Who drove the Rising?

imagesI’m well-disposed towards the 1916 Societies, so this short piece should be taken as a disagreement in a comradely spirit.

A recent article on their site says, “The driving force behind the Rising was the IRB; it was in effect a Fenian Rising.”  (See here.)

I think this is not only wrong historically but it has some important political implications for today too.

The IRB was not the driving force behind the Rising and nor could it be.  Connolly, Mallin, Markievicz and the Irish Citizen Army made up the driving force.  From the time the First World War broke out, Connolly determined on a Rising and began preparations.  The IRB position was rather more confused.  The left of the IRB – Clarke, Pearse, Mac Diarmada etc – also wanted a rising, but the situation in the IRB was far more complicated as the organisation contained far more equivocal figures, like Bulmer Hobson, and wavered continually.

The classic example is that the IRB capitulated to Redmond’s demand for a bunch of his sycophants – 25 of them I think! – to be added to the leading body of the Irish Volunteers.  If you are the driving force for an imminent rebellion you don’t agree to have a large number of opponents of such a rebellion being added to the leadership of what is ostensibly to be the main force of the rebellion.

And, utterly predictably, when war came, the Redmondite element of the Irish Volunteer leadership supported British imperialism and they and Redmond took the vast majority of the members of the Volunteers out of the movement and into the British Army and onto the imperialist killing fields in France.  The IRB leaders who were responsible for the capitulation of Redmond had not only made a serious political error, they had in effect sabotaged the Volunteers.

While the IRB floundered about, with its left elements wanting an insurrection but not really understanding how to proceed, Connolly was pursuing a consistent insurrectionary strategy all along.  He told the IRB not to capitulate to Redmond’s demands, he told them to break with the utterly worthless (and spineless) Eoin MacNeill, but they didn’t.  By contrast, Connolly prepared consistently for revolt.  He pursued a strategy of trying to bring all the most progressive forces – the left republicans, the left of the suffrage movement – around his banner.  I write in more detail about this, here (see, in particular, the section which deals with Connolly, Markievicz and the militant labour strategy.  Without Connolly, there may well have simply not been a rebellion.  Or it would have been a shambles, like 1867 and 1848, and resulted in a long period of despair.  In the piece for which I have provided a link I look a bit at why the IRB was ill-suited to organise rebellion.

The problems with the IRB also came to the fore quickly after 1916.  The better militants, like Mellows, left it and the more socially conservative elements, like Collins, were in control.  When the Treaty came, the IRB was the only republican organisation whose leadership backed it.  And they did so by a sizeable majority – 11 to 4!  So an organisation which had been set up in the late 1850s to organise an Irish revolution became crucial to the counter-revolution and partition.

No, the IRB was not the driving force for 1916.  It was a chain around the legs of the Irish revolution and, a mere six years after the Rising, was crucial to the victory of the counter-revolution and the maintenance of British control over the island, with the south as a neo-colony and the north as the Orange state.

Eighty years later, the IRB’s heirs in the Provos have taken the same path.  Militarism and undergroundist politics always prove to have a soft underbelly.  It’s in Connolly’s footsteps we need to be treading, and treading further, not in the footsteps of the IRB.




Posted on April 6, 2016, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, Constance Markievicz, Free State in 1920s, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish Citizen Army, James Connolly, Liam Mellows, Padraic Pearse, Partition, Political education and theory, Provos - then and now, Republicanism post-1900, Republicanism pre-1900, Revolutionary figures, The road to the Easter Rising, Thesis chapters, War for Independence period. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. James Connolly ultimately threw in his lot with a section of the advanced nationalist petty bourgeoisie in 1916. This did not represent a failure of his politics or an abandonment of socialism. The problem for Connolly however, was that the respective balance of forces in this joint venture was weighted heavily in favour of the adavanced nationalists. The problem with this from a socialist point of view is that rather than the organised working class leading the revolt pulling behind it the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie ; the opposite was true. The petty bourgeoisie would lead the revolt with only a marginal input being made by the organized working class that had been badly weakened by both the Dublin lock-out and the war.

    • I agree with all this.

      The disagreement with the 1916 Societies, however, was not about which element was *weightier* but who *drove* the Rising. Connolly drove it and if it had’ve succeeded Connolly would have been the key leader afterwards in my view, pulling the most radical of the Fenian types (like Pearse) behind him.

      Keep in mind too that the Irish Volunteers attracted workers who didn’t join the ICA because it was very small and had limited access to weapons. The leadership of the IV was petty-bourgeois in a sociological sense, but many of them were far to the left of sociological proletarians in the union movement!


  2. I would go more towards 1916 being a Fenian-led or inspired rising, rather than being a Fenian rising as such. Most rank-and-file members of the IV, CnamB and FÉ were non-IRB. Then of course you had the ICA, Hibernian Rifles, etc. very few of whom were Fenians.

    The IRB in the lead up to 1916 was going through a generational change, older activists like Clarke setting out to recruit newer faces like Pearse, etc. Up to then it had taken on the qualities of a veterans’ society. During the subsequent revolution many new republican activists bypassed the IRB altogether, or took only temporary membership. The IRA was a sort of rival to the IRB in terms of being the more attractive grouping. Why join the IRB when one was already in the IRA?

    By the time it came to 1921/’22 the organisation was back in the hands of far more conservative, older members. Some of the internal debates and voting seems to indicate that. Plus Collins and company, whether by design or accident, had more or less taken over the leadership of the group. Possibly that was more to do with Collins using the IRB network as a branch of the IRA’s military intelligence and filling it with people he trusted.

    • With Collins, it was very much by design.

      He pushed aside Kathleen Clarke, who was far more radical than him, and took over the Prisoners Dependants Fund. Maire Comerford refers to the “reactionary triumvirate who cornered the leadership” after the Rising, naming them as de Valera, Griffith and Collins.

      The left-republican women understood things much better than a lot of the men!

  3. The I.R.B. didn’t capitulate, as numerous BMH witness statements make clear. What happened is that Hobson and MacNeill capitulated (it seems that MacNeill even initiated the opening overture to Redmond), with Hobson completely blind-siding his comrades, apparently some at least of whom thought that this was I.R.B. policy.

    Hobson was never trusted again (strike two. Strike one had been putting himself onto the Provisional Committee, in direct contravention of I.R.B. instructions that no well-known members were to be prominently associated with the Volunteers).

    • The IRB people did capitulate, however. They *disagreed* with the decision, as the BMH witness statements show, some of them (like Pearse) very strongly. But they didn’t reverse the decision and nor did they try to get rid of MacNeill after he’d proved himself completely unreliable. They were locked in an alliance with him which proved fatal. MacNeill was left in a position in which he (and Hobson) were able to effectively sabotage the Rising itself.

      Connolly spent considerable time and effort trying to detach the best IRBers from MacNeill and it was an uphill struggle. By the time he succeeded it was too late.

      Subsequently, leading IRB figures *defended* MacNeill who was even allowed into the republican movement when it was reorganised in September 1917. And, of course, he went on to be a Treaty supporter. Then he was put on the Boundary Commission where, yet again, he capitulated to the Brits. Then, having sabotaged the struggle for freedom for a decade, he retired from public life.

      Btw, I think the IRB instructions about no well-known members being on the Irish Volunteers exec was *idiotic*, This is where conspiratorial nonsense gets people; they rowed in behind MacNeill. They thought they were secretly in control – but, of course, they weren’t. And their conspiratorial politics didn’t allow them to see what should have been plain as the noses on their faces.

      I am a big admirer of Pearse, Clarke and Mac Diarmada but, frankly, they weren’t great as architects of insurrection. Connolly was. That’s why republicanism, for all its merits and bravery, has never been sufficient. Socialist-republicanism isn’t just a nice idea, it’s essential for any hope of victory. Republicanism, by itself, always compromises with bourgeois nationalism and is always in danger of ending up in the morass of constitutional nationalism. Conspirators don’t actually make good revolutionaries. The Provos are the latest manifestation of that trend. And Adams, the greatest conspirator since de Valera, has been the personification of that.

  4. many people were willing to give their lives in a cause they believed in, against all odds and a pitiless and brutal enemy. In an attempt to establish who was the driving force behind it we should be careful not to sully the memory of any of the patriots who fought and died. One person could not plan and carry it out.

  5. Paul, I don’t think it sullies anyone’s memory to say the indispensable figure was Connolly. Connolly was far more onto it than the best of the IRB people. From the time the first shot was fired in 1914, he worked to a strategy designed to bring the most progressive forces in Ireland together for a Rising and sought to unite the radicals around the revolutionary section of the working class. The best of the IRBers had no such strategy, nor could they. That doesn’t change the fact that they were committed revolutionaries and fine human beings. But we don’t need to romanticise them or believe they were more than they were. As I said, this also has implications for today – it shows the need for a socialist-republican movement, not simply republicanism by itself.

    Btw, there were other people who died later who I think were absolutely awful politically. When I lived in Ireland I wouldn’t attend a Liam Lynch commemoration on principle. The guy *disorganised* the anti-Treaty movement and helped ensure they lost. At some point in time, I intend to write about this in some detail. Enough to say here that it is often forgotten that there were three factions at the time of the Treaty, not two. There was the Treatyite minority of the IRA, the hopeless prevaricating faction of anti-Treatyites (led by Lynch) and the more solid wing of anti-Treatyites (led by Mellows and Rory O’Connor). Personally, I partly blame Lynch for what happened to the Four Courts garrison (and thus, ultimately, the executions of Mellows, O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey).

    We need to know what happened, who did what and what their politics were, not only for the historical record but *primarily* because we want to escape those weaknesses/errors today.

  6. oconnorlysaght

    Good articles, but you should mention the fact that Connolly was trying to build a specific working class resistance based on his union to back the ICA, even v. the Volunteers. In fact he seems to have spent more time as Acting General Secretary of the Union, and Editor of its papers, than as ICA Commandant (Michael Mallin was its first Chief of Staff and took most of the running off Connolly’s hands.). Connolly’s problem was that the Dublin workers were still recovering from the lockout. However, from October 1915, there were signs of consistent revival of militancy on the docks; this was centred on the Dublin Steampacket Company strike of workers in a strategically important position. This strike has been ignored or played down by nearly all Connolly’s biographers and his writings on it were suppressed until this writer republished them. Nonetheless, it continued until a fortnight before the Rising and ended only when the arch-chauvinist TU leader Havelock Wilson sabotaged a sympathetic strike of his own union’s seamen members. Had it continued the Rising could have been very different.
    however, it is possible to agree with Morgan on one point. Connolly should not have ignored the ILPI/SPI. This would not be for Morgan’s reasons, but because his failure to build it meant that his death left no organised politically conscious body of his followers to continue his work at the most critical time. Labour came to be led by pacifist abstainers from the national struggle, while that struggle was monopolised by conscious capitalist leaders who were prepared to betray it in order to try to build a national capitalism in 26 counties and were opposed mainly by hairsplitters like Dev and non-political militarists like Rory O’Connor and Liam Lynch (Liam Mellows and Peadar O’Donnell were very much in a minority.)

  7. I agree with the key points in all this, although I wouldn’t characterise O’Connor as a non-political militarist. In Lynch’s case, he might have served the movement better if he had’ve been a (much better) militarist. As a militarist he really wasn’t very good – he was a fence sitter and perennial retreatist! I also wouldn’t describe Lynch as ‘non-political’; I’d describe him as a social conservative. One of the people O’Donnell was talking about when he said some of the anti-Treatyites had the same social views as the leading Treatyites.

    Anyone following this article might also be interested in Rayner’s article on the steampacket company dispute and the Rising, which is here: https://theirishrevolution.wordpress.com/2016/01/05/connolly-the-dublin-steampacket-company-dispute-and-the-1916-rising/

  8. oconnorlysaght

    Good points, but I would say that L.Lynch was objectively socially conservative because non-political.
    However, I am intrigued by your view of O’Connor. Nearly fifty years ago, I heard that he had progressive views, but I have heard and seen nothing since then to back this statement. Certainly, he is not mentioned in the Comintern files as a possible friend, though his fellow victim Joe MacKelvie is. Perhaps you could elaborate?

  9. oconnorlysaght

    Phil, You might like to add the attached to your website. With all good wishes, Rayner

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