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Some famous Irish communists

Charlotte Despard

(1844–1939)



Charlotte French was born in Ripple, Kent, the daughter of an Irish-born naval officer and a wealthy heiress and the sister of John French, later Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1918–1921). Sent to London to live with relatives after the death of her mother, who had been mentally ill, she met Maximilian Despard, a wealthy Anglo-Irish businessman (one of the founders of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank), and in 1870 they were married.
    In her younger years she published several novels, in addition to pamphlets on women’s suffrage and other social questions. Some of her poems were collected and published at her own expense in 1935 under the title In the Light of the Red Dawn.
    Her husband died in 1890. Suffering from depression, she threw herself into social activity, based first on missionary work and charity but increasingly on radical political action. She joined the Social Democratic Federation and in 1894 was elected a Poor Law guardian (administrator) for the London district of Lambeth. She campaigned vigorously for reform of the Poor Law, whose provisions have been described as a mixture of charity and punishment. Her first attitude to the Women’s Social and Political Union was hostile, because it accepted the idea of a property qualification for votes for women. She was persuaded to become a member in 1906 after the resignation of the autocratic Sylvia Pankhurst, and she became joint secretary.
    In February 1907 she was arrested during a demonstration at the Houses of Parliament and was sentenced to three weeks’ imprisonment. In the same year an open rift developed with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, who had unilaterally cancelled the annual meeting of the WSPU and altered its constitution. Despard, with others, organised another conference that led to the formation of the Women’s Freedom Party, which was to engage in illegal but non-violent action. In 1909 she was arrested and imprisoned for leading a delegation to speak to the Prime Minister, but she was discharged after five days because of ill health.
    During the years of the Great War she was a pacifist, opposing all the labour and suffrage organisations that supported the imperialist war. At the end of the war in 1918 she stood unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Labour candidate. During the following years she gave most of her energies to the Irish cause, and at the same time she became increasingly drawn to communism.
    Charlotte Despard had always been interested in Ireland and, because of her family connections and those of her husband, increasingly regarded herself as Irish. She first visited Ireland in 1909 on the invitation of the Socialist Party of Ireland, which had been founded by James Connolly (as the Irish Socialist Republican Party) in 1896. In 1913 she was an active supporter of the workers’ movement during the Dublin Lock-Out, and in November 1920 she was a member of the British Labour Party committee of inquiry into conditions in Ireland.
    She moved permanently to Ireland in 1921, where she continued to work for the poor and also joined Sinn Féin. Her brother, former chief of staff of the British army and from 1918 Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, found her an increasing embarrassment, though they were never entirely estranged. She opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921) and supported Sinn Féin during the 1920s. She bought Roebuck House at Clonskeagh, Co. Dublin, which she shared with Maud Gonne MacBride; it was frequently raided by the police in the belief that it was a “safe house” for IRA members.
    During the confrontation at the Four Courts she was a member of a delegation that visited both sides in an effort to prevent civil war. In 1922 she was a founder (with Maud Gonne MacBride and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington) and first president of the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League, which gave financial aid to the families of Republican prisoners. In January 1923 the Free State government declared the organisation illegal, and its meetings and demonstrations were constantly broken up by the police.
    In 1926 she left Sinn Féin and joined the Connolly Club, founded by Roddy Connolly. On 24 October 1929 she was injured when she fell downstairs at her home; while she was being taken to the ambulance twenty detectives (without a warrant) raided the house. In 1931 the house was raided for the eleventh time; seventeen detectives took part in the raid, in which books, papers and furniture were damaged.
    As a delegate of Friends of Soviet Russia she visited the Soviet Union in August 1931 with Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and studied the Soviet educational and penal systems. She became a member of the Revolutionary Workers’ Group, which in 1933 established the Communist Party of Ireland.
    On Monday 27 March 1933 a hymn-singing mob estimated at a thousand people marched from the Pro-Cathedral in Marlborough Street, Dublin, where they had been incited by a preacher, and attacked Connolly House (64 Great Strand Street). They returned the following two nights, reinforced by Blueshirt and criminal elements, and, watched from a distance by the Garda Síochána, succeeded in setting fire to the house. The building was defended as far as possible but was completely destroyed, and loss of life was barely avoided. (Charlotte Despard’s poem “Connolly House” is reprinted in Communist Party of Ireland: Outline History, 1975.) On the 29th the mob attacked Charlotte Despard’s house at 63 Eccles Street, also home to the Irish Workers’ College and Friends of Soviet Russia, but a defence had been prepared in the form of a large crowd of workers, and it escaped with broken windows. Also attacked were the offices of the Workers’ Union of Ireland in Marlborough Street and the Irish Unemployed Workers’ Movement in North Great George’s Street.
    In 1934, inspired by the working-class unity of the outdoor relief campaign, Despard, now ninety years old, gave Roebuck House to Maud Gonne MacBride and the house in Eccles Street to the Friends of Soviet Russia and moved to Belfast. Her finances exhausted from her philanthropic and political activities, she was declared a bankrupt in 1937. She died in November 1939 at the age of ninety-five following a fall at her home and is buried in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
    In 1935 the general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Harry Pollitt, said of Charlotte Despard: “She has done more for communism than any of us.” A street in the Battersea district of London where she formerly lived and worked is now named Charlotte Despard Avenue in her honour.

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