By 1916 the history of Ireland had been inextricably linked with that of Britain for seven hundred years, and the connection had not been a happy one.
The English (and later, British) imperialists took several centuries to conquer Ireland, in the process committing many atrocities and persecuting the Gaelic Irish. After the religious Reformation, conflict between Catholics and Protestants came to be central in Irish life. There were many uprisings, most significantly that of the United Irishmen in 1798, inspired by the French Revolution.
The Irish peasantry were deprived of their land and turned into a quasi-serf class dependent on subsistence monoculture. When the potato crop failed in the 1840s, hundreds of thousands died. Catholics did not win basic civil rights until the 19th century. From the struggles for civil rights for Catholics and for land reform rose the “Home Rule” party.
This was a bourgeois nationalist party which demanded autonomy (“Home Rule”) for Ireland within Britain. Its strategy was to make it worth the British Liberal Party’s while to grant autonomy by acting as the Liberals’ loyal tail in Parliament. By 1912 it looked as if the Home Rulers — by now, led by John Redmond, they had a majority of Irish MPs — would get what they wanted. However, this promise was thrown into doubt by the outbreak of the First World War two years later.
In 1910, James Connolly, founder of Ireland’s first Marxist organisation, the Irish Socialist Republican Party, returned to the country from the United States. The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, an industrial union modelled on the “one big union” syndicalist organisations like the IWW in the USA, was growing fast. Indeed, it was the biggest and most powerful union Ireland had ever seen. The union’s leader was Jim Larkin, a talented organiser who had already led a number of hard-fought strikes, including successful action by the Belfast dockers (in 1907). Connolly, himself an IWW organiser during his period in America, became an organiser for the ITGWU and its main theoretical voice. In Dublin the union was rapidly organising the particularly downtrodden workers of the capital. The employers, led by William Murphy, decided to take the offensive in 1913 when they organised a lockout of unionised workers and brought in scab labour. The Dublin bourgeoisie combined with the state and the Catholic hierarchy against the workers, many of whom were destitute. Larkin and Connolly were briefly imprisoned. In response to police violence and the arming of scabs who then committed murders, the ITGWU formed a workers’ militia attached to the union, the Irish Citizen Army, to protect the workers’ pickets and marches.
The 1913-14 battle between the workers and the bosses in Dublin was fought in the context of the great “labour unrest”, one of the greatest upsurges of workers’ struggle in British history. There was a great groundswell of grass roots support for the Dublin workers within the British labour movement. Connolly addressed a meeting on the Dublin lockout which filled the Albert Hall. Larkin toured the industrial centres of Britain declaring, “I am out for revolution” and calling for the blacking of Dublin goods. For a while a general strike seemed a real possibility. However the TUC General Council refused to endorse the ITGWU’s call for the blacking of Dublin goods, or indeed any other kind of effective solidarity action. Some unions sent ships up the Liffey with food for the locked-out workers and their families, but not enough. By February 1914 the workers, starved of solidarity and, more basically, of the means of subsistence, could go on no longer. Gradually they began to go back to work, and the great lockout ended in an uneasy draw, with neither side having achieved its objective. The ITGWU had been set back in its struggle to win universal recognition, it was weakened, but the employers had not succeeded in smashing it.
Meanwhile the cause of Home Rule faced important obstacles, not least from the situation in heavily industrialised Ulster. This area had long had closer economic ties to industrial Lancashire and Clydeside than to the rest of Ireland. The Ulster Unionists were campaigning for the exclusion of Ulster from the Home Rule Act. The Ulster bourgeoisie, backed, encouraged, and helped by the British Tory party, formed an armed force, the “Ulster Volunteer Force” (UVF) with the objective of preventing Home Rule by force. The leader of this faction, the lawyer Edward Carson, set up an “Ulster provisional government” ready to resist the rule of a Home Rule government in Dublin.
In response nationalists formed an armed organisation of their own, the Irish Volunteers. Initiated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret revolutionary nationalist organisation, it was taken over by Redmond’s Home Rule party, which later also allied with Britain in the war. A group of army officers at the Curragh, in Kildare (the main British military base in Ireland), signed a declaration stating that they would not obey orders if they were ordered North to suppress the UVF. The Asquith Liberal government buckled before the threat. Instead of arresting the UVF and Tory party leaders, they looked for “compromise”.
The partition of Ireland was now on the agenda. James Connolly predicted this would mean “a carnival of reaction both North and South, [it] would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.” Partition — the exclusion of six north-east Ulster countries, two of which had Catholic-nationalist majorities — was put on the statute book, but its coming into operation was postponed for the duration of the World War that now broke out. At the outbreak of war the Irish Volunteers split. Tens of thousands of “National Volunteers” joined the British Army; so did tens of thousands of their erstwhile adversaries, the Ulster Volunteer Force. But the appointment of the arch-Unionist Carson to the war cabinet, and the extreme favour shown to UVF members sapped the credibility of the Volunteer leaders who supported Britain in the war.
A minority of the Volunteers formed their own organisation (the “Irish Volunteers”) which remained implacably hostile to the British state. Most prominent among the more militant leaders was Padraig Henry Pearse, a noted writer and republican orator. This current, led by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, had many different ideas on how an independent Ireland was to be organised — but what linked and defined them was the fact, in Connolly’s words, that they were “a ‘physical force party’ — a party whose members are united upon no one point, and agree upon no single principle, except upon the use of physical force as the sole means of settling the dispute between the people of this country and the governing power of Great Britain.” But agreement on an eventual political goal, he pointed out, was what could “make the successful use of…[force] possible.”
The pressures of the war drove the militant labour movement and the bourgeois nationalists — the best of whom, Pearse for example, had backed the workers in 1913-14 — closer together. The IRB conspirators wanted a rising before the British suppressed the armed organisations. So did Connolly. The ICA acted as an open organisation, conducting armed manoeuvres and demonstrations and protecting pickets, workers’ meetings and labour movement premises. As Connolly had written: “We are resolved upon national independence as the indispensable groundwork of industrial emancipation, but we are equally resolved to have done with the leadership of a class whose social charter is derived from oppression”.
By now the ICA was a relatively small organisation. However, this organisation still had the active support of the ITGWU workers and was a cohesive and well-trained and equipped organisation. Eventually, the IRB, which James Connolly had joined at the beginning of 1916, decided on Easter 1916 for an all-Ireland rising. The plans were detailed and realistic, and envisaged a protracted struggle. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, read out by Pearse from the steps of the General Post Office on the first day of the Rising, was a democratic and non-sectarian document, in accord with the Enlightenment ideals of the United Irishmen, undertaking to “treat all the children of the nation equally”. However, so concerned were the IRB that the Rising should not, like so many Irish revolutionary movements of the past, be betrayed by informers that they were, so to speak, “betrayed” by their conspiratorial mode of politics. Large segments even of the non-IRB leaders of the Irish Volunteers — including its commander-in-chief, Eoin MacNeill — had no idea that a nation-wide uprising was planned for Easter Sunday under cover of what by now a routine military exercise — a “general mobilisation”.
When on Easter Saturday MacNeill found out, by accident, what was planned, he countermanded the order to mobilise by inserting statements in the national press. In Dublin, Connolly, Pearse, and their comrades, faced with this catastrophe, decided that Dublin alone should rise. Connolly and Pearse, though they knew they could not win, decided to fight in Dublin in order to avoid a demoralising defeat without a fight. The Rising — postponed for a day — began at noon on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916. Only a third of the Dublin Volunteers had turned out, and most of the units in the rest of Ireland did not mobilise at all. The Rising, as its leaders and many of the insurgents knew perfectly well, was doomed as soon as it began. After six days of heavy fighting, in which several hundred people were killed, the republican Provisional Government surrendered in order to prevent the indiscriminate massacre of Dublin civilians.
Martial law was declared and the republican leaders were immediately put on trial in a military court. Ninety death sentences were passed and fifteen people were shot, including the wounded James Connolly, shot propped up in a chair, and Padraig Pearse. In July 1916, the 16th leader of the Rising, Roger Casement, was hanged in Pentonville Jail. The Rising had received virtually no support in middle-class areas of Dublin. The Dublin Chamber of Commerce hastened to condemn the Rising, calling it “Larkinism run amok”.
There was little support among workers, too, though the participation of James Connolly, who had been the military commander of the Dublin force, could not be set workers who knew him to think. But after the fighting ended, when restrictions on movement were lifted, inevitably working-class people mixed, at work and elsewhere, and discussed what had happened. Revulsion against the executions had some impact, but it would have been very limited without a deep reserve of support for the republicans and their aims.
Nor would the Rising have led to the seismic shifts in Irish politics — the destruction of the Home Rule party and its replacement by Sinn Fein, by then the party of the insurgents — without the prior destruction of the credibility of the Home Rule party, which had accepted Partition (“as a temporary measure”). That discredit, not the Rising itself, was decisive both in generating the Rising and in shaping its political sequel. In April 1918, against great opposition, Britain imposed conscription in Ireland, and in the General Election Sinn Fein, now the bourgeois republican party, gained two-thirds of Irish seats. There followed a War of Independence. It was successful for all of Ireland except North-East Ulster. Partition was agreed; but “the Irish Free State” was born as a separate state with “Dominion” status, giving it far greater autonomy than envisaged in the 1914 Home Rule Bill — indeed, virtual independence.
Deprived of the best of its leaders — Connolly and his able lieutenant Michael Mallin dead, and Larkin in the USA — and affected by the repression, the relatively small organised labour movement, the only force with a hope and a history of uniting Catholics and Protestants, accepted subordination to the bourgeois nationalists. In the South there was a civil war in 1922-3 between supporters and opponents of the 1921-2 Treaty which ended the War of Independence. Despite being defeated in the Civil War, the anti-Treatyites, under De Valera, formed a government in 1932. The South became a Catholic-sectarian state; the North was a Protestant-sectarian statelet. Tragically, Connolly’s prediction that partition would mean “a carnival of reaction both North and South” had been proved absolutely correct.