Ireland: Easter Rising remembered

Despite being regarded as a central point in Irish history and an event that is widely recognised as pivotal to the traditions of republicanism little of the events of 1916 are retained in their popular representation as they have been surrounded by a systematic campaign of distortion almost since they took place.

As Easter approaches, Ireland stands once again in crisis. It is unlikely this year that we will be treated to the sight of a farcical show of strength from the Irish military or the twenty six county state government attempting to cash in on the legacy of the famous rebellion against British rule. Unlike in 2006 this is not a decade anniversary year, whilst a celebration of an insurrection may not be the most opportune activity for the Irish state to engage in at the current time! Despite being regarded as a central point in Irish history and an event that is widely recognised as pivotal to the traditions of republicanism little of the events of 1916 are retained in their popular representation as they have been surrounded by a systematic campaign of distortion almost since they took place.

Poster of James ConnollyThe official history of the Easter Rising has presented the event as being a purely nationalist uprising that saw Ireland attempt to legitimise its claim to national rights through reasserting its manhood via the heroic blood sacrifice of nationalist leaders such as Padraig Pearse. This could not be further from the truth; at the core of the Easter Rising lay the most advanced elements of the Irish working class, under the banner of the Irish Citizen Army,  under the command of the Marxist revolutionary James Connolly. Founded during the Dublin lockout of 1913 Connolly viewed the ICA as  the armed force of the socialist revolution stating that, “Hitherto, the workers of Ireland have fought as parts of the armies led by their masters, never as a member of any army officered, trained, and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future.” The ICA was the military wing of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and paraded openly in Dublin’s streets.

Whilst it has subsequently been brushed aside as merely a nationalist affair at the time Trotsky recognised that, “The ‘national revolution’, even in Ireland, in practice has become an uprising of workers.” In practise it was the ICA which was at the forefront of the rising, surrounded by the vacillating left of petty bourgeois nationalism. The timing of the rising was forced by event; it took place as the British military began conscripting Irishmen to the terrible killing fields of the First World War trenches.  The Irish nationalist movement was split on the issue with the parliamentary group in favour of supporting British imperialism against its German counterpart. Even the leader of the Irish nationalist left, Eoin O’Neil, came out against the rising in the run up to the events, with Connolly able to pull a wing towards his own stand point. Only around 1,500 fighters from the ICA and the nationalist Irish Volunteers took part in the rising. Connolly argued fiercely for class independence warning the ICA in the run up to the rising that, “The odds against us are a thousand to one. But if we should win, hold onto your rifles because the Volunteers may have a different goal. Remember, we are not only for political liberty, but for economic liberty as well.”

The rising itself seemed doomed from the beginning. With only a small number of fighters the rebels were militarily significantly outnumbered and outgunned. The rebellion was largely confined to the fighting in the four courts and General Post Office in Dublin although there was also support from rebel forces in Galway and Wexford. On Easter Monday, as the ICA marched its forces onto the streets of Dublin Connolly famously whispered to a comrade, “We are out to get slaughtered.” Given his own recognition of the rising it must be asked why Connolly went ahead with the rising? Forced by the pressure of events it was clear that there was little choice between an armed clash with British Imperialism in Ireland or to fight for it on the Western Front. However, the rising also contained several political weaknesses. There was no attempt to appeal to the British troops on class lines who were also no doubt preoccupied with the horrors of the First World War, or an attempt to organise a general strike. The city of Dublin functioned as usual, with the ITGWU workers continuing to work. In spite of their heroic resistance the rebels were forced into surrender after four days.  Fifteen of the rising’s leaders were brutally murdered subsequently including Connolly who was executed by firing squad, tied to a chair because he was dying and unable to stand.

In spite of Connolly’s personal abilities and the bravery the Irish working class had shown in this period this was not enough. Without a revolutionary party the general strike could not be organised and ultimately the rising became an isolated event. Lenin famously explained that only through long patient work can such an organ develop. Stating at the start of the twentieth century, “The building of a fighting organisation and the conduct of political agitation are essential under any “drab, peaceful” circumstances, in any period, no matter how marked by a “declining revolutionary spirit”; moreover, it is precisely in such periods and under such circumstances that work of this kind is particularly necessary, since it is too late to form the organisation in times of explosion and outbursts; the party must be in a state of readiness to launch activity at a moment’s notice.” In 1916 this crucial factor was missing and led to tragic results.

Connolly famously argued that, “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the Green Flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.” This has only been subsequently proved by history. Directionless following the death of its most capable leader the Irish labour movement was overwhelmed by Sinn Fein in the period following the defeat of the Easter Rising.  The nationalist leaders were happy to bargain away Ireland’s national liberation with British imperialism and the deal to partition Ireland was signed in 1921. Under capitalism the twenty six counties remain tied by a thousand strings to British and international imperialism. This has been graphically displayed by the effect of the capitalist crisis upon the so called “Celtic tiger” economy.  The current period is once again seeing the Irish working class engaged in struggle as the bosses attack the hard earned gains of the last period. It is only by standing in the traditions of Connolly, for a united workers’ republic, that there is any way forward for the Irish workers and youth. Join us in the struggle for socialism!


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