Swastika Laundries


This rather striking advertisement comes from a 1953 guidebook to the capital of the new Irish Republic. This was the year in which the government instigated what it envisaged would be an annual celebration of all things Hibernian, Celtic, and, by extension, non-British. Called ‘An Tóstal, which can variously be translated as “Pageant”, “Display”, “Muster” and “Array”, its full meaning is rather grandiosely expressed as ‘the welcome which a great motherland extends to her children, and her friends from overseas, inviting them to her shores, and offering them, while they are with her, a round of festivities for their entertainment and delight… This year, for three weeks, Ireland will be “AT HOME”, not only to her exiled sons and daughters, but to her friends from all over the world. In April, when the countryside, awakened from its winter slumbers, is alive with all the magic of an Irish Spring, the people of Ireland, remembering that they, too, have just emerged from the long slumber of captivity, plan to hold “open house,” and to entertain their friends and visitors with a carnival of spectacle and gaiety.” For those who remember An Tostal, a public relations exposition of a new, economically-challenged republic, the recently established and all too similar ‘The Gathering is a symbolic milestone, the proof of the dire financial straits of post Celtic Tiger Ireland.


What is the significance of the advertisement of a once successful and now defunct Dublin laundry company? Let’s be clear, in 1912, when John W Brittain decided to use that ancient Indic symbol of auspiciousness as his laundry’s company logo, he could have had no idea that the Nazi Party would later imbue it with so much inauspiciousness.[1] Nowadays however, for the casual Dubliner of a certain age, who recalls the large white swastika on the laundry chimney in Ballsbridge , the irony of hindsight will doubtless reveal a semiotic triangle linking Irish independence, which achieved fruition only in the 1949 republic, Irish neutrality in World War II, the culminating act of which came when An Taoiseach Eamon DeValera and An tUachtarain Douglas Hyde diplomatically and dramatically expressed the Irish Free State’s condolences to the German Embassy on the death of Hitler, and the revelations of the state-sanctioned Magdalene laundries in the social exclusion and punishment of those unfortunate women whose moral behaviour failed to meet the exacting standards of Celtic nation-building. The ancient bards and poets who are often invoked by governments old and new as the cradle of the Celtic spirit would find ample inspiration in the spectacle of the nation’s female unclean, under the pious watch of a patriarchal Church, washing the dirty linen of the establishment’s righteous as expiation for their sins.


The Dantean contrapasso whose jurisdiction lay beyond the banks of the Irish Styx would extend to many facets of life, moral, political, and economic. Only last month, those who deserted from the Irish Army following the outbreak of World War II in order to fight in the British Army against Fascist Germany, were afforded a long-denied pardon. It was in effect a public renunciation of Order 362, introduced under the terms of Ireland’s Emergency powers on August 8th 1945. Oscar Traynor, Minister of Defence, in introducing what became known as the Starvation Orderreferred to those who had fought against Hitler in British employ when that avenue was barred by Irish neutrality, as being ‘worthy of very little consideration.’ As David Blake Knox comments:


“It was, in some ways, a characteristically Irish solution to an Irish problem – its political pragmatism buried under layers of sanctimonious rhetoric. However, the penalties that were imposed on Army deserters were real, harsh, and long-lasting: they were to forfeit all pay and allowances they had gained while in the defence forces; they were to lose their rights to any pensions earned through that service; they were to lose their entitlement to any future unemployment benefits; and, for seven years, they could not be considered for any form of employment that received public funding.”


As the revelations of 2009’s Ryan Report led to considerable soul-searching (if not judicial sanctions) about the role of the Church in Irish life, the pardon of the World War II deserters, has allowed a more open debate about the role of neutrality in the formation of Irish independence. Unfortunately, while there was little sympathy for the goals of German National Socialism in Ireland, it was both from official bodies, of the political and religious persuasion, and from the IRA, that symbolic and real acts of anti-Britishness strayed into the realm of supping with the devil on the Rhine. Even if we discount as ‘bad apples’ or political opportunists, people such as the far from commendable Charles Bewley, Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary in Berlin, his successor William Warnock, IRA leaders such as Sean Russell and James O’Donovan, or the Fine Gael TD Oliver J Flanagan (whose first utterances as a newly-elected member of parliament in 1943 included a diatribe against the Jews, ‘who crucified Our Saviour nineteen hundred years ago, and who are crucifying us every day in the week’), there is a clear indication in statements and policy from members of the Church and political establishment, that Ireland’s independence was isolationist, God-fearing, often unsympathetic towards persecuted minorities, anti-Bolshevik, and anti-modern. And I don’t need to mention the prominent Nazis who found carefree sanctuary in Ireland after the war.


Whatever sovereign bounty was gained from riling the incandescent Churchill would always have to pay a price in the history books later. This is even alluded to in the Swastika Laundry’s advertisement. “Visitors to Dublin will doubtless be surprised to see this symbol on our smart Laundry Vans…” Indeed they were. My Polish father, who arrived in Dublin in 1948 after fighting in the Second World War and losing his homeland, was more than a little surprised when Dubliners asked him, ‘as a neutral observer’, if the atrocities of the Germans were real, or if they had been part-invented or exaggerated by the Brits for propaganda purposes.


[1] Swastikas or swastika-like symbols have been found across a wide global area, in some instances in forms which may pre-date the Indus Valley examples e.g. the neolithic Vinča culture. The term ‘swastika’ though is Sanskrit, composed of su- meaning “good, well” and asti “to be” and the suffix -ka (“soul”). It refers to any auspicious mark or object. A Leprechaun’s lucky charms thus might constitute an Irish swastika.


This Is Dublin, Official Guide, issued by authority of the CORPORATION OF THE CITY OF DUBLIN, The Irish and Overseas Publishing Co. Ltd., 1953.

Blake Knox, David, Suddenly While Abroad, Hitler’s Irish Slaves, New Island, 2012

Leach, Daniel, “Fugitive Ireland: European Minority Nationalists and Irish Political Asylum, 1937-2008”, Four Courts Press, 2009.

O’Shannon, Cathal, Hidden History: Ireland’s Nazis”, first broadcast by RTE1, 09/01/2007


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