The Volunteers and the
22 November 2014
The commemoration of the Irish Volunteers
promises a great deal. Purely from the socio-historical perspective,
the Kerry initiative of recording the names and dwellings of all Volunteers
should be extended throughout Ireland. It should also be extended to the
callings of the Volunteers, so that the social structure of the movement
can be traced through all its manifestations.
Although it possessed a socially-defined
core of supporters, its strategy and aims varied. Defence of the Home Rule
Settlement in the first year, under MacNeill and Redmond became opposition
to the British imperial war effort that Home Rule was said to justify,
and then, from 1916 to the Treaty and, for a majority beyond and against
it, the Republic. All these programmatic changes were reflected in
changes in personnel.
This was particularly notable in the case
of perhaps its most famous commandant, James Connolly. At the time
of the founding of the Volunteers, he had helped found its future ally,
the Irish Citizen Army for the strictly working class aim of protecting
the strikers “pickets against the bosses” forces in the Dublin Lockout.
This dispute was still being waged at the end of November. A repercussion
was the disturbance caused by militant workers protesting against the prominence
given L.J.Kettle, a known employer of scabs at the Volunteers’ launch.
In his memoirs, dictated in his dotage,
Bill O’Brien would make light of this, dismissing the protestors as “yahoos
from Liberty Hall” making criticisms that were “hard to understand”.O’Brien’s
mentor, James Connolly took the matter more seriously. In the Irish
Worker, of the following Saturday, 29 November, writing under his pen-name
“Spailpin”, he declared:
A regrettable incident happened at
the Volunteer meeting held in the Dublin Rotunda Skating Rink
on Tuesday. One of the persons chosen to take a leading part - indeed the
leading part as he was to read the manifesto of the new organisation -
was a Mr L.J.Kettle, who has been notorious of late as an active
enemy of the right of the working class to combine for its own benefit.
Naturally his attempt to pose as a
friend of freedom was actively resented by the major part of the audience
and a most stormy scene marred, as a consequence, the proceedings.
It might as well be understood by all
that this union is unqualifiedly in favour of any movement that makes for
a greater national freedom, but we believe that it is of paramount importance
to be clear as to the Means by which that freedom is to be achieved. Hence
we cannot tolerate the presence on a platform sacred to freedom of men
who are actively engaged in an attempt to reduce their fellow-countrymen
of the Irish working-class.
It is as true as it was on the day
it was first written by Thomas Davis that “Righteous men must make our
land/A nation once again”, and surely under the name of “righteous men”
we cannot include slave-driving, labour-hating employers.
Our lauding of such men in invocation
of the spirit of freedom is rank blasphemy. The only hope of freedom is
an upright, self-respecting intelligent working class. Scabs and the employers
of scabs are the natural enemies of such. Therefore scabs and the
employers of scabs, by working for our degradation as individuals and our
enslavement as a class, are also working for the destruction of every element
that can now or in the future enable Ireland to treat in a dignified manner
with the foreign enemy within our walls.
By April 1916, matters had changed.
Connolly was able to take command of combined Citizen Army and Volunteer
forces in the Dublin Rising. There were no known employers of scabs among
the signatories of the Proclamation or, indeed, among the other leading
officers. Moreover Connolly had made clear the social programme for which
he was fighting. As for the cause of the Rotunda dispute, L.J.Kettle,
he was recruiting actively to extend the British Empire.The Irish Volunteers
had changed. Events had moulded them into Connolly’s conception of
a truly revolutionary force. They would remain as such until truce and
economic recession brought pressures to bear that would lead to their split.
That would be another story.