There are turning-points in a nation’s history that leave an indelible mark on the course of that nation and of its people. One such event was the 1916 Rising and the impact it had on twentieth-century Ireland. It shaped for generations how the Irish people saw themselves.
Those events ninety years ago also had a significant impact on other oppressed and colonised peoples within the British Empire, an empire on which "the sun never set and the blood never dried." The ripples of freedom coming from Dublin lapped on the shores of the oppressed across the globe.
The 1916 Rising continues to cause controversy to this day among academics, politicians, journalists, and others, all attempting to shape and interpret those events to suit their present agenda. These views range from those of unionists, who see it as a "stab in the back" of the empire and of those who were dying for "freedom" in the blood-soaked fields of Flanders, to the neo-unionists in the Republic, who argue that the revolutionaries had no "democratic mandate" from the Irish people and that Britain would have honoured its commitment to granting "home rule" if only Ireland supplied enough sacrificial lambs to the imperial slaughter of the First World Inter-imperial War.
This apologetic nonsense and forelock-tugging has reached ridiculous levels, to a point where the Irish Labour Party has demanded, successfully, that during the official government commemoration on Easter Sunday, when the Irish Army will march past the GPO (headquarters of the revolutionary forces and from which the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was read), a minute’s silence will be observed to commemorate all those killed during Easter Week-including members of the British Army, Dublin Metropolitan Police, and Royal Irish Constabulary. We must now pay equal respect to the oppressed and the oppressors!
Some commentators have even likened the leaders of the rising to today’s suicide bombers, claiming that Patrick Pearse was just a romantic poet seeking immortality in some macabre blood sacrifice and that James Connolly was a "bloodthirsty Marxist," hell-bent on causing death and destruction for no good reason except for his own blind ideology.
Despite the continuing attack from the establishment media, all progressive opinion should celebrate the 1916 Rising and honour the leaders and volunteers of the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers. In particular, those who believe in socialism and republicanism should honour James Connolly, the outstanding leader of the revolutionary forces. As Pearse stated, "if I were to mention the names of individuals, my list would be a long one. I will mention only that of Commandant-General James Connolly, Commanding the Dublin Division. He lies wounded, but is still the guiding brain of our resistance."
Connolly was a working-class leader who has left the Irish and international working-class movement a legacy yet to be fully realised. He was what Gramsci would later call an organic intellectual. Born to Irish parents living in Edinburgh in poverty and squalor, he suffered the discrimination that many Irish emigrants suffered in that city. Self-educated, he became a full-time political and trade union organiser, newspaper editor, poet, playwright, historian, and pamphleteer, as well as a loving and caring husband and father.
Connolly’s participation in the rising was shaped and determined by a number of factors: the outbreak of the world war, the opportunity to strike a blow at British imperialism at its weakest point, and the knowledge that the slaughter in Europe was causing the death of millions of workers. As Connolly himself put it, "if these men must die, would it not be better to die in their own country fighting for freedom for their class, and for the abolition of war, than go forth to strange countries and die slaughtering and slaughtered by their brothers that tyrants and profiteers might live?"
Many today lay claim to the mantle of James Connolly. The Irish Labour Party claim him as one of their founders, though he was never a member; Sinn Féin also lay claim, yet he was never a member of that movement either. The Irish trade union movement have Connolly’s image emblazoned on their banners yet in the main have shied away from taking up his political legacy.
What James Connolly stood for was the conviction that the working class must take a leading role in the struggle for national freedom and independence; that the social and economic goals of the working class must be what guide the nation-that it as a class must constitute the nation. Connolly pointed out that the ruling class, the class of big business, would always place their class interests above the nation, that the interests of the majority would always be sacrificed in the interests of the minority.
Connolly brought the republican concept of national liberation into the era of imperialism and argued that we cannot separate the attainment of national freedom from social emancipation, that they are both part of the same process. As he put it himself, "only the Irish working class remain the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for Irish freedom." He argued that we could not build socialism or a socially just society while Ireland was still part of the British Empire, and that Irish freedom was a prerequisite, the only basis on which the struggle for socialism could be built. He did not see nor did he erect some "Chinese wall" between these two goals: they were part of a seamless process. He recognised that one was dependent upon the other in a dialectical way.
To truly achieve national freedom we need to liberate the nation’s jost oppressed class, because they as a class have nothing to lose, and it is only they who would or could guarantee the success and the sustaining of national independence. Connolly’s involvement in the rising was not a "mistake," as some on the left would argue.
As Lenin put it, the Irish may have risen too soon. He was of course speaking with the benefit of hindsight; yet Lenin went on to criticise those who viewed the rising as a "putsch." He clearly understood, as did Connolly, that we will never have a "pure" revolution. "Whoever calls such a rebellion a ‘putsch’ is either a hardened reactionary or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon…. To imagine that a social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses … to imagine this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, ‘We are for socialism,’ and another somewhere else and says, ‘We are for imperialism,’ and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a ‘putsch’."
Revolutions are part of a social process: alliances form, merge and separate at different points in the struggle. The task is to find forms of struggle that both attack and undermine British imperialism’s continued influence and control in the North of Ireland and to link this struggle to weakening the grip now exercised by the European Union over the whole of Ireland. As Connolly attempted in his day, we need to build the necessary alliance, with the working class at its heart, that will break the grip of imperialism. Finding this unity is proving as elusive as it was in Connolly’s time, yet we must continue to try.
Connolly knew when he entered the GPO in 1916 that many of his allies would not understand him, and that equally some who marched in with him would not travel all the way with him to his goal for the Irish working class-a socialist republic. Though many to this day pay lip service to his ideas, he was proved right when he stated that some would not understand his actions.
The defeat of the rising, and the execution of the leaders, particularly of Connolly, left the leadership of the movement for Irish freedom in the hands of the petit-bourgeoisie, with the ascendancy of the middle class and large farmers; and we have lived since with the consequences of that defeat. The middle class in the Republic have overseen the mass emigration of nearly a million of our people since 1922, mainly from small-farming families and working-class communities, from cities, rural towns, and villages. Our people have experienced the "carnival of reaction" that Connolly so accurately predicted; but it was not confined to the North of Ireland and was inflicted upon all the Irish people, north and south.
Ninety years later, new challenges face us as well as old unresolved ones. British imperialism and its allies continue to impede progress. Now we are faced with yet another layer of control in the form of the European Union. With an Irish ruling elite now completely wedded to and integrated in the global imperialist network, we are a long way from the goal set for our nation in the 1916 Proclamation: "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 indefeasible."