- Created: Wednesday, 20 April 2016 13:49
- Written by David Yaffe
Chapter VI - Irish Revolution
The First Imperialist War gave revolutionaries in Ireland the opportunity they had been waiting for. England’s difficulty was again Ireland’s opportunity to free itself once and for all from the stranglehold of its brutal oppressor, British imperialism. By taking decisive action in this period, the Irish national movement could begin the process which would destroy British imperialism and lay the basis for the socialist revolution in Europe.
The revolutionary socialist James Connolly had fully grasped the importance of this opportunity for the Irish working class. He became one of the driving forces advocating an armed insurrection. He prepared the Irish Citizen Army for such an eventuality. In January 1916, after secret meetings with members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, he became part of the Military Council preparing detailed plans for an armed uprising on Easter Sunday 23 April 1916.
On 8 April 1916 Connolly announced in the Workers Republic that:
‘The Council of the Irish Citizen Army has resolved after grave and earnest deliberation, to hoist the green flag of Ireland over Liberty Hall [headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU)], as over a fortress held for Ireland by the arms of Irishmen.’1
The flag was to be hoisted on Palm Sunday 16 April. It symbolised the commitment of the most advanced sections of the Irish working class to the revolutionary struggle for Irish freedom.
For Connolly the participation of the working class in the national revolution offered the only guarantee that a ‘free’ Irish nation would be ‘the guardian of the interests of the people of Ireland’.
‘We are out for Ireland for the Irish. But who are the Irish? Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman – the hired liars of the enemy. Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared.
‘The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be the sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil. Labour seeks to make the free Irish nation the guardian of the interests of the people of Ireland, and to secure that end would vest in that free Irish nation all property rights as against the claims of the individual, with the end in view that the individual may be enriched by the nation, and not by the spoiling of his fellows.’2
The initial proposal to raise the green flag over Liberty Hall was defeated (7 votes to 5) by the Executive Committee of the Dublin Branch (No 1) of the ITGWU. Permission was only granted to raise the flag when, at a later meeting, Connolly threatened to sever his connections with the Union. And then, only on the understanding that the Citizen Army would shortly leave Liberty Hall and ‘probably never return’. Such a promise could easily be made as the planned Rising was only ten days away.3
This clash of interests within the Union is of importance for later events. It pointed to a fundamental divergence of interests developing in the Irish working class movement. Already an influential layer was emerging in the Union which sought to separate ‘trade union issues’ from the struggle against British imperialism. The split in the international working class movement, between a reformist and revolutionary wing, which, with the victory of the reformists, had destroyed the revolutionary potential of the European working class, was starting to emerge in the Irish labour movement.
The ceremony to raise the flag over Liberty Hall took place as planned on 16 April, with the Citizen Army in formation in front of the Hall. After the ceremony, Connolly, in the presence of Irish Volunteer Officers, gave a lecture to the Citizen Army on street fighting. Later on that night he addressed the Citizen Army alone and informed them of the planned uprising. He told them that the odds were a thousand to one against them. And that:
‘In the event of victory, hold onto your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.’4
Members of the Citizen Army were offered the opportunity to withdraw from the planned Rising with no recriminations. No one did.
THE EASTER RISING
The Rising was planned for numerous dates before Easter Sunday 23 April 1916 was finally decided on. The plan was for simultaneous risings throughout Ireland beginning with the seizure of Dublin City Centre at 6.30pm, to be followed shortly after (7pm) by risings in the provinces.
The national movement was split over the issue of offensive action. Griffith, the leader of Sinn Fein, opposed a rising. Eoin MacNeill, the formal head of the Irish Volunteers, argued that the Volunteers and the Citizen Army should build up their forces in readiness to respond to offensive action by the British – such as the introduction of compulsory conscription or mass repression against the Volunteers. He was opposed to offensive action. Connolly and Pearse, the leader of the revolutionary wing of the Volunteers, opposed the vacillating arguments of MacNeill. They believed that any delay would not only cause demoralisation among the Volunteers but put the movement in grave danger of pre-emptive action by the British. Connolly also believed the opportunity provided by the imperialist war would be lost if the revolutionaries did not strike a blow now. The Military Council which planned the Rising, therefore, did not inform Griffith or MacNeill of their plans.
The plan for the Rising involved the mobilisation of all the Irish Volunteers as well as the much smaller Citizen Army. Orders for the Rising under the guise of ‘three days of manoeuvres’ beginning Easter Sunday were sent out. Close to the appointed day for the Rising things began to go wrong. An expected shipment of arms from Germany was destroyed. Roger Casement, who went to Germany to organise support and arms, was arrested on his return. On Good Friday, Eoin MacNeill discovered that the ‘three days of manoeuvres’ were in fact the signal for the Rising. He confronted Pearse and was told the truth. On Saturday morning MacNeill issued a countermanding order calling off all Volunteer activities over the three days. This was printed in the Sunday Independent and sent by messengers into the provinces. The Military Council which had planned the Rising met on Easter Sunday and decided to go ahead the next day, Easter Monday 24 April. The orders were sent out. They knew the British authorities would now be warned of the Rising and would be preparing mass arrests and internment of those likely to be involved. It was ‘now or never’.
On Easter Monday at 10am the Rising began. About 1,200 answered the summons to parade in Dublin – nearly the whole of the Citizen Army and over 1,000 Volunteers. The plans which had been made required nearly twice that number. MacNeill’s countermanding order and arrests of Volunteers by the British authorities had had a telling effect. Throughout the rest of Ireland there was only sporadic and short-lived action – the most significant being the seizure of Athenry in Galway by the 1,000 strong Volunteer units led by the left-wing Volunteer leader Liam Mellows.
The first act of the revolutionaries was the taking of strategic buildings in Dublin. Outside the General Post Office (GPO) Padraic Pearse read the Proclamation of the Provisional Government. The Proclamation was a revolutionary democratic programme which united the aspirations of the revolutionary petit bourgeoisie and the Irish workers against British imperialism. It included the following:
‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible ...
‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences, carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.’5
It was a democratic secular Republic which was declared. The Proclamation was signed by Thomas J Clarke, Sean MacDiarmada, PH Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas MacDonagh, Eamonn Ceannt, and Joseph Plunkett. Thomas J Clarke was a living survivor of the Fenian movement of the nineteenth century, PH Pearse represented the revolutionary petit bourgeoisie, and James Connolly represented the most advanced sections of the Irish working class. This was the alliance which led the Easter Rising.
The battle lasted nearly one week. The revolutionaries were faced by overwhelming odds. British imperialism used straight-forward terror to destroy the Rising. Major buildings were simply blown to pieces. Heavy artillery, even warships, were used to bombard Dublin City centre. Passers-by in the street were simply shot dead by the British forces. On 25 April Francis Sheehy Skeffington – a well-known Irish pacifist who took no part in the Rising – was arrested along with two journalists by Captain Bowen-Colthurst. That evening, Sheehy Skeffington, taken on a raiding party as a hostage by Bowen-Colthurst, witnessed Bowen-Colthurst shooting dead a young boy called Coade. The next day Bowen-Colthurst shot dead Sheehy Skeffington and the two journalists. There was, of course, no trial, not even a court martial. These murders, like so many before and since, were simply covered up.
By the Saturday it was clear that nothing further would be gained by continuing the battle. Pearse and Connolly signed an unconditional surrender document at 3.45pm 29 April ‘in order to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered’. Two more days went by before all the insurgent commanders surrendered.
During the Rising nearly 500 people were killed (over 250 civilians) and nearly 3,000 injured. 179 buildings in Dublin alone had been destroyed by fire or artillery. Total damage costs were in the region of £2.5 million. Relief had to be given to 100,000 people, a third of the population of Dublin.
REIGN OF TERROR
Within a few weeks of the Rising, over 3,000 men and 70 women were arrested. Anyone suspected of Republican sympathies was imprisoned along with the Volunteers and Citizen Army members who had fought during the Rising. From all over Ireland they were brought to Kilmainham Prison and Richmond Barracks in Dublin. The prisoners were crowded into bare rooms, unprepared for habitation, thirty to each room. Over 1,800 men and five women were deported and interned in prison camps in Britain – most without any trial.
Ninety of the insurgents in the Rising, including all its leaders, were tried and sentenced to death by a secret court martial. The first the Irish people heard of this reign of terror was the announcement of the executions of Pearse, MacDonagh and Clarke on 3 May. Between that date and 12 May fifteen men were shot including all the signatories to the Proclamation. On 12 May Sean MacDiarmada and James Connolly were shot. Their courts martial had been delayed as both had been seriously injured in the fighting. Connolly had been wounded twice and his leg was shattered. On the morning of 12 May he was taken from his bed, placed on a stretcher, carried to the place of executions, tied to a chair and shot. Thus was one of the greatest socialist leaders of the working class movement murdered by British imperialism.
The number and manner of the executions caused a wave of anger and revulsion against British imperialism. Because of this, and after all the revolutionary leaders of the Rising had been shot, the executions, bar that of Roger Casement, were stopped. Those sentenced to death had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. Among those were Constance Markievicz, Eamon de Valera, William Cosgrave, and Thomas Ashe.
At the time of the Rising it was widely argued that the executions and mass repression were ‘blunders’ by the British authorities. Even today the standard bourgeois history of Ireland still peddles the myth that without these ‘blunders’ the mass support that quickly developed for the Rising and the struggle for Irish Independence would not have occurred. The real facts show, however, that British imperialism had no choice but to unleash such repression if it was to maintain its rule in Ireland. As the imperialist war dragged on, opposition to British imperialism was bound to intensify. The British ruling class knew this, and was determined to deprive the national movement in Ireland of its revolutionary leadership.6
The British ruling class recognised the significance of the Rising, and, in particular, the importance of its leaders, Pearse and Connolly. Connolly represented the militant working class. By uniting the armed Irish working class with the revolutionary wing of the national movement led by Pearse, Connolly had driven the national movement to the left. This alliance posed the greatest threat to British imperialism. In the middle of an imperialist war it threatened to begin the process not only of destroying British imperialism’s rule in Ireland, but also of sharpening the revolutionary crisis in Britain itself.
The Rising had shown that it was possible to take action against imperialism. It had fatally undermined the Irish Party’s efforts to secure a bourgeois imperialist resolution to the Irish question. Imperialism could not possibly allow Pearse and Connolly to live. It had to demonstrate to the Irish people that rebellion would be answered with terror. The British terror that followed the Rising was as inevitable as the support that built up for the Rising and the revolutionary struggle for Irish independence. The Rising represented the fundamental interest of the Irish people, just as the terror unleashed by British imperialism was carried out in the fundamental interests of the British ruling class.
How could the British ruling class allow Connolly – the greatest revolutionary produced within these islands – to live? Who better than Connolly was there to organise the Irish working class against the deepening crisis of imperialism in the First World War? Who but Connolly would ensure that the Irish working class united with the revolutionary wing of the national movement to fight the Home Rule charade? British imperialism had no choice but to use terror. That this terror failed to prevent the rise of a mass movement for Irish independence does not alter this fact at all.
Not only British imperialism but the Irish bourgeoisie demanded Connolly’s death. On 10 May, after 12 executions had taken place, William Martin Murphy continued the campaign, begun during the Dublin lock-out, to rid his class of Connolly. His newspaper, the Irish Independent, published a photograph of Connolly alongside a caption: ‘Still lies in Dublin Castle recovering from his wounds’. An editorial menacingly demanded: ‘Let the worst of the ringleaders be singled out and dealt with as they deserve’.7
Not only British imperialism and the Irish bourgeoisie applauded Connolly’s murder but so did the British Labour Party. The Labour MP Arthur Henderson was a member of the War Cabinet which brutally crushed the Easter Rising and ordered Connolly’s execution. When news reached Parliament that the army had summarily executed James Connolly, this vile social democrat, Arthur Henderson, led other Labour MPs in spontaneous applause.8
The Irish bourgeoisie, British imperialism and its agents in the working class – the British Labour Party – had all united to put down with terror the Easter Rising. They were forced to crush the leadership of the revolutionary alliance of the working class with the revolutionary wing of the national movement because it threatened them all. The execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising, far from being a ‘blunder’, deprived the national movement of those leaders most capable of representing the interest of the Irish people in a mass struggle to totally destroy British imperialism’s rule in Ireland. As later events were to show, the loss of those leaders played an important role in the devastating splits and divisions in the coming struggle for Irish independence. Nevertheless, the Easter Rising was the birth of the modern revolutionary national movement in Ireland. And the working class, having provided one of its leaders, had shared in the formulation of the Republican standpoint – the position which has always guided the revolutionary wing of the national movement to this very day.
SOCIALISTS AND THE EASTER RISING
Just before he was executed, Connolly remarked ‘[The Socialists] will never understand why I am here … They will all forget I am an Irishman’.9 How right was Connolly! The response, with very few exceptions, of the European labour and socialist movement was an almost unanimous condemnation of Connolly’s action in leading a section of the working class into a national uprising.
The Easter Rising demonstrated again the thoroughly reactionary character of the British labour and socialist movement. The Scottish ILP weekly Forward uttered the empty abstraction, ‘a man can be a nationalist or an internationalist’, to criticise Connolly. Socialist Review, journal of the ILP, announced in September 1916, ‘In no degree do we approve of the Sinn Fein rebellion. We do not approve of armed rebellion at all, any more than any other form of militarism or war’.10 Pacifism in an imperialist nation oppressing the Irish people by armed force is, as Lenin remarked, ‘the most pernicious opportunism’.11
George Lansbury’s Herald informed its readers on 29 April that it was ‘against all war – civil wars no less than wars between nations ...’. A week later it argued the reactionary consequences of that view: ‘the rising was foredoomed to failure and in my [George Lansbury’s] opinion was a crime against the Irish people’. For social democrats like Lansbury the question of Ireland came down to the issue of ‘how are we to administer in a satisfactory manner this small country?’.12 The Call, soon to be the official organ of the British Socialist Party, while understanding the efforts of the ‘Irish people to throw off the alien yoke’ nevertheless argued ‘to rise as the men in Dublin rose, without adequate force … was foolish’. It then went on to support Home Rule for Ireland.13 The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Labour Party left ‘the merits, or demerits, of the revolt aside’ and simply told its readers in June 1916 that ‘armies are the force used by capitalist states to maintain their undisputed sway. Armies are not only used against “foreigners”’?14 Very practical!
Only The Woman’s Dreadnought of 6 May 1916 (later to become The Workers’ Dreadnought) in a full page article written by Sylvia Pankhurst opened with a clear declaration of support for the right of the Irish people to self-determination. It was the most principled statement by a British socialist at a time of great anti-Irish hysteria. She thought the Rising may have been mistaken but she understood that ‘their rebellion was but a stage in the long struggle for Irish independence’. And she unreservedly joined ‘in common sorrow … for the Rebels who have been shot’.15
Very few socialists were able to understand Connolly’s determined action in participating in the Rising despite his very clear writings on the national question. Trotsky in an article on 4 July 1916 on the Easter Rising showed how little he understood the national question and its relation to the working class struggle for socialism when he wrote:
‘An all-Ireland movement such as the nationalist dreamers had expected simply failed to materialise. The Irish countryside did not stir. The Irish bourgeoisie, and likewise the higher and more influential stratum of the Irish intelligentsia, held aloof. There fought and died only the workers of Dublin, together with some revolutionary enthusiasts from the petty bourgeois intelligentsia. The basis for national revolution has disappeared even in backward Ireland ... The experiment of an Irish national rebellion ... is over. But the historical role of the Irish proletariat is only beginning. Already it has brought into this revolt, even though under an archaic flag, its class indignation against militarism and imperialism. This indignation will not now subside.’ (our emphasis)16
Trotsky’s assessment was totally wrong. His followers, to this day, refuse to recognise this fact. They, like Trotsky, deny the vital importance of the national question for the working class today. In attacking the Irish liberation movement as ‘petit bourgeois’ (nationalist dreamers) they, like Trotsky, write off the real forces fighting in a revolutionary manner and substitute for them an ‘ideal’ movement which does not exist. That is the essence of what is called petit bourgeois socialism.
Lenin alone pointed to the real significance of the Rising and in so doing laid the foundation for our understanding of the Irish revolution today. In attacking those in the European socialist movement who denied the significance of the national struggle or wrote off the Rising as a ‘putsch’, he argued:
‘The term “putsch”, in its scientific sense, may be employed only when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses. The centuries-old Irish national movement, having passed through various stages and combinations of class interests … manifested itself in street fighting conducted by a section of the urban petty bourgeoisie and a section of the workers after a long period of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers, etc. Whoever calls such a rebellion a “putsch” is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon.
‘To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! ...
‘Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.’
The misfortune of the Irish was, according to Lenin, that they rose ‘prematurely’ before the European revolt of the proletariat had time to mature. But Lenin knew that revolutions cannot be conducted according to a time-table:
‘It is only in premature, individual, sporadic and therefore unsuccessful, revolutionary movements that the masses gain experience, acquire knowledge, gather strength, and get to know their real leaders, the socialist proletarians, and in this way prepare for the general onslaught …’17
Connolly’s position, endorsed by Lenin, was vindicated by history when nine months after he died Tsarism was destroyed in Russia and nine months after that the Bolsheviks triumphed and Soviet Russia was established.
REVOLUTIONARY NATIONALISM AFTER THE RISING
The Easter Rising became popularly known as the ‘Sinn Fein Rebellion’, despite the fact that the leader of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith, had played no part in the Rising, had condemned it and rejected its Republican standpoint. A new Sinn Fein movement was soon to arise on the foundations laid by the Easter Rising. The British gaols and internment camps became training schools for this new Sinn Fein standpoint. When the interned, untried prisoners were released in December 1916, they spread the Republican position all over Ireland. The ex-prisoners were eager to build the organisations necessary for a new uprising. The Irish Republican Brotherhood was reconstituted, and the Volunteers were reformed with Michael Collins, who had fought in the GPO during the Easter Rising, as Director of Organisation. They began drilling and training in secret.
Arrests of Volunteers and Republican agitators soon took place. The arrested men refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the courts. In gaol they demanded political status and answered the British refusal by going on hunger strike. In September 1917, the death after force-feeding of Thomas Ashe, a Commandant during the Easter Rising, led to massive protests. Almost all Dublin was in mourning and on 30 September 1917, 30-40,000 people took part in a funeral procession in military formation. Its advance guard were Irish Volunteers carrying rifles, and it included 9,000 Volunteers in uniform, and thousands of trade union members marching in formation. Constance Markievicz led a Citizen Army contingent wearing full uniform with a revolver in her belt. At the cemetery three volleys were fired over the grave. Collins, in a very short funeral oration, said: ‘that volley we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make over the grave of a dead Fenian’.18 After this massive show of strength, the British authorities conceded political status. A new mass, militant and Republican Sinn Fein had been born.
On 25 October 1917, nearly 2,000 delegates attended the Ard-Fheis (Conference) of a revitalised Sinn Fein. A new Constitution was drawn up. In the debate Griffith vigorously opposed Republicanism but was defeated. He stood down as President of Sinn Fein and was replaced by Eamon de Valera, the only surviving Commandant of the Easter Rising. Arthur Griffith became Vice-President and the executive included Eoin MacNeill, Cathal Brugha and Constance Markievicz. Sinn Fein, despite the very divergent trends in its membership, now stood firmly for Irish Republicanism.
IRISH LABOUR AFTER THE RISING
The aftermath of the Easter Rising left the Irish labour movement in disarray. With Connolly’s murder, Irish labour lost its most capable leader – the only socialist leader who had really understood the importance of the national cause. Liberty Hall lay in ruins, files had been seized or destroyed, and the printing press and equipment of the Workers Republic were destroyed. Immediately after the Rising, the government arrested all trade union leaders who had shown nationalist sympathies.
Connolly’s successors to the leadership of the Irish labour movement had not supported the alliance he had created with the revolutionary nationalists. They had not taken any part in the Easter Rising. After the Rising, they concentrated on ‘economic’ issues and on the revival of the trade union movement. Although prepared to use their association with Connolly to rebuild and expand the movement, they did not attempt to maintain organisational ties with the revolutionary nationalists. They made no attempt to revive the Citizen Army at the time the Irish Volunteers were being rebuilt. These men believed political power could be won through an advanced social-economic programme which would appeal to the workers. The national issue played little part in their calculations. For these leaders, Connolly’s revolutionary courage and leadership had gone unheeded.
The leadership of the Irish labour movement fell on two members from Belfast who were in no way involved with the Rising – Thomas Johnson and David Campbell. They disassociated the labour movement as a whole from any responsibility for the Rising. While they demanded the immediate trial or release of the imprisoned trade union leaders, they did not protest at the executions of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Neither did the Dublin Trades Council when it resumed its meetings in July 1916. The Irish TUC Executive, at its first Congress for 2 years in August 1916, announced through Johnson’s opening address:
‘This is not a place to enter into a discussion as to the right or wrong, the wisdom or the folly, of the revolt … as a trade-union movement, we are of varied minds on matters of historical and political development …’19
Delegates were asked to stand in memory of Connolly and others who died in the Rising, but were also asked to remember those that died fighting on the side of the British in the imperialist war ‘for what they believed to be the cause of Liberty and Democracy and for love of their country’. Johnson himself gave his personal support to the ‘Allied cause’. The Executive also attempted to disassociate the Transport Union from the Citizen Army stating that ‘not more than half’ of the army participants in the Rising were members of the Union and that the army was simply a tenant in Liberty Hall.20 The ‘unity’ of the Irish labour movement – there were the Unionist members in Belfast to consider – and the protection of its organisations became the dominant consideration. This was now put before the real interest of Irish labour which was to build an alliance with the revolutionary nationalists in the struggle to establish a democratic Irish Republic. Because of this, Irish labour’s political influence continually diminished in the revolutionary struggles ahead.
Irish labour and Sinn Fein did unite in a successful mass campaign against the attempt of Lloyd George to introduce conscription in April 1918. The Irish TUC-Labour Party called a 24-hour general strike for 23 April 1918 – it was the first general strike against the war in any Western European country. It was a near total success apart from the Belfast area where Unionist workers were concentrated. It demonstrated the power Irish labour could wield in the national cause.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 250 April/May 2016