As we move through an Easter week like no other in living memory, Shaun Harkin analyses the importance of another Easter week in Ireland’s past, and the lessons it holds for today’s world.
Easter 2020 will be etched into our collective psyche like no other in recent memory. The vast majority of us in Ireland, and globally, are urged to stay at home to stop the further spread of the potentially fatal Covid-19. Essential workers in healthcare, food and beyond are asked to stay at work to care for people, save lives and allow society to continue to function to some degree. The health pandemic has morphed into an economic meltdown amid an already acknowledged global climate emergency.
The political establishment was quick to assert ‘we’re all in this together’ but along with the panic and terror at the virus and the upending of ‘normal’ life has come tremendous rage to government response to the pandemic, the state of our public services and treatment of front-line workers. As the BBC presenter Emily Maitlis recently said, the pandemic is not a ‘great leveller’. It is not experienced equally. Those with the least are being asked to do and risk the most. ‘Key’ workers, long trampled on by the political establishment and corporate elites, are now viewed as heroes. The same heroic view goes for public services, primarily the health service, that have come under sustained assault from those in power in favour of privatisation placing vast sums of wealth in the hands of a tiny few.
There is fury at the botched and inadequate response of governments who have shown no willingness to take the kind of dramatic and necessary action that would protect lives by challenging the logic of the market when it comes to the procurement of life-saving health facilities. The hypocrisy of those who now praise minimum wage workers and public services is glaring. There is already a determination among many that we will not go back to the unequal society from which this great crisis has emerged. The urgent and selfless community level response, by neighbours and by networks of workers and activists to provide PPE, to make sure the vulnerable are safe and to assist workers facing health risks at work has contrasted sharply with the actions of government.
This is the context in which we mark and celebrate the 1916 Irish Rising in 2020. Back then, governments also claimed ‘we’re all in it together’ but nothing was further from the truth.
World War One, long warned of by socialists, erupted like a thunderclap in 1914. In the preceding decades, the great powers of the earth scrambled and competed to carve-up the world for economic and geostrategic dominance. Wherever the national flag went new markets were opened for companies and industries tied to it. Behind economic competition for resources lay military build-ups for the inevitable all-out struggle for mastery. Only the naive believed the most powerful nation-states could find a way to peaceably conduct the continued exploitation of the world’s people and resources. Capitalism can exist in no other form but on the basis of competition for profit. Economic competition sets the stage for military conflict. Elites constituted in national ruling classes, hellbent on protecting their part of the global carve-up and profits, dragged the world into slaughter on an industrial scale. Death on the battlefield went hand-in-hand with privation at home. As in the Covid-19 crisis, the wealthy and powerful, experienced the war very differently from those sent to fight it and those bearing the consequences at home. Death, loss, privation was followed by a devastating influenza in 1918 that infected some 500 million people killing anywhere between 17 and 50 million.
The war began with calls for national unity and ended with revolutions toppling empires, political systems and economic orders. Every society-wide crisis carries with it the potential for revolution.
The 1916 Easter Rising acted as a catalyst for an all-out political, economic and social revolution in 1918 across Ireland that led to the expulsion of the British Empire from 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties, and required a violent counter-revolution and partition to contain its social and economic challenge. The 1916 rising also acted as a catalyst for the global revolt. The boldness of a rising in Ireland, the oldest of Britain’s 50 colonies, during the war sent out revolutionary shockwaves that reverberated to all those dreaming of national liberation, ending imperialism and class exploitation.
At the start of the war, Ireland was awash with British propaganda demonising Germany as the barbaric antagonist, presenting Britain as the main defence of civilisation and recruiting to the front. Unionism was fully committed to the war effort and sent thousands to certain death on the orders of aristocratic generals. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), formed to oppose Home Rule and armed with smuggled German weaponry, joined the British Army en masse. Thousands of UVF members tragically died on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. To the British elites they were nothing but cannon fodder, born to serve the interests of their betters.
John Redmond, leader of the powerful Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster and the dominant advocate of Home Rule for Ireland, became a fanatical recruiter for the British war effort in Ireland. Home Rule would mean the return of a parliament in Dublin but Ireland would remain within the British Empire. In effect, a very limited form of self-government.
Redmond travelled across Ireland urging Catholics and Protestants to unite to spill their blood together as the ultimate sacrifice to demonstrate Irish loyalty to Britain in exchange for Home Rule. Redmond the former Westminster MP, wealthy landowner and hero for many contemporary Irish nationalist politicians eager to emulate him, bears a great responsibility for the 50,000 slaughtered in the trenches from among the 200,000 dragooned from Ireland as cannon fodder to fight. Yet, this bloodsoaked fanatic is often contrasted as a great statesman compared to the impatient, irrational and violent leaders of the 1916 Rising. The violence and destruction of the 1916 Rising pales in significance to the millions sent to their death and destruction of civilisation ordered by leaders of the warring empires.
There are two contradictory caricatures of Irish people that inform how the Irish rising is understood. The first is of Irish people united in their opposition to English rule who periodically rise-up in revolt. Ireland was Britain’s first colony and there have been many attempts to end British rule over many centuries. However, none were the same in content or character. James Connolly explodes the ‘all in it together’ myth in Labour in Irish History by documenting how elites, throughout Irish history, betrayed the fight for freedom, sought to limit the horizons of freedom and sacrificed the interests of the great mass of Irish people in order to protect their own power and privileges. As the example of Redmond demonstrates, there wasn’t one united Irish people in 1916. Connolly opposed ‘all-class alliances’ because it would pressure the working class and the dispossessed to limit their demands.
The second caricature is of a deeply conservative people overly influenced by religion. In this context, the rising is viewed as a great act of blood sacrifice martyrdom that sparks the people into action. Again in Labour in Irish History, Connolly takes aim at the notion of the Irish as intrinsically conservative: “If he crouched before a representative of royalty with an abject submission born of a hundred years of political outlawry and training in foreign ideas, his abasement was pointed to proudly as an instance of the ‘ancient Celtic fidelity to hereditary monarchs’; if, with the memory of perennial famines, evictions, jails, hangings, and tenancy-at-will beclouding his brain, he humbled himself before the upper-class, or attached himself like a dog to their personal fortunes, his sycophancy was cited as a manifestation of ‘ancient Irish veneration for the aristocracy’, and if long-continued insecurity of life begat in him a fierce desire for the ownership of a piece of land to safe-guard his loved ones in a system where land was life, this new-born land-hunger was triumphantly trumpeted forth as a proof of the ‘Irish attachment to the principle of private property’. Be it understood we are not talking now of the English slanderers of the Irishman, but of his Irish apologists.”
The notion the Irish people are intrinsically conservative was employed for many decades by elites to justify their own reactionary policies. It was repeated over and over that the Irish revolution produced a Catholic dominated state because it reflected the values of a majority of Irish people. However, a bloody counter-revolution was required to crush the aspirations of Ireland’s risen people for a more equal and liberated society, and, to impose acceptance of a new caste of political elites.
In the years preceding 1916 expectations were rising for fundamental change. The movement for Home Rule appeared to be on the brink of becoming reality. A more self-confident section of Irish elites believed they would soon have the opportunity to rule rather than being ruled. Many small subsistence farmers had lost out to the growing influence of those with great swathes of land. The influence of the Catholic church had grown immensely as an expression of the more confident and wealthier sections of Irish society. There was also a flowering of political, cultural and sporting movements and organisations that were actively shaping what a new Ireland might look like. Within this broad flowering oppositional and revolutionary forces were also forming and gaining traction. The Irish labour movement was growing and making its presence felt, most strikingly in the form of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU).
The Great War suspended implementation of Home Rule in Ireland. The new Ireland was put on hold. Home Rule was passed in Westminster by a majority in 1912, following decades of campaigning and several attempts, but was then further delayed by Unionists and the Tory Party through resistance in the House of Lords. This opposition was overcome in 1914 but an amendment was then added to exclude Ulster, thereby making partition appear inevitable. The clash over Home Rule led to the formation of the UVF and the Irish Volunteers. The Irish Volunteers were established in 1913 on the initiative of the insurrectionary Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and rocketed in membership to 200,000. Irish politics militarised before the outbreak of World War One and civil war appeared a real threat. Unionists and the Orange Order encouraged sectarian violence towards Catholics, Nationalists and Home Rule supporting Protestants in Belfast and other parts of Ulster.
The 1913 Dublin Lockout was itself a microcosm of civil war between labour and capital. The employers of Dublin, headed by a prominent Irish nationalist and Home Rule supporter, united with the full backing of the Irish establishment and British authorities to starve and beat the working class into submission to break the advance of the insurgent trade unionism of the ITGWU led by James Larkin and James Connolly. In response, Larkin and Connolly attempted to spread the Dublin revolt across Britain and formed a Labour Army to defend strikers. On the expected eve of Home Rule, two Ireland’s were very much in evidence. The Ireland of the rich and powerful tied by thousand threads to the British establishment. And all of those who were shut outside the world of power and privilege; urban and rural workers, the unemployed, artisans, the intelligentsia and small farmers.
With the declaration of war among the great powers in 1914, the British authorities sought to smother the sharpening political, geographic, military and class divisions within Ireland to focus on the war effort.
Connolly immediately called for a working class revolt across Europe against the war and focused his energies on building the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) formed during the Dublin Lockout, on exposing British war propaganda, winning the Irish labour movement to a position of opposing support for the British war machine, and, on uniting oppositional currents capable of challenging for hegemony. Connolly made it clear he was for a rising during the war to strike a blow for Irish independence and to ignite a European-wide revolution to end imperialism and capitalism. He believed it was the duty of socialists to do this, rather than collapse into support for the imperialist war as many socialist leaders across Europe had.
A split opened up in the Irish Volunteers following Redmond’s decision to back the British war effort. A majority went with Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party calling themselves the National Volunteers. The Irish Volunteers now had some 13,500 members and led by the cultural nationalist Patrick Pearse and IRB members was committed to initiating an uprising during the war.
In 1914, recruitment in Ireland to the British Army was more than 75,000. But by August 1915 the numbers dropped to less than 16,000. The grim reality of death in the trenches combined with effective anti-war campaigning was turning the tide of opinion. Support for John Redmond and the powerful Irish Parliamentary Party was quickly on the wane. Such was the strength of growing opposition, when the British government passed the Conscription Act in January 1916 Ireland was excluded. Consequently, British authorities faced with growing criticism of the war began to crack down on forces organising against their war. Socialist, republican, feminist and anti-militarist newspapers and organisations were banned and activists harassed, jailed and deported.
This is the backdrop to the Easter Rising. The IRB planned the insurrection. The revolutionary socialist James Connolly joined the IRB Military Council and committed the ICA to participating. When a German delivery of weapons and ammunition failed to materialise an attempt was made to stop the rising from proceeding. This drastically reduced the numbers who would ultimately participate. On the morning of Easter Monday members the Irish Volunteers, the IRB, the ICA and Cumann na mBan (the Irishwomen’s Council) set out to seize strategic buildings in Dublin and proclaimed the Irish Republic from the steps of the General Post Office on O’Connell Street. The rebels held-out for six days but were finally overwhelmed by the vastly superior weaponry and numbers of the British Army.
The gravest problem the rising faced was its small numbers, only around 1300 participated in Dublin. It was a rising of a revolutionary minority hoping to connect with the growing unpopularity of the imperial war and British rule. It’s a myth that the leaders of the rising planned simply for a blood sacrifice. In actual fact, a much wider rising was planned across Ireland with many thousands more rebels to be mobilised into action. There was every intention of making the rising succeed.
British authorities responded by imposing martial law, arresting thousands and by executing leaders of rising, including Patrick Pearse and James Connolly. However, the attempt to crush the coming revolutionary upheaval spectacularly backfired. Though the rising was defeated and failed, it completely transformed Irish politics and broke the conservative hold of the pro-empire Redmonite political caste. The rising should be defended as an anti-colonial revolt and an assertion of the right of the Irish people to self-determination.
Two years later, the rising of a minority transformed into a revolutionary rising of the majority across Ireland. In 1918, a massive popular mobilisation involving hundreds of thousands in the form of strikes, mass boycotts, workplace occupations and land seizures alongside an armed struggle involving thousands of fighters challenged British rule and Ireland’s political, social and economic order.
As Kieran Allen writes in 1916 Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition that even “with all its ambiguities, the Irish revolutionary tradition is a positive asset. It means the idea revolution is not as foreign to the body politic as in countries which experienced centuries of gradual, peaceful change. The historic memory of the Rising also provides a reference point for left wingers who seek to popularise their views. The language of socialism normally starts with an understanding of the underlying dynamics of the capitalist system. But this must be related to the specific traditions that shape the consciousness of workers in particular countries. The revolutionary left in Ireland will grow more rapidly if it is able to embrace the anti-colonial spirit that gave rise to 1916”.
Today, we need a new rising of the many across Ireland and the world. The Covid-19 crisis has put a spotlight on the irrational way capitalism is organised and the massive inequalities it generates. We should take inspiration from Ireland’s revolutionary tradition and state our aims as clearly as James Connolly: “Socialism will confiscate the property of the capitalist and in return will secure the individual against poverty and oppression; it, in return for so confiscating, will assure to all men and women a free, happy and unanxious human life. And that is more than capitalism can assure anyone today.”