Sylvia Pankhurst on the 1916 Rising

Sylvia Pankhurst was a leader of the struggle for women’s right to vote in Britain.  Primarily involved in organising working class women in the East End of London, she was increasingly attracted to Marxism.  Her support for workers’ struggles led to her being expelled from the bourgeois-feminist Women’s Social and Political Union, led by her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel.  While the feminist family members turned into warmongers in the First World War, Sylvia organised against the war on a working class and anti-imperialist basis.  She was one of the small handful of major figures on the British left who supported the national liberation struggle in Ireland, including the 1916 Rising.  This article was originally published in the Women’s Dreadnought of May 13, 1916, the day after the last of the executions of leaders of the Rising.  The paper soon after changed its name to Workers Dreadnought.   The text below is taken from the Marxist Internet Archive. 

by Sylvia Pankhurst

Justice can make but one reply to the Irish rebellion, and that is to demand that Ireland shall be allowed to, govern herself.

Differences of opinion in England, Scotland, or Wales as to what measure of self-government Ireland is to have ought not to affect the matter – by the “freedom of small nations” which the British Government has so bombastically sworn to defend, this is essentially a question for Ireland herself to decide. Let a popular vote be taken in Ireland as to whether, she shall be an independent, self-governing republic, or an autonomous part of the British Empire, like Australia and New Zealand. That is the only method by which the Irish difficulty can be solved and Ireland learn content.

The “firm and vigorous administration” which The Times demands for Ireland, which we suspect is but another term for coercion, and such suggestions as that of the professing Liberal, Professor Longford, that conscription shall be applied to Ireland, and that the Irish Rebels shall be set free on condition that they join the Army, will only lead to graver trouble in the near future. Ireland has been held in subjection by force too long, not to retaliate with what force she can, when provoked beyond a certain point.

Official reports in the very nature of things are, of course one-sided, and these are all that may readily be obtained from Ireland as yet. Therefore it is not possible to say at the moment of writing whether the time of the Irish rebellion was chosen by its leaders, or whether the outbreak was finally provoked by outside agencies, but there are various indications that the latter view may be correct.

The reasons for the discontent which has caused the rebellion are clearly apparent. In the first place the Home Rule Act fails to satisfy considerable sections of Irish men and women, who regard it as a mere extension of local government.

In the second place, the Home Rule Act itself is not secure. Should a Unionist Government succeed the present administration at Westminster (and what at the moment seems more probable?) the Home Rule Act could easily be repealed before it had ever been put into force. On the eve of the European War, Sir Edward Carson and the Ulster Unionists were threatening and openly preparing revolution, to prevent the application of the Home Rule Bill. The Times, which supported Carson and his Ulster rebels, now declares that:

“The country will not be satisfied with the Irish Situation until the men who sat and looked on while armed potential rebels were openly trained in Dublin are removed from office.”

But The Times is not referring to Sir Edward Carson, and Sir Edward Carson himself, though he talks very glibly of preserving Law and Order, just now, makes it quite clear that he intends to revive his pre-War threats of armed rebellion when there again appears a prospect of enforcing Home Rule, which, in a letter to the Press of April 29th, 1916, he described as “a gross wrong.” As a matter of fact, so far from being prepared to forego armed resistance to Home Rule, the Carsonites are keeping their ammunition ready, and when asked by the British Government to hand over their arms for use in the present War, they refused to do so on the ground that they would need them later on. Everyone knows that it was the Carsonites who first armed to resist Home Rule. It was afterwards that the Redmonite Home Rulers set up an army; and that the Sinn Fein organisation armed to fight for the Irish Republic; whilst the working-class industrial movement, under Larkin and Connolly, also set up its Citizen Army later than the Carsonites, and did so in the first place to protect peaceful meetings of the workers from ill-treatment by the police.

The Sinn Feiners and the Larkinites have gradually drawn together, though during the great strike in Dublin the Sinn Feiners accused the Larkinites of appealing to the Irish people “to forswear the name of Irishmen for Citizens of the World,” and Larkin and his comrades declared that it mattered little to the Workers whether they were enslaved by British or Irish capitalists.

To many of us, who believe that neither race nor creed should separate the workers of the world, it is a matter of regret that the old position of Larkin and Connolly should now seem to be somewhat obscured. We believe that the co-operative millenium cannot be reached till Capitalism is overthrown by the workers. Yet we know the impatience which many an earnest reformer feels with the slow growth of the proletarian movement. We understand the revolt of the impetuous Celtic temperament against being tied to slow-moving England, more conservative than either Wales or Scotland, England, who, with her strong vested interests and larger population, is always the predominant partner in the British Isles. We sympathise with the dream of so many ardent lovers of Ireland to make of her an independent paradise of free people, a little republic, famous, not for its brute strength, but for its happiness and culture, something unique in all the world, holding a position amongst the nations like that of Finland, who, until Russia trampled on the constitution which she won, not by bloodshed, but by a universal strike, was thought here to be, and probably was politically, the most free of all lands.

The Irish Rebels find to-day almost every man’s hand against them, yet reckless though they may have been, their desperate venture was undoubtedly animated by high ideals. And we also know that their action will further those ideals. In proclaiming the Irish Republican Brotherhood, they declared for “equal rights and equal opportunities, for all its citizens,” and resolved “to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.” They promised that as soon as a permanent Government could be established, it should be elected by all the men and women of Ireland.

“Mad folly,” perhaps, but hardly, as The Times calls it, a “brutal, bloody and savage rebellion.” The Republic of a week was evidently set up without violence and bloodshed; the Rebels’ War News says that it was proclaimed with cheers. When the soldiers came, there began, indeed, heartrending slaughter – slaughter perpetrated by both sides, but the Rebels, untrained men, women and boys, had for arms only “a job lot of rifles,” whilst the authorities opposed them with machine guns, bombs, bayonets, and cannon.

The Rebels – condemn them who can find heart to do – well knew, in their reckless bravery, they would be defeated, that their rebellion could be no more than a stage in the long struggle for Irish independence. A writer in the Manchester Guardian, much opposed to the Rebels, says:-

“The Post Office was on fire. It had been shelled and was now ablaze. I have learnt something of the spirit of the garrison from two or three different sources. On Monday night, I am told by a priest who was admitted to the building, it contained 500 or 600 men and a score or so of young women, who proposed to cook and nurse. The priest heard the confessions of many of the men, and they told him they were going to die for Ireland. He counselled the young women to leave, but they replied that they would stop and die with the men; a spirit too good for so bad a cause.

“When the end came and the fire drove the garrison out, they sought to escape by rushing in a body from the rear of the building. The street at the back bends a little, and beyond the bend was a machine-gun, which, as soon as the rout began, discharged its volleys into the fleeing rebels.”

Can the story of scenes like that bring pride to British hearts?

Parnell, without allying himself with armed rebellion in Ireland, never publicly repudiated or criticised his countrymen, and always pointed to the fact that they fought because the justice they longed for was withheld. Mr. Redmond, on the contrary, at once placed himself in line with the British Government, and in his eagerness to do so, he declared that Ireland’s grievances had been redressed, and that she had been led “from slavery and poverty to freedom and prosperity.” But no open-eyed, unbiassed person could visit Ireland in recent days without being impressed by her desolation. Dublin was obviously a city of decay; the fine old mansions, let off in tenement dwellings, were crowded with poor, ill-clad people. Five shillings a week was a wage commonly paid to adult women there: It was natural that the premises occupied by Murphy, the hotel-keeper, and Jacobs, the biscuit-manufacturer, who fought the workers in their long starvation strike for a bare subsistence wage, were amongst the first to be captured by the Rebels.

In the West of Ireland the people live in hovels built by themselves, with roofs of turf, mud floors, and walls of rough stones which the tenants hew with their own poor implements out of the hillside. For the little strips of undrained, stoney ground on which their homes are built they pay rents that are far too high. The Congested Districts Board, which is a supposed charity under the auspices of our British Government, finds work for the people to enable them to pay their way, allowing them to get 3s. 6d. to 7s. a week for making crochet or lace, and 101/2d. a dozen for socks. The children are kept at home to help with this wretchedly paid work, and, as a result, Government Blue Books admit that in country districts the proportion of illiteracy varies from 35 to 70 per cent.; 50 to 65 per cent of illiteracy being most common. The earnings of the people in these industries have fallen instead of rising in recent years: Government reports show that whereas in 1912-13 the total earnings in the lace-making trade were £29,754, they had fallen in 1914-15 to £11,680. We learn that the kelp-making industry on which the people in the West of Ireland largely exist, is improving as a result of the War. Yet the Government inspector in this year’s report states that an entire family in the best districts can earn but £20 in a season, though years ago they could make £40.

Knowing these things, we understand why rebellion breaks out in Ireland, and we share the sorrow of those who are weeping there to-day for the Rebels whom the Government has shot.

Posted on July 7, 2017, in Democratic rights - general, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Internationalism, Political education and theory, Prisoners - past, Revolutionary figures, The road to the Easter Rising, Women, Women in republican history, Workers rights. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. oconnorlysaght

    Good for Sylvia. Her article should be better know, particularly amongst the revisionists. My one quibble is that she expresses her support for the insurgents from a democratic rather than a socialist view. She does not seem to appreciate its potential for socialist revolutionary development as did Connolly, Lenin and, more confusedly Trotsky. This essential pragmatism may have foreshadowed her eventual abandonment of Marxist politics for those of the Ethiopean ‘Empire’.

  2. I’d say Sylvia was in transition at the time – in transition to Marxism. Shortly after she wrote this she changed the name of the paper she edited to Workers Dreadnought. In any case, her position on 1916 was much better than many British ‘marxists’ who abandoned marxism and internationalism once the shooting started in 1914.

    Ben, I’m familiar with the Patricia Lynch piece. She was married was R.M. Fox (not sure f she was at the time or married him later). I used both the Sylvia piece and the Lynch piece, which Ted Crawford directed me to, a couple of years ago for a publication I used to produce for Clann eirigi.

    On 1916, I am also almost through Lindie Naughton’s bio of Markievicz. There a few things a bit askew – she uses nationalism and republicanism as synonyms, for instance, but it is a very good book so far (I’m about 3/4 of the way through, currently just starting the part on the Treaty). With a journalist’s touch, she seems to have dug up a chunk of material not covered in earlier bios and I’ve been very impressed by the book. Well worth reading. Unfortunately, she doesn’t provide footnotes, maybe for the same reason Greaves didn’t. Understandable but frustrating.

    But I’d love to have time to follow up some of the stuff.

  3. Brian Patterson

    Wonderful piece exhumed from obscurity. Well done.

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