By Chris Clough
Dublin, Easter weekend 2016, saw tens of thousands of people line the streets. Flags, banners and photos of martyrs were displayed on every street corner, shop and building. Socialists and Republicans marched through the city while the government held a military parade, complete with a fly over. Graffiti and stickers called for the “Unfinished Revolution” to be continued. A battle over the legacy of Ireland’s most famous uprising against British rule was taking place.
But 100 years ago a very real battle took place across the city where thousands of Irish nationalists and socialists, in the midst of the bloodbath of the First World War, proclaimed an independent Irish Republic and took on the most powerful empire on earth. It is important to look back at the events to remember the sacrifice made by people and learn the lessons for the fight against imperialism today.
Ireland a century ago was the colonial possession of Britain, dominated politically, ruthlessly exploited economically. Irish culture and language was suppressed in an attempt to crush opposition. This was a process that had been going on for hundreds of years and had resulted in several uprisings against British rule in the 125 years before the Rising.
The Irish nationalist movement hoped to establish Home Rule, a form of self-government within the empire. The rich, who believed that they could negotiate more powers from Britain in order to have more control over the working class and peasantry of Ireland, controlled the principle party of this movement, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).
However there was a significant minority in this movement that believed that this would only be possible through armed struggle and they organised in a secret society known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. It would be this group, organised within the Irish Volunteers, that formed the majority of the fighters during the Rising.
They found a powerful ally in the socialist movement. Led by charismatic leaders like Jim Larkin and James Connolly they had built trade unions that led a formidable strike in 1913 known as the Dublin Lockout. This dispute had radicalised thousands of workers in the capital and hundreds of them formed a militia known as the Irish Citizens Army (ICA). Originally formed to defend strikers it would become a key force in the Rising.
1914 was a watershed year for Ireland as elsewhere. Firstly the Dublin Lockout was defeated at the beginning of the year, smashing the hopes of many. The First World War broke out and the Socialist International betrayed the working class and lined up behind their own capitalists, with the notable exception of socialists like Lenin, Luxemburg and Connolly.
In Ireland 50,000 signed up to fight, with many more following. The conditions became worse for the Irish, with 78% of people on less than £1 a week compared with only 40-50% in England and Scotland. This encouraged many, especially Connolly and the ICA, that a rising was necessary before more Irish working people were sacrificed for the profits of Britain’s ruling elite.
The IPP supported the war, causing the Irish Volunteers to split with around 12,000 of 200,000 in favour of an uprising and opposed to the war. They brought forward their plans for a rising and allied themselves with the ICA after reading in Connolly’s Worker’s Republic of their intention to fight as well.
This alliance issued a Proclamation for the establishment of an independent Irish Republic. There was no mention of socialism. But Connolly only saw this as a first step towards a socialist revolution that would spread across the whole globe and liberate people not just from national subjugation but from poverty, war and exploitation as well.
The Rising was almost cancelled before it began after sections of the leadership of the Irish Volunteers refused to support it. But despite this confusion up to 2,000 assembled in Dublin on Easter Monday. Connolly was put in command. Countess Markievicz, a socialist and ICA second in command, was the first to read the Proclamation. She would take part in the fighting at Stephen’s Green alongside the women’s Republican organisation, Cumann na mBan.
The Rising initially took the British by surprise. The rebels managed to capture key sections of the city and hold them against better armed and disciplined troops. For example, at the battle of Mount Street Bridge 17 rebels managed to hold off hundreds of British soldiers who suffered 240 casualties.
This would soon change. Within a day the British outnumbered the rebels and by the end of the week they would have 16,000 troops in the city backed by warships and artillery. On the second day the battleship Helga sailed up the Liffey and opened fire, destroying the unoccupied HQ of Connolly’s trade union, the ITGWU.
But in an ironic twist of fate the ship’s first shot hit a railway bridge and the ricocheting shell narrowly missed the vessel. Over the week the British tried to avoid too many frontal assaults and instead battered the rebel positions from afar, destroying much of the city and setting fire to the centre of Dublin.
After days of this bombardment, with Connolly injured and forced to abandon the General Post Office, the rebel HQ, the decision was made to surrender. The British now made their attempt to crush any resistance.
Martial law was declared placing Ireland under military occupation. Troops flooded the countryside and rounded up over 3,500 Republicans, many of which had no part in the Rising; 1,600 were deported to England. But the worst fate awaited the leaders; 16 were executed, James Connolly left till last, tied to a chair and shot on 12 May, as he was unable to stand. But the empire, in attempting to stamp out the fire, only fanned the flames.
The Rising may have been a small revolutionary minority and initially many people were hostile to the rebels. But the British reaction over the proceeding months, coupled with the worsening conditions and threats of conscription, would soon give oxygen to the smouldering embers that the Rising had left, creating a flame of resistance against British rule that could not be extinguished.
Although its aims of a free and united Ireland are still not achieved today, it would never be the same and the memory of the fight serves to inspire new generations to this day.
The Rising struck a blow for Irish freedom, as it did against the imperialist slaughter of the First World War. But the resistance also had a profound effect on colonial peoples around the world. During the war revolts multiplied in the German Cameroons, Nyasaland, Dahomey, French Indochina, Niger, Portuguese East Africa, Libya and more. But it was 1916 that echoed around the British Empire in particular. The Chittagong rising in India and the rebellion in Egypt drew inspiration from Ireland.
The 1916 Rising presaged the revolutionary crisis set to engulf Europe after the war as much as it spelled the end of Empire. The divided Ireland of today is a far cry from what the Easter rebels fought for. The real legacy for socialists is to celebrate 1916 as a blow against imperialism. Time to move forward and fulfil Connolly’s vision of a Workers’ Republic.