Karl Kautsky


4. Ireland in the 20th Century

b) New Rebellious Elements

In order to appreciate this we have to take another look at the changes which occurred in the Irish opposition during the last twenty years.

At first the main force of the Irish rebellion against the native big landlords, and the English government which was supporting them, was made up of impoverished tenant-farmers. These were led and organised by the Catholic clergy.

In the course of the last decade of the 19th century the attempts to make propertied farmers out of the majority of the peasants were finally successful. In 1914 there were 566,000 agricultural undertakings in Ireland. Of these 349,000 were run by their owners and 217,000 by tenants. Thus far more were run by their owners. In addition, the tenants’ rents were greatly reduced by special courts of law. Furthermore the price of agricultural products rose at the turn of the century,

The agricultural population of Ireland is thus on the point of increasing.

At the same time the Catholic Church in Ireland has also feathered its nest.

Thus the position of the farmers and clergy has been changed and is now the same as in most of the older states: that is, they form a conservative element. Their demand for self-determination has not decreased with the increase of their power, but it is no longer expressed in such desperate ways. They prefer the means of parliament to those of violence. They only support violence because of tradition.

However, the Irish in America were little affected by this change. A danger facing most emigrants who continue to take part in the politics of their homeland is: that they imagine the situation there to be the same as at the time of their emigration. If the conditions have changed considerably they are unable to understand it.

They saw England as the force which drove them out of Ireland. They no longer had direct interest in the prosperity or decline of their old homeland. They were concerned not so much with its prosperity but with their hatred of England. The rich financial resources they sent to Ireland must only benefit the most extreme tendencies whose aim was to harm England at any price and with most desperate means.

However, in the long-run, a rebellious movement cannot be maintained on subsidies alone in the absence of support from certain social interests and needs.

The base in the country people vanished. But two new rebellious elements in the cities replaced it.

The first was the up-and-coming Irish intelligentsia, which quickly increased with the growth in public education. The Irish intelligentsia had for a long time enriched English intellectual life. The Irish play a similar role in English literature as the Jews in German. They give it their wit and spirit: from Swift and Sheridan to Bernard Shaw. However, these Irish mostly belonged to the ruling, protestant strata, and they enriched only the hated anglo-saxon culture with their intellectual treasures.

The Irish intellectual remaining in Ireland, and wishing to influence the Irish people, found only a meagre field of activity. In all agricultural countries there is almost only one great field of activity: the government bureaucracy. But in Ireland this was controlled by the hated English.

Far more than for the farmers, the independence of Ireland now became for the intellectuals a question of survival.

In order to eliminate the super-imposed competition from the English intellectuals, Irish intellectuals sought to erect a new spiritual partition between England and Ireland and to revive the ancient Irish language. This has nearly died out. In 1911 there were only 16,837 people left whose only language was Irish. The number of those understanding Irish as well as English was



14.5% of the people



14.4% of the people



13.3% of the people

In spite of this continual regression in the language, which is becoming extinct, the Irish intellectuals strive to galvanise it into new life. They live more in the past than in the present, gush about the great deeds of yore and seek to revive old usages and customs. Like our German nationalist students who swear by Wodan.

They even write their own names in the ancient way wherever possible. The Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, which should now definitively control the relations between them, is signed by five delegates for the Irish side, not one of which uses his usual name, but its ancient Irish translation: Thus, for example, Mr. Gavan Duffy uses Seorsa Ghathain Ui Dubhthaig.

How that is pronounced, I do not know.

These nationalist Irish intellectuals became easy prey to the American extremists

The other new stratum of the population arising along with the Intellectuals, and showing outspoken rebellious spirit, was the wage-proletariat. 0f course Ireland’s industry, apart from Ulster, remained weak. But even an agricultural country needs an extensive transport system, with its subsidiary industries, as soon as its exports begin to grow. This demands a certain development of the proletariat.

However, the latter developed in a situation which was completely nationalistic, and hostile to England. For this reason the Irish proletariat learnt very little from the English proletariat. Its relations with the Irish emigrants were much closer. Suppressed by the power of the state, brought to despair by the power of capital supported by the state, the proletariat at its inception always leaned towards over-rating force and under-rating economic laws which are rarely self-evident. This also applied to the Irish proletariat. Natural hated of the capitalist government, was for the Irish proletariat, increased by the fact that it was the government of the foreign conqueror, or the English, that stood opposed to them. This tendency towards force arising amongst primitive strata of workers as soon as they become roused to action was twice as pronounced in the Irish proletariat because of the history of the country; for, ever since the first English invasion, the most brutal force had been used by both sides as the main means of political and economic struggle.

The Irish workers grew to hate Parliamentarism more and more as the mass of the Irish farmers came to flourish under it, became prosperous and lost their revolutionary zeal. With the growing opposition of the urban workers to the farmers, who benefit by rises in the cost of provisions, their hatred of the nationalist Parliamentary Party also grew.

The nationalist syndicalism spreading amongst the Irish proletariat under these circumstances was a fruitful field for the American extremists.

Out of these intellectual and proletarian elements, subsidised and urged on from America, a rebellious movement arose, the leadership of which was soon taken over by Sinn Fein, which had been developing since 1905. At first Sinn Fein, founded by men of letters, had a predominantly literary character, but in time it assumed ever more violent forms. Ulster’s appeal to arms found a powerful response amongst all the Irish, but chiefly amongst the Sinn Feiners.

These were furious because at the outbreak of war the majority of armed Irishmen did not join England’s enemies, but made common cause with the English patriots. However, they themselves were so weak that it was a long time before they dared to strike out alone.


Last updated on 20.1.2004