Sylvia Pankhurst 1916
Source: W.S.F. Publication pamphlet, 6 pages, ;
First published: in their paper then called Women’s Dreadnought on Saturday 13 May 1916.
This appears to be only the first article and the first page of the second. The British Library catalogue refers in a bound collection of WSF pamphlets to “1919, ‘Thoughts on Easter Week’, 1916, by E. Sylvia Pankhurst – ‘Scenes from the rebellion’ by Patricia Lynch – ‘The first Sinn Fein member of Parliament’ by Mary O’Callaghan,” but the third is missing. Note all three authors are women and only few months later was the paper called The Workers’ Dreadnought.
Patricia Lynch (1898 – 1972) was an Irish author of children’s literature and a journalist. In 1916 she was sent to Dublin to report on the Easter Rising for The Woman’ Dreadnought. Although a committed Irish nationalist, she retained a London accent to the end of her life.
The first and second of these articles appeared in the “Workers’ Dreadnought” immediately after the Rebellion or Easter Week; the third at the time of the Irish Convention in 1916. We re-publish them now because we believe that a knowledge of the events and policies with which they deal will help towards a realisation of the present developments in Ireland.
Justice can make but one reply to the Irish rebellion, and that is to demand that Ireland shall be allowed to, govern herself.
Differences of opinion in England, Scotland, or Wales as to what measure of self-government Ireland is to have ought not to affect the matter – by the “freedom of small nations” which the British Government has so bombastically sworn to defend, this is essentially a question for Ireland herself to decide. Let a popular vote be taken in Ireland as to whether, she shall be an independent, self-governing republic, or an autonomous part of the British Empire, like Australia and New Zealand. That is the only method by which the Irish difficulty can be solved and Ireland learn content.
The “firm and vigorous administration” which The Times demands for Ireland, which we suspect is but another term for coercion, and such suggestions as that of the professing Liberal, Professor Longford, that conscription shall be applied to Ireland, and that the Irish Rebels shall be set free on condition that they join the Army, will only lead to graver trouble in the near future. Ireland has been held in subjection by force too long, not to retaliate with what force she can, when provoked beyond a certain point.
Official reports in the very nature of things are, of course one-sided, and these are all that may readily be obtained from Ireland as yet. Therefore it is not possible to say at the moment of writing whether the time of the Irish rebellion was chosen by its leaders, or whether the outbreak was finally provoked by outside agencies, but there are various indications that the latter view may be correct.
The reasons for the discontent which has caused the rebellion are clearly apparent. In the first place the Home Rule Act fails to satisfy considerable sections of Irish men and women, who regard it as a mere extension of local government.
In the second place, the Home Rule Act itself is not secure. Should a Unionist Government succeed the present administration at Westminster (and what at the moment seems more probable?) the Home Rule Act could easily be repealed before it had ever been put into force. On the eve of the European War, Sir Edward Carson and the Ulster Unionists were threatening and openly preparing revolution, to prevent the application of the Home Rule Bill. The Times, which supported Carson and his Ulster rebels, now declares that:
“The country will not be satisfied with the Irish Situation until the men who sat and looked on while armed potential rebels were openly trained in Dublin are removed from office.”
But The Times is not referring to Sir Edward Carson, and Sir Edward Carson himself, though he talks very glibly of preserving Law and Order, just now, makes it quite clear that he intends to revive his pre-War threats of armed rebellion when there again appears a prospect of enforcing Home Rule, which, in a letter to the Press of April 29th, 1916, he described as “a gross wrong.” As a matter of fact, so far from being prepared to forego armed resistance to Home Rule, the Carsonites are keeping their ammunition ready, and when asked by the British Government to hand over their arms for use in the present War, they refused to do so on the ground that they would need them later on. Everyone knows that it was the Carsonites who first armed to resist Home Rule. It was afterwards that the Redmonite Home Rulers set up an army; and that the Sinn Fein organisation armed to fight for the Irish Republic; whilst the working-class industrial movement, under Larkin and Connolly, also set up its Citizen Army later than the Carsonites, and did so in the first place to protect peaceful meetings of the workers from ill-treatment by the police.
The Sinn Feiners and the Larkinites have gradually drawn together, though during the great strike in Dublin the Sinn Feiners accused the Larkinites of appealing to the Irish people “to forswear the name of Irishmen for Citizens of the World,” and Larkin and his comrades declared that it mattered little to the Workers whether they were enslaved by British or Irish capitalists.
To many of us, who believe that neither race nor creed should separate the workers of the world, it is a matter of regret that the old position of Larkin and Connolly should now seem to be somewhat obscured. We believe that the co-operative millenium cannot be reached till Capitalism is overthrown by the workers. Yet we know the impatience which many an earnest reformer feels with the slow growth of the proletarian movement. We understand the revolt of the impetuous Celtic temperament against being tied to slow-moving England, more conservative than either Wales or Scotland, England, who, with her strong vested interests and larger population, is always the predominant partner in the British Isles. We sympathise with the dream of so many ardent lovers of Ireland to make of her an independent paradise of free people, a little republic, famous, not for its brute strength, but for its happiness and culture, something unique in all the world, holding a position amongst the nations like that of Finland, who, until Russia trampled on the constitution which she won, not by bloodshed, but by a universal strike, was thought here to be, and probably was politically, the most free of all lands.
The Irish Rebels find to-day almost every man’s hand against them, yet reckless though they may have been, their desperate venture was undoubtedly animated by high ideals. And we also know that their action will further those ideals. In proclaiming the Irish Republican Brotherhood, they declared for “equal rights and equal opportunities, for all its citizens,” and resolved “to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.” They promised that as soon as a permanent Government could be established, it should be elected by all the men and women of Ireland.
“Mad folly,” perhaps, but hardly, as The Times calls it, a “brutal, bloody and savage rebellion.” The Republic of a week was evidently set up without violence and bloodshed; the Rebels’ War News says that it was proclaimed with cheers. When the soldiers came, there began, indeed, heartrending slaughter – slaughter perpetrated by both sides, but the Rebels, untrained men, women and boys, had for arms only “a job lot of rifles,” whilst the authorities opposed them with machine guns, bombs, bayonets, and cannon.
The Rebels – condemn them who can find heart to do – well knew, in their reckless bravery, they would be defeated, that their rebellion could be no more than a stage in the long struggle for Irish independence. A writer in the Manchester Guardian, much opposed to the Rebels, says:-
“The Post Office was on fire. It had been shelled and was now ablaze. I have learnt something of the spirit of the garrison from two or three different sources. On Monday night, I am told by a priest who was admitted to the building, it contained 500 or 600 men and a score or so of young women, who proposed to cook and nurse. The priest heard the confessions of many of the men, and they told him they were going to die for Ireland. He counselled the young women to leave, but they replied that they would stop and die with the men; a spirit too good for so bad a cause.
“When the end came and the fire drove the garrison out, they sought to escape by rushing in a body from the rear of the building. The street at the back bends a little, and beyond the bend was a machine-gun, which, as soon as the rout began, discharged its volleys into the fleeing rebels.”
Can the story of scenes like that bring pride to British hearts?
Parnell, without allying himself with armed rebellion in Ireland, never publicly repudiated or criticised his countrymen, and always pointed to the fact that they fought because the justice they longed for was withheld. Mr. Redmond, on the contrary, at once placed himself in line with the British Government, and in his eagerness to do so, he declared that Ireland’s grievances had been redressed, and that she had been led “from slavery and poverty to freedom and prosperity.” But no open-eyed, unbiassed person could visit Ireland in recent days without being impressed by her desolation. Dublin was obviously a city of decay; the fine old mansions, let off in tenement dwellings, were crowded with poor, ill-clad people. Five shillings a week was a wage commonly paid to adult women there: It was natural that the premises occupied by Murphy, the hotel-keeper, and Jacobs, the biscuit-manufacturer, who fought the workers in their long starvation strike for a bare subsistence wage, were amongst the first to be captured by the Rebels.
In the West of Ireland the people live in hovels built by themselves, with roofs of turf, mud floors, and walls of rough stones which the tenants hew with their own poor implements out of the hillside. For the little strips of undrained, stoney ground on which their homes are built they pay rents that are far too high. The Congested Districts Board, which is a supposed charity under the auspices of our British Government, finds work for the people to enable them to pay their way, allowing them to get 3s. 6d. to 7s. a week for making crochet or lace, and 101/2d. a dozen for socks. The children are kept at home to help with this wretchedly paid work, and, as a result, Government Blue Books admit that in country districts the proportion of illiteracy varies from 35 to 70 per cent.; 50 to 65 per cent of illiteracy being most common. The earnings of the people in these industries have fallen instead of rising in recent years: Government reports show that whereas in 1912-13 the total earnings in the lace-making trade were £29,754, they had fallen in 1914-15 to £11,680. We learn that the kelp-making industry on which the people in the West of Ireland largely exist, is improving as a result of the War. Yet the Government inspector in this year’s report states that an entire family in the best districts can earn but £20 in a season, though years ago they could make £40.
Knowing these things, we understand why rebellion breaks out in Ireland, and we share the sorrow of those who are weeping there to-day for the Rebels whom the Government has shot.
Euston Station was crowded with soldiers, and one might have imagined it to be in the hands of the military. Very few civilians were to be seen. Only single tickets were being issued to Holyhead, and boat tickets were not being sold at all.
In the train to Holyhead a dark young soldier with an Irish accent said he had enlisted to help the Belgians, and he did not want to fire on people who were fighting for their country. The stewardess on the boat was pale-faced and serious. Her eyes were red with crying for the rebellion. She feared it was really all over and a failure. “It will be like the Germans in Belgium,” she said; “and they’re beginning already.”
While I waited at the Town Hall, Kingstown, for my pass to Dublin, a woman, who had been detained there for more than a week, told me she had seen nothing of the fighting. All the time that she and her family had heard firing they had been so much occupied in trying to get food and a place to sleep in, and had succeeded so badly, that she connected a revolution with hunger and personal discomfort and nothing more. A man who owned a motor car, offered to try to drive her into Dublin for £10, or if she could get others to share, for £2 10s. each, but she could not afford it. She was English, and thought the Irish people were inconsiderate, as usual, to start their revolution when other folk were beginning their holiday. A red-cross nurse had come over to seek for friends, from whom nothing had been heard for a fortnight. These and the others I met there were solely occupied with their own grievances. I was glad to be rid of them.
The Dublin train was crowded with soldiers, all talking of the trouble, with a complete absence of bitterness. Many hoped they would not be ordered to fire on the rebels.
Westland Row Station, in Dublin; was guarded by police, and on coming out one saw at once the shops all smashed and broken.
The barricades were still across the streets and soldiers guarding them. Men required a pass to go anywhere at all. Women needed them to go out of the city. In O’Connell Street and along Eden Quay the dust was still thick upon the ground, the air was heavy with burning, and dense clouds of smoke obscured the ruins. Even when the rain came, and after three days of it, they were still smouldering. Strangers talked quite openly to each other in the streets at first, as they viewed the damage. “Could the Germans do worse to us?” one said, and another: “They tell us to pity the Belgians; it’s ourselves need pity, I’m thinking.’ The affair at the Post Office aroused great horror: “To turn machine guns on them and they running away!” “The English papers talk of Louvain; what’ll they say of Dublin?” But after the first few days people became more cautious; everyone suspected his neighbour of being a spy or informer. Soldiers and police stood all along the pavements preventing people from going into the ruins or down the side streets. The soldiers looked like dwarfs compared with the police. Bodies were being brought out. It was more like a nightmare than reality. Women walked along, tears streaming down their cheeks. One woman spoke to me. She was elderly, dressed in black, her eyes swollen from weeping, and she stumbled against me. Her only son was a Sinn Feiner: he had been killed in the fighting. She was not grieving for the houses which had been destroyed, but for the brave young lives which seemed to have been thrown away. She did not grudge her boy to Ireland, if only she could feel that the sacrifice had not been wasted. As much ammunition was being used for one sniper as would wipe out a German regiment, she said, adding bitterly: “But then the English don’t hate the Germans the way they hate us.”
In the midst of the desolation the statues of Parnell and O’Connell, and the hideous Nelson pillar, remain uninjured.
Along Eden Quay the damage is not evenly distributed. The paper shop next to Liberty Hall is untouched. The windows of Liberty Hall are smashed, and on the side facing the Liffey a small portion of the wall is broken. Soldiers could be seen inside. It is said that its position near the railway and the Custom House saved it from being entirely destroyed.
I went one morning to get my pass at Trinity College, where a pale, nervous-looking young man talked to me and urged me to do my best to get a pass at once, for I might be prevented from leaving at all. Two soldiers took me into a room on the left-hand side of the quadrangle. I was told to go upstairs, and stood for a moment on the landing with two prisoners, one a boy of 17, very thin, poorly dressed, but holding his head erect and looking far away. The other was a mild-mannered man with clumsy clothes and restless hands. We smiled at each other, then the door was opened and I was motioned forward. I stood in the doorway, a soldier on each side of me. An elderly officer, short-necked, red-faced, with bulging blue eyes and carrotty hair, sat at a table. A younger officer, tall and slim, stood by the fire at the other end. He looked angry.
“Pass or prisoner?” shouted the officer at the table. The soldier on my left stammered with nervousness. “P-p-pass, sir,” he said.
Then my cross-examination began. When did I come over? Why did I come? Why did I travel alone? Who were my people? How long had I been in England? Who were my relations in Ireland?
I answered them all.
“Was I connected with the Sinn Fein or any other political organisation?”
Before I answered the officer by the fire took a step forward. “I object to this bullying,” he said; “the question is unnecessary.”
He spoke in a low tone, the officer at the table heard, turned and glared at him; but the question was not repeated.
The bull-like gentleman at the table looked for a form, found it, and a pen which he appeared to have some difficulty in using. He filled in my name, Dublin address, London address, and signed and stamped it.
“Countersigned at the Castle,” he bellowed at me. “I’ll send someone with you,” said the other.
As we went out I heard him say that he would see the prisoners after lunch – his lunch I suppose.
I was marched around different departments of Dublin Castle with my pass. The soldiers were very civil, the police haughty. One official told me they were having a terrible time at the Castle, and God only knew when it would be better. After four hours I came out again into Dame Street with my pass completed.
In the restaurant where I had my lunch a waitress, pale-faced, haggard-eyed, told me that her sweetheart was a prisoner: she feared he would be shot. “They don’t shoot German prisoners, although they call them ‘Huns’ and ‘baby-killers’: they only shoot our brave Irish boys”
The charwoman in the house in which I stayed told me that without warning the soldiers had commenced firing at her tenement. She lived with her four children in the cellar tenement, and all the other inmates of the house came flocking down and huddled together during the night on the stone flags under the staircase. Afterwards they were told that it was thought there were snipers on the roof, but no-one in the house knew anything about it. None of them were Sinn Fein or knew how to shoot, and if the snipers were on the roof, wasn’t it queer to riddle the front the house with bullets? But everything seemed hard on poor people. They weren’t allowed out of their houses except for a few moments in the morning to fetch bread and milk. Some who had no money because they were prevented from earning it had to go without unless they could share the little that their neighbours had. The step between semi-starvation and absolute starvation is so slight to these dwellers in one room tenements that they regard it with a measure of indifference.
Another woman who worked in the same house had been in slightly better circumstances., she, with her family, had a two roomed flat in a turning off O’Connell Street. The Sinn Feiners turned the out of it and the military blew it up. She could not make up her mind which party had served her worse, She hoped the Government would give her compensation but doubted it “they’d be more likely to give it to the landlord, and him a rich man” though she had lost her home, her clothes – everything.
A girl living near the North Wall has one brother fighting at the front, another in the Irish Volunteers. The latter, when the revolution started, went off without being at all aware of what was on hand. Before he reached his destination he met a friend, who told him that ammunition was being served out, and that fighting was going to commence. He returned home and in order to protect his family from any unpleasant consequences, gave himself up to the police at once. His sister has heard nothing of him since. She is afraid he may be taken to England and forced to join the army.
Another young man was an ordinary member of Sinn Fein: he did not even drill, but was arrested while out walking, together with a boy of 15 who was with him, and neither have been released.
I saw that in Ireland the attitude towards the rebels taken by many, even of those who condemn the rising, is one of esteem, admiration and love. One young woman who had knowledge of first aid told me of her experiences. She lives near Merrion Square. When the firing began she went out to see if she could help but was ordered back by the military. All night she remained alone with her dog, listening to the shots passing over the house and praying for those who were killed. But she longed to care for the wounded. Towards morning she went out, meeting another woman bent on the same charitable errand. They went towards Mount Street Bridge intending to search the houses and gardens where the fighting had taken place. A young officer assured them that there were no wounded but they persisted. They found a young soldier lying on his back, his hands flung above his head as though asleep. They returned twice to him before they could realise he was dead. Further on they came to a soldier entangled in some wire. They had to cut away nearly all his clothes until they could get him out. Then they found a little Sinn Feiner, barely 12 years old. He was wounded in the head and his brains were showing. He was still conscious and his pitiful white face, with its big dark eyes wide open with fear of the soldiers, wrung their hearts. At the women’s request a soldier ran for a priest. When he came the child’s face lighted up with joy, and his terror vanished, although he was dying.
The same young woman helped to carry a terribly injured women into a nursing home. They had scarcely put her down when a young girl was carried into the same room. She saw the woman and screamed out “Mother”; but her mother could not speak she was dying. They told the girl she would see her mother after she had slept.
The young woman who told me of these things chanced also to be present at the Battle of Boland’s Mill. It has been stated that Devalera was forced to surrender by his men, She says that is not true. She loved him so much they would willingly have died with him, but he did not wish to sacrifice them uselessly. The mill was so well defended that the soldiers thought there must be some hundreds within; yet when the defenders came out there were but 50 of them, and 30 dead. She said that Devalera looked like a king when he came out, defeated but unsubdued. Although she was his opponent, she told me that she was filled with grief when she heard the incorrect report that he had been shot.
Side by side with generous-minded people who can admire their opponents, are those well-fed, well-dressed ladies and gentlemen who condemn the revolution because of the gas supply being cut off; they were compelled to go without toast for breakfast, or coffee for dinner. I heard one lady, who looked as if a little hard work and fasting would do her a world of good, speak most angrily of those poor women who exchanged their rags for silken dresses from ruined shops. She held up her plump be0riged hands in horror at the little boys who took sweets from the shops, and the others who put on ladies boots upon their bare feet and new suits for their poor little bodies. I thought of her starved and naked soul, bare of all pity or humanity, and considered her more to be pitied than the poor looters.
I have seen the military search suspected houses, I have seen gangs of prisoners – mere boys and grey-bearded men marched into Dublin Castle, wet, weary, haggard, but their eyes shining and their head erect. I have seen the natural outbursts of feeling give way to caution as the fear of spies and informers grows, and I have listened to many reasons as to why the rebellion should have taken place at all. I will give the statements of the two most influential people who gave me their views.
The first to me is the strangest and saddest. It is by one who has had years of dealing with officials and politicians:-
The rebellion was engineered by those who wish to rob Ireland of Home Rule. By those who feel that the way to destroy liberty is to goad those who worship it into open revolt. The leaders of the revolution, idealistic, pure-minded, high-souled unpractical, are their unconscious tools.
Can this be true?
The other is the statement of a poet and philosopher – it is that Labour, neglected oppressed, wronged, has allied its discontent to that of political enthusiasts. Poets and dreamers alone cannot make a revolution. There must be popular unrest behind even the smallest revolt. In Dublin it is impossible for men and women of the working class to live like human beings. The conditions under which they live are more deadly than the trenches; out of every six children born, one dies. The one-roomed tenements of Dublin are a scandal to civilisation. The wages of the women are an outrage and all over the country it is as bad. In five years there have been two labour revolts. For weeks men, women and children have voluntarily starved rather than be forced to half-starve all their lives. Yet the grievances, though acknowledged, remain unredressed. Can we wonder that high-spirited men and women, seeing their wrongs so ignored, have allied their discontent to that of political reformers? Give Labour a chance and there will be an end of armed rebellion.
In England people forget the politician’s last lie almost before he invents another. In Ireland we have long memories. We never forget a wrong, we always remember a kindness; but our history is one long story of wrong and oppression. English children know nothing of the Chartists; to Irish children the broken treaty of Limerick, the horrors of the penal days, the misery of those preventable famines and the barbarities following upon the different risings are as fresh as the placing of Home Rule upon the Statute Book. Will the English government never learn? It can only suppress revolt by appealing to the imagination of the Irish. If not one leader had been shot, if clemency, toleration had been the order, the rebellion would indeed have been at an end. We cannot resist kindness, we can never endure oppression.
A heroic girl marrying her lover on the morning of his execution; a beautiful countess giving up the advantages of her position to live with the working people and if necessary to die with them; these strike the imagination of a race of poets and idealists. If, against that, we have set wholesale imprisonments and shooting, the paying of spies and informers, the verdict of even those who support the English Government in the European War and in other ways will be that remark which I have frequently heard in ruined O’Connell Street – “The Germans could do no worse!”
Is that what the Government desires?