Category Archives: Thesis chapters

95th anniversary of execution of Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey, Dick Barrett and Liam Mellows

December 8 marked the 95th anniversary of the execution without trial of left-republicans Liam Mellows (1895-1922), Rory O’Connor (1883-1922), Joe McKelvey (1898-1922) and Dick Barrett (1889-1922).  The four had been taken prisoner after the surrender of the anti-Treaty forces in the Four Courts in Dublin on June 30.

In the ten months of the civil war the Free State would murder in cold blood more republicans than the British had in the almost three years of the war for independence (aka the Tan War).


Further reading (three chapters from my old MA thesis, written in 1995 and the first few months of 1996):

From Truce to Treaty: the pan-nationalist front divides

Civil war, counter-revolution and the consolidation of the Free State

Winners and Losers in an Unfree State


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.  Read the rest of this entry

Winners and Losers in an Unfree State

by Philip Ferguson; this is thesis chapter 12


In the chapters on the Treaty and the civil war, it has been established which classes or sectors of society supported the establishment of the Free State: the old Unionist elite, the Catholic Church and the emerging nationalist bourgeoisie, along with some sections of the middle class who saw the Free State as offering them the chance to join the big bourgeoisie.  It has also been argued that workers, small farmers, women and northern nationalists were the groups which lost out.  In this final chapter, I want to look at the development of aspects of the state and state policy in its formative years and the way in which these acted for and against these respective social sectors.  I will look at how the state represented the interests of capitalist sectors, established the Catholic Church as a dominant institution within the new state, and how it abandoned northern nationalists in the midst of pogrom attacks, pushed women back into the narrowest of spheres, especially the domestic sphere, and drove down the living standards and conditions of life of much of the working class and small farming sector.  The response of the labour movement and the republicans, the two main political forces outside the government, will be seen to be rather predictable, given their earlier stances.

While the return of Larkin to Ireland in 1923 introduced the possibility of a re-radicalised labour movement there were, as we shall see, severe limitations – both in terms of changed material conditions and Larkin’s own weaknesses – on this development.  Additionally, the most radical political factions – the left republicans, the group around Roddy Connolly, and the Larkin-led forces – remained divided, although it is difficult to see any significant political differences which justified their organisational separation.  The ICA, meanwhile, disappeared after the civil war.

Read the rest of this entry

Civil war, counter-revolution and the consolidation of the Free State

by Philip Ferguson; this is thesis chapt 11


In the previous chapter we saw how the pan-nationalist front for national independence came apart at the end of 1921.  The southern nationalist bourgeoisie, the old Unionist elite, the Catholic Church hierarchy and sections of the middle class who aspired to become capitalists supported the Treaty because it gave them what they wanted – an Irish state over which they had a substantial degree of control.   (In the case of a section of the old Unionist elite,  Although it was less than what they hoped for – many of them would have preferred not to have partition – it was a far better option than continued struggle with Britain.  Prolonged struggle tended to undermine the old order and throw into question even new nationalist sources of authority when these were used to uphold the old order – such as republican courts and police which sided with Unionist landowners against pro-republican small farmers and agricultural labourers.  Workers had mobilised around the political issue of independence and undertaken increasingly militant struggles around economic issues.  While workers’ struggles around these latter issues tended to be localised and spontaneous, the widespread seizures of workplaces nevertheless by their very nature raised, in at least an embryonic form, the question of what a truly free Ireland might look like.  In particular, they raised the issue of which class or classes would rule the new Ireland which was emerging during the war for independence.

In June 1922 the Third International, which had maintained a great deal of interest in Ireland and which had been kept informed of events by both British and Irish revolutionaries – amongst them James Connolly’s young son, Roddy – issued a statement declaring:  “After all the efforts to maintain its domination by force of arms had been frustrated by the heroic, self-sacrificing defence of the Irish people, it was obliged to come to an understanding with the Irish bourgeoisie.  For the semblance of an independent Irish Free State the representatives of the Irish capitalists – Collins, Griffith and co – sacrificed the fruits of a long and successful struggle, and received in return as a Judas reward, the right to exploit the Irish workers together with the British bourgeoisie.”[1]

It is my contention that this is a fundamentally correct statement of what happened in Ireland with the adoption of the Treaty and the establishment of the Free State.  In this and the following chapter I will look at the process by which the Free State was constructed and consolidated as a capitalist neo-colonial state, the class interests which it represented, and what this meant for workers, women and the republicans who continued to adhere to “the Republic”.[2]  I will also argue, as against both revisionist and republican interpretations, that the single biggest factor in the victory of the Free State was the complete inadequacy of the response of the republican anti-Treaty forces.  Again and again they allowed the initiative to be held by the neo-colonial faction and essentially ensured their own defeat.  This policy of equivocation and retreat stemmed from a lack of any consistent revolutionary political programme, in turn a reflection of the petty-bourgeois nature of the anti-Treaty leadership.

At the same time, the labour movement continued to abstain from providing any radical leadership to workers.  The ILPTUC leadership, typified by Thomas Johnson, and the ITGWU leadership, typified by William O’Brien, failed to chart any course by which the working class could take the leadership of the nation and forge an independent Ireland in their own interests.  Indeed, the dominant element of the labour leadership backed both the Treaty and the new neo-colonial state, becoming an Irish equivalent of the British Labour Party in the role of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – a position which, while stabilising the Free State, ensured that Labour as a party would remain a marginal political force for the next seventy years.[3]

Read the rest of this entry

From Truce to Treaty: the pan-nationalist front divides

by Philip Ferguson; this is thesis chapter ten


In this chapter we pick up the national struggle at the point it was left in chapter six, where a mass nationalist movement had fought the British government to a standstill.  In chapters seven and eight, we looked at labour and women’s struggles respectively during the same years; here we look at the position taken on the Treaty by the main body of the labour movement and by Cumann na mBan and the women TDs.  We also look at how social forces not represented in the struggle of 1916-21, in particular sections of the Irish bourgeoisie, made their impact on the Treaty debate.  British policy during the Truce and negotiations is also reviewed.  The positions and vested interests of all these groups are analysed in the context of being seen as contributing to the overall balance of class/social forces which led to the Treaty and its acceptance by a small majority of Dail Eireann.


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The British government’s proposal of a Truce and negotiations over Ireland’s future was a result of both domestic and international factors.  The British had been unable to defeat the Irish struggle for independence and there was a danger that the longer it continued the more radicalised it was becoming.[1]  In March 1921 Southern Unionist leader Lord Midleton also pointed to the strengthening of the independence movement, telling Lloyd George and Hamar Greenwood that the resistance was now three times stronger than in July 1920.[2]  The following month Greenwood himself was talking of pacification taking years rather than months.[3]  British government policy in Ireland was also creating problems for it both internationally (especially in the United States)[4] and in Britain itself.[5]  At the same time Britain was facing growing independence struggles in Egypt and India.[6]  It also faced an increasingly difficult financial situation.  British foreign trade suffered a substantial collapse in 1921: in twelve months its exports fell by 48 percent, its imports dropped by 44 percent and unemployment rapidly increased.  The Economist described 1921 as one of the worst years of depression since the industrial revolution began.[7]

Yet, as Jones’ diary shows, even then there was a substantial debate in the British Cabinet about whether or not to proceed along these lines.  An example of this is the May 12, 1921 Cabinet meeting.  Greenwood appears to have revised his view about how long pacification would take; he was opposed to the Truce proposal at this stage, feeling that the republicans were being worn down.  Health Minister Christopher Addison disagreed and favoured a truce.  Churchill, who had been in favour of the substantial escalation of coercion, now supported a truce partly because things were getting “very unpleasant as regards the interests of this country all over the world; we are getting an odious reputation; poisoning our relations with the United States. . .”  Herbert Fisher, who was an historian and head of the Board of Education as well as a politician, also worried, “the present situation is degrading to the moral life of the whole country; a truce would mean a clear moral and political gain” and that if the IRA accepted the truce it would be hard for them to start up again, it would also “create a big rift in SF ranks, the moderate SF would have to come out into the open.”  This meeting rejected the idea of a truce.[8] In June, however, a memorandum from Macready stated that beating the republicans would require coercion being carried out to the maximum and if this was done the cabinet would have to stand by 100 executions a week.[9] As Middlemas notes, “such a policy was a political impossibility.”[10] Read the rest of this entry

Women’s rights and the national struggle, 1916-1922

by Philip Ferguson; this is chapter 9 of the thesis


In this chapter, I will be looking at the role of women in the national struggle between 1916 and 1922, the activities of women’s rights organisations – especially the IWFL – during this period, the interconnections between the “national question” and the “woman question” and how these were reflected in the activities and debates which went on within and between the organisations involved.  I will show that women were involved on a substantial scale in radical political activity – in feminist, republican and labour struggles – and gained in both practical experience and self-confidence.  At the same time, women were affected by the limited goals of much of the male leadership of the independence movement.  This leadership’s social views acted as an obstacle to women’s progress and ensured, at the time of Treaty settlement, that women’s large-scale involvement in national political life was no longer wanted.  The conservatism of much of the male leadership will be contrasted with the radicalism of many of the women activists.


When the Irish Volunteer leadership, most especially Hobson and MacNeill, capitulated to Redmond in June 1914, the leadership of Cumann na mBan had been horrified.  Not surprisingly, when the split between the Redmondites and the IRB/MacNeill group came, with most of the IVs siding with the Parliamentarians, the vast majority of Cumann na mBan stayed with the Irish Volunteers.  In these cases, and again in the future, the republican women stood to the left of much of the male leadership of the movement.[1]


Women and the Easter Rising

By 1915, despite the continuing criticisms of the IWFL, Cumann na mBan had, to some extent, moved beyond its initial role of fund-raising for the men-only Irish Volunteers.  For instance, the branch to which Kathleen Clarke belonged now “ran lectures, classes in first aid, signalling and rifle practice, lessons in cleaning and loading rifles and small arms.”[2]  In Belfast, rifle practice was carried out and a number of the women became excellent shots.  Belfast Cumann na mBan even challenged the local Irish Volunteers to a shooting competition.  Winifred Carney, one of Connolly’s chief associates in organising female mill workers and present in the GPO during the Rising, won one of the competitions.[3]  However, the nature of these branches can be explained in large part by the fact that Clarke’s branch was the one which the Inghinidhe women had joined, while Nora Connolly was the Belfast organiser for Cumann na mBan.  These women ensured that activities were implemented which challenged accepted notions of women’s role, but overall the organisation remained separate from and subordinate to the all-male Volunteers.

In contrast, the Irish Citizen Army, the workers’ militia, involved both sexes at all levels – in the ranks and the leadership.  Markievicz was a member of the seven-person Army Council, Dr Kathleen Lynn held the rank of lieutenant and was in charge of the medical section, and Madeleine Ffrench-Mullen was a sergeant.  Interestingly, the class background of the women who held ICA rank Read the rest of this entry

The working class and the national struggle, 1916-1921


by Philip Ferguson; this is thesis chapter 8

In this chapter I will be examining the role played by the working class and labour movement between 1916-21, in the light of the radicalism of this period and the threat of Bolshevism perceived by the Irish establishment.  These labour struggles posed challenges both to the old order and to the new nationalist leadership. Whether of an economic character (eg, wage struggles) or a specific political character (as in the case of the general strikes against conscription and for the release of political prisoners), they challenged British rule since it was this rule which organised the relationship of the classes in Ireland.  Given that, as Milotte has noted, “In Ireland after the Easter Rising there was a political vacuum: no national movement and no national leadership had yet emerged to replace the declining and increasingly irrelevant Irish party”,[1] I will argue that such struggles presented opportunities for the working class to take political leadership of the struggle for Irish independence and give that struggle a proletarian political character, ie give it a political programme and leadership in which the interests of the working class were dominant.

At the same time, urban workers were not the only disadvantaged class. Given the nature of Ireland as a largely rural/agrarian society, the land question remained a potent source of class conflict.  With the war inhibiting the mass emigration of previous decades, there was a growth of the landless rural population and those holding uneconomic units. Since the large landowners were supporters of British rule, struggles over land, like struggles over wages and conditions on the part of the working class, inevitably meshed with the national struggle for independence.

Thus the nature of class and national conflict in Ireland posed possibilities of a two-fold revolution: Read the rest of this entry

Republicanism and the national independence struggle, 1916-21

by Philip Ferguson; this is thesis chapter 7


In this chapter I pick up the course of the national liberation movement where we left off in chapter four, on the eve of the Easter Rising.  Given the interconnectedness of the republican, labour and women’s movements, this chapter also provides a continuation of the chronology of chapters five and six.  In this chapter, I will trace the development of the independence struggle from 1916 until the Treaty at the end of December 1921.  During this period, the Irish Parliamentary Party, the dominant force in Irish politics – especially in nationalist Ireland – disintegrated, to be replaced by a reconstructed, republican Sinn Fein.  Labour which, as we have seen, was in the strongest position of any pro-independence group outside the IPP, was bypassed.  The reasons for both these developments will be explored and I will identify key points in the contestation over the nature of the independence movement – would it be revolutionary or moderate, would it stand for fundamental social change or simply for political independence? – and how these tended to be resolved in favour of the less radical leaders and policies.

The elections of December 1918 showed that, on the political level, mass sentiment had swung away from Home Rule and towards complete political independence.  For the first time since the United Irish rebellion, the majority clearly signified that it was no longer prepared to acquiesce in British rule.  The development of armed struggle, following the setting up of Dail Eireann in 1919, provided a powerful military challenge to British rule.  I will show that through 1920 and 1921, the combination of political support for Sinn Fein and the military challenge provided by the IRA made direct British rule no longer tenable.  But, while Britain was forced to the negotiating table, in a situation in which revolutionary possibilities had emerged, the outcome of the negotiations was a counter-revolution, as we shall see in section five.


The Rising

On Easter Monday 1916 a majority of the Dublin Irish Volunteers and virtually the whole of the Irish Citizen Army raised the banner of insurrection in the capital.  They took over the General Post Office, St Stephen’s Green and established a string of other posts in the city.  A proclamation was published, announcing the formation of an independent Irish Republic, claiming control for the people over the resources of the country and declaring equal rights for all men and women in Ireland.

Originally, the IRB republican leaders in the Irish Volunteers had used their control of much of the IV apparatus to call for manoeuvres at Easter.  The Volunteer manoeuvres would be turned into a rebellion.  But, as we saw in chapter six, MacNeill, who was opposed to an insurrection, called off the manoeuvres by placing an advert in the press.  The rebels had little choice but to go ahead anyway, or face being rounded up and losing any chance of rebellion during World War 1.  They immediately sent couriers to areas outside Dublin, but MacNeill’s countermanding orders effectively prevented the extension of the Rising.  Volunteers rallied in several places, such as Galway under Liam Mellows and at Ashbourne (County Meath) under Thomas Ashe, but the bulk of the Volunteers outside Dublin did not mobilise.  This allowed the British to concentrate their superior forces on the capital.  Read the rest of this entry

In sight of freedom, 1916-1921: introduction

This is the introduction to section four (“In sight of freedom”) of the thesis:



In a letter to her sister Eva at the end of 1916, Markievicz wrote that she had done what she was born to do.  She believed, too, that “The great wave has crashed up against the rock, and now all the bubbles and ripples and little me slip back into a quiet pool of the sea.”[1]

However a new wave was to rise, far bigger than the previous one, and to crash against the rock much more formidably.  The first attempt to remove the rock had foundered, losing whatever chance it had, due to the grave political weaknesses of the IRB and Irish Volunteers, epitomised by their placing of the irresolute and socially conservative Eoin MacNeill in a psoition to undermine the plans for insurrection.  The lesson of this was not learnt.  The post-1916 wave of republicanism not only continued to incorporate such elements but placed them in the leadership of the entire movement.  This, in turn, reflected the muddled politics of republicanism and extra-parliamentary nationalism.  A pan-nationalist alliance, incorporating radicals and conservatives, but leaving out the woking class and marginalising women, replaced the revolutionary alliance which had fomented the Easter Rising.

In this section I will examine the nature of the politics of the pan-nationalist alliance. In particular I will look at the interplay between the national issue and independence movement (Sinn Fein/IRA) on the one hand and workers’ and women’s rights on the other.  I will consider how the organised working class was used as a mere stage army to challenge the British over conscription and political prisoners and treated as a hostile rabble when they took over their workplaces or tried to break up large estates.  Similarly while women played an important role in the national independence struggle, in both the political and military activities, and gained a heightened awareness of their rights, demands for equality were constantly frustrated.  The attitude of the pan-nationalist leadership on these issues not only acted against the achievement of workers’ and women’s rights but also proved an obstacle to mobilising the mass social forces necessary if there was to be any chance of securing Irish freedom.

The struggle of 1916-23 was not only between the forces of Irish nationalism and British imperialist rule, but was also a clash between different elements within Irish nationalism for the allegiance of the Irish nation and the determination of the nature of Irish nationalism itself.  The outcome of these intertwined conflicts would determine the outcome of the struggle for independence and civil war and decide the shape of the Irish state which emerged in the 1920s.  I will therefore look at how those individuals and groups which stood for the interests of the most exploited and oppressed layers of Irish society – the urban working class and rural poor – were consistently marginalised by the pan-nationalist movement and by the labour leadership.  Although great reverence was shown by the post-1916 republican leaders to the Easter Rising and its martyrs, Markievicz and others who maintained the socially revolutionary politics of the 1916 movement  – particularly Connolly’s perspective – were effectively prevented from establishing those politics as the basis for the post-1916 movement.  Within the labour movement, the more readical actions of the workers were constantly undermined by the failure of the ILPTUC leadership to provide material support or develop an overall strategy by which the working class could assert its own interests in a co-ordinated, national way rather than in merely spontaneous, short-lived workplace seizures.

One of the most notable features of the aftermath of 1916 is that the executed leaders’ revolutionary politics were particularly upheld by a small group of women – mainly, but not exclusively, women associated with the Irish Citizen Army and Connolly.  These included Markievicz, Helena Moloney, Kathleen Lynn, Madeleine Ffrench-Mullen, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Nora Connolly, Winifred Carney and others.  The fact that these women were excluded from any leadership roles in the military struggle – although a number of them, especially Markievicz, had as good soldierly credentials as anyone else – coupled with the way in which the political leadership marginalised them, had major repercussions for women, for socially transformative politics, and for the outcome of the independence struggle.

I will also deal with the response of those who were being marginalised.  The fate of working class and women’s rights was not simply in the hands of the more conservative elements of the national independence and labour movements.  Also, however much they chaffed about what was happening, the more radical elements of SF and the IRA, including the women mentioned, by and large submitted and subordinated themselves to the more socially conservative leaders.  No serious challenge was ever mounted to the hegemony of these leaders and no separate left-wing power-base, comparable to that of Connolly with the ITGWU and ICA, was constructed by the radical elements.

[1] Letter from Constance Markievicz to Eva Gore-Booth, December 29, 1916, in Countess Markievicz: Prison Letters, London, Virago, 1987, p158 (first published by Longman’s Green, 1934).

Connolly, Markievicz, the republicans and the debate over 1916


by Philip Ferguson; this is thesis chapter 6.


In previous chapters we have seen the way in which the national question affected every movement for social change in Ireland.  For the labour movement, particularly those who sought to lead it in a revolutionary direction, the national question posed the greatest challenge.  If the goal of the working class, in the view of the revolutionaries, was a social revolution and the establishment of a workers’ republic, how should the political question of British rule in Ireland be approached?  Was the road forward for the workers in Ireland, a colonial possession of an imperial power, the same as that in Britain?  What was the relationship between economic and political issues?  Was the job of revolutionaries simply to provide an analysis of capitalism and/or counsel workers to be more militant in struggling for better wages and conditions?  Was a working class-based or, at least, working class-led, revolution possible?  Given the weakness of the working class – due to historical underdevelopment of capitalism in Ireland and the sectarian divisions which stemmed from this underdevelopment – were there other social forces which could be drawn to the workers’ side in a struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society?

The response of Irish revolutionary socialists at the time, above all James Connolly, has been a point of debate ever since.  In particular, the rise of revision has led to the resurrection of the theme that Connolly abandoned socialism and became primarily a radical nationalist in the last year or two of his life, the period between the outbreak of World War 1 and the Rising.  In this chapter I will look the left-wing revisionists’ critique of Connolly and show that it is based on Read the rest of this entry