One hundred years ago this week, shortly after Dáil Éireann accepted the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Dubliners witnessed a uniquely dramatic incident when more than 100 unemployed workers, some armed, seized the Rotunda (today’s Gate Theatre), hoisted the red flag of socialist resistance and held the premises against violent opposition for four days.
Their demand was simple: work or full maintenance.
Three young members of the Communist Party of Ireland were to the fore in the takeover: Liam O'Flaherty (25), Jim Phelan (26) and Sean McEntee (27).
O’Flaherty, chairman of the Dublin Council of Unemployed, was described by Phelan as “a magnificent speaker, organising a beggars’ legion with an ineradicable twist of mischief in his makeup”.
In his memoirs, O’Flaherty simply noted that, “in the early part of 1922 I seized the Rotunda with a small army of unemployed men and held it for some days”.
In the years that followed, O’Flaherty would achieve international fame as the author of many critically acclaimed novels,The Informer and Famine among them, but in January 1922 he was just one of the 30,000 anonymous unemployed workers and their dependents living on the breadline in Dublin, his only published work a stirring Manifesto to Citizens of Dublin.
This one-page leaflet, bearing the Communist Party’s address, had been fly-posted all around the city by O’Flaherty’s comrades. They weren’t looking for charity, the manifesto asserted, but they demanded that businessmen contribute to a “maintenance fund” and promised in return “twenty shillings worth of service to the community” for every pound given.
But also running through the manifesto was a clear threat that if the jobless crisis wasn’t solved, the unemployed would be “forced by the apathy of the ruling class, by the tyranny of capitalism, to become dangerous criminals”. O’Flaherty painted a graphic picture of “good citizens” turning to “pillage and rapine”; their womenfolk “forced by the dread spectre of want, to sell their bodies in the streets”. So if Dubliners didn’t want “chaos and anarchy [or] highway robbery to be the order of the day”, they had to act now to “procure work” for the unemployed.
Phelan found O’Flaherty’s manifesto electrifying. Its sheer literary power, he claimed, hadn’t been seen since the days of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.
Although he never acquired O’Flaherty’s celebrity status, Phelan would become a published author in his own right, while the third of the trio, McEntee, secretary of the Council of Unemployed, would achieve fame – or notoriety – in his own startling way.
The occupation of the Rotunda began on Wednesday, January 18th.
The nascent, communist-led unemployed movement had been granted use of the hall until 5pm, but when the time came, the 120 present voted to stay put. O’Flaherty defiantly stated that, if arrested, they would not recognise the court in a country that refused them succour. He had come prepared with a revolver and a huge red flag, which he hoisted from a front window.
Contrary to claims by some historians, O’Flaherty did not declare an Irish Soviet Workers’ Republic. In fact, his manifesto was at pains to point out that they were “doing nothing that can be construed as illegal, unconstitutional or revolutionary”. They were just demanding the right to work.
Styled as a garrison, they formed themselves into four military style companies under officers, of who Phelan was one. A former British soldier, Capt Montgomery – armed and in full uniform – was another. O’Flaherty was officer commanding.
Groups of men were sent out in search of provisions and by the second day, £5 had been collected and Boland’s Bakery had pledged 500 loaves. Inside the building the men drilled, danced, debated and drank.
An Irish Times reporter who gained admission described the scene: “A large party of the garrison was found refreshing the inner man at a long table. There was some music and dancing in another part of the hall, while around the fire gathered a large body, all apparently in very cheerful spirits.”
Outside, however, the mood was anything but cheerful. By Friday an angry mob numbering about 500 had gathered in what would be the first street protest against Ireland’s self-professed communists.
One of the groups behind the protest, Catholic Action, saw itself as an organisation “in the front line trenches of the fight between Christianity and paganism, trained, organised and disciplined”.
According to the paper, the rippling red flag "seemed to affect many of them as it would a bull", and before long bottles and stones were raining down on the Rotunda. The mob's excitability may have been exacerbated by news from Rome that Pope Benedict XV, the sworn foe of communism, was close to death's door.
At 9.30pm, the mob launched its first serious assault, rushing the main door of the Rotunda. The garrison's internal barricades withstood the test, and before much damage was done, the Dublin Metropolitan Police managed to push the assailants back.
At 10pm, a young man tried to seize the flag by climbing the portico, but he fell from the roof and was rushed to Jervis Street hospital. The first smell of blood excited the crowd. A second man ascended and managed to capture the flag, to deafening cheers. But no sooner was he down when a second flag appeared, driving the mob apoplectic.
By 10.30pm they had assembled makeshift battering rams, and the door was soon in splinters. But before the attackers came face to face with the garrison, the DMP again forced them back.
Eventually IRA members, who had been assisting the DMP, moved in and, simply by holding hands, pushed half the crowd up North Frederick Street, the other half towards O’Connell Street. The area around the Rotunda was cleared, but O’Flaherty refused an IRA order to evacuate.
Next day, Saturday, the mob reassembled, and with false rumours of the pope’s demise now circulating, feelings ran high. But before the mob could launch another attack, shots rang out over their heads, a stark warning from the garrison.
A showdown between lightly armed communists and the IRA seemed imminent, but before it came to blows, the Communist Party executive intervened and ordered O’Flaherty to lead his men out. Safe passage was negotiated with the IRA, and the Rotunda was finally abandoned around midnight.
Publicly, the Communist Party justified the retreat by claiming the mob was armed with bombs. In truth, the party’s broader strategy at the time hinged on winning favour with the IRA rather than leading workers’ struggles. And, privately, the party’s 22-year-old leader, Roddy Connolly – son of James Connolly – was furious with his Rotunda comrades.
In a report to the Communist International in Moscow, Connolly blamed O’Flaherty and his followers for destroying the emerging unemployed movement, describing their behaviour as hasty, childish and an opportunist stunt.
Connolly went on to investigate allegations that the communist firebrands had trousered the garrison’s maintenance fund, but in the end concluded that they shared it out among the men, a few miserable pennies each.
As punishment for their errors, O’Flaherty and his associates were sent to Cork, ostensibly to organise a branch of the Communist Party there, but possibly also to rob banks, an activity Connolly once admitted to authorising at this time. Phelan described his stay in Cork as “lively”; McEntee said they collected money, but didn’t say how.
The party participated in the ensuing Civil War on the anti-Treaty side. O’Flaherty subsequently moved to London while McEntee and Phelan ended up in Liverpool, where they were soon involved in another escapade: robbing a post office with guns supplied by the city’s leading communist, Jack Braddock.
The robbery netted £3.5s.41/2d, but McEntee had shot and killed the young son of the postmistress. He fled to London, from where the British Communist Party spirited him to Russia as a political refugee. Phelan, however, was caught, convicted and sentenced to hang.
On the eve of his scheduled execution, Phelan’s death sentence was commuted but he remained in prison until 1937. He then took to “tramping” and wrote many colourful tales about his experiences. He died in 1966.
In 1938, McEntee, then still exiled in Russia, was murdered on fabricated charges during Stalin’s Great Purge.
Connolly, who became chairman of the Irish Labour Party, would try to play down his communist past, and never again mentioned robbing banks. He died in 1980, just weeks short of his 80th birthday.
Pope Benedict XV died the day after the Rotunda was evacuated.
O'Flaherty outlived them all, becoming, in the words of John Banville, "the finest Irish writer of his generation".
Looking back on the Rotunda incident in 1934, O’Flaherty declared, somewhat hyperbolically, “Ever since then I have remained, in the eyes of the vast majority of Irish men and women, a public menace to faith, morals and property, a Communist, an atheist, a scoundrel of the worst type, a man whom thousands would burn at the stake if they had the courage”.
He died in St Vincent’s hospital in Dublin 50 years later, at the age of 88.
The Rotunda occupation was the only significant action taken by unemployed workers in the revolutionary era, but it was far from the only act of class militancy. As many as 100 “Soviets” were declared by striking workers between 1918 and 1922. In many, if not most, red flags were hoisted. But the Communist Party played no part.