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Oscar Williams

The Easter Rebellion

Fourth International, April 1943

From Fourth International, Vol.4 No.4, April 1943, pp.115-118.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Republic Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Easter Rebellion of 1916 was drowned in blood by British imperialism. Defeated though it was, however, the Easter Rebellion remains of enduring interest. Its lessons were never more important than they are today, on the 27th anniversary.

The leaders of the Irish Free State – who maintain their hold largely because of their participation in the Easter Rebellion have deliberately minimized and distorted the role of the outstanding figure in that struggle. A recent visitor to Dublin has informed me that in the museum of the Easter Rebellion, maintained in Dublin by the government, there is not a single reference to James Connolly – the greatest thinker and fighter of the national and social struggle in Ireland. Murdered 27 years ago, his revolutionary ideas are still so powerful that Irish capitalism – already senile, though young in years – finds it necessary to hide from the workers the true story of Jim Connolly.

No more than DeValera can the Stalinists tell the truth about Connolly. A quotation from the March issue of the British Trotskyist newspaper, Workers International News, gives fresh evidence of how the Stalinists, while paying lip-service to him, lie about Connolly’s ideas:

“Mr. P. Musgrove, Editor of the Irish Freedom, who recently utilized Connolly’s writings and published them in book form with a long preface, attempts to confuse the Irish, and British workers over Connolly’s socialist position, making out that it is necessary to support the present war as being a continuation of the revolutionary principle. This to one extra lie in the long list of Stalinist distortions. Connolly in the last war stood violently opposed to the gang of social democrats who betrayed the International movement and gave support to World War No.1. In his many writings and in the model slogan ‘NEITHER KING NOR KAISER’ – Connolly advocated the complete independence of the working class movement and declared that it is the duty of the socialist movement to organize the oppressed against the native and foreign capitalist forces who dominate Ireland entirely.”

In 1912, when capitalism in all the advanced countries of the world had already reached its summit, Ireland remained one of the most backward countries of Europe. In Dublin, where social conditions were relatively higher than the rest of the country, the death rate among infants was the highest in Europe, higher even than Calcutta in Asia. The Medical Officer of Health for Dublin 1905 reported the startling contrast in child mortality of less than one per cent for children of professional class and 27.7 per cent for children of laborers. According to another government report in 1914, nearly a third of the entire city lived in single rooms.

Conditions in the countryside were far worse, for the chronic agrarian crisis was both the most striking and the most fundamental problem of the oppressed nation.

It was Karl Marx who first described Ireland as “England’s largest pasturage.” The triumph of industrial capitalism in England ruined Ireland. Until then Ireland had provided the bulk of the grain consumed in Britain, protected from competition by tariffs which gave Ireland a virtual monopoly. But these corn laws were repealed in 1842 by the British industrialists, who wanted cheap food in order to pay low wages and therefore opened Britain to cheap grain from across the Atlantic.

The Irish landlords thus found themselves compelled to change over from tillage to pasturage. Widespread evictions began to take place: tenant farmers had no place in the new agrarian system of large unenclosed areas for pasturage. The raising of wool and meat now became the prime function of Irish agriculture. The merciless process of evictions was accompanied by the great famine of 1847. Mass emigration to America and Australia between 1841 and 1866 reduced the population by 40 per cent. By 1926, the population had declined in 75 years from 251 to 135 per square mile.

Those driven from the land could not go to the cities. Thanks to British domination Ireland did not have any real industry except linen manufacture. It was not long before the powers of absorption of this industry were exhausted. There was little Irish capital to develop new industries and the British industrialists wanted Ireland to remain a pasturage for England producing nothing but wool and meat. Ireland was transformed from a nation of small farmers into a land of large, absentee landholders.

England not only succeeded in bringing Ireland to economic peonage, but by the middle of the 19th century appeared to have destroyed in the Irish people their feeling as a nationality. So far, indeed, had England weakened the Irish nation that Marx even came to the conclusion that the only way Ireland could obtain her independence would be through the English workers. All trace of the Gaelic language – traditional language of Ireland – had been done away with; the 19th century Irish men and women regarded Gaelic as a foreign tongue.

The Rise of the Nationalist Movement

The reawakening of the Irish national spirit toward the latter part of the nineteenth century was demonstrated first in the literary and cultural field. Prominent literary men began to bring back to popular attention the native cultural heritage of Ireland. An important force in this direction was the Gaelic League. It was not formally organized until 1893 by Douglas Hyde, later the first president of the Irish Free State. Its purpose was to spread the use of Gaelic and, although non-political in program and activity, it succeeded in arousing the national consciousness as nothing else had done previously. At the height of the struggle in 1916 the League had hundreds of branches and had been the source of recruiting many of the leaders in the battle for independence.

The theater, especially the Abbey Theater of Dublin, also played an important role. Choosing the subject matter of their plays from the daily life of the oppressed people, these playwrights and actors became an instrument in the fight for national independence. Far from an abstract art in an ivory tower, the plays of the Abbey Theater succeeded, through touring companies and hundreds of amateur groups, in reaching wide sections of the people in both the urban and rural areas.

Some of these artists and intellectuals took leading roles in the political and social struggle and were to pay with their lives for their devotion to the fight.

The peasantry entered the struggle through the Irish Land League, whose outstanding leader was Michael Davitt. Here the struggle was one against both British and Irish landlords. The Land League, initiated in 1879, organized tens of thousands of farmers throughout Ireland for the purpose of fighting against the vicious evictions system. Davitt, who had already spent seven years in a British prison for his struggle against English and Irish landlordism, gave to the organization both its program and its militant methods of struggle. Basing itself on the conviction that the land belonged to the people who tilled it, the League demanded the end of the landlord system.

Gathering in strength at every eviction proceeding, and using a method of mass intimidation which was later used by the Farm Holiday Association and the Farmers Union in America, the League saved thousands of farmers from eviction. A graphic indication of the response to the Land League was the great mass meeting called at the beginning of the anti-eviction campaign. Twenty thousand farmers gathered together in one spot – the greatest gathering ever held in Ireland.

The authorities soon declared the Land League illegal. Davitt then organized the Ladies Land League and carried on through it the work of the now illegal organization. The role of the women in this field is but one example of the extremely heroic and active role which the Irish proletarian and nationalist women carried on in all phases of the struggle, both legal and illegal.

The work of the Land League bore results in the Reform Bills, pushed through Parliament by the Liberal Party government. While not solving the land problem, these bills offered partial remedies, such as Land Courts to fix more reasonable rents, and provisions against arbitrary and sudden evictions. As a result of the work of the League, the small farmers of Ireland were brought into the struggle against national and social injustice and from then on were always to remain an active factor in the fight.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Sinn Féin movement began to develop. It never existed as an organized party, but was simply a loose and undisciplined movement centering around Arthur Griffith and the various newspapers which he published. Sinn Féin was exclusively a bourgeois movement. Its program, as proposed by Griffith, who was the unquestioned leader, makes this amply clear. His principal demands were the following: “1. A protective system for Irish industries and commerce; 2. An Irish consular service; 3. A mercantile marine; 4. A national bank and stock exchange; 5. A national civil service; 6. Non-recognition of the British Parliament and establishment of a National Assembly; 7. Abolition of the poor house system and employment of the able-bodied in reclamation work, reforestation, etc.”

In spite of its program, which contained nothing of a social revolutionary nature, and in spite of the fact that Sinn Féin did not have an organized party, Griffith was the subject of constant persecution by the British. His newspapers were suppressed so frequently that at one time he published a paper called Scissors and Paste, which consisted solely of extracts quoted from legal newspapers. The Sinn Féin ideology became the dominant program of the Irish bourgeoisie and its ideas were to become the official program of the Irish Free State.

The Proletariat and James Connolly

In 1907, with the organization of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, the independent role of the working class begins. Until then the working class in this non-industrial land had played a negligible role. Small craft unions, existing in a few cities, had exerted little influence.

By this time Connolly had developed himself as an internationalist and had clarified the attitude which the working class should take to the nationalist movement.

The conclusions to which he came were similar in basic respects to those of Lenin and Trotsky. Understanding that only socialism could bring about a real solution for the oppressed people of Ireland, nevertheless he pointed out the folly of ignoring the national question. His program called for collaboration of the workers with the nationalist movement and for putting forth at all times the independent program of the workers. His was the sharpest voice in criticism of those nationalists who thought they could achieve independence through deals with Liberal Party governments in England.

Furthermore, Connolly tirelessly explained, the winning of independence alone would solve nothing, but rather must be one part of the process of working toward the social liberation of Ireland through the socialist revolution.

His position is summarized in the conclusion of an article he wrote for his paper, the Irish Worker, in October 1914:

“The Irish working class, as a class, can only hope to rise with Ireland.

“Equally true is it that Ireland cannot rise to freedom except upon the shoulders of a working class knowing its rights and daring to take them.”

Such, in a few words, was the revolutionary socialist program that Connolly began agitating for upon his return to Ireland in 1896 at the age of 26. As a child of ten he had been taken to Edinburgh by his parents and had only been in Ireland since for a short visit. Now he settled down for his life’s work. Son of a worker and a worker himself, he had managed in Scotland to absorb by 26 an astonishingly rounded socialist education.

Shortly after arriving in Dublin he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party. It remained a small party, but Connolly could justly claim that it brought the struggle for independence out of a conspiratorial atmosphere and made it an issue for public debate and discussion. In 1898 he founded his journal The Workers’ Republic. One of his proudest victories for Ireland came in 1900 when delegates of his party were given credentials as representing a separate nation at the Paris International Socialist Congress.

Connolly’s influence on the workers and nationalist movement was primarily exerted, however, through the Transport and General Workers Union. Its founder and skillful organizer, Jim Larkin, recognized Connolly’s theoretical stature and made room for him in the leadership. Connolly gave to the union a broad social outlook and what was, in effect, a revolutionary program. Through the most militant methods he and Larkin built an industrial union in the transport industry – and then extended their jurisdiction to such diverse groups as textile workers.

In 1913 the union conducted the great Dublin General Strike. The employers had determined to smash this ever-growing union by the yellow-dog contract – lockouts of those workers who would not resign their membership. The answer of the union was one of the great episodes in the class struggle of pre-war Europe. The struggle was participated in by forces beyond the Irish border. The Irish capitalists were backed by the British government and by direct aid from their class brothers in England. The workers received large sum and shiploads of food from British unions, sympathetic but unauthorized strikes broke out on the English railways, and money also came from Germany and France. Most of the Irish nationalist intellectuals supported the strikers against the capitalists. For eight months the workers of Dublin held out. In the end they were forced back to work. But the union was not stamped out and the yellow-dog contract was not enforced. Thanks to the magnificent fight they had put up, the workers did not suffer the demoralization and disintegration which the employers had sought. In stead, many of the workers involved learned that the fight had to be conducted on a larger plane than that of trade unionism. Primarily as a result of the lessons absorbed in this strike, the workers became the most serious factor later on when the national struggle reached its height.

The seeds of the famous Citizen Army were planted during the strike. It was first organized by the union as the ‘Union Defense Corps.’ Its original purpose was to defend the union band against the police. During demonstrations and parades the band was always at the head of the line of march. What particularly infuriated the union members was that the cops, in attacking the parades, always tried to smash the instruments in the band. These instruments had been bought with the members’ hard-earned money, and they determined to protect them. Organize and protect them they did – and began the Citizen Army.

As the working class began to organize, so also did the reactionaries. In Ulster, that section of Ireland comprising the six northernmost counties, where English influence was strongest Carson’s Volunteers were organized to fight against the nationalist forces. Incited and backed by the English and supplied with arms by them, the Ulster Volunteers effectively used the religious issue to divide the Protestant masses of northern Ireland from the rest of the country.

The British sent great sums of money to he used for propaganda purposes in Ulster. The very slogans used – “Home Rule means Rome Rule” and “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right” were authored by Lord Randolph Churchill, leading British Tory. The Ulster Volunteers openly stated that if the Home Rule Bill became law they would defy it. The Bill did not give the Irish real independence. Nevertheless, the Volunteers, speaking for the most reactionary section of the British ruling class would not even accept this.

In March 1914 a large number of British army officers stationed in Ulster, led by General Sir Hubert Gough, announced they would refuse to obey orders from the British War Office to enforce the Home Rule Bill if it were enacted. The reaction of the War Office to the Curragh Mutiny was an official statement to the officers that they would not be to used coerce Ulster. It does not require much imagination to picture the reaction of the British War Office had the mutineers been English soldiers refusing to bayonet striking Irish workers.

It was in answer to the Ulster Volunteers that the Nationalists finally formed their own military organization the – Irish Volunteers. Connolly collaborated with the Volunteers from the beginning and the Citizen Army, of which he was the Commandant, participated in many joint maneuvers with them.

War and Revolution

With the opening of the First World War, events began to move at a very fast pace. Those few Irish leaders who supported the war very quickly lost all support within Ireland. The great mass of the people manifested deep opposition to the war. In July 1915 the British attempted to smash the Irish Volunteers by arresting and deporting some of the leaders. The action only served to inflame the mass of the people.

Connolly had already by then come to the conclusion that it was necessary for the leaders of the Volunteers to make concrete plans for the insurrection. Connolly fought the idea held by some of the Volunteer leaders that the revolution would in some way develop by itself, that there was something “undemocratic” in making concrete plans and setting a date for an insurrection. Connolly was afraid, above all else, that the leaders would dally too long and allow the revolutionary situation to pass them by.

The specific organizational situation within which Connolly functioned must be borne in mind. The Irish Volunteers, the principal military organization, was formally under the control of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which was the local organization of the Nationalists. Connolly’s influence in the Volunteers did not come primarily from his organized strength – since the Citizen’s Army never had more than a few hundred members – but rather from the power of his ideas. In spite of this difficult situation, Connolly was able to win to his point of view on this question the best section of the Volunteer leadership, including Padraic Pearse and Tom Clarke.

In spite of his collaboration with the Volunteers – representatives of another class – Connolly even at this moment explained to the workers the special role they had to play. Brian O’Neill, in his book The Easter Rebellion, quotes Connolly addressing a meeting of the Citizen Army on Easter Monday with the following words: “Being the lesser party”, he told them, “we join in this fight with our comrades of the Irish Volunteers. But hold your arms. If we succeed, those who are our comrades today we may be compelled to fight tomorrow.”

The insurrection was set for Easter Sunday. It was to be carried out under the cover of parades and demonstrations, to be held all over Ireland by the Volunteer groups in the different cities and rural areas. Just 12 hours before the scheduled Rising, a great blow was delivered to the Insurrectionists. This was the famous Countermanding Order, issued by Professor Eoin MacNeill, chairman of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the titular head of the nationalist movement.

MacNeill, a pacifist who apparently had realized only at the last moment that the movement of which he was the formal leader actually meant to go through with an armed revolution, inserted an advertisement in Ireland’s only Sunday paper, ordering all Volunteers to call off all demonstrations and parades on Sunday. The result was terrible confusion and the virtual isolation of the Rising to Dublin. The active leaders of the Volunteers in collaboration with Connolly postponed the Rising until Monday, but the damage was done.

On Monday, key buildings in Dublin were seized and Pearse read from the steps of the General Post Office the Proclamation of the Provisional Government of Ireland, signed by seven of the leaders, including Connolly.

Over 60,000 Imperial troops were sent into the field against the rebels. With heavy artillery and gunboats from the Royal Navy, the British set to work to raze to the ground entire blocks of buildings in order to give themselves a clear field for the play of artillery and field guns.

According to the most liberal estimates the insurrectionists never had more than twelve to thirteen hundred armed men in the fighting. Approximately 200 of them came from the Citizen Army. The nationalists failed to seize printing plants for revolutionary leaflets and other propaganda.

Above all, however, it was the isolation of the rebellion to Dublin that doomed the rebellion.

Fighting with the determination that comes only from the inspiration of great ideas, the rebels made the British pay dearly for every house and building. Aided especially in the workers’ homes, the insurrectionists retreated step by step.

Connolly quickly became the undisputed military leader. Even the severe wounds which he received – one in the side and the other smashing his ankle – did not prevent him from directing all details of the struggle. Padraic Pearse, in a manifesto written on Friday of Easter Week, paid the following tribute to Connolly:

“I desire now, lest I may not have an opportunity later, to pay homage to the gallantry of the soldiers of Irish Freedom who have during the past four days been writing with fire and steel the most glorious chapter in the later history of Ireland. Justice can never be done to their heroism, to their discipline, to their gay and unconquerable spirit in the midst of peril and death.

“If I were to mention the names of individuals my list would be a long one.

“I will name only that of Commandant-General James Connolly, commanding the Dublin Division. He lies wounded, but is still the guiding brain of our resistance.”

Early on Saturday morning it became apparent that to continue the hopeless struggle would mean the physical annihilation of all the participants in the Rising. The only choice the rebels had was unconditional surrender. The British, of course, immediately arrested all the participants in the Rising and declared martial law over the whole country.

The Irish people got a speedy lesson in traditional British “sportsmanship”. The martial law was of the most brutal character. Within three days of the surrender, Pearse, MacDonagh and Tom Clarke were executed. Less than a week later all the signers of the Revolutionary Proclamation, together with seven others, had been shot.

Connolly was the last of the leaders to be executed. So seriously wounded that he could not sit up, he was condemned by a secret court martial at his bedside on May 9th. In the early morning of May 12, he was carried from his bed on a stretcher to an ambulance and driven to Kilmainham Jail. There the British carried him into the jailyard and propped him up in a chair and shot him.

And so ended the Easter Rebellion. Unlike many defeated revolutions however, it was not followed by apathy and discouragement. The Rising sounded the call for a new and fiercer struggle for independence, reaching its peak in the Anglo-Irish War of 1918-21, and forcing British imperialism to make the compromise that resulted in the formation of the Irish Free State. Without the Easter Rebellion it is very unlikely that the Free State would be in existence today.

Lenin on the Easter Rebellion

It was Lenin who gave the rounded analysis of the Rising and its historical justification. Writing in answer to Karl Radek, who had called it a “putsch” and therefore unjustified, Lenin wrote in 1916 shortly after its defeat:

“The term ‘putsch’ in the scientific sense of the word, may be employed only when the attempt at Insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators, or stupid maniacs, and has roused no sympathy among the masses ... Whoever calls such an uprising [as the Easter Rebellion] a putsch Is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire who is hopelessly incapable of picturing to himself a social revolution as a living phenomenon.

“To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts of a section of the petty-bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without the movement of non-class conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against the oppression of the landlords, the church, the monarchy, the foreign nations, etc. – to imagine this means repudiating social revolution. Only those who imagine that in one place an army will line up and say ‘we are for socialism’ and in another place an other army will say ‘we are for imperialism’ and that this will be the social revolution, only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic opinion could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a putsch.

“Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is ...

‘The misfortune of the Irish is that they rose prematurely, when the European revolt of the proletariat had not yet matured. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various springs of rebellion can immediately merge of their own accord. without reverses and defeats.” (Collected Works, Vol.XIX, English edition. p.299ff.)

For the working class Connolly’s death was a terrible blow. The trade union movement was taken over by class collaborationists and in the later events did not play the independent and weighty role that it did under Connolly’s influence.

The nationalists kept moving further to the right until today such figures as DeValera, an active participant in the Rebellion, plays a completely reactionary role in Irish politics.

But Connolly and the militant spirit of the Easter Rebellion are not forgotten. The British and Irish Trotskyists, growing in influence with the masses, are his true heirs. Through them, Connolly’s ideas are once more being brought to the oppressed masses of Ireland.

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