3. The Ennis bourgeoisie and the Ennis workers

The Ennis bourgeoisie

The fact that the Irish national bourgeoisie did not lead the national movement in 1916 and after did not inhibit them from from creating a thickly mythological account of Irish history as a nationalist, or ethnic-sectarian, heroic and unrelenting struggle for freedom.

The working class in nationalist Ireland, left-wingers and socialists no less than others, accepted this mythological middle-class history. The Marxist James Connolly was made over into “the labour leader”, and a plaster-of-paris dead saint in the pantheon of the stultified Irish bourgeoisie.

Public life, and emotional and spiritual life, in the 26 Counties, revolved around an endless series of religious and religio-nationalist festivals and commemorations of “the dead who died for Ireland”.

Commenting on the fate of the dead Wolfe Tone, James Connolly wrote: “Apostles of Freedom are ever idolised when dead, but crucified when alive”.

The Ennis working class, like most Irish workers then, was locked into that ideological system. Papers such as the Clare Champion were remarkably like the sort of “cadre paper” published by socialist organisations. There was a regular, relentless series of articles at different times of the year, telling the story of some religious or nationalist-political saint, savant, or holy man (or occasionally woman). Anniversaries were marked and celebrated. Stories were told and retold again and again.

There was a notional but also real nationalist family, with a common history and tradition, common goals, and now a common state, with agreed objectives. Inevitably the “official” hagiography and history told of what had been class struggle — what else was the struggle of the farmers against the landlords? — but it was heavily disguised and muffled in nationalist and religious pieties. The landlords were “alien in race and creed”.

It was a national struggle, and a struggle for Catholic emancipation and self-assertion. Nationalism and Catholicism were taught almost as a two-pronged, or two-godheaded, religion. The cause of Catholicism was the cause of Ireland; the cause of Ireland was the cause of Catholicism.

The real history of the Catholic church in its relationship to Irish nationalism was radically falsified (with the consequence, for some of us, that when we discovered the falsification, it shattered our religious beliefs).

The power of the priests in towns like Ennis was immense. They ran the education system either directly (nuns, Christian Brothers), or as managers, overseeing academic standards. The state left the schools to the church.

The epochal revulsion now, in the early 21st century, buffeting the Irish church, as the result of the exposure of mass pedophilia, gains force from the old power of the church. The island of saints and scholars has been revealed to be the island of clerical hypocrites, sadists, and pedophiles.

The working class in places like Ennis had to formulate its own goals and objectives within the double-pronged ideological dominance of nationalism and Catholicism, and under the direct domination of the priests. It was immensely difficult. Connolly’s standing as a national martyr helped, but what exactly was Connolly? What Connolly? Whose Connolly?

In December 1929 the annual march of the labourers through the town became a little rowdy, and someone shouted the threat: “Remember 1916? We’ll make you remember 1929!” It was a foretaste of the militancy that would soon erupt.

In fact the Ennis bourgeoisie had no reason to “remember 1916” with any pride in their own political prescience. Though they invoked Easter 1916 as one of the great dates in the calendar of the march towards national freedom, the urban council had responded to the Rising by passing this resolution:

“That we, the members of the Ennis Urban Council, while sympathising with the families of those who have fallen on both sides in the combat in the metropolis of Ireland, deeply deplore this awful bloodshed and on behalf of the people whom we have the honour to represent dissociate ourselves with [sic] and detest the action of those on whom should lay the responsibility for so many innocent victims cut down in the prime of manhood.

That we sympathise with the Leader of the Irish race now battling for the freedom of our native land for the stumbling block placed before him, and repose our implicit confidence in him to carry on the good cause to which he has unhesitatingly devoted his life.

That we also congratulate the people of Clare for the wise attitude they have adopted, following step by step the dictates [sic] of their wise and noble leader, Mr John Redmond, whose work was handed down to him from our late lamented Chief, Charles Stewart Parnell, and who has for 20 years had an unparalleled success, but now more than ever it is our belief that the Irish people should follow his good advice and wise counsel, and if they do so, Ireland’s aspirations will be realised — A Nation Once Again!...”

The council condemned college professors who misled youth. Referring to the “terrible tumult caused by the insurrection and the awful scenes enacted in Dublin”, it asserted “that the country just now was beginning to become prosperous and that before long, under the leadership of Mr John Redmond, they would have a national parliament in College Green”.

That was on 4 May, when Sean McDermott and James Connolly were still alive, though under sentence of death. The resolution took it for granted that the remaining leaders would be shot, as they were.

That would have been the reaction of such old-style nationalists all over Ireland. Their descendants today would probably consider that “first reaction” as a strong point in their favour. In the 1930s it did not stop the Ennis bourgeoisie, like the rest of the Irish bourgeoisie, invoking patriotism and “the national interest” to wrap up their own interests, and depicting themselves as the heirs, custodians, and beneficiaries of Ireland’s struggle for independence.

The Bishop of Killaloe, Michael Fogarty, was much more sensitive to the political realities. He it was who reoriented the bourgeois politicians after the Rising with a dignified and accurate assessment.

In a speech at Quin he expressed sorrow at the Rising, but refused to condemn the insurgents. He had sympathy for their intentions. He truly traced the Dublin rising back to the earlier rebellion against the British government of the Ulster Unionists, whose leaders were now in the British coalition government.

In Ennis, as in other parts of Ireland, the church (and specifically Fogarty) was central in the anti-conscription campaign of 1918 that assured the full shift from the old Irish parliamentary party to the new one, Sinn Fein.

The Ennis workers: origins of the union, and the civil war

The Ennis United Labourers’ Union was founded by P J McNamara in 1911. It would remain an independent one-town union until legislation in the 1940s requiring a high fee for any organisation that bargained on behalf of workers pushed it into fusing with the Irish and Transport General Workers’ Union sometime in the mid 1940s.

1911 was the time of labour’s so-named “Great Unrest”. In Britain there was a whole series of spectacular strikes. From 1908 Jim Larkin organised the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, starting it as a breakaway from the National Dock Labour Union, of which Larkin had been an organiser. It can be taken that all this helped prime the birth of the EULU.

It never had more than 500 members, in the town and a periphery of three miles around it. This smallness and limited area was not unusual in Irish trade unionism then, as it had not been unusual in the early history of British trade unionism.

In the years after the end of the Dublin labour war of 1913-14, Irish trade unionism expanded enormously. Jim Larkin embodied the “charismatic” initial phase of its development. With Larkin in America (for nine years from 1914), the movement came under the leadership of William O’Brien, a long-time socialist and a close personal friend of James Connolly’s, and entered its “bureaucratic” stage. It expanded spectacularly from its base in Dublin across Ireland.

It would be the mid 40s before the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union absorbed the Ennis United Labourers’ Union. In 1918 an East Clare Trades Council was set up after a big public meeting addressed by William O’Brien. This organisation renamed itself the Clare Workers’ Council in 1922.

The broad outlook of the union was the then conventional outlook of militant nationalism, and overriding Catholicism — but within that there was a stark sense of class, of working-class separateness, of class interests. This was expressed in the commitment to the goal of a workers’ republic.

One of the dominant characteristics of the big English general unions that were organised after the “match-girls’”, dockers’, and gasworkers’ strikes of 1888-90 was that they quickly became bureaucratised, and the bureaucrats soon developed a distinct interest of their own that did not necessarily coincide with that of the rank and file members of the unions. The full-timers’ wages tended to diverge upwards from the average wage of the union members.

By the first and second decades of the 20th century the tide of working-class militancy found ways around the too-dominant union bureaucracies by way of “rank and file” organisations and shop-stewards’ committees based in workplaces.

The Ennis United Labourers’ Union had no bureaucracy, no full-timers. It corresponded, in a small, local way, to the “rank and file” organisation that around the time of World War 1 developed in Britain and in the 1920s would flow into the powerful Minority Movement, led by the Communist Party.

The Ennis United Labourers’ Union was part of a broader labour movement, knew it, and acted accordingly. Before its own general strike in 1934 it had already been part of the two general strikes, in 1918 against the threat of conscription into the British army and in April 1922 against “militarism” and the drift towards the civil war which broke out two months later, in June 1922.

The Irish workers, like workers everywhere, responded with great enthusiasm to the two Russian revolutions of 1917. In a number of areas striking workers in small dairy factories, creameries, declared themselves to be “soviets” — workers’ councils.

At the end of World War 1, “soviets” had spread from Russia to Germany, Austria, and Hungary. The German and Austrian soviets, genuine workers’ councils, were dominated by the Social Democrats and their leaders, who had backed their own governments during the War. That political leadership was decisive in the politics and political fate of the soviets.

The initial political leadership of the Ennis United Labourers’ Union lay with P J McNamara, then with Michael Glynn, who was a railway worker and a socialist. Paddy Hogan from Kilmaley, outside Ennis, was elected TD in 1923 and functioned as the main political leader of the EULU.

At the beginning of 1919, the Trades Council, or Workers’ Council, of Limerick city declared itself a soviet and contested control of the city with the British military authorities. It did for a while control the city. But this was a nationalist soviet, backed by people who condemned the Bolshevik soviets.

As the 1916 Rising was politically a hybrid merging working-class organisations and revolutionary nationalism, so too in its politics was the Limerick soviet, a mere 20 miles down the Shannon from Ennis.

At the outbreak of the civil war in Ennis, the labour movement took steps that went part of the way towards assuming the functions of a soviet.

The civil war of 1922-3 was a tragedy. Civil wars encompass many human tragedies, but as a whole some are necessary to resolve irreconcilable differences of class and regime. The Irish civil war was a true tragedy — a conflict of right against right. A civil war that should not have happened.

In terms of Irish independence, the common objective, history has vindicated Michael Collin’s claim that the Treaty with Britain gave the 26 Counties “the freedom to win freedom”. It did.

But the Republicans in their own, tragically incoherent, way — the rank and file Republicans anyway — were right too. The Free State rallied the “stake in the country” people (as the left-wing republican leader Liam Mellows, one of those prisoners shot by the Free State government in December 1922, put it). The Republic rallied those who had little “stake” in the country, town and farm labourers, people who had seen in the fight for “the Republic” a fight for a shining transformation of their lives that would mean social equality, prosperity and a greatly enlarged freedom.

There were small bourgeois, like Cathal Brugha, on the Republican side, but most of those who faced the firing squads and the internment camps and jails of the Free State, were mainly people of no property. Their tragedy was that they had no coherent policy against that of the Free State bourgeoisie.

The “stake in the country” people took control of Ireland in 1922 when the British withdrew, using as their instrument that section of the Sinn Fein party that regrouped around Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins (the head of the secret society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood), and the Catholic bishops.

Politically, Michael Collins’s claim that they had won “the freedom to win freedom” turned out to be true, though it was De Valera and the defeated “diehard” Republicans of the civil war who would push it through in the mid 1930s.

Against the “rational bourgeois” line of the Free Staters was ranged an incoherent cluster of political forces — people who regarded their oath to the Republic as something absolute; more pragmatic politicians like De Valera, who wanted an accommodation with Britain but using a different formula of words to express it; and, “on the ground”, people who had expected “the Republic” to be a large-scale transformation of their lives.

“The Republic” for them had carried a promise that it had not carried for De Valera and others. They had understood the word republic as meaning people like themselves in control, and liberating from the old social shackles.

The confused but honest socialist Constance Markievicz put it into simple words in the debate on the Treaty in Dail Eireann: she was against the Treaty, she said, because the capitalists were for it.

For many farm “boys” and town workers, the “sacred name” of the Republic carried arcane promises and hopes. As well as that, for all of them, “the Republic” also had another emotional dimension: it was the opposite of partition.

Neither side in the civil war had any idea what to do to fend off partition. Both sides rejected the idea of coercing the Northern Unionists into a united Ireland, for both practical reasons (it was scarcely possible) and better ones: a united nation could not be built by such a conquest.

The civil war was bitter and terrible as civil wars tend to be. The new Dublin government killed 77 prisoners judicially (after court martial), and others were killed out of hand. Thousands were interned, many went on hunger strike.

What emerged out of this firestorm was a functioning parliamentary bourgeois democracy, albeit with peculiarities. The defeated side in the civil war had the electoral support of a large part of the population, and contested elections, until 1927, as abstentionists who would not take seats in the Dublin parliament if they won them. In the February 1932 the party representing the defeated side in the civil war got more seats in the Dail than the victors of the civil war, who left government peacefully (though some of them would have “second thoughts” about that and for a while organised a mass fascist movement against the “constitutional Republican” government headed by De Valera).

The Committee of Public Safety

In Ennis, during the civil war, Republicans and Free State forces confronted each other. The Republicans seized control of the police barracks standing beside the Fergus in the shadow of the old abbey. The Free Staters took control of the “Country Club” on the other side of the river. The Republicans withdrew.

Both sides in the civil war commandeered what they needed, and there was a threat of a food famine in the town. The Clare Workers’ Council acted to secure food for the workers.

The Clare Champion reported:

“Due to the suspension of banking business, Railway services, and the extensive commandeering of foodstuffs in Ennis, a rather serious situation has arisen in the town... A meeting of the County Clare Workers Council was held at Ennis to consider what action would be taken to conserve the food supply into town for the civilian population.

A [union] deputation had... interviewed the Master Bakers of Ennis [about] providing yeasts for baking [of which] there was a shortage in Ennis...”

The Workers’ Council decided to commander food itself — that is, to act as a civil authority — but went about it cautiously.

“Mr P J McNamara, in outlining the present situation, said that he and Mr Paddy Hogan... had interviewed the military and the officers they saw had not objected to the [Workers’ Council] commandeering the foodstuffs on behalf of the civilian population. The Republican officer they interviewed... had given it as his individual opinion that they would not be doing anything wrong. The other military force [the Free Staters]... had assured him of cooperation.

They went to the railway station to seize whatever foodstuffs they could, and [while they were talking to] the station master the Free State soldiers arrived and took away the flour, etc., from the wagons... The Free State officers said they were ‘doing for us what we intended doing ourselves’, and that they would take the flour and foodstuffs into the Home (the County Home) and supply the civilian population as required. It was also said that if they did not do that, the other side might commandeer stuff.

We did not altogether agree with that, but we had to bow to the inevitable or the force of arms if you like. We did succeed however, in getting a quantity of flour, tea, and sugar, for which we gave the ordinary receipts, because anything we commandeer must be paid for

We visited [Lipton’s] and took one and a half sacks of flour, three bags of sugar, and one chest of tea. Mr M S Honan willingly gave us one ton of flour, and Mr Dan McInerney a similar amount. We have decided to take over Mr Kenichi’s bacon stores... and sell [our provisions] to the civilian population under proper supervision”.

They would sanction no hoarding. “No person would be allowed to buy more than he or she needs... we shall sell to the civilian population irrespective of creed or class...

He appealed to the traders who had foodstuffs to sell them to the poorer people, even though they could not pay for them at present. If tickets for staff were issued by the Council they would be honoured at a later date”.

How could they avoid having the food taken forcibly from them?

“Mr J McNamara said to protect what they had already seized they would want arms. Several members objected to Mr McNamara’s remark and reminded him that the Labour Party had always been against militarism...

Mr Cahill said: if you don’t take the stuff tonight it won’t be there tomorrow. Mr J Duggan said that the traders of Ennis would be only too glad to cooperate... and would be more pleased if the Council commandeered their stuff than if any of the other party did, because they knew the Council would pay for it sometime”.

Paddy Hogan [who would be elected a TD for Clare the next year] said he objected to rationing the workers. “I see no reason to ration ourselves in order that other people might glut themselves. There is one point that seems to have been forgotten. I hold that the Urban Council should help us... form a Committee of Public Safety to conserve food supply in the town. My principal object is to get the food out of large stores and shops and distributed to the householders as quickly as possible. So long as food is easily accessible in large quantities in different places throughout the town the military will take it. For that reason I propose that a Public Safety Committee be formed to take the necessary action... Mr Hogan’s proposition was adopted and arrangements made to appoint the Public Safety Committee”.