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The Need To Learn History  

Corrected version of speech given by D.R.O'Connor Lysaght at the launch of new book - From the GPO to the Winter Palace

4 July 2016

Friends, to begin my contribution to these proceedings, I should like, verbally to thank those who have made this pamphlet (and its launch) possible. They include Uachtaran Jack McGinley and his predecessor Francis Devine (I am sorry not to see Francis here this evening) for their reading of the proofs, Ann and Robert Egan for retyping them at a time when it looked as if the typescript had gone forever and, of course, Chris Hammond and CRM for its excellent printing. Last but not least, I thank UNITE, Jimmy Kelly, Janet Murphy and their co-helpers for grubstaking this publication and its launch.

Beside this, in the context of this event, I am happy to thank Joan [Collins] and Bernie [Hughes] for giving of their valuable time to be here and speak tonight. I would just like to make one remark on Bernie's contribution. She makes the valid point that analysis is useless unless it leads to action. I would argue that the corollary is also true; action without the correct analysis is also useless. I speak from experience. Through the sixties, the seventies and the eighties, I participated in the active struggles of the day. Some of you know that I marched, prepared and carried banners, distributed leaflets, knocked on doors, occupied and picketed, even picketing all night on occasion. Sometimes our actions were successful, but through these years, I was all too aware that we knew too little, that we reacted to the enemy's initiatives and that those of us who did take the initiative were as likely as not to take the wrong one. I hoped that I was wrong, but I was proven correct. To paraphrase that reactionary old poet Patrick Kavanagh, "we marched in puddles of the past keeping our eyes on Connolly's mast." The results are around us. Accordingly, I have been spending what time is left to me in trying to contribute to filling the space and leave a body of historical writings to enlighten the next wave of activists.

That the study of history can be a weapon of struggle in itself is known to the enemy. In their times, at least two upholders of the cause of privilege have insisted on the discipline’s importance. The Roman Cicero declared that "without history, we are as little children." In the last century, the American George Santayana made the better known remark, "He who does not know history is fated to repeat it." Admittedly, the politics of each gentleman ensured that his own contribution to historical writing was less than impressive. In any case, since it is unlikely that historical writing can be suppressed (we are all part of the historical process), I prefer to turn to fiction  for an example of what such an abolition would mean. In George Orwell's 1984, there is a meeting between the hero and the bureaucrat O'Brien. The hero protests that O'Brien's dystopia must collapse: “history proves it." The bureaucrat replies that there is no such thing as history; they are just two men talking in a room and outside there is a boot pressing on the face throughout time. No doubt, there are people who would like to see this. However, the more realistic (and hence more successful) oligarchs know that it is enough to limit historical studies. This has been shown, sadly, in the last government when a Labour Minister for Education announced plans to downgrade such studies in the state school system, possibly merging them in a portmanteau of "arts classes". Of course the private schools would keep their specific history courses. The bosses’ sons would learn to avoid the mistakes of their parents while their worker contemporaries would struggle to repeat the errors of theirs.

This move is comparatively new. A far longer lasting struggle has been waged against that aspect of historical studies that this society exist to promote. It is worth noting that nobody denies the validity of military history, nor, in recent years, can I say, happily enough, that I have heard anyone challenge the concept of women's history ("herstory"). But labour history is to be treated as a Cinderella if it cannot be altogether euthanised. Our one complete failure among our original stated aims has to be that we have not got any third level institution in Ireland establish a chair specifically for the study of labour history, despite the  proliferation of such institutions since this society was founded. Let me add that, almost certainly, such academic courses would produce a great amount of what might be called reactivated sludge. Nonetheless, like the proverbial jewel in the toad's head, they would stimulate the production of theses of greater value. The attitude of much of the academic establishment was shown a few years ago, I think it was at the turn of the century, when the neo-liberal plague was most rife, and a very distinguished Professor of History at Trinity came to one of our seminars and told us solemnly that we were wasting our time studying the records of a class, and that we should rather be concentrating on "work".  This would have meant, of course, treating as equal the wheeler dealing of Martin Murphy and the more honourable tasks of his tramway men. At the same time, it ignored the fact that Labour History is not just about waged or salaried work but about living conditions, recreation and, above all, about struggle.  Presumably, the learned professor would have shoved the first two of these into sociology. Almost certainly, he would have consigned the last to the footnotes of political studies. At all events, this society was unable to agree to his suggestion. Its refusal is one reason why it is able to launch this pamphlet today. 

As to the purpose of this pamphlet, it is a comparative study of the two major revolutionary upsurges during the First World War: that of Ireland and that of Russia. The reason for it is the same as Leigh-Mallory's justification for climbing Mount Everest: "Because it is there." The two revolutions were there and open to comparison. Yet the only time that I know that such comparison has been done between covers was in a children's book of the sixties entitled The Book of Revolutions which I used to supply  my friends and comrades for their offspring until changing conditions led to it going out of print. Sadly, the reader of the work would be led to conclude that the Irish revolutionaries were a group of poets who were inspired by Yeats Cathleen ni Houlihan to march into the GPO, whereas, although even Connolly wrote (not very good) verse, at least two of his colleagues, Clarke and MacDiarmada were innocent of any such act. On the other hand, the October revolution was depicted as one organised by dull prosaic revolutionaries without as much as a dirty limerick to their name. (Actually, I would not have put it past Stalin to have written a dirty limerick, but it does not appear in his Collected Works) Now this viewpoint is obviously not that of people thinking consciously about these events but I have noticed that it affected their sub-consciousness and inspired their immediate reactions when asked about them. Even at the time, I considered such a view an over-simplification and formed a resolve to give a more scientific and accurate comparison of the two risings. Other tasks left me without the opportunity to do this for some decades, until, better equipped for the job in hand, I was able to produce the paper that I gave to this society on the ninetieth anniversary of the October Revolution. There followed the Saothar article and, now the full pamphlet. I can hope only that in my task I have not met a fate equivalent to that of Mallory, who died on Everest, but that my work will clarify readers’ minds as to the events that it describes.

In particular, I would draw your attention to three aspects of it, all concerning the Irish subject. Firstly, there is the question of the nature of the Rising. As we know there has always been a minority that disagrees with its depiction as a progressive act.  Naturally, the centennial celebrations have mobilised the heavyweights among this group. Four history professors, the ex-Taoiseach, John Bruton, the chief minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster (well she is a Unionist) and various relatively minor odds and bods sing from the same sheet that the Rising was Immoral and Undemocratic. Admittedly, the first of these charges I find it difficult to answer; I have no claim to be a moral philosopher. However, I do know that, even at the time, there was disagreement within the Catholic Church as to whether or not the rebellion constituted a just war, with the Bishop of Limerick, Dr. Ned Dwyer and Dr Daniel Mannix of Maynooth declaring that it did. Outside the Church (where I am), it is less easy to follow the criteria for denying the Rising morality. In any case, I find three gaps in its opponents case. Firstly, only John Bruton has mentioned that it was an event in a far greater armed struggle, and Bruton's judgement is impaired by the fact that he sees that struggle in straight black and white terms such as were abandoned by Hollywood before it discovered talking pictures. Secondly, neither he nor any of his co-thinkers have made any condemnation of John Redmond's action in the great war, in his deliberate lies that Ireland had achieved independence, when it had merely the promise of a provincial (Home Rule) parliament subject to the verdict of a post-war khakhi election, a lie that sent their deaths more young Irishmen than in all the Republican insurrections since and including 98. Thirdly, there is no acknowledgement that most of the civilian deaths in the Rising were caused by the British forces, either by their high explosives or by deliberate murder.
The democratic argument is easier to refute. The fact is that in 1916, democracy, one person one vote, existed only in Australia and New Zealand and certain western states of the USA. The United Kingdom was low down on the list even of partial democracies. It was less democratic than France (full manhood suffrage) or their "undemocratic" enemies, imperial Germany and imperial Austria (also manhood Suffrage). What these islands enjoyed in parliamentary elections was male household suffrage; only the male head of a household could vote. On the other hand, the proclamation of the Republic offered men and women over twenty- one full voting rights, What is more, it would seem (and admittedly more research is needed on this) the a majority of those committed to the Republic belonged to the numbers currently disfranchised: all the women, of course, but also all the sons living in family homes where only the father had a vote. So the Rising was a rebellion for universal adult suffrage fought by individuals who were currently without votes. Perhaps I am missing something, but it looks pretty democratic to me. 

My second point concerns a major figure in labour history and in the Rising, James Connolly. As far as he is concerned, all accounts of him in this period, his last eighteen months, that were written before 1960, whether they be by Ryan, Davies or Fox, give the impression of a lecture on astronomy by a Ptolemaic stargazer, that is one who believes, still, that the sun orbits the earth.  All begin their analyses, if not their presentation with his command of the combined revolutionary forces in the Rising and then project a straight line to it from his appointment as head of the Citizen Army. Not only does this leave out a number of significant facts, but it provides an excuse both for the hard line republicans and the revisionists to get together, for once, and agree that Connolly abandoned socialism for nationalism. It is to Desmond Greaves’ credit that he presented the facts that challenged this assumption, such as the Stuttgart Resolution on War and the Dublin Steampacket Company strike. Sadly, for reasons that it is unnecessary to mention here, his presentation of this data was understated, allowing subsequent Connolly biographers to dismiss or just ignore it. It was left to me to present the truth in proper order: the Newtonian universe as it were against the Ptolemaic one. (It is possible that an Einsteinian version will appear, but I don't expect to be here to see it.)

Having done justice to Connolly, the pamphlet does justice to the scene after his death. It is not necessary to repeat here too emphatically the fact that mainstream labour recoiled from his strategy. What I wish to emphasise is the way that this withdrawal played into the hands of the bourgeois heirs of Easter Week. While labour trusted them to see it right, the leaders of the revived Sinn Fein acted to copper fasten its scheme for an Irish capitalist order. On the one hand, they claimed to accept Connolly's social and economic vision while diluting it as in Russell's The National Being and, later, by Eoin MacNeill's interpretation of Celtic "socialism". On the other hand, at Sinn Fein's 1917 Convention, they committed themselves to the precise capitalist economic and social demands of Arthur Griffith. This perspective could not be negated by Johnson's draft Democratic Programme for the first Dail, let alone by the version that that Dail passed. This aspect of the Anglo-Irish War has been neglected because the mainstream Irish Labour leaders put up little resistance to the process. They trusted Irish capitalist politicians to play by rule: the politicians knew that they were in a war to the death against socialism as well as the British. Today, Irish Labour has still to learn this elementary lesson.

I will end making two general points. In the first place, he would urge all of you to join the Irish Labour History Society; I imagine that most of you have an interest in the subject otherwise you would not be here. I would urge you, too, to try and produce works of labour history. In many cases, they will be lousy, but practice makes perfect and there are plenty of people to help you do better.
Finally, an advertisement. As this is a launch there will be no formal question and answer sessions; few of you will have had time to read this pamphlet. This will have changed by 22 October when this society  is holding its annual conference. I will be there speaking on this subject, hopefully most of you will have bought copies, some of you may have read it and you can challenge me then. Just don’t throw crusty rolls; they can cause nasty scars.

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