A faded cutting in a battered petrol blue ledger in Dublin’s National Library gives the faintest of clues to the neglected radical history of a group of mostly forgotten Irish writers. The scrapbook belongs to Irish-Jewish writer, poet, and educator Leslie Daiken (1912-1964). Born in Dublin in 1912 into a middle class Jewish family trading in scrap and rubber, Daiken was educated at Wesley and Trinity College Dublin, where he graduated with a degree in Modern Languages. Samuel Beckett was one of his lecturers. Daiken was very much caught up in the political ferment of the thirties – what he called the ‘heroic days of dream and struggle’ – when many writers and artists, alarmed by the rise of fascism, sought to oppose it in word and deed. They supported both working class and labour causes, promoted cultural egalitarianism and, in some cases, made the ultimate sacrifice by volunteering for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.
The thirties generation is a byword for radical left politics in the interwar years in England, both in the level of political engagement across of broad coalitions, challenging capitalism and fascism, and in the cultural arena, with the rise of myriad little leftwing publications and the popularity of the Left Book Club. Less acknowledged is the involvement of a group of Irish writers, including Leslie Daiken, also influenced by socialism and egalitarian ideas of art and culture. Daiken was a champion of democratic art forms, children’s games, street rhyme and proletarian poetry. In 1934, Daiken moved to London, doing PR work for film companies, whilst leading a parallel life of activism amongst Irish republican and English socialist circles. Old photos show him at demonstrations for Spain, one with a banner in Trafalgar Square in 1938 reading: ‘IRISH REPUBLICANS GREET SPANISH REPUBLICANS SMASH ALL IMPERIALISMS’.
Along with other Irish writer-exiles in London in the 1930s, Daiken was passionate about global causes and fighting fascism. Although some of these writers’ poems have been included in volumes such as The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse (1988), their place in radical cultural circles of the 1930s has been largely effaced. The rich treasures of the Daiken Archive illuminate a web of connections between Irish writers and a wider group of intellectuals and cultural workers interested in culture’s role in politics in the 1930s. Hundreds of unseen Daiken files contain correspondence between publishers, political comrades, other poets and writers, proposals and fragments of unfinished books.
Daiken’s scrapbook-ledger alone is bursting with cuttings, faded mementos and flyers, pasted in copies of his newspaper articles, poems, reviews of his writing and timetables of his broadcasts for the BBC. One article on Irish writers by Helmer Grundstrom, a Swedish author of proletarian novels, refers to Daiken and his friends Michael Sayers, Niall Sheridan and Charlie Donnelly as ‘kommunisten’ (communists). In Daiken’s scrapbook are the cutouts from headlines in small radical newspapers like Irish Front and Irish Democrat, with editorials arguing for solidarity amongst Irish emigrant workers and their British comrades, and articles on folk song and workers dance. A Left Review article from December 1936 on Daiken’s anthology Goodbye Twilight, Songs of the Struggle in Ireland notes that it was published by the Communist Party of Great Britain imprint, Lawrence & Wishart. The legend on flyleaf read, ‘here is the authentic voice of the people, peasants, workers and intellectuals, united in the common aim of struggle for freedom, political and economic freedom’.
Irish writers, poets and artists with left-wing affiliations espoused ideals of solidarity and internationalism that were hard to maintain in a small and conservative society, such as the newly-independent Irish Free State. They took the boat to England looking not only for work, but also for likeminded socialists. Some have been studied for their literature or in relation to their political activism in the 1930s. Charlie Donnelly, for instance, has enjoyed a longer afterlife in Irish literary history, in part due to his brutal death in the Spanish Civil War at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, aged just 21, leaving a small clutch of poems and political writings behind. Yet investigation of these rebel poets’ collective art and politics as a coherent cultural tendency has been neglected, falling victim to a kind of historical erasure, facilitated by lack of archival material, diminishing commitment to Left history in Irish academia, and dismissal of their achievements as marginal.
In this context, the Daiken archive is both beacon and roadmap, poignantly underlining the fact that if we don’t have access to material evidence, the radical past can be dismissed. The archive reveals a web of radical connections between anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, trade union and left wing groups in 1930s London and elsewhere. Irish writers supported a range of international causes such as Republican Spain, the Free Tom Mooney campaign, the Scottsboro Boys, unified by the struggle against fascism. They signify the existence of a transnational radical network of solidarity, with members in conversation with one another, from Ireland to United States, and Europe: Daiken to the American poet William Carlos Williams, or Irish writer Peadar O’Donnell to German playwright and radical, Ernst Toller. At the time of Daiken’s early death in 1964, however, the majority of obituaries effaced his commitment to radical politics and culture in the 30s. Only the Irish Times referred to his accomplishments ‘as a poet in the world of art, as writer and worker in the political and social spheres’.
Recovery of Daiken’s archival cache of letters and documents, and the connections they illuminate, allow us to reclaim and reassess the lives and work of Irish writers of the Left, passionate about the internationalist fight against fascism and inspired by a belief in egalitarian cultural ideals.
Katrina Goldstone’s book Irish Writers and the Thirties Art, Exile and War will be published by Routledge in 2020. She received a grant from the Amiel Melburn Trust to enable research in the Marx Memorial Library and the British Library. For Katrina’s biography of Leslie Daiken, see Emmet O’Connor and John Cunningham eds., Studies in Irish Radical Leadership: Lives on the Left (Manchester, 2016).