Cillian Gillespie, Socialist Party (CWI Ireland)
This weekend marks the centenary of the Easter 1916 Rising against British rule in Ireland. For many working class people in Ireland this event is regarded as a key defining event in Irish history, with its participants and leaders held in high esteem.
Their actions are viewed by many as a blow to Ireland’s historic colonial masters. Over the course of one week, a small armed force took on the military might of the British Empire, which at the time constituted the largest imperial power in the world. A significant proportion of the main forces that participated, the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers, were working class in their composition or were drawn from the lower middle classes.
While the capitalist establishment in the South is more than willing to celebrate the rising in this centenary year, their forbearers took an altogether different attitude to the events of 1916. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in an editorial that appeared in the Irish Independent on May 10, 1916, with a picture of the great socialist leader and key participant in the rising, James Connolly, beside it, which called for ‘’…the worst of the ringleaders [to] be singled out and dealt with as they deserve.’’
A badly wounded Connolly was executed two days later. The paper’s proprietor, William Martin Murphy, leader of the 404 bosses that had locked out Dublin’s working class in 1913, was effectively campaigning for his execution. It was only after Connolly was safely dead that the bosses’ paper called for clemency and after 16 leaders of the rising met a fate similar to Connolly’s.
Today in Northern Ireland the rising is a more divisive event, reflecting the broader clash of aspirations in terms of the national question amongst the Protestant and Catholic working class people. Notwithstanding the much-hyped talk of peace and reconciliation over the last quarter of a century capitalism has proven itself incapable a solution to sectarian division and conflict. History, like many aspects of northern society, has become a sectarian battleground.
Britain’s oldest colony
Ultimately the rising had its roots in the oppression by British imperialism that had stretched over several centuries. This colonial oppression of Ireland had not only resulted in the denial of its right to political freedom and independence, but also its economic strangulation.
This was firstly done by destroying Ireland as a competitor to British capitalism in the aftermath of the Act of Union of 1801. Mass emigration from Ireland, particularly in the years of the great famine of the mid-19th century, also served to also create a cheap pool of labour for British industrial cities and satanic mills.The population of Ireland fell dramatically and never recovered, from around 8 million in 1840 to 6.5 million today. Ireland also became Britain’s “bread basket” and would provide raw agricultural products, mainly meat, to feed these same cities.
It was for this reason that James Connolly wrote: “The struggle for Irish Freedom has two aspects: it is national and it is social.”
Connolly argued that only a revolutionary movement of the working class that united both Protestant and Catholic workers, and linked with the struggle for a socialism could end Ireland’s colonial domination.
Connolly and the rising
Alongside Jim Larkin, Connolly played a critical role in the huge battles of the Irish workers’ movement in the aftermath of the founding of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1909. This culminated in the Dublin Lockout of September 1913.
While not an outright defeat, the outcome of the lockout did cut across the momentum that the ITGWU and Irish workers’ movement generally had developed prior to 1914. Two other events were to have a negative impact of the development of the workers movement in this same year.
The first was the danger of the partition of the island, the ’divide and rule’ policy which was being openly discussed by sections of the British ruling class. Connolly correctly foresaw this as a “carnival of reaction”. Such a scenario, as history would later prove, would result in the increase in sectarian division between working class people to the benefit of imperialism and capitalism.
In August 1914 another catastrophe befell the workers’ and socialist movement in Ireland and throughout Europe, with the outbreak of the First World War. This was a war fought between the capitalist powers of Europe over whose respective ruling class would maximise their profits through control over the world market. This event, in and of itself, may not have come as a surprise to socialists such as Connolly, but the support given to it by the official leaders of the socialist movement certainly did.
In violation of the basic principles of working class solidarity, they shamefully rallied in support of their own ruling classes in a war that would result in the killing and maiming of millions of working class soldiers and that was, up until that point, unprecedented in its barbarity.
While Irish Home Rule leader, John Redmond – whom the present southern Irish care-taker government have seen fit to celebrate on a large scale banner in Dublin’s College Green – rushed to support the imperialist war and advocate that members of the Irish volunteers should enlist in the British army, Connolly wrote in hope that: “Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.”
Road to rebellion
As the bloody carnage of the war dragged on, Connolly was driven by a burning desire to strike a blow against the capitalist and imperialist order in Europe. However, Connolly was isolated in Ireland, with no direct links to other revolutionary socialist leaders who stood against the imperialism war slaughter, such as Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, Luxemburg and Liebknecht in Germany, and Maclean in Scotland.
During the war, Ireland was not immune from the jingoism that had developed across Europe. Many working class people in Ireland, including those who had been blacklisted as a result of the Lockout, were also economically conscripted into the British Army. Linked with this was the looming threat of actual military conscription being introduced in Ireland, as it had been in Britain.
It was in this context that Connolly became increasingly desperate to see some kind of rebellion take place in Ireland and in the absence, at that stage, of a mood for rebellion among broader sections of the working class, he looked to the forces of militant nationalism. These forces took the form of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and those sections of the Irish Volunteers who had refused to heed Redmond’s call to support the British military effort.
The Volunteers were formed in 1913 by Eoin McNeill and others, partly in response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force in the North East in opposition to Home Rule (self-government for Ireland within the United Kingdom). The Volunteers grew rapidly to 180,000 members. The Irish Parliamentary Party, led by Redmond, was concerned by this development and manoeuvred to take control of the Volunteers.
When World war One broke out Redmond approached the British government with a craven offer -the Irish Volunteers would defend Ireland for the Empire so that British troops could be withdrawn and sent to the front. The British ruling class dismissed his offer out of hand and instead enlisted Redmond as its recruiting sergeant in Ireland. The Volunteers split in two. The big majority went with Redmond’s re-named National Volunteers but a still sizable 13,000 stayed with the Irish Volunteers.
The IRB’s maxim had been that “England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity”. It had been preparing in secret for a rising since the outbreak of the war. In January 1916, Connolly was co-opted on to the military council of the IRB to prepare for a rising to take place at Easter. In fact, for months, Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army –created for the purpose of strikers’ defence against police attack – was threatening to lead a rising of its own.
On Easter Monday 1916, an estimated 1,300 Irish Volunteers, 220 members of the Irish Citizen Army and a few dozen Hibernian Rifles seized control of the centre of Dublin. They declared an ‘Irish Republic’, erected barricades and waited for the inevitable assault from British forces.
For one week, the insurgents stood firm even though outnumbered by twenty to one. They were quickly surrounded and shelled mercilessly. By the end of the week they were forced into an unconditional surrender. Sixty rebels, 120 British troops and 450 civilians lay dead, with more than 2,500 injured.
Crucial factors, such as the countermanding order to the Irish Volunteers by McNeill (the nominal head of the force who reflected the conservatism of the Irish middle classes) on Easter Sunday and the British seizure of the German submarine, the Aud, which contained 20,000 rifles set for the rebels, cut across the scale and intensity of the fighting that took place. However, ultimately the rising was most likely doomed to failure from the outset, given that there was little mood or support for such an action amongst the population at large. No call was made for a general strike during Easter week to paralyse the movement of British troops.
An outstanding Marxist thinker and heroic workers’ leader, Connolly felt deeply the setbacks suffered by the Irish working class and the great betrayal of the international socialist movement leaders. He concluded that “even an unsuccessful attempt at social revolution by force of arms…would be less disastrous to the Socialist cause than the act of Socialists allowing themselves to be used in the slaughter of their brothers in the cause. A great continental uprising of the working class would stop the war”.
In his determination to act, Connolly, in the run up to and during the rising itself, made political concessions to the forces of nationalism he was fighting alongside, temporarily setting aside some of the ideas and methods he had so carefully developed during decades of revolutionary activity. This is best reflected in the Proclamation he put his name to, which is, notwithstanding the positives sentiments it contains, is a nationalist document.
Having decided to participate in the rising, it would have been better if Connolly had put out a clear separate socialist document that outlined his vision of a “Workers Republic”, where its wealth and resources would be under the democratic ownership and control of the working class.
The lost revolution
The tremendous courage and self-sacrifice displayed by Connolly (and indeed the others who fought in the rising) cannot be disputed. However, the prematurity of the rising can be seen by looking at events that followed it. In the opening chapter of his celebrated work Labour in Irish History, Connolly had written that: “Revolutions are never the by-products of our minds but of ripe material conditions”
While the “material conditions” for a socialist revolution against British and Irish capitalism had not developed by 1916, the impact of national and international events in the period following 1917 made such a revolution a real possibility. The outbreak of the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary wave that swept Europe had a deeply radicalising effect on the working class on this island.
This radicalisation had an effect not only on the south, where opposition to British imperialism began to harden in the aftermath of the rising, but also amongst Protestant and Catholic workers in the North. This resulted in a whole series of local and national general strikes, in “soviets” (democratic workers’ councils) being proclaimed and, in some cases, strikers and workers taking control of cities, such as Belfast and Limerick, and the development a pro-socialist outlook within society.
The absence of a revolutionary socialist leadership, which could unite the working class and these movements in the struggle for socialist change, meant that the revolution of this period gave way to the counter-revolution of the partition (imperialist division) of the island. The tragedy of Connolly was that he did not live to see these events and therefore play the necessary role in building such a leadership.
Contrary to the mythology purported by today’s political establishment and mainstream historians, the “revolutionary period” of 1916 to 1922 did not give way to a positive outcome for working class people. What was created were two oppressive, sectarian states that failed to deliver for the needs of working class people, and still do to this day.
It is for these reasons that we must learn from the past and strive to construct a socialist movement that can deliver the real change that working class people need.
For more on the life and legacy of James Connolly, see ‘The real ideas of James Connolly’ by Peter Hadden (from Socialism Today, April/May 2006)