By Theo Russell
It is one hundred years since the Easter Rising in Ireland, which saw six days of heavy fighting in Dublin from April 24th to 29th 1916.
The Rising was second only to the 1917 Russian revolution among the many revolts and mutinies of the First World War, and a harbinger of the break-up of empires which inspired anti-colonial fighters around the world to step up their struggles.
The London Times even tried to blame the “agitation” which had started in Ireland for causing the 1919 Amritsar massacre, when British troops murdered 380 Indian men, women and children at a peaceful protest.
Like the Spanish Civil War, the Rising is still a battleground of heated debate many years after it occurred. In fact Ireland stands out for having an entire school of historians, the 'Revisionists', which according to Peter Berresford Ellis, the socialist writer and major figure in the Connolly Association, is “a neo-colonial one, an anti-nationalist school which, in its mildest form apologises for English imperialism in Ireland, or, in its strongest form supports that imperialism”.
Christine Kinealy from the University of Liverpool, writing in History Ireland, claims the rise of the revisionists coincided with the IRA's campaign in the north of Ireland, attempting to link IRA violence with “nationalist myths”.
According to Kinealy the revisionists have also tried to “rehabilitate” the landlords and the British government for their part in the Irish Famine, claiming they were “hapless victims,” “ignorant of the real state of affairs,” or incapable of doing anything to help, and even suggesting those who blame the British are “apologists” for the “nationalist struggle”.
In recent weeks the revisionists filled the printed pages and airwaves in their attempts to empty the Rising of any relevance to patriotism or national liberation. A fine example was a panel of 'experts' and historians, including two Irish participants, on BBC Radio 4's Start The Week programme.
The conservative unionist historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, whose latest book was timed to coincide with the centenary, claimed the Rising was a series of accidents and that its leaders were all had psychologically defective. She says two of the leaders of the Rising, Thomas McDonagh and Joseph Plunkett, “never really should have been there” and that Eammon Kent was “a chap no-one knows anything about”.
She even claims that all the Rising's leaders “had disturbed childhoods in some way” and were all “rather conflicted”, and none of the leaders realised they were putting their lives at risk (!). One would have to be a totally ignorant moron to believe that men and women who were prepared to take up guns and open fire on British troops and police didn't know that they were putting their lives at risk!
American writer and “policy analyst” David Rieff, whose latest book is In Praise of Forgetting, goes even further, arguing that the best thing would be to just forget all this annoying history, arguing “in terms of geologic time everything is going to be forgotten, therefore surely we have the right to say why don't we forget sooner rather than later”.
He does concede that it may still be alright to remember the Holocaust “while there are still people alive to talk about it”, but otherwise his position is a very convenient one for imperialism. Fortunately however, for those of us who still uphold the right of all countries to national liberation, ideas and patriotism can't be destroyed with bombs or cruise missiles, unlike people or buildings.
What is also incredible is that not one of the 'experts' in this debate, mentioned the right of nations to self-determination, the centuries of rebellions in Ireland before 1916, or Britain's plans for partition and support for Carson's illegal Unionist armed militia. The fact is that the revisionists keep remarkably silent when it comes to talking about British or Unionist violence in Ireland!
Lenin: “a centuries-old Irish national movement”
In reality, as Lenin pointed out in 1916, the Rising was part of “a centuries-old Irish national movement” against English domination. Lenin argued strongly that it was a legitimate part of a genuine national struggle, and not the actions of a misguided minority of fanatics.
In his article written shortly after the Rising, The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up, he says “the centuries-old Irish national movement, having passed through various stages and combinations of class interest, manifested itself, in particular, in a mass Irish National Congress in America... 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”.
Lenin condemned the reformist Social-Democrat Karl Radek's description of the rebellion as “nothing more nor less than a 'putsch' ” and the nationalist movement as a “purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement,” and ridiculed him for taking the same position as the reactionary Czarist Russian Cadet, A. Kulisher, who referred to “the Dublin putsch”.
He concluded: “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. Whoever expects a 'pure' social revolution will never live to see it”.
A very brief history of Anglo-Irish relations
The declaration of English king Henry II as Lord of Ireland in 1271, and the 1275 Treaty of Windsor, were followed by centuries of Irish feudal, clan rebellions, as English promises of allegiance and protection turned into successive waves of land-grabbing.
After the 16th century Reformation, Ireland's wars became part of the Europe-wide battle between Protestantism and Catholicism, with many countries backing the two sides in Ireland.
In the 17th century England introduced a systematic policy of colonisation, the Plantation, in Ulster, the traditional stronghold of the Irish clan nobility. This created new, reactionary 'Planter' class of Scottish and English landowners, supported by English garrisons, which used indiscriminate violence to seize land and crush rebellions by the Irish Catholic natives.
In the words of James Connolly, after the last major feudal revolt, the 1641 Insurrection, in which the Irish clans were defeated, "the only possible reappearance of the Irish idea henceforth lay through the gateway of a National resurrection". And indeed the next great upheaval in Ireland proved to be a decisive break with feudal Ireland.
The break with feudal Ireland
The United Irish Rising of 1798 was a turning point in Irish history. Inspired by the French and American revolutions and the introduction of universal suffrage in France. A completely new, revolutionary democratic movement emerged which was anti-colonial and anti-monarchist, calling for parliamentary rule and religious equality.
The Society of United Irishmen was founded in 1791 by members of the Belfast 1st Irish Volunteer Company, declaring itself "a revolutionary party openly declaring their revolutionary sympathies, but limiting their first demand to a popular measure such as would enfranchise the masses".
The Irish Volunteers were local militias recruited during the 18th century to guard against French invasion, but some elements evolved into patriotic militias seeking concessions from London, including an independent Dublin parliament.
Theobald Wolfe Tone, the movement's Protestant leader, called for an alliance of Protestants, Catholic and Presbyterians, in his most famous quote saying: “To break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country—these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the name of Irishman in place of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter - these were my means". Irish Republicans still gather every summer at his grave in Bodenstown to honour his memory.
But the 1790s also saw the foundation of the Orange Order, in County Armagh in 1795, based on the reactionary 'Ulster Planter' class. This marks a new tactic in English control over Ireland, the creation of a nominally 'independent' proxy force, which would eventually lead to the partition of Ireland in 1921.
After 1798 British troops were stationed permanently in Ireland, and in 1801 the Act of Union was passed (until then the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland were in 'personal union', the combination of two states under the same monarch).
There were rebellions in 1803, 1848 and 1867, and new movements including the Young Irelanders, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the IRB, known as the Fenians), and the Land League emerged to fight for land reform and the repeal of the Union.
The years before the Rising
In retrospect it is remarkable that the Rising took place at all, and even more remarkable that it led in a very short period to a transformation of Ireland's fortunes. This is certainly a problem the 'revisionist' historians struggle to explain.
On the surface John Redmond's moderate Irish Parliamentary Party enjoyed strong support, and in the 1890s and 1900s its support at the Westminster parliament was required to form British governments. A series of Land Acts had created a new class of Irish tenant farmers, there appeared to be wide support for the British monarchy and Empire, and the radical nationalists were widely seen as a lunatic fringe.
Another contradiction was that although 250,000 Irish men volunteered for the British Army in the First World War, many from what is now the Irish Republic, conscription was never put in effect in Ireland in the face of a mass campaign led by the trade unions, the nationalist parties and the Catholic church. As Lenin commented in 1916, “the 'freedom-loving' English did not dare to extend conscription to Ireland”.
But beneath the surface Ireland was changing amidst the economic crises of 1901 and 1907, and major industrial battles. Between 1905 and 1916 the Irish petit bourgeois was slowly turning away from the Redmond's moderates in favour of some form of genuine independence. This meant challenging the British Empire at the height of its power, and objectively moving into the anti-imperialist, revolutionary camp.
The class base of the new Irish nationalism was predominantly petit bourgeois and composed of businessmen and the new class of farmers arising from the Land Acts, but the 1913-14 Dublin Lockout involving 20,000 workers marked the emergence of the working class as new force in Ireland which introduced new demands not just for independence, but also for socialism and greater economic equality.
The Lockout produced two major new leaders, the radical union organiser James Larkin, who left the moderate Liverpool-based National Union of Dock Labourers to set up the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU), and James Connolly, another ITGWU organiser and socialist theorist, launched the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896, who together with Larkin formed the Irish Labour Party.
During the 1913 Lockout, Connolly founded the Irish Citizen Army to defend workers and strikers, particularly from the Dublin Metropolitan Police. The ICA adopted an independent, socialist Irish nation as its goal and went on to join the Rising in 1916.
A new nationalist party, Sinn Féin, emerged in 1905 from Cumann na nGaedheal ('the Society of the Gaels'), led by Arthur Griffith, aiming to unite the Irish nationalist movement, and one of its first demands was for for Irish MPs to abstain from the Westminster parliament.
The dead end of Home Rule
Third Irish Home Rule Bill which finally passed in 1912 offered little more than today's UK devolutions. Irish MPs would still meet at Westminster and only have limited domestic powers, with no say on defence, foreign policy or even customs duties. Ireland would remain in the Empire, while Lloyd George had already given the Unionist leader Edward Carson a guarantee excluding Ulster from Home Rule.
The leaders of the minority but growing nationalist movement – Griffiths, Connolly, Patrick Pearse, Eamonn de Valera and others - saw Redmond’s 1912 Home Rule bill as capitulation to British interests in Ireland. Griffith's response was to call on nationalists to prepare to become the main opposition party in a Dublin-based Irish parliament.
The Unionists reacted to the Home Rule Act by forming the Ulster Volunteers, and in response the moderate Redmond established the Irish Volunteers (Óglaigh na hÉireann) in 1913, whose declared aims echoed those of Wolfe Tone 115 years earlier: "to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland". It included members of the Gaelic League, Ancient Order of Hibernians, Sinn Féin, and the underground IRB.
The 1912 Home Rule Act was due to be implemented in September 1914 but was postponed when war broke out in June. Redmond responded by appealing to "Armed Nationalist Catholics in the South… to join arms with the armed Protestant Ulstermen in the North” to defend the British Empire.
But the Supreme Council of the IRB, meeting in September 1914 weeks after the outbreak of war, took the decision to stage a rising before the war ended, and to secure assistance from Germany.
A minority of the Volunteers fought for Irish independence in the Easter Rising of 1916, alongside the Irish Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan, and Fianna Éireann. From 1919 it took part in the Irish War of Independence, becoming known as the Irish Republican Army.
The Rising and the Proclamation of the Republic
The Irish Volunteers Chief of Staff Eoin MacNeill, and IRB President Denis McCullough, would only support a rising if the British introduced conscription or attempted to suppress the Volunteers.
Days before the Rising, after hearing that a shipment of German arms had been seized and Roger Casement arrested, MacNeill issued a countermand to the Volunteers cancelling all actions. This order delayed the Rising by a day, but also meant that the vast majority of the 140,000 Volunteers didn't join the Rising.
In the end about 3,500 men and women from the Volunteers, the IRB, the ICA , and 200 women in Cumann na mBan, joined the Rising which began on Easter Monday,
24th April 2016. in Dublin 1,250 Volunteers, seized and fortified the General Post Office, Four Courts, City Hall, Jacob’s Factory, Boland’s Mill, and the South Dublin Union.
The Volunteers' Commander-in-Chief Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic outside the GPO, republican flags were hoisted, and copies of the Proclamation were pasted and distributed across Dublin.
The British rapidly mobilised 16,000 troops from Belfast, Armagh, Athlone and England, while in the north of Ireland patrols by Ulster Volunteer 'flying columns' freed up British troops to be sent to Dublin.
The British set up artillery batteries in the north and central Dublin, and the Royal Navy patrol ship Helga was brought up the Liffey to shell Boland’s Mill and Liberty Hall (although two of the ship’s crew refused to fire the guns).
A large swathe of central Dublin, including the main thoroughfare Sackville Street, Abbey and Henry Streets, and Eden Quay, were reduced to rubble. In the last days of the Rising British troops given order to “take no prisoners,” and 15 unarmed male civilians were shot or bayoneted.
Sixty six rebels and 143 British soldiers and police died the fighting. Dublin was placed under a military governor, General John Maxwell, and the whole of Ireland placed under martial law. Maxwell was left to his own devices by the British government, and decided to give the rebel leaders “the same treatment as traitors on the Western Front”.
There was also fighting in Ashbourne just north of Dublin, where 60 Irish Volunteers of the Dublin Brigade seized the RIC barracks and the post offices and attacked the RIC barracks at Ashtown. In Enniscorthy to the south, 100 Volunteers blockaded the RIC barracks, and in Galway, 600 Volunteers (many armed only with pikes) attacked police barracks at Oranmore and Clarinbridge.
Reports that the Volunteers were jeered at by onlookers in central Dublin, and British troops arriving from England cheered on the streets, come as no great surprise. Dublin was the centre of British rule in Ireland, with all the jobs and lucrative positions involved, and was the largest concentration of the Irish middle class of and those who remained loyal to the Empire. What is surprising is how rapidly the tables turned on the British after the Rising.
In working class districts, however, Canadian journalist Frederick Arthur McKenzie wrote that "there was a vast amount of sympathy with the rebels, particularly after the rebels were defeated". He described crowds cheering a column of rebel prisoners as it passed, with one woman remarking "Shure, we cheer them. Why shouldn't we? Aren't they our own flesh and blood?", while at Boland's Mill, the defeated rebels were met with a large crowd, "many weeping and expressing sympathy and sorrow, all of them friendly and kind.”
After Patrick Pearse issued an order for all companies to surrender on Saturday 29th April, “In order to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens”, 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested.
Within nine days 90 were sentenced to death by military court martials, of whom 15, including all seven signatories of the Proclamation, had their sentences confirmed by General Maxwell and were executed by firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol between 3rd and 12th May.
The only prominent leader to escape execution was Éamon de Valera, who fought at the GPO. The US Consulate in Dublin intervened on his behalf at a time when Britain was trying to bring the US into the war in Europe, and he was also fortunate that very little was known about him by MI5, unlike Thomas Clarke, who had been an American citizen since 1905.
The executions and British military occupation of Dublin caused a rapid shift in Irish nationalist opinion towards support for the rebels. James G. Douglas, a businessman and Quaker, who until then supported Home Rule and went on to become an Irish Senator, wrote that his views changed during the course of the Rising, convincing him that parliamentary methods were not enough to remove the British.
The 1918 general election saw Redmond's Parliamentary Party reduced from 67 to 6 seats while Sinn Fein under Éamon de Valera took 76 seats. Sinn Féin's members refused to attend the Westminster parliament, and formed an illegal parliament in Dublin, the First Dáil Eirran.
Sinn Fein took most of the credit for the successful campaign against conscription in the 1918 “Conscription Crisis”. The party called for Irish representation and recognition at any post-war peace conference, while the IPP's policy was to leave negotiations to the British government.
The Proclamation of the Republic
The Proclamation, less than 500 words long and couched in religious terminology, was a limited programme designed to unite very diverse class forces who supported the Rising. But on closer reading it contains advanced and progressive goals.
These include “the form of government was to be a republic” - Ireland being the first British colony to do so. It also guaranteed "religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens", and called for “a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women”. At the time women in Britain and Ireland had no vote and only a handful of small nations had introduced female suffrage.
The Centenary Commemorations
Speaking at an Easter Rising commemorative parade in West Belfast last month, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said of those who argue that honouring the 1916 leaders meant justifying violence: “They say nothing critical of John Redmond and Edward Carson’s role in sending tens of thousands of young men to fight Germans, Austrians and Turks - with whom they and Ireland had no quarrel. Thirty eight million people were killed in that imperial adventure. Were John Redmond and Edward Carson not ‘men of violence’?”.
These view was echoed in a remarkable speech by Irish President Michael D Higgins at Liberty Hall, headquarters of the Irish Citizen Army in the Rising, on 29 March. He said: “When we decide to address the issue of violence, let us speak of the violence of empire, the violence of state, the violence of insurrection. Having spent decades revising nationalism, where is the evidence that there is as much energy put into addressing the issue of empire?”
He said without the Rising “we would not have achieved our independence”, but added: “the republic for which Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army hoped remained unfulfilled. “Land and private property, a restrictive religiosity and a repressive pursuit of respectability, affecting women in particular, became the defining social and cultural ideals of the newly independent Ireland”.
He went on: “Their vision of a people free from want, free from impoverishment and free from exploitation remains a wellspring of inspiration for us as we seek to respond to the situation of too many workers who, in Ireland today, earn a wage that guarantees neither a life free from poverty, nor access to decent housing, adequate childcare and health services.”
Jack O’Connor, president of the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union, the successor to Connolly's ITGWU, told the same meeting “The reality remains that the Ireland which cherishes all the children of the nation equally is still to be realised. The value system which inspired them did not prevail in either of the jurisdictions which emerged on the island following the decade of revolution”.
It was not until 1948 that Ireland finally became a republic, and some of its aims, most notably a united Irish state, remain to be realised today. But that does not diminish the revolutionary nature of the Rising, or the sacrifices of those who participated along with tens of thousands of others before and after 1916.
Despite its flaws, the Rising brought about a decisive break with the British Empire and a huge step towards independence, and even raised genuinely socialist demands. As Karl Marx said when asked about the limits to revolutions in his lifetime:
“Doubtless, but all great movements are slow. It would merely be a step to better things, as your (English) Revolution of 1688 was - a mere stage on the road”.
The same can be said of the 1916 Rising: its goals have not been realised, but it did bring about genuine historic progress for Ireland.