murray and Donie O’Neill, both RWG activists, but also several IRA members, including Bill Gannon, Jack Nalty and Charlie Gilmore. Slates and bricks were thrown at the mob from the upstairs windows of Connolly House, and the majority of those injured were engaged in attacking the RWG headquarters. Even Gardaí were shocked by the ferocity of the fighting, and as the mob drew closer to its doors, Gilmore fired shots in a last effort to disperse them. A Henry Stafford of Belvedere Place was wounded in the knee. But the attackers gained the upper hand when they set fire to a factory next door and forced its defenders to flee across the rooftops. John Harris, a confraternity member, then led a group of rioters into the building. Literature was thrown on to the street and attempts were made to fire Connolly House’s stairs. It was 1 a.m. before a large force of Gardaí cleared the streets.
Of the five arrests made on the night, four were part of the mob, while Charlie Gilmore was arrested trying to escape across the rooftops. Three of those arrested were from Dublin’s inner city, while one, Joseph Lynskey of Rathmines, was a clerk in the office of the Garda Superintendent of ‘C’ division, the area which covered Great Strand Street. Superintendent Hurley told his superiors that he had ‘admonished’ Lynskey and that no more serious action was called for. Lynskey was fined £50 and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months. In contrast, Michael Meehan, a labourer from Lower Gloucester Street, was jailed for fourteen days. Gilmore was later acquitted of the charges against him.
Those who were besieged in Connolly House claimed that the Gardaí only intervened when the violence threatened to spill over into O’Connell Street. However, although there was no love lost between them and the Communists or the Republicans, the Gardaí had taken measures to prevent trouble on 29 March. A force of sixty Gardaí had been assembled at Store Street early in the evening to proceed to Connolly House if needed. Garda resources were stretched, however, by a serious fire at a furniture store and auction rooms on Bachelors Walk. Huge crowds gathered in the vicinity of the blaze and many of these joined the processions heading to Great Strand Street, only a few minutes away. Garda reports stress that even a large force would have had difficulty controlling the mob: ‘It is clear that this movement against Communism is very strong in Dublin and elaborate police arrangements will require to be made to prevent the destruction of premises used by the Communist Party’. Following the violence Garda protection of the next likely targets of the anti-Communists was stepped up, and gangs of youths were prevented from attacking Charlotte Despard’s Workers’ College on the Thursday night.
The lack of hostile reaction to the storming of Connolly House serves as a reminder of how pervasive anti-Communist feeling was. Even the IRA were reluctant to defend those of their own members who had come to the Communists’ aid. The organisation was still badly stung by the after-effects of the bishops’ pastoral of 1931. Neither did the Labour Party or trade union leaderships speak out against the mob violence. Only a handful of Republican radicals, notably Maud Gonne and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, had the courage to publicly denounce the attacks.
The violence of the anti-Communist riots in Dublin was not unique in 1930s Ireland. In 1936 thousands would mobilise to prevent the Scottish Communist MP Willie Gallacher speaking in College Green, and gangs made savage attacks on the left-wing contingents at that year’s Easter commemorations at Glasnevin. In the Ireland of the thirties the label of Communist was not merely a smear, but a potentially violent threat.

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


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