Remembering the Rising part 4 – revolution and counter-revolution?

NGI 1236

NGI 1236

In the last post I stated the view of the Irish establishment that the 1916 Rising was the foundational act of the formation of the current Irish State.  This is not the view of many on the Left:

“The current Irish state is not a product of the Rising – it owes its existence to the counter-revolution of 1923. . .  . The current Irish state, therefore, has little in common with those who staged an uprising in 1916. . .  and has absolutely no intention of cherishing ‘all of the children equally’.  A new massive popular uprising will be required to establish even this limited ideal.  That should be the real lesson of the centenary.” (Kieran Allen)

There is a historical question whether the revolution that followed the 1916 rising would have occurred without it but that isn’t the real point here.  There is a claim that both the Rising and the War of Independence were not responsible (in any way?) for the current Irish state and those involved in 1916 have little in common with the personification of Irish independence today.

Unfortunately for such a claim the personalities who forged the counter-revolution, as it is called, in 1923 and later leaders of the state were prominently involved in the 1916 Rising and in the first post in this series we named some of them – William Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy, Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera and his successor as Taoiseach Sean Lemass.  These are among the foremost founders and architects of the current Irish state and they all fought in 1916.

The claim that there was a counter-revolution in 1923 refers to the acceptance of the Treaty that established the Free State with its oath of allegiance to the King, membership of the Commonwealth, the post of Governor General, retention of the Treaty ports by the British and a deal on partition that quickly preserved it.  The Treaty was signed under a British threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ and was followed by a civil war when the Irish Republican movement split over acceptance of British terms.  For anti-Treaty republicans the new state was illegitimate, as therefore were its police, armed forces and political institutions, including the new Dáil.

As we saw in the first post the new Free State Government was a reactionary one dedicated to policies of low taxation, balanced budgets, free trade and an illiberal social policy that included heavy censorship of films and literature and legislation to outlaw divorce.  It brutally repressed its anti-Treaty opponents with imprisonment, torture and murder.

Its most prominent architect was William Cosgrave, a supporter of the monarchist Sinn Fein from its foundation.  As one historian has put it (John M Regan) “his concept of government prior to independence was essentially theocratic.   In suggesting an upper house for the Dáil in 1921, he advocated a ‘theological board which would decide whether any enactments of the Dáil were contrary to [Roman Catholic] faith and morals or not’.”

By some contrast the inspiration for the new Free State and pro-Treaty icon was Michael Collins, who another historian (Peter Hart) has described as having “a deep dislike of exploitation and poverty.”    “What set Collins apart was his secularism. . . . He was actively anti-clerical for much of his life, and blamed the Catholic Church for many of Ireland’s problems.”

When the pro-Treaty regime fell to the anti-Treaty Fianna Fail, policies of free trade, acceptance of the post of Governor General and oath of allegiance were rejected; the British left the Treaty ports; an ‘economic war’ with Britain was embarked upon and then resolved; and the new Government introduced a new constitution in 1937, which proclaimed the special position of the Catholic Church, the subordinate role of women in society and a constitutional protection of the prerogatives of private property that stands as a barrier to action by the state to this day. It also brutally repressed its republican opponents.   In 1948, under the leadership of the pro-Treaty Fine Gael the Irish State declared itself a Republic.  In effect the anti-Treaty side accepted the legitimacy of the new state and of the Michael Collins’ view that the Treaty provided a stepping stone to freedom.

In the aftermath of the civil war between pro and anti-Treaty republicans the latter had dedicated themselves to a ‘second round’ against the traitorous Free State and its illegitimate institutions.  Today no one in the spectrum of republicanism holds to such a position: I know of no one, and have never heard anyone, say that a renewed armed struggle should make the existing Irish State its primary target.  This is now uncontroversial, reflecting the legitimacy of the State in the eyes of the overwhelming number of its citizens.

The Irish state today is a Republic and the anti-Treaty side in its subsequent development, from Fianna Fail in the 1920s to Clann na Poblachta in the 1940s to Provisional Sinn Fein today, has accepted this and sought to become its governing party.

In other words the vast majority of the revolutionary movement of 1919 to 1921 accepted the Treaty, or the counter-revolution as it has been described above, leaving the question – what exactly was the revolution that was reversed or prevented?

An argument exists that the British proxy-war fought by the pro-Treaty forces succeeded in imposing the British terms demanded for the ending of hostilities.  What the vastly superior forces of the British could have unleashed in a renewed war was instead leveraged in the Treaty negotiations.  This might therefore be characterised as the counter-revolution; except of course that, as we have seen, the new state gradually dispensed with the trappings of Empire and colonial status.  It even eventually got a degree of economic separation from the British when it got itself a new currency – the Euro.  But perhaps this too can be seen as the continuation under a new guise of the counter-revolution, but if it was it was not part of any counter-revolution in 1923 and linking the Troika to the civil war is a bit of a stretch.

In opposition to such a view the historian Diarmaid Ferriter quotes a ‘veteran Irish political correspondent’ James Downey (very recently deceased) in 2012:

“It’s tempting to say that our ancestors won it and that our own generation has thrown it away. Not only tempting, but in important respects true. Undoubtedly we have lost our economic independence and will take a very long time to regain it.

But some of the aspirations of the 1916 Proclamation were never feasible anyway. No country, even the biggest and most powerful, has “unfettered” control of its destinies.

Independent Irish governments did not set out to make Ireland either a Marxist paradise or a dreamy medieval vision on the de Valera model. They set out to make it a normal liberal-democratic, capitalist state.

To a considerable extent they succeeded. They managed the transition from a peasant society to an industrial country reasonably well.

Where they went wrong was not so much in the excesses of the Tiger years — although these have brought us, and will continue to bring us, much suffering — as in the failure, and worse than failure, to curb corruption and what we like to call ‘gombeenism’.

We all know this word and use it constantly, but it is dreadfully hard to define.

It can cover almost anything from dramatic strokes and deals to improper political and business practices to the trading of small favours and abuse of petty power.

It was endemic before independence. It is still endemic. In some ways it is worse than before. Virtually all the measures aimed at putting it down have been insincere or misdirected, ruined by political and official inertia or subverted by the cynical Irish belief that nothing can ever change for the better.

We don’t have to go back 100 years, or 100 days, to watch it in operation. Who believes the Mahon Report will produce any good results? Who thinks the Fine Gael-Labour coalition will eradicate the cronyism that tarnished its predecessors?

We won’t find answers to such sad questions in commemorations. We have to seek them in the here and now.”

In the last two posts we have seen that the revolutionary generation set out to create a separate Irish state, free from British rule, a nationalist objective that they succeeded in achieving – where then is the counter-revolution?  It was from among the survivors of the 1916 Rising that the leadership of the succeeding Irish State arose – so from whom did the counter-revolution arise?

Perhaps it may be claimed that these leaders betrayed their earlier beliefs or at least their earlier declarations of the objectives of the Rising?  But in the second post we explained that the 1916 Proclamation made no grander claims to social and economic revolution upon which it might be possible to condemn the current Irish state as a betrayal of. So again, where is the counter-revolution?

Let us take the politics of the revolutionary nationalist movement during its revolutionary period.

In his recent book ‘A Nation and not a Rabble, the Irish Revolution 1916-1923’ the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, hardly one of the pro-imperialist revisionist historians, records the lack of ideology guiding the political struggle during the revolution.

He states “those looking for evidence of broad, sophisticated ideological debates during the decade may be disappointed”- contrast this with the experience of the Russian revolution!  “Those who propelled the republican revolution were more focussed on the idea of separation from Britain ‘rather than implementing any concrete political programme.’  He quotes one fellow historian that ‘the new nationalist leaders did not see it as necessary to analyse the “self” that was to exercise self-determination’”, and a second historian noting that “the republican leaders ‘do not appear to have debated what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions’.”

Discussing the many statements given by participants to the Bureau of Military History on their motivation and experience of the struggle, Fearghal McGarry states that “there is little discussion of ideology in the statements . . . Volunteering did not popularise republicanism.”  Ferriter quotes from a prominent republican and chronicler of his experience in the revolution: “as Ernie O’Malley saw it ‘fighting was so easy compared with that soul-numbing, uphill fight against one people’s ignorance and prejudice’, his tortured description of politics.”

This does not mean that politics did not exist within the revolutionary movement.  The nationalism of Irish republicanism, as to most nationalists everywhere, seemed uncomplicated and simple, self-evident and pure, nevertheless had a definite political content, even if it was unconscious and sublimated other real societal divisions such as class.  As de Valera and others insisted – patriotism was to rise above all class interests.

The republican paper Irish Freedom put it succinctly in 1911: “The interests of Ireland as a whole are greater than the interests of any class in Ireland, and so long as labour accepts the nation, Labour must subordinate its class interests to the interests of the nation.”

The republican movement was prepared to eject strikers from their place of work while de Valera would say that he felt “confident that the common patriotism of all sections will prove superior to all special class interests.”   Even the radical Constance Markievicz, who became Minister of Labour in the revolutionary government, complained that “the trade unions’ appeal always seems to me to be so very sordid and selfish.  Till something suddenly makes them realise the value of self-sacrifice they will never be much use to humanity.”  And they were not the only ones to suffer disapproval: Cosgrave complained that those unfortunate enough to end up in the workhouse “are no great acquisition to the community . . .  As a rule their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers.  Consequently it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate.”

Leading republican Austin Stack “warned of the dangers of agrarian agitation subverting patriotic opinion and pointed to the importance of the republican courts in undermining such revolutionary sentiment.”  In 1921 the republican Irish Bulletin warned that “the mind of the people was being diverted from the struggle for freedom into a class war and there was even a possibility that the IRA, itself largely composed of farmers’ sons, might be affected.”  However it went on to state that this “proved wholly groundless” as “agrarian lawlessness was steadily suppressed, cattle-driving and boundary-breaking punished and ruffianly elements brought to book.”  (Ferriter)

And all this happened before 1923 when the counter-revolution is supposed to have occurred.

But, it might still be claimed, the Irish State is corrupt and its venality exposed by its loss of sovereignty while under the diktats of the Troika of European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.  But when did the Irish revolution ever set itself the tasks of creating conditions that would prevent this?  And if it did not, where was the need for any counter-revolution to reverse or prevent a socially revolutionary regime that would have done so?

At the level of the personalities involved – when and how did the leaders who survived the Rising radically change their political views, that made their participation in the Rising revolutionary but later actions counter-revolutionary?

Perhaps it is claimed that the Irish working class took independent action that threatened not only the contemporary political arrangements that involved direct British rule but also the capitalist economic and social structure of society.  What about the strikes, occupations and events such as the Limerick Soviet?

But when did such actions have an independent dynamic separate from the national struggle, with its own objective, own separate movement and separate leadership?  Not only separate but necessarily counter-posed to the revolutionary nationalist movement (if it were to prevent counter-revolution).

The fear of such a task and appreciation of weakness in even contemplating it has been noted by Ferriter during the Limerick Soviet episode –“ The Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress feared that any escalation in support for Limerick ‘would be entirely on their own heads and lack the enthusiastic national support of Sinn Fein” (even though the Limerick action was against the proclamation of the area as a special military area by the British).

With an agricultural population in the last spasms of land agitation; an industrial sector cut off by partition and its working class divided by sectarianism, the larger part of which was politically reactionary and the remainder industrially weak and politically dominated by nationalism and a soft labourism – how could it be otherwise?

As for the revolutionary nationalists, with their difficulty with politics compared to fighting and their opposition to debating “what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions”, how ironic that this lack of politics led them not only to a debate over abstractions when the Treaty was signed – the oath of allegiance and the existence of an established Republic that was being betrayed  –  but also led them to a vicious civil war over these abstractions.

On only one count is it possible to argue that there was a counter-revolution that betrayed the goals of 1916, even if it was carried out by those who fought in it. And this is the imposition of partition, although this is often the least mentioned and most ignored.

Even a purely nationalist revolution seeks the unity of the country.  Indeed intrinsic to nationalism is the indivisibility of the nation.  So 1916 opposed partition and promised religious equality in the Republic as the alternative to it.  But 1916 could not deliver on its objective and admitted as much.  The Rising that might deliver national freedom was circumscribed by its leaders through their recognition that the Rising could not even carry out a strike against partition.

The organisers of the Rising explicitly prohibited fighting in Ulster, instead planning that Volunteers in the province assemble together in Tyrone and march to Connaught to join the rebellion there.  Even the foolishness of this ill-considered plan revealed the lack of adequacy to addressing the real task of defeating an imperialist-backed mass unionist opposition to the project of a national democracy.

Objectively the 1916 Rising was unable to strike against the coming of partition, which was imposed not during the retreat of the national revolution but at its height of military struggle.  In other words neither 1916 nor the following national revolution could hold out the promise of a defeat of partition and the ‘carnival of reaction’ that would follow it, which was foretold so acutely by Connolly.

So in what respect was there a counter-revolution when that revolution never actually set itself the task of preventing partition in any objective sense?  The revolution could not seriously make the promise of a united nation; that it did not result in one can hardly be put down to the actions of a counter-revolution.

Postscript:

I spoke at a small meeting of socialists in Glasgow just over a week ago and I was asked whether my analysis did not contradict the traditional socialist view that the 1916 Rising was to be defended as a blow against imperialism?

I answered that the Rising was indeed to be defended as a blow against imperialism but that what was important now was to understand its limits, the limits of any politics defined simply  as ‘anti-imperialist’ and any nationalism no matter how ‘left-wing’.

So yes, I agreed with Lenin, 1916 was not a putsch and we should not expect to see a “pure” social revolution, but we should understand that 1916 wasn’t a social revolution of any kind.  In any case if any socialist could be described as seeking the maximum clarity in the struggle for socialism, the maximum ‘purity’ so to speak, it is Lenin, so not expecting to see a pure revolution and doing absolutely everything you can to get one are not in contradiction.

I was also asked the question whether Connolly was correct to take part in the Rising.  I have deliberately avoided this question in my series of posts because I’m not very interested in it.  What I did say was that if Connolly was going to take part he should have had his own Proclamation, his and the Citizen Army’s own declaration of what they were fighting for – a ‘Socialist 1916 Proclamation’.

We might then at the very least have avoided reading into the existing one progressive content that isn’t there and we would have had greater grounds for stating that today’s Irish establishment would be put in a position of some embarrassment in the centenary commemoration.  I would have liked to have seen an Irish Army officer read a declaration of socialist revolution outside the GPO!

Then also we would have had stronger grounds to say that the promise of the 1916 Rising has been betrayed.

Of course the other signatories would not have signed it.  It would have divided the Rising at least politically but then, as we have seen, the republicans divided the revolution to the benefit of certain social classes anyway.

And would Connolly have made the Workers’ Proclamation one of socialist revolution in any case?

What this alternative Proclamation should have said is for socialists the real historical (and contemporary) question not the non-existent promises of a nationalist revolution that socialists are supposed to make good now.

Back to Part 3

Remembering the Rising part 2 – the 1916 Proclamation

1916-ProclamationThe central reference point of the Easter Rising, of its commemoration and for understanding its meaning is the Proclamation read outside the GPO by Patrick Pearse.  Copies of the Proclamation and the national flag have been distributed to schools by the Irish Army and it was read out by an officer of the Army at the celebrations in Dublin on Easter Sunday.

Acres of newsprint over the years and in this centenary have been devoted to the relevance of the Proclamation to contemporary society, usually framed around the question of whether its promises have been realised and usually answered in the negative.  This is almost universally the case among liberal commentators and by many on the Left.

The purpose is to damn the failures of the existing Irish State by the imprimatur of its venerated foundational certificate, restated and ratified by the first independent Dail (parliament) established by the revolutionary movement in January 1919.  What is invited is the completion of an original process more or less universally honoured and exalted by nationalist Ireland.

Examples abound so let’s take a fairly typical illustration from last week’s Northern nationalist newspaper ‘The Irish News’ in a column entitled “Those who came after Rising have failed Ireland’.

It starts off “The Rising did not fail. It was failed by those who came after it. For 100 years, the Irish people including up to two million who emigrated) have watched as governments, political parties and armed groups paid homage to 1916, while abandoning the Rising’s social, economic and political principles. . . we can only marvel at the widening gap between the Proclamation’s ideals and the sad state of modern Ireland”

“The Rising aimed to achieve independence, social and economic equality and cultural maturity for the Irish nation.  Selected events exemplify how these aims were washed away.”  The author then recalls such events as the failure to create a welfare state, the strong role in society of a censorious Catholic Church, state repression and the evils of sectarianism associated with partition.

The following week the President of Ireland spoke at a commemorative event at the trade union headquarters at Liberty Hall on the Republic James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army fought for:

“Their vision of a people free from want, free from impoverishment and free from exploitation remains the 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.”

“Land and private property, a restrictive religiosity and a repressive pursuit of respectability, affecting women in particular” followed the Rising while “their objective was to transform Ireland’s social, economic and cultural hierarchies.  But their radical ideas of redistribution were staunchly opposed by many nationalists . . .”

*                             *                             *

The Proclamation was written by the radical nationalist Patrick Pearse with additions by James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh and approved by the seven signatories made up of advanced nationalists and James Connolly, all of whom were to be shot by firing squad after the Rising.  It proclaimed an Irish Republic that was eventually to be recognised by its foe Great Britain over 30 years later in 1949.

It is short, exhortary, was not the subject of long deliberation by its writers or by those who signed it and is today held in regard in almost inverse proportion to its detailed examination, except perhaps by today’s Irish schoolchildren, for whom it has become a subject of study and updating.

The Proclamation is well entitled for this is what it is: a declaration of an independent Irish State – a Republic.  It is not a manifesto, not a political programme to any extent and hardly a strategy.  It is a certificate of a birth already taken place so that unlike the American Declaration of Independence, there is no date of Ireland’s independence because Ireland is already an ancient nation that itself, through its Provisional Government, “strikes for her freedom.”  It is therefore a declaration of war, symbolised in the centenary celebrations by the biggest public demonstration by the armed forces of the Irish State in its history, while sanctified in the normal hypocritical fashion by a sermon from the forces’ chaplain.

The thunderbolt that was the 1916 Rising gained its impact partly because there had been no substantial national rebellion for over 100 years, and while the proclamation speaks of an “old tradition of nationhood”, it is the newness of the events that was most striking but which is now, not unnaturally, largely unnoticed.  This novelty translated, or rather did not readily translate, into the language of the Proclamation.  The word for Republic chosen in Irish – ‘poblacht’ – was not in any of its variants current in the Irish language before 1916 – there was no direct translation for the word Republic.

When Eamon de Valera travelled to London in 1919 to negotiate a truce with the British he handed Lloyd George a document in Irish, which had an English translation, headed ‘Saorstat Eireann’ and Lloyd George asked for a literal translation, saying that ‘Saorstat’ did not strike the ear as Irish.   Eamon de Valera replied ‘Free State’. ‘Yes’ retorted Lloyd George ‘but what is the Irish word for Republic?’  While the Irish pondered the reply with some discomfort Lloyd George talked to his colleagues in Welsh and when de Valera could get no further than Saorstat and Free State, Lloyd George remarked that ‘Must we not admit that the Celts never were Republicans and have no native word for such an idea’.

The beginning of the Proclamation is modelled on the similar proclamation of Robert Emmet in 1803, in that other failed rebellion.  It is the nation itself which appeals to God’s authority and its people to declare its freedom while the Proclamation appeals to both ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’ in pointing to an equality of gender but only to the Irish – there is no wider international appeal for recognition or solidarity, although it thanks it “gallant allies”, Germany, and its American diaspora.

The nation’s independence is required because British rule is illegitimate not because it is oppressive; Ireland was therefore not being disloyal to the Empire because it had never been loyal, there were no grounds for loyalty in the first place.

The national freedom of the Irish people has been asserted ‘six times in the last three hundred years . . . in arms’, referring to 1641, 1689, 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867, although only the last four can really be said to involve claims to national freedom and on the last two occasions rebellion was effectively aborted.

In this strike for freedom the Proclamation ends by placing its faith in God and demanding that the people be ready to sacrifice themselves so that the Irish nation prove itself worthy of its destiny.  The people must prove themselves to the nation.

The fourth paragraph of the Proclamation is in effect the nationalist response to the threat to the unity of this nation posed by Unionism, particularly that centred in the North-East of the country. ‘The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman.’ Just as the Irish Volunteers were a response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, just as the gunrunning at Larne was emulated by the gun running at Howth and the failure to acquire German guns at Easter 1916, so the Proclamation here is the nationalist reply to the Ulster Covenant that signalled Ulster Unionist opposition to Home Rule.

This opposition rested on the view that “Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire.”  The Unionists pledged “to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom.”

The Proclamation stated that “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 of 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.”

The authors and signatories to the Proclamation had, and could not have had, any expectation that their appeal would have any material impact on Unionist opposition to Irish independence.  By 1916 the British had agreed partition with the Northern Unionists and the ‘Ulster Solemn League and Covenant’ signed in blood to oppose Home Rule for all of Ireland became a badge of honour for Unionism in six counties and a piece of hypocrisy for those Unionists in the rest of the island.  Soon the Northern unionists, or some of them, would not even be Irish.

In testament to the division created by partition and in unconscious repudiation of its centrality to the Proclamation’s signatories, the promise to ‘cherish all of the children of the nation equally’ has come to be understood as a commitment to some sort of social and economic equality  or even a commitment to children as such; the latter a response to the independent  Irish State’s history of privileging defence of the Catholic Church despite its abominable physical and sexual abuse of children.

The Proclamation states that the principle on which independence is based is ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’ which itself is based on Pearse’s ‘The Sovereign People’ in which he states that:

“The right and privilege to make laws or to administer laws does not reside in any class within the nation; it resides in the whole nation, that is, in the whole people, and can be lawfully exercised only by those to whom it is delegated by the whole people.  The right to the control of the material resources of the nation does not reside in any individual or in any class of individuals; it resides in the whole people and in the manner in which the whole people ordains.”  For Pearse this is based on the teachings of the founder of Irish Republicanism, Wolfe Tone, who led the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen.

“To insist upon the sovereign control of the nation over all the property within the nation is not to disallow the right to private property.  It is for the nation to determine to what extent private property may be held by its members, and in what items of the nation’s material resources private property may be allowed.”

In the history of the Irish working class movement it is a Workers Republic that is the goal; power derives from the nature of the contending classes within society and all talk of the nation obscures the power of the capitalist class to determine the nature of society.  Private property, what the socialist tradition calls bourgeois property, is the basis of exploitation of the working class, and contrary to the implicit assumption of the President of Ireland, the Proclamation and the Rising made no claims to end exploitation and no claims to upset the hierarchies of class rule.

As a nationalist document the Proclamation upheld the view that the nation stands above classes, a view that always upholds private bourgeois property.  For socialists the material resources that are the content of property must be owned by that class which collectively through its cooperative labour creates and recreates these material resources. The Proclamation upheld the priority of the nation, where socialists uphold the priority of the working class to determine the nature of property relations.

Today, in fact since it was first written, the Proclamation has been interpreted for its meaning for the struggles of today.  This is as it should be.  What is not as it should be is to interpret the words of the Proclamation anachronistically and give of them a meaning that they did not have.  In trying thus to demonstrate the relevance of the Proclamation those doing so inadvertently subvert its true relevance.

When we remember those who fought in the Rising we should remember all who fought.  When we evoke the words of their Proclamation we should recall what those words meant to those who led down their lives fighting that they be given effect.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Remembering the Rising part 1- the men of 1916

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When British Army reinforcements arrived in Kingstown to put down the Easter Rising in 1916 many of the soldiers thought they had been sent to France and one Cockney soldier ‘wondered how everyone he met spoke such good English.’  On Wednesday morning, on day three of the Rising, hundreds of these soldiers marched into South Dublin along Northumberland Road where Eamon De Valera, who was commandant of the 3rd Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, had anticipated this approach and had placed two outposts along the Road approaching Mount Street Bridge.

The Volunteers here waited until the advance detachment of the British had passed before opening fire: ‘those who came in our direction were completely wiped out’, said one Volunteer.  “Isn’t this a great day for Ireland” said Volunteer Paddy Doyle.  The engagement that followed at Mount Street Bridge accounted for almost half British Army casualties in the Rising and only sheer weight of numbers and superior firepower allowed the British forces to eventually push through.  Volunteer James Doyle, who had been knocked unconscious during the fighting, woke up to find that his outpost had been ripped apart by bullets and explosions and that his comrade Paddy Doyle was dead.

The 4th Battalion, ordered to take over the South Dublin Union -, the largest poorhouse in the country with three thousand inmates – included William Cosgrave who was quartermaster to Eamonn Ceannt, a signatory to the Proclamation of the Republic.  Cosgrave later took over command from Cathal Brugha after Brugha was so badly wounded by a grenade that he was not expected to survive.

Brugha “was a hard hater of everything British” and “knew nothing of fear and had little sympathy for anyone who did.”  When the Volunteers were forced to vacate their position in the nurse’s home  one asked Cosgrave if they would take Brugha with them even though Brugha, thinking he was done for, had told the volunteers to leave.  Cosgrave replied that “a soldier’s duty was to obey and pointed the way with a .45 revolver swinging on his finger.”  Nevertheless Brugha was later to say that he remembered Cosgrave’s “extreme kindness” when he was wounded and would not forget it.

Cosgrave had been at the inaugural meeting of the Volunteers at the Rotunda in Dublin and took part in the gun running at Howth. His brother also participated in the Rising and was shot dead by a British sniper during the fighting.  Though his garrison was complimented by one of the British commanders for having fought against great odds his court martial, lasting only ten to fifteen minutes, declared a sentence of “guilty, death by being shot.”  However, like many others receiving the same verdict he escaped the death penalty.

Commandant De Valera, who was responsible for the Volunteers at Mount Street Bridge and for the extent of the British losses inflicted there, also escaped execution by the British, the only commandant not to be shot by a British firing squad.

Cosgrave later became a leader of the pro-Treaty faction of the republican movement and became head of the Free State after the death of Michael Collins.  The split in the movement over the Treaty led to civil war, amongst the first casualties of which was Cathal Brugha.

In pursuit of this civil war Cosgrave introduced military courts, saying that “we are not going to treat rebels as prisoners of war.” This included the execution of four prominent members of the anti-Treaty movement in retaliation for the killing of a pro-Treaty TD, Cosgrave stating that “terror meets terror.”  One of the four was Rory O’Connor, who was wounded in the Rising, and another the radical republican Liam Mellows who in 1916 had led the biggest mobilisation of Volunteers outside Dublin in attacks in County Galway.

‘The Irish Times’ noted that this action “eclipses in sudden and tragic severity the sternest measures of the British Crown” and even Catholic Archbishop Byrne expressed dismay.  Seventy more anti-Treaty republicans were executed in the next five months, including Erskine Childers who had been on board the Asgard when it landed guns in Howth.

As later head of the new Free State Government Cosgrave introduced a conservative policy of low taxation, balanced budgets and free trade, leading for example to a cut in the pension for the blind and a particularly unpopular cut in the old age pension of 10 per cent in 1924.  Social policy included heavy censorship of films and literature, including a Committee on Evil Literature, plus legislation to outlaw divorce and “the unnatural prevention of conception”.

In 1932 the Cosgrave led Cumann na nGaedheal party failed to convince the electorate that the Fianna Fail party was communist, beginning decades of domination of that party led by De Valera before the reins of Taoiseach passed to fellow 1916 veteran Sean Lemass in 1959.  His economic policy was less centred on agriculture and during the protectionist 1930s he was willing to promote national industrial development behind tariffs.  His new constitution of the Irish State in 1937 recognised the special position of the Catholic Church and the position of women in the home.

He kept the Irish State out of and officially neutral during the Second World War and also used hated Cumann na nGaedheal laws to drag members of the remaining IRA before military tribunals, introducing internment of republicans and letting prisoners die on hunger strike. He also, like the Free State forces during the civil war and indeed the British, carried out executions of IRA members by firing squad.  These included Patrick McGrath, another veteran of 1916.

While Liam Mellows had led the largest mobilisation of Volunteers outside Dublin in 1916 it was the Volunteers of the 5th Battalion led by Thomas Ashe in North Dublin and Meath that inflicted the most casualties.  These forces led by Ashe were joined by another smaller group of Volunteers led by Richard Mulcahy, a future chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army.

Mulcahy’s plans for Easter originally involved a three-day religious retreat and a holiday with his family and while he got away on the first the second had to wait.  Suffering from the same confusion of many volunteers who had seen the countermanding order against mobilisation by the leader of the Volunteers, Eoin Mac Neill, he went out uniformed ready to take part in the Rising if one was to take place.

After bumping into James Connolly, who didn’t confirm any plans to him, he later met Thomas MacDonagh, who told him to be ready to “strike at twelve”.  This involved destruction of cables at Howth railway junction and with two other Volunteers he set off to carry out his orders, only to find out that one of his comrades had left his gun at home!  Having got the errant revolutionary to go home and get his weapon the group came across two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who fortunately were so used to Volunteers marching about that they passed them by with hardly a glance.  The Volunteers then carried out their orders and cut the Howth communication cables.

Having met up with Ashe, Mulcahy was made second-in-command, together leading the attack on two RIC barracks at Swords and Donabate.  It was the attack on the barracks at Ashbourne however that was to be most dramatic and testified to the leadership qualities of Mulcahy.

Realising that the Rising had not gone to plan a number of the 5th Battalion Volunteers questioned the legitimacy of their actions and continuation of their attacks.  In response Mulcahy gave a lecture on their duty to their country and after calling a vote only a handful failed to take the step forward that indicated their willingness to continue the fight.

The next day the Battalion attacked the Ashbourne barracks, defended by only ten RIC men.  Just as the RIC inside were about to surrender a seventeen –strong column of cars containing at least fifty-four police appeared, threatening to reverse the outcome of the engagement and provoke a panicked rout.

Mulcahy prevented the panic and led the outnumbered Volunteers in holding their ground against the new RIC column, surrounding it and subjecting it to relentless fire from all angles – one volunteer Bernard McAllister recalled that “we had a clear view and decimated them with our fire. Some took cover under the cars but were visible to us there. . . our fellows were making bets as to who would shoot the most.”

Pressing home the advantage in an engagement that lasted over five hours the Volunteers led by Mulcahy pushed forward, resulting in fierce close-quarters fighting:

“John Crinigan of Swords looked through a gap in the ditch to locate any police, he was seen by D.I. Smith [Smyth] who fired at and shot him through the head with a revolver.  Vice-Commandant Frank Lawless who was immediately behind joined fire on the D.I. with a Howth Mauser rifle at a distance of about 6 yards and shot him through the head.”

Richard Mulcahy then led a bayonet charge against the RIC who surrendered by throwing their rifles out on the road.

The victory was possible for a number of reasons, including that Mulcahy was able to convince Ashe not to retreat when the RIC column stumbled on the original attack.  In many ways this action was significant because it prefigured republican military tactics during the later War of Independence in which Mulcahy was to play a major role.  One of Mulcahy’s colleagues was to remark that he was the only one to come out of 1916 with a military reputation.

In the history of the later struggle however Mulcahy was very much overshadowed by the figure of Michael Collins, Minister of Finance in the Republican Government, Adjutant-General of the War of Independence Volunteers and Director of Intelligence, often portrayed as the tragic hero of the war against the British, comparable to those who were to be executed at the end of the Rising.

Collins too had taken part in the 1916 rebellion and though not then the renowned figure he was to become it has been noted that he stood out in a number of atypical ways.  Before and during the Rising Volunteers showed remarkable piety and religious observance.  This was a reflection of the strength of Catholicism in Irish society at the time, a strength which captured many later popular perceptions of the Rising as enshrining a Catholic ethos, leading to portrayal of the Rising in quasi-religious terms.

There are many reports of the Volunteers praying, holding rosary beads along with their guns, attending confession and receiving Holy Communion before and during the Rising.  But this was not true everyone.  Near the end of the week’s fighting as the morale of some began to falter Collins rounded on a fellow Volunteer for neglecting to focus on fighting by saying “Are you fucking praying too?”

Collins and Mulcahy were to become leading figures in the guerrilla war against Britain and then in the pro-Treaty regime that arose from acceptance of the peace terms dictated by the British.   During the war Collins became the celebrated organiser of a special assassination unit called ‘The Squad’ formed to kill British agents and informers.  Although criticised for his apparently ruthless approach he cited the universal war-time practise of executing enemy spies who were, in his words, “hunting victims for execution.”

In 1920 a bounty of £10,000 (equivalent in 2010 to £300,000/€360,000) was offered for information leading to his capture or death.   One of his operatives in the Squad was Vinnie Byrne who had also ‘fought’ in the Rising as a fifteen year old, although he later admitted he never fired a shot and was released when the Rising was over after a stern lecture by a British officer.

Collins shared the leadership of the military campaign against the British with Mulcahy who also supported the Treaty, serving as Defence Minister in the new Free State Government from January 1922 until March 1924.  During the civil war that followed the signing of the Treaty Mulcahy earned notoriety through his order that anti-Treaty activists captured carrying arms were liable for execution and a total of 77 anti-Treaty prisoners suffered this fate.

Another of Collins’ associates in the War against the British was Joseph McGrath who had taken part in fierce fighting in Marrowbone Lane in 1916 under the command of Eamonn Ceantt.   He also supported the Treaty and as head of the Criminal Investigation Unit was responsible for abducting and killing Anti-Treaty republicans during the civil war.  A policy of repression was also used against the regime’s first striking workers in September 1922 when the Free State Government opposed the right of postal workers to withdraw their labour.  One of the workers’ pickets was shot, surviving only because the bullet deflected off her suspender buckle.

Collins had fought in the Rising as Joseph Plunkett’s aide-de-camp at the GPO alongside Patrick Pearse and James Connolly.  Despite Pearse being commander-in-chief it was Connolly who was made Commandant-General of the Dublin Division, in effect leading the forces in the GPO, which was the headquarters of the Rising.  One Volunteer remembered that “his physical energy and strength were amazing.  He was always on the move”.  His principal weakness as a leader according to Oscar Traynor was his indifference to his own safety, which was characterised by other Volunteers as “remarkable coolness.”

William Whelan noted that when some of his number were shaken by crowds looting shops and began firing wildly “Connolly came out of the Post Office and marched up and down in front of it.  He said “Steady, we are going to have a good fight”.  He quelled the panic”.

Connolly was wounded twice, the second more seriously, ending his effective leadership of the Rising.  This also resulted in one of the most poignant episodes in the Rising – Connolly being carried on a stretcher to his execution as two members of the firing squad were ordered to aim at his head.  He died without any movement, the bullets shattering the back of his chair.

In his last meeting with his daughter Nora she recalled her Mother’s lament “But your beautiful life, James’.  “Hasn’t it been a full life?  Isn’t this a good end?” he said.  ‘Then they took us away.’

This full and beautiful life included founding the Irish Socialist Republican Party and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union; membership and organisation of socialist parties and the militant ‘Wobblies’ union in the United States; numerous Marxist writings on socialism, politics and Irish history and leadership of the Irish Citizens Army, which fought in the Rising.

In the centenary anniversary of the Rising we are called upon to remember those who fought.  Let us remember them all.

Forward to part 2

A Case of Stockholm Syndrome* – The Left and the State

In two recent posts, here and here, I have criticised proposals of the United Left Alliance (ULA) that rely on dealing with unemployment through a state investment programme.  I have also made criticisms of tax plans of the ULA, which again rely on state action for their implementation.  The state is clearly extremely important to the left alternative proposed by the ULA.

The Socialist Party in the general election called for nationalisation of all the banks and their being run democratically under public control and management. It demanded that the state take the economy and natural resources into democratic public ownership in order to plan the development of a real manufacturing base.   It called for a government based on working class people that implements socialist policies and puts people before profit.  All eight of its proposals involved state action or the need to get the left into the state and into government.

The ‘Alternative Economic Agenda’ of the People Before Profit Alliance was constructed in a similar manner.  It has eleven separate elements and again all rely on the state taking action on behalf of the working class or ‘people’ in general.  Their demands include creation of one good state bank; creation of a State Construction Agency for infrastructural investment; expansion and reorientation of the public sector away from a corporate agenda and general reliance on the state to develop the economy.

These demands for the State to take action to defend working people must be taken at face value.  It is not possible that these demands are raised in order to expose the State and rid workers of their illusions in it because very few workers actually expect the State to take over the economy and run it for the benefit of working people.  The illusions peddled are those of the Left itself, for what is presented is the ideal objective which they aim for and which workers are called upon to endorse.  Except of course that state ownership is not socialism and the Left knows it, or rather will claim to know it.  The problem is that the means – capitalist state ownership – is supposed to lead to an end that is not capitalist state ownership.

When I say that the left knows that capitalist state ownership is not socialism I mean that it knows well the statements of  James Connolly including – “state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism — if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials — but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism… To the cry of the middle class reformers, ‘make this or that the property of the government,’ we reply, ‘yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property.’ Workers’ Republic, 10 June 1899.

Engels put it similarly in ‘Anti Duhring’ published just over twenty years earlier -“… since Bismarck adopted state ownership a certain spurious socialism has made its appearance here and there even degenerating into a kind of flunkeyism which declares that all taking over by the state, even of the Bismarckian kind, is itself socialist. If, however, the taking over of the tobacco trade by the State was socialist, Napoleon and Metternich would rank among the founders of socialism. If the Belgian state, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, constructed its own main railway lines, if Bismarck… took over the main railway lines in Prussia, simply in order to be better able to organise and use them for war, to train the railway officials as the government’s voting cattle, and especially to secure a new source of revenue independent of immediate votes – such actions were in no sense socialist measures. Otherwise the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal Porcelain Manufacturer, and even the regimental tailors in the army, would be socialist institutions.”

We only need to recall that the enormous austerity that working people are suffering is due to the state’s budget deficit and the state’s debt burden to understand what Irish workers should think of ‘their’ state.  It wasn’t the collapse of the banks that placed this debt on the backs of the workers, it was the State that placed this debt on the backs of the workers through guaranteeing all their liabilities and then effectively nationalising them.  Yet nationalisation of the banks has been a left demand for years and still is today.  Yet this nationalisation is precisely the mechanism used by the State to bail out the capitalists involved directly and the whole system indirectly.

Nor is such a purpose unusual for nationalisation.  In fact I can’t offhand think of a nationalisation that wasn’t meant to benefit capitalism and didn’t place a burden on workers.  The rhetoric about dependence of many working people on the state for jobs is no different in essence from that of the supporters of Sean Quinn who have been dependent on him in the past for employment.  Anyone on the left who argues that the State is somehow democratic and has duties to working people no longer believes that the capitalist state is above all the defender of the capitalist system.  That this is what is its defining role.  But for the Left it would appear that holding the belief that the capitalist state is both a defender of capitalism and cannot be reformed and that it can provide all the things that are demanded in Left manifestos are not two mutually exclusive ideas that cannot both be true.

I am reminded of F Scott Fitzgerald’s remark that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  Some in the left appear to go one better and actually sincerely believe two opposed ideas at the same time.  My view is that this is dysfunctional.

*Stockholm syndrome, or capture-bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. (from Wikipedia)

to be continued.