I n the Dublin of the revolutionary period, G Men would have been a familiar sight on street corners, never quite as inconspicuous as they sought to be.
G Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police served as the eyes and ears of the intelligence community, tasked with observing political subversives in the city.
Their “Movement of Extremists” files record the whereabouts of republicans, socialists and other radicals in the city, noting where they loitered and who they talked to.
One business they would have come to know quite well was found at 21 Henry Street, the location of the Irish Farm Produce Company, a shop and restaurant specialising in vegetarian cuisine, and run by veteran nationalist campaigner Jennie Wyse Power.
It was popular with Dublin’s small Indian community (and perhaps even smaller vegetarian community) but owing to its proprietor it also became a rendezvous point for advanced nationalists. A plaque on the site today marks the fact that the drafted 1916 proclamation was signed on the premises days before insurrection.
Amidst the wave of cultural nationalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an “Irish Ireland” movement emerged which sought to promote the native language, native games and native culture over that of the neighbouring island.
Archbishop Croke – he of Croke Park fame – complained that the Irish were importing from England, “her fashions, her accents, her vicious literature, her music, her dances, and her manifold mannerisms, her games also and her pastimes” among other corrupting influences.
But what about what was on our tables? The Irish Farm Produce Company boasted of its “all-Irish produce”, a reminder that even dinner could be a political choice.
Jennie Wyse Power, born in Baltinglass in 1858, moved through the ranks of many important political movements in her lifetime, and had earned the respect of the men and women who frequented her business.
Active in the Ladies Land League of the 1880s, which sought to advance the rights of Ireland’s tenant farmers, she was later a founding member of the Sinn Féin political party and close to Countess Markievicz.
While serious about her politics, Wyse Power was also regarded as one of the friendliest faces in Irish nationalism. Sinn Féin Executive member Seamus ua Caomhanaigh remembered that “she always left out the Wyse part of her name. She said there was nothing wise about her.
She was a remarkably able woman, very brainy, full of fun and a great teller of humorous stories.” Some of the most-watched individuals in the city frequented her restaurant in the years before the Rising, including Major John MacBride, who had fought in the Second Boer War alongside his Irish Brigade.
Seán T. O’Kelly, later President of Ireland, remembered holding court there most days in the company of MacBride and Arthur Griffith. Wyse Power’s business remained popular after the Rising too, though unsurprisingly the authorities were still vigilant. P.J. Paul, a prominent republican in Waterford, remembered visiting the restaurant while in Dublin, as “most of the Volunteer and Irish-Ireland people went there.”
On one occasion during the War of Independence, he was having a meal “when suddenly a number of Auxiliaries rushed into the shop and began turning the place upside down.” Dublin’s small Indian community, primarily formed from medical and law students in the city, would be drawn towards Wyse Power’s restaurant too, at a time when there was little in the line of vegetarian offerings in the city.
Dublin’s first vegetarian restaurant, The Sunshine (advertised as “vegetarian dining rooms”), had opened its doors in the 1860s on Grafton Street, though such endeavours tended to be short-lived.
Indian students in the capital during the revolutionary period included V.V. Giri, later President of India, who studied under the poet and revolutionary separatist Thomas MacDonagh.
As historian Conor Mulvagh has suggested, “in searching for routes of entry for Indian students into Irish radical politics, it is perhaps the dinner table as much as the lecture theatre that provided them with introductions.” The cause of Indian independence received sympathetic coverage in Irish nationalist newspapers, including Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin and The Irish Volunteer.
While the female republican body Cumann na mBán flatly rejected the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, Jennie Wyse Power came to support it, which created friction between her and many former comrades.
In 1923, her business premises was entered by young men who at first appeared to be ordinary customers, but “as the tea was about to be served the raiders suddenly took petrol bottles from their pockets and announced their intention of setting the house on fire.”
Her other business premises, located on Camden Street, had already been attacked by republicans, with “bombs being hurled through the plate glass window.”
Despite her support for the Treaty, Wyse Power later joined the Fianna Fáil party, and elected for the party in the 1934 Seanad elections. She died in January 1941, and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
The plaque on Henry Street today honours the signing of the proclamation on the premises, but in truth there was much more to the story of the Irish Farm Produce Company, and its place in Dublin’s political and culinary history should be noted.