The Rising and popular support

imagesThe following is a very good piece taken from The Cedar Lounge and was written by one of that blog’s moderators and writers, who goes by the moniker World By Storm:

Again, given the day that is in it, and the wall to wall coverage of the Budget, no harm to step away from that briefly for a moment. A comment under a Diarmuid Ferriter piece here in the IT on the need for a Republic Day got me thinking. It stated baldly that:

The 1916 rebellion had NO support from the majority of the Irish people.

A further comment down the page suggested consulting JJ Lee’s Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society. I’m still a fan of Lee and that book in particular – despite a few oddities in the text and analysis. I think it offers a very clear-headed view of Irish history during that period laced with a necessary irony and scepticism about all those involved. it’s certainly a world away either from revisionism or adherence to previous nostrums.

Be that as it may Lee engages directly with that issue of support and suggests in quite a lengthy portion of the section on the Rising that simple assertions of no support may be wide of the mark (and also points subtly to a strong class bias in such interpretations). He suggests that information on what was actually happening filtered out with remarkable slowness, that while there was unquestionably a sense that the Rising was a foolhardy enterprise as it manifested itself there was a broader sense that it was, if not quite justifiable, certainly legitimate – a fine distinction, but not one without significance.

It’s always struck me as instructive that there were two particular dynamics in evidence. Firstly a very rapid shift in sympathy towards those executed – and so rapid in fact that it further legitimised the events of 1916 in the popular imagination. It’s difficult not to feel that a door that was already open was being pushed – sympathy, absolutely understandable, but that transmuting into support, less so unless such support was already extant in some albeit quiescent form.

Secondly a small illustration. There were very very few tricolours in evidence during the Rising. A horizontal one was on the front of the GPO and I think there was a vertical one flown at Boland’s Mills. Otherwise it was gold harp on a green field flags. So in a sense the representation of this event was one rooted in a more traditional historical approach (as well as which it was probably easier to get hold of green flags – practicality, a great driver of historical events). At the commemorations at Easter 1917 almost all the flags displayed were tricolour flags. Again that’s a massive shift, but one that is understandable – Home Rule had self-evidently failed, its devices were now superseded but the more muscular and overt Republicanism of the tricolour. And even though by any reasonable criteria the Rising itself was a failure it was one that allowed for a perception that there that more muscular republicanism was the only way forward. The military approach had failed but it opened up space for a more pointed political approach to be followed by yet further military action (though Lee as always points out that the ultimate form of the struggle for independence was one which would have been a surprise to many involved in the Rising who envisaged open military actions rather than guerrilla warfare).

To me that suggests that those like John Bruton who argue that the Home Rule path was both right, successful and inevitably bound to succeed may have long over-estimated the attachment of the Irish to Home Rule, an attachment that was arguably cosmetic and shallow-rooted and that once something more substantial was on offer was rapidly pushed aside.

Of course it does no service to replace one partial analysis with another. Clearly there were those who were opposed to the Rising and bitterly so in many instances. And the reasons for that, cultural, social and economic are obvious. Moreover they also – I would hazard – constituted a significant enough block. But whether they were the majority seems unlikely, not least given the overall support for advanced nationalism from that period on in political terms.


Posted on October 14, 2015, in General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Republicanism post-1900, The road to the Easter Rising. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Hi admin, I would really like if you could send me a quick E-mail. I’m a leaving cert history student. my leaving cert history project is entitled “An investigation into the IRA bombing of Nelsons Pillar 1966”. I seen this site got an interview with Mr Sutcliffe and I was really hoping I could get a written interview with him. however, I cant seem to find and contact details for Mr Sutcliffe. So I was wondering if you could help a young historian out with my Interview with the infomus Saor Eire member? My E-mail is thank you so much for your time.

  2. Hi Shauna,

    I have sent you a personal email re how to contact Liam S.

    Beir bua,

  3. Hi, To say “the rebellion had NO support of the majority irish people” is a bad comment completely ignores the fact its right! it didn’t! There are many things that irritate me about the rising and period that followed but I rarely see them discussed. I would like to get your views.

    1. Surely of all people Connolly knew there would be looting and a lot of civilian casualties in Dublin,a much more densely populated city then and with the worst tenements in Europe. Yet still he pushed on with the violence which resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths. Many looters (nobody really talks about the civilian deaths bu harp on about the death of the leaders). If they cared about the Irish people so much why put them in such danger? Why occupy a building in an area the British could inflict huge damage upon.

    2. Connoly draped his “King nor Kaiser” flag over liberty hall up until 1914/15. But suddenly
    had a big enough change of heart to include “the gallant allies’ of imperial Germany in the proclamation of the republic!! I though these guys were republican revolutionaries? Why cite Imperial Germany as an ally? An Imperial Germany who had presided over mass genocide in modern day namibia from 1907 onwards!! It begs the question what were Connolly and Pearses plans for Ireland if Germany had won the war?!!

    3. SF got to power in 1918 on the promise of peacefully campaigning for irish independance. They didnt get to power promising a guerilla war for the next 3 years. They promised to appeal to the Versaille peace conferance for independance. yet with the “gallant allies” of Imperial Germany etched into the proclamation this wouldve been laugh at!! SF knew this, conned the Irish people and immediately turned to the gun on getting elected.

    All in all a farcical period in Irish history in my opinion.

  4. I think you’re wrong on everything here.

    1. The civilians killed in Dublin in 1916 were killed by the British. It wasn’t the rebels responsibility. To argue that you should never have an armed rebellion because the powers-that-be will kill civilians is not only an argument against armed rebellion but against any rebellion against oppressive powers.

    It would mean not even having peaceful protests because the oppressor will kill civilians. So, during the apartheid era in South Africa, it would mean not organising peaceful protests because the regime will kill people, as at Sharpeville, as at Soweto and on and on. It would mean not having civil rights marches in the north of Ireland because the british will kill peaceful marchers as at Bloody Sunday. Your argument is not just an argument against armed rebellions but against peaceful ones too.

    We would still all be ruled over by feudal monarchs if people hadn’t have had armed rebellions. There would still be slavery in the US. Etc etc etc.

    2. What evidence do you have that the “gallant allies” referred to in the Proclamation are the armies of imperial Germany? You state this as if it is an accepted fact. In WW1, all the sides were imperialist. Germany was no worse (and no better) than Britain and France. But your comment seems to suggest that Germany was worse than Britain. And when it came to hypocrisy the British were the worst of all – the freedom of small nations. . .

    3. No, SF didn’t promise peacefully campaigning for independence in the November 1918 election. A third of the SF candidates were in prison and another third on the run. Their election manifesto was very heavily censored by the British and their election workers continually harassed. The Irish Volunteers had already reformed and re-armed, and were carrying out manoeuvres and also appearing under arms in the streets. I don’t think too many people assumed there would be a peaceful road to independence.

    Moreover, it wasn’t SF (or the IVs) who decided on war. It was the British. SF won a stunning electoral victory, obliterating the old Parliamentary Party. They had a mandate from the people not to campaign for independence but to *establish* independence. They set up Dail Eireann and declared independence and the Brits responded by declaring the Dail an illegal assembly and moving to suppress it. That was what dictated war.

    If the British state had’ve recognised and accepted the will of the Irish people there would not have been a war.

    And, of course, the British said they were fighting WW1 to support the rights and freedoms of small nations. Sounds like the only conning going on was on the British government’s part!

    To return to the first point again, popular support for 1916. For most of the last 100 years there has been an unquestioned consensus that the Rising had no popular support. Back in the mid-1990s I wrote a 120,000 word Masters dissertation on this period and I found that this dominant view was *somewhat* questionable/problematic. It didn’t entirely fit with the evidence. The Rising certainly did not have anything like majority support, but it also didn’t have NO support. And I found that, here and there, a few other people, including people who were not in any way supportive of the Provos, had questioned whether it had NO support.

    What has happened recently, now that armed conflict has ended in the north and people have become a bit more dispassionate about republican history, is that there are more historians questioning the idea that the Rising had NO support. We’re getting a better-informed, more closely-researched analysis now. Some good revisionism!


  5. 1. How do you know civilians were killed only by the British? Both sides shot looters. There was always going to be looters in the poorest slums in Europe!! That has been documented recently by Joe Duffy’s research. Why put civilians in such danger when they knew it would provoke a military response from the British? They completely disregarded the civilian population who were more concerned about working rights and where the next meal was coming from than some romantic vision of an Irish Republic.

    Don’t attempt to compare apartheid with the Irish situation in 1916. Irish people had gradually been granted freedoms by constitutional means from the mid 19th century with catholic emancipation. There were home rule bills that didn’t pass but it was on the way. The country had an operating democracy that the majority of its citizens (all 32 counties) were happy with. Yes a majority of nationalists wanted home rule/independance but by constitutional means NOT on the terms of a minority of men within a minority of extremists, one of whom had a wild romantic vision of Ireland as some sort of Gaelic utopia. Saying they had a right to seize the GPO is the same as saying the water protestors now, for example, would have a right to seize the GPO and invoke their idea of a “Republic” on the Irish people. They don’t have now and Pearse & Co didn’t have then.

    You are comparing peaceful protests in Soweto and Northern ireland with 1916 violence!!

    2. If you don’t read “gallant allies” as being a reference to Imperial Germany and the central powers after the well documented collusion between the rebels and the Germans I really don’t know who you think it might be! I am not saying one empire is better than the other but I thought these “republicans” were anti -imperialist? Against empire? Why align themselves to another, arguably more sinister Empire?

    3. Sinn Feins manifesto stated they would campaign to the versaille peace conference for Irish independance. This, a party with a proclamation of a republic aligned to the defeated central powers. It would be much like a country now citing Iran as their ally! SF had to know that this would never wash with Britain and the allied powers, including America. If they didn’t know this they were very very stupid. They duped the Irish people into thinking they could achieve this when obviously they planned a Guerilla war, which the Irish people most certainly did not give a mandate for. They received overwhelming sympathy purely because the Brits made a hames of the executions, hardly a good reason to vote for them! They were also fortunate to receive a huge number of new young voters in the 20-29 age group who had not voted before.

    Despite that the majority of Irish people (32 counties) did not vote for SF. They polled 46% of the vote or something similar. Whilst it was a landslide in terms of seats won those numbers distort the actual numbers of the electorate. So to say they received a mandate by the Irish people to wage a guerilla war is total and utter rubbish.

    The British had shown a willingness to grant Home Rule just 6 years previously. Home Rule with partition (which is effectively all we achieved after 3 years of mindless violence, Irishmen killing Irishmen) was even more achievable and so would have, in my opinion a partitioned Republic easily by 1949!!

    Yes France would still be ruled by a feudal monarch if their PEOPLE didn’t uprise. Practically all the citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille!! Similarly in Russia. Huge numbers of civilians rebelled. Irish rebellions have always failed because of an inability to galvanise people. Why? Because most people were contented under British rule but at the same time wanting independnace through constitutional means.

    There was nothing in that shoddy proclamation at all for the Unionists either so I don’t know how on earth they thought it would be welcomed up there.

    We never got a republic anyway, we got a Theocracy. Far Far worse than a monarchy and something we are still dealing with the legacy of

  6. gt

  7. Most of your reply isn’t really dealing with the issue plus it’s not really understanding my argument.

    Let me give some examples. You say, “You are comparing peaceful protests in Soweto and Northern Ireland with 1916 violence!!”

    No, I never did any such thing. You said the 1916 leaders put people at risk by rebelling; I said (perfectly correctly) that yours is an argument against *any* resistance. That by protesting against apartheid, the organisers put people at risk too, but that’s not an argument for not protesting.

    Moreover, people had peacefully protested in the north. They protested peacefully in 1968 and got their heads batoned by the cops and a loyalist pogrom launched against them. They continued to peacefully protest and get attacked and shot at and killed. After Bloody Sunday, thousands of young people in the north decided that there was little point in protesting peacefully when you would get gunned down.

    The British state closed down the options for peaceful protest in the late 1960s/early 1970s, just as they had after they lost the 1918 election in Ireland.

    And, of course, the first British soldier in the north to be killed was killed by loyalists.

    You say, “Yes a majority of nationalists wanted home rule/independance but by constitutional means NOT on the terms of a minority of men within a minority of extremists. . .”

    Patently not true. People voted overwhelmingly for SF knowing that SF was united with the Irish Volunteers and that they would seek independence by peaceful means *if possible* and include the use of violence *if necessary*. The British chose which of those options would be pursued.

    You’re also wrong because 1918 wasn’t the only election either. In the local body elections in 1920, well after the armed struggle for independence had commenced, SF won control of most of the local body authorities and in a number of them were supported by the LP. Local body after local body withdrew their allegiance to the British and recognised Dail Eireann. The underground Dail, during the height of the war of independence, was re cognised by *most* of the local government authorities in Ireland. Plus when the British organised new elections in Ireland, SF again won most of the seats. They had a very clear mandate.

    You say, “Despite that the majority of Irish people (32 counties) did not vote for SF. They polled 46% of the vote or something similar. Whilst it was a landslide in terms of seats won those numbers distort the actual numbers of the electorate. So to say they received a mandate by the Irish people to wage a guerilla war is total and utter rubbish.”

    Again, you’re simply wrong. But here’s a question for you first. What mandate did the British government have, from either the British or the Irish people, to deny independence to Ireland? When did the British government present a manifesto the British people saying they would hold Ireland by whatever means were necessary and give the British people a chance to vote on British government policy? See, you have total double standards. The British government, in your view – certainly as you’ve expressed it up to now – doesn’t need any mandate. Only the republicans have to have a mandate.

    Now to move to your ill-informed claim about the SF vote. Firstly, 46% would be a landslide victory in any election in Ireland or Britain these days. But 46% *downplays* the support for SF. Here’s why. In a whole bunch of seats, there were no opposition candidates because of the collapse of the Parliamentary Party. SF candidates were automatically declared elected. Given the ratio of SF vote to the Parliamentary Party in the seats where that party did stand, this would have meant huge majorities to SF, if there had’ve been a vote taken in those seats. So there’s a string of seats in which SF would have got *at least 60-70% or even more of the vote; that would have easily taken their vote over 50%, in fact well over 50%. Did you not about this? I assume you didn’t, because you haven’t taken it into account at all. So they got a landslide – 73 seats out of 105 – but they would’ve got a much greater percentage of the vote than their already impressive 46% if people had’ve been allowed to vote in those electorates.

    One thing I agree with you on is that you got a theocracy. And that’s also exactly what you would have gotten if the Palriamentary Party had’ve managed to get Home Rule. But, of course, the British decided not to grant home rule and forced rebellion and war on people in Ireland. Moreover, the theocracy is the result of a partition imposed by the British at the point of a gun – ie Churchill’s threat of “immediate and terrible war”. Connolly pointed out that if the British succeeded in partition – which the Parliamentary Party had acceded to before WW1 (which you seem to have forgotten or not known) – every progressive force in Ireland would be set back and the most reactionary elements would be in power on both sides of the border. Connolly said the labour movement needed to fight partition to the death. Well, wasn’t he proven right.

    Lastly, on your comment about the “gallant allies”. You claimed it was a reference to the Germans. I’m saying, Prove it. You’re the one making the claim, so the onus is on you to prove it.

    Actually, one more thing! You say, of the period leading up to 1916: “The country had an operating democracy that the majority of its citizens (all 32 counties) were happy with.”

    Eh? A majority of the adult population didn’t even have the vote. I’m talking about women. And, of course, while women in Britain had to fight long and hard for the vote, the republicans had consistently supported votes for women. And, of course, it’s no wonder that women voted keenly for SF in 1918 as did young people.

    You need to read more widely on this period of Irish history.


  8. PS:

    By the way, have you ever even spoken to people form the northern nationalist ghettos who were around in the 1960s, let alone who were peaceful marchers for civil rights. My guess would be no.

  9. You are jumping forward 50 years to compare British aggression in NI with the period of 1916-1921. The 6 counties came about because of the violence during that period. The violence created huge divisions. It created sectarian states in the North and south. Huge numbers of protestants left the south in the years after independance. Growing up in Ireland even in the 80s and 90s there was always a feeling that the protestants were outsiders. I remember a local protestant family in the part of Dublin I grew up in simply being referred to in a derogatory tone as “the prods” by most in the community. The protestant church and school were also derided locally as different and places to be suspicious of. Civil rights issues in NI in 60s and 70s were not right, of course they weren’t it was a disgrace and an embarrassment that such a situation existed the UK then but it was a direct consequence of the 1916-1921 period. That period in Irelands history created huge fear and mistrust of the other side. The Unionists were unwilling to grant power to catholics because of the general feeling on the island. I’m not saying that was correct or justified but thats why it happened. Total mistrust of the other side.

    Apartheid was a systematic form of government which divided a country on racial grounds. You cannot even compare Ireland’s situation to that. It is ridiculous to compare it.

    “SF won control of local body authorities” Of course they did!!! Everyone was running scared
    of the lunatics!! These were men who burned down the custom house in an extraordinary act of state vandalism wiping out all census records of Irish people before 1900. These are people who would shoot regular Dubliners in cold blood in front of their families just because they were serving the British crown as policemen. These are people who eventually turned in on themselves and fought over partition. And after all the killing De Valera was a man who rejected the treaty despite it being democratically passed in the Dail! An utterly vile man. They had absolutely no respect for Irish people and dragged the country through the mud for years afterwards. No economic plan apart from “Brits Out”.

    I am no fan of Imperialism but something Irish people just have to accept is that Empires were a by product of their time. That is a fact. From about 1500 onwards all the big nations in Europe embarked on developing an overseas empire. By 2015 standards this is not acceptable but at that time when many people still thought the world was flat it was groundbreaking!! Yes empires did some awful things but humanity progressed because of them. The world we have today would not exist if not for empires. Are you seriously saying that each country in all the history of the world should have just cordially stayed out of each others business and not bothered their neighbours or not bothered to explore the planet? Ireland sitting next to England was always going to be swallowed up in such circumstances and we didnt as a people put up any great resistance to it. Dermot Mc Murrough the King of Leinster invited the anglo normans over to get him out of a rut and in fighting with other kings for fuck sake!!

    We were invaded by the Vikings and they improved the country and as much as you might be at pains to say it the English also improved the country in so many different ways. In fact some people bemoan the fact the Romans never bothered to invade Ireland as we might have modernised like the rest of Europe. If it wasn’t Britain it wouldve been Germany or France or Spain we were occupied by. If that didnt happen we most likely would have ended up ruled by some barbaric Celtic king for centuries and become an island completely isolated from the rest of the world. As I said most Irish rebellions simply failed because they could not get the widespread support of the people. Most people were happy with their lot. Look at Hungary, a small country who overthrew the Soviet Union in the 1950s with a huge civilian led revolution. The same in France, same in Russia itself under Tsarist rule. Irish rebellions only ever mustered up the support of a few extreme idealists, hoping for help from other empires! and they all failed miserably.Whats to say the French were not gonna try and turn us into a colony if their help for the 1798 rebellion was successful or likewise the Spanish at the battle of Kinsale?

    So it was with that background that Ireland found itself in 1916. To say “Britain didn’t have a mandate” is far too simplistic and ignores centuries of political union and general support from Irish people in Ireland. There were royal visits to Ireland in 1898 and 1911, both of which were greeted by huge numbers of Irish people. Irish men were far more likely to take up a gun and fight for the British army that they were to fight for a nationalist cause. Irish people, catholic and protestant made up 1/6th of the British Empires civil service in places like India. Those are also facts. But these people did want independance. That was the dichotomy of the time. They wanted it, I believe, constitutionally and not through the disastrous sequence of events from 1916 onwards inspired by a man with a dream to be a martyr and who groomed young boys to believe blood sacrifice was something to aspire to.

    Again there was absolutely zilch. Nothing. Zero in that proclamation that would appeal
    to the Unionists. Any sane person could see that. If the Brits didnt foolishly shoot them things most likely would have blown over.

    And if you don’t think their “gallant aliies” were Germany and the central powers who were they then? Britian? Its gotta be one or the other hasnt it? On the basis of eliminating Britain it must be Germany and the central powers, so theres my proof.

    I’d imagine a partitioned Ireland through constitutuinal means probably would have been a theocracy also but the relationship with the North in that context would have been way way more benign and the possibility of working towards a 32 county republic (possibly a secular one over time) would have been vastly improved.

  10. 1. Re the “gallant allies”. Again, you’re making the claim. You need to prove it.

    2. Mandates. Again, you’re completely one-sided and inconsistent. When did the British government get a specific mandate from the British people to deny independence to Ireland following the 1918 election?

    I said: “SF won control of local body authorities. . .”

    You say, as usual without a shred of evidence: “Of course they did!!! Everyone was running scared of the lunatics!!”

    There is not one single historian who argues this.

    This is your typical way of responding to things you have no serious way of refuting. SF won *two general elections* and the local government elections in the space of two-three years. That demolishes your absurd argument that people didn’t know what they were voting for. So you just respond with the nonsense that people were terrified of them!

    3. You say: “Apartheid was a systematic form of government which divided a country on racial grounds. You cannot even compare Ireland’s situation to that. It is ridiculous to compare it.”

    Yet again, you haven’t dealt with my point. You argued that it was irresponsible of republicans to put people’s lives at risks in 1916, but I have noted for the third time now, that people’s lives are almost always at risk when there is a struggle for people’s rights. A bunch of civil rights activists got murdered in the southern USA in the early 1960s engaged in peaceful civil rights agitation and for trying to register people to vote. Your argument is an argument against doing anything.

    Btw, you seem blissfully unaware than from its establishment onwards, the northern state in Ireland was based on *structural discrimination* against the Catholic/nationalist population in housing, employment and voting. In Derry, for instance, with a nationalist majority, the Unionists controlled local government because of a combination of gerrymadering and exclusion from voting. Basil McParland, the Unionist mayor in the early 1960s, had 43 votes in the local elections while many Catholics had no vote.

    You also seem blissfully unaware of the Special Powers Act. Voerwood, the prime minister of apartheid South Africa, said in the early 1960s he would exchange all the equivalent legislation in South Africa for just one clause of the Special Powers Act.

    4. You say stuff like: “De Valera was a man who rejected the treaty despite it being democratically passed in the Dail! An utterly vile man.”

    Yes, De Valera was a vile man, but not for the reason you give. You have a very, very elitist view of democracy. The treaty passed by 7 votes in the Dail – 64 to 57 – because a tiny number of deputies (if just 4 people had voted the other way, the Treaty would not have passed – went against the organisations whose policy they were supposed to uphold. 11 of the IRA’s 19 divisions opposed the Treaty, two-thirds of SF opposed the Treaty, over 90% of Cumann na mBan opposed the Treaty. A tiny number of ratbags showed their contempt for the democracy of organisations consisting of tens of thousands of activists and voted however they pleased, because they believed they as individuals were more important than the people at the grassroots.

    One group of TDs that did not behave in this way was the women. All the women TDs voted against the Treaty.

    You also leave out the fact that the people who signed the Treaty had no mandate to do so. They were supposed to bring it back to Dublin for consideration by the Dail. Instead without any mandate they signed it and then presented it as fait accompli, an important factor in the small majority by which it passed in the Dail in January 1922. What vile people. Moreover most of the people who signed hadn’t even done any of the fighting, suffering, etc. They were just typical bourgeois politicians who wanted power at any cost and were quite prepared to run a backward little neo-colonial state for Britain. Within a year or two they were cutting the wages of state employees by ten percent, bringing in the flogging bill, a few years later they banned divorce, etc etc. Then a bunch of Free Staters set up the Irish fascist movement (the Blueshirts).

    But these folks apparently aren’t vile.

    I think both De Valera and the Free Staters were vile. I’m not an irish nationalist; I’m a socialist-republican.

    5. I see you’ve abandoned the pretence that SF’s election result in 1918 wasn’t a massive victory. That’s a good sign. However, you need to read a much wider range of Irish historical material.

    Try starting with Connolly’s ‘Labour in Irish History’, try T.A. Jackson, ‘Ireland Her Own’, try P. Beresford Ellis, ‘A History of the irish Working Class’, try the work of Professor J.J. Lee, and try looking at the bibliogrpahy of my old MA thesis, although it’s a bit dated now, as it was written 20 years ago.

    I’m ending this discussion with you here, because it’s started going round in circles. And when you dismiss all the SF election victories by pretending people – hundreds and hundreds of thousands of anonymous voters presumably, in your fevered imagination – were terrified of them it is simply a waste of my time.

  11. Political Tourist

    Political violence and what creates the conditions for violence are interesting.
    In my own backyard i saw how in the space of a few weeks how you go from peaceful to possible murder.
    If YES had won the Scottish referendum instead of No it would be interesting were we would be politically a year later.
    Would the British and her allies in Scotland have rolled over and excepted the end of the British State.

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