From Socialist Voice, March 2008

International Women’s Day

“She has done more for communism than any of us”

“She has done more for communism than any of us.” So spoke the general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Harry Pollitt, in 1935. Who was he speaking about? None other than the English-born Charlotte Despard, who, on the unfortunate and unnecessary death of the Irish volunteer Terence MacSwiney in Brixton Prison, London, moved to Ireland and selflessly immersed herself in the Irish class struggle.
     As socialist workers (and others) celebrate International Women’s Day, we should be mindful that this would not have calendar status if it were not for the heroic efforts of communist women such as Sylvia Pankhurst, Rosa Luxemburg, and Charlotte Despard, to name only a few.
     Similarly, the very fact that such a day of celebration exists is also due, in the main, to the diehard commitment of communist and socialist workers, parties and states that, thankfully, recognised that these women, in their contribution to the class struggle, lifted the rights of women to new dimensions, which have set the terms of reference for present-day gender struggle.
     Charlotte Despard was no exception, and, given her background (she was a wealthy heiress of the Anglo-Irish businessman Maximilian Despard), it is to her credit that, after considerable charity work—which involved setting up children’s homes, called the “Despard Clubs,” for the poor in London—she realised and understood that the class struggle required a political dimension.
     Thus she joined the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, and, in keeping with the cry of the Socialist (Second) International, vocally opposed the Great War.
     In 1918 she stood unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Labour candidate and afterwards was attracted more and more to the Irish cause and to communism.
     At the invitation of Connolly’s Socialist Party of Ireland she first visited Ireland in 1909. That visit and her close family connections with the country stimulated her long association with the Irish fight for freedom and self-determination.
     Among many of her Irish activities were active support for the workers’ movement during the infamous Dublin lock-out in 1913, supporting and then joining Sinn Féin in the 1920s, working alongside Maud Gonne in collecting evidence of heinous war crimes committed by the British during the War of Independence, and active opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Such was her political radicalism that her home, Roebuck House in Clonskeagh, outside Dublin, which she shared with Maud Gonne, was subject to countless police raids, as it was considered an IRA safe house. On one occasion in October 1929, while she was waiting for an ambulance after falling down the stairs, twenty Free State detectives, without a warrant, raided and ransacked the house.
     The same home was also a source of invaluable employment for many local destitute girls and women when it was used by Despard and Gonne as a factory for making jam and shell ornaments. Unfortunately the employees, victims of the prevailing socio-economic circumstances, put paid to this potential form of security by robbing the factory, so putting it out of business.
     Despard’s high political regard at that time was such that she formed part of a delegation that visited both sides during the Four Courts confrontation in a vain attempt to offset the oncoming vicious Civil War. In 1922, with others, she founded the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League, which was declared illegal by the Free State government and was subsequently subjected to regular brutal attacks by the police.
     In 1926 her political radicalism was such that she left Sinn Féin and joined Roddy Connolly’s Connolly Club. In 1931 she was part of a delegation of Friends of Soviet Russia that studied the Soviet Union’s educational and penal systems, after which she regularly lectured on their superiority.
     She founded the Workers’ College in Dublin, which was razed to the ground by an anti-communist mob, from which Despard was rescued at the last minute.
     In 1933, as a member of the Revolutionary Workers’ Group, she became a founder-member of the Communist Party of Ireland, which, alongside her party comrades and supporters, laid bare her political position and ideals to the mobs, inspired and motivated by Catholic priests, that attacked Connolly House (then in Great Strand Street, Dublin) in March that year. Her own house at 63 Eccles Street was also attacked on 29 March 1933, but this attack was thwarted, thanks to a physical defence by supportive workers.
     In 1934, at ninety years of age, she left her two properties to those who would maintain her politics and moved to Belfast, where a year later she was declared bankrupt, having given up all she had to her total commitment to the class struggle.
     Charlotte Despard died in November 1939 and was buried in the Republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. In her honour a street in the Battersea district of London carries her name: Charlotte Despard Avenue. In Ireland only those on the left will take the time to afford some recognition to a real working-class hero. Apart from the decoration of the new Connolly House and the International Women’s Day public meetings in Belfast and Dublin, little or nothing is done in Ireland to ensure the proper celebration of this day and particularly of those whose actions gave birth to it.

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