4. De Valera’s “Second Revolution” and the working class

Author: 
Sean Matgamna

De Valera’s “Second Revolution” and the working class

In power after the war of independence and the civil war, the Irish bourgeoisie cut back on the elements of a welfare state that had been developed in the old United Kingdom.

A wit said of the Sinn Fein faction that had won the civil war and had taken the name Cumann na nGaedheal (clan or gathering of the Irish): “come in a gale, go in a storm”.

The Free State government, faced with the great international crisis that began with the Wall Street crash of October 1929, whipped up a storm before they finally went. In 1931 they brought in a strong coercion act, jailed Republicans, and banned a cluster of organisations (Republicans and others, including the tiny renascent Irish “communist” (Stalinist) movement.

They cut wages of such as teachers, and made a 10% cut in the old age pension, from ten shillings to nine shillings, and went into the election boasting that they had “balanced the books”.

The bishops backed the government from the pulpits, and in their pastoral letters to their flocks, in direct political commentaries. The bishops had led the way in preparing for the government crackdown in 1931. They raised a great outcry against De Valera and his Fianna Fail party.

De Valera, they said, was a stalking horse for communism. A De Valera regime would be a “Kerensky regime”, an opening through which a communist government would follow. The IRA was communist, they said; and it did stand, so it said, for the nationalisation of the means of production.

The bishops did not listen to the sincere pleading of the IRA and the De Valera party that they were and would remain devout Catholics. Hadn’t the Republicans defied the bishops in the civil war?

The alarm the bishops sounded with increasing shrillness against De Valera had a dimension of demagogic politics in it. But it was probably also sincere. The bourgeoisie were alarmed.

The government called a general election in February 1932, hoping to buttress its authority. The Fianna Fail and Labour Parties emerged with a Dail majority over the outgoing government party.

With the backing of the Labour Party from outside his ministry, De Valera became president of the council of the Irish Free State — the Taoiseach, the prime minister. He started a very weak version of what the New Deal was to be in the USA.

The eruption of the Ennis labourers took place against the background of tremendous upsets and transformations throughout Ireland. In Ennis itself these events had a strong and dramatic impact.

De Valera was TD for Clare. Ennis was the centre of his constituency. In his visits to Ennis in 1932 and 1933 he was received with extravagant enthusiasm. In one of those “comings” he was greeted outside the town by great crowds bearing lighted torches (bits of turf soaked in oil, on long sticks) and escorted into town by a troop of 77 horsemen. Perhaps the number was accidental; perhaps it represented the number of seats won by the new Fianna Fail; perhaps it symbolised the 77 dead De Valera-ite prisoners of war killed during the civil war, after “trial”, by the Free State government.

There was a song in the mouths of Republicans with the “punchline”: “And we’ll crown De Valera King of Ireland”.

In Ennis, there were big Republican marches and commemorations — to greet returned Republican prisoners, to commemorate the three young men “executed” in Ennis in 1923 at the end of the civil war, Mahony, Quinn, and Shaughnessy (the last two, teenage boys), who had a Republican plot in Drumcliff graveyard.

To a serious extent, De Valera in his first and second years in power seemed to be dependent on forces outside the Dail, some of which (the IRA) were armed.

The released Republicans immediately started a vigorous campaign against the party that had won the civil war and thereafter ruled, under the general slogan: “No free speech for traitors”.

To the ousted Free Staters it seemed that everything they had tried to stifle by a series of repressive measures against Republicans and communists in their last months in power had been set free and was flourishing. In February 1932 some civil war veterans and supporters of the Free State government organised an “Army Comrades’ Association”.

The chief of the Garda Siochana, Eoin O’Duffy, was dismissed by De Valera. O’Duffy became the leader of a new organisation, the National Guard, incorporating the ACA. Soon there had been a regrouping of all the Free State government forces.

They adopted a uniform of blue shirt and black beret, and began to advocate a corporate state. Ireland had “overnight” acquired a mass fascist movement, embracing the party of the recent government. It had clerical backing: in Ennis, Bishop Michael Fogarty demonstratively sat on its platform at a mass open-air meeting.

It also had eminent academics such as James Hogan to theorise about and advocate a corporate state in which there would be state-enforced control over the workers.

There were many battles between Republicans and Blueshirts, and between the working-class movement and Blueshirts. The labour movement raised the alarm against the threat which fascism posed to the working class. The Labour Party, now a separate entity from the ICTU, with which it had been fused in a single political-union organisation until 1930, and still standing for “the workers’ republic”, took a very strong stand against the Blueshirts, uneasily looking at events in Europe.

In Ennis, a big crowd of young men broke up a meeting of the “Army Comrades’ Association”. That sort of thing happened everywhere.

Workers in Ennis, even those whose families had sided with the Free Staters or had had members in the Free State army during the civil war, were alarmed at the threat of the Blueshirts. Workers were victimised for refusing to “put on a blue shirt”. (The writer’s father lost drovering work with a cattle-buyer, Johnnie Bruton). And the very limited “New Deal” activities of the Fianna Fail party in power were greatly appreciated by the workers.

The Labour Party, on whom the Fianna Fail government depended for a majority in the Dail in the year between the 1932 and 1933 elections, could claim much of the credit for what the government did on social issues, and Labour’s working-class backers thus felt that they had had a direct influence, and could have that again.

In Ennis that feeling took the form of tremendous militancy and direct action, and the near-permanent mobilisation of most of the union members as a workers’ “flying column”. To understand how that was possible, remember that most of these men were most of the time unemployed.

There was militancy on such limited things as preserving town jobs for town people. In the early English trade union movement, according to its historians Beatrice and Sydney Webb, such demonstrations, activities, and disputes were the daily stuff of local trade unionism.