James Connolly, 1916 and the 'blood sacrifice' myth

Peter Berresford Ellis looks at the circumstances surrounding Connolly's participation in the 1916 Easter Rising and challenges the myth of the 'blood sacrifice'

Peter Berresford Ellis

WHEN IT was known that the Irish Marxist and trade union leader, James Connolly, had not only taken part in the insurrection of 1916 but had been named as commander of all the insurgent forces fighting in Dublin as well vice-president of the provisional government, many leaders of the British left professed utter bewilderment.

One leading member of the Labour Party, Tom Johnson (1882-1965), who became a Labour government minister, wrote in his journal Forward on 6 May 1916, of Connolly's role "…it is all a mystery to me," adding "He may, of course, have changed his views."

Other Labour leaders such as Arthur Henderson (1863-1935), secretary of the Labour Party from 1911-1934, and Member of Parliament who, sadly, was a member of the coalition cabinet which approved the execution of Connolly and the other Irish leaders, felt that Connolly had "suddenly… ran amok for bloody revolution".

Connolly, one of the foremost Marxist theoreticians of his day, had neither changed a lifetime of views nor simply "ran amok". Neither was he an advocate of what many historians later tried to claim the 1916 insurrection was - a 'blood sacrifice'. His role in 1916 was the logical progression of his life's work and teachings that had clearly been in print in articles and books written during the twenty years before the event.

Why Johnson found it a mystery is itself a mystery because Connolly had even contributed to Johnson's own magazine. Writing in Forward he declared:

"The internationalism of the future will be based upon the free federation of free peoples and cannot be realised through the subjugation of the smaller by the larger political unit."

He argued that national and social freedom were not two separate and unrelated issues but were two sides of one great democratic principle, each being incomplete without the other.

He had made clear his stand for an independent Irish socialist republic from the outset. He had also made it clear that he was pragmatic enough to understand that, given the circumstances of the time, socialists would have to engage with all the elements that sought a separation from Britain. Socialists, in the anti-colonial struggle, would have to co-operate with other groups to achieve Irish independence.

And writing again in Forward (14 March 1914) he was clear that he did not rule out physical force if Britain continued to refuse to accept the Irish democratic mandate for self-government, which, indeed, they did later that year by shelving the Home Rule Bill.

The growing frustration of the Irish over British 'democracy' was clear for most intelligent observers to see. The Irish Party, holding four-fifths of all Irish seats in Westminster for over 40 years, had made countless attempts to secure Home Rule for Ireland only to see all their efforts thwarted by the majority of English Members of Parliament. Now a Bill that had finally succeeded in being passed was being `shelved' because of Britain's entry into the war.

Connolly had warned:

"To my mind an agitation to attain a political or economic end must rest upon an implied willingness and ability to use force. Without that it is mere wind and attitudinising."

In 1913 the Irish Citizen Army had been formed initially as a workers' defence force - the first ever armed and uniformed socialist militia in Europe. Under Connolly, it was organised as an insurrectionary force and even before the other elements of the Irish revolutionary movement were ready, Connolly was considering using the ICA to start an insurrection in the hope that it would spark off a national uprising.

Once again, Connolly had made his intentions clear:

"We believe in constitutional action in normal times; we believe in revolutionary action in exceptional times. These are exceptional times."

Were the British Labour leaders listening? Were they bothering to read the articles and books that flowed from his pen? Indeed, were they, like those Labour leaders that came after them, even today, just arrogantly blind to the Irish struggle? Their professed bewilderment, following 1916, seemed to confirm that they were totally indifferent to Ireland's struggle for national and social independence.

The claims that Connolly was some bloodthirsty revolutionary is countered by his article in The Worker (30 January, 1915):

"... there is no such thing as humane or civilised war. War may be forced upon a subject race or subject class to put an end to subjection of race, class or sex. When it is so waged, it must be waged thoroughly and relentlessly, but with no delusion as to its elevating nature, or civilising methods."

When the poet and educationalist Pádraic Pearse, who was to be the president of the provisional government in 1916, once spoke of the battlefields of Europe and how "heroism has come back to the earth", Connolly's reaction was "blitherin' idiot!"

Writing on the same subject of the battlefields of Flanders in 1915, Connolly rightly foresaw that:

"the carnival of murder on the continent will be remembered as a nightmare in the future, will not have the slightest effect in deciding for good the fate of our homes, our wages, our hours, our conditions. But the victories of labour in Ireland will be as footholds, secure and firm, in the upward climb of our class to the fullness and enjoyment of all that labour creates, and organised society can provide."

As a realist, Connolly took it on himself to study insurrectionary warfare and to instruct the Citizen Army in what they would be facing. The articles he published, subsequently re-published as Revolutionary Warfare, demonstrated that Connolly was the most prepared and practical of the Irish leaders organising military resistance.

In criticism of Connolly, it has been stated that he believed the British military would not use artillery in Dublin because capitalists would hesitate to destroy capitalist property. A reading of his articles demonstrates that Connolly could not have entertained any such naïve notion. And, indeed, not only field guns were used to crush the insurrection but also a warship, HMS Helga, steamed up the Liffey to pound Dublin and her citizens with her guns.

Connolly, from everything he wrote, said and did, was not taking part in the 1916 insurrection to fail nor to become part of the mythical 'blood sacrifice' which later historians have created either because they want to romanticise what happened or because they deliberately want to mislead people.

The revolutionaries of 1916 went out with the desire to win. There is, in fact, no suggestion from any of the leaders of 1916 that they were taking part in a rising that was inevitably doomed to failure. The myth-making started afterwards as C. Desmond Greaves (1913-1988), the socialist activist and historian, has already shown in his 1966 lecture, republished in 1991, 1916 As History: The Myth of the Blood Sacrifice.

Connolly's influence is also seen in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 1916 with its progressive commitment to the social welfare of all the sections of the Irish nation. It's guarantees of religious and civil liberty, equal rights and opportunities to all its citizens and the suffrage of all Irishmen and women. It was not until two years later that Britain allowed the franchise to women and then only to those over the age of thirty.

After the insurrection was crushed, Connolly was taken prisoner. Badly wounded during the fighting, the 48 year old Connolly was tried, lying in his hospital bed, by secret court martial, then strapped to a chair because his wounds did now allow him to stand, and executed by firing squad.

That the leaders of the British left claimed to be bewildered by the position he took against imperialism tells us more about their own narrow imperial mindset than it rebounds on Connolly's anti-imperialist stand.

Peter Berresford Ellis is the author of James Connolly: selected writings (1973) and A History of the Irish Working Class (1972) both works are still in print and published by Pluto Press.

This article originally appeared in the Morning Star http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-05-25 16:59:20.
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