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IRELAND -  Centenary of the 1916 Rebellion

17th March 2016

IRELAND -  Centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising

by Finn Geaney, Dublin Council of Trade Unions, Teachers Union of Ireland and Irish Labour Party

2016 is the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin. This rebellion against the British occupation of the country was a seminal event in Irish history. On 24 April 1916 a few hundred men and women from the Irish Citizen Army and a section of the Irish Volunteers seized control of a number of key buildings in Dublin and held out against British forces for almost a week. Extensive repressive measures followed the military defeat of the Rising. More than 3,500 men and women were arrested immediately after cessation of hostilities, and more than 2,000 of these were transported to prison camps in Britain. The 15 executions that were carried out in Dublin were spread over a period of ten days. This widespread repression contributed significantly to the growth of resistance to British rule in Ireland.

The Uprising in Dublin in Easter 1916 was principally an uprising of the Dublin working class. Of the men and women who were arrested in April and May 1916 in the immediate aftermath of the Rising it is estimated that more than 80% were workers. The Irish Citizen Army was a workers’ army linked to the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. According to Helena Molony, leader of the Irish Women Workers Union, all the women of the Workers’ Co-op were also members of the Citizen Army. The Constitution of the Irish Citizen Army stated that “the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland”.

The overwhelming majority of the Irish Volunteers were workers, whereas the principal leaders were largely middle class and aloof from labour struggles, some of them hostile to the aspirations of the labour movement. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret, oath-bound body, was behind the setting-up of the Volunteer movement. Yet tradesmen were predominant in the membership of the IRB in Dublin. Many workers with the Dublin Corporation were also members of the IRB.

The leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and of the Irish Citizen Army, James Connolly, was a Marxist who had written extensively about the role of the working class in Irish history. He had been campaigning against the general slaughter of workers and socialists across Europe during World War 1, fighting as soldiers in their respective armies. He saw many members of his own union marching away to war. These same workers had gallantly resisted the massed employers in Dublin during the great Lock Out and Strike of 1913, and many were later forced to enlist in the British army as a result of what James Connolly called economic conscription. By striking a military blow for Irish independence, Connolly argued in the Irish Worker, “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 are shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war-lord.”

This was a far different perspective from that of other leaders of the 1916 Uprising. Padraigh Pearse, nominated by the IRB as Head of the ‘Provisional Government’, elevated armed conflict and the struggle for Irish independence from England to a quasi-religious status. He wrote of the beneficial effects for society of the bloodletting of World War 1, referring to the “red wine of the battlefields” across Northern Europe and the “homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country”. Connolly wrote a blistering attack on that analysis. Padraigh Pearse and Tom Clarke, two of the principal leaders of the IRB, favoured the installation of a German king in Ireland, should Germany be successful in the War. Toward this end they made contact with the German Prince Joachim.

What distinguishes the 1916 period from earlier uprisings against British rule in Ireland is the active intervention of the organised labour movement. The Rising itself came after more than a decade of growing trade union militancy across many areas of the country including Dublin, Belfast, Sligo, Cork and Wexford, and culminating in the massive Strike and Lockout of 1913. Not only had the trade union movement gone through significant growth during that period but the Irish Labour Party was created by the trade unions.

The IRB on the other hand evolved in the 1870s from the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States, with the sole aim of creating by force of arms an independent Irish State free of British rule. By the turn of the century the IRB had significant numbers in Ireland.

The Irish Volunteers emerged in 1914 from a split in the mass movement known as the Volunteers. The latter organisation had been set up to defend the Irish Home Rule Bill that was then going through the Westminster Parliament immediately prior to the beginning of World War 1. In September 1914, a majority of the Volunteers supported a call by John Redmond MP for enlistment by Irishmen on the side of Britain in the War. The minority, less than 10% of the total, became known as the Irish Volunteers. It was a section of this latter force that came together with the Irish Citizen Army in a common struggle at Easter 1916. In the months immediately prior to the Rising Connolly, on hearing of the IRB plans for an insurrection, had discussions with their leaders and agreed to unite with them in the military struggle.

The Irish State that emerged after the events of 1916 and the following years fell far short of that envisaged by James Connolly. Ireland became a conservative, Catholic state with widespread poverty, continuing emigration and denial of women’s rights.

The labour movement lost its most significant leaders. James Connolly was executed, as was Michael Mallin, also a leader of the Irish Citizen Army and one time secretary of the Silk Weavers Union. Richard O’Carroll, a Labour councillor on the Dublin Corporation, was murdered by a British Army Captain. Peadar Macken, a member of the Executive Committee of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions, was killed in the fighting, as were many other trade union members. Several trade union and labour leaders were arrested and interned after the Rising. In the years immediately following the events of 1916 the remaining labour leaders gradually withdrew from the struggle for national independence, allowing a political vacuum to develop. As the Irish Party at Westminster became more and more discredited the Sinn Féin Party was enabled to grow, from a mere sect to a mass party. The organised labour movement, at one time to the forefront in the national and class struggles, took a back seat

Sinn Fein took no formal part in the 1916 Uprising. Arthur Griffith founded Sinn Fein in 1905 around a political programme that included a dual monarchy between Britain and Ireland. Griffith opposed the Dublin workers in their 1913 confrontation with the Dublin employers. Until 1917 the official policy of Sinn Fein called for support for ‘King, Lords and Commons’ for Ireland. At the time of the Easter rebellion membership of Sinn Fein scarcely extended beyond one branch in central Dublin. Today’s conservative parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael emerged from splits in Sinn Fein. Partly as a consequence of the failure of the labour leaders after Connolly to remain in the vanguard of the movement for national independence, Sinn Fein was enabled to fill the political vacuum.

The Rising of 1916 was not a mass movement. Only 700 took part in Dublin, where the only serious action occurred. Although labour leaders were deeply involved no strike movement was called in support. Nor was any link forged with the most industrialised part of the country at the time, Belfast. There were also military and tactical failures, such as the absence of clear military aims in the various buildings that were seized in Dublin and a countermanding order against mobilisation from the leader of the Irish Volunteers Eoin MacNeill.

Lenin referred to the events of 1916 Rising as an uprising of “a section of workers”, and commented that the “misfortune of the Irish” was that the “European revolt of the proletariat” had “not yet matured”. Two years later there were mass uprisings by the labour movement across the continent against the major capitalist powers, in Germany, Austria, Britain and other countries; and the Bolsheviks were victorious in Russia in 1917.

The official scenario for 2016 in Ireland will provide an opportunity for conservative forces in the country to propagate a nationalist consensus empty of class content. They will try to eliminate the key role of the labour movement. Men like Padraigh Pearse, a conservative Catholic nationalist, have always been elevated, to the detriment of James Connolly, Michael Mallin and other labour leaders. However a number of trade unions and the Dublin Council of Trade Unions will be organising their own events for 2016 and publishing separate material which emphasises the key positions occupied by socialists of the period, in both the political and military fields.

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