J.R. Johnson

On the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Easter Rebellion

Ireland and the Revolutionary
Tradition of Easter Week

(14 April 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 14, 14 April 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Easter Sunday morning, 1916. [1] Three o’clock. James Connolly, Irish revolutionary leader, was talking to his daughter and. some of her friends, all asking why the revolt so carefully prepared had been countermanded.

Connolly knew that the arms from Germany had been intercepted, he knew that the arrangements had broken down, but he knew that the British government was going to strike. He could not let the revolt be stamped out without resistance. It seemed to him, and rightly, that the resulting demonstration would be too great. He would fight, come what may. There was a chance that if they held out long enough the whole country might rise. But, whether or not that happened, the blow had to be struck. It was in this spirit, long range revolutionary calculation, that Connolly sent the message to his followers calling on them to begin.

They prepared a declaration of the Irish Republic, signed by Thomas Clarke, Sean MacDiarmada, P.H. Pearse, James Connolly. Thomas MacDonagh, Eamonn Ceannt, Joseph Plunkett. About noon the next day a body of Irish volunteers marched down O’Connell Street, apparently on parade, In reality they were marching en the Post Office and they seized it. At that same moment, small detachments seized other key points in the city. A little over a thousand men, workers, and a few intellectuals at their head, had challenged the whole British Empire.

They held the center of the city for over five days. By Friday, 60,000 British soldiers were fighting 1,000 Irishmen while Dublin blazed in flames. The revolutionaries hoped that the country would follow them – but nothing happened, nothing at any rate that could then be seen and measured. On Saturday, President Pearse ordered the surrender. To even sympathetic observers it seemed that the Irish had merely once more shown themselves a brave but irrational and unpredictable people. Except Lenin, who wrote fiercely in their defense, not only as revolutionaries but in defense of the circumstances of their revolt.

A History of Bloody Repression

To understand this noble, but apparently futile heroism one must have some idea, however rough, of Ireland’s past at British hands.

It is customary to speak of Turks in the Balkans and Tsarism in Poland as classical examples of imperialist barbarism. Nothing in six centuries of European history has ever equalled the British strangulation of Ireland. To get some adequate idea of this, one has to study the histories written by Irish nationalists, and printed in Ireland. No British historian would dare to write the history of seek the truth under the thick cake of lies that British history, official and unofficial, has laid over the facts. If he wrote it, no British printer would print it.

Ireland was, many centuries ago, one of teh foremost civilized nations of the world, far in advance of the British, a country producing Catholic scholars of European reputation, and the home of a flourishing association of free clansmen. The British fell upon them after the Norman conquest and plundered them for nearly 800 years. Rape and massacre and arson – arson, massacre and rape. That is the history.

The worst was perhaps Cromwell. Ireland is divided into four great counties, of which Connaught is the most remote and the wildest. Cromwell ordered the Irish to clear out of the three counties and go to Connaught. “To hell or Connaught.” Every Irishman knows that phrase. It signalled the depopulation of a country. That was long ago. Two hundred years later the British did it again. Hitler is doing it today. The British will do it tomorrow again. What is there to choose between the ruling classes of Europe?

Deliberately Starving a People

Ireland was the natural port of call for vessels from America. Today the empty warehouses, centuries old, still can be seen in Cork and other seaport towns. Britain strangled the trade, ruined Irish industry, stole Irish land, evicted Irish tenants, made Irish Catholics pay to support English bishops, taxed Ireland to pay British debts, bribed Irish parliamentarians (Englishmen and descendants of Englishmen) to sell out Ireland.

There is no crime in the horrors of imperialism which the British did not perpetrate against the Irish people for the “benefit of Ireland.” The last and greatest was the famine of 1847. Not one Irishman need have died. The potato crop failed. But while the millions of Irish starved, ships laden with corn sailed out of the harbors to make profits for the British landlords. Parliament voted $250,000 for Irish relief, and $500,000 for the rebuilding of His Majesty’s stables the same year. And as a million people starved and died and epidemics raged, the London Times wrote that an Irishman would soon be as rare on the banks of the Liffey as a red man on the banks of the Hudson.

Revolt after revolt had failed, chiefly through the cowardice of the Irish petty-bourgeoisie and the influence of the priests, both of whom hated the British but were more afraid of the revolution. After 50 years, the Liberal Party almost got a limited Home Rule Bill through Parliament. The Tory landlords started to build an army and swore they would revolt. So much for British democracy! It was in this highly charged atmosphere that the 1914 war broke out and the British began to overtax and oppress the Irish people to make them pay for a war, which they claimed, among other things, was to defend Ireland.

Connolly Organizes Rebel Forces

Revolutionary feeling was, to all appearances, low. During the Boer War the British had denuded Ireland of troops and there had been no revolt. The British government therefore taunted the Irish Nationalists in the House that revolutionary spirit in Ireland was dead. But these Irish Gandhis talked about revolution only to threaten the British. They were as afraid of it as the British garrison, and as soon as war broke out they declared a truce. “All for the war.”

In Dublin, however, James Connolly, a revolutionary Marxist, had been writing pamphlets and organizing labor, with some success. When Sir Edward Carson and the Irish aristocrats began to form their army in 1913, Irish revolutionaries countered with a volunteer army. But when the war broke out, Connolly took the lead with the Irish citizen army, a force consisting at the most of a few hundred men centering chiefly in Dublin. Apart from Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, this was the most extraordinary revolutionary organization that Europe had seen for centuries.

It was organized for the purpose of making a revolution, and making it soon. Connolly was determined that the war would not end without a revolt. There would be no repetition of Ireland in the Boer War and taunts of the British parliamentarians. He felt that all the Irish wanted was a lead and he was ready to give it. His followers were workers, chiefly members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. They drilled with rifles openly, under the eyes of the British garrison. They had orders that whenever called, at day or night, they were to leave whatever they were doing and assemble. At half-past three in the afternoon the call would go out. Cab drivers would leave their cabs standing in the streets, office workers their desks, assistants their shop counters, workers their jobs. Whatever they were doing, wherever they were doing it, they would stop, run for home, and ten minutes after Connolly had sent the word around, the streets of Dublin would be filled with men running, jumping on trains without paying, while buttoning up uniforms and buckling on bandoliers.

The British government was powerless to interfere. One of its agents visited Connolly’s office. Connolly drew a revolver on him and told him to get out. And the brave Briton, facing death or liberty, chose liberty.

The revolt was finally planned for Easter, 1916. Arrangements had been made for cooperation with the volunteers and other revolutionary forces of- the nationalist movement. Roger Casement, a famous explorer and humanitarian, had sought arms from Germany. But the liaison service failed. The German ship arrived and signalled but contact was not made. Word for action was sent and then countermanded. There was wide support – it was no hare-brained rash adventure – but it was far more conspiracy than mass revolution. Connolly hoped to set fire to the tinder which he knew Ireland was. He failed. The shot which killed him seemed the end of revolutionary Ireland for a generation. But he died full of hope. He was a thousand times right, mistaken though he was in his tactics and immediate objectives.

British Brutality Provokes New Rising

The British authorities had been trembling since 1914. They didn’t know what Ireland was thinking. They knew that a revolt had been planned, but they hesitated to strike because of the possible consequences. Now they thought they knew what Ireland thought and felt. The people were quiet – dazed. The bourgeois and petty bourgeois press condemned the senseless adventure, as they called it. Wherupon the British determined to strike while the going was good and to crush the revolutionary movement. Day after day they shot leaders of the Irish Citizen Army, and exulted over it in the press. The Irish bourgeoisie protested. On May 12 Connolly was lifted out of the hospital, propped up on a chair, and shot. The British shot and shot. They would wipe them out. And as the slaughter continued, Ireland woke again, the whole country, from end to end.

Under Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, the Nationalist movement began to grow. By 1918 Ireland was seething. Connolly and the Easter martyrs were national heroes. At the first election after the war, over 70 of the 100 delegates were Sinn Feiners, pledged to no cooperation with Britain. The Volunteers, the Irish Republican Army, the remnants of the Citizen Army began to prepare. From below, the civil war boiled over and the revolution began, anywhere, anyhow, without leadership, without order – a nation fighting instinctively for freedom.

Guerilla Warfare from Start to Finish

The history of that revolution is written in pamphlets and letters and the memories of the Irish people. No book has even faintly touched it, pitched battles of any scope there were none, until very late and then between Irish and Irish. It was guerilla warfare from start to finish. Michael Collins never had more than 2,000 men in his band. But he had the flower of the nation behind him.

Lloyd George could send a quarter of a million men into Ireland within 72 hours if he wanted to. He dared not do it. He couldn’t trust his own soldiers. He was pretending that the Irish were loyal, except for a few bandits. He had to dig into the garbage-and collect every crook, tough and scoundrel he could find; and sent them to Ireland to save Ireland for democracy. They and the police and the garrisons fought it out with the Irish in the streets of Dublin and wherever they found each other. At any minute, in any town of Ireland, the bullets rattled in the streets. With thousands of pounds on his head, Michael Collins went about his business in Dublin, with his plans in one pocket and a revolver in another. Eamon De Valera worked in hiding, under orders of the revolution. On a night every coast guard station in Ireland was burned down. Banks, post offices, customs houses, police station were systematically destroyed by guerilla bands.

Men did things which would have been laughed at as ridiculous in fiction. Dan Breen fought through the campaign, street fighting and raiding, and lived to become a deputy with 42 bullet holes in his body. Over and over again he routed half a dozen British soldiers. He and two friends fought, their way out of a house surrounded “by scores of British soldiers. He would go to his mother’s house to sleep. The British soldiers would come paying their routine visit and ask her when last she had seen him. “He is upstairs sleeping,” she replied once, and the detachment fled like a flock of chickens down the street. He was the greatest of them all, but every Irish village had its Dan Breen.

Years of Bitter Civil War

Meanwhile the international scandal grew. The American Irish were sending money and bringing pressure to bear through Washington. Irishmen high in the British civil service were sabotaging and acting as spies for Collins. In the tangled European situation, Britain’s voice could not be raised, while she was murdering Irishmen by shooting them down at football matches. The British workers were demonstrating for their own demands and against the invasion of Ireland in crowds a quarter of a million strong. The Manchester Guardian and the Quakers led a journalistic agitation. Egypt was pounding at Britain. The British garrison was disintegrating. The British could fight no longer. They sought peace and skilfully drove a wedge between the farmers and the petty bourgeoisie on the one hand and the Irish gentry and business men on the other. A partial peace was signed.

Ireland lost Ulster and the movement ended in a bitter civil war. The social question was beginning to emerge from the national question. The IRA, the real mass organization in contact with the people, in 1921, as in 1914, fought a purely national struggle. But the Irish question is the land question, and after two or three years of civil war it was beginning to find voices. The inevitable next stage would have been an agrarian revolution. The Irish compradores fell back and took help from British imperialism against the incipient social revolution.

British banks still dominate Ireland, but some of the chains have been struck off. Today De Valera knows that if he were to countenance aid to Britain, his doom would be sealed. Connolly had made a tactical mistake, but his faith, in the Irish hatred of British imperialism was a profound revolutionary faith, based on knowledge of his people, revolutionary courage and intuition, and a deep understanding of Irish history. His rashness was valuable beyond the timid caution of a thousand lesser men.

Either in Connolly’s Way, or ...

Easter week was the herald of the Irish revolution and the first blow struck against imperialism during the war at a time when the Irish revolutionary movement in Europe seemed sunk in apathy and the futile squabblings of exiles in cheap cafes. Today, 25 years after, Europe is moving through the same cycle, but this time in a society so exhausted by economic crisis and political strike, so starved and. badgered by barbarous governments, so shaken and stunned by the shocks of war, so weakened for the gigantic shocks that both sides are preparing for each other, that we can watch for the break which must appear in the artificial structure of organized repression and coercion which holds the continent in chains and drives millions to mutual destruction. It may flare and be stamped out as Connolly’s revolt flared and was stamped out. But it will count, for the reasons that Connolly’s counted. Because it shows the way out, the only way out, for people who must find a way or perish.

Note by MIA

1. “1919” in the printed text, but from the context this is obviously a misprint as well as being factually untrue.

Last updated on 15.12.2012