Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dublin 1916 - the ugly truth

On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, members of the Irish Volunteers — led by Patrick Pearse, joined by the smaller Irish Citizen Army headed by James Connolly and Cumann na mBan (The Irishwomen's Council) seized strategic positions in Dublin and held out for 6 days. The Proclamation which Connolly signed was a nationalist document with no recognition of the existence of conflicting classes, that was steeped in religious piety, beginning as it did, “Irishmen and Irishwomen: in the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.” and ending “We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God”

They held the center of the city for over five days. By Friday, 60,000 British soldiers were fighting 1,000 Irish rebels while Dublin blazed in flames. The revolutionaries hoped that the country would follow them – but nothing happened. The majority of the casualties, both killed and wounded, were civilians. However the majority of civilian casualties were killed by from artillery, heavy machine guns and incendiary shells, therefore, the British, who used such weapons, seem to have caused most non-combatant deaths. One Royal Irish Regiment officer recalled, " British troops regarded everyone as an enemy and fired at everything that moved". A total of 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested. 90 people were sentenced to death, 15 of those (including all seven signatories of the Proclamation) had their sentences carried out and were shot by firing squad between 3 and 12 May. 1,480 men were interned in England and Wales under Regulation 14B of the Defence of the Realm Act.

At first, many members of the Dublin public were simply bewildered by the outbreak of the Rising. In some quarters there was actual hostility and antagonism towards the Volunteers and after the surrender, they were insulted and pelted with rubbish. Volunteer Robert Holland, for example remembered being abused by people he knew as he was being marched into captivity and said the British troops saved them from being manhandled by the crowds.

It appears that it was the actions of the British government after the Rising which helped to sway opinion away from indifference or hostility and towards support for the rebels. The execution of the leaders(including a seriously wounded Connolly, executed while tied to a chair) had the opposite effect to that intended. The brutal killings led to a reinvigoration of the Irish Republican movement rather than its dissipation. Some survivors of the Rising went on to become leaders of the independent Irish state and those who died were to be venerated as martyrs. Nevertheless, the historic truth is that the majority of the working class in Ireland refused to participate in or support the rising.

The Rising was not socialist by any stretch of the imagination. The legacy of Connolly’s involvement in the Rising has been to associate “socialism” with Irish nationalism and that has been most damaging to the cause of “socialism”. He did a disservice by tying a sizeable section of the labour movement to a nationalist insurrectionary project. Sean O’Casey reminds us that the Irish Volunteers were “streaked with employers who had openly tried to starve the women and children of the workers, followed meekly by scabs and blacklegs from the lower elements among the workers themselves, and many of them saw in this agitation a plumrose path to good jobs, now held in Ireland by the younger sons of the English well-to-do.”

The fact also remains that Connolly, although credited as a socialist scholar, failed to appreciate Engels advice that the time for street-fighting, barricades, conspiracies and insurrections had passed. It was now time to recognise as the most immediate tass of the workers’ party was the slow propaganda work and parliamentary activity. Connolly made the glaring error of believing that the British state was incapable of using heavy artillery and so destroying its own property. In fact, the British readily bombarded buildings.

To many, Connolly is their archetype class warrior but his was a futile heroism, utterly mistaken in tactics and objectives. Indeed in Erin’s Hope as early as 1897 Connolly had written, “No revolutionist can safely invite the cooperation of men or classes whose ideals are not theirs and whom, therefore, they may be compelled to fight at some future critical stage of the journey to freedom.” which is perhaps why he counselled members of the ICA “In the event of victory hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached.” So it would appear that even if the Easter Uprising had been a success, it would only have resulted in just an earlier beginning to the Civil War. As it was, many who had struggle alongside Connolly in the unions accepted the subordination of the interests and aspirations of the working class to the development of an independent Irish state, even to the extent of supporting Fianna Fail, an openly capitalist party. The Irish Citizen’s Army dissolved itself into the Dublin brigade of the IRA. Those who fought alongside him for nothing less than Irish freedom accepted something less than freedom with the partition in 1921. Connolly’s vision of a united movement of Catholic and Protestant workers, North and South did not become a reality.

See also Socialist Courier blog here

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