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Was Connolly right? Debate on ‘Wind that shakes the Barley’

30 July 2007

We reproduce below a discussion from the pages of the British paper ‘The Weekly Worker’ ( This at the request of one of the participants, Phil Ferguson, who feels it would be of interest to an Irish readership.  We would welcome further contributions to the discussion. (editor)

1.   US communist Jim Creegan revisits the controversy over a film that has at last reached New York

A year after winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival, The wind that shakes the barley, Ken Loach’s drama of the Irish war of independence and subsequent civil war, has finally arrived at theatres in the United States, to mostly favourable notices.

But praise for Loach’s work has been by no means universal. Both Barley and Loach’s earlier historical film, Land and freedom, tell stories consigned to a memory hole that few care to plumb. Among Loach’s detractors are not only the usual reactionary suspects, but leftists like Vincente Navarro and George Galloway, both of whom took him to task in the leftish American online magazine, Counterpunch, for daring, in the latter film, to tarnish the heroic popular front legend of the Spanish civil war with his depiction of the class struggles that took place behind loyalist lines.

And Barley has, in its turn, provoked the predictable howls from sentimentalists of the British empire, as well as Blairites who regard as terrorism weapons in the hands of anyone other than governments, particularly the American and British ones. In what seems to have become a favourite rightwing trope, one scribbler for the British Daily Telegraph has likened Loach to the Nazis. It is not any inaccuracies Barley may contain that makes these watchdogs bay, but the truth it tells about the brutality of imperial Britain’s war against the Irish people from 1919 to 1923. Many are also unsettled by the obvious resemblance, coincidental or not, between events depicted on the screen and the evening news from the Middle East over the past several years.
Yet there are legitimate questions about the accuracy of Loach’s treatment of the Irish civil war. He depicts the conflict between pro- and anti-treaty forces as, among other things, a class struggle. Local bigwigs and republicans unwilling to challenge them are on one side, and the majority of poor workers and farmers, whose champions in effect advocate a socialist republic, are on the other.

The film’s action centres around a west Cork IRA band. The main character is a young doctor, Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy); the local commander is Damien’s brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney). While in jail for rebel activity, Damien befriends Dan (Liam Cunningham), a Dublin railwayman who has been a member of Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army. Both these men are present in a republican court when a fracas erupts over whether a poor woman should be held liable for extortionate interest rates charged by a local moneylender. The sympathies of most IRA members are on the woman’s side, and the judge orders the usurer to make restitution to her. But the commandant, Damien’s brother Teddy, tries to subvert the court’s verdict, arguing that the gombeen-man, who funds rebel arms purchases, is too important to their cause to be defied.

The social question erupts even more explosively, as IRA fighters begin to take up sides for or against the treaty in 1922. For his part, Damien argues that the treaty would leave intact the same setup that permits high unemployment and degrading working conditions. Dan concurs in a dramatic speech, which ends with the assertion that the treaty will only “change the accents of the powerful”. We then see the parish priest denouncing from the altar an anti-treaty leaflet which calls for the nationalisation of the land and all of Ireland’s wealth. Loach thus makes a clear equation: pro-treaty equals pro-capitalist and anti-people; anti-treaty equals pro-people and socialist.

Would that issues were always so neatly posed. In the event (ah, that irksome, formula-confounding event!), things were much murkier. It is true that the division between treaty supporters and opponents contained class undertones. Landowners, business people, the church - all of catholic Ireland’s respectable classes, in short - were anxious for the fighting, and the social instability it created, to come to an end. The treaty’s foes, on the other hand, tended to be the young, poor and unemployed of town and country - Wolf Tone’s “men of no property” - for whom the independence struggle held the promise of a better society. A majority of IRA combatants - those who had sacrificed most in the fight for independence and had been most empowered by it - came out against the treaty. 

The revolutionary wave that swept Europe in the wake of World War I and October 1917 also lapped at Ireland’s shores. The Russian Revolution was greeted by the masses with great enthusiasm. There was, from 1918 on, a powerful upsurge of Ireland’s small but militant labour movement, as striking workers in many parts of the country styled their strike committees ‘soviets’. This working class upheaval intersected the national independence fight at numerous points. Most famously, a general strike called in response to anti-republican repression became known to history as the Limerick Soviet. These events could not have been without their effect on the anti-treaty wing of Sinn Féin.

Yet there is little evidence to suggest that the spontaneous class feelings of the anti-treaty forces ever rose to the level of a conscious political programme. A newspaper published by one of the most leftwing leaders of the ‘Irregulars’, Liam Mellowes, wrote: “The national welfare, as distinct from the welfare of this or that class, is a thing sacred to the opponents of the treaty” (quoted in C Kostick Revolution in Ireland Chicago 1996, p182). And if the free state army broke a strike of farm labourers in Waterford in 1923, the anti-treaty IRA herded scabs in another such strike in Meath in 1922, and decreed lower wages for agricultural workers in Clare (RF Foster Modern Ireland New York 1988, p515). Peader O’Donnell, doyen of the republican left, bitterly recalled IRA men in the west being used to “patrol estate walls, enforce decrees for rent, arrest or even order out of the country leaders of local land agitations” (P O’Donnell There will be another way Dublin 1963, pp19-20, quoted in RF Foster op cit p515).

The debate over the treaty, by most historical accounts, was conducted in almost exclusively nationalist terms. Even more than opposition to partition, which was not finalised or fully understood at the time, there was a visceral reaction against the treaty’s requirement of an oath of allegiance to the crown. IRA volunteers argued that the war of independence placed the goal for which they had given their blood - the ‘republic one and indivisible’ - within their grasp, and to settle for ‘dominion status’ within the British empire, as offered by Lloyd George, would amount to a betrayal of all the nation’s martyrs from 1798 on, as well as of the 1916 proclamation of the Irish Republic.

These arguments are faithfully reproduced in Barley. But Loach tacks on to this further disputation over the ‘social question’, for which the evidence is scanty. And there was certainly, at least on the national level, nothing resembling a programmatic call for the nationalisation of the country’s wealth that Loach attributes to the leaflet denounced by the local priest and hotly debated after mass by Damien and his brother Teddy.

Why did the Irish working class, perhaps more powerful than at any other time, fail to find an independent voice at this turning point in the country’s history? And why does Loach, 85 years on, feel compelled to invent, or at least greatly amplify, such a voice? The answer to both questions can be found in a single line of reasoning: that the national liberation struggle, consistently and militantly waged, will lead inevitably to socialism. This notion goes at least as far back as the thinking of Ireland’s greatest working class revolutionary, James Connolly. Connolly saw capitalism as an alien imposition by the British on a pre-capitalist Ireland, and the ruling class as either British or British-allied. He therefore concluded that the fight against capitalism and the fight against British rule in Ireland were essentially one and the same.

To be sure, Connolly recognised the existence of “green-vested” bourgeois patriots, who proclaimed their allegiance to the nationalist cause without caring one whit for the real condition of the Irish people. They were the object of some of his most withering denunciations. But he regarded their nationalism as hypocritical, and viewed workers and the poor as the only genuine repository of national feeling. He thought that Ireland’s freedom could only be achieved by the establishment of a workers’ republic. Yet Connolly was to modify this view, in practice at least, when he joined the Easter rising, led by the bourgeois nationalists of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers. Connolly concluded not only a military alliance with these forces, but joined their ‘provisional government’, united around the exclusive aim of an independent republic.

The reasons for Connolly’s historic decision are the subject of controversy among historians. Other than theoretical considerations were certainly at play. Connolly was so devastated by the enthusiastic response that Britain’s war recruiting initially met with in Ireland, as well as by the capitulation of the Second International, that he was willing to ally with anyone willing to raise the standard of armed resistance to inter-imperialist slaughter. However, one cannot but suspect that his tendency to equate class with national struggle also had something to do with his choice to liquidate the Citizen Army, founded as a workers’ defence guard, into a purely nationalist fighting force. If the cause of the nation was the cause of the workers and peasants, yet nationalists were willing to make the supreme sacrifice for it, how could they be the workers’ enemy?

But they were. Whatever the historical origins of Irish capitalism, the fact was that by 1918 the Irish bourgeoisie were far from being mere colonial hangers-on. They had put down firm roots in native soil, and had largely embraced the idea of national independence. They were more than willing to ride the Sinn Féin electoral landslide to power in a new state.

The failure of the working class to intervene in its own name is no doubt partly due to its small size where it was most militant, in catholic Ireland, and to sectarian divisions where it was biggest, in the north. But it was also caused by the tendency of Irish socialists to amalgamate two antithetical things: working class socialism, which has as its objective a new social order that can only be arrived at through class struggle, and traditional republicanism, which advocates the unity of all classes in the national cause. In practice, the latter always means accepting the social status quo.

There are clearly moments when nationalist and working class interests coincide. Connolly dubbed reformists who would ignore the reality of national oppression “gas and water socialists”. Any movement that seeks the abolition of social classes must also oppose inequality among nations, and champion the cause of self-determination. Moreover, in a colonially dominated country, the state of the coloniser is the only one in existence. It upholds both national and class oppression simultaneously, and is therefore the enemy of working class revolutionaries and nationalist rebels alike.

This situation can logically lead to tactical alliances and military cooperation between the two. But to abandon the political independence of the working class in the belief that nationalist and class struggle are identical, or that the one will lead automatically to the other, is a fatal error - one which prevented the working class from acting in its own name in Ireland during the early 1920s, and haunts the Irish left to this day.

It was this false amalgam which moved the radical Dublin songster, Dominick Behan, to compose hymns of praise to a 28-year-old Limerick man named Sean South, killed in a border raid in County Fermanagh in 1957 during an IRA campaign. Courageous though he undeniably was, South was strongly under the influence of the fascistic, anti-semitic ideas prominent in nationalist circles at the time.

This amalgam also leads the hosts of Radio Free Erin, a left-republican radio programme in New York City, to revere the memory of Michael Flannery, an IRA veteran prominent in American republican circles until his death in 1994. Like South, Flannery was a man of great integrity and dedication - in addition to being a devout catholic reactionary and strident anti-communist.
And Ken Loach, in bringing to the screen a heroic chapter of Irish history, falls victim to the same confusion when he misportrays the past by imputing to the anti-treaty IRA an explicit socialist position that few among it held, and fewer still openly expressed. 

2.   . Did James Connolly lead the Citizen Army into the dead end of nationalism? Did Ken Loach accurately reflect Irish history in The wind that shakes the barley? Philip Ferguson responds to Jim Creegan

I must say I am really quite baffled by Jim Creegan’s article, ‘Ken Loach’s use of Irish history’ (Weekly Worker April 19).

Jim admits that division over the treaty did reflect class divisions in Ireland, yet criticises Loach for exaggerating the degree to which anti-treaty forces were consciously taking up a socialist programme. Jim says things like “There is little evidence to suggest that the spontaneous feelings of the anti-treaty forces ever rose to the level of a conscious political programme.” This is true, but when in the film does Loach ever suggest that it did? This seems like quite an unfair criticism.

Loach takes one small geographical area, part of rural west Cork and a small town, and looks at an IRA unit there. His film accurately reflects the kind of people who joined the IRA, especially in such areas of Ireland, how the war developed and class politics were reflected, often in a spontaneous and confused way. There is actually nothing in the film that is unrealistic politically.
For instance, during the debates in the Dáil itself, one of the most prominent TDs, a former founder and leader of the Citizen Army, attacked the treaty, saying that it was designed to halt the forward march of the working class in Ireland and Britain. She criticised it as being a betrayal of Egypt and India, because the British troops being released from Ireland could be sent to those countries to help suppress their struggles for independence. Does Jim seriously imagine that those kind of arguments were not reflected anywhere, in the whole of island, at the level of the rank-and-file of the IRA?

Does Jim seriously believe that the words the film puts into the mouth of the character who is a Connollyite and former ICA member are unrealistic?

An unfair criticism

At no time does Loach “misportray the past by imputing to the anti-treaty IRA an explicit socialist position”. Loach does not even actually deal with “the anti-treaty IRA” - he deals with one very small group of people in it and the most he ever imputes to them is some gut class instincts.
Jim also mentions the incident in the republican court and says: “The sympathies of most IRA members are on the woman’s side.” Actually, I thought the IRA members were fairly evenly split. This was realistic, because the IRA itself contained a range of activists, including working class militants (which Jim seems unaware of). If Loach had presented all the IRA members as being in favour of the court ruling, Jim might have a point.

In fact, the republican courts became a focus of class conflict during the war for independence. The courts made both progressive and reactionary rulings, depending on the social and political make-up of the judges, the local IRA and Sinn Féin and the general level of class conflict and class consciousness in the local area. There was a great deal of variation and Loach reflects this in his film - he could not deal with a load of different areas, so he deals with the differences within this one part of Cork.

Furthermore, at no time does Loach suggest the anti-treaty forces have any such thing as “a conscious political programme”. Indeed, one of the things the film made clear was that they did not have such a programme - instead some of them had some gut class feelings, a smattering of Connolly quotes and a lot of confusion. That is a very accurate portrait.

Connolly’s strategy

Jim also uses his critique of Loach’s film to criticise Connolly’s strategy. For instance, he argues that Connolly transformed the Citizen Army into “a purely nationalist fighting force” (he also tends to conflate terms like ‘nationalist’ and ‘republican’). He should also avoid using someone like Roy Foster as any kind of authority in terms of a critique of Connolly and the republican and socialist forces of the time.

Connolly, in fact, never liquidated the ICA. He specifically said they should hold on to their guns, as they made need them later on to fight some of the people they were allied with for the 1916 rising. Connolly also made clear that the ICA would cooperate only with a “forward movement” and, the moment the republicans stopped going forward, the ICA would step out of the alliance with them.

It is also important to look at exactly who Connolly was allied with, because the waters on this have been substantially muddied by the pro-imperialist Irish revisionist historians, a number of whom present themselves as ‘leftwing’. For instance, Austen Morgan in his hatchet job (‘political biography’) on Connolly writes of him making an alliance with a group of conspirators masquerading as the national bourgeoisie. In fact, the people Connolly allied with were no such thing. They were revolutionary nationalists, in the sense that Lenin used the term. The republican leaders that Connolly allied with for the rising were all figures who had supported the workers in Dublin the 1913-14 lockout. Pearse’s most mature work, The sovereign people, is certainly not the work of anyone who identifies with the national bourgeoisie! Of course, the revisionists almost totally avoid Pearse’s mature political works, just like they avoid the republican paper, Irish Freedom, because such an examination reveals how progressive the republicans that Connolly allied with were.

Connolly’s republican allies, moreover, were more hostile to the Irish Parliamentary Party than they were to the unionists, as anyone who reads Irish Freedom will discover quite quickly. Far from adopting the pretensions of a national bourgeoisie, these republicans were out to smash the Irish bourgeois nationalists and the 1916 rising was as much a blow against them as against British rule.

Jim also seems unaware that Connolly actually had a thoroughly coherent strategy in the period leading up to the rising. Connolly’s conscious strategy was to bring all the most radical forces in Ireland together around the lynchpin of the radical wing of the labour movement. He brought the most leftwing women’s rights campaigners into the ICA, as well as the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and the Women Workers Union. He consciously set out to split the left republicans from the vacillating elements like O’Neill and Hobson in the leadership of the Irish Volunteers. Connolly knew that, while the ICA was much smaller, its more coherent political and organisational nature could allow it to take the political lead. It should be no surprise, then, that Pearse referred to Connolly as the leader and guiding brain of the rising.

The alliance that Connolly made in reality easily fell within the kind of “tactical alliance and military cooperation” that Jim recognises as legitimate for revolutionaries. It is unclear why Jim thinks Connolly went further and liquidated the working class and socialist element. Moreover, Connolly’s alliance was with leftward-moving republicans who had shown themselves supportive of workers’ struggles - that was the case with every single one of the co-signers of the Easter Proclamation - not with some entrenched bourgeois-nationalist movement or some Irish version of Chiang Kai-shek.

The biggest problem in Ireland was the lack of a revolutionary party. If there is a criticism to be made of Connolly, it is of the way his Marxism was intertwined with syndicalism and how this obstructed his understanding of the need for a revolutionary party. However, even this needs to be contextualised, because Connolly did make several attempts, going back to the 1890s, to build some form of vanguard party. The lack of a party meant that after the executions of Connolly and Mallin, his followers either drifted into economism - which involved bread and butter stuff at the workplace level and tail-ending Sinn Féin politically - or actively dissolved themselves into Sinn Féin and the IRA and becoming hostage to the less radical post-1916 republican leadership.

I attended The wind that shakes the barley with several co-workers and some foreign students. It had a very positive effect on all of them. For myself, I was somewhat disappointed. I thought the political points were made in a rather stilted way. Primarily, I thought it would have been better if he had set the film in Dublin or else somewhere like Limerick, one of the larger sites of the soviets that emerged during the war for independence and, even more so, during the civil war. That would have allowed the political points to emerge more naturally.

Unfortunately, Loach is fairly restricted by budget considerations. If he had had the kind of budget Warren Beatty had to play around with for Reds, he could have based it in Dublin and we could have been given an idea of the two general strikes which took place during the war - both of which were related to the republican cause and struggle. Or he could have based it in Limerick and we could have seen the strike that broke out there and led to a brief soviet, and the role that worker-activists, including those who were also members of the IRA, played in it.
During the war for independence there was a great deal of overlap between the republican movement, the organised labour movement and the advanced workers. Many advanced workers, including union militants, were members of the IRA. Thus the kind of arguments reflected in the Loach film were inevitable. This also means that, whatever other failings the film might have, Loach is certainly innocent of any misuse of Irish history. 

3.     The Usable Past of Left Republicanism--A  Reply to Philip Ferguson

Philip Ferguson criticises my article, 'Ken Loach's use of Irish history' (Weekly Worker, April 19) on two main grounds: 1) that I am unfair in imputing to Loach, in The wind that shakes the barley, a false equation between socialism and the anti-treaty IRA during the civil war of 1922-23, and 2) that I am also off the mark in tracing this equation, which has permeated the thinking of the Irish left for many decades, to the earlier decision of James Connolly to join the Easter rising of 1916 on republican as opposed to revolutionary socialist terms. Let me answer each of these arguments.

Loach's Lineup 

Comrade Ferguson argues that Loach's film does not deal with the IRA as a whole, but only with a detachment in a west Cork village. He then goes on to say that the disputes Loach depicts were not untypical. But if what we are being shown was widespread, then Ferguson would have to agree that Loach is using his fictional rebel band to depict at least some important aspects of a bigger story, that of the tan war and the split over the treaty. Who, after all, would be interested in making, or seeing, a film that treats events of merely local significance? 

Nor are the characters' views quite as confused or spontaneous as Ferguson imagines. All the shouting and commotion of the fighting scenes can at first obscure the film's underlying didacticism. This becomes more apparent upon multiple viewings (in my case, four), as the characters divide neatly into two factions: on the one hand, those who support the treaty and are willing to live with the existing class order, and, on the other, those who oppose both the treaty and the social setup. 

The "social question" is first introduced into the film (artificially, I might add) through the importation from Dublin of Dan, a railwayman and disciple of Connolly. The main character, Damien, befriends Dan in prison, where together they recite from memory a famous passage from Connolly to the effect that hoisting the green flag over Dublin Castle would avail nothing if England still ruled the country through her landlords, capitalists and bankers. Later, when Damien is about to carry out a difficult order to pull the trigger on a  local informer of long and close acquaintance, he says, in line remarkable for its non-spontaneity: "I hope this Ireland we're fighting for is worth it." 

When the argument over repayment of the moneylender is joined in the republican court, it is Dan and Damien who take the lead in supporting the female judge's pronouncement in favour of the debtor, and Damien's commandant-brother Teddy who condemns the court's verdict as impractical and intervenes to prevent the loanshark's arrest. In the subsequent debate over the treaty the lineup is almost exactly the same. Teddy is in favour; Damien and Dan, joined by the female judge and others, are against--in part for explicitly class and socialist reasons. And if all this is not plain enough, Loach has the anti-treaty faction put its socialist politics into a leaflet (which Ferguson ignores in his response) calling for the nationalisation of the country's wealth. The parish priest supports the treaty and denounces the leaflet.

After mass, in a juxtaposition of unmistakable intent, Damien, the anti-treaty brother, and Teddy, the pro-treaty brother, square off over the leaflet's contents. Teddy upbraids Damien for arguing with the priest, and then calls the leaflet's economic prescriptions  "radical shite" which would have met with the disapproval of their father, a small landowner. In response, Damien recalls how their father cruelly sacked a farmhand who was in ill health. All of this, in my view, not only amounts to equating opposition to the treaty with socialism, but drives the point home with a hammer. Comrade Ferguson should see this movie again!

Connolly's Course

More important is Ferguson's argument concerning Connolly's motives in 1916. In my article I infer from the fact that the only programmatic document issued by the rebels of Easter Week, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, calls for an independent, democratic Ireland and nothing more, and from Connolly's signature on this document as a member of the republic's provisional government, that he had for the time being put aside his long-cherished goal of an independent socialist republic. 

Comrade Ferguson disagrees. He says Connolly's participation was nothing more than a temporary tactical alliance which was part of a coherent strategy aimed at uniting the most leftwing forces in the country around the "linchpin of the radical wing of the labour movement." He further asserts that Connolly thought the "coherent political and organisational nature" of the Irish Citizen Army would allow it to take the political lead despite its small size in comparison to the nationalists of the Irish Volunteers. (The ICA contributed 152 men of the rising's 1,600 participants.) What does the historical evidence suggest?

The difficulty with the historical record--and one reason Connolly's intentions have been such a matter of dispute--is that there exists no single document or speech in which his strategy is laid out. Various historians have tried to piece his motives together from a number of writings and contemporary accounts, which are often contradictory. Thus, for example, Ferguson cites as proof of Connolly's intention to maintain political independence a speech he gave to the ICA before the rising, in which he advised them in the unlikely event of a victory to hold on to their guns and said they were out for economic as well as political liberty. This speech, however, seems to be contradicted by one he gave a few weeks later, on the eve of the rising. In it "he told them [the ICA] that there no longer existed a Citizen Army and a Volunteer force. There was now only the Irish Republican Army." (C.D. Greaves, The life and times of James Connolly, New York, 1971). 

Of the many interpretations of this crucial turn in Connolly's life and Irish history, The politics of James Connolly by Kieran Allen (London, 1990) is the one that most persuades me (unlike Roy Foster's Modern Ireland, whose rightwing "revisionist" views I don't share despite some useful facts and citations it contains, a couple of which I reproduced). Allen sees Connolly as a man whose world had collapsed around him with the outbreak of the war in 1914. The parties of the Second International, to which he had  adhered, had succumbed to the patriotic fever that accompanied the declaration of the war. The Irish working class proved particularly susceptible to this delirium; the initial recruiting drive for the British army had a more enthusiastic response in Ireland than in England. Moreover, the home rule, which before 1914 Connolly believed to be inevitable, and which he thought would open up greater parliamentary opportunities for a labour party, had been stymied by the Ulster Volunteers in the north, backed to the hilt by the Tories. The Liberals who had introduced the Home Rule bill in Commons were now beginning to retreat, and talked of exempting the six northern counties from the jurisdiction of a home-rule assembly. This meant partition, which Connolly thought would unleash a "carnival of reaction". 

In the face of these multiple disappointments, Connolly--before anything else a revolutionary--became increasingly convinced of the necessity of an insurrection, which he began to advocate in public with growing urgency. Without such an act of defiance, Connolly feared that Ireland's centuries-long resistance to British rule would be relegated to sentimental legend, like the Jacobite tradition in Scotland. It was above all necessary--for the working class and for Ireland, whose interests Connolly saw as complementary--to raise the standard of revolt, even if it was done by a small minority with no chance of success. Only in this way could the memory and possibility of revolution be kept alive for a country then supine beneath the imperial sceptre. 

I have come across no evidence to support Ferguson's claim that Connolly attempted to rally the country's most radical elements around the left wing of the labour movement. His articles in the Workers Republic decried the corruption of the working class and despaired of the possibility of mass action. In the run-up to Easter week, Connolly appeared to contemplate two possible courses. Sometimes he seemed prepared to embark on an insurrectionary path with the minuscule forces of the ICA alone. At other times he seemed inclined to cultivate the only group besides the ICA that was beginning to think in terms of armed resistance--the Irish Republican Brotherhood. This is the organization with which Connolly ultimately cast his lot. Who were they, and on what terms did Connolly join forces with them? 

Comrade Ferguson criticises my alleged tendency to conflate nationalism and republicanism. I plead not guilty. I did not intend the term "nationalism" (lower-case "n") to denote the politics of the Irish National Party (or Parliamentary Party), led by John Redmond. This group, which enjoyed the support of the Irish bourgeoisie and probably most catholics at the beginning of the war, advocated a purely electoral strategy for achieving  home rule, and supported the British war effort. The IRB were indeed nationalists of a more radical stripe, but nationalists nonetheless. They were not merely for home rule but an independent republic; many of them  also stood in the conspiratorial traditions of physical-force Fenianism, which favoured military rather than electoral means. Moreover, they denounced the Parliamentary Party's collaboration with the Liberals and the British state in a war waged on behalf of Ireland's colonial rulers. From the start of the war, the IRB attempted to wrest from Redmond's control a section of the Irish Volunteers, an armed nationalist body formed in 1913 to counter the growing threat to home rule from Ulster. This breakaway from the main body of Volunteers, led by the IRB, provided most of the footsoldiers for the Easter rising.

But the IRB could not go forward with its plans without first excluding from its counsels two more moderate leaders, Bulmer Hobson and Eoin MacNeill, who were not fully prepared to break with the home rulers and viewed armed action as folly. Connolly, as Ferguson points out, encouraged this split, and so went into Easter Week in the company of the most radical of the radical nationalists. 

Ferguson is justified in regarding Pearse as the most leftwing leader of the republican camp. He did, unlike the IRB as a whole, express public sympathy for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union during the great lockout of 1913-14, when 25,000 Dublin workers, led by Larkin and Connolly, unsuccessfully fought one of the greatest union-busting offensives in European history. Pearse did, in fact, share Connolly's utter contempt for Redmond and the Parliamentary Party. And, in preparation for the rising, he  attempted to codify republican social doctrine in several pamphlets, most notably The Sovereign People.

Like Pearse's poems, The Sovereign People contains paeans to the "great, splendid, faithful common people", whom he calls the repositories of the "spiritual tradition of nationality". Pearse also writes that private property should not be allowed to stand in the way of the nation's advance, and that it should be within the nation's power, if it so decides, to nationalise the land and all other means of production.

Although similar passages can be found in the writings of many nationalist and bourgeois politicians (like Abraham Lincoln, for instance), it would be facile to dismiss these sentiments as mere posturing or opportunism. Pearse was by all accounts a man of intense conviction, far above populist demagogy. He had also lived through stormy times in Dublin. He had come to hold Connolly in genuine regard and was influenced to an extent by his ideas. 

But Pearse's plebeian sympathies existed within a firmly nationalist framework.  If, for Connolly, the road to national emancipation led through the conquest of power by the working class, which could alone utilise the country's wealth for the benefit of all its people, the working class was for Pearse no more than an important sector of the nation-- a nation which transcended class, and whose prerogative it was to decide what each class was entitled to, and under what social and economic arrangements the country would live. Pearse, in short, espoused a left form of national corporatism. While Pearse deplored the extreme social inequality in the Ireland of his day and favoured a more equitable distribution of wealth, he categorically rejected the notion of class struggle as the motor of progress. But the nation is never above class, and the premiss that it is has ever been one of the bourgeoisie's principal ideological weapons. Whoever gives credence to this notion, even though s/he may not be bourgeois, and may dislike the actually existing bourgeoisie, is still imprisoned in its ideology. 

Pearse could perhaps have been won to the camp of a socialist working class that was leading the independence struggle. But there could be no strategy for rallying Ireland's most radical forces around the left wing of the workers' movement without the programmatic independence of the working class. And it was this condition that Connolly did not meet as he marched into the GPO on that fateful April morning. In return for the IRB's agreement to go ahead with an insurrection, Connolly had obviously consented--whether implicitly or expicitly no one is sure, since his final agreement with the IRB was hammered out in secret meetings of which there are no minutes--to set aside his objective of a workers' republic. 

This decision was fraught with consequences. It is one major reason why Ireland entered the independence struggle less than three years later without a distinct proletarian pole, let alone proletarian leadership. It also explains in part why the workers and poor farmers who bore the brunt of the fight could not articulate their opposition in clear class terms when a thoroughly bourgeois 26-county government was foisted upon them in 1921-23. It is also why Connolly is as much remembered in Ireland today as a founder of the clerical-reactionary state that emerged from the struggle as he is for being the outstanding revolutionary workers' leader that he was. 

Ferguson correctly points out that the ICA did not merge organisationally with nationalist forces immediately after 1916. But it failed to act as an independent factor in the following years because, according to Kieran Allen, "it suffered from some of the shortcomings inherent in Connolly's politics--in particular an inability to see republicanism as the ideology of a different class". (The politics of James Connolly, London, 1990, pp. 167-68) The ICA's organisational liquidation came in 1922, when it passed a resolution pledging support to De Valera, and placed itself under the command of the Dublin republican brigade during the civil war.

Connolly joined the Easter rising on the IRB's terms, not they on his. From this fact some, like Austen Morgan, have concluded that he abandoned the socialist goal to which his whole life had been devoted, and became a revolutionary nationalist. This is almost inconceivable. Rather, Connolly's decision had its roots in his earlier theorisation of an identity between class and national struggle. Ferguson also notes that Connolly's syndicalism prevented him from attempting to build a revolutionary party. This is true, and one consequence of his syndicalism was a disconnect in his mind between the economic and political struggle. He was one of a long line of revolutionary socialists who, out of a desperation borne of the weakness of the working class and its lack of immediate prospects, became persuaded that perhaps other forces, obeying some sort of transcendent historical logic or objective process, could act in the workers' place as the agency for socialism. The ensuing years have seen many self-proclaimed Marxists--in circumstances far less desperate and for motives far less honourable--take a similar tack. Over time, those whose politics continue to be based on historic errors fashion a usable past to justify the errors and deny their adverse--sometimes ruinous--consequences. Irish left or socialist republicanism, with its confused mélange of nationalist and socialist ideas, is one such ideology. In its service, Ken Loach portrays a marriage of class and self-determination struggles that never took place, and Philip Ferguson credits Connolly with a coherent strategy he never possessed.

Jim Creegan, 
New York, 10 June, 2007

4.  Connolly, Markievicz, the republicans and the debate over 1916

In recent decades there has been a great deal of debate over the 1916 Rising in Ireland.  Much of the debate coincided with the long war between the Irish Republican Army and the British state, with views on 1916 tending to coincide strongly with views about that conflict.  The anathema declared on the IRA by the southern Irish establishment up until the current ‘peace process’ was accompanied by a political and academic fatwa against ‘the national question’, a crusade pursued with fanatic devotion by the school of Irish historians known as the ‘revisionists’.  This school argued that national oppression in Ireland was largely a myth and had little relevance to understanding the actual history of the island in recent centuries.  Those who fought for national freedom were therefore demonised as disturbed, if not pathological, individuals or, at best, idle dreamers and reactionaries.  As veteran Irish civil rights activist and Marxist Eamonn McCann noted in the reprint of his classic War and an Irish Town, “the most ‘Europeanized’ elements” of the southern Irish establishment “have, naturally, acquired their own camp following of commentators, ideologists and revisers of history, whose function it is to fit the line of their sponsors into a plausible narrative of Irish history.” 

For the Irish working class, on the other hand, particularly those who sought to lead it in a revolutionary direction, the national question posed the greatest challenge.  If the goal of the working class was/is a social revolution and the establishment of a workers’ republic, how should the political question of British rule in Ireland be approached?  Was/is the road forward for the workers in Ireland, a colonial possession of an imperial power, the same as that in Britain?  What was/is the relationship between economic and political issues?  Was/is the job of revolutionaries simply to provide an analysis of capitalism and/or counsel workers to be more militant in struggling for better wages and conditions?  Was/is a working class-based or, at least, working class-led, revolution possible?  Given the weakness of the working class - due to historical underdevelopment of capitalism in Ireland and the sectarian divisions which stemmed from this underdevelopment - were/are there other social forces which could be drawn to the workers’ side in a struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society? 

The response of Irish revolutionary socialists in the late 1800s and early 1900s, above all James Connolly, has been a point of debate ever since.  In particular, the rise of revisionism led to the resurrection of the theme that Connolly abandoned socialism and became primarily a radical nationalist in the last year or two of his life, the period between the outbreak of World War 1 and the Rising.  But an examination of the revisionist critique of Connolly shows that its hostility to anti-imperialism in Ireland in recent decades blinds it from appreciating Connolly’s life-work as a consistent, developing whole, in particular a coherent and evolving revolutionary-emancipatory project.  The revisionists’ general failure to understand the centrality of the national question to social revolution in oppressed nations, and their profound hostility to revolutionary projects, especially in their own country, coupled with failures of scholarship - for instance, in the form of factual errors and invented quotations - leaves their reading of the course followed by Connolly and his comrades fundamentally flawed.

Connolly and the revisionists

The idea of Connolly abandoning socialism can be traced back to Sean O’Casey.  Before he became a famous playwright O’Casey was a railway worker and a member of the Army Council of the early Irish Citizen Army, Europe’s first workers’ militia.  He left following an unsuccessful attempt to force Countess Markievicz out of the workers’ army and, under the pen-name of P. O’Cathasaigh, wrote a history of the ICA in which he alleged Connolly forsook socialism for nationalism. This idea is repeated in Clarkson’s classic Labour and Irish Nationalism and O’Faolain’s biography of Markievicz.  In more recent times it became an article of faith among left-wing revisionists, including those who considered themselves in the 1970s and 1980s to be ‘Marxists’.  In fact their hostility to all forms of Irish nationalism has led this particular ‘Marxist’ school to abandon also Marx, Engels and Lenin’s views on Ireland.

O’Casey’s view never gained much currency until the renewal of armed conflict in Ireland around 1970.  Even then, a revisionist assault on Connolly took some time.  This is partly because Connolly’s own writings and his labour movement activities show him as a practical and down-to-earth figure, less vulnerable to attack than the nationalist hero Pearse sections of whose writings, particularly his earlier work, were full of easily ridiculed nationalist romanticism.  It was far easier to present Pearse as a dreamer, away with the Celtic mists and mythologised happy clan life of the Gael and out of touch with the real Ireland and real Irish people of his time.  With today’s liberal middle class in the south having favoured some degree of social reform and having felt that the system had failed not only themselves but also the poor, they were also less inclined to assault Connolly in the way they were Pearse.  Since the southern state had wrapped itself in a particularly reactionary Catholicism and (falsely) claimed for several decades to be following Pearse in this, the rejection of the social and political power of the Church by southern liberals was, not altogether unsurprisingly, accompanied by a rejection of Pearse.  The 1916 leader was now seen as a Catholic reactionary rather than the advanced social thinker so clearly evident in his later writings, especially his final work, The Sovereign People.

Ironically, it was as the republican movement, particularly IRA activists in prison, began to study Connolly more seriously and this became reflected in the Sinn Fein programme, that the southern liberal middle class began to abandon their sympathy for him.  It could also be argued that the assault on nationalism and on Pearse was essential for preparing the ground for a full-scale assault on Connolly.  After all, if all Irish nationalism was reactionary and if Pearse was a reactionary fanatic, Connolly’s involvement with such people and his participation in the Easter Rising would discredit him.  With such doubts cast upon Connolly, the ground was ripe for a full-scale revisionist biography.

Morgan’s ‘Marxist’ political biography sees Connolly as abandoning socialism after WW1 broke out.  Although he views Irish nationalism as marring Connolly’s politics at different times throughout the socialist leader’s life, he argues that the defeat of the workers in the Dublin lock-out of 1913 and the collapse of the Second International in 1914 led to the collapse of Connolly’s socialism.  When the cause of class appeared to be hopeless, Connolly retreated into the cause of nation and became a leading figure of the revolutionary nationalist milieu.  It was as a nationalist rather than a socialist that Connolly participated in 1916, in Morgan’s view.  Moreover, had Connolly survived, “it would have been as a senior officer of the IRA, into which the ICA had dissolved itself, and a potential leader of Sinn Fein”.  Along with Connolly’s activities, various of his articles are cited as proof of the contention that he abandoned socialism for nationalism.  Morgan also dismisses the 1916 Rising as “a putsch”.

This characterisation was also made at the time by elements of the socialist movement in Europe.  One Marxist who had a different view was Lenin who attacked opposition to self-determination as a form of opportunism.  In his article on the 1916 rebellion, he wrote, “Whoever calls such an uprising a ‘putsch’ is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of picturing a social revolution as a living thing.”  Morgan has obviously read this article since he quotes from it to falsely claim that in it the “Irish Citizen Army was dismissed as ‘backward workers. . .  [with] their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors.’”

In fact, Lenin never mentioned the ICA anywhere in his article.  What he did say, in the two paragraphs following the sentence of his I quoted above, is:
For to imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts of a section of the petty-bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against landlord, church, monarchical, national and other oppression - to imagine that means repudiating social revolution.  Very likely one army will line up in one place and say, ‘We are for socialism’, while another will do so in another place and say, ‘We are for imperialism’, and that will be the social revolution!  Only from such a ridiculously pedantic angle could one label the Irish rebellion a ‘putsch’.

Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it.  Such a person plays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution really is.

What is the reason Morgan makes up a Lenin quote about the ICA, when Lenin does not mention them at all in his article?  It is clear that Lenin is attacking, in fact ridiculing, the very position which Morgan articulates seven decades later.  Morgan goes on to claim that “Marx and Engels had not even theorized an Irish national revolution”, that Lenin’s comments on the rising “cannot be taken as an endorsement of a putative socialist theory of the Irish revolution” and that nothing much can be inferred in relation to Ireland from any of Lenin’s writings on the national question. Morgan also claims, “Much has been made of the Leninist position on the national question, though the specificity of Ireland as a colonial part of the leading metropolitan power in Europe during the first world war is rarely recognised, and Lenin never seriously dealt with the problem of strategy for socialists in ‘oppressed nations’.”   Yet here we have a whole set of Morgan’s factual errors.

Lenin regarded Russia as an imperialist power and “a prisonhouse of nations”.  Ireland therefore was not alone in being a colonial part of a metropolitan, or imperialist, power.  The Bolsheviks were vitally concerned about this question and championed the right of subject nations to self-determination against the Russian Empire.  Lenin polemicised on this issue against both fellow revolutionaries such as Luxemburg and those whom he regarded as opportunists and centrists within the Second International.  After the revolution, this issue was one of the main questions which concerned the Communist International, as shown by both the records of its congresses and its attempts to organise around the question.  In fact so concerned were Lenin and the Bolsheviks about this, and especially about chauvinism on the part of leftists in countries such as Britain, that when the Communist International drew up its rules of membership it included the following:

A particularly marked and clear attitude on the question of the colonies and oppressed nations is necessary on the part of the Communist Parties of those countries where bourgeoisies are in possession of colonies and oppress other nations.  Every party that wishes to belong to the Communist International has the obligation of exposing the dodges of its ‘own’ imperialists in the colonies, of supporting every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds, of demanding that their imperialist compatriots should be thrown out of the colonies, of cultivating in the hearts of the workers in their own country a truly fraternal relationship to the working population in the colonies and to the oppressed nations, and of carrying out systematic propaganda among their own country’s troops against any oppressors of colonial peoples.

Morgan, however, leaves the impression that Marx, Engels and Lenin had little to say on these subjects and that nothing much can be inferred from what they did say.  In fact, they condemn the view put forward by Morgan. 

Revolutionary defeatism

In an attempt to undermine Connolly’s revolutionary Marxist status, F.A. D’Arcy draws the following distinction between Lenin and Connolly: “Lenin consistently called on socialists and workers to turn the imperialist war on all sides into a civil war, whereas it is beyond question that Connolly sincerely and insistently called for a German triumph.  Connolly’s prescription did not consider the likely fate of the Irish socialist and labour movement in the event of an imperial German invasion and victory.”  Lenin, however, did not see Connolly’s position as at all inconsistent with his own and fully supported the Easter Rising. Moreover, Lenin’s position of revolutionary defeatism meant that he regarded a Russian defeat at the hands of Germany as preferable to a Russian triumph. Most importantly, Connolly was attempting to do just what Lenin most favoured: turning the imperialist war into a war on one’s own imperialist government.  The imperialist government which ruled Ireland was the British government, not the German government, so it was against Britain that Connolly directed his fire, both figuratively and literally.  The ILP appeal, for instance, clearly favours the defeat of Britain. Marxists in Britain, such as the Socialist Labour Party (of which Connolly had been the most important founder) and Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation - both strong supporters of the Easter Rising and Irish freedom - also preferred a British defeat, since this was seen as opening up greater possibilities for revolutionary advance than a British triumph. By exactly the same token and for exactly the same reasons, Marxists in Germany - such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg - favoured the defeat of their own ruling class.

Morgan goes to the extreme of claiming that Connolly “became a Germanophile, and collaborated with a wartime imperialist state”, rather like saying that Churchill became a Stalinist for collaborating with the Soviet Union during World War 2 or that Lenin was a “Germanophile” for making use of a German sealed train to return to Russia in early 1917.  In fact, like Lenin, Connolly recognised that it is good tactics for revolutionaries to take advantage of inter-imperialist conflicts and get arms and any other support they can from the enemy of the imperialist power  against which they are trying to organise their revolution. 

Morgan’s alternative course to Connolly’s supposed abandonment of socialism for nationalism is that he “should have maintained his original course after August 1914, involvement in the ILP, ITGWU and Labour Party being touchstones of an independent proletarian position.”  Yet Connolly had already discovered the futility of the doctrine that Belfast workers could be influenced by the same approach as workers in Britain, describing this as “a doctrine almost screamingly funny in its absurdity.”  Belfast was “the happy hunting ground of the slave-driver and the home of the least rebellious slaves in the industrial world”, the Protestant workers being “slaves in spirit because they have been reared up among a people whose conditions of servitude were more slavish than their own.”  There was no way around this problem, certainly not by pretending there was no national question.  Moreover, ignoring the national question for fear of alienating Unionist workers would have meant alienating the nationalists who, after all, were the majority of the population in Ireland.  The problem has been summarised, in my view rightly, by Strauss who notes, “Belfast’s shipyards and textile mills were integral parts of the British industrial system. . .”  This privileged position would be lost in an independent Ireland.  It was simply a hard fact of history that “the interests of Belfast were diametrically opposed to those of Dublin and Cork.  Within the social framework of the time there was no escape from this dilemma.”

Connolly and the “blood sacrifice”

A crucial element of the revisionist approach to 1916 has been the idea that the rebels were fixated upon a “blood sacrifice”. The rebels are said to have been determined to shed their blood for Ireland, seeing this as a redeeming of the country’s honour.  In the case of Pearse, redemption through the shedding of blood is often said to have outweighed any political consideration.  The “blood sacrifice” is also taken as a Catholic ritual, in which the Easter Rising acted the part of Calvary and the leaders that of Christ.  This is used to further the argument that irrationalism is at the heart of Irish resistance to British rule.  Foster, for instance, sees the IRB’s decision, when WWI broke out, to prepare for a rising as “a reaction almost Pavlovian in its dogmatism”, while the 1916 leaders “relied on an emotional and exalted Anglophobia.”  But the Rising was based on fundamentally rational premises, as is clear from an investigation of the rebels’ actual course of action, particularly Connolly’s.

On November 4, 1915 Pearse gave a public talk reviewing the different political tendencies at the time of the rather farcical attempt at rebellion in 1848.  Connolly described it as a “brilliant lecture” and effectively used Pearse’s arguments against MacNeill - and, by extension, the republican militants clinging to their alliance with MacNeill.  As Pearse had in the lecture, Connolly drew the conclusion from 1848 that “The British Government would not wait until the plans of the revolutionists were ready.  It has not held Ireland down for 700 years by any such foolish waiting.  It struck in its own time, and its blow paralysed the people.”  In a blow at both MacNeill and the IRB, Connolly went on to criticise those who talked of “premature insurrection” and provoking the government, arguing “Revolutionists who shrink from giving blow for blow until the great day has arrived, and they have every shoe-string in its place, and every man has got his gun, and the enemy has kindly consented to postpone action in order not to needlessly hurry the revolutionists nor disarrange their plans - such revolutionists only exist in two places - the comic opera stage, and the stage of Irish national politics.  We prefer the comic opera brand.  It at least serves its purpose.”  Early in the New Year, he declared, “While the war lasts and Ireland still is a subject nation we shall continue to urge her to fight for her freedom. . . the time for Ireland’s battle is NOW, the place for Ireland’s battle is HERE.”

Firstly, then, Connolly was not committed to a grand sacrifice.  In the same article in which he referred to Ireland’s battle being “HERE” and “NOW”, for instance, he made clear that if Britain was not at war an attempt at armed revolution would be suicidal madness.  Before the revisionist flood-tide made fashionable and dominant the view that the 1916 Rising was a grisly blood sacrifice, Lee, for example, accepted that neither Connolly nor the IRB militants had intended to throw away their lives in some exalted and bloody martyrdom.  The 1916 leaders, he noted, “accepted the possibility of a blood sacrifice, but only as a contingency plan, not as the main objective of all the preparations of the five preceding years.”  Had the 20,000 rifles and accompanying ammunition on the Aud not been captured off the Kerry coast on the eve of the Rising, “a protracted struggle might have ensued, with the possibility of increasing public support as fighting progressed.”  Furthermore the odds at Easter 1916, while certainly not ideal, “were incomparably the best likely to occur for a very long time by IRB criteria.”

Some accounts note the way in which the 1916 rebels went behind Irish Volunteer leader MacNeill’s back and/or repeat his argument that a rising was morally unjustified unless it was defensive and/or had a reasonable chance of success.  This argument was, in effect, answered by Connolly as above.  Lee has argued along similar lines, asking “If MacNeill deemed the circumstances of 1916 hopeless he was in effect saying that a rising would never be justified, so what was the point of acquiring arms in the first instance?  And as the government would presumably choose to disarm the Volunteers when it considered the circumstances most propitious, the prospect of resistance would presumably be even less promising than a surprise Volunteer initiative.”  In the end, the decision to go ahead with the Rising, he noted, “was partly a defensive one prompted by the belief that Dublin Castle was about to arrest the leaders as it had swooped on the Fenians in 1865.”  Only at this stage “did the issue of a blood sacrifice arise.  The leaders accepted the challenge but they did not welcome it.” 

Secondly, this view tallies with Markievicz’s own account, which appears to have been ignored in all the historiography dealing with the Rising.  In an article several months before her own death, Markievicz stated Connolly “wanted to fight with a chance of winning, of course, but he was ready to go out and fight and die, as Robert Emmet died, as he believed that Ireland’s only hope of ultimate freedom lay in keeping the tradition of fighting alive by raising the flag of revolt each time England was in difficulties.”  Four years earlier, at the end of the civil war, she had also dealt with the events of Easter Sunday, writing scathingly of MacNeill, “All the weary years of preparation, all the fevered months of organisation, enlisting and drilling were made to no avail by the stroke of a pen from a weakling.” The alternative was to go ahead with as little hope of success as Emmet “or of giving up the fight and slipping away into obscurity quietly and safely”, although she later contradicts the idea that it would have been possible to slip away in such a manner:  “Postponement was impossible.  With a traitor alive, who had intimate knowledge of them and their intentions, they knew that at any moment he might carry his betrayal further and give all the information he had to the enemy.  His friend and adviser in treachery was under arrest by the Volunteers; he could not be held for long, and was a menace either way.” A month later, she wrote again of the time “when Professor Eoin MacNeill and Mr B Hobson had treacherously acted a coward’s part, secretly through the IRB, and publicly through the daily papers. . .”  Connolly, she said, knew MacNeill’s action had taken away any chance of success “or even of holding out for long enough to create that public opinion that might have saved his life and the lives of the other leaders.  Postponement of the rising had by now become quite impossible; too many people had begun to smell a rat, therefore this ‘call off’ had created a situation out of which there were only two ways: the one way was to abandon all thoughts of a rising, the other was to go on with it, though, for the leaders, it was going out to certain death.”   The decision on the Sunday to go ahead with the Rising the next day, although forced upon the leaders by the situation, left them “all quite cheerful” and on the Monday the rebels were “in the highest spirits.  The hour so anxiously awaited, so eagerly expected, had come at last.  Our heart’s desire was granted to us, and we counted ourselves lucky. . .Ireland was reborn, and brave sons and daughters were rallied to win her rights.” 

Connolly, Markievicz and the militant labour strategy

Connolly and Markievicz saw the outbreak of war in Europe as making rebellion in Ireland not only possible, but an imperative necessity.  “I will not miss this chance,” Connolly declared when war broke out.  In September he asked, “Would it not be better for all capable of bearing arms to resolve to fight and if need be to die for freedom here at home rather than be slaughtered for the benefit of kings and capitalists abroad.”  As Young, who is hostile to the Connolly perspective, notes, “From the outbreak of the First World War, Countess Markievicz and James Connolly were waiting their opportunity to initiate a nationalist-cum-socialist revolt.  When the opportunity came in April 1916, they did not hesitate to confront the might of British imperialism.” Far from being goaded into the Easter Rising, “Countess Markievicz and James Connolly had decided upon the efficacy of a nationalist uprising in August 1914.”  It should also be noted that this was Larkin’s perspective as well.  Along with calling on workers to fight for Ireland alone, he declared “England’s need is Ireland’s opportunity”, that “the guns must be got, and at once” and that Ireland “had now the finest chance she had for centuries.” Larkin also organised anti-war protests and told a rally of 7000 in Dublin that the ITGWU was prepared to help land weapons in Ireland.  The Dublin Trades Council, following the killings the evening of the Howth gun-running on July 26, adopted a motion from ITGWU leader O’Brien which included the view that “the only effective manner of dealing with this latest action of the Government is for the people to meet force with force.”

Most importantly, from the viewpoint of revolutionary socialists such as Larkin, Connolly and Markievicz, the war and the IPP’s role in supporting it, while acquiescing in the shelving of Home Rule, provided militant labour with the opportunity to push past the bourgeois nationalists and unite all the progressive forces behind the radical working class movement.  In May, Connolly had written, “We believe there are no real Nationalists in Ireland outside of the Irish Labour Movement.  All others merely reject one part or another of the British Conquest - the Labour Movement alone rejects it in its entirety and sets itself to the reconquest of Ireland. . .” Barely two months into the war he declared “a fight to the finish” with the Redmondites, noting “For some of us the finish may be on the scaffold, for some in the prison cell, for others more fortunate upon the battlefields of an Ireland in arms for a real republican liberty.”  He was, however, optimistic, writing to Larkin six days later, on October 9, “We are at present in a very critical stage for the whole of Ireland as well as for the Labour movement.  One result of this is that we have an opportunity of taking the lead of the real Nationalist movement. . .”   This was the heart of Connolly’s strategy up to the Rising, a strategy in which his closest co-worker was Markievicz.

Although sharing the view that Connolly moved away from socialism to nationalism, Young notes the “nationalist-cum-socialist” nature of the rebellion envisaged by Connolly and Markievicz.  In fact, Connolly from the beginning perceived the rebellion as having a wider significance than simply an attempt at national liberation for one oppressed people (as important as that was to him).  Through an insurrection, “Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord,” he wrote as war was declared on the continent. Connolly began, relates O’Brien, his IRGWU colleague, to seek out allies “with the view to combined action in preparation for an insurrection.” The logical place to find them was in a section of the IRB since, as Strauss has noted, that group’s “left-wing approached the position of the militant labour movement.” Thus it was not just anybody at hand whom Connolly sought out for an alliance.

Strauss’ point about the convergence of the politics of the IRB’s left, exemplified by Pearse, Clarke and the other Easter Proclamation signatories, with the labour radicals is especially important and largely ignored by both the main body of revisionists and the left-wing revisionist critics of Connolly.  The alliance between Connolly and the republicans is usually seen as being a convergence around nationalist separatism, or Connolly’s subordination to it.  Yet this overlooks the large degree of convergence on issues of domestic Irish politics.  Both the republicans and Connolly regarded the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which wielded immense power in the Parliamentary Party, as an excrescence in Irish political life. Both regarded the bourgeois nationalist IPP itself as, if anything, worse than the British government since the Parliamentary Party was the enemy within - the main organisation in nationalist Ireland without which British rule could not have been maintained on any stable basis.  Again, Connolly and the republicans agreed that fundamental changes in the social and economic structure were necessary and could only be carried out in an independent country.

Even before the Dublin labour dispute Irish Freedom had run an article headed “The economic basis of a revolutionary movement” by “Northman” in which it was maintained that labour and republicanism “rest upon the same foundation, they are but different manifestations of the same principle and would form a natural and mutually helpful alliance.” The class sympathies of the republicans were also evident during the 1913 labour struggle, with all the future republican signatories of the 1916 Proclamation siding with the workers.  During the dispute, for instance, the republicans’ paper, Irish Freedom, in a front-page article described the police as “Irish Cossacks” and, following the clashes in O’Connell Street, accused them of “the killing of two citizens of Dublin and the wounding of about six hundred.”  Of the workers, the paper said, “If they claim the right to conduct a strike against their employers, no reasonable man can object.”  If the police and military were used to suppress them, the workers “must act after consideration and deep thought.  But they cannot punish the police brutes with empty hands against batons, or stones against bullets.  We have often advised the people of Ireland to arm themselves, and we shall press upon them the wisdom of this course upon every against bullets.” (Sic)  In a column in the same issue, Pearse, backing the workers, likened the Dublin employers to Marie Antoinette and her alleged “Let them eat cake” comment about the starving poor.  “Poor Marie Antoinette did not quite grasp the situation in France,” Pearse noted.  “In the end the situation grasped her and hurried her to the guillotine.”  Another proclamation signatory, Eamonn Ceannt, had even lectured on several occasions for the SPI.

The extent of this convergence between the Connolly militant labour current and the republican militants is clearly apparent in Pearse’s final and most developed political tract, The Sovereign People, in which he builds upon the ideas of Lalor, the most socially revolutionary of all the republican figures of the 1800s and a hero of Connolly’s, and at last deals with “the material basis of freedom”.  In this work Pearse makes clear his view that “no private right to  property holds good against the public right of the nation” and that the nation must “exercise its public right so as to secure strictly equal rights and liberties to every man and woman within the nation”. Pearse view of equal rights in relation to women extends to participation in the government itself.  He remarks,  “in order that the people may be able to choose as a legislation and as a government men and women really and truly representative of themselves” they would be wisest to adopt “the widest possible franchise - give a vote to every adult man and woman of sound mind.  To restrict the franchise in any respect is to prepare the way for some future usurpation of the rights of the sovereign people.”

All of this undermines Morgan’s claim that the people with whom Connolly united in 1916 were “a group of five, later six, petty-bourgeois cultural nationalists, most of whom had only recently embraced physical force, a conspiracy with the pretensions of a national bourgeoisie.”  Far from having “the pretensions of a national bourgeoisie”, Pearse, Clarke, Plunkett, MacDiarmada, Ceannt and Plunkett wanted to destroy the power of the national bourgeoisie - whose party was the IPP - and gave their lives, like Connolly, as much to that as to the ridding of Ireland of British rule.  All through the period up to the Rising, Connolly never lost an opportunity to impress upon the republican militants his view that the working class was the driving force for national liberation and that anyone proposing to win Ireland’s freedom could not succeed unless they recognised this.  He never lost sight of where his group stood - “we belong to the working class of Ireland, and strive to express the working class point of view” - while pressing his point that the Irish Citizen Army was “the only body that, without reservation, unhesitatingly announces its loyalty to the republican principle of National Freedom of which the Fenians stood.” 

One of Connolly and Markievicz’s first steps to build an alliance with the republican militants following the outbreak of war was a meeting on September 8 in the library of the Gaelic League in Parnell Square.  It was attended by all seven future Easter Proclamation signatories, veteran republican John MacBride, O’Brien and several others.  Connolly advocated that they begin preparations for an insurrection and suggested the setting up of two subcommittees to assist this: one to make contact with Germany for military support and one to organise open propaganda and recruit to the secret movement.  A possible fruit of the September 8 meeting is a decision made by the IRB. According to O Broin, sometime between September and November 1914 the IRB decided to stage an insurrection before the war was over. This would suggest that the IRB decision would have been made after the meeting at which Connolly proposed this course, pointing up the key role played by him in initiating the insurrection.

The open organisation agreed on at the September 8 meeting, meanwhile, was established as the Irish Neutrality League, including Markievicz and Connolly, O’Brien and Foran from the labour movement, the pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, republican figures Sean T. O’Kelly, Sean Milroy and J.J. Scollan, and Sinn Fein’s Arthur Griffith. It was primarily a group of leaders, without a general membership and although it organised meetings and produced leaflets for a couple of months British military restrictions made it impossible for the League to continue. However, it may have been that Connolly had decided the time was right to move on to a more militant flouting of the authorities.  It is clear that Markievicz and Connolly were already thinking along such lines before the INL was even launched.  For instance, plans were laid for  Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers members to seize the Mansion House on the night of September 24 and hold it for twenty-four hours in order to prevent Asquith and Redmond from holding their advertised recruiting meeting in the building the following day.  Although the plan had to be abandoned due to the strength of British forces, the militants won a victory elsewhere that day.  The IV’s original executive repudiated Redmond’s nominees as, four days earlier, Redmond had promised the Volunteers’ support to Britain during the war.  The expulsion of the Redmond group led to a split in which the Parliamentary Party took the vast bulk of the membership, reducing the organisation to maybe 12,000 members.  Connolly was delighted.

On October 10 he declared the “fight against Redmondism and Devlinism is a fight to save the soul of the Irish nation” and exhorted the Irish Volunteers to throw everything into the fight against Britain’s war effort and the IPP’s betrayal, and to adopt “the daring appeal of the Revolutionist.” Two weeks later he declared that if Britain tried to introduce conscription in Ireland through the Militia Ballot Act or any other measure, the ITGWU and ICA “have our answer ready.”  Resistance “must of necessity take the form of insurrectionary warfare. . .  barricades in the streets, guerrilla warfare in the country.”

The split with the Redmondites, so desired by Connolly, had not left the revolutionaries in control, however.  Leaders such as MacNeill and the ubiquitous Hobson were far from sharing the views of the militant republicans and socialists.  Connolly continued to try to drive a wedge into the Volunteers, to detach the militants from MacNeill and Hobson and pull them towards his militant socialist/labour current.

In May 1915 the republican militants took a further step forward, setting up a military committee, comprising Ceannt, Pearse and Plunkett with the latter reputedly being the military expert; Clarke and MacDiarmada joined later in the year, Connolly in January 1916 and MacDonagh later again.  During this period Clarke was IRB Supreme Council secretary, MacDonagh treasurer and Denis McCullough president.

Mid-1915 also saw a new initiative of the Connolly forces.  An anti-conscription committee was formed, with Markievicz and Connolly occupying central roles.  In August Connolly claimed, “We saved the lives of thousands, held together thousands of homes, and amid all the welter and turmoil of a gigantic and unparalleled national betrayal we presented to the world the spectacle of the organised Irish working class standing steadfastly by the highest ideals of freedom, so that the flag of Labour became one with the standard of national liberty.” In October the Dublin Trades Council, at the initiative of Transport Union delegates, passed a resolution calling upon workers to join the ICA and IVs as the best way of preventing the introduction of conscription. Discussions also took place between the trades council and Volunteers in relation to a campaign against economic conscription.  “Connolly insisted that if the organized workers were to pledge their support for a certain policy, the Irish Volunteers should also be pledged to back that policy with military support should that be necessary,” recalls O’Brien, but MacNeill would not agree.

During this period recruitment in Ireland fell off noticeably.  Between August 1914 and August 1915, Britain succeeded in recruiting 80,000 from Ireland.  Over the following twelve months this declined to a mere 12,000.  Most recruits came from Ulster.  The lowest rates were in Connaught and Munster (the south and west), where the land struggle had been strongest.  Only 10.7 percent of the relevant age group from Ireland served in the British Army, compared to 24.2 percent in England and Wales and 26.9 percent in Scotland. 

Connolly and Markievicz also upped the ante, with the Citizen Army increasingly appearing on the streets with weapons.  In July they even led it in a mock attack on Dublin Castle.  Meanwhile every hesitation by the IV leadership was met with fiery denunciation, as when they gave in to a British order that one of their chief organisers Captain Robert Monteith (who also had a reputation as a labour sympathiser) leave Dublin. Connolly also made clear that ICA collaboration with the Volunteers was conditional, stating “However it may be for others, for us of the Citizen Army there is but one ideal - an Ireland ruled, and owned, by Irish men and women. . .  The Citizen Army will only co-operate in a forward movement.  The moment that forward movement ceases it reserves for itself the right to step out of the alignment, and advance by itself if needs be, in an effort to plant the banner of Freedom one reach further towards its goal.”  This message was not directed at MacNeill, as Connolly had no illusions about an alliance there, but at the republican militants.  His strategy was to continue to pull - and, where necessary, push - them forward until their alliance with MacNeill was no longer sustainable and broke up.  At that point, Connolly would have been able to draw them to his own group, in effect uniting around the militant labour forces all the most radical republican elements.  It might be further noted that at the same time Connolly was drawing in the most militant and politically-advanced elements of the women’s movement.  While a number of former Inghinidhe activists had already been integrated into the ICA, and IWFL member Kathleen Lynn had been made medical officer, holding the rank of lieutenant, in December 1915 Connolly took on a number of suffragists to do ITGWU organising work.

The other aspect of Connolly and Markievicz’s strategy was to continue to challenge the authorities and push the limits of what they could get away with.  It seems to me that there were three main elements to this.  Firstly, they were preparing their followers for the insurrection through a process of toughening them up.  Insurrection is not a business for the faint-hearted and Connolly and Markievicz wanted a reliable and hardened force.  In early 1916, for instance, Connolly summoned each member of the ICA individually into his office and asked them if they were prepared to fight in a rebellion, and alongside the Volunteers.  Secondly, they were showing ordinary Irish people, who had long been taught to think of themselves as inferior and powerless, that the authorities were not omnipotent, that they could be challenged and that they only maintained their power as long as people acquiesced in their own oppression.  This attitude was summed up in the motto Connolly took from Desmoulins, a French revolutionary of the eighteenth century: “The great only appear great because we are on our knees.  Let us arise!”  Thirdly, the ICA’s activities made the British think twice about what they did since any repressive actions they planned would be met with force.  These three elements were closely related to each other.  For instance, whenever armed ICA members prevented the British from taking some action, it would raise the self-confidence of the workers’ militia and have a positive effect on public opinion.  O’Brien has commented, for example, the ICA “attends all our Labour meetings and you would be surprised at the changed attitude of the police in consequence.”

While the IV leadership usually capitulated when challenged by the authorities, as in the Monteith case, the ICA evinced another spirit. For example, following a police raid on Markievicz’s house, remarks O’Brien, “the police came to the Countess and wanted her to register as an alien!  Being married to a Russian the Countess is technically a Russian subject but she told the police, more forcibly than politely, that ‘she was an Irishwoman and before she would register as an alien she would see the police in hell.’”  On another occasion in early 1916, when police called at her house to check she would not break an order banning her from speaking at a meeting in Tralee, she warned them to keep away from her home as no-one there liked them and, besides, they made “grand big targets”.  Connolly, who faced constant difficulties producing a newspaper, finally moved a printing press into Liberty Hall and placed an armed guard on it.  Markievicz, who did guard duty as one of her first soldierly works, relates, “Our instructions were, if raided, to fight to the last cartridge.”  This might have been some shoot-out given that she “had an army rifle, a ‘Peter’ and a small Browning.  My comrade also was well supplied.”  On another occasion, March 24, 1916, when the British attempted to remove copies of The Gael, they faced an armed Markievicz, apparently fingering her automatic, while Connolly pulled out a revolver, saying “Drop them or I’ll drop you.”

This spirit had, in fact, been manifest following the suppression of the Irish Worker on December 4, 1914.  Connolly managed, however, to bring out a two-page leaflet headed Irish Work, in which he argued that repression was growing, and the more tame people were the more emboldened the authorities would be.  He declared to the authorities, “our cards are all on the table!  If you leave us at liberty we will kill your recruiting, save our poor boys from your slaughter-house, and blast your hopes of Empire.  If you strike at, imprison, or kill us, out of our prisons or graves we will still evoke a spirit that will thwart you, and mayhap, raise a force that will destroy you.  We defy you! Do your worst!” It seems to me that Connolly was continually trying to limit the ability of the British to implement their initiatives, until he could reach the point at which Ireland would be ungovernable by anything like ordinary means.  In such a situation conditions would be ripe for an insurrection.

The Easter Rising, I would conclude, was not simply a nationalist or even radical nationalist insurrection.  It marked the success of the militant labour forces in “taking the lead of the real Nationalist movement”.  Unforeseen circumstances, including the capture of the Aud and MacNeill’s counter-manding orders, ensured that the rebellion was far more limited in scope than the revolutionaries had intended.  O’Brien recounts, for instance, that the plan was to hold a continuous line forming a loop through the centre of the city, but the necessary numbers ended up not being available due to MacNeill and Hobson’s actions.  Markievicz’s articles and Lee’s provide convincing arguments that the leaders hoped for a better outcome and had their preparations proceeded as planned a far more significant fight may well have been possible and the leaders may have been able even to escape. 

The Rising did, however, show the political weakness of the republican militants as aspiring revolutionaries.  Their secret, conspiratorial politics locked them up inside the IRB and, in the Volunteers, in a crippling alliance with MacNeill.  Other options were open to them. For instance, fighting openly for the leadership of the Volunteers at the time MacNeill capitulated to Redmond may have put them in a much stronger position in the long-term.  Even if, as is likely, they had ended up with only a small fraction of the Volunteer membership it could not possibly have been less than the small force of maybe 2000 they were left to lead out on Easter Monday following MacNeill’s countermanding order.  If they had have broken with MacNeill in mid-1914, they could have even united their forces with the ICA, which would have given a major boost to the overall revolutionary movement.  The failure of the republican militants to develop a class-based revolutionary perspective left them, like the IWFL feminists, unable to achieve their progressive goals.  In the case of the republicans, the failure was paid for with their lives.

In the case of militant labour, the Rising represented its achievement of the leadership role for which Connolly, Markievicz (and Larkin before his departure to the US in October 1914) had organised.  In fact, one of the most interesting features of the period up to the First World War and the Rising was the way in which Labour was the dominant force in anti-establishment politics.  When partition was mooted, it was not the IRB or Sinn Fein which mobilised opposition on the street but the ITUCLP.  It was also organised labour which was represented in local government throughout the country, not SF and the IRB.  Even in Dublin it was Labour and not the anti-parliamentary nationalists who formed the main opposition to the IPP/IUL machine which ran the city.  The main voice of labour, the Irish Worker had ten to fifteen times the circulation of the SF paper and of Irish Freedom, the revolutionary paper backed by the IRB.  The labour movement could mobilise thousands on the national question, provided security for suffrage marches and meetings, and took up other political questions while the IRB and Sinn Fein could mobilise almost no-one under their own banners.  In addition, the best of the republicans, such as those grouped around Irish Freedom, were being drawn to the side of labour and increasingly becoming influenced by socialist ideas.

An alternative perspective for Irish labour has been posited by a number of present-day left-wing social and labour historians, including Morgan, Young and Keogh. Yet had the ITUC/LP been blessed with their presence as party strategists and stuck to bread-and-butter issues, as they suggest, it is likely the party would have been annihilated.  No party which aspired to lead the working class could avoid taking a stand on the number one political issue of that period in Ireland: Irish independence.  Indeed, to have avoided the issue would have meant, objectively, going along with the status quo of British rule and abandoning the working class to the leadership of the two factions of Irish capitalism, the Unionist and Nationalist parties.  Moreover, if Labour had have accepted the argument that it should not have taken a stand on the national question because that would alienate Unionist workers, it may have well as accepted the argument that it should not support votes for women because this would alienate some male workers.

Taking a stand on the national question, women’s rights and other political and social questions was essential if the working class was going to take the lead in society as a whole.  It is because they did this that the radical labour forces prior to 1916 were able to reach the early stages of challenging the IPP as the dominant party of the Irish people and the Unionists for the allegiance of that section of the working class still attached to the Union with Britain.  Subsequently, Labour fell back and was replaced by Sinn Fein, because the post-1916 Labour leaders, like the revisionist critics of Connolly, lacked any revolutionary perspective and were basically what Connolly had once described as “gas and water socialists”.  As a “gas and water” party Labour was ill-suited to a revolutionary situation.  In the vacuum that opened up, the mantle of national liberation, which Connolly had united with the cause of labour, passed to the reorganised republican forces.  These had a much more socially conservative leadership than in the period of Pearse and Clarke, but were prepared to fight Britain for independence.

The result of the destruction of the Connolly perspective within the labour movement was, ultimately, the settlement of 1921, which, like the conservative nationalists, the revisionists accept.  For the masses of Irish people, however, that settlement, which included partition, brought about exactly the ‘carnival of reaction’ on both sides of the border which Connolly had foreseen. 

Philip Ferguson 



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