Posted tagged ‘Daniel O Connell’

Lockout, part 4: Socialism and Irish Nationalism

January 6, 2013


“Against the Red Flag”

Socialism and Irish Nationalism
1830 – 1913

by Mags Glennon

The 1913 Lockout was the culmination of several years of political organisation and agitation among the unskilled working class, carried out primarily through the Irish Transport Workers Union. The ITGWU had been founded by Larkin in 1909 specifically as a union of the unskilled, long deemed ‘unorganisable’ by the official trade union movement. The open militancy of the ITGWU was a new departure in the history of the Irish trade union movement and the organisation grew rapidly, from 4,000 members in 1911 to 10,000 by 1913. The ITGWU quickly came up against determined resistance from employers, the police and the British state.

However some of the most vitriolic abuse and opposition to this manifestation of the independent organisation of the working class was expressed by Irish nationalist organisations, not only the official Irish Parliamentary (Home Rule) Party but also by the more ‘radical’ Sinn Fein movement led by Arthur Griffith.

While James Connolly declared the indivisibility of the of the struggle for Irish independence from the fight for socialism he was essentially a lone voice whose ideology, based on the application of Marxist principles to the Irish situation, was a radical break from the previous two centuries of Irish nationalism which had laid the foundations for the collection of political beliefs that still dominate the discussion on the ‘National Question’.

Irish nationalism, as it developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries was an eclectic mixture of aspects of various political doctrines, not necessarily of Irish origin, which were gradually amalgamated in different forms by the groups who adopted a policy of Irish independence.

In the 1890-1910 period at least four main nationalist organisations existed, these being the Irish Parliamentary Party, Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Around these a series organisations, some officially ‘non political’ had emerged such as the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League and a number of bodies promoting cultural expression and the Gaelic revival.

The genesis of what can be broadly termed as Irish Nationalism emerged from the ideals of the United Irishmen and the failed rebellion of 1798. All of the above organisations active in the early 20th Century claimed a heritage that stemmed from the radical ideas propounded by Wolfe Tone and his supporters in the 1790’s, Sinn Fein and the IRB more so than the Irish Parliamentary Party or the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

However the ideals put forward by the United Irishmen in the 1790’s were profoundly different the strain of Irish nationalism that emerged in the 19th Century. The Republican tradition founded on the ideas of Wolfe Tone, Samuel Neilson and others within the United Irishmen owed a large measure of inspiration to the political beliefs which led to the French revolution of 1789. There was, for example, a strong vein of secularism and anti clericalism running through the United Irish movement that found no expression in the later nationalist tradition of Sinn Fein and the Irish Parliamentary Party.

The constitutional nationalist tradition drew its inspiration from the long political career of Daniel O’Connell and the later Home Rule campaign directed by Charles Stuart Parnell. O’Connell, Parnell and John Redmond dominate the stage of Irish history and are portrayed as the champions of nationalist Ireland. Nationalists they undoubtedly were but their political motivation, supporters and ideology do not make them champions of the cause of the working class.

The first opportunity for organised political action by the Irish working class on the issue of national independence and the development of internationalist links with the English working class emerged in the 1830’s but were effectively blocked by Daniel O ‘Connell.

O ‘Connell, long revered in Irish history as ‘The Liberator’ was a consistent enemy of the working class and laid the foundations for the anti English and anti socialist premises at the root of much of Irish nationalism. O Connell’s family background is of interest as are some of his less publicised political activities.

O Connell was born into a family of the minor landowning catholic gentry. He received his education in France during the period of the French Revolution, which swept away the reactionary catholic ancient regime forever. These experiences are held as the formative influences on a political career in which he famously declared the Irish freedom was not worth the shedding of a drop of blood. It is a less well known fact that O Connell was a volunteer with the Lawyers Yeomanry Corps which rounded up supporters of Robert Emmet’s failed rebellion in 1803, was the suppression of Irish freedom worth paying such a price?

Robert Emmet

Robert Emmet

It is interesting also to note that Emmet’s rebellion, long derided as a revolt of the ‘rabble’, was in fact one of the most proletarian of Irish risings. Berresford Ellis’ ‘A History of the Irish Working Class’ provides details of tentative links between Emmet and a group known as the United Englishmen who represented labourers in London and textile workers in the North of England. Emmet’s proclamation, drawn up at the start of the Rising, provides for the nationalisation of all church and landed property and declares itself for universal suffrage.

Robert Emmet’s rebellion was to be the last armed uprising in Ireland for 45 years, a period of history dominated politically by Daniel O Connell. O Connell’s first political success was the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 which removed the last vestiges of the Penal Laws. The benefits of the measure were of great advantage to the rising catholic middle class which had long circumvented the restrictions on Catholic landholding by engaging in trade and commercial activities.

The political ambitions of the Catholic middle class, the economic backers of O Connell, found their expression in the rise of Catholic nationalism throughout the remaining years of the 19th Century and were the dominant economic forces opposing the trade unions in 1913.

O Connell’s position as the founder of modern Irish nationalism centres not only on the ideology he espoused but also on the methods of political organisation he adopted. The organisations he founded were based on the mass mobilisation of the poorest sections of Irish society in support of the objectives being promoted, catholic emancipation and repeal, the achievement of which would do most to further the political ambitions and advance the social and financial position of the middle class.

A second element of O Connell’s leadership style was the promotion of the populist model of political leadership, the placing of all faith in one messianic figure, ‘the liberator’, the uncrowned king’, ‘the chief ‘ or even ‘the boss’. Thus the confidence of a class, in this case the working class, to act autonomously in its own interest, was dependant on the approval and sanction of a popular hero. This trend is found most prominently in the nationalist criticism of the 1913 Strike which speaks of ‘Larkinism’ and ‘Larkin’s Union’, of a working class being led like sheep by a popular political figure rather than of the working class reacting against their intolerable conditions and fighting collectively for their rights.

The third aspect of O Connell’s style of leadership that endured into later years was the tactic of threatening the English government with the power of the masses. Once the people had been mobilised in support of a nationalist objective the fear of revolution in Ireland was often a sufficient inducement to the English ruling class to grant some concessions. Such compromises were a feature of the nationalist political process.

The small gains made were to the advantage of the directors of such campaigns but rarely did any political or material gain accrue to the stage army wheeled out to win them. O Connell turned back from the brink of illegality in the Repeal campaign and Parnell made the Kilmainham deal to quell rising revolutionary feeling during the Land War. The Fenians were roundly condemned for their ‘terrorist’ actions and the workers in 1913 for promoting ‘anarchy”, neither of which could be controlled and channelled by middle class nationalists.

In the 1830’s O Connell turned his attention to the question of the Repeal of the Act of Union with the vision of a semi autonomous Irish legislature in Dublin, modelled on Grattan’s parliament of 1782. The 1830’s also saw the establishment of the Dublin Trades Political Union, an umbrella group of artisans (skilled workers) and tradesmens organisations which supported the Repeal campaign.

O Connell entered into negotiations with the DTPU with the aim of bringing it under the direct control of the Repeal movement and diluting it’s working class orientation, a course of action which led to a great deal of friction on questions of class and strategy. In the late 1830’s two aspects of O Connell’s anti working class beliefs came to the fore, one being the question of trade union organisation in Dublin, the other his attitude to the Chartists.

The Trade Union controversy arose as a result of increased industrial agitation in Dublin and a violent spinners strike in Glasgow in 1837. The Dublin disputes were centred around the enforcement of a minimum wage, the limitation of apprentices in trade and the compulsory membership of trade unions.

O Connell, supported by the Archbishop of Dublin, attacked Trade Union leaders and was challenged to openly debate the issues involved. At this meeting O Connell complained that Irish Trade Unions were more militant than their English counterparts and that their activities had led to a decline in trade in Dublin. He also claimed that the tactics and philosophy of the trade unions had been ‘imported from Manchester’. The workers argued that the restrictive practises within their trades were necessary to maintain jobs and conditions. The trade union leaders also recognised the openly class nature of O Connell’s position.

What advantage is it to the tradesmen of Ireland that 1,300 situations have been thrown open by (Catholic) Emancipation ?… Has it given a loaf of bread to the thousand starving families of the poor operatives of this city ?”

(Freemans Journal Jan. 18th 1838;Quoted in:P.B. Ellis: A History of the Irish Working Class)

The President of the Carpenters Union said that Trade Unionists had

”Followed and aided Mr O Connell as long as he did not seek to oppress us, but when he seeks to take the bread out of our mouths it is time for us to defend the moral combination by which we support our children”

(Freemans Journal, Jan 9th 1838)

O Connell was also opposed to the demand for a minimum wage and believed that if employers made no profits then their employees wages must decrease. He persuaded the Whig government to set up a committee of enquiry into the trade unions but very little came of this.

During the Commons debate O Connell said

“There was no tyranny equal to that which was exercised by the trade unionists in Dublin over their fellow labourers”

(P.B. Ellis: A History of the Irish Working Class, p.106)

In 1838 O Connell voted against Lord Ashley’s bill to limit the hours children under the age of 9 could be employed in factories and limiting those under the age of 13 to a 48 hour week. He stated that it infringed the rights of industry and condemned the

“…ridiculous humanity, which would end by converting their manufacturers into beggars”

(History of the Irish working class; P.B.Ellis; p. 107)

The second incident that highlights the anti revolutionary nature of O Connell’s politics was his attitude to the Chartist movement. The Chartists enjoyed widespread working class support in Britain and campaigned for a peoples charter guaranteeing universal suffrage and parliamentary reform.

A number of the Chartist leaders were trade unionists who had emigrated from Ireland. Fergus O Connor, a prominent Chartist leader, sought an alliance between English workers and Irish peasants to pressurise the English parliament. The Chartists also supported repeal of the Act of Union. O Connell was firmly wedded to the promise of repeal from the Whig party and was consistently hostile to any unity between the English and Irish working class.

However, despite his best efforts, Chartist ideas made some progress in Ireland in the later 1830’s. Chartist groups were set up not only in the main towns and cities but also in smaller, mainly rural, centres such as Cashel and Loughrea. Although Chartist demands appear moderate in historical retrospect they were strongly condemned by O Connell, the clergy and employers. At his trial for conspiracy in 1844 O Connell proudly boasted, as part of his defence, that he had always supported the rights of property, opposed trade unions and prevented the spread of Chartism in Ireland.

“I shall ever rejoice that I kept Ireland free from this pollution”

(London Times, Feb 7th 1844: Quoted in J.D.Clarkson: Labour and Nationalism in Ireland)

The Chartists had realised that the defeat of capitalism in England, and the rights of landed property in Ireland involved an identity of class interests between English workers and Irish peasants. O Connell also realised this but the class interests of the ‘Liberator’ were firmly with his political backers, the capitalists and the catholic clergy and gentry.

O Connell’s class interests were best served by the suppression of any class conscious unity between the oppressed sections of English and Irish society as this would expose the collaboration of the upper classes of both countries to keep them in poverty and servitude in the interests of greater profits. O Connell’s ‘betrayal’ of the cause of the working class was not irrational or treacherous but was merely the obvious protection of his class interests and political powerbase should the Repeal campaign succeed.

O Connell revived the Repeal campaign in the 1840’s and again the majority of workers organisations supported it’s demands. He was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1841 and became even more reactionary, increasingly equating Catholicism with nationalism, a position which alienated radical Presbyterians from the national movement. O Connell always made clear that he was loyal to the English crown and did not wish to sever all Irish links with the monarchy but merely to establish an Irish House of Commons and Lords. In 1840 he set up the Loyal National Repeal Association.

Marx’s friend and collaborator Frederich Engels had a strong interest in the Irish question and made some interesting observations. He recognised the revolutionary potential of the mobilisation of the workers and the peasantry through the Repeal campaign.

” What people! They haven’t a penny to lose, more than half of them have not a shirt to their back, they are real proletarians and sans culottes, and Irish besides – wild ungovernable fanatical Gaels… If I had two hundred thousand Irish I could overturn the whole British monarchy”

(Fredrich Engels; G, Meyer, 1936)

However optimism and activity declined after O Connell’s failure to confront the British ban on the Clontarf monster meeting. The climax of the campaign had been reached but O Connell’s politics would not allow him to stray beyond the bounds of legitimate constitutional activity. Engels had predicted three months earlier that O Connell did not have the political capability to bring the movement to a revolutionary conclusion.

“If O Connell was really a popular leader, if he had sufficient courage and he was himself not afraid of the people, i.e. if he were not a double faced Whig, but a straight consistent democrat, then long ago there would not have been an English soldier in Ireland… Give the people freedom for one second and they will do with O Connell and his financial aristocracy what the latter want to do with the Tories”

(Elinor Burns: British Imperialism in Ireland; p 18)

The disillusionment this defeat engendered cast a shadow over political activity throughout the 1840’s. O Connell fought to prevent control of the Repeal movement falling into the hands of the more radical nationalists of Young Ireland. One of the most radical of this group was John Mitchell who described O Connell in the following terms-

“Next to the British government he was the greatest enemy Ireland ever had”

(Paul Dubois: Contemporary Ireland; p63)

The Young Ireland group began to gain increasing working class support despite it’s middle class leadership. 15,000 Dublin artisans signed a petition of protest against the expulsion of Young Ireland from the Repeal Association. Young Ireland, while being more radical than O Connell on national issues, equated the oppression of labour and the peasantry as being due solely to the oppression of Ireland by Britain. Thus capitalism and its evils were the ‘English system’ and would disappear with the creation of an independent Ireland, a belief also held by some Fenian writers and revived by Sinn Fein in the early 20th Century.

The logical conclusion of this argument was that, since capitalism was an English import, it was intrinsically evil for this reason, not for its impact on the poor as an exploitative ideology. However it was necessary to subsume the struggle for improved workers conditions to the general fight, of all classes in Ireland, for independence.

The oppressive features of capitalism would disappear with the ending of the English occupation. Consequently, such nationalists believed, there was no need to introduce another ‘English’ ideology, socialism, to combat capitalism. This belief failed to take account of the international nature of capitalism and thus the consequent need for workers to organise to defeat it in a similar manner.

Irish nationalist leaders were terrified that workers would become aware of this fact and thus the true nature of their oppression had to be clouded in myths which attempted to explain the foreignness of capitalism and to promote the belief that Irish leaders and employers would not exploit their fellow Irish workers.

In fact, as the 19th century progressed increasing numbers of the Catholic middle class became prosperous enough both to employ labour and become landlords. It was not English, but Irish, capitalism that presided over the poverty of Ireland, but these capitalists were the financial backers of nationalist politicians who were highly unlikely to criticise those who would ensure the stability of an independent or semi autonomous Ireland.

While the Young Ireland movement did recognise the fact that capitalism was a component part of the English occupation of Ireland its programme and ideology rejected socialism as a solution. John Mitchell, seen as one of the most radical in the leadership, referred to socialists as ‘something worse than wild beasts’ in his autobiography Jail Journal.

The situation grew increasingly farcical as the Famine approached. Young Ireland quite reasonably demanded an end to food exports to alleviate worsening shortages, however at the same time O Connell tried to force the Young Irelanders to denounce violence as a political weapon. After O Connell’s death some elements of Young Ireland developed links with the Chartists in Britain but such political activity had little relevance to a population more concerned with staying alive than engaging in politics.

During the Famine huge amounts of grain and other agricultural produce was being exported from Ireland, more than enough to feed the country. This was the profit of mainly absentee landlords and the peasantry were left to die rather than interfere with the laissez faire economic policy of the British government. John O Connell M.P., a son of ‘The Liberator’, commended the people for their willingness to starve to death-

“I thank God I live among a people who would die of hunger rather than defraud their landlords of rent”

(quoted in P.B. Ellis: A History of the Irish Working Class; p112)

The massive support for Chartism in England and the plans for a Young Ireland rebellion were both buoyed up by the tide of European revolutions in 1848. However both organisations were crushed almost simultaneously by British coercion acts. 1848 was one particular instance whereby there was a confluence of workers demands and nationalist aims. However, despite their strong support among the working class in Dublin, the Young Ireland leaders made a seriously damaging tactical error in planning to centre the rebellion in rural areas of Munster.

The failure of the Rising and the arrest or death of the most radical leaders, including James Fintan Lalor, contributed to the depressed state of radical nationalist activity in the following decades and may also have been a contributory factor in the decline of militancy among urban workers. Trade Unions increasingly turned towards more restrained methods of organisation and in the main shunned political activity.

The Fenian movement is interesting because it provides an Republican alternative to the bourgeois nationalism of constitutional parliamentarians in the later half of the 19th Century. The Fenian movement reverted to the old physical force tradition of Republicanism stemming from the United Irishmen and the Young Irelanders. However unlike them the Fenian tradition paid little attention to political organisation. It was almost exclusively a physical force grouping adopting the clandestine organisational methods that had previously been used by agrarian organisations.

James Stephens

James Stephens

Many in the leadership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (as the Fenians were also known) had contacts with the socialist movement both in Ireland and internationally. James Stephens, leader of the Fenians, had fled Ireland after the 1848 rebellion and was a member of socialistic societies in France in the 1850’s, as were Michael Doheny and John O Mahoney. Karl Marx had a strong interest in Irish affairs and supported the Fenians. He wrote –

“Fenianism is characterised by socialistic tendency (in the negative sense directed against the appropriation of the soil) and by being a lower orders movement.”

(Quoted in A Boyd: The Rise of the Irish Trade Unions; p56)

The leadership of the IRB was confined to a group of middle class intellectuals but the rank and file of the organisation was composed of urban workers, small farmers and rural labourers. There was also a strong degree of Fenian influence in the development of the land agitation campaign as evidenced by the involvement of Michael Davitt in particular.

Davitt had suffered a long term of imprisonment for his Fenian activities and later returned to Ireland to found the Land League. The IRB would not officially support the Land campaign as it was seen as a deviation from the overall importance of the Republican struggle but many individual members of the movement participated in the Land League.

A similar situation also arose within the Trade Union movement. Jim Connell, the author of the Socialist anthem The Red Flag, was a Fenian who became prominent in the Labour movement abroad. Frank Roney from Belfast was a Fenian who was described before a Parliamentary Commission as an ‘advocate of violence, assassination and terror’, he later emigrated to the United States and was an important figure in the growth of Trade Unionism in that country.

The Fenian movement was important too in that by its secret organisational structure and the level of infiltration it managed to effect, particularly within the British Army, it had the potential to be serious revolutionary force. Joseph Biggar, an MP in Parnell’s Home Rule Party, was a senior member of the IRB.

As previously mentioned Marx was a strong supporter of the Fenians and influenced the International Working Mens Association in support of Irish independence. He also worked on a campaign demanding the release of Fenian prisoners after a bombing campaign in England. J.P. Mc Donnell, a Fenian, became correspondence secretary in Ireland for the International Working Mens Association and was on its Central Council.

A branch of the International was established in Cork, then seen as the Irish city most likely to sustain a socialist movement. The International in Cork organised around the nine hours day campaign and large numbers were recruited. Rumours of increasing support led to the promotion of a Red Scare by the church. Branches of the International in Dublin, Belfast and Cavan also declined due to clerical interference.

Despite the involvement of individual socialists within the Fenian movement the organisation itself did not have a coherent class conscious policy for the advancement of the working class either prior to or after the establishment of an Irish Republic.

The Fenians were strongly denounced by all organs of respectable opinion in Ireland and the scare stories spread by the church in particular probably gave the IRB the name of being more radical than it actually was. The historian William Lecky referred to ‘the wild socialistic follies of Fenianism’. The main forces opposed to the Fenians were the Dublin Castle administration, the Catholic and Protestant Clergy, as well as the landlords and the middle class, who all saw the Fenians as a dangerous revolutionary force.

James Stephens was described as communist, an anti cleric and an agent of the Italian Republican Garibaldi.

The Fenian Rising of 1867 was a failure but the influence of the IRB remained and they were an important force in Irish communities abroad, particularly in the US and in Britain.

After the defeat of the Fenian rebellion the main focus of political activity in Ireland again turned to the Parliamentary field in the campaigns for Home Rule and Land Reform. The Land War is a classic example of the highjacking of a political campaign for the advancement of the political ambitions of nationalist parliamentarians. Michael Davitt had founded the Land League in Mayo in 1879 and it gained huge support throughout the country from tenant farmers at the brink of starvation who were forced to pay exorbitant rents to mainly Irish landlords.

In The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland Michael Davitt recalls a conversation he had with Charles Stuart Parnell during which the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party attacked labour organisations.

“What do labourers and artisans want that we cannot obtain for them by the efforts of the National League ?… What is Trade Unionism but the landlordism of labour ? I would not tolerate, if I were at the head of a government, such bodies as trade unions. They are opposed to individual liberty and should be kept down, as Bismarck keeps them down in Germany.”

(M Davitt, The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland, quoted in A. Boyd, The Rise of the Irish Trade Unions p59)

Parnell feared that the working class would be organised into a force that would be too powerful for the government to deal with and refused to countenance the development of such a situation in Ireland. He believed that the growth of Trade Unions would

“Frighten the capitalist liberals and lead them to believe that a parliament in Dublin might be used for furthering some kind of socialism. You ought to know that neither the Irish priests or the farmers would support such principles.”

(M Davitt, The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland: ibid p60)

The later half of the 19th Century was characterised by increasing conservatism on the part of the Irish Trade Unions who concentrated almost exclusively on industrial and economic questions to the exclusion of political issues. The unions were generally organised around specific trades and acted as friendly societies for the furtherance of the material benefits of their members.

Unskilled workers were largely unorganised and remained so until the advent of the ITGWU in 1909. However in 1870 a strike involving tailors in Cork rapidly spread to include unskilled workers, including dockers, railwaymen and women textile workers. It eventually involved workers throughout Munster and a strike also took place among agricultural workers in Kilkenny. In most cases the demands for increased wages and restriction of mechanisation were conceded.

One of the most exploited sections of the workforce in 19th Century Ireland were the rural farm labourers. Before the famine this section of the working class numbered 700,000, by 1911 it had declined to 200,000. This was due to a number of factors including unemployment, emigration, low wages, bad housing, mechanisation of agriculture and the move from tillage to pastoral farming.

The demeaning hiring fair system was used for the benefit of employers with labourers being displayed like cattle. Those volunteering to work for the lowest wage, often merely children, had the greatest chance of employment. The pattern of seasonal migration to Britain during the harvest period became increasingly popular.

Agricultural labourers were particularly vulnerable because they were mainly dependant for wages on employers who were usually small tenant farmers. The pre famine system of payment in kind and the granting of a small portion of land to the labourer for potato growing was replaced by the wages system. In 1873 attempts were made to spread the unionisation of agricultural labourers from Britain to Ireland led by Joseph Arch, leader of the English Agricultural Labourers Union.

Some branches of the union were set up, mainly to push for higher wages, but it proved impossible to sustain an organisation due to vulnerability of labourers to employer intimidation and the isolated nature of such employment, the general ratio being one or two labourers per farmer. Labourers achieved practically nothing from the Land War of the 1880’s. Not being tenants they could not buy out their holdings and existing on a subsistence wage they could never hope to buy land. Throughout the Land War labourers had refused to act as scabs for boycotted landlords.

Agricultural workers did gain from improved housing due to the passage of the parliamentary acts which from 1883 encouraged landlords to provide housing for their workers. Thus the living conditions of rural workers largely surpassed those of their town dwelling counterparts. Rural labourers had the dubious advantage of living in poverty in well built cottages while the urban proletariat existed in slum tenements.

The decline in the number of agricultural workers accounted for the growth in the number of general and unskilled labourers in urban centres in the late 19th century as they sought the higher wages available in towns. This led to friction between the urban workers and the new arrivals who were accused of working for lower wages and depriving city labourers of employment, a contributory factor in the growing alienation between urban and rural Ireland.

The passage of the Land Acts created a social and economic model which replaced the English landed aristocracy, the most visible form foreign exploitation, with a class of peasant proprietor who was dependant and owed a sense of loyalty to the politicians who had allowed him, through the parliamentary Land acts up to 1903, to purchase his land from the landlord. The Land Acts were important because the basis of peasant ownership and the creation of a conservative rural base within Irish society was laid at this time, not, as is often believed, during the De Valera era.

Although some land agitation took place after this period it was notable that such activities were roundly condemned by the Irish Parliamentary Party leadership despite the fact that the main activists among the small farmers and the landless labourers were members of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Just as Parnell betrayed the grass roots of the land campaign in 1881 as did the IPP in 1913 and Sinn Fein and the IRA did likewise in 1921. Maurice Goldring raises an interesting question based on the decline of land agitation in the countryside at the very time when the industrial struggle was commencing in urban centres

“England’s main preoccupation has been to prevent the convergence of the social and the nationalist struggles by playing on the social and religious differences of the Irish people. It cannot have been entirely by chance that the Irish peasants obtained the right to buy their land at the very moment when the workers struggles were taking on a new dimension with Connolly and Larkin.”

(Maurice Goldring: Faith of our Fathers P. 80)

The aftermath of Parnell’s death and the divorce scandal led to a decrease in the dominance of the Irish Parliamentary Party as the sole nationalist voice in Ireland. This was in part due to the weakness of the IPP, beset by internal factions and leadership rivalries. The rights and wrongs of Parnell’s divorce case became the central feature of Irish political debate for over a decade. It was not surprising therefore that this ridiculous discussion should drive the youth of Ireland into other forms of political activity, especially with the prospect of achieving Home Rule being very distant at this time.

The growth of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League and Sinn Fein were prominent features of the early years of the 20th Century. These organisations were strongly nationalist in orientation and looked to the revival of an ancient Celtic heritage to rival the increasing Anglicisation of Irish society.

This revival of the concept of pride in language, culture and national identity was not confined to Ireland and had its parallels in most European countries at roughly the same time. The Gaelic revival was predominantly the pastime of the young middle class, the majority of whom had received a secondary or university education. Gaelic league membership, for example, included a high proportion of teachers. The cultural revival offered little to the working class, barely surviving on 20s per week in the slum tenements.

Coincidental with the development of the Cultural revolution there was also a significant increase in political activity among the working class. The mid 1890’s had seen a revival of militancy among the skilled workers of Dublin culminating in strikes in the building and other trades in 1896. The increased wages gained in these disputes brought new confidence to the unskilled but their lack of organisation meant that strikes in this sector were still largely doomed to failure. It was not until the arrival of Jim Larkin in Ireland in 1907 that unionisation of the unskilled made any significant headway.

The majority of cultural organisations in Ireland at this period did not claim to have any economic ideology, the only one which attempted to develop one was Sinn Fein, its economic outlook being largely that of its leader Arthur Griffith.

James Connolly arrived in Ireland in the late 1890’s and founded the tiny Irish Socialist Republican Party, which propounded the belief that the struggle of the working class for their economic independence was indivisibly linked with the struggle for national freedom, a freedom based on the principles of Republicanism rather than the Home Rule formula promoted by nationalist organisations. It condemned the illusions that bourgeois nationalists held in the possibility of reform coming from Britain.

“For over 100 years Ireland has looked outside her own shores for the means of her redemption. For over 100 years Ireland through her ‘constitutional agitators’ has centred her hopes upon the possibility of melting the heart or appealing to the sense of justice of her oppressor. In vain! England – the British Empire was and is the Bourgeoisie personified, the incarnate beast of capitalist property and her heart was as tender as that of the tiger when he feels his victims helpless in his claws.”

(Quoted in J Connolly: Sinn Fein and Socialism; p9)

Connolly disagreed with the argument of Sinn Fein for the establishment of a Irish parliament on the basis of the Act of Renunciation of 1782. This was the legal basis which allowed for the creation of the College Green semi independent legislature, often referred to as Grattan’s Parliament, which lasted from 1782 until the Act of Union in 1800. In essence Sinn Fein’s position was little different from that of O Connell fifty years earlier when he campaigned for the Repeal of the Act of Union and the establishment of a Lords and Commons of Ireland with limited powers and still subject to the monarchy.

Sinn Fein couched this moderate nationalist position in terms of ‘the restoration of our native parliament’. Connolly pointed out that Ireland had never had a parliament that was representative of her people. The 1782 legislature was merely a method of devolving some power onto a rebellious aristocratic caste by allowing this class a degree of political autonomy but left the economic and political exploitation of the masses unaltered. In fact there was no difference between this ‘native parliament’ and the colonial legislatures imposed on other possessions of the British Empire.

A second aspect of Griffith’s policy was his idolisation of the campaign by Hungarian nationalists to achieve a degree of independence for their territory outside of the Austrian Empire. Connolly vigorously criticised this aspect of Sinn Fein policy as it did not take account of the fact the Hungary had a limited franchise and suffered from chronic poverty and emigration. Hungary was also subject to large scale military and police repression of internal dissension.

Like O Connell Griffith was not a Republican but believed in a form of constitutional monarchy that was totally alien to Connolly’s socialist republicanism. In 1908 Connolly provide his own definition of the phrase Sinn Fein-

“Sinn Fein, Ourselves. I wonder how long it will be until the working class realise the full significance of that principle! How long will it be until the workers realise that the socialist movement is a movement of the working class, and how long until the socialists realise that the place of every other class in the movement is and must be a subordinate one”

(J Connolly: The Harp; April 1908)

Connolly also criticised Sinn Fein’s economic policies.

“With it’s (Sinn Fein’s) economic teaching as expounded by my friend Mr Arthur Griffith, in his adoption of the doctrines of Frederich List, socialists can have no sympathy, as it appeals only to those who measure a nations prosperity by the volume of wealth produced in a country, instead of by the distribution of that wealth among the inhabitants.”

(Irish Nation Jan. 23 1909)

Connolly realised that the economic doctrines of Sinn Fein were a barrier to the possibility of working class unity in the North East where the prospect of an Irish Toryism would offer no alternative to Protestant workers already hostile to nationalist ideas. Catholic and Protestant workers had united in the Belfast Docks Strike in 1907 and had been shot without discrimination of religion by the British army.

Sinn Fein also adopted a ‘Buy Irish’ policy claiming that this would lead to an industrial revival, while ignoring the fact that the increased profits would be to the benefit solely of the employers. During the 1913 Lockout the directors of Jacobs biscuit factory used a similar argument against the strike. They called on the Irish people to oppose the strike on the basis that it was unpatriotic to allow the import of English and Scottish biscuits while Jacobs products could not be exported.

Sinn Fein frequently criticised the actions of workers in industrial disputes, in 1911 it referred to ‘the English made strike’ and stated-

“Against the Red Flag of Communism…we raise the flag of an Irish nation. Under that flag will be protection, safety and freedom for all.”

(Sinn Fein: Sept. 30th 1911)

The anti-revolutionary nature of the Irish Parliamentary Party became increasingly obvious during the Lockout. William Martin Murphy, the leader of the employers in the strike, had been an MP and a prominent member of the Anti Parnellite faction of the Home Rule party. T.M. Healy, later to be Governor General in the Irish Free State, appeared as counsel for the employers during a government enquiry and described the actions of the Trade Unionists as being akin to ‘the Reign of Terror in Paris’.

The Home Rule Party was attacked in the columns of the English Daily Herald

“Not a solitary member of the Irish Party has appeared on any Irish Transport Workers Union platform, or protested against the arrest of Larkin and his friends, or helped the tramway workers in any way whatever”

(Daily Herald 30th Aug 1913)

A similar report was given by The Times

“Today Mr Murphy’s press and the official Nationalist press are at one in condemning Larkinism”

( The Times 4th Oct 1913)

In December 1913 The Irish Worker reported on a motion that had been proposed by a Home Rule councillor at a meeting of Dublin City Council.

“That we, the members of this municipal council, representing the nationalists of this city, do hereby condemn the action of Councillor William Partridge (Kilmainham Ward) and Thomas Lawlor (Wood Quay Ward) for their usurping audacity in going to England to support the socialistic candidates in opposition to the respective Home Rule Liberal candidates that were pledged to support the present government, that has resolved to restore our long lost rights – viz. the management of our affairs in College Green – thus the imported socialistic actions of Councillors Partridge and Lawlor, brands them for evermore as traitors to Ireland and to the Irish race the world over.”

(Irish Worker Dec 13th 1913)

The Irish Worker goes on to allege that the councillor responsible for tabling this motion was the organiser of scabs during the strike.

Similar sentiments are found in the paper Irish Freedom which was the journal of the republican section of Sinn Fein. In its new year message to it’s readers Irish Freedom reflected on 1913.

“We have seen with anger in our hearts and the flush of shame on our cheeks English alms dumped on the quays of Dublin; we have had to listen to the lying and hypocritical English press as it shouted the news of the starving and begging Irish to the ends of the earth; we have heard Englishmen bellowing on the streets of Dublin the lie that we are the sisters and brothers of the English…and greatest shame of all, we have seen and heard Irishmen give their approval to all these insults… God grant that such things may never happen in our land again.”

(Irish Freedom 27th Dec 1913)

These sentiments reflected the joint attitudes of the two main streams of nationalist opinion towards the revival of the fighting spirit of the Irish working class. The Irish Parliamentary Party attacked labour leaders for extending the logic of internationalism to campaigning among the Irish in Britain for the advancement of the working class. Such a policy conflicted with the Home Rule strategy of relying on favours from the Liberal Party.

The Irish Irelanders of Sinn Fein did not even pretend to see the matter in an intelligent political light. The honour of Ireland had been shamed by the open revelation of the truth, they appear to think it better for the working class to starve in silence rather than offend the delicate sensibilities of the world press.

This stand point of absolutist nationalism refused to recognise the international solidarity of the working class but rather that the Irish were dependant on ‘charity’ from the English. The racist attack on Larkin was in line with Sinn Fein’s usual smear against the strike leader.

Not all members of Sinn Fein subscribed to these attitudes but their protests received little coverage. Eamonn Ceannt, P.H. Pearse and Padraic Colum among others spoke out in favour of the right of the workers to organise. The author George Russell (AE) wrote a famous letter to the Irish Times in which he savagely attacked the starvation tactics of the employers

“You may succeed in your policy and ensure your own damnation in your victory. The men whose manhood you have broken will loathe you, and will always be brooding and scheming to strike a fresh blow. The children will be taught to curse you. The infant being moulded in the womb will have breathed into its starved body the vitality of hate. It is not they – it is you who are blind Samsons pulling down the pillars of the social order.”

(Irish Times 7th Oct. 1913)

Support also came from WB Yeats who accused the nationalist press of deliberately using religion to stir up opposition to trade unionism. He condemned the Ancient Order of Hibernians for their involvement in disrupting the plan to send the starving children of workers to England for the duration of the strike. The AOH (the Catholic equivalent of the Orange Order) and the Catholic Confraternities, at the instigation of the Archbishop, had patrolled the port and railway stations questioning parents and ‘rescuing’ children they suspected were being sent to England to be cared for in ‘Protestant or atheistic’ homes.

The concern of fanatical Catholics was not that the children might have enough to eat or that their parents might be the best people to decide on their care. The Irish Worker criticised the hypocritical piety of the respectable citizens of Dublin who stood aside for two months while the employers tried to starve the workers and their dependants into submission.

“The people who now hire motors to rush to ‘rescue’ transport workers children from a well arranged holiday did not make the smallest move in the direction of helping the hungry”

(Irish Worker 8th Nov. 1913)

Priests throughout the country regularly denounced the strike but mindful of the fact that their congregations, especially in Dublin, were made up of workers and trade union members the main tactic of the church centred on attempting to create divisions between the strikers and their leaders. Thus Larkin and other prominent figures in the Irish Transport Workers Union were accused of being atheists and promoting anarchy.

The Church made the pretence of being neutral on the actual issues at stake in the strike, arguing only for fairness on both sides, but in reality their sympathies were firmly with the employers. Priests encouraged the establishment of ‘respectable’ (i.e. scab) trade unions in opposition to the ITGWU as in a sermon from Fr. Condon reported in the Evening Telegraph

“In order that a union so formed have behind it moral sanction, its constitution, its ends, its results, and the means by which it means to pursue its end must all be in accord with the fundamental tenets of Christian morality”

(Evening Telegraph 18th Sept. 1913)

He then continued the speech to condemn the importation of morals from Britain.

The editor of the Irish Catholic, which happened to be owned by William Martin Murphy, declared that

“Volleys fired over the heads of mobs are always a useless performance”

(quoted in G. Gilmore: Labour and the Republican Movement)

Larkin was perfectly well aware of the motivations of the church and put them in a historical context during his famous speech in Manchester.

“Bishop Moriarty told us that the lowest pit of hell was not bad enough for a Fenian. Well I am the son of a Fenian. I prefer to go to the seventh pit of hell with Dante than to go to heaven with William Martin Murphy. Hell has no terrors for me. I have lived there. Thirty six years of hunger and poverty have been my portion….They cannot terrify me with hell. Better to be in hell with Dante and Davitt than to be in heaven with Carson and Murphy”

(Evening Telegraph 17th Sept. 1913)

The 1913 Lockout saw the logical conclusion of the policies and ideology promoted by the nationalist movement. Its alliance with the employers and the Liberals to ensure the political power base of a Home Rule parliament drove the catholic middle class into the political grasp of the English capitalists and the imperialism that they publicly claimed to despise. While Sinn Fein acted as the loyal radical wing of the nationalist movement they to realised that the path to political power would gain their supporters nothing if it was pursued through a principled alliance with the working class.

Despite its ‘republican’ pretensions some of Sinn Fein’s utterances were of a more pro imperialist nature than those of the Irish Parliamentary Party. However Sinn Fein made it clear that they actually wanted an independent Ireland to have its own colonies and seriously proposed the possibility of appointing a German prince as King in Ireland after the departure of the British.

They prospect of the creation of an independent political organisation of the working class, as in the industrial unionism and republicanism of the ITGWU, was a danger to the monopoly of the nationalist middle class on political activity in Ireland and also created the prospect of the development of a strong labour lobby in a Home Rule Ireland. The strength, experience and social power of the working class lay in their economic power, a factor fully recognised, if not often articulated, by non revolutionary nationalist politicians.

The anti working class practises and beliefs of Grattan, O Connell, Parnell and Griffith were based around the necessity of restricting the national struggle to the immediate demand of creating a bourgeois capitalist economy around a territorial Home Rule. This demand, firmly wedded to a parliamentarian constitutional practises, was but one aspect of the sidetracking of the economic grievances of the large mass of the population towards the acceptance of the belief that the alleviation of problems created by a combination of international capitalism and imperialist exploitation could be solved solely by the establishment of a nationalist territorial state governed by native capitalists in their own interests.

The decisive factor in determining the degree of national autonomy was not to be the greatest economic freedom of the mass of the population but rather the introduction of a system of parliamentary democracy based on the necessity of the continuing control of the means of production and wealth generation remaining in the hands of a limited minority. In the case of the bourgeois nationalists this would introduce some form of limited Home government that would allow the Irish Catholic middle class a strong measure of economic autonomy.

Constitutional nationalist leaders were well aware that the forms of government adopted would be in no way revolutionary and would in fact be closely modelled on current British structures. Of crucial importance to successive bourgeois nationalist leaders was their ability to control agitation, be it rural or urban. For these reasons the nationalists remained true to their class interests in 1913 and abandoned the workers, the only class that had remained consistently true to the principle of national liberation. It was for this reason that Connolly wrote

“The working class are the sole incorruptible inheritors of the fight for Irish freedom”


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Kevin B. Nowlan (ed.): Karl Marx The Materialist Messiah.
Elinor Burns: British Imperialism in Ireland.
Emmet O Connor: A Labour History of Ireland.
Maurice Goldring: Faith of our Fathers.
Tom Garvin: The Evolution of Irish Nationalist Politics.
Emmet Larkin: James Larkin.
J. Connolly, Charles Russell & Selma Sigerson: Sinn Fein and Socialism.
Robert Kee: The most Distressful Country.
J. D.Clarkson: Labour and Nationalism in Ireland.
Thomas Brady: The Historical Basis of Socialism in Ireland.
J.W.Boyle: Leaders And Workers.
P Berresford Ellis: A History of the Irish Working Class.
C. Desmond Greaves: The LIfe and Times of James Connolly.