Revolution in Éire

Emma Grant Senior Student Services Officer


February 23, 2016

This semester as part of the Life of the Mind theme, ‘Protest!’ we are bringing students together from Ireland, Scotland, England & Wales for a Centenary co-curricular weekend in Dublin.

Through out the weekend students will take part in a host of events all carefully chosen and themed around the 1916 Easter Uprising.

Also joining us on this event is Arcadia faculty member, Morgan Daniels. Morgan holds a Ph.D. from Queen Mary, University of London. His work focused on the effects of “antiestablishment” BBC comedy on politicians, the public and broadcasting values circa 1939-1973. He also holds a Masters in Twentieth Century British History from Queen Mary, University of London.

Morgan has kindly written the piece below for the blog, which gives an explanation of the Easter Rising, what it meant at the time and what it means now to be visiting it again 100 years on. 

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe ... is to repudiate social revolution.  ~ V.I. Lenin, ‘The Irish Rebellion of 1916’

It is laudable indeed that Arcadia has chosen to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising --­ a nearly week-long republican insurrection against British rule in Ireland -- ­­in a historically ­minded, precise manner. The Irish government, for instance, have no such agenda, as evidenced by its official video ushering in the year of commemoration, ‘Ireland Inspires 2016’, which offers up Bob Geldof, the Queen, and David Cameron, but features precisely none of the women and men who took part in the rising.

This video, write James Heartfield and Kevin Rooney in Who’s Afraid of the Easter Rising? (2016), is nothing less than ‘a metaphor for a managerialist breed of politics which is the antithesis of just about everything the republicans of 1916 stood for.’ It has now been removed from Ireland 2016.

Why the nerves? Why the eliding of struggle? Perhaps the answer is in the question. History struggles with violence, at turns glorifying and denying it. And the thing about imperialism is that it creates a sort of two­tier understanding of violence: acceptable at one moment, unacceptable the next,as in India’s Uprising of 1857, a war of independence for some, glossed over as a ‘mutiny’ by others. We do well to remember that all­-too­-familiar maxim that history is written by the victors. (Writing can be a type of violence, too.)

The Rising began on 24 April 1916 ­­ Easter Monday ­­ when 1200 members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) took control of the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin, as well as, among other sites, Jacob’s Biscuit Factory and the Four Courts, home to Ireland’s Supreme Court. These two groups were not wholly on the same page. The Irish Volunteers, who boasted 15,000 members in 1916, sought ‘to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland’. The ICA, which only ever had around 250 members, was led during the Rising by James Connolly, a Marxist ‘broadly supportive’ of the Volunteers’ aims but suspicious of, in the words of Sean O’Callaghan, their ‘largely bourgeois leadership’. Connolly spoke of revolution in an Irish key as follows:

The Irish question is a social question; the whole age­ long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself, in the last analysis, into a fight for the means of life, the sources of production in Ireland ...

In this movement the North arid South will clasp hands again, again will be demonstrated, as in’98, that the pressure of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels of a Protestant working class, earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united Socialist Democracy.

The Irish Volunteers and the ICA were united as one, however, in their main goal: independence for an Ireland which had been under confirmed British rule since the Williamite Wars of 1689­-91. (Ireland has a ‘special [p]lace in the story of capitalism in Britain’ noted Duncan Hallas. ‘It was the first British colony – just ahead of Jamaica – and for more than three centuries the exploitation of the people of Ireland was a big source of income for the rulers of this country.’ In fact you might well trace English interest in Ireland all the way back to 1169, when Anglo ­Norman troops landed in County Wexford.)

Prior to 1916, there had not been a major Irish rising against the British since the Wolfe Tone Rebellion of 1798. Brutally put down, the Rebellion prefigured the 1800 Acts of Union, still in effect today, which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and placed the latter under the control of Westminster. (Law-­making can be a type of violence, too.) The nineteenth century was consequently punctuated by Irish independence or ‘home rule’ movements. In 1914 a Home Rule Bill granting Ireland self­-government within the United Kingdom was passed by parliament ­­ and just as quickly suspended owing to the outbreak of the First World War.

It is against some considerable background, then, that Patrick Pearse, teacher, poet and co-­founder of the Irish Volunteers, read the Proclamation of an independent Irish republic from the GPO on Easter Monday. [1] The British Army, initially caught unaware, responded with force: martial law was declared on Tuesday, and by Saturday, when the rebels surrendered, 16,000 troops were present in Dublin (in addition to 1,000 British police). In six days of fighting there were more British deaths than Irish (132 and sixty­ four, respectively), but it was one ­sided stuff all the same, a mop­-up job for the Empire, if you will, one aided by the rebels’ failure to seize any major ports or train stations.

The story seems like a miserable one. Revolution on Monday. Ruling class business­ as­ usual before the week’s up. Yet to focus on the Rising’s prematureness, the quickness with which it was repressed, is to deny a very great deal. ‘The Easter Rising was crushed within a week’ writes D.M. Leeson in The Black and Tans (2011) ‘but Irish public opinion was alienated by the British government’s heavy-handed response to the rebellion.’ Such heavy­-handedness is exemplified by the execution by the British state of sixteen of the leaders of the Rising, including both Pearse and Connolly, at Kilmainham Gaol. (Countess Markiewicz, suffragette and designer of the ICA’s uniform, was spared execution onaccount of her sex. ‘I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me’ she was said to have told her court martial.)

For Duncan Hallas, ‘Connolly, Pearse and the others changed the course of Irish history. In spite of the lack of mass participation they had correctly judged the balance of forces.’ But how was history changed? What did the alienation of Irish public opinion mean in real terms? The ‘formal’ answer, so to speak, lies in the surge in popularity for the republican party Sinn Féin, who won 73 of 105 seats in the Irish general election of 1918. Sinn Féin would boycott Westminster in January 1919, prompting a bloody war of independence over the next two and a half years between the Irish Republican Army and British forces in Ireland. There’s another answer, too, having to do with silence. It has to do with the profound angst the present ruling class has in giving due acknowledgement to those who fought and died for a better world, for an end to imperialism. Recent revolutions in the West tend to make for uncomfortable reading.

[1] A historical curio is that the Rising also gave rise to the first­ ever pirate radio broadcast. Rebels commandeered some abandoned telegraphy equipment on what is now O’Connell Street and, in quite the innovative move, repeatedly bashed out Morse code messages across the Atlantic Ocean in the hope of reaching any and every ship appropriately equipped to receive them. This eschewed the usual point­ to­ point approach to telegraphy. ‘Irish Republic declared in Dublin today’ read the first,rather optimistic message. ‘Irish troops have captured city and are in full possession. Enemy cannotmove in city. The whole country rising.’