Ralph Fox

Ireland To-day

Source: Labour Monthly, May 24, 1924, Vol. VI, No. 5.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

IN Europe, movements of thought and action sweep across the continent, and we can see Fascism and Communism grappling with one another in their great conflict. But in Ireland there are no such clear lines. Ireland broods over its troubles in a preoccupied way, and much of what is said and done here is meaningless to the outside world. Insularity is the keynote of the Irish problem, and the average Irishman speaks of the great European war vaguely as the “far war.” The Irish movement is quite indigenous, being firmly rooted in national tradition.

Seven hundred years of foreign domination have fostered national feeling, and, as in the case of the Balkan States, Poland and other small nationalities that have suffered from arrested development, intense nationalism crowds out social and economic ideas. Other countries passed through this phase of nationalism—as a child has measles—during the period when feudal Europe consolidated into nation States, and when France contributed the idea of a national will expressed through a national assembly. Any analysis of the Irish situation will be false unless it recognises the fierceness of this national feeling, which has been dammed up so long.

Underlying the national sentiment is the question of the land. Up till recently Ireland was a land of evictions. The absentee landlords gave no security of tenure, they rack-rented and evicted until Land Leagues, agitations and boycotts forced them to mend their ways. The tale of how the Irish were hunted from the land is written in blood, starvation, and emigration, and this forms the seed bed for opinion in Ireland to-day. The crop of evictions after the famine and the substitution of cattle for men on the land has kept alive the land agitation among the people. Liberal and Conservative parties in the years preceding the war attempted to sap this agitation by passing acts granting facilities for small holdings. But cattle have taken the place of tenants all over the country, and huge walled estates like fortresses are the rule. The alien ascendancy gang cut down beautiful forests and regard the people as vermin.

Land is almost as necessary as bread in an agricultural country like Ireland, and the desire for land and security of tenure explains much of the bitterness and tenacity of the Irish movement. The Unpurchased Tenants’ League is carrying on a vigorous agitation for those whose landlords grab the benefit of any improvements they make. The land movement is a dynamic force in Ireland.

As Ireland is a country of peasants and farmers, it is decidedly out of harmony with the industrial civilisation of England. The small scattered farms have developed an outlook more local even than national; they look with suspicion upon strangers—runners, they call them—and strange ways. They have no use for a connection with an Overseas Empire, with all its problems of industry, commerce and trade. They want the land and to be left alone.

The tradition of the ancient Gaelic civilisation counts for something, but not so much as some people believe. It is true that Ireland escaped feudalism, and that clan law had far more of a communal spirit than feudal law; and it is also true that, broadly speaking, capitalism was an English importation. Connolly laid great stress on this, and tried to make the national agitation one for Gaelic Communism as well. The growth of co-operative creameries and the more recent taking over of land and buildings by groups of workers may have been reinforced by this idea, but these things were mainly directed by practical considerations.

We have now to consider the activities of special groups under these influences.

First we will take the business men who have a separate party in the Dail. They are, in the main, pro-English, though they do not want interference with Irish trade (such as the prohibition of the importation of Irish cattle to England on the score of foot-and-mouth disease, which occurred not long ago). In the days before the Free State, the middlemen, small business men and capitalists were nationalists, and supported the parliamentary party led by Redmond at Westminster. W. M. Murphy, who headed the Dublin employers in the 1913 lockout, was typical of these. To-day they support the Government and urge economy, freedom from taxation, facilities for trade and all the usual business cries. Their attitude was stated very well by a Mr. Shanks, speaking recently as President of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. He found fault with the green flags, green pillar boxes and green telegraph forms which had been introduced, saying that he had been informed that blue was the true heraldic colour of Ireland. Anyhow, he saw no profit in the change. But, and here he came to the crux, he had been assured that these things were necessary to make the people loyal to the Free State. The business people were terrified during the civil war, when private property was treated without reverence and the business of the country interfered with. They are afraid of the people getting out of hand again, so they slavishly support the Government in its most ferocious exhibitions of “strength” such as the long imprisonment of 15,000 untried prisoners. Most of these prisoners have now been released, as they had become more of a disturbing factor in prison than outside.

The Government is composed of opportunists, “men of transition,” who are patriotic Empirists in England and who become Nationalists according to the shade of their audiences in Ireland. They floated into power when the country was sick of war, and now they depend upon England and upon finance for support. Their policy is to keep things as they were before the Treaty, while parading all the forms of change. At the last election their position did not improve; they secured the return of sixty-three candidates as against forty-four definitely anti-Treaty deputies. Because of the strong opposition in Ireland they are forced into greater dependence upon England and their Republicanism has evaporated. They rely partly upon the anti-national elements in the south of Ireland, and they dare not insist on an Ulster Boundary Commission for fear of losing this support.

Opinion among the farmers is very mixed, and among their fourteen representatives are sympathisers with both sides. Ireland has not a large population, and personal factors operate strongly. Many farmers’ sons are Free State officers, while others, who belonged to the old I.R.A., are Republicans. A vendetta has been raging between the two groups. But apart from personal crosscurrents, the farmers do not want any association with industrial England.

Labour must be divided into two sections, official and unofficial.

The official section of fifteen deputies, led by Johnson, is very constitutional and regards Republicanism as one of the follies of its youth. This section has supplied some statesmanlike senators. It is nominally independent, but actually Free State.

The unofficial section, represented by Larkin, responds vaguely to the Connolly Gaelic tradition and tends to support any anti-Government movement. It has no voice in the Dail and little power as an organised force. It has carried out sporadic strikes for the prisoners, the biggest being a one-day strike in Dublin. Between this section and the vested interests grouped round the Government one sees the lines of the future struggle. Labour is strong industrially, and fights well for wages and conditions, but is very weak politically, having no social ideas or programme, all thought along these lines being held up by the national conflict.

The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union is the premier industrial body in Ireland. It overshadows the smaller unions, and is the basis on which the Irish Labour Party has been built. The membership figures are given as round about 100,000, and Dublin is particularly well organised, the carters and dockers standing out as militant sections. Liberty Hall is a hive of activity at night when the different sections hold their branch meetings. Larkin is well supported in Dublin, but the Union machine is controlled by the anti-Larkin official element. The whole situation within the Union remains unchanged pending the legal proceedings which each side is taking against the other. The issue, on the face of it, is whether Larkin or the old Executive have legal standing in the Union; the underlying issue is whether the revolutionary or the opportunist policy will prevail.

The smaller unions, many of whom have their centres in England, play little part. The national rates agreed to in England are often blackleg rates in Ireland, and so their members are driven to act independently or with the Transport Union to maintain their Irish standards, on which, by the way, the attack is now general.

On the Republican side there is a strong conservative element. Many are Republicans because “they have always been Republicans.” They have not tried to re-adjust their minds to the new situation since the Treaty was signed. So to add to the chaos we get a union of revolutionaries and conservatives under the same banner.

Because they are only united on the national issue, the Republicans cannot frame any social programme.[1]

To-day, in Ireland, one-third of the people have voted Republican and have no representation in the Dail. The other sections, Government, farmers and business men, have coalesced to put through anti-Labour legislation, notably to reduce the old age pensions by a shilling a week. The Labour Party stood alone against this. Troops have been used in the Waterford strike, a curfew imposed and a union organiser arrested and interned. Labourers’ cottages have been burnt down there, and a fierce spirit of reaction is abroad. The electoral policy of the Government was “six years of iron rule,” “the Flogging Bill” and so on. A sort of Irish Fascisti is growing up which is strong for law, order and property, and is quite lawless and disorderly in their defence. The mass of the people are exhausted by the struggle since 1916 and care for little except peace. Property elements are well in the saddle and have tacitly dropped all political differences.


1.  After some months of cautious discussion Sinn Fein (the Republicans) has adopted an “Economic Policy” manifestly designed to satisfy all sections. The result is that none have any enthusiasm for it and the Republican papers have scarcely referred to it since its adoption. The divergences in the movement make it still-born. The basic Republican attitude is best expressed by Iean McEntee, a recent Republican candidate in Dublin, who said, after criticising the Free State Government for reducing old-age pensions, &c., that he would not ask the people to vote for him on any social programme but only on national grounds.