By David Hoggard and Bob Mumby
Welcome to the latest in our series of first chapters showcasing our books.
Today, we have Many a Hero Untold, by David Hoggard and Bob Mumby
Ireland is a nation which has endured much over its long and storied history. But the struggles the newborn country endured when it was born in the younger years of the 20th century are obscured by the grander history of World Wars, the rise of superpowers, and the clash of ideologies. Ireland’s part in these convulsions is typically on the sidelines. But what if the absence of a single man had been noted in time, a government fell, and Ireland found herself on the frontlines of the rise of fascism, the turmoil of the Second World War, and the ensuing Cold War?
In Many A Hero Untold, Bob Mumby and David Hoggard tell a story of an Ireland at the forefront of events during the 20th century, but a country that nevertheless cuts her own unique path through them. The result is a very different Ireland than the one we know, but one which may feel eerily familiar.
"You may sing of your soldiers and sailors so bold But there's many and many a hero untold Who sits at the wheel in the heat and the cold Day after day without sleeping" -Extract from Champion at Keeping Them Rolling
Thomas Johnson became the first Labour head of government in Ireland in 1927.
This was a highly unlikely turn of events, as his party had only 22 seats out 153 in the Irish Parliament (the Dail Eireann) at that point.
The story goes like this.
The government of the day was the Cumann na nGaedheal party, the victors of the Irish Civil War, which had been fought over the issue of whether to stop fighting the English. Cumann na nGaedheal, led by the unassuming W. T. Cosgrave, defeated the anti-Treaty forces (who later became the Fianna Fail party) after much bloodshed and general unpleasantness, and proceeded to govern almost unopposed – for Fianna Fail refused to take their seats in the Dail, just as the Red Albany Party currently refuse to take their seats in the UK Parliament. After the elections in the June of 1927, then, there were 44 empty seats, which allowed Cumann na nGaedheal to hold the confidence of the Dail with support from Independents and third parties.
Kevin O’Higgins, a Cumann na nGaedheal TD (‘Teachta Dala’, the Gaelic term for an MP), introduced a Bill in 1927 to force Fianna Fail to choose between taking their seats or ceasing to stand in elections. He was assassinated by the IRA for his troubles, but the charismatic and devious Fianna Fail leader Eamon de Valera (who is tragically little-known today) saw the writing on the wall and led his followers into the Dail for the first time since the Civil War. Most of them carried weapons on the first day.
Very quickly, de Valera connived with various other TDs and parties who were unimpressed with Cosgrave’s government for a variety of reasons, principally the Labour Party, who were the only major centre-left party in Ireland. Even then, ‘major’ is pushing it. They also went after the National League Party, who were an amalgamation of pro-British conservatives and moderate Nationalists – and, for some reason, vintners – led by Captain William Redmond. They, along with some Independents, hatched a plot to bring down the minority Cumann na nGaedheal government. Thomas Johnson would introduce a motion of no confidence and propose a minority coalition between his own Labour Party and the National League Party. Fianna Fail, who had more seats than both of these parties combined – and these were useful seats now that they were forcibly filled – would vote in their favour and give them ’confidence and supply’ in the hope of replacing them in government before too long.
The day of the vote came, and it was predicted by the mathematics of the situation that the motion would pass 73-70. Close, but not Squeaky Bum Time. As it turned out, however, the unnatural deal between the rightmost and the leftmost parties in the Dail, and the paltry 30 votes they could muster between them, had lost them the confidence of two National League TDs. One, Vincent Rice, very publicly crossed the floor to join Cumann na nGaedheal with the words “I do not think that Deputy de Valera has ever disguised that his aim is to get rid of the Treaty and the Constitution, and if he is not serving that purpose by keeping Deputy Redmond in office, how many hours will he keep him there?” How right – and yet how wrong – he was. It now stood at 72-71.
At this point, another National League TD, a Sligoman named John Jinks, decided to quietly jinx the vote. He slipped out of the Dail while both sides were in full fervour and wandered off into the streets of Dublin. Redmond noticed that there was an empty seat behind him, and he needed every vote he could get if he was going to be Vice-President of the Executive Council. If it came to a 71-71 tie, the Ceann Comhairle (or Speaker) would have the casting vote, and he would be constitutionally obliged to vote for the status quo. National League functionaries were sent off to trawl the streets of Dublin for Deputy Jinks; after a number of dead ends and close calls, they found him at the bar of his hotel. He was physically dragged into the Dail, where Captain Redmond guided him firmly by the arm into the correct lobby. Cumann na nGaedheal TDs reported that Jinks had struggled against Redmond’s covert grip, but if he did so, it availed him nothing. Thomas Johnson was now President of the Executive Council – at de Valera’s pleasure.
In the first few months of the Labour-led government, very little legislation could be passed due to the fragility of the Parliamentary arithmetic. But Tom Johnson did manage to bring Fianna Fail and the National League behind a couple of policies: the abolition of taxes on tea and tobacco; and the creation of a state pension for widows and orphans. Both were passed, and Captain Redmond (now Minister for External Affairs) was sent to negotiate a trade agreement with the United Kingdom in return for the relaxing of certain Treaty clauses. Nothing came of this, however, because in October de Valera informed Johnson that he would no longer support the mackled-together Labour-National coalition, and would prefer to be in charge himself – if Johnson didn't mind, of course.
This did not suit Johnson, who was just beginning to enjoy himself. He immediately called new elections and fought them on the basis of his record in government, his long-time support for Irish workers despite being born in Liverpool (he was not the last foreigner to command Ireland, in fact), and the scurrilousness of de Valera. Both Labour and the National League gained vast numbers of votes from both Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fail. Labour now had 54 TDs; the National League had 20. This was almost – but not quite – a majority, but the coalition survived with the help of Independent TDs such as John Daly.
What had been a coalition between minor parties had eclipsed the Civil War factions of old. Ireland was moving on. And in 1928, the impossible happened; the remnants of Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fail, who had been literally at war with one another six years before, merged back together into Sinn Fein under the threat from the Left and the Right.
At the same time, Captain Redmond was able to convince the British Government to agree to the Statute of Westminster (1929) in which Acts of the Dail Eireann would have equal status to Acts of the UK Parliament, as opposed to being inferior. Now, Thomas Johnson was able to abolish the Oath of Allegiance and reduce the tax burden on tenant farmers by ceasing to force them to pay annuities to the British Crown – these annuities were repayment for financial assistance extended by the British to their fathers in the late 19th century, and were obviously unpopular. This move increased Labour support in the provinces, but the opposite effect was happening to the National League Party. The absence of their Leader in London, and their powerlessness against Labour policies, alienated many of the supporters they had gained, and when another election was held in 1929 (well before the expiration of the Dail, so as to gain a fresh mandate before the Wall Street Crash made itself felt in Ireland and caused the government to fall) the National League had too few TDs to keep the coalition with Labour as a stable government.
Instead, a deal was brokered by Thomas Johnson with the new Leader of Sinn Fein (the merged parties Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fail, not the extremist Republicans who could no longer afford to contest elections) Desmond FitzGerald, about whom the popular song ‘The Wrecking of Desmond FitzGerald’ was penned. This was a Grand Coalition between the two major parties, and as such was chaotic and ineffective, as not only were Sinn Fein and Labour singularly unsuited to working with one another, there were also bitter dissensions within both parties. Sinn Fein were still at each other’s throats over the Civil War, and had only worked together to contain the Red threat. Now that it was impossible for a government to form without both of them in it, there didn’t seem to have been much point. Pistols were carried into the Dail on a daily basis. Meanwhile, Labour were bitterly divided on the Soviet issue.
While the Party line was to ally itself to moderate socialist parties like the British Labour Party, some individual members were quite fond of the Irish Workers’ League, the Comintern-aligned Party which had stormed into the Dail in 1929 under the divisive figure of ‘Big’ Jim Larkin. In 1930, the Labour TD William X. O’Brien (later, of course, to show little love for Larkin) attracted the support of the IWL in offering asylum to Leon Trotsky, who was at that time hiding in Turkey. This obviously would not do, as far as the Left were concerned, and they fought hard to convince Sinn Fein to agree to house him in Ireland. This almost destroyed the government, and for two months in the winter of 1930 Sinn Fein members stopped attending Executive Council meetings. When Trotsky arrived in the January, clashes erupted between the welcoming party of thousands of trade unionists and rightist armed groups, including bits of the old IRA and off-duty Gardai alongside their commissioner, Eoin O’Duffy.
During this Dail, the Constitutional issue was all but shelved in order to minimise faction-fighting within Sinn Fein; this might have worked if there hadn’t been an equal amount of gridlock between Labour and Sinn Fein over domestic policy. As a result, Ireland was hit quite badly by the Great Depression and the government were not seen to be able to do much about it, which led to the growth of radical forces on the Left and the Right. At first, it seemed as if Larkin’s IWL would be the main focus of this dissatisfaction, but in 1932 Eoin O’Duffy formed the National Guard, a corporatist Fascist party which we will look at in more detail later.
All we need to know at this point is that they won 19 seats in the 1932 general election, in which the IWL also made gains, and Sinn Fein overtook Labour in seat count. Again, the only possible government was between Sinn Fein and Labour, except this coalition would now be a minority in the Dail. But this would be fine as long as the National Guard refused to cross the path of an IWL man without spitting, which seemed unlikely. It meant, though, that Thomas Johnson, who had managed to hold two unnatural coalitions together in the face of grave economic and social emergencies, could no longer be President of the Executive Council.
From Trade Unionist Perspectives on the Development of the Irish State: 1913-present, published by the Workers’ Press
The Role of Leon Trotsky in the Fall of the Bourgeois Order
Far be it from me to ascribe any part of what the Left has achieved here to an individual, let alone one as lauded as Leon Trotsky; but, despite the general trend of Marxist historiography, the roles of Great Men must at least be considered. The simple fact remains that the arrival of Trotsky from Istanbul on the SS Arabic in September 1931 caused the first open violence between the newly-formed Army Comrades Association and parts of the Irish Trade Union movement.
Some background is required. Trotsky had been exiled from the USSR in February 1929 and had taken refuge in Turkey. In response, the Labour Teachta Dala and Minister for Industry and Commerce, William X. O’Brien, proposed that the revolutionary should be offered asylum in Ireland, and after a great deal of heated discussion that spring – despite the opposition of Labour’s Sinn Fein coalition partners (not least the fervently anti-Communist Ernest Blythe) – the offer was made. Once Trotsky had been assured that the offer was genuine, and that he would be given all the paper and ink he could possibly want, he acceded and embarked. It would not be over-egging the pudding to say that this would change the course of the Irish Labour movement.
The Irish Left was dominated, again, by personalities; two, in fact. The President of the Executive Council, good old Tom Johnson, was not one of these, however much he wished he was. Instead, the moderate wing was led by the stalwart activist William X. O’Brien, who had been instrumental in the Dublin Lockout of 1913 (as dealt with elsewhere in this volume) and who had also been interned by the illegitimate British occupiers for his faithful opposition to the extension of conscription to Irishmen. He had founded the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union along with Jim Larkin and James Connolly in 1909, but after the Lockout Larkin had emigrated to America and helped the movement there in the days of the First Red Scare. Larkin was much more radical than O’Brien, and upon his return to Ireland O’Brien and other veterans of the Lockout sued him, scurrilously claiming that Larkin had engineered matters for his own selfish ends. These allegations forced Larkin to take an independent path, founding the Workers’ Union of Ireland (which took two thirds of the Dublin ITGWU with it), and also a political party aligned with Comintern: the Irish Workers’ League.
While O’Brien had engineered the ‘Trotsky Matter’ to strengthen his own Labour Party faction and show up the Stalinist Larkinites, Larkin himself had been colluding with other, more malign forces. Eoin O’Duffy, then a commissioner of the Garda, was a figure on the Right who believed himself to be charismatic – and had unaccountably convinced thousands of his fellow-travellers of this. In July 1931, some of these men banded together and called themselves the Army Comrades Association. They wore blue shirts as a kind of phony uniform, since they were too bourgeois to partake of the Worker’s Uniform of denim and flat cap. At any rate, after meeting with Larkin in the Granite Hotel, O’Duffy agreed to protest the arrival of Trotsky in conjunction with the Workers’ Union of Ireland, promising that any quarrels between the diametrically-opposed groups would be quelled quickly, and also that no Irish Workers’ League meetings or rallies would be broken up by Blueshirts for the month surrounding the arrival. Little did Larkin know that his reckless invitation to O’Duffy would give the Army Comrades Association enough good press that they would be able to do what they later did under the snappier name of the National Guard.
In the end O’Duffy kept his word for the first and last time in his ignominious career, and only nine fatalities occurred between the Communists and the Fascists at that point. Placards and banners reading “Off You Trot-sky”, “Come Out You Jews And Reds” and “Stalin Ought To Crush Your Kulak Skull” were held in Leon Trotsky’s face as he crossed the gangway (some are still displayed at the Johnson Centre for Labour History) and then, as the official car laid on by the government sped off to Dublin Castle, his interim home, the real business of the day began. The somewhat smaller crowd of ITGWU well-wishers carrying banners showing their symbol (the Red Hand of Ulster, a gesture of solidarity to the shipyard workers of the North) were set on by violent Communists and Fascists, and before long, gunfire rang out. After three hours of chaos, the Garda and the Army charged in to separate the brawling factions, who themselves fled into the dusk at the onslaught. 312 people died, and the ITGWU were sent the bill for cleaning the blood and corpses off the street by the Governor-General – an insult which led to a mass demonstration outside Leinster House three weeks later. This demonstration was also targeted by the Army Comrades Association, and a further 83 people were killed. The Blueshirts were here to stay, and their actions were only attracting support from those who disliked the toothless and powerless Sinn Fein-Labour government, who were handling the Depression so shoddily.
When Trotsky actually met O’Brien he was reportedly disappointed at quite how moderate the Irishman was, and quickly came under the sway of ‘Big’ Jim Larkin, who ironically modelled himself in manner as well as policy on Joseph Stalin. This would be the start of a long-lasting friendship – one which was only strengthened when Leon Trotsky was elected Vice-President of Larkin’s Workers’ Union of Ireland. In 1933, though, tensions would increase exponentially in the Irish political and Labour movements…