VE Day 75: Haughey, FitzGerald and that ‘Irish Times’ front page
Trinity students’ provocative decision to raise the Union flag led to riotous scenes
Then Irish Times editor RM Smyllie got his revenge on the Irish government censors by rearranging the front page of the newspaper to make a V for victory sign.
The second World War in Europe was over. It has lasted 2,294 days and left much of the continent in ruins.
The news was greeted with jubilation across the world and even with some relief in vanquished Germany. In London people congregated in Piccadilly Circus and danced around the Eros fountain. Bonfires were lit along the River Thames that evening. Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared that the following day would be Victory in Europe (VE) Day.
New York’s Times Square was filled with hundreds of thousands of people and on the Hudson River liners and tugs sounded their horns.
The news reached Ireland at 2pm via BBC radio. By 3pm students at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) climbed on to the roof of the building and raised the flags of the victors, the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union, the French tricolour and at the top, and largest of all, the Union flag. Underneath them, the Irish tricolour was at the bottom of the mast trailing on the floor of the roof.
The flag-raising ceremony attracted thousands of onlookers to College Green. Carried away with the exuberance of it all, some of the students on the roof started singing God Save the King and Rule Britannia.
The four flags were taken down after a while and replaced with the Stars and Stripes. The students on the roof burned the Irish tricolour and threw it on to the lawn beneath.
News of the burning spread across the city. At the time TCD was regarded as a bastion of “west Brit” sentiment and of Protestantism, not helped by the prohibition on Catholics going to the college by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Dr John Charles McQuaid.
University College Dublin (UCD), then based at Earlsfort Terrace, was its mirror opposite. The overwhelming majority of its students were from a nationalist and Catholic background.
Among them was an 18-year-old commerce student from Donnycarney called Charles J Haughey who had won a scholarship to UCD. Haughey was also a part-time second lieutenant in the reserve forces during the Emergency years. The platoon he set up was named “Haughey’s fusiliers”.
Haughey is alleged to have been the ringleader of a counter demonstration which began in Middle Abbey Street at 8pm that evening. On their way to the meeting, they tore down a Union flag hanging on a lamppost at the bottom of Grafton Street and set it alight.
After congregating in Middle Abbey Street, the mob then marched over O’Connell Bridge, breaking windows in the offices of The Irish Times in Fleet Street as they passed, the paper perceived to be pro-British.
The Irish Times reported that the crowd which descended on Trinity were led by a “young man waving a large tricolour hoisted on the shoulders of his comrades” - since identified by some of his friends as Haughey.
The gates of Trinity College were closed so the group tried to scale the railings of the university at which point they were set upon by gardaí who baton charged them and split more than a few heads. A dozen protesters were taken to hospital.
The mob dispersed down College Green and attacked the doors of the Wicklow Hotel shouting “give us the west Britons” and “put out the traitors”.
One of their number told The Irish Times: “Trinity has insulted the country by burning the Tricolour. We don’t mind Trinity flying the Union Jack because we all know the outlook of these people, but what we do object is to the flying of a number of Irish flags insultingly on the bottom”.
FitzGerald versus Haughey
According to Professor Gary Murphy of DCU who is familiar with the Haughey archive there is nothing specific in the papers relating to the VE incident beyond a cryptic line in a letter to his personal friend and Gate Theatre co-founder Micheál MacLiammóir just over 25 years later on September 22nd, 1970 when Haughey was on trial for his alleged role in arms importation. In turning down an invitation to dinner with MacLiammóir and his partner Hilton Edwards because of the trial, Haughey said “I have been dining out on the Trinity incident myself - suitably embellished of course”.
One of the eyewitnesses to the events at Trinity College was Garret FitzGerald, another future taoiseach who would become Haughey’s long-time rival. He was in town celebrating VE Day when he heard about what was going on in College Green. He recalled Haughey escaping from gardaí by “jumping over bicycles and going up Trinity Street. My views and his views would have been different. I was strongly pro-Allied”.
Contrary to what has been reported since, Haughey never did get to the top of Trinity to run the tricolour up the flagpole. Contemporary newspaper reports suggest that attempts by other students to storm the college were rebuffed successfully by gardaí.
The story made the front page of most Irish newspapers including The Irish Times.
The edition of The Irish Times published on May 8th, 1945 proved to be one of the celebrated in the history of the newspaper.
The editor Bertie Smyllie was strongly pro-British and bridled against the strict Irish government censorship of newspapers, especially The Irish Times which was minutely scrutinised by censors.
He got his revenge by rearranging the front page of the newspaper to make a V for victory sign.
“There was nothing the censor could do about it,” wrote Tony Gray, then a junior leader writer in the paper, in his book, Mr Smyllie, Sir. “In the final moment of victory, Smyllie had played the trump card.”