Hunger and Hysteria
Cartoon from the Sunday Independent highlighting the opinion of the Catholic Church that it was their responsibility to save Irish children from the dangers of socialism. Photo: Courtesy of Lucy McDiarmid

Hunger and Hysteria

The “Save the Dublin Kiddies” Campaign, October-November 1913

By Lucy McDiarmid

Taken From Lucy McDiarmid, The Irish Art of Controversy (Dublin: Cornell Univerisity Press, Lilliput Press), pp 123-65. Reproduced with kind permission of the author.

Aithnítear an duine ar a dhéirc.
The person is known by the alms.

'Alleged Kidnapping' was the headline in The Freeman’s Journal of October 28, 1913. A 'respectably dressed' woman of forty-two, Kate Burke, had been charged with abducting ten-year-old Mary Barrett. Oddly enough, Mary had run home to tell her father that she had been kidnapped. In the presence of a magistrate, the father acknowledged that Miss Burke had not taken Mary. 'And the only evidence you have is that the child told you she caught her by the arm?' 'Yes,' said Mr Barrett. 'It is a ridiculous charge, your worship,' said Mr Brady, for the defendant. 'The woman lives with an invalid sister in the city, and was on the way to see one of the priests in Church Street. Barrett rushed out of a side street with a crowd of howling women after him, and frightened the life out of the poor woman. She never saw the child before. I think that some people are going to be kidnapping mad.' The magistrate agreed, dismissing the charge and remarking 'that a sort of insanity was prevalent in the city at present.'

So indeed it was: many more than one person went 'kidnapping mad.' A barrister involved in another kidnapping case thought it sounded like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan. A letter to The Irish Times advised that if 'you are an old gentleman, and want to take your grandchild down to the country for a few days, you had better apply for police protection, if you do not want to be surrounded by a howling mob.' It was almost impossible to leave Dublin with a child in tow. Concerned that a charitable campaign organised by English socialists was a Protestant proselytizing scheme, Archbishop William Walsh had warned the 'Catholic Mothers of Dublin' not to part with their children 'without security that those to whom the poor children are to be handed over are Catholics, or indeed persons of any faith at all.' Thus inspired, parish priests and mobs of supporters prowled the railway stations and docks, ready to rescue Catholic Irish children from the arms of the women who thought that they were rescuing them from starvation, packing them off for a 'holiday' with English families who would feed them. Helping a father put his own sons on the train at Dublin’s Kingsbridge station, Frank Sheehy Skeffington, the noted journalist and pacifist, was beaten and stripped by an angry mob shouting, 'Kill him!, Kill him!'

All the hysteria formed part of the 'Save the Dublin Kiddies' campaign, the episode that 'raised the wildest emotions' of any during the five month strike and lockout of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, led by the labor organiser Jim Larkin. The terrible poverty of Dublin, already the worst in Europe, grew worse during the strike: by October about 25,000 men were on strike and one-quarter of the city’s population without a regular income. The members of the ITGWU had gone on strike on August 26, 1913, in support of a hundred of its members locked out by William Martin Murphy’s Dublin United Tramways Company. Over the weekend of Saturday, August 30, and Sunday, August 31, police baton charges killed two men and injured hundreds of others. By the end of September other unions had joined the strike. Larkin, arrested in early September for 'sedition and conspiracy', was soon released and travelled to England, where he addressed huge gatherings about the Dublin strike. At a meeting in London’s Royal Albert Hall on October 10, Dora Montefiore (1851-1933), an active socialist, suffragist and feminist who was also on the platform, heard 'what straits the workers and their families were in, after seven weeks of slow starvation'. Montefiore did not let the grass grow under her feet: still listening to the speeches, she passed Larkin a note seeking his approval for her idea to board children of the striking workers with socialist families in England. She was said to have been inspired by a similar project organized by Margaret Sanger the previous year during the textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. With his blessing, she set to work the very next day publicising her campaign through the socialist paper The Daily Herald, and by October 13 she already had 110 offers of room and board for the 'kiddies'.

When, only ten days later, the plan was put into effect in Dublin, the ensuing hysteria took Montefiore and her helpers completely by surprise. Over a period of several days, beginning on October 22, outraged priests and angry mobs recruited by the Ancient Order of Hibernians grabbed many of the children from the hands of the social workers washing them at the Tara Street baths; pulled others off boats at the North Wall of the Liffey or off trains at Kingsbridge station; attacked anyone attempting to leave Dublin with a child; and marched triumphantly along the quays singing 'Faith of Our Fathers' after each day’s successful 'rescues'. Although eighteen children made it to Liverpool, plans for getting three hundred more out of Dublin were abandoned. Montefiore and her principal helper, the American Lucilla Rand, were arrested and charged with kidnapping; other lawsuits were brought against members of the belligerent mob at Kingsbridge.

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