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Fists ‘n’ Chips

This post owes something of a debt to another history blog, Come Here To Me! It has provided inspiration with their line in blog posts on pizzerias, Chinese restaurants and the like in recent times.

During the course of my PhD research, one of the most remarkable books I have read is John K. Walton’s Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, 1870-1940. Ostensibly, it has less than nothing to do with my research on sport in Munster between 1880-1930. But when I read the book, it opened up previously unimaginable vistas and themes for exploration to me as a historian. By taking such an ephemeral part of  life, and examining it from a huge range of viewpoints – from those of the fishfriers and their trade, as part of the burgeoning seaside holiday resorts of Britain, as an indicator of class and status and so on, Walton showed in the best way, that from something so small, so much could be learned. In an interview last year, Walton describing it as one his most fulfilling academic projects, said:

…I enjoyed some of the reactions even more: appearing in Pseuds’ Corner for impeccable reasons (such as suggesting that fish and chips had a politics), and provoking a colleague’s wife to exclaim in outrage, ‘But surely even you can’t spin out fish and chips into a whole book’. Oh yes I could; and the sustained hostility from unimaginative historians who had not read the book provided endless further entertainment.

Such an imaginative power, to be able to ‘spin out’ of fish and chips something much more substantial is one of the books, and Walton’s, achievements. My own resulting interests in Fish ‘n’ Chips for my own research, tangential though it is, arises from considering whether this humblest of humble luxury items was relatively expensive in 1920s Ireland. Whether it might be that in a tossup between fish ‘n’ chips by the seaside, entry to a match, or a few hours in the warmth of the cinema, there could only be one winner. And so I went trawling through the papers in search of early signs that fish ‘n’ chips had a similar presence in Irish life to that of Britain. One thing which I found, which I wasn’t expecting to was that fish ‘n’ chips was frequently mentioned in the preambles of witnesses giving testimony in courts about various fights and rows that took place throughout the country.

Take for instance, the case of the father-and-son pair, Frederick and Laurence Coppolla and their associates Angelo Santi and Rauche Eteglio all of whom were brought before court on charges of siphoning off oil that belonged to the British Margarine Company located in Dublin’s North Wall, to the tune of £250 in 1910. One of their customers, who gave witness in court, was another Italian Anthony Rabbaiotti, of 4 Wexford Street where he kept a fish ‘n’ chip shop. He got barrels of oil for his business through the Coppollas, but as far as can be figured from the report wasn’t implicated in the illegal means of procuring it![1]

Fish ‘n’ chips even make some appearances in the Bureau of Military History Archives. In the testimony of Frank Thornton of Booterstown, Dublin he tells a story of how British secret service men, in this case an Irish plant by the name of Dave Neligan, would meet with touts for information – and the occasion that Thornton relates in his testimony to the Bureau is of an amusing meeting with some of these English touts in Rabbiatti’s on Marlboro’ Street, having a supper of fish ‘n’ chips, where the English touts are amazed at the quality of the Irish accents Thornton and his friends have when they couldn’t imitate it after a year in the country.[2]

Derry Boy

Irish Times report of boy who spent stolen money on fish ‘n’ chips

In the Irish Independent in July 1924, a small story appeared about another Italian fishfrier, Carl Morelli on Talbot Street, who was in Police Court and fined ten shillings and put on personal bail for 12 months after assaulting a customer by the name of Stone with hammer when Stone entered the premises looking to hand out other customers’ fish ‘n’ chips so that he could get his own for free. From the Irish Times, many years later in 1938, we get a report of a young boy in Derry who is sentenced to a term in an Industrial school charged with stealing twenty four shillings from several apartments – we are informed that the boy ‘went to the cinema with the money and bought sweets there and after the pictures bought more sweets and fish and chips.’[3]

In Waterford, in August 1931, a sitting of the District Court heard of another fight between someone serving behind the counter and a customer. On this occasion the row occurred in July of that year when some customers, two of them drunk, one sober we’re told, got into a row with James Jackson over the price of the fish ‘n’ chips. The row was caused by some considerable confusion about the difference in value due to the introduction of new Irish coinage – indeed the row continued, much to the amusement of those present, in the courtroom – with the Justice intervening between the men saying ‘Don’t turn this into a Fish-and-Chip shop’ to roars of laughter from the people there to witness the proceedings.[4]

A similar incident also occurred in Tramore, Co. Waterford in 1937 when another Italian fish ‘n’ chip shop owner, Stephen Casoni this time, where again drink and high spirits caused trouble when some customers, the defendants, insisted on being served first above everyone else in the chipper during a peak period.[5]

These are just a small few stories that revolve in some way around fish ‘n’ chips and help to give us a little insight into the social world of Ireland in the early twentieth century through them. We encountered in that handful of examples the spy network of British intelligence in Ireland, the criminal activities of immigrants, the spending habits of young delinquents over which hung the oppressive air of the dreaded industrial school and lastly, we saw the day-to-day problems faced by those, often Italian, businessmen who ran the fish ‘n’ chip shops –we’ve seen life being lived, through food served up on newspaper.

[1] Irish Times, 17 November 1910

[2] WS Ref #: 615 , Witness: Frank Thorton, Member IRB & IV Dublin, 1913-16; Deputy Assistant Director of Intelligence, IRA 1919-21: http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0615.pdf

[3] Irish Times, 9 February 1938

[4] Munster Express, 14 August 1931

[5] Munster Express, 12 November 1931


Filed under Irish History, Social History, Twentieth Century

Kafkaesque Nightmares

Review of Jo Langer, Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist (2nd ed. London: Granta, 2011)


In the early 1950s, the Czechoslovak revolution, like the Russian before it, began devouring its own children. Former high officials of the Communist Party were arrested, tortured, and forced to sign false confessions detailing their activities as imperialist/ Trotskyist/ Titoist/Zionist spies. Those who had spent time in the west before or during the Second World War were most vulnerable, likely to have been traitors, corrupted into serving capitalism. Jews, ironically and sickeningly, were as a group also particularly vulnerable, as in a new twist on the racist stereotype of the ‘wandering Jew’, were deemed ‘cosmopolitan’, open again to the lure and corruption of the west and in particular, that of Israel. Ironic and sickening in that communism was supposedly an ideology that knew no boundary of ethnicity or religion, and in that the accused communist Jews were often the first who for years had been ‘wandering’ in the west due to being forced into exile for their communist and anti-fascist activities, many volunteering in the fight against Franco in Spain, and continuing their struggle in the underground resistance throughout Europe during the Second World War. Communist states, supposedly solidly built on anti-fascist foundations, now saw those with the clearest anti-fascist credentials as suspect. Even those at the very top of the pyramid were prone to a crushing fall, and the terror culminated in the infamous trial of former secretary-general of the party Rudolf Slánský and thirteen other defendants from 1951-3. Of these, eleven were Jewish, and in total, twelve were hanged. The story of the trial has been told well in the account of one of the defendants, Artur London in his 1968 book L’Aveu, published in English variously as The Confession and On Trial, and made into a film by the former name in 1970 by Costa-Gavras. A powerful accompaniment to London’s account is that of Jo Langer, wife of an imprisoned victim of the trial, Oscar Langer.

In her memoir Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist (1979), we get a viewpoint so often missing from history – that of those who are left behind; the families of the victims, left to fend for themselves against the cancer of lies, intimidation and surveillance that spread throughout society. Jo and her husband, both communists and Jews, had lived in the United States during the war. Many of their family members had perished in Nazi concentration camps. Despite the safety and relative prosperity of life in the US, Oscar immediately accepted an invitation back to Czechoslovakia after the war to play a role in the reconstruction of his country. Jo, Hungarian by birth, unhappy in her marriage and relatively content with life in the US, was wont to leave but nevertheless overcame her reluctance and accompanied her husband to Bratislava. Their immediate deprivation was seen as temporary, and a necessary discomfort to be endured while Czechoslovakia, with help from the Soviet Union, rebuilt the country along socialist lines. Oscar, a leading member of the party in Slovakia, went further however. Throughout her memoir, Jo gives us snippets of the guilt she was made to feel for anything considered even a small luxury while others in the world went without basic necessities – the ever-present ‘Chinese coolie’ in their relationship as she terms it.

And yet Oscar, despite his devotion to the party, was arrested and placed on trail, accused of assisting Slánský. Avoiding eventual execution, he was nevertheless imprisoned, tortured, kept in solitary confinement and forced to give a confession as to the nature of his relationship with Slánský, whom he had never even met. Twice he attempted suicide, and both times failed. Jo was kicked out of her home and with her two daughters, banished to a remote village in rural Slovakia, her apartment given over to accommodate party officials. Deprived of work and the right to live in Bratislava, she and her daughters eked out an existence of poverty and fear. Eventually allowed back to Bratislava, she recounts how all her old friends kept away from her and how all doors remained closed to her and her family because of her husband. Scraping by in a dilapidated basement working mostly translating official documents into Hungarian, she suffered constantly. Not allowed to see her husband for three years, she nevertheless fought on, battling the bureaucracy and at times, paying grovelling visits to officials she despised and lived in fear of, in the hope of seeing the release of her husband, once estranged, but now united with her against the terror. And yet she fought alone. Oscar, despite all that existed before his eyes, refused to believe the party and his comrades could be responsible, believing instead that the security apparatus was acting above the party.

In 1960, Oscar was amnestied and released. His return was bittersweet however. His wife felt him more domineering than ever, never commending her for what she had done to survive, eager to forgive party officials and hold meetings in their house for the reform of the party while Jo worked to provide for their family both outside and within the home. His relationship with his children Susie and Tania was no less strained. In short, he failed to see what lay before his eyes, preferring to believe instead in an imaginary world where the party could do no wrong and where his wife and children were at fault for being too decadent and not struggling enough to build socialism in their country. Weakened by his ordeal, he died two years later.

Jo and her daughters would eventually escape as the tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring in 1968. The hopes for ‘socialism with a human face’ convinced others, but never her, having seen the result of 1956 in her native Hungary, and the opportunism of those who had committed her husband to prison embrace socialist reform in 1968, biding their time for the return to totalitarian rule. Her account, though cynical at times, is an important and ultimately heartrending one. Her struggle – as a worker, Hungarian, communist, Jew, immigrant, and woman – is inspiring and shocking. She presents a courageous testimony to the Kafkaesque ordeal of Central and Eastern Europeans in the twentieth century, and the complexity of individual lives witness to and struggling to wake from this nightmare.

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Filed under Communism, Czechoslovakia, Reviews, Twentieth Century