Easter Rising - Dublin 1916

60 years after - what are the lessons?

John Throne, Militant Irish Monthly, No. 43, May 1976

The Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 is celebrated in Ireland by many different political groupings, each holding their own particular ceremony. These separate ceremonies show the many different interpretations put on the 1916 events and raise sharply the need for an analysis of the Rising from the point of view of the working class and the struggle for socialism.

On Easter Monday April 24th 1916, armed groups of men, members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizens' Army, seized key points of the City of Dublin, set up their headquarters in the General Post Office and declared themselves the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic. The Commandant General of the Dublin forces was James Connolly. The Commander in Chief was Patrick Pearse.

The forces of the uprising immediately came under attack from the British forces. This included bombardment from a battleship moored in the River Liffey. The fighting went on for up to a week until Pearse, as the President of the Provisional Government, finally surrendered on Saturday, April 29th. An estimated 120 members of the British forces and the Royal Irish Constabulary died in the fighting.

The Rising had originally been planned for Easter Sunday but McNeill, President of the Volunteers, countermanded an order for country-wide demonstrations on that day and as these were to be used to launch the Rising throughout the country the Rising was called off for that day, but took place instead on the next. Mainly for this reason, the Rising was isolated to Dublin with the exception of small revolts in Galway, Wexford and Cork.

The Rising, coming as it did in the midst of the 1914-18 war which was a conflict between the big powers for markers and sources of raw materials, dew upon its head the furious denunciations of all the most reactionary elements within Ireland and Britain and also of all those who supported the British side in the war. The condemnation of the British authorities was in steel and death. An estimated (Irish Times, May 6th 1916), 160 non-army personnel died under the heel of the British forces. This included the execution of the leaders of the Rising by firing squad. James Connolly was executed tied to a chair as he could not stand because of his wounds. He was shot on May 12th 1916.

The pages of the Irish Times reflected the attitude of the British Government and the employers. In an editorial in their issue covering 28th and 29th April and 1st May they stated:
Where our politicians failed and failed badly, the British Army has filled the breach and won the day. The Dublin insurrection will pass into history with the equally unsuccessful insurrections of the past.
Showing its hatred and fear of the real social forces that lay behind the Rising, it commented on the HQ of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union from which Connolly had led the forces which had seized the GPO: 'Liberty Hall is no more than a sinister and hateful memory.' The same paper, in answer to Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, when he asked for a stop to the executions on May 8th, stated that they must go on yet,' and called for an extension of military law.

We have learned that the sword of the soldier is a far better guarantee of justice and liberty than the presence of politicians.
It was no accident that the voices of big business and British Imperialism called for the continuation of the executions at this time and also no accident that the cry tailed off after Connolly's execution. Murphy, the leader of the Dublin employers in the 1913 Lockout, in his paper the Irish Independent, came out for clemency only after Connolly was shot. All these elements saw, correctly from their point of view, that if Connolly was left alive he would be a national hero and from this position he would fight to give the coming struggle an increasingly socialist colouration.

The Roman Catholic Church also came out against the Rising, as did groups like the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Irish National Foresters. Along with these stood Carson and the UVF, and Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party. Indeed, Redmond and Carson were reported to have met on May 2nd and Carson offered the UVF to Redmond to put down the Rising. The Dublin Chamber of Commerce also came out in opposition.

Poverty

The numbers involved in the Rising were no more than 750 at the outset, with this number being swollen to near 2,000 over the course of the week. The Rising by no means evoked mass sympathy, not to mention mass support. Many of the inhabitants of Dublin took the opportunity to help themselves to the contents of shops and stores during the fighting.

An old woman was reported as having said when she saw the GPO seized: 'Lord help us, it's the Citizens Army and they have taken the Post Office.' This probably sums up the lack of support but also the lack of any positive antagonism to the Rising on behalf of the Dublin working people. While some of the most advanced sections of the Dublin working class were involved through their membership of the Citizens' Army, the working class as a whole were not mobilised in active support.

The executions and the brutality of the repression, plus the transporting of over 1,000 prisoners to Britain, evoked the eventual mass support for those who took part in the Rising. It also laid a basis for the massive resistance and the armed struggle against British military and political domination which led to the withdrawal of the British forces from the 26 counties of Ireland and ended with the partition of the country.

It was the social conditions of poverty, unemployment and slum housing endured by the working people that lay behind he Rising. Dublin's death rate was higher than Calcutta or Moscow.; 20,000 families lived in one room accommodation. One third of all tenement dwellings were condemned and in the first two years of the war wages fell behind prices by as much as one third. As Connolly wrote in one of his articles, a recruiting officer for the British army boasted that the trenches in Flanders were safer than the disease ridden Dublin slums.

The actual insurgents belonged to the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizens' Army. The leadership of the former was manly looking towards some sort of politically independent state where the Irish language and Irish culture could flourish. But it also included elements like McNeill and Griffith who were definitely actively hostile to the working class movement. They had spelled out clearly the type of capitalist state they were for - an Irish National Economy as they put it. Griffiths had condemned the workers and Larkin in the 1913 Lockout and had called at one stage for British troops to be used against strikers.

While this is true of the leadership, many of its rank and file were active in the trade unions and labour movement at the time. Many workers joined it who would normally have joined the Citizens' Army but for the latter's shortage of arms. The Volunteers were infiltrated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret and much more militant organisation which looked clearly towards a military struggle.

The Irish Citizens' Army had its origins in the 1913 Lockout. It was the need to defend the strikers from the police and the scabs that gave rise to its growth and discipline. It was run in the main from Liberty Hall and dominated by Connolly. Its founding documents stated: 'The first and last principle of the ICA is the avowal that the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland.'

Seam O'Casey was the first secretary. He later resigned as he opposed what he considered was its drifting towards nationalism. In October 1915, the Dublin Trades Council passed a resolution calling 'upon all organised workers to join either the Irish Citizens' Army or the Irish Volunteers, as being the best means to avert conscription.'

In the immediate period before the Rising the ICA was on permanent guard around the printing press of the Workers' Republic in Liberty Hall. This same press was to print the proclamation read at eh GPO declaring the Republic. This fact serves to understand the influence of the most militant sections of the Dublin working class on the whole organisation of the Rising.

Similarity in the above quoted clause of the ICA and part of the proclamation also confirms this. One clause of the Proclamation reads: 'We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland.'

The working class as a whole had been emerging as a force growing in power and militancy. Most of the cities and towns had their own Trades Councils. The Irish Trades Union Council was set up in 1894 and had committed itself to building a Labour Party in 1912. The unskilled workers had announced their coming of age in the 1907 strike in Belfast which united Catholic and Protestant workers in struggle and also in the 1913 lockout battle. The tactic of the sympathetic strike was born out of these events and the ITGWU was also established. With Larkin and Connolly leading these battles fear was struck into the hearts of the employers.

Irish capitalists

All socialists and all Marxists must take their stand on the side of the Rising. All Marxists stand for the right of nations to self-determination of nations. While doing so it must also be noted that the Irish capitalist class, weak and dominated as they were by British capitalism, were totally opposed to the Rising and supported the executions and repression.

It was only after the Rising, when support for the struggle had assumed mass proportions, that these elements opportunistically tried to get a foot in the rebel camp. Understanding this, the participation of the ICA and Connolly in a joint venture with the leadership of the Irish Volunteers must be critically examined. Analysis and criticism is made much more possible now with the benefit of hindsight and with access to the writings of Lenin and Trotsky with whom Connolly tragically had no contact. Analysis is also essential I order that the lessons can be learnt and therefore similar mistakes avoided.

It is known that opposition to the joining of forces with the Irish Volunteers existed within the Irish Citizens' Army. Connolly, in order to sooth the objections, is reported as saying as he entered the GPO that his Citizens' Army men should hold onto their rifles as they might need them in future against some of the men that fought by their side in the Rising. This was obviously not a seriously thought out suggestion, but an attempt to allay the suspicions of his men.

This distrust of many of the ICA held the seeds of the understanding that the working class movement should have taken a clear and independent path. The workers and their organisations were the only force that could have ended the exploitation and repression which was the lot of Irish society under the rule of British Imperialism. The demand for Home Rule, for an independent parliament, were demands the workers' organisations and their leaders rightly supported. This support was not entirely confined to the South and West of the country. Belfast Trades Council in 1915 also passed a resolution stating that they were prepared to accept Home Rule. The workers who were involved actively in the fight against the bosses saw the struggle for independence as a means of getting power into their own hands, power which they would use to fight against the employers and for decent living standards. The leaders of the Irish Volunteers saw independence as a means of developing the Irish language and culture and also the establishment of an independent national economy. In other words more Irish employers like Murphy.

Given a clear lead from the workers many of those in the Irish Volunteers and the middle layers of Irish society would have followed and supported the struggle for a socialist Ireland. Pearse was moving in this direction in the immediate period before the Rising.

Class lead

Yes! For Home Rule. Yes! For Independence. Yes! For an Irish Parliament or Constituent Assembly, but for a revolutionary Constituent Assembly to nationalise under workers' control the commanding heights of the economy. To eradicate the Murphies in Dublin and the Protestant bosses in the North East. For an end to all landlordism and an end to all repayments of land annuities. For the seizure of the remaining estates. For full rights for the Irish language and culture. For secular education and a secular state. For a planned economy which would plan investment and stop emigration and in this way provide an economic basis for a flourishing of all that was best in Irish culture. No united action with the bosses or those who want a capitalist economy. For the building of the trade unions. For a decent living wage and a 40 hour week.

On this programme, and standing alone, the working class could have drawn together, north and south, in a mass movement of labour and could have drawn behind them the peasantry and many middle layers of society.

There can be no doubt that such a lead would have got massive support when the events of the years after 1916 are examined. Trade union membership rose between 1916 and 1918 from 65,000 to 250,000. Factories were seized and the red fag was hoisted over them. A soviet sprung up in Limerick, which controlled the city and issued its own money. An embryonic soviet existed briefly in Cork. Strikes filled these months and years on a countrywide basis and land seizures took place.

Probably most important of all was the 1919 strike in Belfast for the 44-hour week. This started on January 27th 1919. The vote for strike action was 20,225 to 558. 120,00 workers were affected as the strike progressed. On 28th January the Dublin Trades Council came out for the 40-hour week and on the same day 30,000 workers attended a meeting in Donegal Square, Belfast. [outside the City Hall] A strike patrol of 2,000 workers patrolled the Northern city. For three weeks this lasted; for three weeks Belfast was under the control of the workers. A 47-hour week was won and many workers who had not been on strike gained the 47-hour week also.

Insurrection

These events show the tremendous class battles over this period. The tragedy was that there was no independent class leadership and no mass party fighting on a socialist programme to weld together these struggles and the working class together to carry through the socialist transformation of Irish society, and link up with the working class in Britain and internationally. Connolly often stated that the working class is 'like no other movement. It is never so strong as when it stands alone.' Yet Connolly linked with elements in the Easter Rising who stood opposed to Labour. The death of Connolly and the collapse of the ICA along with the cowardly refusal of the Labour leaders to put forward an independent class position after 1916 left the working class leaderless and in a position where they fell prey to the nationalists like de Valera, Collins and Griffith on the one side and the Unionists like Carson and Craig on the other.

From the first day of the war and the betrayal of the Social Democratic Parties (the Second International) with the exception of the Bolsheviks, urging their own workers to go to war and kill their fellow workers from other countries, Connolly confided in William O'Brien, 'I will not miss this chance,' and talked of his determination to organise an insurrection. During the next two years up to his entry into the GPO this was his overriding urge. He looked abroad and saw no serious opposition to the war from a socialist point of view. Tragically, he had no contact with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, he was embittered by the failure of the British trade union movement to use their industrial power to black goods and trade during the 913 lockout.

In his determination to organise an insurrection before the war ended, an insurrection which, as he saw it, when it was suppressed and broken would revive the struggle in the country at large. Connolly tended to take his fingers off the pulse of the working class and forged alliances with elements who stood on the other side of the class divide. At one time he talked of being prepared to accept German troops.

Leadership

When it was obvious in the pages of Workers' Republic that he was planning an insurrection he was approached by the IRB, who let him in on their plans. He then joined the IRB in the last months before the Rising. Through all his writings and lying behind all his actions in the two years up to Easter 1916 can be seen his determined urgency for an insurrection, with his activity being subordinated to this.

While this urgency was undoubtedly rooted in his class hatred of imperialism and while the great courage of the man is an example to all class fighters and socialists he lacked a clear perspective in that he failed to see how the developing crisis of the war and the economic chaos would inevitably result in huge explosions of the working class and the down-trodden in society and consequently the need was to lay the basis for an organised leadership amongst the working class. This mistake left the movement in the hands of the nationalists after his execution in 1916. Connolly sought to precipitate an explosion by the rising of 1916. An explosion was inevitable and on more obviously class lines at that. The urgency of the time was the building of a leadership to organise mass action leading to a general strike around a socialist programme.

Workers' government

Lenin defended the uprising against all the Social Democratic leaders who condemned it as a 'putsch'. Their opposition was not really because the insurrection could be characterised as a putsch, but because it was against the war in which they slavishly supported their own ruling classes. Lenin explained the role that the workers in Dublin had played in the Rising and pointed out 'the class conscious vanguard of the proletariat will be able to unite and direct it [the coming struggle -Militant] to capture power, to seize the banks, expropriate the trusts hated by all (though for different reasons_ and to introduce other dictatorial measures that in their totality constitute the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism.' There is not a hint of a 'stages' theory, but a call to the workers to take the opportunities that would be presented to fight for a workers' government and for the overthrow of capitalism and landlordism.

Trotsky also in writing of the Rising while condemning Plekhanov for writing a 'shameful article' which pointed to the 'harmful character of the Irish uprising for the causes of freedom' and rejoicing that the 'Irish nation to their credit' had realised this and not supported the 'revolutionary madmen,' drew attention to the role of the 'Irish bourgeoisie who as also the upper, more influential layer of the intelligentsia remained on the sidelines.' He explained 'the urban workers fought and died together with revolutionary enthusiasts from the petty bourgeois intelligentsia.'

It was from this point of view that Trotsky explained that the 'historical basis for the national revolution had disappeared even in backward Ireland.' Irish capitalism has held the reins in the 26 Counties since the state was formed and they have never succeeded in uniting the country or building a viable independent economic base. This was beyond them in the period 1916-1923 and it remains so today.

These tasks have long since fallen on the shoulders of the working class. Trotsky wrote (Nashe Slovo 4th July 1916): 'But the historical role of the Irish proletariat is only beginning. Already into this uprising - under an archaic banner - it has injected its class resentment against militarism and imperialism.' Both Lenin and Trotsky pointed to the key role of the working class and the need to transform the coming struggle into a struggle for socialism.

But no party of the working class fighting on a clear independent class programme was built which would have been capable of giving a lead to the working class after Connolly died and prevent the Nationalist elements from heading the struggle into the cul-de-sac which ended in partition and two impoverished states.

Socialist Ireland

The heroism of Connolly and the insurgents is a shining example to all socialists. If the working class can combine this determined and courageous approach with a clear analysis of these past events, learn the lessons of these mistakes made and avoid repeating them in the future then the coming years will see a successful struggle of the working class, North and South, which will lay the basis by taking into common ownership the means of production, distribution and exchange, for a Socialist United Ireland linking up with a Socialist Britain.

This is what Connolly and the Irish Citizens' Army fought and died for. Only a united working class standing on an independent socialist programme can see that it is achieved.



More Labour History pieces are available here

Another series of articles on Northern Ireland political developments
are available here.

The full range of articles from the Socialist Party
are available in our sitemap