The rebellion that shook Britain: Ireland’s 1916 Easter rising

100 years ago, a rebellion in Ireland fought for freedom and justice in British-controlled Ireland. Phil Chilton tells the hidden revolutionary history of the rebellion

One hundred years ago on Easter Monday in Dublin 1300 insurgents rose in rebellion against Britain’s colonial domination of Ireland.

The rebels declared an Irish Republic and held central Dublin against the forces of the crown for about a week. Despite their defeat, the uprising created shockwaves around the world and led to a mass movement which would secure independence within five years.

This year in Ireland will see many bourgeois politicians line up to pay homage to the brave women and men who fought and died for the liberation of Ireland in 1916.

The official commemorations are crafted in such a way so as to make sure that the revolutionary aspirations of the rebels are diluted, hidden and safely consigned to a time since past. What these professional hypocrites cannot admit, let alone commemorate, is that the 1916 Rising was as much a rebellion against established Irish politics as it was against the British Empire.

Frederick Engels described Ireland as “England’s first colony”. Since at least the 12th century Ireland was a source of plunder for English kings and nobles. Although invaded many times Ireland was not finally conquered by England until the 16th century.

The severity of Ireland’s conquest is perhaps best characterised by Oliver Cromwell who sought to re-consolidate English control. In 1649 Cromwell sacked the town of Drogheda and massacred those who resisted. Cromwell wrote: “I believe we put to the sword the whole number of the defendants. I do not think 30 of the whole number escaped with their lives.”

Between 1846 and 1851 Ireland suffered a devastating famine. Out of a population of eight million it is estimated that nearly one million died of starvation. Another million people left the country, mostly destined for the slums and sweatshops of Britain, America and Australia.

The British ruling elite’s response to the famine was conditioned both by their anti-Irish racism and their free market ideology.

Bans on food exports which would have saved many lives were opposed, food programs were ended and the burden of paying for famine relief was pushed onto an already struggling Irish economy.

The British Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, declared that it was not the function of government to provide food to the starving. Trevelyan explained to an aristocratic counterpart that “the real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the [Irish] people.”

Thousands of people abandoned their land after famine relief was denied to anyone holding more than a quarter acre. Thousands more poor farmers were forcibly evicted when they could not pay their rents.

Nationalist movements

British savagery provoked a succession of armed nationalist movements, from the United Irishmen in the wake of the French revolution to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or Fenians, formed in 1858 in the aftermath of the famine.

After an attempted Fenian uprising was crushed, the focus of Irish nationalist politics moved to an effort to secure Home Rule legislation through the British parliament. This sought a measure of self-government for Ireland within the United Kingdom. An Irish Parliamentary Party was formed, with the aim of using the balance of power in parliament to press the British government for Home Rule.

Irish Home Rule legislation was defeated in 1886 and 1893 but by 1912 it seemed as if it might finally come to pass.

British loyalists within Ireland began to arm—in Belfast in particular. Big capitalists in the north east wished to retain their ties with the British Empire, maintaining their access to imperial markets. They dragged behind them many Protestant workers who pledged loyalty to Britain and opposed any form of Home Rule.

The Ulster Volunteer Force was formed in 1912 with the stated aim of, “using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.”

Supporters of Home Rule responded by forming their own armed group, the Irish Volunteers: 75,000 had joined by 1914. The moderate Irish Parliamentary Party managed to secure effective control of its leadership.

But when war broke out in 1914 the Home Rule Bill was put on hold for the duration of hostilities. The war exposed the conservative, compromising politics of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Its leader, John Redmond, took eagerly to the task of recruiting Irishmen for the British Army, in an effort to demonstrate his loyalty to the British Empire. He hoped that British gratitude would secure Home Rule at the end of the war.

As the war dragged on and thousands of Irish soldiers died, support for the bloodshed, and for the Irish Parliamentary Party, began to ebb. The Irish Volunteers split over whether to support the war. The remaining Irish Volunteers opposed joining the British Army and prepared to fight for Home Rule.

A section of them, with links to the old Irish Republican Brotherhood, secretly planned for a rising. James Connolly too, urged the rebels on. The conspirators took Connolly into their confidence and an insurrection was planned for Easter 1916.

Class and socialism

Connolly was a life-long revolutionary socialist. He returned from the United States where he had been an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World, joining the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) as its Belfast organiser in 1910. The militant tactics of the ITGWU won significant improvements in wages and conditions for workers. The union grew quickly from 4000 members in 1910 to 22,000 by 1912.

He was at the centre of the Dublin lockout of 1913, when Ireland’s employers, led by the Dublin capitalist and former Irish Parliamentary Party MP, William Martin Murphy, moved to smash the Transport Union and its militant allies.

In order to defend strikers Connolly formed the Irish Citizen Army. Its few hundred members joined the uprising in 1916.

Connolly combined an understanding of the necessity for class struggle with an abiding belief in Ireland’s need to free itself from colonial domination. For Connolly, “The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered.”

Connolly never dropped his commitment to socialist and working class politics, and recognised the limitations of those who launched the uprising. He warned, “In the event of victory, hold onto your rifles, as those with whom we’re fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are fighting for economic as well as political liberty.”

Rebellion isolated

When it came, the uprising drew little support.

The conspiratorial methods of the rebels led to confusion. Orders for the mobilisation of the Volunteers were countermanded by leaders who did not support the plot. Attempts to smuggle arms to supply the rebels were botched.

Perhaps crucially James Connolly failed to use the methods of class struggle; no strike was organised to support the rising, and many of Dublin’s workers watched the fight with bemusement. Only a relatively small group of fighters took on the forces of the British army. Outnumbered and out-gunned, they were defeated after six days.

It was the shocking scale of the British repression that turned the leaders of the uprising into heroes. There were 3500 arrests, many of people who took no part in the uprising. Internment camps were set up.

Sixteen of the rising’s leaders were put to death. Connolly was the last to be shot. Badly wounded, he had to be tied to a chair to face the firing squad.

The killing of the rebels sounded the political death knell for John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party. His support for the war and for a British state that could not be trusted to implement Home Rule saw his party obliterated at the election two years later in 1918. Irish Republicans demanding independence swept the polls, refusing to take their seats in Westminster and establishing a rebel Irish parliament.

The Irish Volunteers were reorganised as the Irish Republican Army, and fought the British until 1921. Negotiations resulted in the shameful partition of Ireland, with a sectarian state in the North remaining part of Britain.

The Russian revolutionary Lenin defended the Easter uprising as a blow against imperialism, despite its weaknesses. He wrote that, “Their misfortune was to have risen prematurely, when the revolt of the European working class has not yet matured.” The Rising helped to break the grip of a conservative politics that had dominated for decades.

In 2016 we see that conservative grip broken again. Last month’s elections saw the two main establishment parties, responsible for running governments in Ireland since the civil war, down to 50 per cent between them from 74 per cent in 2007.

The real inheritors of the revolutionary spirit in Ireland 100 years later are not the establishment politicians, but the ordinary working people who fought against austerity on the streets in the water charges campaign and voted for a left alternative at the ballot box.

The words of James Connolly cry out: “Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.”

Now that would be a fitting commemoration of 1916.

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