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Red Scares in the Irish Free State

Conor Knowles | Trinity College, Dublin

‘You cannot be a Catholic and a Communist’.

In popular memory, when discussing a ‘Red Scare’, images are conjured up of a paranoid, respectable middle-America, terrified of supposed communist infiltration into Congress. Imagine ‘Better Dead than Red’ pins, posters, and stickers, and crucially of black-listed celebrities and politicians testifying in front of an all-knowing, condemning court. Magistrates ready to judge their (however brief, or minimal) involvement with the Communist Party USA as conspiratorial. However, these fears of a Bolshevik plot were not unique to the US. In fact, in the newly independent Irish Free State of the 1930s, even before McCarthyism took hold abroad, Red Scare tactics were commonplace, as an anti-communist sentiment, bolstered by the Church and the Government, permeated society in general.

A crowd of people, holding a sign. The sign reads 'The Only Good Communist is a Dead One'
Anti-Communist protest in Iowa, US, 1959. Credit RTÉ.

Ireland as a mostly rural, religiously Catholic, and deeply conservative nation at this time, abhorred anything pro-Soviet. The minuscule Communist Party of Ireland only ever reached a peak of 340 members during the interwar period. In contrast, the fascistic Blueshirt Movement, which was a prime opponent of all things communist, claimed 48,000 members at its peak in 1934.

Uniformed men give a fascist salute.
Eoin O’Duffy inspecting members of the Blueshirts, c. 1933. Credit, Irish Times.

The Communist Party, however, changed form frequently, with three separate iterations of the party forming and reconstituting between 1919 and 1970, with numerous other groups playing the role of the unofficial communist party between these reestablishments. For example, these included the First CPI (1919-1923), Irish Worker League (IWL, 1923-1928), the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups, (RWG, 1930-1933) and finally the Second CPI, (1933-1941). For simplicity’s sake, this article will refer to these groups, as many contained the same members anyway, as ‘the communists’, unless referring to a specific group.

            Being an Irish communist in the first two decades after the end of the First World War was a strenuous affair. Public perception was dismal, and any violence enacted against the Party and its members was usually tacitly sanctioned by the State, typically in the form of turning a blind eye to any beatings or assaults on Party property. This was epitomised in the storming and subsequent burning of Connolly House, the headquarters of the RWG, which was located on Great Strand Street, in the inner Northside of the Irish capital, Dublin. Over the course of three nights, from 27th-29th March 1933, a crowd estimated to number five or six thousand attempted to get inside and wreck the building. Incited by a sermon given at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, the crowd attempted, unsuccessfully, on the first two nights to attack Connolly House, as well as the affiliated Workers’ College in Eccles Street and the headquarters of the communist-aligned trade union, the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI). On the final night, the crowd was successful in storming the building, beating some of the members inside and setting it alight.

Press stamp reads: Connolly House, the headquarters in Dublin of the Irish Revolutionary Workers group was set on fire after an attack made on the building made by a crowd of several hundred young men. Twenty were injured in the disturbances. Photo shows police officers on guard in one of the rooms after the attacks. Note the tin of petrol left by the raiders.
Press Stamp referring to the sacking. Credit, Donal Fallon, Come Here to Me! Blog.

Two police men in an empty room.
Two Garda policemen stand in the ruins of Connolly House. Credits, Come Here to Me!

Luckily, no fatalities occurred. Bob Doyle, one of many in the crowd that night incited to violence reflected on the impetus of the violence. He posits that a Jesuit Priest’s sermon motivated the crowd to act, ‘Here in this holy Catholic city of Dublin, these vile creatures of Communism are within our midst…[the crowd was then told that], they [the RWG] were spitting on a statue of the Blessed Virgin inside’. Here can be seen a common theme in Irish anti-communism of the time, the hatred for communism does not necessarily come in the form of a fear of societal revolution, the redistribution of land or property or from some perceived threat from Marxist philosophy, instead the Irish are mostly concerned with the atheistic values of the international communist movement, as can be seen from the Soviet-led League of Militant Atheists (LMA). Doyle, disgusted by this act, would go on to form an interest in Marxism and ultimately join the CPI and fight on the side of the Spanish Republic as part of the Irish contingent of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Brian Hanley, a historian specialising in Republican and Labour history from this period, summarises the legacy of the Storming of Connolly House: ‘The violence of March 1933 must be seen in the context of an atmosphere of anti-Communist hysteria, whipped up by the Catholic Church…In the Ireland of the thirties the label of Communist was not merely a smear, but a potentially violent threat.’

A faded, densely typed copy of the Irish Workers' Voice
Front-page copy of the communist newspaper, Irish Workers’ Voice, decrying the attack on Connolly House. Credit, Irish Radical Newspapers Archive.

However, the Storming of Connolly House was neither the first nor the last attack on the communists from the Church during the 1930s. Prior to this decade, the Church had said little about communism internationally, instead hoping that the Soviets would allow the clergy to proselytise in the territory of the USSR since the Orthodox Church had been essentially banned. This dream was dashed when the LMA was fully established after a congress in 1929. This fundamentally changed the Church’s attitude to the international communist movement, which it treated with wary ambivalence before, to active hostility, instructing its laity to resist the Red Menace wherever it reared its head. The Vatican issued a papal encyclical, Quadrageismo Anno, which dealt directly with far-left extremism. The Church now regarded the movement as ‘wicked’ and demanded that other leftist or socialist parties, not aligned with communism, distinguish themselves from it. The Irish Labour Party and the broader trade unionist labour movement as a whole would strictly adhere to this document in the coming decades, up until the liberalisation process of Irish politics in the 1960s. In rural Ireland, the Church was kept up at night by the fears of a united communist-republican nexus forming between the RWG/CPI and the Irish Republican Army. Members of the latter had steadily been drifting leftward over the course of the 1920s. As one Lenten pastoral from the Bishop of Kildare, an area bordering Dublin, stated in 1931, ‘You cannot be a Catholic and a Communist. One stands for Christ, the other for Anti-Christ.’ While the heads of the Church, both in Ireland and abroad, were decrying the evils of Soviet-style communism, a grass-roots organisation took hold to ensure that more militant action was taken against the communist parties in Catholic Europe. The Catholic Action movement did not hit out against communism on an ideological basis per se, but more so a moralistic one. The Church and its followers, clearly threatened by the populist and appealing nature of socialism, formed a multitude of groups to combat the supposed Soviet threat.

            Political Catholicism in the years after the independence of Ireland in 1922 was marked by a dourness, a certain sense of apocalyptic pessimism. As historian Maurice Curtis writes, ‘In the years after the Civil War the bishops’ pastorals were full of gloomy, doom-laden pronouncements about the inherited sinfulness of the people and the need for constant vigilance against threatening influences.’ This mood fit in neatly with the persecuted worldview of Irish Catholics, that their religion, their way of life and cultural identity were under threat from external forces. The stated aim of the loosely affiliated Catholic Action groups was outlined by Pope Pius XI, who stressed the importance of the ordinary laity, not the clergy, in defending the Church against its enemies, through participation in militant, often militaristic lay organisations. A pamphlet written in 1933 by the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (CTSI) states its modus operandi, ‘‘… [The CTSI needs to be] a necessary movement of lay Catholics [deployed] into the front-line trenches of the fight between Christianity and paganism. To be effective in this fight they must be trained, organised, and disciplined as efficiently as the forces which are arrayed against them.’ Another pamphlet from 1934 titled, ‘The serried ranks of Catholic Action’, describes the myriad of groups, such as the Catholic Young Men’s Society (CYMS), the Knights of St. Columbanus and the Legion of Mary in these militaristic terms. Referring to them as an ‘Irish army of Catholic Action’, it is obvious to see the impact European Catholic Austro-fascism had on the Irish laity. The CTSI went so far as to influence Irish governmental policy by spearheading a move against the publication of ‘amoral’ literature, from 1925-29, which ended in a success as the Censorship of Publications Act was passed in that year. The Act was drafted under the supervision and guidance of the Church and allowed the Irish government to ban the publication of literature it found unsavoury and immoral. Under the rule of the pro-British Dominion status party, Cumann na nGaedheal, this meant ultimately banning pro-republican, communist, and Larkinite political literature, as well as sexual, modernist, or otherwise suggestive literature. The terms were kept purposely vague to apply to as wide a range of material as possible. The function of these groups ostensibly was to provide a traditionalist, religious and nationalist cultural setting for churchgoers. As Curtis notes, ‘The revived CYMS found a raison d’être in vigilance and anti-Communist activities and in organising Catholic social weeks. With all these organisations emerging and developing, Ireland’s Catholic identity was further strengthened.’ These organisations leaned on the subsequent pro-Republican, but still conservative government of Eamon De Valera to influence the 1937 Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann. The new constitution included clauses both traditionalist in nature, concerning the proper place of women to be within the home and securing the position of the Catholic Church. Catholicism was not designated as the official religion, as Ireland still contained a significant minority of Protestants of all stripes, but at the very least there was a ‘special position’ within society for the Church. These restrictions frustrated many political and intellectual thinkers, as Irish writer Seán Ó Faoláin referred to these groups collectively as ‘Miraculous Meddlers’, with Peadar O’Donnell a prominent socialist-republican activist derisively calling them the ‘Yahoo Laity’. It is within this stifling atmosphere that Irish communists and other radical groups attempted to assert themselves, only to be broken and beaten by mobs of angry, zealous laity, out for non-believers' blood.

Red posters. Left poster reads MILITANT ATHEISM. Right poster reads Workers of Ireland Which Way?
Pamphlet illustrations from the CTSI referring to the threat of communism. Credit, Maurice Manning.

            The most violent and aggressive threat to not only communist, republican, or socialist parties in Ireland but to the whole democratic order in the Free State can be epitomised in one organisation from this period. This threat came in the form of the quasi-fascist Army Comrades Association and their paramilitary wing, the Blueshirts. Modelled after the European fascists and commanded by the Pro-Treaty General, turned Garda Commissioner, Eoin O’Duffy, the Blueshirts would command a terrifying presence on Dublin streets from 1933-35. The movement would balloon in membership with attacks and physical brawls taking place between the IRA, the communists and the socialist-communist coalition, the Republican Congress (RC). The RC was modelled on the ideology of the Popular Front, which was gaining traction in Spain and France at the time. O’Duffy would attempt an equivalent of Italian Fascist dictator, Mussolini’s March on Rome, by organising a march on Dublin to the seat of the Irish government, Dáil Éireann. However, his action was thwarted by the pro-Republican, Fianna Fáil party who were in power at the time. They invoked their constitutional right to ban the march and as a consequence, much of the wind fell out of O’Duffy’s sails. This combined with a disastrous attempt to assist dictator General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, led to O’Duffy’s marginalisation within the far-right movement and his political downfall.

             Besides the quasi-fascists, the Government, and the ultra-religious, the Irish communist movement could not even rely on those who would naturally be assumed to be their allies. The organised Labour movement in Ireland was split between the pro-communist WUI, led by the famous, if not aloof, Jim Larkin a veteran of the socialist/communist cause in Ireland and internationally, and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union led by William O’Brien, a more conservative, Social Democrat type who despised Larkin and his influence. The Irish LP as well, split (albeit briefly) after the Second World War, on fears of communist infiltration into the party, after the dissolution of the Second CPI. The National Labour Party as it was constituted, intermixed nationalist and Christian rhetoric into their ideology, clearly reflecting the growing anti-communist mood of the early Cold War. As one election pamphlet from 1944 proclaimed; ‘The National Labour Party was founded to prevent control of the workers' political organisation passing into the hands of Communists and others with an alien outlook…[we] are willing to strive for a social and economic system, Irish in inspiration and Christian in effect.’ In reality, the split in Labour was more personal than political, as the two factions reconciled only five years later, shortly after Larkin’s death. Still, this event clearly highlights the tense situation between factions of a nominally socialist party. The split in the trade union movement, however, would last until the fall of Soviet-style communism between 1989-1991. The two unions would reunite under a new moniker, the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union in 1990.

            Anti-communism was widespread during the interwar period, especially in places where social conservatism demanded an atmosphere of suppression, forcing the native communist movement to move clandestinely as an illegal organisation. In Ireland, Red Scare tactics were used both to frighten the population against communists and push governments towards the implementation of targeted legislation. This included the suppression of communist groups and religious associations, often through the use of physical violence at street level. The term ‘communist’ in Ireland became a byword for foreign, un-Irish and subversive, which bears a striking similarity to the American usage of the term during the McCarthy era. It was not until the 1960’s with the outbreak of the Northern Irish Troubles and the liberalisation of Irish society that communist/Marxist parties and influences began to take shape in the Republic.


Further Reading

  • Maurice Curtis, ‘Miraculous Meddlers’: The Catholic Action Movement’, in History Ireland, 18 (2010), pp. 34-37.

  • Mike Cronin, The Blueshirts and Irish Politics, (Dublin: ‎Four Courts Press, 1997).  

  • Brian Hanley, ‘The Storming of Connolly House’, in History Ireland, 7 (1999), pp. 5-7.

  • Mike Milotte, Communism in Modern Ireland: The Pursuit of the Worker’s Republic Since 1916, (Dublin: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1984).

  • Emmet O’Connor, ‘Anti-Communism in Twentieth Century Ireland’, in Twentieth Century Communism, 6 (2014), pp. 59-81.

Conor Knowles is a PhD student in the Department of History at Trinity College, Dublin. He is currently researching anti-communism in the interwar period of the Irish Free State. He has previously presented his work on the cultural and popular memory of the socialist figures, James Connolly, and Jim Larkin at the annual Irish History Students Association conference. He is also currently an Early Career Researcher at the Trinity Long Room Hub.

His Twitter/X handle is @knowles_conor.


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