Sean McLoughlin, Ireland’s Forgotten Revolutionary

You need to get – or at least read – this book

I actually began this six months ago.  It started as a book review and kind of evolved into almost as much a synopsis of the book.  But after I had done a lot of the synopsis I worried that people who read it, if I finished it, might decide they now knew the book and so not go out and buy it.  So I mulled it over for ages and decided to not take the synopsis any further but deliberately leave it incomplete.  Hopefully people who want more will buy the book.

Anyone serious about a free working class in a free Ireland needs to know about Sean McLoughlin.  They need to know who he was, what he did, and to read what he wrote.

For a long time, we had no such knowledge and no reason to go hunting for it.  But thanks to Charlie McGuire, we now have all these things.

I had come across the name Sean McLoughlin years ago, but only in passing.  The name cropped up in a book I was reading that happened to mention some of the Irish soviets from the war of independence and civil war era.  I was intrigued and wondered who the hell this guy was, but found no mention of him anywhere else.

Well, the guy had actually been the commandant-general at the end of the 1916 Rising – ie the overall supreme military commander!  He was appointed such as Connolly’s wounds incapacitated him; Connolly had been so impressed by what he saw of the 21-year-old during the week that, with the agreement of other leaders, he was given the same rank as Connolly.  This, of course, means that he, and not de Valera, was the senior surviving commander.

However, Connolly saw so much potential in the young McLoughlin that he told him to be anonymous at the end of the Rising, that he would be needed for more political work later.

So who was this young man who so impressed Connolly, someone who didn’t suffer fools and was very demanding of his comrades?

Sean McLoughlin was born in Dublin in 1895, his parents residing in North King Street.  So he was a north inner-city child.  His father was a labourer and both a founding and active member of Larkin’s militant syndicalist (and republican) Irish Transport and General Workers Union.  His mother is remembered as a republican too.  The father, as well as labouring, helped organise workers on the railways and docks.

Sean began working odd jobs as a child to help supplement the family income and then left school in his early teens.  But he maintained a thirst for knowledge, learning several different languages by hanging out with foreign sailors.  He joined the Gaelic League at 15 and, later, the Fianna, the first republican paramilitary organisation of the 20th century.  The same year he joined Constance Markievicz’s Fianna, he was drawn in a socialist direction by the Great Dublin Lockout.  (Under Markievicz’s leadership, I might add, the Fianna tended to encourage/produce social radicals.)

He would later write that the lockout was “ruthless war made upon the working class of Dublin which sowed the seed of revolt harvested three years later”.  Like a slew of people, he seems to have joined the Irish Volunteers rather than the Citizen Army because the Volunteers were the biggest and best-armed force.  He opposed WW1 and in 1915 was initiated into the Irish Republican Brotherhood by no less a figure than Tom Clarke.

Becoming a lieutenant in the Volunteers and serving under Sean Heuston in D Company, First Battalion, Dublin Brigade, he also continued to be active in the Fianna.  He was involved in the fighting at Easter 1916 in several sites in Dublin: the Mendicity, the Four Courts, and finally the GPO.  After Connolly was wounded, Sean was appointed Commandant-General and it was he who organised the main general retreat from the burning post office, by then under fire from the British from three directions.

Sean, and not Eamon de Valera, was thus the most senior surviving officer of the rebellion once the original main leaders were executed by the British.  He survived because the British had no idea who he was.

With the surrender Sean was sent to a prison near Manchester and then Frongoch.  He was among the batch of prisoners released in December 1916.  His parents house had been smashed up by British soldiers out of sheer spite and British soldiers had also shot dead some 13 civilians in the street early in the week of the Rising.

He rejoined the Fianna, becoming commandant-general, but devoted his time more to the reorganisation of the Irish Volunteers.  He accompanied Markievicz on a brief speaking tour of hers in Clare following her release from prison in England in mid-1917 and then took up the post of reorganising the Volunteers in Tipperary.  He subsequently had to go on the run, but was involved in the anti-conscription campaign, including drawing up plans for small, mobile guerrilla units to fight the Brits in the event of conscription being imposed.  He had learnt the military lesson of 1916 – the problem with fixed positions which had to confront massively superior British firepower.

At the end of 1918 he was a victim of the great influenza epidemic.  He was also captured and, despite his weakened state, and being hospitalised, he joined in the Mountjoy prisoners’ hunger strike.  During this time, the Limerick Soviet took place and shortly afterwards McLoughlin joined the Socialist Party.  In March 1919 a letter of his also appeared in the (British) Socialist Labour party’s paper, The Socialist, in which he stated that had the Rising been successful there should be “no possible doubt” that it would resulted in “the first victory in the world for a socialist republic”.  The struggle in Ireland, he declared, was for “the overthrow of reaction and capitalism”.  (James Connolly had been a key founder and leader of the SLP in Scotland, before his departure to the USA in 1903.)

The SLP had supported the Bolsheviks even before the Russian Revolution. . .  and this is where I end my synopsis of this part of the book and you go and get a copy and read the full account, including his activities during the war for independence and civil war, his involvement with Roddy Connolly and others in trying to establish a marxist workers’ party, his relationship with James Larkin after Larkin’s return to Ireland, and his eventual migration to England, where he died on February 13, 1960.



Posted on June 22, 2018, in 1913 lockout, 21st century republicanism and socialism, British state repression (general), Civil War period, Counter-revolution/civil war period, Economy and workers' resistance, Free State in 1920s, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Ireland and British revolution, Irish Citizen Army, Partition, Political education and theory, Republicanism post-1900, Reviews - books, Revolutionary figures, Sean McLoughlin, The road to the Easter Rising, War for Independence period. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Commandant-general at the age of 21! And what became of him later? I’m curious.

  2. He was involved in the war for independence, the civil war, the foundation of the first (and very short-lived) marxist party in Ireland, did quite a lot of political work in Scotland too. Eventually, after the revolutionary wave in Ireland was pushed back, he migrated to England and lived in Sheffield for many years. You could always get your local library to get the book.

  3. I just realised I don’t have a link up to your blog. Very remiss of me. I must remedy this – send me half a dozen words describing your blog, and I’ll get a link up.

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