Priscilla Metscher is a Marxist historian in Germany. She gave this talk on the wider implications of the 1916 Easter Uprising at the Desmond Greaves Summer School <greavesschool.com>, Dublin, in September 2016.
By Priscilla Metscher
The Ideology of 1916 and its Continuing Relevance
I would like to begin by explaining what I mean by ideology. I mean ideas in the context of social and political history, in particular in the context of social and political movements. In other words it is social consciousness within a particular period of time.
There are those elements which I would gather under the term cultural ideology, elements which, although not directly connected to the Easter Rising, nevertheless created an atmosphere in Ireland which helped to make the 1916 Rising possible. Then there is political ideology, preparation of the public mind for resurrection, notably in the nationalist, republican and socialist press of the time and the various political movements and their activities. And, of course, there are the political ideas of the leaders of the Rising and here I would like to concentrate particularly on Padraic Pearse and James Connolly.
If we speak of a national literature in Ireland we think of a literature that is connected to the idea of national identity and the understanding of Ireland as a separate cultural entity apart from England. Traditionally Jonathan Swift is regarded as exclusively belonging to the field of English literature. According to latest research, however, there are good reasons to regard him as the founding father of modern Irish national literature, as set out e.g. in Thomas Metscher’s article available in pamphlet form “The radicalism of Swift”.
Swift belonged to the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy – and certainly the early part of his literary career was orientated towards England. As dean of St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin, however, starting in 1713 he increasingly concerned himself with Irish matters. Out of this concern grew his sympathy for the common people and his commitment to the cause of Irish liberation was installed. In Gulliver’s Travels there are many references to Ireland’s situation as a colony. In fact the problem of colonial suppression and exploitation is a major theme in the Travels. Referring to his visit to Balnibarbi Gulliver maintains: “ I never knew a Soil so unhappily cultivated, Houses so ill contrived and so ruinous, or a People whose Countenances and Habits express so much Misery and Want.”
The parable of the ‘proud people’ of Lindalino in which a successful rebellion against the suppressor occurs anticipates the ideological position of the United Irishmen at the end of the eighteenth century, i.e. revolutionary republicanism. Swift’s indictment of the colonial system in Ireland reaches a height in his bitter satirical Modest Proposal where he suggests that the children of the Irish poor should be served up as food for the rich. Swift’s literary critique of the existing social system is the result, according to W.B. Yeats of a man who passionately “served human liberty.”
The political ideas of the United Irishmen, at the end of that century, advocating separation from England and the foundation of an Irish republic based on the principles of the French Revolution, were the most advanced in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. They were taken up and advocated 100 years later by two of the 1916 leaders, namely Pearse and Connolly. During the centenary celebrations of the Rising in 1898, Connolly edited a series of ’98 Readings, the purpose of which was, as he explained “to allow the men of ’98 to present in their own language the principles and ideas which animated them…It is the aim of the publication to present to the people of Ireland a complete picture of the men and ideas of 100 years ago.”
In the 4th issue, for example, following the poem “Paddy’s Advice” by the Belfast weaver Jamie Hope condemning the landlord system, is the report of the secret committee of the House of Lords 1793, by no means sympathetic to the United Irish movement. It reveals, nevertheless, that the struggle, far from being ignited by religious sectarianism, was on the whole a war carried on by the agricultural labouring classes against landlordism, in the hope of being relieved from hearth-money, tithes and county cess, and the lowering of rents.
Desmond Ryan, once a pupil of Padraic Pearse’s boys’ school St.Enda’s notes that Pearse “carried Tone’s Autobiography around with the unfailing care some ministers would appear to carry their bibles and knew it as literally.” Pearse himself wrote that Tone’s basic democratic stand was an essential aspect of his republicanism: “Tone the greatest of Irish separatists”, he writes, “is the first and the greatest of modern Irish democrats.” Pearse declares The Secret Manifesto of the Friends of Freedom in Ireland “to be the finest manifesto of modern Irish democracy. It bases the Irish claim to freedom on the bedrock foundation of human rights.”
One could say that with the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s a national consciousness in the sense of a distinct Irish nationalism emerged which was later to receive a tremendous upsurge at the turn of the twentieth century. The most outstanding writer of the Nation, a weekly journal founded in 1842, was undoubtedly Thomas Davis. His teaching was summed up by him in one phrase: “Ireland’s aspiration is for unbounded nationality.” Although Davis himself knew no Irish, he was aware of the necessity that the Irish people should retain and cultivate their national language. He wrote: ”To lose your native tongue, and learn that of an alien, is the worst badge of conquest – it is the chain of the soul. To have lost entirely the national language is death.” Davis’ nationalism was more cultural than political in as far as he understood the nation, not as an historically evolved political entity, but as a spiritual, cultural one growing out of the recognition of the people themselves that they have a common cultural heritage.
To Pearse basic humanism is an essential aspect of Thomas Davis: “There was a deep humanism in Davis. The sorrow of the people affected Davis like a personal sorrow…he was a democrat in the truest sense, that he loved the people and his love of the people was an essential part of the man and of his Nationalism.” The writings of the most radical of the Young Irelanders, John Mitchel and James Fintan Lalor were included on the literary curriculum of St. Enda’s college, as the pupils were to be made aware of the tradition of revolutionary republicanism.
The radicalism of Lalor’s ideas is best illustrated in the following words: “The principle I state and mean to stand upon, is this, that the entire ownership of Ireland, moral and material, up to the sun and down to the centre, is vested of right in the people of Ireland…I hold and maintain that the entire soil of a country belongs of right to the entire people of that country, and is the rightful property, not of any one class, but of the nation at large…I acknowledge no right of property in a small class which goes to abrogate the rights of a numerous people.” Although Lalor died in 1849 his radical teachings inspired the founders and leaders of the new republican movement, better known as the Fenian movement.
The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) as conceived in 1858 (there was a parallel organisation in the United States known as the Fenian Brotherhood, later Clan na Gael) was a secret, oath-bound society, the aim of which, generally speaking, was to establish an Irish republic by extra-parliamentary means. Fenianism, as it evolved in Ireland, had working-class roots. As Connolly explains in Labour in Irish History : ”The cities where this movement was strongest, where the workers had made the strongest fight and class-feeling was highest, were the places where Fenianism developed most”. The newspaper The Irish People was established in 1863 “to propagate thoroughly”, as James Stephens explains, “national ideas in the country and rally to Fenianism the talent of the land.”
The Fenian, John O’Leary in his Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism regarded his editorial work for the newspaper which ended with the paper’s suppression on 15th September 1865 as his principal contribution to the Fenian movement. O’Leary saw it as one of the functions of the Irish People to resurrect Irish cultural nationalism and in Davis’ sense to make it “racy of the soil”.
As editor he was selective in his choice of verse, accepting only those for publication which had a certain literary merit, for, as he explains, “patriotism seems to take a peculiar delight in the manufacture of bad verse”. In an article O’Leary comments caustically on the level of poetic style of the majority of ‘poetical contributors’: “We protest against the right of patriots to perpetrate bad verses. ‘Liberty’ does not rhyme with ‘nativity’, and when one line has thirteen short syllables, and the next one fourteen long ones, they usually won’t scan. Besides, what is the use of eternally gloating over ‘slaves’ and ‘chains’? Let them write only half the quantity in twice the time; indeed, we’d rather they only wrote quarter, but it would be too unreasonable to expect that.” The newspaper certainly carried down the spirit of the old Nation paper and the Young Irelanders and their teachings to a new generation.
As John Devoy reminisces: “It was essentially a teacher and it filled the mind of the people it reached with ideas which took a firm grip on their minds and have endured ever since. It prepared the way for all that has since happened and inspired the people with a new spirit. The fighting Land League would not have been possible but for it.” Here he has Michael Davitt of Land League days in mind who came from the Fenian movement.
One of the most outstanding figures of the Fenian movement who symbolises what Fenianism stood for is Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. His trial was the most spectacular of all the Fenian trials of 1865. He defended himself and was determined to sacrifice any possibility of his own release by revealing the scandal of the trial to the general public. Sentenced to penal servitude for life he was released in 1871, after the revelation of his prison tortures reached the general public as a result of the Fenian amnesty movement. After his death in 1915 Pearse was to write: “O’Donovan Rossa was not the greatest man of the Fenian generation, but he was its most typical man. He was the man that to the masses of his countrymen then and since stood most starkly and plainly for the Fenian idea.”
His funeral, organised by the IRB which had been revived in 1911 by Bulmer Hobson and Denis McCullough, was a spectacular event. Thousands of onlookers lined the streets as the funeral procession passed. Pearse’s funeral oration at O’Rossa’s grave made the latter indeed the symbol of Fenianism: “The fools, the fools – they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree, will never be at peace.”
James Connolly gives reasons why the Citizen Army honoured Rossa at his grave: “We remember that the banner of Fenianism was upheld by the stalward hands of the Irish working class of that day, as the militant organisation of the same class today is the only body that without reservation unhesitatingly announces its loyalty to the republican principle of national freedom for which the Fenians stood. We are here because this is our place!”
Another figure to symbolise Irish nationhood was Charles Stewart Parnell and his striving for constitutional nationalism. With his death in 1891 the Irish Parliamentary Party which, during his lifetime had amassed considerable popular support, degenerated both morally and politically. As Sean O’Casey commented: “Ireland’s Uncrowned King is gone, And a wail came from a voice in the crowd, keening.” What now remained was a political vacuum. It is hardly a coincidence that the revival of national consciousness in the 1890s was a predominantly urban phenomenon, appealing most directly to the discontented sections of the urban middle class, especially the intelligentsia. The driving force behind the revival was no doubt the IRB which had survived as an underground revolutionary organisation from Fenian days. Members were recruited from the two urban social strata – the working class and the Dublin intelligentsia, the latter group holding leading positions in the IRB and directing policy.
It was also to this group that the two dominant figures of the Irish language and literary renaissance – Douglas Hyde and W.B. Yeats belonged. At the end of 1891 Yeats and Hyde founded the Irish Literary Society in London out of elements of such small literary societies as the Pan-Celtic Society and the Southwark Literary Club, London with the aim in view of founding a school of literature, which, while using the medium of the English language, would derive its inspiration from the Gaelic culture of the past. This was followed by the establishment of the National Literary Society in Dublin in May, 1892.
Together with the revival of Irish mythology, largely through Standish O’Grady, came the discovery of a rich oral folk tradition among the peasantry of the west of Ireland which was gradually becoming extinct through “Anglicisation”. In 1890 Hyde published his first book of Irish tales in Irish – Beside the Fire and this was followed by his Lovesongs of Connacht, published in 1893. Also in 1893 appeared a volume of folktales by Yeats under the title The Celtic Twilight. Lady Gregory was avidly collecting folklore from the peasants on her estate, Coole Park in Co. Galway, which she was later to turn into poetry and drama.
Yeats also contributed with plays such as Kathleen na Houlihan. It was an essentially romantic idealistic conception which the progenitors of the literary renaissance nurtured, both of the Gaelic past and of the Irish peasant. The idea of an organic pre-industrial society attracted them. It was undoubtedly a positive reaction to the ‘stage-Irishman’, the presentation of the Irishman as an object of derision, but, on the other hand, it was an idealisation of peasant life which simply did not exist in reality and in later years Yeats was to look back ironically on this period of ‘Celtic Twilight’: “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone./ It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” These words are also an indication of Yeats’ later abdication from the political republican movement, but he could also write poetry which was in Davis’ words “racy of the soil”, e.g. “The Fidler of Dooney” which begins:
When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave on the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Mochabuiee.
I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” could be seen as a romantic utopian symbol of a future Ireland. Edward Said has written that Yeats is indisputably “a great national poet who during a period of anti-imperialist resistance articulates the experiences, the aspirations, and the restorative vision of a people suffering under the dominion of an offshore power.”
The founding of the Abbey Theatre gave playwrights the opportunity to stage plays in the English language, but with Irish content. Thomas MacDonagh, erstwhile teacher of English literature at St. Enda’s college and one of the 1916 leaders, was to defend Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World”. He came to the conclusion that there was a future for Irish literature and poetry in English, inspired by Irish folklore, the life of the Irish people and English as it was spoken in Ireland.
In his book Literature in Ireland, published posthumously he writes: “An Anglo-Irish literature…could only come when English had become the language of the Irish people, mainly of Gaelic stock, and when the literature was from, by, of, to and for the Irish people…the English language in Ireland has an individuality of its own, and the rhythm of Irish speech a distinct character.” Although himself an Irish speaker from learning the language he rejected the assumption that a national literature could only be created within the Irish language.
It is not the literary renaissance alone which both stimulated and reflected the growth of national consciousness; the Irish language revival movement was of equal, if not greater impact. On July 31, 1893, the Gaelic League was founded, the aims of which were the preservation of Irish as a national language and the extension of its use as a spoken language, the study and publication of a modern literature in Irish.
At first the movement was confined to Dublin and other towns, but gradually its influence spread throughout the country. By 1893, as a result of continued emigration and the domination of British culture, the Irish language was largely confined to the western and north-western seaboards and some pockets on the southern coast. The most disturbing fact was that in those areas where Gaelic was still spoken, it was rejected by the Irish peasant as inferior to English, a feature which was also encouraged in the British orientated national schools. The anglicisation of Irish culture is vividly portrayed in Brian Friel’s play Translations.
Here I would like to say a few words concerning cultural imperialism. A phenomenon of colonisation generally is the belief of the colonising nation in its cultural and moral superiority over the indigenous culture of the people it has conquered. Ireland, as Britain’s first colony, is a good example of this attitude. The Irish, as an ‘uncivilised’, ‘barbaric’ people should come under the ‘civilising’ influence of British/English culture. The justification of colonisation hides, of course, the real economic and political interests of the colonising power. It is part of the logic of domination which in the end leads to the reverse effect, namely to barbarity and self-destruction, as for instance, so adequately demonstrated in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.
So an extremely important function of the Gaelic League was not only to make the Irish people aware of their separate cultural entity, but to imbue them with pride in their cultural tradition. It was among the English-speaking population that the League made most progress, in stressing the importance of the revival of Gaelic. Douglas Hyde was conservative in his political sympathies, putting his trust in the future in the hands of the rural middle class, so the League played a significant part in widening and strengthening the national consciousness of many middle-class and lower middle-class Irish, but its revolutionary role as a school or apprenticeship for the young radical republicans of the day, such as Padraic Pearse, should not be underestimated. In spite of the opinions of the founders, Pearse himself considered the League to be a force of deep political influence on himself and others.
In January 1914 he wrote: “I protest that it was not philology, not folklore, not literature, we went into the Gaelic League to serve, but Ireland a Nation.” He sums up the political merits of the League thus: “We never meant to be Gaelic Leaguers and nothing more than Gaelic Leaguers. We meant to do something for Ireland…It was a good school, and we love its name and will champion its fame throughout all the days of our later fighting and striving. But we do not propose to remain schoolboys for ever.”
The influence of the Gaelic League on Pearse can, I think, best be seen in the foundation of his school St. Enda’s at Ranelagh, Dublin in 1908, which was followed by a girls’ school, St. Ina’s, a few years later on the same model. To Pearse it was not simply a matter of reforming the Irish educational system, but rather of radically and completely transforming it into an active agent in the regeneration of national consciousness. In a pamphlet, aptly entitled The Murder Machine, published in 1916 Pearse condemned the existing national school system which “aimed at the substitution for men and women of mere things.” It had succeeded in eliminating the national factor, in making willing and manageable slaves who were not even conscious of their slavery. In its place Pearse would have a system, similar to the old Irish system of education, whereby the teacher was ‘fosterer’ and the pupil ‘foster child’.
The aim of education, he maintained, should be to “foster the elements of character native to a soul, to help bring these to their full perfection rather than to implant exotic excellences”. What the teacher should bring to his pupil is not a set of ready-made opinions, or a stock of cut-and-dry information, but he should be an inspiration and an example. St. Enda’s was a determined attempt to reform Irish education by inspiring the pupils with their own revived Gaelic cultural heritage. They were educated bilingually. In the teaching of literature there was a strong concentration on Gaelic literature and tradition, but also on the republican tradition in the English language of Tone etc., as I have already mentioned. Apart from traditional subjects, the curriculum included manual work indoors and outdoors.
The college presented its own dramatic productions, both in school and in the Abbey Theatre and produced a literary magazine of considerable quality. The school had external lecturers including the leading Dublin intelligentsia, Douglas Hyde, Eoin MacNeill, W.B. Yeats and Padraic Colum. As Pearce himself sums up: “St Enda’s was founded by me in 1908 with the object of providing for Irish boys a secondary education which, while modern in the best sense, should be wholly Irish in complexion and bilingual in method…We are convinced that we are training useful citizens for a free Ireland”. So the institution of St. Enda’s was politically motivated as well. Boys from the school joined the newly-founded boy scouts’ movement, Na Fianna Éireann. Many former pupils were active in the Easter Rising and in the War of Independence.
Preparation of the public mind for a Rising was of course visible in the many nationalist and socialist publications of the period (from the end of the nineteenth century up to 1916) such as Irish Freedom (organ of the IRB), Sinn Fein, The Irish Volunteer, An Poblacht, The Gael, The Irish Citizen (organ of the Irish Women’s Franchise League) and on the socialist side, the Workers’s Republic and the Irish Worker. There is not time to go into detail here. Suffice it to say that the British authorities in Ireland of that time were completely aware of the subversive character and influence of this press on the people.
In December 1914, besides the Irish Worker, the nationalist papers, Sinn Fein, Irish Freedom and Ireland were suppressed. On March 24, 1916 the nationalist journal The Gael was suppressed and the premises of the printers in Liffey Street were raided by the police who seized all the type forms, dismantled the machinery and carried all the vital parts off to Dublin Castle along with the books and papers connected or believed to be connected with the journal. When the police threatened to invade Liberty Hall, the citadel of the militant labour movement, to search the premises, a mobilisation order went out to the Dublin workers, members of the Irish Citizen Army to protect the Workers’ Republic and Liberty Hall.
Concerning the growing alliance between the forces of republicanism and socialism leading up to the Easter Rising, brief mention should be made of the great Dublin strike and lockout of 1913. Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, at that time officers of the Dublin Industrial Peace Committee and later signatories of the Easter Week Proclamation, opened the columns of their journal the Irish Review to Connolly’s defence of the workers. Eamonn Ceannt, likewise a signatory showed his sympathy with labour by criticising publicly Griffith’s attack on Larkinism. . “By the way, have you no condemnation of the Employers’ Federation, or is there one law for them and another for the servants?” Padraic Pearse made use of the columns of Irish Freedom to voice his opinion on the situation of 1913.
“My instinct”, he writes, “ is with the landless men against the lords of lands and with the breadless men against the master of millions. I may be wrong, but I do hold it a most terrible sin that there should be landless men in this island of vast yet fertile valleys, and that there should be breadless men in this city where great fortunes are made and enjoyed. …These are among the grievances against which men in Dublin are beginning to protest. Can you wonder that protest is at last made? Can you wonder that the protest is crude and bloody? I do not know whether the methods of Mr. James Larkin are wise methods or unwise methods (unwise, I think, in some respects), but this I know, that here is a most hideous wrong to be righted, and that the man who attempts honestly to right it is a good man and a brave man”.
In the columns of Irish Freedom of which Bulmer Hobson was editor, articles were contributed which argued for a union of forces between nationalists and socialists. An Irish republic would entail a social as well as a national regeneration of the Irish Nation. To quote: “The conception of the nation as a spiritual entity will not be destroyed if Nationalists decide that change must be made in the social structure before happiness and good-will reign in Ireland, and see that the making of these changes involves a shifting of economic wealth from the possession of the few to the possession of the many.”
Nowhere is this ‘union of forces’ so clearly evident as in the growing friendship between Pearse and Connolly, in the mutual esteem held by both. Their political writings of the period bear this out. I would maintain that in his mature years Padraic Pearse belonged to the left-wing of Irish republicanism. He was undoubtedly an idealist, a fanatic in the sense that he pursued his ideal relentlessly. A certain element of self-sacrifice for the cause of political independence and an identification with the Gaelic ‘heroic spirit’ is reflected e.g. in the words under the painting of Cuchulain on one of the walls of St. Enda’s: “I care not though I were to live but one day and one night provided my fame and my deeds live after me”.
But a presentation of Pearse as a morbid, death-seeking, ego-centric and eccentric individual, as Ruth Dudley Edwards portrays him is a conscious falsification. She writes: “Pearse had nothing to live for, and he believed that sacrificial death would bring him the mortality he craved”. Pearse’s words: “We must accustom ourselves to the thought of arms, to the sight of arms, to the use of arms…bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing” today would send a shiver down the spine, but they should not be completely taken out of context.
His rhetoric of bloodshed was in keeping with much contemporary political writings in radical newspapers of the time, whose tone had to contend with the growing hysteria of British army recruitment propaganda in the face of the German threat. Moreover, Pearse did not advocate the unqualified use of arms. He wrote: “When I say the sword I do not mean necessarily the actual use of the sword. I mean readiness and ability to use the sword. In another article “The Spiritual Nation” 1916 he wrote that if a nation could obtain its freedom without bloodshed, it is its duty so to obtain it. However, under the circumstances he did not believe in the possibility of obtaining freedom for Ireland without the use of military force. This was written after the British government had decided to postpone Home Rule for the duration of the war.
The image of Pearse as poet and dreamer given to wild flights of phantasy has largely been dispelled by the publication of his letters and educational writings. The practical, down-to-earth tone of many of his letters reveals an able organiser and are a contrast to the flamboyance and sometimes barely suppressed hysteria of his published writings from 1914 onwards. His educational writings e.g. reveal a mind very much alive to new developments in the field of European education and are, to my mind an outstanding contribution to Irish cultural and political history. This down-to-earth side to his character is revealed in the humorous tone in some of his writings.
Commenting on the spread of the Irish language in the North he writes: “The prospect of the children of Sandy Row being taught to curse the pope in Irish, pronounced with a Belfast accent is rich and soul-satisfying.” On another occasion he refers to Orangeism in the North and comments: “The Orangeman’s lack of a sense of the incongruous is sometimes painful. In Belfast they are selling chair cushions with Sir Edward Carson’s head embroidered upon them which is pretty much as if a man were to emblazon the arms of his country on the seat of his trousers. One should not put a sacred emblem where it is certain to be sat upon and liable to be kicked; and only the Orangemen would think of honouring their chief by sitting on his head.”
Pearse’s radical position within the republican movement was established in his political writings, in the articles which he contributed to Irish Freedom from June 1913 to January 1914. Although admitting that he is “nothing so new-fangled as a socialist or a syndicalist” – he wrily adds that he is “old-fashioned enough to be both a Catholic and a Nationalist” – Pearse rebels against a social system which upholds “disgusting incongruities… a country”, he writes, “capable of feeding twenty million people, which has only a population of four million of which thousands are starving”. He gives a vivid description of the squalor of the Dublin slums, commenting that “the tenement houses of Dublin are so rotten that they periodically collapse upon their inhabitants, and if the inhabitants collect in the street to discuss matters the police baton them to death.”
The contemporary liberation movement Pearse regarded as being “a movement of the people, not of the “leaders”. His reading of Irish history led him to the same conclusion as Connolly, namely: “The leaders in Ireland have nearly always left the people at the critical moment; have sometimes sold them…the instinct of the people has always been unerring… and plainly the instinct of the Fenian artisan was a finer thing than the soundest theory of the Gaelic League professor.” Like Connolly, he regarded the repositories of the Irish tradition to be “the great, splendid, faithful, common people.” I think it can reasonably be assumed that from the content of what he writes Pearse was familiar with Connolly’s writings such as Labour in Irish History.
In his final article “The Sovereign People” Pearse lays down his concept of an Irish republic, drawing to a large extent on the writings of James Fintan Lalor. It is a republic founded on radical democratic principles. “Let no man be mistaken as to who will be lord in Ireland when Ireland is free. The people will be lord and master… The right to the control of the material resources of a nation does not reside in any individual or in any class of individuals; it resides in the whole people and can be lawfully exercised only by those to whom it is delegated by the whole people, and in the manner in which the whole people ordains.”
Concerning the issues of nationalisation and private property in the future Irish republic Pearse states that he would not disallow the right to private property, but insists that “all property is held subject to the national sanction.” His stand during the First World War was clearly that of an anti-imperialist. Writing to Joseph McGarrity of Clan na Gael in New York in 1915 he comments that “the rich men are making on the war while the very poor are on the verge of starvation.”
At the same time he saw the war as a means of providing an opportunity for workers to emancipate themselves and for the suppressed nations in Europe, above all Ireland and Poland, to achieve national self-determination: “this war”, he wrote, “with all its misery may be the means of uplifting the poor workers to their proper place” for “the workers themselves will realise much better the purpose for which many of their lives have been sacrificed.”
Although realising the fact that the war was making the rich richer and the poor poorer, Pearse did not see it as a result of the battle between the Great Powers to maintain and increase their capability of exploiting the world’s resources. To him war becomes an abstract phenomenon which in itself is a “terrible thing” but not an “evil thing”. He writes: The tyrannies that wars break, the lying formulae that wars overthrow, the hypocracies that wars strip naked, are evil”.
He points to the possibilities which the situation of the European war could create: “What if the war kindles in the slow breasts of English toilers a wrath like the wrath of the French in 1789? What if the war sets Poland and Ireland free? If the war does these things, will not the war have been worth while? “. He understood that the war, though being a disastrous affair, might offer the suppressed millions an opportunity for emancipation.
How did Connolly see the first world war? As a socialist Connolly’s stand on the war is clear. War”, he writes, “is ever the enemy of progress. It is only possible when humanity is stifled, when the common interests of the human race are denied. The first blast of bugles of war is also the requiem note of human brotherhood… there are no humane methods of warfare, there is no such thing as civilised war; all warfare is barbaric.”
However he makes a distinction between the imperialist wars of the capitalist class and the struggle of the smaller nations for self-determination. The war of a subject nation for independence he writes, “ for the right to live out its own life in its own way may and can be justified…but the war of nation against nation in the interest of royal freebooters and cosmopolitan thieves is a thing accursed.”
The right of the oppressed nations to self-determination and the role of the national liberation movements in the struggle for socialism was by no means a clear issue in the Second International. There were those so-called socialists who were in favour of developing what they termed “a positive socialist colonial policy”. Even among the left-wing socialists there were sharp differences of opinion.
On the left wing Lenin saw the potential in the national independence struggle of the suppressed nations. Although the smaller nations were powerless as an independent factor, in the struggle against imperialism they played the part of a ferment or enzyme which helped the anti-imperialist, socialist forces to come to the fore. Connolly’s stand on the national question is closely connected with the question of socialism and his understanding of the implications of imperialist war. Whereas Lenin wrote on a theoretical level Connolly arrived at similar conclusions through his experience of Ireland as a suppressed nation. He too understood the significance of national liberation movements in the epoch of imperialism (monopoly capitalism) as a factor making for the overthrow of capitalism.
With the outbreak of war Connolly believed that it was no longer possible to work along the lines of peace to achieve his goal of a workers’ republic. He pointed out that a defeat of England in India, Egypt, the Balkans or Flanders would not be as dangerous to the British Empire as any conflict in Ireland. In the pages of the Irish Worker he makes his position clear: “Home rule is on the statute book, martial law is now in force and free expression of opinion is forbidden… we believe in constitutional action in normal times, we believe in revolutionary action in exceptional times.”
The idea of striking a blow at Britain by the use of armed force in Ireland while Britain was at war became a frequent subject in Connolly’s writings after 1914. When he committed the ICA to fight in Easter Week, it was not just with the hope of realising a prerequisite for a socialist republic in Ireland. The war, he believed, could provide the working class of Europe with an opportunity to overthrow the capitalist system. That Pearse’s thinking was also along these lines I have already pointed out.
On 16 October 1915 Connolly wrote in optimistic spirit: “Revolution is no longer unthinkable in Europe, its shadow already looms upon the horizon.” And on another occasion he wrote: “Starting thus, Ireland may yet set a torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.” To Connolly the struggle in Ireland for national independence, democracy and socialism was not an isolated struggle , but was embedded in a universal struggle for freedom. He recognised the identity of interests of the international working class and of all suppressed peoples.
It is important to see the Easter Rising, not as an isolated event, but within the European, indeed the global context of the period. The Easter Rising was the first attempt in the period of the first world war, crowned by the successful Russian Revolution of 1917 to change the map of world imperialism. By 1916 many of the East European nations colonised by Russia were at the point of insurrection and many colonies of the European empires were already in open revolt – the German Cameroons in 1914, Nyasaland in 1915, French Indo-China and the various African colonies, to mention a few.
The Easter Rising had a significant impact on revolts in India and Egypt (e.g. the Arab revolt beginning on 5 June, 1916). But the importance of the Easter Rising from an anti-imperialist point of view is the fact that it did not take place in some distant colony, but in Europe, in fact in the heart of the British Empire. Lenin came to the same conclusion as Connolly when he wrote: “A blow delivered against British imperialist rule by a rebellion in Ireland is of a hundred times greater significance than a blow of equal weight in Asia or Africa.”
Summing up the common interests of what he termed “advanced nationalists” and socialists in Ireland, Connolly speaks of a growing “feeling of identity of interests between the forces of real nationalism and labour which we have long worked and hoped for in Ireland. Labour recognises daily more clearly that its well-being is linked and bound up with the hope of growth of Irish resources within Ireland, and nationalists realise that the real progress of a nation towards freedom must be measured by the progress of its most subject class.” It is a significant fact that the Easter Week Proclamation’s assertion of the claims of a sovereign people to social justice and to control of the country’s natural resources shows the influence of Connolly on the drafting of the document.
If we look at the actual proclamation of Easter Week we find the following words: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies to be sovereign and indefeasable”. Furthermore it is stated that “the Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens.” Just in passing, to my mind the question of nationalisation is missing in the Irish Republic’s constitution of 1919. Moreover, in Article II, although guaranteeing freedom of conscience to all citizens, there are concessions made to the Catholic church by declaring the indissolubility of marriage.
In fact the Easter Week proclamation comes very close to an earlier proclamation, namely the Fenian proclamation of 1867 where it is stated: “We aim at founding a republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour. The soil of Ireland at present in possession of an oligarchy belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored. We declare also in favour of absolute liberty of conscience and the complete separation of Church and state.”
So summing up, the legacy of Easter Week has three dimensions: the question of national sovereignty is inseparably coupled with democratic and human rights. The ownership of the land for the people is a cornerstone of socialist relations of production. These aspects are more relevant today than ever when we see that in Europe of the present time the idea of the nation has been usurped by radical right-wing ideology and its representatives.
National sovereignty is essential, but only in connection with the implementation of democratic rights and, ultimately, a socialist organisation of society.
Books consulted for this paper:
James Connolly (ed.) ’98 Readings, Dublin 1897.
James Connolly, Labour in Irish History, Dublin 1973.
James Connolly, Collected Works, Volume One, Dublin 1987 and Volume Two , Dublin 1988.
John Devoy, Recollections of an Irish Rebel, Shannon 1969.
John O’Leary, Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism Vol. 2, Shannon 1968
Patrick Pearse, Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin 1972.
Patrick Pearse, The Coming Revolution. The Political Writings of Patrick Pearse, Cork 2012.
J. Dunsmore Clarkson, Labour and Nationalism in Ireland, New York 1970.
Sean Cronin, The Revolutionaries, Dublin 1971.
Ruth Dudley Edwards, Patrick Pearse, The Triümph of Failure, London 1977.
Shane Kenna, 16 Lives. Thomas MacDonagh, Dublin 2014.
Thomas Metscher, The Radicalism of Swift, Dublin 2016.
Desmond Ryan, The Man Called Pearse, Dublin & London 1919.
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, London, Melborne, Sydney, Auckland, Johannisburg 1994.
Ruán O’Donnell, 16 Lives. Patrick Pearse, Dublin 2016