Connolly and the Easter Rising

Below is the full text of Priscilla Metscher's contribution to the James Connolly 90th anniversary celebration, held in the London Irish Centre, Camden Town on 18 May 2006

ON MAY 3, 1897 James Connolly along with members of the Irish Socialist Republican Party founded the Rank and File '98 Club. This move was in connection with preparations for the official centenary celebration of the Rising of United Irishmen planned for the following year.

Priscilla Metscher

The main intention, however, was to counteract the official picture of the United Irishmen presented by the leaders of the Home Rule Party: for to maintain that the United Irishmen strove to achieve a harmonious union of all classes was to James Connolly and his friends a distortion of the real facts.

The United Irishmen had no sympathy for the landlord class. Thus the aim in founding the Rank and File '98 Club and the ensuing publication of the '98 Readings was to disseminate the true aims of the UI. (See C.D. Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly, p98)

Similarly depictions of the Easter Rising which occurred 118 years later have distorted the circumstances and also the aims of the leaders. Recently in the Easter edition of one of Germany's leading national papers, the Süddeutsche Zeitung a whole page was dedicated to the subject of the rising, the author considering it a tragic comedy, carried out by a handful of teachers, poets and journalists and an exotic countess. (15,16,17April 2006)

Ironically, of all the leaders of the rising that was to take place in 1916 it was James Connolly, Irish socialist republican and labour leader whose ideas and intentions have been distorted most. His contemporary Sean O'Casey described the situation thus:

"Larkin had gone to America, and Connolly had left his Union to give all he had to the Citizen Army. He began to write patriotic verse that shivered with wretchedness. His fine eyes saw red no longer, but stared into the sky for a green dawn (...) Connolly was determined to try to damn the stream of men flowing out of Ireland, and was seized with the idea that he could turn the sky green for all to see by hoisting a flag of the same colour over Liberty Hall (...) There was a dire spark of vanity, lighting this little group of armed men (i.e. the Citizen Army PM): it sparkled from Connolly's waddle, from the uniformed men stiff to attention, and from the bunch of cock-feathers fluttering in the cap of the Countess. But it was a vanity that none could challenge, for it came from a group that was willing to sprinkle itself into oblivion that a change might be born in the long-settled thought of the people(...)It was a childish thought for Connolly to harbour: it was a fiery-tale, a die-dream showing a false dawn that no soul saw." (O'Casey, Autobiographies I p646-p648)

To O'Casey Connolly had abandoned socialism for nationalism.

The idea of a hopeless blood sacrifice in which a "terrible beauty was born" changing "things utterly" (to quote W.B.Yeats) is one myth which is widely held about 1916.

One present-day historian, Austen Morgan in his biography of James Connolly poses the question "why a man who lived as a socialist (...) died an Irish nationalist", his conclusion being that on this account, labour in Ireland lost a leader.

Concerning an assessment of Connolly's contribution to socialism and the national question I think the significance of the term "socialist republicanism" has been often overlooked. Connolly understood socialism in Ireland as standing in, carrying on and developing the tradition of republicanism established by the United Irishmen.

"Wolfe Tone was abreast of the revolutionary thought of his day, as are the Socialist Republicans of our own day. He saw clearly, as we see, that a dominion as long rooted in any country as British dominion in Ireland can only be dislodged by a revolutionary impulse in line with the development of the entire epoch." (Connolly, Socialism and Nationalism p40-p41)

The concept of a socialist republic was in keeping with the democratic ideals of past republicans, United Irishmen, Young Irelanders and Fenians included. Connolly emphasised: "A socialist republic is the application to agriculture and industry; to the farm, the field, the workshop, of the democratic principle of the republican ideal." (Connolly Workers' Republic, p50-p51)

It is essential to look carefully at what Connolly himself wrote. In an introduction to the American edition of his article Erin's Hope, published in 1909, he explains why the name Irish Socialist Republican was adopted for the party in 1896:

"The Irish Citizen Army was founded in Dublin in 1896 by a few working-men whom the author had succeeded in interesting in his proposition that the two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland - the Socialist and the National - were not antagonistic, but complementary, and that the Irish Socialist was in reality the best Irish patriot, but that in order to convince the Irish people of that fact he must first of all learn to look inward upon Ireland for his justification, rest his arguments upon the facts of Irish history, and be the champion against the subjection of Ireland and all that it implies. That the Irish National question was at bottom an economic question, and that the economic struggle must first be able to function freely nationally before it could function internationally, and as Socialists were opposed to all oppression, so they should ever be foremost in the daily battle against all manifestations, social and political." (O. Dudley Edwards and B. Ransom eds., James Connolly, Selected Political Writings, London 1978, p166)

Before the first issue of the Workers' Republic appeared in August 1898 as official organ of the ISRP Connolly had been publishing articles in Alice Milligan's republican paper the Shan Van Vocht and in Maud Gonne's L'Irlande Libre where he expounded his ideas on the relationship between socialism and nationalism: national independence, yes, but it must be connected with a reorganisation of society on the basis of socialism:

"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. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole army of commercial and individual institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs. (...) Nationalism without Socialism - without a reorganisation of society on the basis of a broader and more developed form of that common property which underlay the social structure of Ancient Erin - is only national recreancy." (Connolly, Socialism and Nationalism, p25)

With the inception of the '98 Centennial movement Connolly started a campaign to rectify the misrepresentation of the teachings and principles of the United Irishmen engineered by Jim Harrington and his friends of the Irish Parliamentary Party. He did this in a series of pamphlets '98 Readings ,which he himself edited. His main idea was to "allow the men of '98 to present in their own language the principles and ideas which animated them" ('98 Readings 1 p.iii). These Readings provide valuable material scrutinised by Connolly during hours spent possibly in the National Library. They include various addresses of United Irishmen to radical democratic organisations in England and Scotland, the Secret Manifesto of June 1791, quotations from Wolfe Tone's autobiography and from his pamphlet An argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, articles from the Press newspaper (the Dublin organ of the United Irishmen) as well as songs and ballads of the movement.

Connolly placed so much emphasis on the ideas of the United Irishmen as he believed they laid the foundation for a radical democratic tradition in Ireland. In an article in the WR 5 August 1899 Connolly comments on Wolfe Tone and the realisation of the republican ideal:

"Let Ireland seek help where Wolfe Tone found it, viz., in the ranks of the democracy in revolt. Wherever the Socialist banner flies, there gather the true friends of freedom, there let us take our stand, and there let us prepare to raise the only worthy monument to the pioneers of freedom - the realisation of that freedom for which they fought."
Connolly commemorative meeting

Connolly was quick to emphasise that this had nothing in common with the cult of traditions which he believed was cultivated to an extent in Ireland as to make it "not only ridiculous but positively harmful:" "Tone's greatness", he explained, "lay in the fact that he imitated nobody" and while changed conditions necessitated changed methods of realising an ideal, "they do not necessarily involve the abandonment of that ideal, if in itself good" (Connolly, Labour and Easter Week, 135). "Socialist Republicans", he maintained, "adhere to the high ideal of national freedom sought for in the past, go beyond it to a fuller ideal which we conceive to flow from national freedom as a natural necessary consequence." (loc. cit.)

In Labour in Irish History published in 1910 which, he explains in the preface, was offered to the reading public "as part of the literature of the Gaelic Revival" Connolly writes Irish history from the point of view of the working-class democracy.

Once again the United Irishmen assume a position of importance: he quotes at length from the Secret Manifesto to the Friends of Freedom in Ireland, commenting:

"It would be hard to find in modern socialist literature anything more broadly International in its scope and aims, more definitely of a class character in its methods, or more avowedly democratic in its nature than this manifesto." (Labour in Irish History, p57)

The republicanism of the United Irishmen to Connolly had nothing to do with nationalist chauvinism. The United Irishmen were internationalists: they combined the question of Irish autonomy with the broader question of human rights and class.

In his book Connolly resurrects the writings of the radical Young Irelanders, John Mitchel and James Fintan Lalor which had already sunk into oblivion, placing them within the context of the Great Hunger. Fintan Lalor conceived a plan of campaign "involving a social and a national revolution, each resting upon the other" (op. cit. 104). But, as Connolly points out, both Mitchel and Lalor were in a hopeless minority within the Young Ireland movement.

In his chapter on the Fenians, Connolly voices his conviction that the movement had a radical democratic and working-class basis: Fenianism, he said "was a responsive throb in the Irish heart to those pulsations in the heart of the European working class which elsewhere produced the International Working Men's Association." (i.e. the First International) (op. cit. 131). Some years later in 1915 on the death of the Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa Connolly in an article in the WR states the reason why the Irish Citizen Army should honour him:

"the banner of Fenianism was upheld by the stalwart hands of the Irish working class of that day, as the militant organisation of the same class to-day is the only body that without reservation unhesitatingly announces its loyalty to the republican principle of national freedom for which the Fenians stood. We are here because this is our place." (Labour and Easter Week, p74)

Connolly never hesitated to co-operate with nationalists such as Maud Gonne and Arthur Griffith in issues which concerned socialist republicans as well. He maintained that "even when he is from the economic point of view intensely conservative, the Irish Nationalist even with his false reasoning, is an active agent in social regeneration, in so far as he seeks to invest with full power over its own destinies a people actually governed in the interests of a feudal aristocracy." (Socialism and Nationalism, p34)

In 1900 Connolly and the ISRP were active in organising an anti-jubilee demonstration to counteract the celebrations in preparation in Dublin for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Connolly made arrangements for the making of a coffin, symbol of the British Empire, and the demonstration was to be led by a workers' band whose instruments Maud Gonne commented, "were so old and battered that if they were broken by the police it would be no great loss (...) Willie Yeats and I and many of the '98 centenary delegates joined the procession which moved off down Dame Street to the strains of the Dead March played on the cracked instruments of the Band." (M. Gonne, Servant of the Queen, p274)

The police were not slow to interfere with the procession and at O'Connell Bridge, as the coffin was in danger of being captured by the police Connolly ordered it to be thrown into the Liffey while the crowds shouted "Here goes the coffin of the British Empire. To hell with the British Empire" (op. cit. 275). The skirmish with the police led to Connolly's arrest, but Maud Gonne arranged bail for him and all others who had been arrested during the baton charge. (See op. cit. 277)

In 1899 with the outbreak of the Boer War Connolly worked on the Transvaal Committee along with Maud Gonne and Arthur Griffith, devoting his energies to the anti-Boer War campaign. Griffith had the greatest respect for Connolly as is illustrated in the pages of the United Irishman. The following comment concerning Connolly's candidature for the Wood-Quay ward appeared in the United Irishman in January 10, 1903 : "We are not socialists, but we would be intensely gratified to see a man of Mr. Connolly's character returned to the Dublin corporation."

That Connolly joined forces with the IRB leaders and participated in the planning and carrying out of the Easter Rising in 1916 seems to me to be a logical step in his political thinking. The particular political climate created in Europe by the outbreak of the First World War together with political developments in Ireland which favoured an alliance of all democratic forces there forced events in this direction.

Thus Connolly's decision to join forces with advanced nationalists in 1916 cannot be separated from the development of events in Europe, particularly the break-up of the Second International following the outbreak of war. This decision is connected with his stand on the war issue and the consequences he saw for Ireland at the time.

To begin with, Connolly's stand at the beginning of the war was clearly the position of the left-wing of the Second International as laid down at the Basle Congress 24-25 November 1912. There it had been resolved that the international working class should prevent war with all means at its disposal. However, in the event of the outbreak of war the situation was to be used to bring about the downfall of capitalism in Europe.

By August 1914 the main European powers were engaged in the war. The socialist parties in the belligerent countries had been powerless to prevent its outbreak. In Great Britain the labour movement generally supported British government policy in the war. With the main body of socialists in the belligerent countries supporting the war effort the ideological and political collapse of the International was inevitable.

It was obvious to Connolly what such a war would mean to the Irish working class: more unemployment and less wages. Connolly's practical proposal was that the labour movement in Ireland should take immediate action in preventing profiteering by stopping the export of food from Ireland. He was aware of the consequences:

"This may mean more than a transport strike, it may mean armed battling in the streets to keep in this country the food for our people" (Socialism and Nationalism, p133-p134). Connolly was determined that Ireland must strike before the end of the war. England's difficulty was Ireland's opportunity. He explained:

"We believe that in times of peace we should work along the lines of peace to strengthen the nation, and we believe that whatever strengthens and elevates the working class strengthens the nation. But we also believe that in times of war we should act as in war." (Labour and Easter Week, p138p13-9)

The situation in Ireland had been aggravated by the introduction of the Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act which restricted civil liberties and by the ever-growing threat of conscription. Commenting bitterly on the suppression of the Irish Worker 4 December 1914, Connolly said:

"We will now rejoice. Home Rule is on the Statute Book, martial law is now in force, and free expression of opinion is forbidden." (Socialism and Nationalism, p182)

Connolly believed that these were indeed "exceptional times" "We believe in constitutional action in normal times. These are exceptional times" (Labour and Easter Week, p117).

As far back as 1910 in an article published in The Harp Connolly had underlined the importance of co-operating with all who would help forward the industrial and political organisation of labour. By 1914 it was becoming clear that members of the supreme council of the IRB were not averse to an alliance with Connolly and labour. Articles appeared in Irish Freedom arguing for a union of forces between nationalists and socialists - an Irish republic would entail a social as well as a national regeneration of the Irish nation: To quote from Irish Freedom:

"The conception of the nation as a spiritual entity will not be destroyed if Nationalists decide that changes must be made in the social structure before happiness and goodwill reign in Ireland, and see that the making of these changes involves a shifting of economic wealth from the possession of the few to the possession of the many." (J.D. Clarkson, Labour and Nationalism in Ireland, p286)

Padraic Pearse had certain sympathies with the socialist teachings of Connolly. His opinion on the Dublin strike and lockout 1913 was voiced in Irish Freedom.

"My instinct", he said, "is with the landless men against the lords of lands and with the breadless men against the master of millions. I may be wrong, but I do hold it a most terrible sin that there should be landless men in this island of vast yet fertile valleys, and that there should be breadless men in this city where great fortunes are made and enjoyed." (From a Heritage, October 1913 in Pearse, Political Writings p177-p179)

The growth of a feeling of "identity of interests between the forces of real nationalism and labour" was symbolised in the hoisting of the green flag over Liberty Hall on April 16, 1916 which was commented on by Connolly with the now famous words:

"The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil. Labour seeks to make the free Irish nation the guardian of interests of the people of Ireland, and to secure that end would vest in that free Irish nation all property rights as against the claims of the individual, with the end in view that the individual may be enriched by the nation, and not by the spoiling of his fellows (...) Is it not well and fitting that we of the working class should fight for the freedom of the nation from foreign rule, as the first requisite for the free development of the national powers needed for our class? It is so fitting." (Labour and Easter Week, p175)

Together with the supreme council of the IRB James Connolly planned and carried out an insurrection that lasted one week. It was clear to Connolly that the republic which would be set up in the "first days of freedom" would be only the first step along the path of emancipation of the working class. Addressing the Irish Citizen Army shortly before the Easter Rising he stated:

"In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty." (Greaves, Life and Time of James Connolly, p403)

Looking back from our point of view today to 1916 it is easy to criticise the rising as premature, certainly with the goal of establishing a socialist republic. The insurrection occurred before the situation in the other European countries was ripe for revolution.

Connolly was forced in the end to agree to a rising which was less advanced than that which he had originally conceived, for the wide-scale industrial action of labour that was to pave the way for armed insurrection did not take place. The forces of labour were in a weak position.

Organisational mistakes occurred, the fact of keeping Eoin MacNeill in the dark about the planning of the rising was to prove fatal; also unfortunate circumstances were to play a role, such as the episode of Roger Casement and the Aud carrying a shipment of arms from Germany.

But behind the organisation of the rising was a clear concept. Connolly himself was convinced that a European war for the benefit of capitalism could provide the working class of Europe with an opportunity to overthrow the capitalist system. (See Socialism and Nationalism, p133)

The anti-imperialist activities of Irish socialists could be the starting point of the movement which would end in the emancipation of the European working class. In this context it is interesting to recall what Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky concerning Irish self-determination. An international movement of the working class, he said, would only be possible between independent nations and so it was Ireland's right and duty to become national, before becoming international. (See Engels to Kautsky, 7 Feb. 1882, MEW 35,p 270)

There is little indication that the leaders who planned rebellion regarded it doomed to failure from the outset. Original plans were for an all-Ireland rising with a German-backed invasion. The invasion force was to consist of Irish prisoners of war and Irish-American soldiers (See Liz Curtis, The Cause of Ireland, p265). In his article on the Moscow Insurrection of 1905 Connolly drew parallels which could apply to insurrectionary warfare in Ireland and in Dublin specifically.

He considered the technique of street fighting against professional soldiers and saw the advantage of carrying out a determined, courageous offensive, consisting of the fortifying of strong buildings or the "active defence" of strong points and rendering the insurgent forces as elusive as possible.

The insurgent leaders were correct in their calculation concerning the "weakness" of government authority in Ireland during war conditions. After the rising Lord Wimborne, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland explained that general government inaction during the weeks before the insurrection "was due to the difficulty of doing anything effective without provoking a collision when in the first place, we had not the troops to enforce it, and secondly, because we were anxious to avoid a collision in view of the major consideration of the war." (Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook 164)

The atmosphere in Ireland during the period before the rising was favourable to possible insurrection. Redmond and his party may have held the balance of power in parliament, but in Ireland they had no real effective power at all. Dublin Castle with its Irish Executive had complete administrative control of the country, the Lord Lieutenant being responsible for the civil government of the country; the naval and military forces of the Crown in Ireland were under his command. Moreover he had various repressive acts of parliament at his disposal to enforce control of the country.

In contrast there was a general mood of national sensitivity characterised in the large propaganda meetings, marches and parades of the Volunteers and the ICA which led the Chief Secretary Birrell to confess that before the rebellion the impression he got "walking about the streets was that Sinn Feinism was in a certain sense in possession." (Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook, p158) The "hoarded passions of the labour disputes and Bachelor's Walk" were other elements which heightened the atmosphere.

Writing to Joseph McGarrity, leading member of Clan na nGael in the USA, following the Volunteer split in 1914, Padraic Pearse sounded optimistic about the situation.

"It seems a big thing to say, but I do honestly believe that, with arms for these men, we shall be ready to act with tremendous effect if the war brings us the moment." (S. Cronin, The McGarrity Papers, p57)

In his manifesto on the eve of surrender Pearse remarked:

"I am satisfied that we should have accomplished more, that we should have accomplished the task of enthroning, as well as proclaiming, the Irish Republic as a sovereign state, had our arrangements for a simultaneous rising of the whole country with a combined plan as sound as the Dublin plan, has been proved to be, been allowed to go through on Easter Sunday." (Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook, p50-p51)

Pearse is referring to the fateful countermanding order issued to the Volunteers by Eoin MacNeill which smashed the plan for a concerted rising. Only then would it seem did the leaders accept the serious possibility of defeat. I think Connolly's comment on the steps of Liberty Hall on Easter Monday morning: "We are going out to be slaughtered" - indicates his realistic assessment of the situation. But it was believed that to postpone fighting after such preparation and pledges would be worse than defeat.

It was obvious that in such an event the leaders would be arrested and imprisoned and the revolutionary movement would receive such a blow from which it would take many years to recover. The execution of the leaders following secret courts martial, Connolly carried from hospital to Kilmainham on a stretcher and seated on a chair, shows the utter ruthlessness of British imperialism and anticipates many of the acts of world imperialism today, such as Abu- Graib, Guantánamo etc..

What is the legacy of 1916 and in particular Connolly's? To Connolly the three factors of national self-determination, radical democracy and socialism (understood as a revolutionary change in the relations of production, property and power) are inter-connected and mutually dependent. The right of Ireland to self-determination was for all leaders an absolute necessity.

I would like to end with a quotation by James Fintan Lalor which not only anticipates Connolly's own point of view, but has a direct relevance to today's political developments. I am thinking particularly of the situation in South America and the nationalisation of the gas industry, for example, in Bolivia. What is happening there is the recognition of a nation's right to its own natural resources.

"The principle I state and mean to stand upon, is this, that the entire ownership of Ireland, moral and material, up to the sun and down to the centre, is vested of right in the people of Ireland (...) I hold and maintain that the entire soil of a country belongs of right to the entire people of that country, and is the rightful property, not of any one class, but of the nation at large." (Irish Felon, 24 June 1848)

In this light we can say that Connolly and 1916 are still very much with us today.

Priscilla Metscher was born in Belfast is the author of James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland (NST, 2002) and Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland (Peter Lang, 1986)

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-05-25 19:30:42.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
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