An Irishman's Diary

Sat, Mar 19, 2011, 00:00

IT MAY HAVE been the first act of defiance towards the brand new Irish Free State but these days, the extraordinary occupation of the Rotunda in Dublin, in January, 1922, led by the writer Liam O’Flaherty, isn’t much more than an absorbing footnote to the history of radical politics in 20th-century Ireland.

O’Flaherty, whose family lived on Inishmore in the Aran Islands, had been born there in 1896. In 1912/13, when he was at Blackrock College, he organised his first protest movement, among his fellow pupils, in favour of the nationalist cause. Then, still at a young age, he made the unlikely decision to become a priest, enrolling as a postulant with the Holy Ghost Fathers.

But his priestly ambitions were soon overturned and he joined the British army to fight in Flanders; there, in 1917, he was injured, mentally, rather than physically. For the next year, he was treated in hospital for melancholia, before being discharged from the Irish Guards.

He then began his wanderings, sometimes working on ships, around the Mediterranean and as far away as South America, as well as in Canada and the US. His political views took an abrupt left turn and in Canada, he joined the Wobblies, the international workers union, while in New York, he signed up with the Communist Party.

Eventually, he returned to Ireland, to Dublin, where he quickly became embroiled in radical politics. He had helped found the Communist Party of Ireland, not long before the Rotunda occupation. Dublin was teeming with former soldiers, like himself, who were out of a job and soon he saw his opportunity.

On Monday, January 16th, 1922, the provisional government of the new State was announced.

During the Wednesday of that week, a group of about 200 unemployed people, led by O’Flaherty, who declared himself to be the chairman of the Council of the Unemployed, occupied the concert room of the Rotunda. They formed a garrison, divided into companies.

The Rotunda had been built in 1764 as an assembly hall and social rooms; the adjacent maternity hospital was named after it. For O’ Flaherty, the place was highly significant; Sinn Féin had been founded here in 1905 and the Irish Volunteers followed suit in 1913, as detailed in Aengus Ó Snodaigh’ s book on the history of the Rotunda.

O’Flaherty said that the occupation of the Rotunda, led by himself, was a protest against the apathy of the authorities towards the unemployed. He told The Irish Timesthat if they were taken to court, they would not recognise that court, “because the government that does not redress our grievances is not worth recognising” . Among the occupiers were unemployed dock workers from Dublin port, one of whom was Sean McAteer, who 15 years later was executed in the USSR as a spy.

At the time, workers were taking over factories and creameries in several parts of the country, including Cork and Limerick, and declaring them to be “soviets”. O’Flaherty determined to do this with the Rotunda occupation, but when the Red Flag was hung out from a window, it drew considerable hostility from the growing crowd in the street outside. The occupation also met with considerable disapproval from O’Flaherty’ s new- found colleagues in the Communist Party, who didn’t favour what they saw as an attempted putsch.

But the manifesto that O’Flaherty wrote for the occasion was his first literary work and its fiery language was compared with that used during the American war of independence and the first French revolution.

The group of people inside the concert room grew in number, sometimes occupying their time with impromptu concerts, while they also paraded in Parnell Square, once known as Rutland Square. A local bakery, Boland’s, then in Capel Street, donated 500 loaves of bread, which helped feed the insurgents.

Policing was in a state of transition; the old Dublin Metropolitan Police was still in existence and some of its members went to the Rotunda, along with members of the Republican Police, former IRA members who supported the new pro-Treaty government. Thanks to the police, the angry crowd of some 500 people milling around outside didn’t storm the building. An elderly woman in the crowd was heard describing O’Flaherty as “the man that tried to sell Dublin to the Bolsheviks”.

Shots had been fired over the heads of the crowd, from inside the Rotunda. On the Thursday night, one of the occupiers, who had gone out into the square to try to collect money, was attacked and this raised the tension still further.

By the Saturday, when O’Flaherty had the option of either surrendering or having the building stormed, he decided to call off the occupation and it ended peacefully. The declaration of a soviet republic in the heart of Dublin had come to nothing. All the protesters walked out of the Rotunda and the occupation ended with a whimper. O’Flaherty himself managed to slip away unnoticed and with two companions, made his way to Cork, where he spent the next six months.

One probable side-effect of the shock caused by the Rotunda occupation, which received much coverage in the newspapers at the time, was that O’Flaherty lost both his parents at home on the Aran Islands. Shortly afterwards, his mother, Maggie, collapsed in front of her husband, and within 10 minutes, died from a massive heart attack. His father, Mícheál, soon followed, suffering from a stroke; later, he was described as “dying on his feet” .

As for O’Flaherty, he returned to Dublin in June, 1922, as the Civil War gained momentum, but the following month, he managed to escape the city and made his way to Liverpool. Once he had settled in England, he turned away from involvement in political activity and began writing in earnest, drawing on his own dramatic experiences.

His first short story was published there in 1923 and later that year, his first published novel, Thy Neighbour’s Wife,was issued in London, a mere 18 months after the abortive Rotunda occupation.

For the rest of his life, O’Flaherty garnered the reputation of being one of Ireland’s leading novelists and short story writers of the 20th century, although his last novel was published in 1950. But his radical political views remained constant.

He died in Dublin in 1984, aged 88, and the bureaucratic description of his profession on his death certificate said that he was a writer (retired) .

His nephew, Breandán Ó hEithir, was also a distinguished writer and a long time contributor of a weekly column to this newspaper. Another relative, a cousin, was John Ford, the film director, who made a memorable Hollywood version of O’Flaherty’ s 1925 novel, The Informer.

Liam O’Flaherty’s reputation as a political activist in the Rotunda may have faded at the expense of his literary reputation, but one constant remains: the problem of mass unemployment is as grave a national issue now as it was nearly 90 years ago.