As the physical debris of a shameful night in Dublin is cleared from the streets of the inner city, perhaps we can also begin to clear the mental debris. One chunk of analytic wreckage is that “this was a reaction to immigration”. Another is “this is about inner city poverty”. It wasn’t and it isn’t.
First: there were fascist riots in Dublin long before the city had any substantial population of immigrants. Ninety years ago, when the city had scarcely a person of colour, or even a foreigner, there were admirers of Mussolini and Hitler out on the streets setting things ablaze and baying for the blood of the enemy.
In March 1933, in the worst political violence in the city since the Civil War, a crowd of about five thousand supporters of the far-right St Patrick’s Anti-Communist League laid siege to Connolly House on Great Strand Street, headquarters of the tiny Irish Communist Party. They attacked it for three successive nights.
They eventually stormed the building and set fire to it and to a factory next door. The mobs tried to do the same to the Workers’ College in Eccles Street and the Workers Union of Ireland office in Marlborough Street.
Among the agitators were Catholic priests. According to the historian Brian Hanley, James Connolly’s daughter Nora Connolly O’Brien collected accounts from churchgoers of the sermons they had heard that week, urging parishioners, among other things, to “take the law into your own hands”.
The Department of Justice subsequently concluded that such sermons had inspired “crowds, mostly of the young hooligan type” to riot in the city. The Garda reported that the far-right gangs were “hooligans, pure and simple” – but it was as obvious then as now that the line between yobbery and street-level fascism is highly porous.
Doesn’t this sound familiar? Social media (once routed through pulpits, now through Telegram, X and TikTok) connecting “young hooligan types” to each other and to an invitation to save Ireland by wrecking parts of its capital?
A rather apt phrase for the thugs who tried to set Dublin alight last Thursday while claiming to represent Irish virtue might be “pious hooligans”. I found it in a letter from Barcelona, where he was fighting fascism in 1937, written by Jack White, the man who organised the Irish Citizen Army that fought in the 1916 Rising.
He was recalling fascist violence in Ireland the previous year: “Last Easter Sunday, I had myself to fight for three kilometers against the Catholic actionists, who attacked us on the streets as we were marching to honour the memory of the Republican dead who fell in Easter week 1916. The pious hooligans actually came inside the cemetery and tore up the grave rails to attack us.”
Yes: the nativist far-right wrenched the railings from the graves of the patriot dead to use as weapons for a riot in Glasnevin Cemetery. What had that to do with immigration?
All through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, we had these openly fascist gangs trying to rouse popular rage against a Them that mostly consisted of Irish people who took seriously the promise of the Republic. They channelled themselves into different groupings, depending on which would-be Duce or Führer was on the rise – the most important being the Blueshirts, the Irish Christian Front, Maria Duce and Ailtirí na hAiséirghe (Architects of the Resurrection). There were also weird offshoots like the St Mary’s Anti-Communist Pipe Band (really) who went off to Spain to serenade the fascists fighting to overthrow its democratically elected government.
These movements were actually far larger and more mainstream than their spiritual heirs today. So, no. Fascism in Ireland is not a “reaction” to immigration. It’s an indigenous strain of nativism and pious hooliganism that has been in the subsoil of Irish political life for nearly a century.
And its support base is actually much smaller now than it used to be when Ireland had virtually no inward migration. Blowing it up into some kind of dramatic consequence of this century’s demographic change distorts both history and the present.
Nor were the riots, as one opinion piece in the Irish Times claimed, “the result of simmering tensions in the north inner city finally hitting boiling point”. Where is the evidence that it was the people of the north inner city who were responsible for the violence? Why did the far-right activists have to summon their supporters into the city centre if they were already there?
How could the courts have issued orders for people charged with alleged offences related to the riots to stay out of the inner city if those people actually lived there? How could others be “given permission to enter the city centre to attend work or travel to work” if they are from that city centre?
The addresses of those charged include a few in inner Dublin but also in Rathmines, Tallaght, Dún Laoghaire, Celbridge, Swords and towns as far away as Bray, Navan, Longford and even Waterford. It’s grossly unfair to inner city communities to stigmatise them as the sources of this disgrace.
There are huge problems of social exclusion in Dublin’s north inner city. There are also genuine tensions in many parts of Ireland as the State struggles to cope with refugees and asylum seekers amidst a chronic housing crisis. But neither of these realities caused the riots. Fascists did.
We have in Ireland a few hundred hardcore fascists who will use every available opportunity, whether it’s a shocking crime or a library book they don’t like, to try to build their competing cliques of zealots into large-scale ethnonationalist movements. Framing their violence as somehow representative of what is happening either in city communities or in Irish society as a whole merely feeds their delusions.
A tiny gang of malignant narcissists is not an expression of where Ireland is or who we are. Its “Ireland is at war” rhetoric is a toxic lie that should not be amplified by hyped-up commentary.