The events that set two students on their political course

On the 70th anniversary of the V-E riot in Dublin, Ryle Dwyer notes how the burning of the Tricolour spurred two young UCD students and future taoisigh into action.

AT AROUND 2pm on this day 70 years ago, the BBC announced that Germany would formally surrender the following day. This would mark V-E Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe.

“The first intimation that many of the citizens of Dublin had that the war had come to a close was when a number of students made their appearance on the roof of Trinity College and proceeded to display the flags of the United Nations,” the Cork Examiner reported next day.

About 50 students gathered on the roof of the Dame St entrance of the college at around 3 pm. They hoisted a large union flag at the top of the flagpole over the main entrance of the college.

Underneath it they flew the red Soviet flag with the hammer and sickle, followed by a French flag. Other students waved union flags and the stars and stripes on the rooftops of the wings of the building.

A number of gardaí arrived and one officer went into the building amid catcalls and booing from the students. The officer talked to a member of staff. The students in front of the building were then called inside and the main gates were shut.

The flags on the roof were temporarily taken down. Then the union flag, Soviet flag, and the French flag were raised again on the flagstaff, this time with the Irish Tricolour at the bottom.

The students on the roof then sang, ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Britannia Rules the Waves’. When people on the street below protested that the Irish flag should be flying at the top of the flagpole, the students took down the Irish tricolour and tried to burn it. The flag smoldered for a while before they threw the smoking remnant from the roof.

When word reached University College Dublin, then on the other side of Stephen’s Green at Earlsfort Terrace, a group of students marched on Trinity College. Some were carrying swastika flags.

“The gates of the college were barred, and a large force of Civic Guards were able to maintain order only with the greatest difficulty,” the Cork Examiner noted. Two of the UCD students — the future taoiseach Charles J Haughey and the future senior counsel Seamus Sorohan — produced a union flag that was taken from a lamppost. They doused it with flammable liquid and burned it.

The events that set two students on their political course

What had started as a fairly good-natured protest began to turn particularly ugly. Some rushed the Wicklow Hotel, shouting “give us the West Britons” and “put out the traitors”. Other demonstrators tried to force their way to the college gates, but the gardaí drew their batons and charged them.

“In the first couple of hours there were nine such charges made, but all were of brief duration, and nobody appeared to be injured,” according to the Cork Examiner.

Another future taoiseach — Garret FitzGerald — was among the UCD protesters. He never forgot that day, because he was so excited that he had to call his girl friend Joan O’Farrell to tell her about what had happened.

The events that set two students on their political course

That, he later explained, was when he first realised he was in love with her. “Ten days later I made up my mind that I wanted to marry Joan,” he noted in his autobiography.

Later that evening there was a further demonstration in the city centre. “Trinity has insulted the country by burning the Tricolour,” one banner proclaimed.

“We don’t mind Trinity flying the union jack, because we all know the outlook of these people,” one of the protester exclaimed, “but what we do object to is the flying of a number of flags with the Irish flag insultingly at the bottom!”

Some of those demonstrators later marched on the office of John Maffey, the British representative to Ireland, and the office of the United States consul general. They stoned both buildings, breaking windows.

The attack on the American consular office was unprecedented in this country. It was indicative of how poisoned diplomatic relations had become during David Gray’s tenure as United States minister to Ireland.

Joseph P Walshe, the secretary of the department of External Affairs, deplored the attacks on the two buildings and formally expressed regrets on behalf of his minister, then taoiseach Eamon de Valera.

Gray denounced the attackers as fertile breeding grounds for a Nazi revival.

“The mentality of such persons is obviously a favourable soil for the seeds of National Socialist resurgence,” Gray warned de Valera.

What started as a fairly good-natured protest began to turn particularly ugly


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