Street War

Frank Ryan addressing a crowd in College Green, Dublin

In 1930’s Ireland, like elsewhere in Europe, ideological struggle often spilled over into violence. Here Fergus Whelan recounts a tale from his own family history of the street battles between Republicans and those acting on behalf of the Right.

On Friday 11th February 1938 at Steven’s Lane a 19 year old youth named William O’Brien was shot dead late at night near Dr Steven’s Hospital in Dublin. The man who fired the shots was Eddie Whelan, a member of the IRA. I know this because my father, Paddy Whelan, told me the story himself. My uncle Eddie, a contemporary and, in later life, a dear friend of the playwright and author Brendan Behan, was 20 years of age when he was charged with the killing he had carried out. I know from my work as an historian that people’s memories and accounts of killing or shootings are usually self-serving and may not be a true reflection of what actually happened. In what follows, I measure the oral history of that killing as told to me by my father against contemporary newspaper accounts, and explain the previously unknown political significance of the death of William O’Brien.

My father joined the Republican Movement along with Eddie in the mid-1930s. In those days the IRA held regular ‘parades’ in Dublin. A parade was a gathering of six or so men who would be given an arms class in a hall or private house. They might strip and reassemble a Thompson submachine gun or a Lewis Machine gun (known in military terms as assault weap- ons). The weapon was usually brought to the parade under someone’s coat as cars were not very common at the time and were outside the reach of working people. According to my father, members of the Animal Gang, a right-wing criminal group drawn from the hooligan elements of Dublin’s inner city, would follow IRA men to and from parades taunting them and hoping to pick a fight. If a fight broke out, the police would arrive, and a number of IRA assault weapons were lost in these encounters.

The IRA leadership responded to such incidents by issuing instructions to volunteers to carry a revolver to protect the assault weapon. According to my father, it was in just such an incident that his brother Eddie shot dead William O’Brien. My father, who was a brick-layer, later disposed of the revolver by burying it in the foundations of a house he was building in Killester.

Eddie was tried on a capital murder charge but acquitted in what should have been an open and shut case for the prosecution. A number of witnesses identified him as being at the scene, and one witness positively identified him as having been engaged in a struggle with the dead man, although he did not see a weapon. In his summing up, the judge dismissed the defence argument that the prosecution had not proved that the dead man was murdered.

Neither the IRA nor the Animal Gang were mentioned during the trial, but the fact that Con Lehane, later a Clann na Poblachta TD, and Sean McBride defended Eddie would have left no-one in any doubt that Eddie was an IRA man. The authorities concluded that the jury had been intimidated, or at least swayed by republican sympathies. My father told me he had personally spoken to members of the jury.

However, the newspaper reports disclosed other possible reasons for the acquittal. My grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle and a neighbour all lied under oath to concoct an alibi. I might have been shocked by this had not my late father explained that had Eddie been convicted he would had died on the gallows a few months before his twenty first birthday. The credibility of the alibi provided by my grandmother gives some insight into living conditions of the working class in Dublin at the time. She described how Eddie had to pass through her bedroom when going to bed, and how Eddie and his father slept in the same bed.

Prosecution witness evidence, as reported in the newspapers, suggested that the dead youth was the aggressor. One witness said that the two companions of Eddie Whelan had their hands up when challenged by O’Brien and he heard them saying “we have no guns”. It appears that O’Brien had information that at least one of the IRA men had a gun.

The defence strongly hinted that the dead man had been armed and was backed up by a mysterious motor car that night. If this mysterious car was present it could only have belonged to a wealthy Blueshirt or the police.
Eddie Whelan was the last IRA man to get a trial by jury. The Military Courts, which then came in, could impose only a death sentence. Eddie Whelan and those who helped him evade punishment may have indirectly ushered in the regime which executed many of their own comrades over the next few years.

Eddie was dismissed from the IRA, which raises a question in my mind about the version of the story which I have from my father. If Eddie acted in line with IRA orders, why was he dismissed? William O’Brien may have died the victim of a brawl after closing time when he was unfortunate enough to pick a fight with a man who happened to have a loaded gun in his possession and was ruthless enough to shoot a (possibly) un-armed boy at point blank range.

Whatever the facts of William O’Brien’s death and its relationship to republican clashes with the Animal Gang, it is impossible to separate this case from the broader political context of the 1930s, both in Ireland and abroad. The big issue for the Dublin IRA shortly after my father joined was that many of the younger talented members were attracted into following Frank Ryan, to fight on the the side of the democratically-elected republican government in the Spanish Civil War that lasted between 1936 and 1939. For example, my father’s I.R.A. section leader, Tony Fox, was killed on 28th December 1936 within two weeks of arriving in Spain.

1930s Cumann na nGaedheal election poster

In contrast to left-wing IRA members’ support for the Spanish government, the Blueshirts, Cumann na nGaedheal, and elements of the Catholic Church came together to form the Christian Front which engaged in pro-fascist propaganda and a Red scare. Blueshirt volunteers also travelled to Spain to fight for Franco. At home, the Christian Front held huge rallies in Dublin and stirred up the crowds with tales of how the Catholics of Spain were under attack from the Reds. The minuscule Irish militant left, consisting of the Communist Party, the remnants of the by-then defunct Republican Congress, and elements within the I.R.A., felt the wrath of the Catholic mob and Independent newspapers.

As Ronnie Drew tells us in a song associated with Brendan Behan:

“On Banajos red ramparts the Spanish workers died
and Duffy’s bellowing animal gang sang hymns of hate with pride
The sleuths who called for Connolly’s Blood and Sean Mc Dermot’s too
Are calling still for workers gore from Spain to far Peru”

The conflicts between the IRA and the Animal Gang must be seen within this context: in many senses they were an extension of the battlefields of Spain. The same month in 1938 that O’Brien’s lost his life on the streets of Dublin, hundreds if not thousands of nineteen year old boys were dying of gunshot wounds in Spain. O’Brien may have died as a victim of the Red scare mongers who told Irish Catholics that the cause of Spanish fascism was the cause of Irish Catholics and that Reds and IRA men were one and the same thing.

Despite Eddie’s dismissal from the IRA, he was interned in the Curragh camp as a republican along with my father and his younger brother Michael from late 1939 until the end of the Second World War. Although Eddie died when he was 46 and I was 9,even at that age I knew that Eddie Whelan was regarded by himself and all who knew him as a Red. It seems likely that William O’Brien knew that too.

Picture at top: Rally for IRA prisoners on release from Arbour Hill, March 1932. The figure being shouldered in the centre is Frank Ryan who would lead Irish volunteers in Spain later that decade.

Article published in LookLeft Vol.2 No.10