Armistice Day commemorations a source of tension in the Free State era

Royal British Legion warned any flying of Union flag would be regarded as provocation

Armistice Day commemorations were a serious security headache in the early years of the State and were frequently accompanied by violent clashes.

Extensive correspondence in newly-declassified State papers reveal the exasperation of gardaí dealing with Armistice Day and their attempts to curtail the flying of the Union flag during such commemorations.

The exasperation extended to the well-known War of Independence veteran Dan Breen who was infuriated by a newspaper report in 1938 which stated that a garda stopped the traffic in College Green at 11am on November 11th, which traditionally marks the end of the first World War.

Then a senator, Breen scribbled a note to the minister for justice: “Good men gave their lives to stop this. The taxpayers now pay police to enforce it. How long, oh Lord, how long will the Irish people stand for this?”


In 1929, chief superintendent Ned Broy, who had been a key spy for Michael Collins during the War of Independence, wrote to officers stating: "Armistice Day here has always imposed a very severe strain on the combined forces of the Metropolitan Division and depot. Serious rioting is only prevented by using the latest police methods in the way of strategic posting."

The Royal British Legion, which organised the Armistice Day commemorations for many decades, were warned that any flying of the Union flag would be regarded as a provocation.

That included standards where the Union flag was only apparent in the corner of standards carried by the region.

“The commissioner considers it unnecessary to indicate in detail the historical reasons why the display of the Union flag or emblems provokes a resentful feeling among the vast majority of the people of An Saorstat,” the Garda commissioner wrote to the head of the Royal British Legion in Ireland in 1937.

It followed protests from Major JJ Tynan, the area secretary, who said the Royal British Legion were able to carry their standards in every country and to deny them the right in Ireland was “an infringement of a right which should not be denied to law-abiding and worthy citizens of this country”.

In 1925, republicans let off smoke bombs during an Armistice ceremony in St Stephen's Green causing a panic and students from the National University of Ireland (now UCD) clashed with Trinity College Dublin students.

In 1929 many churches wished to put in place gardens of remembrance, but gardaí refused to police them failing widespread disturbances.

In 1932 gardaí fired warning shots after bricks were thrown through the window of a poppy depot in Pearse Street on the eve of Armistice Day. It followed an Anti-Imperialist League rally in which a veteran republican Frank Ryan – who was among students injured in Armistice Day violence two years previously – notoriously stated “there will be no free speech for traitors”.

On Armistice Day itself, Trinity College Dublin students and IRA supporters clashed in College Green, and a mob overturned a car which had a poppy in the dashboard.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times