Posted tagged ‘James Connolly’

How 1913 was a cornerstone of the Labour Movement

May 4, 2013

This year’s Jim Connell festival saw a discussion about “how 1913 was a cornerstone of the Labour Movement”, with Senator Denis Landy, longtime SIPTU member Alan MacSimóin, Cllr Mary Foy from Gateshead, and Stephen Hepburn MP fom Jarrow.


This is what Alan MacSimóin had to say.

For many of this year’s Lockout commemorations, we will be presented with a picture of a brave working class which was beaten down by an all-powerful ruling class. We will be reminded of the soup kitchens, of tenement life, of the police attack on corporation buildings, of the baton charges which killed James Nolan and James Byrne, of the murder of Alice Brady by a scab, of barefoot and hungry children, of food ships, of suffering and of ultimate defeat.

However, that is but part of the story of 1913. What is less often talked about is the militancy of the Dublin workers, the huge support for sympathy strikes, the abhorrence felt by most working people at the idea of passing a picket, the fact that the Irish Citizen Army was formed as a trade union defence force that was prepared to take on the police, and most notably, the acceptance by tens of thousands that there was a class divide and that you stood with your own side.

Today, just about everyone in our movement agrees that the Lockout was probably the most important single event in our history.

Some see it as a complete and total defeat, a warning that if our unions go too far in fighting for their members they will bring down on themselves the entire might of the state, and will be crushed. The defeat of the British miners by the Thatcher government in 1985 reinforced this view.

scab, tailors

Others look at 1913 and see a spirit of solidarity and militancy, class pride, a refusal to bend the knee, and a belief that life can be made better.

When looking at the Lockout it is important to remember that the ITGWU were not fighting for a pay rise, for better conditions, or for recognition. They were fighting a defensive action against 400 employers set to destroy them. In all defensive battles simply surviving the attack can be a victory.

For the ITGWU to remain active, with many smaller employers actually granting official recognition during the struggle, must be seen as a victory in the long term. In the hundred years since, the employers have never dared to mount such an offensive against the union’s existence again.

James Connolly summed up the balance sheet:

The battle was a drawn battle. The employers, despite their Napoleonic plan of campaign, and their more than Napoleonic ruthlessness and unscrupulous use of foul means, were unable to carry out their business without men and women who remained loyal to the union. The workers were unable to force the employers to a formal recognition of the union, and to give preference to organised labour.”


The strikers who could return to work did so, but many hundreds were victimised as employers took the pick of those they would allow to return. While the end of the Lockout was a bitter experience for the working class, it would be a mistake to view the result as a total defeat.

Murphy had promised not only to defeat the strikers, but to smash their union and to erradicate Larkinism. As leader of the 400 employers Murphy rejected conciliation efforts by both the British government and the TUC leadership. He was after nothing less than total victory. Yet, in this aim he was unsuccessful. The union survived and continued.

In 1915 James Connolly, then acting General Secretary of the ITGWU, gave a report to the Irish Trade Union Congress. He declared:

You will remember how four hundred employers banded themselves together to destroy us, and pledged their sacred word of honour that they would wipe that union off the map; that when the fight was over no man or woman affiliated to us, or friendly to us, would ever be employed in Dublin. … Well, did the unholy conspiracy against Labour achieve its object? Was the union crushed? Did our flag come down? Let me tell you our position today, and tell it by an illustration.

  • Stevedores Association: One penny per ton increase on all tonnage rules.
  • Deep Sea Boats: One shilling per day on all day wage men.
  • Casual Cross Channel Boats: One shilling per day.
  • Constant Cross Channel Boats: Eightpence per day.
  • Dublin and General Company’s employees: Four shillings.
  • Dublin dockyard labourers: Three shillings per week.
  • Ross and Walpole: Two shillings per week
  • General carriers’ men: Two shillings per week granted direct to men after receipt of letter from the Union.”

As time is short I’ll just look at two elements, which were very much a part of union culture in 1913 but which badly need resuscitation today.

The first is Solidarity action

It is good that our unions issue messages of solidarity to others in struggle. It’s better when they make cash donations. But expressions of sympathy and financial help, on their own, are not enough. If ‘An Injury to One is the Concern of All’ is to be taken seriously is has to be backed up with action.

soli fish

We need to know that the full weight of the movement can be mobilised when necessary. Goods which have been handled by strikebreakers should be blacked. A picket should mean you don’t go in, no staff, no deliveries, no customers, no services. That’s the sort of solidarity that really matters, because it is effective. It empowers union members and it get results. Today that sounds almost extreme, yet it was what our unions proclaimed until the advent of the Two-Tier picket in 1970, and then ‘social partnership’ from 1987.

And one of the fruits of that partnership was given to us in 1990, when with barely a murmur from the trade union leadership, we were landed with the Industrial Relations Act. Since then, almost all forms of effective solidarity action have been illegal.

Almost before the ink was dry, the Act was used in the River Valley dispute (February 1991). The strikers’ union, SIPTU, instructed its members in Roches Stores and Quinnsworth not to handle River Valley produce. The company sought, and were granted, a high court order restraining the union from interfering in their business “…in any mode whatsoever.”

If our movement is to cease being a defensive one, merely ensuring a slow and orderly retreat in the face of the employers’ offensive, it will have to seriously discuss breaking this law. It’s a big step for most of us to take, but we know that breaking unfair laws is part and parcel of how progressive changes are won, to give two examples from the 26 counties in our own lifetimes: the sale of contraceptives and information about abortion. Both of these were won after mass lawbreaking made the old prohibitions unenforceable.

But it’s not just our side who see it like that. In 1966, Paddy Hillery, the man who went on to be President, introduced into the Dail a Trade Union Bill whose provisions included:-

a majority of all workers in a workplace would be required to authorise strike action

legal immunities would not apply to unofficial action

This Bill was heavily criticised by the Trade Union movement and Hillery was eventually forced to withdraw it. In doing so, he made a statement which today’s union leaders would do well to take note of –

the only law that will work is that in which trade unions co-operate.’”

The second element I want to touch on is Class unity

The early ITGWU was no run-of-the-mill trade union. It was established in the syndicalist and socialist tradition of the Industrial Workers of the World; the ‘One Big Union’ whose ultimate goal was the general strike to lockout the bosses and place production in the hands of the workers. The preamble to the IWW constitution said, and still does today,

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common … Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production and abolish the wage system”.



That’s where the OBU inscription on the old ITGWU badge came from. Both Connolly and Larkin organised with the IWW during their times in America, and Big Jim’s brother, Peter was an IWW organiser in Australia.

Interestingly, the current president of the Musicians Union, which is part of SIPTU, Andy Irvine, was also – and possibly still is- a member of the IWW.

From its beginning the ITGWU set out not only to organise in the workplace, but to see every battle as part of a broader fight to empower the working class and transform society. Through the Irish Worker newspaper, (which sold an average of 20,000 copies a week) and through the union’s social and cultural activities, Dublin’s workers were given a vision of a new world. A vision which, at times, could be summed up in Connolly’s words about “our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth”.


click here to read this pamphlet

Now zip forward to the ‘social partnership’ years. After the results of the 1992 election for SIPTU General Secretary, the unsuccessful candidate, Carolann Duggan, shocked some in the media. While she had been critical of the union leadership, she said that members should never lose sight of the fact that the employers were the “enemy”. One writer in the Irish Times (2 April 1998) found this “shocking”.

The thing is that the Irish Times would not be alone today. Most senior union officials would probably have a difficulty with her statement because they would almost certainly never say – and never, never in public, that the employers are our enemies. The notion that – regardless of how pleasant some bosses may be personally – that employers and workers have different class interests is regarded as out-of-date, as belonging to another time. Instead, from the 1980s onwards we were told that we had become social partners, not equal partners of course, but we could all get along happily together as long as we didn’t ask for too much.

no unions

The activist base in many unions declined as fewer workers saw the point in going to meetings when all the big decisions were being made elsewhere. In so far as any vision was promoted by the advocates of partnership it was one of maintaining our living standards, with the possibility of small and incremental improvements when our partners were agreeable.

When our partners walked away from the process, it was because they felt they could get away with throwing us fewer crumbs. And, until the very welcome defeat of Croke Park II, some of the gains from decades of union activity were being given away.

We have seen

  • the introduction of yellow pack grades into unionised jobs like Aer Lingus and the Bank of Ireland,
  • outsourcing of cleaning, security, IT, and more to contractors who pay lower wages,
  • modernisation” which often means more work for the same pay… I could go on, and on, and on… suffice to say that it does not exactly contribute to rebuilding a union culture of confidence, of membership involvement, of being part of a collective struggle to improve the lot of the vast majority.

work harder

Despite a national public sector strike, despite protests and marches; grassroots activism remains sporadic and our unions remain unwilling or unable to fight. The austerity offensive of the Coalition continues and we remain in retreat.

The Dublin that was part of the British Empire and the Dublin of U2 and the Financial Services Centre are not the same place, yet what inspired our predecessors 100 years ago, with its promotion of class unity and a fight for something more than just minor workplace improvements, is needed more than ever.

We can call it Larkinism. This is not a case of hero worshipping another long dead man. Larkin was certainly heroic, but was certainly not flawless.

There was the man who, being a Catholic, refused to attend a fund-raising rally because the proposed chairman was divorced. There was definitely the man who was difficult to get on with, the man who was probably capable of having a row with himself.

But we have no need of great all-knowing and perfect-in-every-way leaders, we are not sheep in search of a shepherd.

What do need is a vision for our unions. A vision of actually fighting for what we want, of unapologetic militancy, of solidarity action, of active participation by a lot more of the membership, and of our class embracing the slogan of the Three Musketeers – One for All, and All for One. That is the spirit of Larkinism, and I submit that is just as relevant & useful today as it was 100 years ago.


Lockout, part 3: The Irish Citizen Army

January 7, 2013


The Irish Citizen Army

Labour clenches its fist!

by Cieran Perry

“An armed organisation of the Irish working class is a phenomenon in Ireland. Hitherto the workers of Ireland have fought as parts of the armies led by their masters, never as a member of any army officered, trained and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future.”

(James Connolly, Workers’ Republic 30 October 1915)

One of the most notable aspects of researching this article was the lack of material to be found on the IRISH CITIZEN ARMY. An issue as important, and unique, as the formation of an armed militia of workers for their own protection against the State and scabs is something that one would expect to be well recorded and documented. The opposite is in fact true. Apart from “The History of The I.C.A.” by R.M. Fox, produced in 1943, there does not seem to be a documented history of the Irish Citizen Army.

There are a number of personal recollections from individuals who were members of the Citizen Army, including Sean O Casey’s overly opinionated version in “The Story of The I.C.A.” which he wrote in 1919. By definition, a personalised account is seen through the eyes of a particular individual and, while adding to our knowledge of the events, will naturally incorporate a persons prejudices/beliefs/interpretations.

Compared with the acres of print detailing the Republican history of 1916, the scarcity of an equivalent history of the Labour Movement’s contribution to the events leading to, during and after the Rising is all the more remarkable. Perhaps a neglected history of Labour militancy is more suitable to the conservative ethos of Irish society, especially in the light of the lack of militancy within the Labour Movement.

The Irish Citizen Army was born out of the struggle between the workers and the employers during the Great Lockout of 1913. According to William O’ Brien’s recollections in the book ‘Forth The Banners Go’, the name of the Citizens Army came from the Social Democratic Federation, who in the early 1880’s planned to form a Citizens Army to replace the States army.

Considering the strong working class character of the Irish Citizen Army, it is surprising that members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy were involved in it’s formation. The diversity in the backgrounds of, on the one hand, Countess Constance Markievicz and Jack White and those of James Connolly and Jim Larkin, could not be more pronounced.

Jack White in his ICA uniform

Jack White in his ICA uniform

Jack White was the son of Field Marshal Sir George White V.C. who had won almost every honour possible in the British Army and was famous as the man who defended Ladysmith against the Boers. Coming from a military family with a Protestant ascendancy background it was strange that White should find himself organising the defence of the Dublin working class during the 1913 lockout.

Having fought against the Boers himself, White subsequently began to oppose militarism and left the army to travel around Europe. This travelling led to his increasing liberalism and on returning to Ireland he opposed Sir Edward Carson’s sectarian version of Protestantism along with the likes of Sir Roger Casement.

Countess Constance Markievicz was also of an Anglo-Irish ascendancy background. Her grandfather, Sir Robert Gore-Booth was an M.P. in the House of Commons in the mid 1800’s. As a landlord he was responsible for evicting some of his tenants so as to use their land for pasture, a situation commonplace in those days for the native Irish.

It is all the more remarkable that Markievicz, coming from such a comfortable existence, would, while in her forties, throw herself into the struggle of the Irish working class against their employers and the Irish people against their British rulers. During this period of her life she became the first woman M.P. in the British Parliament and also the first Minister for Labour in the first Dail Eireann.

In complete contrast, Jim Larkin’s background was that to be expected of most working class people of the time. Born of Irish parents in Liverpool in 1876, he began working at the age of nine. It was during this time that he began to read and listen to the socialists of the day. Having experienced the grinding poverty inflicted on the working class by capitalism, he joined the Independent Labour Party when he was only sixteen.

Four years after joining the National Union of Dock Labourers (N.U.D.L.) he became their National Organiser. In 1907 Larkin came to Ireland to organise his union. After organising the dock workers in Belfast in 1907 and Cork in 1909, Larkin clashed with the General Secretary of the N.U.D.L. over his confrontational methods and particularly the tactic of the sympathetic strike. After being sacked by the N.U.D.L. he formed the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (I.T.G.W.U.) on January 6th 1909. So began one of the most militant periods of Irish Labour history.

James Connolly, like Larkin, had experienced the extreme poverty that was the lot of most working class people. Born in Edinburgh in 1868 to Irish parents, Connolly began working at the age of eleven. At the age of fourteen, like many before him, lack of work drove him to join the British Army. Connolly choose the Kings Liverpool Regiment, then considered an Irish regiment.

His first visit to Ireland was in a British uniform and lasted seven years. Already a socialist at this time, his desertion from the army enabled him to begin his involvement with active socialism. In 1896 the Dublin Socialist Club offered him a job as a full time organiser on the strength of his writings in Justice, the journal of the Social Democratic Federation.

After arriving in Dublin he set up the Irish Socialist Republican Party (I.S.R.P.) but in 1903 he and his family were again on the move due to poverty, this time to the U.S.A., where he was to remain for seven years. By 1910 he was again back in Ireland, this time as an organiser for the Socialist Party of Ireland, which had been formed by William O’Brien a former member of the I.S.R.P. In 1911 Connolly became Belfast’s secretary of the I.T.G.W.U.. After Larkin’s arrest in August 1913 Connolly returned from Belfast to take over the organisation of the strike, and so into the industrial battleground that was Dublin of the time, came James Connolly.


The idea of a strikers defence force had been mooted many times before the Irish Citizen Army was actually formed. Police brutality during previous strikes in Dublin, Cork and Wexford, had convinced some people of the absolute necessity of a defence force. Larkin himself had said during the 1908 Dublin Carters strike, that he would organise a “workers army”, to defend the strikers if the employers sent in the army, as they had done in Belfast in 1907.

The ICA drilling in the Phoenix Park

The ICA drilling in the Phoenix Park

P.T. Daly proposed the formation of a ‘Workers Police’, after a worker died as a result of a police baton charge during the 1911 Wexford strike for I.T.G.W.U. recognition. However this never materialised as the dispute was settled shortly afterwards. The offer from a military man like Jack White to organise and discipline a workers defence force, coupled with the sheer brutality of the police during the first weekend of the strike in August 1913, in what became known as Bloody Sunday, were the factors which actually resulted in the formation of the Irish Citizen Army.


By 1911 Larkin had been so successful in organising the unskilled workers in Dublin that the employers led by William Martin Murphy formed the Dublin Employers Federation to combat the I.T.G.W.U. By August 1913 the employers decided that Larkinism must be smashed. Murphy, whose business interests included The Tramways Company and The Irish Independent Group of Newspapers, knew that Larkin’s tactic of the sympathetic strike posed a real threat to the employers power.

On Friday August 15th, Murphy took the initiative in provoking a confrontation with the I.T.G.W.U. by informing his employees in the despatch department of The Irish Independent that they had to choose between the union or their jobs. After forty employees were laid off, the following Monday the union blacked The Independent Group of Newspapers.

By Tuesday the union members in Easons had been locked out for refusing to handle Murphy’s papers. The following Thursday Murphy upped the ante by giving the tram workers the same ultimatum, sacking over two hundred men who refused to resign from the union. Larkin bided his time as he knew that the Dublin Horse Show was on the following week and there would be thousands of visitors to Dublin.

On Tuesday August 26th the I.T.G.W.U. struck back with over seven hundred tramway men walking off the job and leaving their trams where they stood. The following day began the clashes between the striking tramsmen and the scabs brought in by Murphy to replace them. The scabs service had to be discontinued after dark due to attacks from the strikers. In the meantime Murphy had been in contact with the Dublin Castle authorities who promised him that the Dublin Metropolitan Police (D.M.P.) would be reinforced by the Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.). A camp of R.I.C. men from Cork was set up in Dun Laoghaire for this purpose. Special constables were also sworn in.


At one of the huge nightly rallies in Beresford Place, Larkin announced a public meeting to be held the following Sunday in O’Connell Street in support of the strikers. In doing so he promised that

“that if one of our class fall then two of the other should fall for that one.”

The following day the I.T.G.W.U. leadership, Larkin, William O’Brien, P.T. Daly, William Partridge and Thomas Lawlor, were arrested and charged with seditious libel and conspiracy. All five men were released after giving an undertaking to be of ‘good behaviour’. The demonstration called for August 31st in O’Connell Street in support of the strikers had been proclaimed by the authorities.

Police baton charge on 'Bloody Sunday', August 31st 1913 in Sackville Street [O'Connell Street].

Police baton charge on ‘Bloody Sunday’, August 31st 1913 in Sackville Street [O’Connell Street].

At another mass rally in Beresford Place on the Friday before the proposed demonstration in O’Connell Street, Larkin burnt The Proclamation banning the rally and declared that he would hold the meeting “dead or alive”. The police broke up the Friday rally but Larkin managed to escape and hide out in Constance Markievicz’s home.

The next day Connolly and Partridge were arrested. With Larkin in hiding and Connolly arrested, William O’Brien decided to transfer Sunday’s meeting from O’Connell Street to Croydon Park on which the I.T.G.W.U. had a long term lease. Later on that Sunday evening squads of drunken police roamed the streets of Dublin beating up anybody who got in their way.

There were reports of baton charges by police against strikers in Ringsend and pitched battles between the people from Corporation Buildings and the police. During police attacks on people in the vicinity of Liberty Hall two workers, James Nolan and James Byrne, were beaten to death.

An eye witness to the killing of James Nolan, Captain Monteith of the Irish Volunteers, reports that a mixed patrol of about thirty five D.M.P. and R.I.C. attacked Nolan and clubbed him to the ground, leaving him in a pool of blood. Monteith himself was beaten up by these police for remonstrating with them but “had sense enough to lie (still) until the patrol passed on”. Later on that weekend Monteith’s fourteen year old daughter was beaten up by a drunken policeman.

Larkin was determined to go ahead with the meeting in O’Connell Street despite O’Brien’s decision to rally in Croydon Park. To avoid detection he disguised himself as an elderly clergyman until he got on to the balcony of the Imperial Hotel, owned by William Murphy, where he proceeded to speak to the crowd who had recognised him.

Within minutes he had been arrested. The police once again went wild batoning and clubbing everybody in the area despite the fact that most people in O’Connell Street that day were coming or going to church and most of Larkin’s supporters were in Croydon Park. Constance Markievicz was one of those arrested by the police. She had turned to wish Larkin good luck when

“the inspector on Larkin’s right hit me on the nose and mouth with his clenched fist. I reeled against another policeman, who pulled me about, tearing all the buttons off my blouse, and tearing it out all round my waist. He then threw me back into the middle of the street, where all the police had begun to run, several of them kicking and hitting at me as they passed…….I could not get out of the crowd of police and at last one hit me a back-hand blow across the left side of my face with his baton. I fell back against the corner of a shop, when another policeman started to seize me by the throat, but I was pulled out of the crowd by some men, who took me down to Sackville Place and into a house to stop the blood flowing from my nose and mouth and to try to tidy my blouse”.

(Terrible Beauty by Diana Norman, pg.89)

The viciousness of the police on that day left over five hundred people injured and made the front pages of both the Irish and British newspapers. Later that night Corporation Buildings were again attacked by the police in revenge for the battles of the previous day, but they were repulsed by a combination of residents and strikers. The police returned with reinforcements around 2am that night and proceeded to attack men, women and children and wreck their homes.

On the same day in Inchicore, an arrested picketer had been rescued by a crowd of strikers resulting in the police storming the local Union Hall, Emmet Hall. Again pitched battles broke out between strikers armed with sticks and stones and the police. The fighting continued into the night leaving hundreds of people injured.

Thousands of police had been mobilised but eventually a detachment of the West Kent Regiment were required to restore order. Such was the outcry against the savagery of the police that the authorities were forced to set up a ‘Commission into the Dublin Disturbances’. Naturally this was a whitewash and absolved the police of any blame.

The employers again upped the ante on September 3rd when the Employers Federation issued their ultimatum to their I.T.G.W.U. employees – resign from the union or loose your job. Four hundred and four employers locked out their unionised workers. Upwards of 25,000 people were locked out, which, including their dependants, affected over 100,000 people, a third of the population of Dublin. The working class of Dublin, who, even in times of employment had to suffer squalor and poverty, now found themselves destitute and facing starvation.


It was against this background that the idea of a citizens army took root in peoples minds. The funeral of James Nolan on September 3rd, attracted over 30,000 people and was guarded by I.T.G.W.U. men with pick-handles topped with a cylinder of steel, against police attack. The police kept their distance. Towards the end of October in a speech to the now regular rally at Beresford Place, Larkin announced that he was organising a citizens army to defend the workers.

This loose idea of Larkin’s became more solid with the offer from Captain Jack White to James Connolly to form a citizens army. On November 13th at another rally in Beresford Place, Connolly announced that a citizens army was to be organised along military lines by Captain Jack White and called for volunteers. While a thousand hands were raised in response to the request for volunteers, on the first public appearance of the Irish Citizen Army in Croydon Park on November 23rd 1913, a mere forty odd men turned up to drill.

Membership of the Citizen Army at any particular time is extremely hard to calculate due to the fact that some sections did not train or drill with the rest of the Citizen Army due to their unsociable working hours and other sections, such as the dockers, did not openly associate with the Citizen Army as they could be better utilised in other capacities such as acquiring arms, monitoring scabs and military ships etc… O’Casey in his book remembers thousands of Citizen Army men marching but most of these would not have been actual members.

The appearance of the Citizen Army, to quote Jack White himself, “put manners on the police”. The very fact that they had weapons, even if they were only pick handles, hurleys, broomsticks etc.., and were prepared to use them, forced the police to keep their distance.

The story of the Citizen Army company from Aungier Street and their dealings with the police is a good example of the situation the police found themselves in. The members of the Citizen Army from Aungier Street formed a marching band, with instruments bought with borrowed money, to accompany them on their marches. One evening after a march from Croydon Park to Liberty Hall this small company left the main body of the march and continued on its way to Aungier Street.

In Georges Street the police attacked them and tried to smash their instruments, a favourite tactic of the police at that time. The band managed to fight their way through and succeeded in getting their precious instruments to safety in their branch room. A police superintendent followed and threatened that his men would be waiting for them as they left. It was decided to face down the police.

Each member who wasn’t playing an instrument was to arm himself with a hurley to protect the band. The band marched out surrounded by its ‘armed’ guard playing the tune of ‘The Peeler and The Goat’. On seeing the hurleys and the willingness of the men to use them the ‘peelers’ decided to back off. The Aungier Street Citizen Army had made their point.

Ironically, after the Citizen Army had been formed as a force to protect the workers they were never called into action in any major way during the lockout. Their very existence subdued the police and more importantly the employers had decided on a change of tactics by starving the strikers into submission.

The generosity of the general English public and the treachery of the British Trade Union leadership has been covered in depth elsewhere, suffice to say that by substituting food ships and charity in place of solidarity actions, the British trade unions, as much as the Dublin employers, were responsible for the defeat of the Dublin working class.

Towards the end of the lockout with people drifting back to work, the Citizen Army began to lose what little members it had. After nearly six months of struggle, people wanted to keep their heads down and not attract attention to themselves by being associated with Liberty Hall and the Citizen Army. Being so tied to the labour movement meant that when the morale of the workers was high the Citizen Army benefited but when morale was low, the Citizen Army suffered and with the defeat of the strike, morale plummeted.


The Citizen Army was in competition for members with the Irish Volunteers who were formed a few weeks after the I.C.A. The Irish Volunteers were appealing for members through an nationalist agenda, regardless of class. Membership was open to all, from Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.) members to followers of Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party (I.P.P.). The attractions of the volunteers over the Citizen Army were numerous.

The Volunteers were organised nationwide whereas the Citizen Army were confined to Dublin and the surrounding areas. The Volunteers were supplied with uniforms and equipment which the Citizen Army members had to buy themselves. The leaders of the Volunteers could devote more time to the training of their men whereas the time the leaders of the Citizen Army could devote depended on the pressures of the strike. For all these reasons, and more, recruitment to the Volunteers grew quickly.

Relations between the Volunteers and the Citizen Army were strained due to the presence among the Volunteers of employers who has locked out their employees during the strike. Nationalists, such as Sinn Fein leader Arthur Griffith, further added to the bad feeling between Labour and the Nationalist Movement by supporting the employers during the lockout. Venomously attacking the strikers, especially Larkin.

Referring to Larkin as “the English trade unionist” Griffith accused him of trying to destroy Irish industry to the advantage of British industry. During the Volunteers’ inauguration at the Rotunda on November 25th 1913, a group of men from Liberty Hall heckled the meeting, particularly targeting Lawerence Kettle whose family employed scabs on county Dublin farms.

The Citizen Army’s first handbill contained a list of reasons not to join the Volunteers, (controlled by forces opposed to Labour, officials having locked out union men etc..,) and a list of reasons to join the Citizen Army (controlled by working class people, refuses membership to people opposed to Labour etc..,).

Both Larkin and O’Casey were antagonistic towards the Volunteers, O’Casey bitterly so. This was not the case with all the Citizen Army though, Constance Markievicz had quite cordial relations with the Volunteers and most of the rank and file of both organisations got on quite well.

If the Citizen Army was not to disappear altogether a total reorganisation was needed. O’Casey suggested to Captain Jack White that the Citizen Army should be overhauled and improved

“so that it might become an influential fighting force in the ranks of Labour”.

On March 22nd 1914 a general meeting of workers was held in Liberty Hall to reorganise the Citizen Army The following proposed constitution was unanimously accepted by the meeting;

1. That the first and last principle of the Irish Citizen Army is the avowal that the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland.

2. That the Irish Citizen Army shall stand for the absolute unity of Irish nationhood and shall support the rights and liberties of the democracies of all nations.

3. That one of its objects shall be to sink all differences of birth, property and creed under the common name of the Irish people.

4. That the Citizen Army shall be open to all who accept the principle equal rights and opportunities for the Irish people.

5. Before being enrolled, every applicant must, if eligible, be a member of his Trades Union, such Union to be recognised by the Irish Trades Union Congress.

A Provisional Committee was elected consisting of:

Chairman: Captain White, D.S.O.

Vice-chairmen: Jim Larkin, P.T. Daly, Councillor W. Partridge, Thomas Foran, F. Sheehy-Skeffington.

Hon. Secretary: Sean O’Cathasaigh.

Hon. Treasurers: Richard Brannigan, Constance Markievicz.

Sean O'Casey (right) with actor Barry Fitzgerald, 1959

Sean O’Casey (right) with actor Barry Fitzgerald, 1959

The drilling of the reorganised Citizen Army was also to be taken more seriously. Three battalions were formed, the City Battalion, the North County Battalion and the South County Battalion. Training was held twice a week in Croydon Park. Uniforms were ordered from Arnotts which the members had to pay for themselves. A distinctive feature of the uniform was the big slouch hat pinned up at one side by the ITGWU’s red hand badge. In the enthusiasm generated by the reorganisation attempts were made to extend the army around the country.

A manifesto was sent to various Labour bodies in Cork, Belfast, Derry, Sligo, Limerick, Kilkenny, Waterford, Dundalk, Galway and Wexford, but no success was had in organising outside Dublin. Companies were set up in areas surrounding Dublin such as Clondalkin, Lucan, Swords, Finglas, Coolock etc.,. On April 6th 1914 the Dublin Trades Council officially recognised The Irish Citizen Army.

As well as being secretary of the Citizen Army O’Casey also wrote the ‘I.C.A. notes’ in The Irish Worker. He let his antagonism towards the Volunteers spill over into print with constant attacks on the Volunteer leadership. As secretary he was responsible for booking halls for Citizen Army drilling. As most halls available had been taken by the Volunteers he had great difficulty in getting somewhere to train and he took every refusal as a direct snub to the Citizen Army. While some were indeed snubs it is generally felt that O’Casey exaggerated the situation so the Volunteers would be seen in a bad light.

All this inter-organisation rivalry and the success in building the Volunteers caused Jack White to resign from the Citizen Army in May 1914 and join the Volunteers. Larkin replaced White as chairman. O’Casey’s animosity towards the Volunteers also led him to a clash with Constance Markievicz over her links with them.

He insisted she sever her connection with the Volunteers or resign from the Citizen Army. He put forward a motion to the Citizen Army Council to this effect but lost the vote and resigned himself. Larkin tried to get O’Casey to reconsider his resignation and apologise to Constance Markievicz, but he refused and had nothing more to do with the Citizen Army


Ironically, in the light of O’Casey’s feelings towards the Volunteers, the Citizen Army were given equal status as a guard of honour for the Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown in June 1914 while he was still secretary. With both organisations obeying the same commands it was the first time full co-operation between them was seen. Another public display of co-operation between both organisations occurred in October of that year during the Parnell Anniversary Commemoration.

By this time the Volunteers had split, with the majority supporting Redmond’s Home Rulers and the minority remaining loyal to the more militant elements represented by Pearse and Clarke. The Redmondites took the name National Volunteers.

Both sets of Volunteers and the Citizen Army had decided to march to Parnell’s grave in Glasnevin to honour his memory. After visiting the graveyard Larkin led the Citizen Army contingent back to Parnell Square where the Irish Volunteers had organised a public meeting. While this meeting was taking place a large detachment of the National Volunteers, on their way back from Glasnevin, tried to force their way through Parnell Square.

Outnumbered by over four to one a line of Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers confronted the Redmondites. A clash seemed inevitable. The Citizen Army were all armed but had no ammunition. Captain Monteith of The Irish Volunteers gave each of the Citizen Army men a round of ammunition in full view of The Redmonites.

Monteith and another officer of the Irish Volunteers then went and negotiated with two officers of The National Volunteers. For a very tense period of time there was a stand off situation but eventually The National Volunteers were persuaded to take an alternative route by Dorset Street. Having prevented unnecessary bloodshed Captain Monteith attempted to retrieve his ‘lent’ ammunition, but found that none of the Citizen Army men could remember receiving any!

Shortly after this event Larkin left for a fundraising tour of the U.S.A. He had planned to go earlier but had been dissuaded by people in the I.T.G.W.U. who understood the loss he would be to the union. By the end of October 1914 he had decided it was finally time to make his move. With no prior agenda and no organised fundraising plan, Larkin’s future plans were at best, hazy. William O’Brien of the I.T.G.W.U. tried to get an intended return date from Larkin but again he was non-committal. Jim Larkin, still General Secretary of the I.T.G.W.U., was to remain away from his union for over seven years.


James Connolly now became Commandant of the Citizen Army (in place of Larkin) and Acting General Secretary of the I.T.G.W.U. The era of Connolly’s leadership of the Citizen Army ushered in a period of much closer co-operation between the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army. Even before Larkin went to the U.S.A. Connolly’s influence on the Citizen Army could be seen. The attitude to military training became a lot more serious and attaining arms became a priority.

In September 1914 an incident which shows the seriousness of their militarism was the proposed disruption of a recruitment meeting for the British Army in the Mansion House which was to be addressed by British Prime Minister Asquith and John Redmond. It was decided that a mixed party of Volunteers and Citizen Army men would take over the Mansion House the day before and would hold it for twenty-four hours to prevent the meeting from taking place. The plan was dropped when it was learnt that a strong force of British soldiers were already in occupation of the Mansion House.

Instead, on the night of the meeting, the Citizen Army turned out for an opposition demonstration in Stephens Green. They marched from Liberty Hall openly carrying their rifles and bayonets. The sight of a disciplined troop of Irishmen marching through the streets of Dublin openly displaying their weapons, created a great impression on the thousands of people attending the rally. What the crowd didn’t realise was that apart from some revolver bullets none of the Citizen Army had any ammunition.

The procurement of arms and ammunition was always a problem for the Citizen Army. Up until the Howth gun running incident the Citizen Army had the grand total of one Lee Enfield rifle and a few revolvers. As the Citizen Army were not informed or involved in the landing of the arms at Howth they were fortunate to be able to add to their arsenal at all.

The whole operation had been planned and carried out by the Irish Volunteers but while attempting to transport the arms into Dublin a force of police and British soldiers tried to stop them. While a stand off situation occurred between the two sides the Volunteers began to slip away across the fields with the guns.

A company of the ICA training at Croydon Park in Marino, 1914.

A company of the ICA training at Croydon Park in Marino, 1914.

As there wasn’t enough Volunteers to carry all the guns some had to be abandoned or hidden for further collection. Word reached the Citizen Army at Croydon Park of the days happenings and some members went to see if they could be of assistance. On arriving in the area they were delighted to find abandoned and hidden arms, which they brought back to Croydon Park for use by the Citizen Army. Rifles were also smuggled into Dublin through Liverpool, sent by supportive trade unionists in Britain. Another avenue for the procurement of arms was through British soldiers, either stolen by supportive soldiers or sold by entrepreneurial members of her Majesty’s Armed Services.

Connolly had been using the pages of the ITGWU’s ‘Irish Worker’ to argue against working class participation in the imperialist war. He urged people to join the Volunteers or the Citizen Army rather than the British Army. He was a great believer in the old maxim that England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity and with England involved in a war, now was the time for Ireland to assert itself.

With Connolly in charge at Liberty Hall nobody was left in any doubt as to where he stood. Soon after Larkin’s departure Connolly draped the now famous, “We Serve Neither King Nor Kaiser But Ireland” banner from Liberty Hall. He choose as his second in command in the Citizen Army another ex-British army man, Michael Mallin, who was head of the Inchicore branch of the I.T.G.W.U.


With Connolly becoming more stringent in his criticism of the War the authorities began to censor The Irish Worker. In December 1914 the authorities closed down The Irish Worker along with Sinn Fein and Irish Freedom. Connolly tried to have The Irish Worker printed in Glasgow and smuggled into Ireland but the February issue was seized by the authorities as it came off ship.

Connolly decided to set up his own printing press in Liberty Hall and so produce his own propaganda. It was the end of May 1915 before a new paper was produced, which he called Workers Republic. From the very beginning this newspaper preached insurrection. A page under the title “ICA notes” was given over in each issue to the subject of military tactics and examples were given from other countries around the world where uprisings had occurred. In these articles Connolly concentrated on issues such as street fighting, building barricades etc.

In complete contrast to the conspiratorial methods and elitist tactics of the I.R.B. Connolly and the Citizen Army were very public in their intentions. Openly carrying arms and printing seditious material in Workers Republic they were pushing the authorities as far as they could. Without a doubt the authorities would have closed down Liberty Hall and the printing press had they not to worry about the resistance expected from the Citizen Army.

In the inquiry into the Rising, evidence was given that while most government officials wanted to close Liberty Hall their military advisers estimated that up to a thousand soldiers would be needed, with the inevitable resulting bloodshed. With the armed protection of the Citizen Army, Connolly was able to make his campaign for an uprising more direct and longer sustained than in any other insurrectionist period in Irish history.

Throughout 1915, as well as goading the authorities, Connolly began using Workers Republic to attack the Volunteers and their lack of activity. As he wasn’t privy to the I.R.B.’s military council plans he felt that the moderates were gaining control of the Volunteers and a rising was becoming more remote as time went on. In issue after issue of Workers Republic Connolly appealed to the rank and file of the Volunteers over the heads of the leadership, arguing that were the War to end before a rising could take place, Ireland would have lost a great opportunity to further its aim of independence.

It wasn’t only the authorities and the Volunteers who felt unhappy at the direction Connolly was taking. Within the I.T.G.W.U. there were elements who disapproved of the attention Connolly and the Citizen Army were attracting from Dublin Castle. As far back as the plan to disrupt the Asquith meeting, murmurs of discontent had begun. The installation of the printing press in Liberty Hall and the increasing public display of the Citizen Army added to the fears of a section of the I.T.G.W.U. that Liberty Hall would be closed down and the I.T.G.W.U. smashed as a result of the activities of the Citizen Army.

As most of the Citizen Army were members of the I.T.G.W.U., Connolly, with the support of key people like O’Brien, Foran and Partridge, had been able to persuade the union to support his actions. Incidents such as the time in November 1915 when Connolly sent armed pickets to deal with police harassment during the strike at the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, made it hard for those who disapproved of the Citizen Army in Liberty Hall to do anything about it.

Towards the end of 1915 the Citizen Army manoeuvres had been increasingly provocative. Numerous public displays and marches were held. One particular incident was a mock attack on Dublin Castle on a foggy night in October. Due to the short notice of mobilisation and the chosen target, even members of the Citizen Army themselves didn’t know if this was the real thing or a practice. This was an indication of the state of readiness of the Citizen Army for any eventuality.


Connolly’s increasingly belligerent writings and the Citizen Army’s actions began to worry the military council of the I.R.B. who had decided on a rising in principle and were afraid that the Citizen Army would proceed unilaterally and destroy whatever chance of success their own plans had. What the I.R.B. did not know was this was exactly what was going through Connolly’s mind at the time.

He was convinced that a rising must be attempted before the authorities struck first and suppressed the Citizen Army and the Volunteers. He had decided that, if necessary, the Citizen Army should go it alone in the hope that this would be the spark which would set the more militant wing of the Volunteers on the road to revolt. In late 1915 Connolly had asked each of the Citizen Army members individually whether they would be willing to go ahead with a rising without the support of the Volunteers.

At different times most of the Military Council of the I.R.B. Clarke, Mc Dermott, Tom Ashe, Pearse and Mc Donagh, individually came to see Connolly to try and dissuade him from attempting a rising as the time was not right. None of them had any luck in convincing him to bide his time, so in what has become known as the ‘kidnapping’ of James Connolly, the I.R.B. Military Council met with him and informed him of their plans for a rising.

This incident has never been fully explained but the end result was that during his disappearance from Sunday January 19th 1916, to the following Wednesday, Connolly agreed to hold off on any plans to go it alone. He also became a member of the I.R.B. and its Military Council. At last Connolly was to achieve his aim of a rising and the date was set for Easter Sunday April 23rd 1916, to coincide with the arrival of a shipload of arms from Germany brought over by Roger Casement.

Dr Kathleen Lynn, Captain in the ICA and founder of St Ultan's children's hospital in Dublin

Dr Kathleen Lynn, Captain in the ICA and founder of St Ultan’s children’s hospital in Dublin

Around this time it is estimated that there were approximately three hundred and fifty members of the Citizen Army. Unlike the Volunteers, women were given equal rights in the Citizen Army and some of the women soldiers carried arms and were in positions of authority within the army.

Constance Markievicz, Dr. Kathleen Lynn and Helena Moloney were all officers in the army. A Citizen Army Scout Corps had been formed around July 1914 and its members drilled and trained with guns like their seniors. James Connolly’s son Roddy was a member of the Scout Corps and fought alongside his father in the G.P.O. during the Rising. The situation began to hot up in the run up to the Rising.

On March 24th 1916 a squad of police raided the paper shop beside Liberty Hall searching for The Gael , a nationalist newspaper. Connolly was called from Liberty Hall and arrived as the police were searching the shop. When informed that the police had no search warrant he pulled a gun and ordered them out. Connolly, fearing that the police would return to raid Liberty Hall, sent out a mobilisation order to all Citizen Army members. Before the Citizen Army had returned another squad of police arrived at the paper shop with a warrant.

As the shop was connected to Liberty Hall, Connolly was afraid the police would use the same warrant to raid Liberty Hall. He told the Inspector in charge that as the warrant only related to the shop, they would be stopped from entering Liberty Hall, by force of arms if necessary. Rather than provoke trouble the police retreated. The mobilisation itself was a complete success. Nearly one hundred and fifty men arrived at Liberty Hall from all over the city. From that day on Liberty Hall was guarded night and day by the Citizen Army.

The Tuesday before the rising was due to start the plans were thrown into disarray by Eoin Mac Neill’s famous order to call off the rising. Further problems arose when “The Aud” the ship bringing arms and ammunitions from Germany, was discovered and it’s captain scuttled the vessel rather than let it fall into British hands.

Of all the I.R.B. Military Council members, Connolly was least affected by the discovery of “The Aud” and Mac Neills countermand. He looked on outside help as a bonus but in the event of this not materialising he was determined to go ahead. Throughout that Easter weekend, with the decision to call off or go ahead with the Rising being debated, Connolly was one of the strongest voices in favour of carrying on with the Rising.

With Mac Neills countermand, Liberty Hall became the centre of operations for the Rising. The Military Council of the I.R.B. met in Liberty Hall under the armed guard provided by the Citizen Army on Easter Sunday morning. They decided to postpone the Rising until noon the following day. Also in Liberty Hall that day, ‘The Proclamation of The Irish Republic’ was printed on the Workers Republic printing press by members of the I.T.G.W.U. who were guarded by a group of armed Citizen Army men. Connolly’s foresight had put the Labour Movement to the forefront of the fight for Irish independence.


Mac Neill’s action dictated that the Rising would fail, in military terms anyway. On leaving Liberty Hall on the morning of the Rising, Connolly remarked to William O’Brien that they were going out to be slaughtered. Of approximately five thousand people expected to take part in the Rising, Mac Neill’s orders reduced the numbers to around one thousand two hundred.

As the Citizen Army was a much smaller force and Dublin based, most of the expected numbers turned out. It is estimated that about two hundred and twenty Citizen Army members took part in the Rising. At the head of this force was James Connolly who had been given the position of Commandant General Dublin Division, Army of The Irish Republic. Facing the rebels was a force of around twelve thousand British soldiers.

Apart from James Connolly’s contingent of Citizen Army men in the G.P.O. the Citizen Army were also represented in most of the other battlegrounds, such as The Four Courts, Bolands Mill etc..,. One of the first actions of Connolly was to have the Starry Plough flag of the Citizen Army hoisted over the Imperial Hotel, a defiant signal to the arch enemy William Martin Murphy. The majority of the Citizen Army were involved in the fighting around St. Stephens Green under Commandant Michael Mallin and his second in command Constance Markievicz. It was a force of Citizen Army people under Captain Sean Connolly who attacked Dublin Castle.

The Rising lasted less than a week and all those who took part in or were suspected to have taken part in the Rising were interned in English jails. Sixteen of those considered to be leaders of the Rising were executed, included among them were James Connolly and Michael Mallin. Constance Markievicz had been sentenced to death but had her sentence commuted to life in prison. Eleven members of the Citizen Army, including Captain Sean Connolly, were killed in action during Easter week. Twenty seven women members of the Citizen Army had taken part in the Rising with one woman, Margaret Skinnider, wounded in action.


In the aftermath of the Rising sections of Labour and the trade union movement were already trying to distance themselves from the events of Easter week and the actions of the Citizen Army. Aware that the British had already tried to destroy Liberty Hall during the Rising they were concerned that the authorities must not be provoked again.

At the Irish Trade Union Congress in August 1916 a motion was passed paying respects to all Irishmen and women who had died in the Rising and in the ‘European’ war. The executive’s report was at pains to emphasise the Citizen Army were merely tenants at Liberty Hall. It also quoted a British Army intelligence report claiming that ‘not more than half the Citizen Army were members of the ITGWU’

The Labour Movement, in the absence of a leader of the calibre of James Connolly, had begun to withdraw from the struggle for Irish Independence. None of the remaining trade union leaders had the foresight of Connolly in seeing the link between the right to self determination industrially, politically and nationally. Even the union leaders who supported Connolly, such as William O’Brien and Thomas Foran, confined themselves to sorting out the mess of the affairs of the I.T.G.W.U. Labour had lost its chance to be a major influence in the building of an independent Ireland.

Michael Mallin, Secretary of the Silk Weavers Union in 1913 and ICA Chief-of-Staff in 1916

Michael Mallin, Secretary of the Silk Weavers Union in 1913 and ICA Chief-of-Staff in 1916

Into this atmosphere came those Citizen Army members who had been released from British prisons in late 1916. By December 1916 the Citizen Army were back in Liberty Hall but under the name ‘Connolly/Mallin Social and Athletic Club’ with none of their previous freedoms. By February 1917 the Citizen Army were back drilling in Liberty Hall, to the dismay of some of the union officials.

The uneasiness about the Citizen Army and its presence in Liberty Hall which had been building up during Connolly’s time, began to affect relations between the Citizen Army and the I.T.G.W.U. A number of incidents took place which caused a major rift between the union and the Army, the first was the nailing of a Tricolour to the front of Liberty Hall by a member of the Citizen Army, against the wishes of the union. Another was the caretaker being threatened by a member of the Citizen Army who he had refused entry to.

The major incident which had seen the Citizen Army themselves barred temporarily and an end to their drilling in Liberty Hall for good occurred on the anniversary of James Connolly’s death. The union had put up a banner on the front of Liberty Hall which read “James Connolly – murdered May 12th 1916”. The police demanded that it be taken down and the union obliged. But women members of the Citizen Army made another banner with the same message, put it up again and refused to take it down.

It took a party of police to force their way onto the roof to remove it. After this the authorities closed Liberty Hall until they were given an assurance that the Citizen Army would be barred from the hall. A few weeks later it was agreed that the Citizen Army could use the hall as individual members of the union. The Citizen Army had lost its headquarters.

The Citizen Army was in a very difficult position in the aftermath of the Rising. The situation which had required the formation of the Citizen Army didn’t exist any more. It’s labour tradition made it wary of the Nationalist movement but its union base had made it clear that they saw no future for the army. While not sure where its future lay the Citizen Army reorganised itself into two companies, one south of the city and the other north of the city.

On June 18th 1917 Constance Markievicz had been released from prison and a troop of the Citizen Army, headed by the new Commandant, James O’Neill, marched to Westland Row station to meet her. They then proceeded to march through the city, their first victory parade since the Rising. A rousing welcome was given to Constance from the thousands who gathered to see her. On September 25th 1917 she led a contingent of the Citizen Army during the funeral of Thomas Ashe who had died while on hunger strike. On July 15th 1927 the Citizen Army once again marched after Constance Markievicz, this time at her funeral.

In the intervening years they had never solved the dilemma which faced them when they first reorganised after the Rising. What direction were they to travel in. Without the clear vision of a Connolly, they were lost. There are reports of Citizen Army involvement in the fight against the Black and Tans and even unconfirmed reports that the Citizen Army were involved in the burning of the Custom House. In this period details of the Citizen Army are very sketchy and almost impossible to find.

In relation to the Civil War it is reported that Constance Markievicz proposed that the Citizen Army support De Valera in his rejection of the Treaty. The majority of the Citizen Army, over one hundred and forty, are reported to have taken the side of the anti-treaty forces during the fighting. As with all organisations in Ireland at the time there was dissent among the ranks over its attitude to the Civil War. Some members became involved in the peace negotiations along with officials of the Labour movement, who were trying to broker a Peace.

For all intents and purposes the Civil War signalled the end of the Irish Citizen Army.

“However it may be for others, for us of the Citizen Army there is but one ideal – an Ireland ruled, and owned, by Irish men and women, sovereign and independent from the centre of the sea, and flying its own flag outwards over all oceans”

(James Connolly, Workers’ Republic 30 October 1915)

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”


A. Boyd: The Rise of the Irish Trade Unions 1729 – 1970.
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.