Dennis Dennehy

Remembering Dennis Dennehy And The 1969 First Dáil Commemorations

This January 21st has seen the 100th anniversary of the First Dáil. Fifty years previously, the 50th anniversary commemorations took place against the background of one of the most momentous social struggle to be fought for many a decade in Dublin, being led by Dennis Dennehy, of the Irish Communist Organisation, and the Dublin Housing Action Committee. Arrested and jailed for his protest and squatting activities, Dennis proceeded to go on hunger strike, forcing his unconditional release after twelve days. As narrated in Letters To Angela Clifford, it was memories of her husband Terence MacSwiney’s death on hunger strike, as Mayor of Cork during the War of Independence, that resulted in Muriel MacSwiney being so inspired by Dennis’s stand that she took the initiative in contacting him.

Dennis Dennehy’s courageous stand was so inspirational right across the political spectrum that for a brief period it united such diverse political strands as the ICO (later the B&ICO), the IWP (Irish Workers’ Party—later reunited with the CPNI to reconstitute the Communist Party of Ireland), and the IRA, in a common political purpose.

The 50th anniversary of the First Dáil was due to be commemorated in its birthplace, Dublin’s Mansion House, on 21st January 1969—right in the middle of Dennis Dennehy’s imprisonment and hunger strike. It was decided to mount an effective protest at source. A meeting was convened in our home by my father, IWP General Secretary Micheál O’Riordan, to secure agreement on a variety of measures with one common purpose. The minor item on the agenda was to issue me with instructions, as a CYM (Connolly Youth Movement) Executive member, to head off another protest that was being conspiratorially planned for that Mansion House commemoration, in respect of which I had been taken into the confidence of its Connemara organiser—the former IRA leader, native-speaking Irish writer, future Professor of Irish at TCD and irrepressible Gaeltacht agitator, Máirtín Ó Cadhain. And when I explained what that higher political purpose was, Ó Cadhain more than willingly pulled back.

My father had in turn persuaded IRA Chief-of-Staff Cathal Goulding and his Adjutant General Séamus Costello to escort to our home the 1916 battle of Mount Street veteran Joe Clarke, who had gone on to be the usher-in-charge in the First Dáil. It was not, however, the case that Clarke “had managed to secure an invitation” to the 50th anniversary Mansion House ceremonies. It came to him unsolicited, and as of right. The obstacle to be overcome was to persuade Joe to make strategic use of it, after a lifetime spent rejecting all such State commemoration invitations.

One characteristic that both Goulding and Costello shared in common was a powerful sense of humour, and they initially adopted the ‘good cop’ approach of joking and teasing Clarke about the youthful crush he had on a young Sinéad Bean de Valera, when he had attended her Irish language classes. Judging from his bemused yet bashful response, the attraction still persisted half a century later, but Joe did not consider that a good enough reason to compromise his principles in order to heckle his heartthrob’s husband!

The serious political argument was put by my father: that Dennehy’s Hunger Strike was central to the exposure of how the State had reneged on the principles of the First Dáil’s Democratic Programme, and that here was a golden opportunity for Clarke to secure Dennis’s unconditional release by publicly shaming the State on live television. Clarke was impressed, but remained unyielding. It was only a resort to the military discipline exerted by Goulding that finally twisted Clarke’s arm. In 1938 the seven remaining no-compromise-with-Leinster-House members of the Second Dáil, constituting themselves ‘the Irish Republic’s Executive Council’, had transferred what they regarded as their legitimate authority to the IRA Army Council. Clarke took it that he was now receiving an order from the man he held to be de jure Chief Executive of the Irish Republic, Cathal Goulding, to heckle Dev the ‘usurper’.

Once agreed, Clarke could not have been more impressive in the self-control and discipline he exercised. And indeed it would forever stick in his gullet that—after their initial surprise at his appearance at the door of the Mansion House—the ‘Establishment’ had made him most welcome: “Let me take your coat, Mr. Clarke” etc. But the experience that was to hurt him the most was that—in order to allay any suspicions as to his true purposes in showing up—“I had to accept a handshake from Dick Mulcahy”, Free State Army Chief-of-Staff (and, in the eyes of anti-Treatyites, a hated executioner) during the Civil War. Joe Clarke was, however, strong-willed enough to bite his tongue and stay the course.  

So it was that the nation turned on its TV sets for live coverage of President de Valera’sCommemorative Address, only to be greatly surprised to hear Dev being heckled on such a ceremonial occasion. The cameras then obligingly switched to this little man on crutches whom viewers nationwide both saw and heard shout out loudly and clearly, several times, “Release Dennis Dennehy!”, before he was hustled away by the Establishment’s bouncers.

RTE Archives also included footage of that protest in a de Valera exhibition, and further related:

“TDs, senators and members of the first Dáil and of the Diplomatic Corps gather in Dublin’s Mansion House to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Dáil. President de Valera addresses the gathering. His speech is briefly interrupted by veteran Republican Joseph Clarke, who protests about the jailing of Denis Dennehy, a member of the Dublin Housing Action Committee, for squatting in a house in Mountjoy Square.”

The link to that footage is, however, no longer operational.

(See for a ‘History Ireland’ account,  and

See—pages 9-11—to read online “First Dáil And Protests”, an article in the February 2008 issue of this magazine detailing the comprehensive press coverage of a number of  50th anniversary protests demanding the release of Dennis Dennehy.)

Manus O’Riordan

Muriel MacSwiney,  International Revolutionary, Wife of Terence MacSwiney, the Irish Republican Martyr:  Letters To Angela Clifford.  Historical and biographical Introduction by AC, 168pp.  Illus. Bibl. Index.  ISBN  0 85034 076 4.   AB, 1996.  €15,  £12

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