by John Sillett
Ireland was Britain’s first colony and British imperialism has done all it can to hang on to it. The Easter Rising of April 24th1916 followed a long history of the Irish seeking to be a free nation through armed rebellion. However the 1916 rising, although a failure in itself, had distinct traits that previous rebellions did not have.
The method of subjugation of Ireland by the British was Landlordism and the use of planters — the bringing in of English and Scottish Protestant settlers to work the land in what was a Catholic country. Surpluses from the country estates were sent to absentee landlords in Britain. Attempts before 1916 to free the country from foreign rule rested on a leadership by the Irish gentry and middle class traders and farmers. This nascent native ruling class — which also included settlers who had assimilated into Irish culture — proved unable to lead a decisive struggle for national liberty.
Meetings of workers were banned, pickets beaten up, and leaders were arrested
However the period at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth saw the emergence of a working class — particularly in Belfast, Dublin, and Cork. Gradually Labour began to get itself organised and independent of the Orange camp of the Protestants and the Green camp of the Catholics. Mighty strikes took place in Belfast in 1907 and in Dublin in 1913. In this latter dispute — which was almost insurrectionary in its intensity — the British state swung decisively behind the employers. Meetings of workers were banned, pickets beaten up, and leaders were arrested. It was these events that helped shaped socialist and trade union organiser James Connolly’s thinking when he formed the Citizen Army.
Connolly was one of only a few European Labour leaders who stood out against the war of 1914. All the parties of the Socialist Second International capitulated to their respective ruling class and voted for war. It is still a matter of debate as to the full extent and intensity of that patriotic wave that swept through Europe, but the jingoism proved successful in recruitment to all the imperialist armies.
So Connolly, appalled by the imperialist war, the betrayals of social democratic politicians, and their cheerleaders in the Trade Unions, but aware that the State would use force against legitimate protest, set up the Citizen Army — operating from the Irish Transport and General Workers Union head office — to fight for Ireland’s freedom in the spirit of European workers rising against capitalism. However the Citizen Army was small and Connolly needed the support of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) with their military wing the Irish Volunteers.
little preparation had been done to get the mass of the people behind the rising
The leaders of the IRB could see the advantages of an uprising whist Britain was engaged in fighting on the European mainland. They had been planning their own insurrection but were unsure when to go ahead. Connolly was distrustful of these nationalist leaders, he knew left to their own devices they would hand power straight to an Irish capitalist class. What was to prove disastrous however was that so little preparation had been done to get the mass of the people behind the rising — for example, there was no mention of a general strike. The hope was that support would flow once it was demonstrated that swathes of civic buildings were in the hands of the rebels and the Irish flag fluttered from them.
Only one thousand or so men, with some women too, from the Citizen army and the Volunteers set out that Easter week 1916 to throw the British out of Ireland. They had assumed that British forces would not shell occupied buildings, out of concern for the damage liability to property. That assumption proved fatally false as the British started an artillery assault on the very first day. Apart from the Dublin action, where the Irish flag flew over the General Post Office, there were negligible engagements elsewhere.
the spirit lives on as a testament to a working class rebellion leading a nationalist struggle.
After seven days it was all over. Connolly, with other leaders, was shot and the rest imprisoned. Heroic it might have been but in itself a total failure. It started with the best of intentions but misread the mood of the masses. However the spirit lives on as a testament to a working class rebellion leading a nationalist struggle. Things started to change a year or so later with the Russian revolution, and, following the armistice ending combat operations of WW1, a revolutionary wave swept throughout Europe.
Sadly for the Irish working class, the loss of Connolly and other republican socialists was a tremendous blow from which they never recovered. Whilst there was a strike wave throughout Ireland from 1918 for many months, the message from Irish Labour leaders was ‘Labour must wait’. Wait until the national question had been sorted, which meant the British could use divide and rule on religious grounds to split the opposition, and then partition the country.
On the 100th anniversary we salute those who died or were shot in prison and all those who were prepared to sacrifice their lives for freedom and socialism. It was the working class and those who identified with the workers who were the ‘incorruptible inheritors’, as Connolly put it, of the fight for freedom in Ireland and this remains true to the present day.
Featured image © British Pathé