Conclusion to “The Failure of Irish Republicanism, 1908-1927”

by Philip Ferguson; this is the thesis conclusion


Ten years after the Easter Rising, Ireland lay partitioned, impoverished, her people embittered by disappointment, divided and distraught by a half-measure of freedom and exhausted by war.  Had the high hopes inspired by the Rising, all the ardour and sacrifice that during ‘four glorious years’ upheld the Republic, led to no better than this?                                                                            – Dorothy Macardle, republican activist, viewing the Ireland of the late 1920s[1]

In relation to Britain, a recent commentary rightly notes, “Ireland has always been placed differently from other colonies on account of its geographical proximity, its white population and its position as the colony within, incorporated directly into the British state.”[2]

Challenges to the existing order in Ireland, which began with the advent of Irish republicanism in the 1790s, have therefore contained the possibility of destabilising the British state itself.  Moreover, given that British rule shaped the socio-economic form of Irish society, challenges to that rule have tended, usually consciously, to question and even oppose the capitalist system in Ireland.

Marx, for instance, noted the “socialistic tendency” in the Fenianism of the 1860s and 1870s.  In the early 1900s, the left-wing of the IRB “approached the positions of the radical labour movement”.[3]  The radical social views of the IRB left were evident, as we have seen, in the columns of Irish Freedom.  The interconnections of national and social liberation, were summed up by one of the paper’s contributors, “Crimal”:  “Ireland can never be socially free until England’s grip is loosened, but merely to loosen England’s grip is to leave the work unfinished.”[4]  This inter-relationship of national separatism and social transformation at the heart of republicanism was embodied in the term “the Republic”.  It is this definition of republicanism – continuously made explicit in Irish Freedom, the writings of Pearse, republican support for the Dublin workers in 1913, and embodied in the concept of “equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens” (Easter Proclamation) and “that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare” (Democratic Programme) – which has been used throughout this thesis.[5]

At the same time there remained a certain lack of clarity, or lacunae, in republicanism.  The nature of the social transformation envisaged, although clearly radical and structural, was not articulated in precise class terms.  There was a general support among republican leaders and theorists for co-operative control of the means of production, distribution and exchange, but there was not an explicit political programme specifying which class would lead the struggle for “the Republic” and which class interests “the Republic” would represent.  This gap or lack of clarity was a feature of republicanism, the specifically Irish form of anti-imperialist (or revolutionary) nationalism, although it is to be found in anti-imperialist nationalism in many other countries as well.  Republicans wanted to abolish class difference by establishing a new society of equals but they tended also to try to abolish it in the present by not basing their political approach on it and instead appealing to the mass of Irish people on the primary basis of nationality.

This approach did not simply spring from the heads of the republican ideologists such as Pearse, but reflected the underdeveloped nature of the Irish colonial economy and society.  Pringle, for instance, has noted how the Catholic, under-industrialised, rural and property-owning nature of post-1921 Free State society “exercised a profound impact upon the dominant ideology within the new state”.[6]  These features existed in the pre-1921 period as well.  It is this nature of Irish society, with small farmers, traders, and other petty proprietors forming the largest class sector, which explains the supra-class ideology of the republicans.  It was only with the emergence of the organised working class, especially in Dublin, that the basis was laid for republicanism to be articulated in class terms by, above all, Connolly.

If the republicans were the representatives of revolutionary or anti-imperialist nationalism, they were not the only (nor the largest) claimants to the mantle of Irish nationalism per se.  British rule had frustrated the development of Irish capitalism in much of Ireland, especially outside the north-east corner; thus the nationalist bourgeoisie itself remained underdeveloped as a class.

This relatively weak bourgeoisie therefore therefore sought a renegotiation of the political relationship between Ireland and Britain.  The party which embodied these interests was the IPP, which dominated Irish nationalist politics from the 1870s until 1917-18.  Basically the IPP and nationalist bourgeoisie desired Home Rule, a form of political autonomy rather than outright independence. Smyth has summarised the attraction of Home Rule as two-fold, arguing, “in the first instance it would increase the hold of the native Catholic bourgeoisie in the South over the Irish economy and the political life of the coutry and it would serve the important ideological function of taking the steam out of more radical movements.”[7]  While both these factors were central to the Home Rule outlook of the bourgeoisie, there were additional ones.

As well as Home Rule giving the national bourgeoisie the political power to refashion Irish society in partnership with British capitalism, rather than living off the left-overs, it would also – unlike complete separation – allow them access to British and Empire markets.  Furthermore, the very weakness and underdevelopment of the national bourgeoisie made it fearful in the face of social discontent from the urban working class and rural landless and small farmers.  In a completely independent Ireland, the national bourgeoisie would have found it difficult to contain or repress radical opposition.  Britain was therfore not only economically important, but was essential as a politico-military guarantor of the maintenance of the existing social system in Ireland, whatever political form that system took.

Moreover, even a struggle for independence would have had to mobilise large numbers of people in political and quite possibly military action.  In such a situation, the mass of the people might raise their own social demands which would go much further than the bourgeoisie’s own interests.  In this sense, Smyth is right to note that the Home Rule classes’ attitude to the separatists “was not so much based on opposition to their concrete demands (such as they were) but upon fears of the social forces which might be unleashed by a separatist movement.”[8]

This complex of factors, then, explains the inability of the IPP to lead a struggle for an independent Irish nation state.  But, as long as they could guarantee some degree of institutional reform – such as the land purchase acts of the late 1800s and 1903 and the prospect of Home Rule – they could continue to monopolise Irish nationalist politics.

Apart from the IPP, bourgeois nationalist politics had a more radical wing, although its radicalism was expressed more at the level of tactics and strategy than in any vision of social transformation.  This wing was represented above all by Arthur Griffith and the various newspapers and political groups he founded, culminating in the formation of Sinn Fein in 1908.

Griffith was hostile to the working class and sympathetic to national capitalists such as William martin Murphy.  While he wanted an Irish industrial revival he “was almost indifferent as to the conditions under which the Industrial Revival was to take place.”[9]  Indeed Griffith, although keen to promote Irish industry, also saw foreign investment as crucial to development and low wages as the key incentive for foreign investors.  His “radicalism” lay in his advocacy of Irish withdrawal from Westminster and the establishment of a parliament in Dublin on the basis of equality with Westminster within a politically refashioned union with Britain.  A dual monarchy, with two parliaments, on the Austro-Hungarian model, would allow Irish capitalists to share with their British counterparts the exploitation of workers in both islands and in the Empire generally.[10]  This, then, was the highest horizon of the national bourgeoisie, the most radical expression of its interests.

The last section of the bourgeoisie was the Unionist element, based primarily in the north-east.  In the north-east, opposition to British rule in Ireland historically had been particularly strong and could only be ended through the large-scale plantation of settlers from the colonial power in the early 1600s.  These settlers were given land confiscated from the native Catholics and required the maintenance of British rule in order to defend their property.  In the absence of difference of skin colour, religion was used as the dividing line between loyal settlers and potentially disloyal natives.  While Catholics bore the brunt of discrimination, Presbyterians were also denied equal rights.

Yet the development of economic life in the north-east had, in the 1700s, given important sections of the Protestants reasons for dissatisfaction.  In particular a radicalised Presbyterian middle class, influenced by the American and French revolutions, had been instrumental in founding Irish republicanism and embracing Catholic emancipation.  In order to stymie this radical bourgeois-democratic development, the British ruthlessly crushed the United Irish movement, lifted discrimination against Presbyterians, and promoted the Protestant-sectarian Orange Order.  As industry grew up as a direct off-shoot of British industry, especially ship-building and engineering, the Protestant bourgeoisie in the north-east quickly came to depend on the maintenance of the Union with Britain and vigorously opposed Home Rule.  At the same time, jobs in these industries were preserved primarily for Protestants, thus consolidating a multi-class Protestant alliance and giving Protestant workers little reason for supporting Irish independence.  Protestant workers’ and small farmers’ frustration at their own conditions tended to be directed against Catholics rather than against the Protestant capitalists and landowners.

The domination of Irish politics by the Unionists and IPP began to be challenged in the early 1900s by new social forces, based mainly in nationalist Ireland.  The Home Rule crisis showed the limits to institutional reform and the weakness of the IPP strategy of relying on participation at Westminster and British goodwill.  While Home Rule was put on hold for the duration of World War 1, with the prospect of partition being thrown in to add insult to injury, the British government expected the IPP and Irish people generally to support their war effort which, ironically, was waged under the banner of defending the rights of small nations such as Belgium.  As the IPP rallied to Britain’s side in the war, despite the withholding of Home Rule, the possibility of undermining, even destroying, the IPP’s monopoly of nationalist politics arose.  The new social forces, such as radicalised women, the republicans and, above all, the militant labour movement, attempted to take the initiative along these lines.

As we have seen, the largest movement and that with the greatest social weight and potential power, was the organised working class.  A radical workers’ movement emerged, especially in Dublin, with the formation of the ITGWU.  This movement threw up its own self-educated proletarian leaders, especially James Larkin and James Connolly.  As revolutionaries, dedicated to the liberation of the working class, Larkin and Connolly held that the workers could not achieve their emancipation while Ireland remained a colonial possession of imperial Britain.  So for the socialist revolutionaries, national independnce and social transformation were bound up together.  In Connolly’s words,

“The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour.  They cannot be dissevered.  Ireland seeks freedom.  Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be the sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil.  Labour seeks to make the free Irish nation the guardian of the interests of the people of Ireland, and to secure that end would vest in a free Irish nation all property rights as against the claims of the individual, with the end in view that the individual may be enriched by the nation, and not by the spoiling of his fellows.

“Having in view such a high and holy function for the nation to perform, is it not well and fitting that we of the working class should fight for the freedom of the nation from foreign rule, as the first requisite for the free development of the national powers needed for our class?“[11]

The radical workers’ movement’s view of social transformation and Irish political independence gave them a large measure of common ground with the republicans.  Indeed Connolly and Larkin saw themselves and the workers’ movement as being inheritors of the Irish revolutionary tradition and described themselves as socialist republicans.  Connolly, in particular, as the ideologist/theorist of militant labour sought to fill the class gap in republicanism with a proletarian content.

O Faolain has rightly summarised the situation after 1908:

“there was a Parliamentary Party that could make no headway, and a scattered number of unbelievers, waiting for the man or the circumstance to weld and lead them; and outside all, the passive populace whose support was essential to the final success of either.”[12]

But, as events developed – the Home Rule crisis, the Dublin industrial struggle, World War l – the republican militants of the IRB and the worker-militants of the labour movement increasingly converged.  As Connolly wrote to Larkin in October 1914, “we have an opportunity of taking the lead of the real Nationalist movement. . .”[13]  In other words, in a context in which the IPP had abandoned the national cause, the clarity of perspective and determination of will that characterised the political current led by Connolly gave the radical labour forces the chance to provide leadership to all those forces who genuinely wanted, and were prepared to struggle for, Ireland’s freedom from Britain.  It was now possible to provide a working class leadership to the national liberation struggle.

At the same time as drawing over the republican militants, Connolly remained clear that the workers’ vanguard, grouped primarily in the ICA, would “only co-operate in a forward movement.  The moment that forward movement ceases it reserves to itself the right to step out of the alignment, and advance by itself if needs be, in an effort to plant the banner of freedom one reach further towards its goal.”[14]  Throughout the period leading up to the Rising, Connolly remained a revolutionary socialist and it was precisely because of this that he was able to formulate the strategy that placed the radical labour forces in the forefront of the 1916 rebellion.  And, in one of the last pieces he wrote, announcing that the flag of Irish republicanism was to be hoisted over Liberty Hall, the ITGWU headquarters, the socialist vision of the ICA was spelled out unequivocally:

“it is well that also there should fly in Dublin the green flag of this country as a rallying point of our forces and embodiment of all our hopes.  Where better could that flag fly than over the unconquered citadel of the Irish working class, Liberty Hall, the fortress of the militant working class of Ireland.

“We are out for Ireland for the Irish.  But who are the Irish?  Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman – the hired liars of the enemy.  Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends.  Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared.”[15]

The radical labour forces drew to their side not only the most advanced section of republicans, but also of the women’s movement which had emerged around the issue of the vote (the IWFL).  Women were also drawn into the radical labour forces, via the Irish Women Workers Union, which was attached to the ITGWU, and from the republican women’s group Inghinidhe na hEireann.  A number of prominent Inghinidhe women were integrated into the ICA, along with IWFL activist Kathleen Lynn; a number of other IWFL militants were taken on at the end of 1915 to do organising work for the ITGWU.  The ability of the radical workers’ movement to draw the republican and women militants to its side can be seen as evidence of the class-based nature of society and the ability of class-based politics to take on board the “national question” and the “woman question” in a way that feminist- and nationalist-based politics cannot take on each others questions let alone the class question.

The period from 1908 to 1916, then, is one of the development of radical forces for social change – a revitalised republicanism, a militant young labour movement, and a radical suffrage group (the IWFL) as well as more moderate sections of republicanism, labourism and feminism.[16]  By early 1916 all the radical forces had converged around the socialist forces led by Connolly.  The poet, writer and co-operativist AE (George Russell), who declared that the rebels’ “dream had left me numb and cold”[17] nevertheless noted, “It was Labour (that) supplied the passionate element in the revolt.  It has a real grievance.  The cultural element, poets, Gaels, etc never stir more than one percent of a country.  It is only when an immense injustice stirs the workers that they unite their grievances with all other grievances.”[18]

Lee who, as we have seen, points to the republican leaders such as Pearse as “modernising intellectuals”,[19] also notes, “the executions in 1916 removed the influence of the modernising intellectuals”,[20] including the worker-intellectual Connolly.  Yet this might have not been the end of a forward-looking revolutionary project.  The viability of the project depended in part on objective conditions after the Rising and whether or not there was an equally radical leadership to step into the breach.  The situation remained to some extent fluid.  As Lee notes, “Only time would tell whether the general post office had been the cradle or the coffin of the revolution of the modernising intellectuals.”[21]

The group best placed to take up the struggle again was organised labour.  The ITUCLP was far larger and more powerful than the IRB, the Irish Volunteers or Sinn Fein.  The ITUCLP was also the main opposition in local government authorities to both the IPP and Unionists.  Sinn Fein itself was almost defunct in 1916 and played no part in the Rising; Griffith himself was opposed to the insurrection.  But because republicanism was associated with the label “Sinn Fein”, which represented a philosophy of “Ourselves” or “Ourselves Alone” rather than just one small political group, the Rising was quickly dubbed the “Sinn Fein Rebellion” and transmitted around the world as such.[22]

The executions of Connolly and Mallin, and the deaths in combat or imprisoning of other ICA militants, and the absence of Larkin who had gone to the United States in late 1914 and become trapped there because of the war and being imprisoned for seditious activity, meant that the moderate section of the labour leaders was left in complete control of the ILPTUC after 1916.  Moreover, this trade union/party federation had never been a revolutionary body.  It reflected the varying degrees of political and class consciousness across the working class and, while sometimes adopting revolutionary rhetoric and radical policies, basically aimed at securing gradual improvements in the conditions of the working class.  It saw its main sphere of activity as being around economic issues and advance on these was seen as being achieved through the maintenance of the unity of the movement.  This meant downplaying the importance of the central political question in Ireland, the national question, so as not to alienate backward, Unionist workers in the north-east.

For these reasons, the ILPTUC was ill-suited to take up the revolutionary banner of Connolly and his comrades.  The absence of labour leadership on the national question allowed the initiative to pass to a reorganised republican current.  Yet the executions had removed the most radical leaders and those who took on the task of rebuilding the national liberation movement after 1916 were people of far more limited social views.

In the period immediately after the Rising, the maintenance of the movement fell largely to women such as Kathleen Clarke who stood on the left.  In early 1917 the left was still strong, as Count Plunkett briefly emerged as the main leader, rather than Griffith.  But the staggered release of prisoners, with the more conservative ones being released first, saw MacNeill and Griffith re-emerge to take up leading positions.  As a series of negotiations and fusions occurred during 1917, the  movement was reconstituted in both its military and poltical wings.  The reconstitution of Sinn Fein in 1917, as a mass republican party, saw de Valera and Griffith emerge as president and vice-president, while Michael Collins emerged as the key figure in the IRB.  Collins, through the IRB, also occupied a key position as Director of Intelligence in the Irish Volunteers (in 1919 renamed the IRA), although Cathal Brugha was the main military figure and de Valera was the token president of this Army.

Griffith’s social views were, as we have seen, far from radical.  De Valera came from a village in the rural west of Ireland and later taught mathematics at an elite Dublin College; he had no connections or acquaintance with the pre-1916 workers’ movement and was the only 1916 commandant to ban women from his post.  Michael Collins was a post office clerk who had been recruited to the IRB while working in London around 1909 and likewise had no connection to the workers’ movement.  Eoin MacNeill was a university professor who also had not evinced any particular support for the urban workers, rural poor or women and, as we have seen, acted in 1916 to undermine any prospect of success the Rising might have had.

As republican veteran and Dail secretary during the independence struggle Maire Comerford notes, Constance Markievicz was the only prominent post-1916 leader with any significant revolutionary credentials.  Her attempts to keep MacNeill out of the reconstituted political movement in 1917 were unsuccessful and she was strongly denounced for her trouble.  The signs, from the refoundation ard fheis of Sinn Fein in 1917, then, were not encouraging as far as a resurgent revolutionary movement went.

The independence movement which emerged around the reconstituted Sinn Fein and IRA  developed a pan-nationalist perspective, an outlook which had been rejected by both Connolly and, eventually, the republican militants.  For instance, even before 1916, Connolly had sought to win the republicans, along with the advanced elements of feminism, to a class-based workers’ movement as the vanguard of the national liberation struggle.  He spent the almost two years from June 1914 (when the Volunteer leaders, principally MacNeill and Hobson, capitulated to Redmond’s demand for a controlling influence in the organisation) until early 1916 trying to detach the republicans from their alliance with macNeill – and eventually succeeded in doing so.  While Connolly was prepared to work with Griffith around single issues on which they agreed, such as Irish neutrality and then opposition to conscription, Connolly never tried to form a party with Griffith nor combine with him in a struggle for Irish national liberation.

Yet, after the Rising, the new republican leaders united with the social conservatives.  The most prominent remaining ICA activists, receiving no encouragement from the new labour leadership, moved into Sinn Fein.  This was especially true of those prominent ICA activists who were women, such as Kathleen Lynn, Markievicz and Madeleine Ffrech-Mullen.  These were middle class or, in Markievicz’s case, upper class women; as such they could did not work in factories or offices for a living and could not therefore be trade union members or leaders, although Markievicz had been made an honorary life member of the ITGWU for her role in the 1913 Dublin struggle.  The reorganisation of the national independence movement after 1916 also saw women such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, who had been a harsh critic of aspects of pre-1916 republicanism and the subordinate role of women particularly Cumann na mBan in the broader republican movement, join Sinn Fein.  This move was a reflection of the inability of the feminism, as a gender-based movement, particularly in a society in which so few women worked outside the home, to progress beyond a relatively small middle-class milieu.  But, above all, it reflected the over-riding centrality of the national question in Irish political life.  Women could no more be free in an oppressed country than could workers.  But whereas their position in society offered workers the opportunity to take the lead in the national liberation struggle, and stamp a proletarian character upon it, the position of women gave them no such social weight or political prospects.

The post-1916 independence movement, then, involved a range of individuals and political currents from left to right.  In a letter to her sister Eva from Cork Jail on August 17, 1919 Markievicz noted SF “is not a solid cast-iron thing like English parties.  It is just a jumble of people of all classes, creeds and opinions, who are all ready to suffer and die for Ireland. . .” The party was “composed of both Labour and capital, mostly of course Labour, but there are some ‘rotten’ capitalists in it.” She saw herself as belonging to both Labour and Sinn Fein “organisations, for my conception of a free Ireland is economic as well as political: some agree with me, some don’t; but it’s not a sore point.  Easter Week comrades don’t fall out: they laugh and chaff and disagree.”[23]  Yet such a pan-nationalist movement was particularly ill-suited for the role of leading the kind of intransigent, mass struggle necessary to challenge British power.  As Connolly had noted, in summing up the difference between the workers’ movement, particularly the radicalised class conscious section, and other classes and their representative leaders and organisations:

“The Labour movement is like no other movement.  Its strength lies in being like no other movement.  It is never so strong as when it stands alone.  Other movements dread analysis and shun all attempts to define their objects.  The Labour movement delights in analysing, and is perpetually defining and re-defining its principles and objects.  The man or woman who has caught the spirit of the Labour movement brings that spirit of analysis and definition into all his or her public acts, and expects at all times to answer the call to define his or her position.  They cannot live on illusions, nor thrive by them; even should their heads be in the clouds they will make no forward step until they are assured that their feet rest upon the solid earth.

“In this they are essentially different from the middle or professional classes, and the parties or movements controlled by such classes in Ireland.  These always talk of realities, but nourish themselves and their followers upon the unsubstantial meat of phrases; always prate about being intensely practical but nevertheless spend their whole lives in following visions.

“When the average non-Labour patriot in Ireland who boasts of his practicality is brought in contact with the cold world and its problems he shrinks from the contact.  Should his feet touch the solid earth he affects to despise it as a “mere material basis,” and strives to make the people believe that true patriotism needs no foundation to rest upon other than the brain storms of its poets, orators, journalists, and leaders.”[24]

The appeal of the pan-nationalist front was to everyone and no-one at the same time.  They appealed to the nationalist working class – who needed independence in order to advance their class interests – but the appeal was on a nationalist basis and the only role seen for the workers was as a stage army to wage general strikes once a year or so to help stymie British policies such as conscription, the jailing of prisoners or the moving of troops and munitions around the country.  But the workers were discouraged from taking independent political and industrial action which in any way challenged the existing property relations.  As left-wing IRA leader and ITGWU organiser Peadar O’Donnell later noted, “All the leadership wanted was a change from British to Irish government: they wanted no change in the basis of society.”[25]

In this situation the republicans were able to wage a military and propaganda war against the British, and in elections conducted by the British win most of the seats in Ireland; but they were not able to organise and lead mass popular struggles which could have paralysed British rule.  In 1921, when the British imposed de facto partition through organising separate parliaments and elections for the six and twenty-six county areas, the republicans were left with little option but to participate.  As Greaves noted, “the six counties were lost without a blow.”[26]

A genuinely revolutionary and socially transformative movement may have had a chance of preventing this outcome. For instance, a movement based on grassroots organisations, factory committees, landless and small farmers’ committees, women’s groups, neighbourhood action groups and so on, could have built up a source of dual power completely outside of British-imposed institutions and have made British-organised elections after 1918 irrelevant.  Through a general strike, mass demonstrations and armed actions such a movement could have prevented the British from imposing the partition parliaments and elections of 1921.

Nevertheless, the development of the national liberation struggle still posed a major challenge to British rule and its intensification opened up the way for workers and the rural poor to assert their own class demands as the old order and sources of authority came apart.  The intensification of the struggle also had a significant impact in relation to women.

Whereas some gender theorists, such as Sarah Benton,[27] see the militarisation of Irish society after 1913 as reinforcing the sexual division of labour and guaranteeing that women would lose out, this theory does not hold up.  Apart from the problems arising from trying to impose 1980s and 1990s sensibilities of a liberal sector in the metropolitan capitalist countries onto early twentieth century Ireland, it simply does not hold up empirically.  The war for independence saw the involvement of significant numbers of women.  The republican women’s organisation Cumann na mBan grew to perhaps 20-25 times the size achieved at its height by the IWFL, the main radical suffrage group.  Additionally while the IWFL was composed almost entirely of middle-class women in Dublin and a few other urban centres, Cumann na mBan was organised in every county and involved a much broader cross-section of urban/rural women and more plebeian elements than the IWFL.  Additionally, as we have seen, the republcan women’s group was primarily composed of women in their twenties, mainly early twenties, by the time of its 1921 convention.  The experience of these women, who had risked their lives in the national independence movement, had tended to make them increasingly self-confident and assertive.  Cumann na mBan had moved beyond being an auxiliary to the IRA and was concerned by this stage with also encouraging women to be involved in society at large on the basis of equality with men.  The involvement of women during the war for independence also helped change the attitudes of a layer of the men, who began to see that women were not “naturally” sheltered, delicate beings who could not cope with the vicissitudes of life.

In the end, however, the multi-class pan-nationalist nature of the independence movement acted as a constraint on the struggle for Irish freedom and the liberation of workers, women and the rural poor.  In particular, the class conflict which grew during the war for independence frightened the Irish capitalists and sections of the middle class.  Desirous of bringing the revolutionary period to an end, they were prepared to accept the British offer of an expanded version of Home Rule.  Ireland was partitioned, and the most conservative elements took power in both states – the Unionists in the north-east, and the pro-Treaty elements in the twenty-six county state.  A recent analysis of British colonial policy and its approach to dealing with anti-colonial movements has noted in relation to the pan-nationalist nature of the Irish movement, “For Britain the tensions in the alliance provided an opportunity to intervene and influence its opponents.”  Britain learnt through experience, the first probably being in Ireland, “that compromise could detach one section of a movement and isolate another.”  The aim was to evolve “a policy capable of isolating militants and strengthening the position of the moderates.  This was the most effective way of reducing role of mass pressure in politics.”[28]

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 did this very effectively.  The republican forces were divided and those who accepted the Treaty and took power in the new state were immediately faced with the problem of having to repress the militants opposed to the Treaty.  Given that the Treatyites were a minority within the main republican organisations, they were particularly dependent on British backing, military aid and good will.  They were also dependent on support from the social groups which shaped public opinion – the owners of newspapers, the Catholic Church and so on.  Moreover, in a class-divided society, the failure to adopt a working class programme meant that sooner or later the pan-nationalists would adopt an openly capitalist programme.  The new state and the governing party, Cumann na nGaedheal quickly did so.  As Manning notes, “The new regime quickly discarded the radical rhetoric and revolutionary flourishes of the 1916-21 period and settled into a conservative and respectable state – a state which put a high emphasis on law and order, on the maintenance of the current economic orthodoxies and on social caution.”[29]

Those opposed to the Treaty failed to go beyond the strategy which had been employed from 1918-21 and develop a class-based approach.  As O’Donnell comments of anti-Treaty leaders, “We had a pretty barren mind socially; many on the Republican side were against change.  Had we won, I would agree that the end results might not have been much different from what one sees today.”[30]

The labour leaders who had stood aside during the war for independence, continued to refrain from offering a radical lead to workers during the civil war.  With these leaders seeking only gradual reforms within the new state and the anti-Treaty movement offering little in the way of a radical transformative programme, there was little reason or possibility for workers to mobilise on the political field.  Instead they took advantage of the civil war to take over factories, declare soviets and engage in other forms of industrial guerrilla struggle.  Sections of the landless poor and small farmers also attempted to assert their demands by occupying estates and attempting to carry out their own direct forms of land reform.  But such tactics separate from a general perspective for the transformation of society, and the building of a movement capable of carrying through such a project, could not succeed.  The occupations of factories and land were spontaneous, short-lived and localised.  As the Free State forces got the upper hand in the civil war, they dispersed the remaining soviets in the west and began a systematic attack on workers’ wages and living conditions.  The war waged by the new state against the anti-Treaty forces was, if anything, more bitter than that waged by Britain against the independence movement.  More people died, for instance, in the civil war, and there were 77 executions of prisoners by the authorities.  According to Smyth, the viciousness of the state during the civil war reflected real fears that “the national struggle would expand into open class warfare.”[31]

The establishment of a conservative state, with a strong repressive apparatus, and the failure of the labour leadership to offer a radical alternative way forward, ensured the defeat of workers’ struggles.  In the context of the slump of the early 1920s, unemployment grew, wage cuts were pushed through, union membership declined substantially and demoralisation set in.  The working class, which had emerged as a militant and radical force within Irish society from 1908 onwards, was pushed back and defeated.  It was the biggest loser in the wake of the end of the national liberation struggle.  But there were other important losers as well.

The nationalist population in the north-east were abandoned by those who signed the Treaty and went on to establish themselves as the leaders of the new Free State.  A system was established in the north of discrimination against Catholics in housing, jobs and voting to ensure Unionist domination of all spheres of life and high Catholic rates of emigration.  This situation did not change until the 1960s.

The other most significant group which lost out was women.  The campaign for the vote, the modest involvement of women in industry and therefore in trade unions such as the IWWU, and, above all, the involvement of women in the national independence movement had raised the confidence and general horizons of a significant section of the younger generation of women in particular.  Old ideas about women’s place being in the home were strongly challenged.  Republicans, socialists and feminists had, moreover, seen citizenship as based on a set of rights and responsibilities which applied to all, rather than being gender-based.  Women played an important part at every level of Sinn Fein, including its central leadership and six women were elected as TDs, while dozens more won seats as SF candidates in local body elections.  The main writings of republicans, and the programmatic documents adopted by the republican movement such as the Easter proclamation and Democratic Programme, made this explicit.  But the new Free State was vitally concerned with erasing all forms of radicalism and all challenges to the existing order.  Women, too, were to be put back in their “proper” place – in the home.  One of the most obvious results of this was that, as Manning records, “thirty years after independence there were fewer women in elected politics than in 1922 and their impact and effectiveness was undoubtedly less.”[32]

On the far left, those who had tried to keep alive in varying ways the ideas and perspectives of Connolly were isolated too.  After the Rising, the Connolly current dispersed, some like Markievicz and other ICA women going to Sinn Fein, as did Hanna Sheehy Skeffington.  The ICA itself continued in existence but a lack of political leadership, and the desertion of key members, left it in a largely inactive state; at most it played the role of an occasional assistant of the IRA.  It found new life briefly during the opening months of the civil war but the defeat of the republican forces in Dublin brought the Citizen Army itself to an end.  The third element of the Connolly current existed around two of his children, Nora and Roddy.  They attempted to revive the Socialist Party, expelled the more moderate elements, and converted it into a Marxist revolutionary group.  This new group, the CPI, was tiny and short-lived.  It lacked both the numbers and experience to offer an alternative way forward.  The absence of Larkin also reinforced the lack of radical left leadership.  By the time he returned to Ireland in 1923, the revolutionary wave had subsided, the Free State had been consolidated, the republicans defeated, and the moderates firmly entrenched in the leadership of the labour movement.

Objective conditions from 1923 onwards were not favourable for revolutionary politics in Ireland; indeed across the whole of Europe there was a general retreat of the radical left as failed revolutions gave way to the rise and consolidation of conservative regimes.

But in the end, it was the failure of the subjective factor – human agency – which was the decisive element in the defeat of republicanism.  Revolution is a difficult business; it takes revolutionaries to make them and revolutionaries are not thrown up by spontaneous struggles but develop over time through a combination of theoretical and practical work. The lack of a solid revolutionary core, in the form of a Marxist-type party, ensured that the opportunities for fundamental change which existed in Ireland were not resolved as they were in Russia by a social revolution, but lost.

Eamonn McCann, a leading figure of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and one of Ireland’s best-known Marxists, wrote in the 1970s, “Either British imperialism or the Irish working class will win.  There is no other social force in Ireland with a potential for power.”[33]  In 1916 the working class was rather smaller than in the 1970s, but the point is still valid.  The Irish capitalists could not, and would not, see through the struggle for independence since that meant a full-scale showdown with the British state, and the danger of revolution.  They therefore settled for a compromise which left British imperialism dominant in Ireland, saw the country partitioned and every progressive movement set back decades.  In effect, the Treaty of 1921 and the subsequent civil war marked a counter-revolution.  The lack of an alternative social vision and an authoritative revolutionary movement crippled the social groups and forces which were genuinely dedicated to the emancipatory goals of Irish republicanism – freedom for Ireland and social transformation.

The fact that these republican goals were not achieved means that republicanism can be seen to have failed during the 1908-1927 period.  As a former IRA leader turned Marxist Sean Murray wrote in the 1930s, “Viewed from almost any angle, the agreement. . .  cannot be regarded as other than a defeat for nationalist Ireland.”  The Republic was dumped, the unity of the country surrendered, the Free State took on the costs of pensioning off the old Castle regime’s police, judges and civil servants.  It agreed to continue paying land annuities to the British and, although it never collected the 11 million pounds it was to pay to Imperial defence, and this contribution was formally dropped in 1925, the trade-off was that the Free State regime dropped all claims to a revision of the border.

The defeat “was the inevitable outcome of a struggle in which the leadership was in the hands of a class who feared that the complete triumph of the national independence movement would not halt at national separation but would develop into a social revolution resulting in the overthrow of the Irish capitalist class and the establishment of a Workers and Farmers Socialist Republic.”  During the war for independence, Dail Eireann had not even stopped the paying of land annuities to the British Government: “because it raised the social rights of the people as well as the national right of the nation, both national and social justice were alike sacrificed by the national leaders on the altar of fear of social revolution.”  The politically dominant section of the national leadership did not really want to undo the Conquest, just reform the political/constitutional relationship with Britain.  The “national divorced from the class struggle of the workers for social liberty came to a sorry end: the betrayal of the. . . Republic proclaimed in 1916.”[34]

Overall, then, the failure was a substantial one. Partition was the worst possible outcome, dividing and demoralising every movement for progress and social change in Ireland.  Moreover, whereas before 1921 all the forces for social change had to confront the British state and its direct control of Irish life, after the Treaty and partition these forces, including the republicans, had to confront the institutions of the two new conservative states which mediated British neo-colonial influence in Ireland as well as Britain itself. Thus, the conditions in which republican goals – complete independence for all of Ireland and radical social transformation – now had to be pursued were more difficult.

[1] Macardle, Irish Republic, p897.  Originally published in 1937, the book was written in the 1920s and 1930s and concludes in the mid-1920s.

[2] Editorial, Feminist Review, no 50, Summer 1995, p1.

[3] Strauss, Irish Nationalism, p221.

[4] “Crimal”, “Democracy and Separation”, Irish Freedom, January 1913.

[5] See appendices for full texts of the Easter Proclamation and the Democratic Programme.

[6] Pringle, “Partition, politics and social conflict”, p41.

[7] Jim Smyth, “Changing Nature of Imperialism”, p65.

[8] Ibid.

[9] O Faolain, Constance Markievicz, p76.

[10] See chapter three for a more detailed analysis of Griffiths’ views, in particular as seen by Markievicz who occupied a position on the far left of Sinn Fein from 1908-12, after which she and other leftists appear to have dropped out of SF and joined the Socialist Party.

[11] James Connolly, “The Irish Flag”, Workers’ Republic, April 8, 1916.  Reprinted in Labour and Easter Week.

[12] O Faolain, Constance Markievicz, p70-1.

[13] Connolly to Larkin, October 9, 1914, cited from William O’Brien, Forth the Banners Go, p242.

[14] James Connolly, “For the Citizen Army”, Workers Republic, October 30, 1915.  Reprinted in Labour and Easter Week.

[15] James Connolly, “The Irish Flag”, op cit.

[16] For instance, moderate elements remained strong within the ITUCLP; there were moderate, and even Unionist, suffrage groups; and there were nationalists outside the IPP with far from radical social views, such as Griffith and Eoin MacNeill, the leader of the Irish Volunteers.

[17] Opening line from a poem written in tribute to the rebels and circulated privately after the rebellion.  Cited from Marreco, The Rebel Countess, p229.

[18] AE letter in the London Times, shortly after the revolt; cited from Marreco, The Rebel Countess, p215.

[19] See chapter one, footnote 86.

[20] Lee, Modernisation of Irish Society, p168.

[21] Ibid.

[22] In New Zealand for instance, newspapers headlined the rising as the “Sinn Fein Rebellion”; see, for example, Christchurch Press, April 27, 28, 29, 1916.  On May 1 they noted, “A striking figure in the rebellion is an elderly woman, who is stated to be of high title. Attired in a green tunic and trousers, she carried a rifle with a fixed bayonet.”  In fact Markievicz was only 48.

[23] Cited from Constance Markievicz: Prison Letters, p238.

[24] James Connolly, “What is our Programme?”, Workers Republic, January 22, 1916.  Reprinted in Labour and Easter Week.

[25] Peadar O’Donnell cited from Michael McInerney, Peadar O’Donnell: Irish Social Rebel, Dublin, O’Brien, 1974, p42.

[26] Greaves, Liam Mellows, pp245-6.

[27] Sarah Benton, “Women Disarmed”, op cit.

[28] Frank Furedi, Colonial Wars and the Politics of Third World Nationalism, London, I.B. Tauris, 1994, p241.

[29] Maurice Manning, “Women in Irish National and Local Politics 1922-77”, in Margaret MacCurtain and Donncha O Corrain (eds), Women in Irish Society: the historical dimension, Westport (Connecticut), Greenwood Press, 1977, p92.

[30] Peadar O’Donnell cited from Uinseann MacEoin (ed), Survivors, Dublin, Argenta, 1987, (first edition 1980), p25.

[31] Smyth, “Changing Nature. . .”, p67.

[32] Manning, “Women in Irish National. . .”, p92.

[33]McCann, War and an Irish Town, p312.

[34] Sean Murray, The Irish Revolt, London, 1936.  Copy in the National Library of Ireland.

Posted on September 23, 2011, in Civil War period, Constance Markievicz, Free State in 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Historiography and historical texts, James Connolly, Partition, Political education and theory, Republicanism post-1900, The road to the Easter Rising, Thesis chapters, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism, War for Independence period, Women in republican history. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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