April 23 marks the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising, in many ways the defining event in modern Irish history. The Rising, its consequences and aftermath shaped the situation Ireland faces today. It offers important lessons for the Irish workers today against both imperialism and indigenous exploitation and reaction. Mike Rowley tells the story.
Despite its importance, the events of Easter 1916 have been downplayed in much recent historiography and in Irish politics. To the song’s defiant question:
“Who fears to speak of Easter Week?
Who flinches at the name?”
The answer seems to be, a consensus of bourgeois opinion.
But Easter 1916 does not belong to them. To explain why, it is necessary to go back a few years from 1916 to sketch a brief picture of the Ireland which produced the Rising and moulded the ideas of its participants.
By 1916 the history of Ireland had been inextricably linked with that of Britain for seven hundred years, and the connection had not been a happy one. The English (and later, British) imperialists took several centuries to conquer Ireland, in the process committing many atrocities and persecuting the Gaelic Irish. After the religious Reformation, conflict between Catholics and Protestants came to be central in Irish life. There were many uprisings, most significantly that of the United Irishmen in 1797, inspired by the French Revolution.
The Irish peasantry were deprived of their land and turned into a quasi-serf class dependent on subsistence monoculture. When the potato crop failed in the 1840s, hundreds of thousands died. Catholics did not win basic civil rights until the 19th century.
From the struggles for civil rights for Catholics and for land reform rose the “Home Rule” party. This was a bourgeois nationalist party which demanded autonomy (“Home Rule”) for Ireland within Britain. Its strategy was to make it worth the British Liberal Party’s while to grant autonomy by acting as the Liberals’ loyal tail in Parliament.
In 1912 the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith promised to give the Home Rulers — by now, led by John Redmond, they had a majority of Irish MPs — what they wanted. However, this promise was thrown into doubt by the outbreak of the First World War two years later.
THE GREAT LOCKOUT
In 1910, James Connolly, founder of Ireland’s first Marxist organisation, the Irish Socialist Republican Party, returned to the country from the United States. The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, an industrial union modelled on the “one big union” syndicalist organisations like the IWW in the USA, was growing fast. Indeed, it was the biggest and most powerful union Ireland had ever seen. The union’s leader was Jim Larkin, a firebrand orator and talented organiser who had already led a number of hard-fought strikes, including the successful organisation of the Belfast dockers.
Connolly, himself an IWW organiser during his period in America, became an organiser for the ITGWU and its main theoretical voice. He led a successful strike of women textile workers in Belfast. In Dublin the union was rapidly organising the particularly downtrodden workers of the capital. The employers, led by one William Murphy, decided to take the offensive. They organised a lockout of unionised workers and brought in scab labour.
This swiftly became one of the bitterest industrial struggles in history. The aim of the bosses was literally to starve the workers out. The Dublin bourgeoisie combined with the state and the Catholic hierarchy against the workers, many of whom were destitute. Larkin and Connolly were briefly imprisoned. A soup kitchen was established in Liberty Hall, the Union’s headquarters in Beresford Place. Some of the workers’ children were sent to socialists in Britain to save them from starvation. The Catholic hierarchy launched a hysterical propaganda campaign against this solidarity action, making wild accusations of an attempt forcibly to convert the children to Protestantism!
In response to police violence and the arming of scabs who then committed murders, the ITGWU formed a workers’ militia attached to the union, the Irish Citizen Army, to protect the workers’ pickets and marches.
The 1913-14 battle between the workers and the bosses in Dublin was fought in the context of the great “labour unrest”, one of the greatest upsurges of workers’ struggle in British history. The number of strike days had been increasing at a fantastic rate, and in 1913 reached the highest figure on record.
There was a great groundswell of support for the Dublin workers within the British labour movement. Connolly addressed a meeting on the Dublin lockout which filled the Albert Hall. Larkin toured the industrial centres of Britain declaring, “I am out for revolution” and calling for the blacking of Dublin goods. For a while a general strike seemed a real possibility.
The British labour leadership, if not actually a hindrance, was certainly no help to the Dublin workers. The TUC General Council refused to endorse the ITGWU’s call for the blacking of Dublin goods, or indeed any other kind of effective solidarity action. Some unions sent ships up the Liffey with food for the locked-out workers and their families, but not enough.
By February 1914 the workers, starved of solidarity and, more basically, of the means of subsistence, could go on no longer. Gradually they began to go back to work, and the great lockout ended in a kind of uneasy draw, with neither side having achieved its objective. The ITGWU had been set back in its struggle to win universal recognition, it was weakened and its membership was reduced, but the employers had not succeeded in smashing the union.
Meanwhile, for the year or so preceding the outbreak of the First World War on 4 August 1914, Britain and Ireland were witnesses to the remarkable spectacle of a ruling class on the verge of going to war with itself. This was particularly so when it came to the question of North-East Ulster. This most heavily industrialised region of Ireland had long had closer economic ties to industrial Lancashire and Clydeside than to the rest of Ireland, and indeed these areas had large Irish immigrant populations, both Catholic and Protestant.
The Ulster Unionists campaigned for the exclusion of Ulster from the Home Rule Act. Only four of the nine Ulster counties had Protestant majorities (Down, Antrim, Armagh and Derry).
The Ulster bourgeoisie, backed, encouraged, and helped by the British Tory party, formed an armed force, the “Ulster Volunteer Force” (UVF) with the objective of preventing Home Rule by force. They armed it by gun-running from Germany.
The leader of this faction, the lawyer Edward Carson, set up an “Ulster provisional government” ready to resist the rule of a Home Rule government in Dublin. In response nationalists formed an armed organisation of their own, the Irish Volunteers. Initiated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret revolutionary nationalist organisation whose members held many important positions in the Volunteers, it was taken over by Redmond’s Home Rule party.
A group of army officers at the Curragh, in Kildare (the main British military base in Ireland), signed a declaration stating that they would not obey orders if they were ordered North to suppress the UVF. The Asquith Liberal government buckled before the threat. Instead of arresting the UVF and Tory party leaders, they looked for “compromise”.
The partition of Ireland was now on the agenda. James Connolly was very clear about what this would mean for the people of Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant. They would, he predicted, be “a carnival of reaction both North and South, [it] would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.”
Partition — the exclusion of six north-east Ulster countries, two of which had Catholic-nationalist majorities — was put on the statute book, its coming into operation postponed for the duration of the World War that now broke out.
THE WAR, THE RISING AND THE AFTERMATH
The outbreak of the great imperialist war on 4 August 1914 was to change the political landscape of Ireland. The Irish Volunteers split. John Redmond led the majority, now called the National Volunteers, into an alliance with the British government. A minority of the Volunteers formed their own organisation (the “Irish Volunteers”) which remained implacably hostile to the British state.
Tens of thousands of the National Volunteers joined the British Army; so did tens of thousands of their erstwhile adversaries, the Ulster Volunteer Force.
James Connolly’s reaction was typically acerbic:
“Full speed ahead! John Redmond said
That everything was well, chum —
Home Rule will come when you are dead
And buried out in Belgium!”
The appointment of the arch-Unionist Carson to the war cabinet, the extreme favour shown to UVF members, and threats to introduce conscription in Ireland, sapped the credibility of Redmond’s position.
Most prominent among the more militant leaders was Padraig Henry Pearse, a noted writer and republican orator. This current, led by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, had many different ideas on how an independent Ireland was to be organised — but what linked and defined them was the fact, in Connolly's words, that they were “a ‘physical force party’ — a party, that is to say, whose members are united upon no one point, and agree upon no single principle, except upon the use of physical force as the sole means of settling the dispute between the people of this country and the governing power of Great Britain.” But agreement on an eventual political goal, he pointed out, was what could “make the successful use of…[force] possible.”
The pressures of the war drove the militant labour movement and the bourgeois nationalists — the best of whom, Pearse for example, had backed the workers in 1913-14 — closer together. The IRB conspirators wanted a rising before the British suppressed the armed organisations. So did Connolly. The ITGWU and the Irish Citizen Army, proclaiming that they served “neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland”, continued to fight to better the conditions of the workers.
The ICA acted as an open organisation, conducting armed manoeuvres and demonstrations and protecting pickets, workers’ meetings and labour movement premises. As Connolly had written: “We are resolved upon national independence as the indispensable groundwork of industrial emancipation, but we are equally resolved to have done with the leadership of a class whose social charter is derived from oppression”.
By now the ICA was a relatively small organisation. During the Lockout some thousands of workers had volunteered, but after its end the setback which the labour movement had suffered, the fading once the big battle was over of such pressing and obvious need, and the outbreak of war, combined to ensure it never had more than a few hundred members. However, this organisation still had the active support of the ITGWU workers and was a cohesive and well-trained and equipped organisation.
It acquired guns by donation from socialists who, like Connolly once, had been forced by destitution to join the British army; and by smuggling from British dockers who packed rifles between sheets of Carrara marble destined for the mantlepieces of the rich! These were then unpacked by Dublin dockers and sent on to the ICA.
Eventually, the IRB, which James Connolly had joined at the beginning of 1916, decided on Easter 1916 for an all-Ireland rising. The plans were detailed and realistic, and clearly envisaged a protracted struggle.
The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, read out by Pearse from the steps of the General Post Office on the first day of the Rising, was a democratic and non-sectarian document, in accord with the Enlightenment ideals of the United Irishmen, undertaking to “treat all the children of the nation equally”.
However, so concerned were the IRB that the Rising should not, like so many Irish revolutionary movements of the past, be betrayed by informers that they were, so to speak, “betrayed” by their conspiratorial mode of politics.
Large segments even of the non-IRB leaders of the Irish Volunteers — including its commander-in-chief, Eoin MacNeill — had no idea that a nation-wide uprising was planned for Easter Sunday under cover of what by now a routine military exercise — a “general mobilisation”. When on Easter Saturday MacNeill found out, by accident, what was planned, he countermanded the order to mobilise by inserting statements in the national press.
IN Dublin, Connolly, Pearse, and their comrades, faced with this catastrophe, had to decide what to do. Would they let the insurrectionary movement fizzle out, a fiasco like many of the others whose story Connolly had bitterly told in his 1910 book, Labour In Irish History? Wait passively to be rounded up by the British authorities? Accept ignominious defeat without a fight?
No! They decided that Dublin alone should rise. This had nothing — outside perhaps in the minds of a few of them — to do with hunger for a “blood sacrifice”, and everything to do with the exigencies of the military situation. Connolly and Pearse, though they knew they could not win, decided to fight in Dublin in order to avoid a demoralising defeat without a fight.
The Rising — postponed for a day — began at noon on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916. Only a third of the Dublin Volunteers had turned out, and most of the units in the rest of Ireland did not mobilise at all. The Rising, as its leaders and many of the insurgents knew perfectly well, was doomed as soon as it began.
After six days of heavy fighting, in which several hundred people were killed, the republican Provisional Government surrendered in order to prevent the indiscriminate massacre of Dublin civilians. Liberal Prime Minister Asquith’s government dispatched general John Maxwell to Dublin to “pacify” Ireland. Martial law was declared and the republican leaders were immediately put on trial in a military court.
Ninety death sentences were passed and fifteen people were shot, including the wounded James Connolly, shot propped up in a chair, and Padraig Pearse. Constance Markievicz, a noted socialist feminist, was reprieved, and Eamonn De Valera, the only republican officer of the rank of Commandant or above not to be shot, was reprieved because it was thought he might be an American citizen (he wasn’t).
In July 1916, the 16th leader of the Rising, Roger Casement, was hanged in Pentonville Jail.
The Rising had received virtually no support in middle-class areas of Dublin. The Dublin Chamber of Commerce hastened to condemn the Rising, calling it “Larkinism run amok”. There was little support among workers, too, though the participation of James Connolly, who had been the military commander of the Dublin force, could not be set workers who knew him to think.
The surrendered rebels were greeted by Dublin mobs with jeers and volleys of stones. But after the fighting ended, when restrictions on movement were lifted, inevitably working-class people mixed, at work and elsewhere, and discussed what had happened.
Revulsion against the executions had some impact, but it would have been very limited without a deep reserve of support for the republicans and their aims. Nor would the Rising have led to the seismic shifts in Irish politics — the destruction of the Home Rule party and its replacement by Sinn Fein, by then the party of the insurgents — without the prior destruction of the credibility of the Home Rule party, which had accepted Partition (“as a temporary measure”). That discredit, not the Rising itself, was decisive both in generating the Rising and in shaping its political sequel.
By 1918 the rebels had majority support in Ireland, and in the General Election of that year Sinn Fein, now the bourgeois republican party, gained two-thirds of Irish seats. There followed a War of Independence. It was successful for all of Ireland except North-East Ulster. Partition was agreed; but "the Irish Free State" was born as a separate state with “Dominion” status, giving it far greater autonomy than envisaged in the 1914 Home Rule Bill — indeed, virtual independence.
Deprived of the best of its leaders — Connolly and his able lieutenant Michael Mallin dead, and Larkin in the USA — and affected by the repression, the relatively small organised labour movement, the only force with a hope and a history of uniting Catholics and Protestants, accepted subordination to the bourgeois nationalists.
De Valera, now the leader of Sinn Fein, said, “Labour must wait”. Any kind of social reform was postponed indefinitely — until a resolution De Valera himself had contrived to render as difficult as he could. His politics were a combination of illusory cross-class alliance, Catholic nationalism and Gaelic mysticism: a sort of Bonapartism with leprechauns.
In the South there was a civil war in 1922-3 between supporters and opponents of the 1921-2 Treaty which ended the War of Independence. Despite being defeated in the Civil War, the anti-Treatyites, under De Valera, formed a government in 1932; their party, Fianna Fail, is still the main bourgeois party in Ireland.
The South became a Catholic-sectarian state; the North was a Protestant-sectarian statelet. Tragically, Connolly’s prediction that partition would mean “a carnival of reaction both North and South” had been proved absolutely correct.