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The Easter Rising – 90 years on

Easter sees the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion against British rule in Ireland. The Irish Cabinet – specifically, the government of the Republic of Ireland – and members of the Dail will watch as the Irish army marches past the General Post Office in Dublin’s O’Connell Street where Pearse and Connolly established the rebel HQ in 1916.

After being cancelled for years the Rising Commemoration has been restored by the Ahern government, anxious to maintain its republican credentials against the growing threat of Sinn Fein in the impending General Election. The excuse for originally cancelling the Commemoration was that the army was so overstretched on foreign UN peace-keeping duties that it couldn’t stage a march of a couple of hours’ duration in Dublin.

The real reason, of course, was that the genuine inheritors of the political lunacy of 1916, the Provisional IRA, were actively engaged in the killing business, intermixed with bank robberies and crimes of violence not only in Northern Ireland but in the Republic of Ireland as well. Celebrating the killings of those who had laid the foundations of the Irish state was regarded as honourable but the new killings of their latter-day progenitors were not. The fear was that the Provisional IRA might well be the political and military beneficiaries of a dramatic outburst of the patriotic emotion engendered by the establishment’s recognition of a Rising that had even less justification than the resuscitation of the IRA in 1970.

It was Dublin that bore the bloody birth pangs of the IRA when about 1,000 men of the Irish Volunteers coalesced with Connolly’s 300-member Irish Citizen Army on Easter Monday 1916 to become the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and challenge the might of the British army as well as units of the British navy in a fight for Irish political independence.

The Commander-in-Chief of the rebel army was a Dublin schoolteacher and poet called Patrick Pearse. At a practical level he appears to have been an inoffensive pedagogue but his writings reveal another side to the man, a side that might well have preoccupied a psychiatrist, for his alter ego was a soldier of destiny with an inclination for blood sacrifice.

In 1916 blood sacrifice was high on the agenda of world capitalism. Competition between opposing national segments of capitalism had spilled over into massive violence as hapless legions of working men contested on the blood-soaked battlefields of Europe in the interests of their masters. Pearse obviously felt the exhilaration of an absent participant; in 1915, when incompetent generals and field marshals were sending millions of men to assured death in northern France he wrote: “The last 15 months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth. It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august honour was never offered to God as this.”

In The Story of a Success, he complains: “The exhilaration of fighting has gone out of Ireland when people say that Ireland will be happy when her mills throb and her harbours swarm with shipping they are talking as foolishly as if one were to say of a lost saint, ‘That man will be happy again when he has a comfortable income’. I know that Ireland will not be happy again until she recollects that laughing gesture of a young man that is going into battle or climbing to a gibbet.”

Thus, the idiocies of the Commander-in-Chief of the armed wing of Sinn Fein who, in kindness, we can only see as deeply mentally disturbed. But, along with Pearse, in creating what W B Yeats saw as the birth of “a terrible beauty” was James Connolly, one-time member of the Social Democratic Federation, who broke with that organisation a short time before the founding comrades of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and was one of those who combined in establishing a Scottish section of the Socialist Labour Party.

Connolly claimed to be a Marxist and described Marx as the greatest of modern thinkers. In 1912 during the great Dublin lockout when the Irish Constabulary attacked the strikers, Connolly and James Larkin, the strike leader, had established a workers’ defence organisation with the grandiose title of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) that, in 1916, was to combine with a small section of the Irish volunteers as the IRA, whose political mouthpiece was Sinn Fein.

The Irish dramatist, Sean O’Casey, who was secretary to the ICA, said Connolly forsook the cause of the international proletariat for the insular romanticism of Irish Nationalism. In fact, Connolly’s espousal of Irish nationalism could be more properly defined as a betrayal of the worker’s trade-union cause as what he brought the impoverished members of the ICA out to fight for on Easter Monday was the right of a fledgling Irish bourgeoisie to establish legislative independence that would afford it trade protection, in the words of Sinn Fein, “from English and other foreign capitalists”.

Ironically, then, the people whose economic interests were to be fought for was the nascent Irish capitalist class; the very people who had locked out the Irish workers in 1912 and called out Crown forces to attack those workers; the very people who had led Larkin and Connolly to conclude the need for a defensive Irish Citizen Army.

Sinn Fein, in its policy statement of 1907 had made clear the identity of the class it represented though it euphemistically referred to the Irish capitalist class as “home manufacturers and producers”: “If an Irish manufacturer cannot produce an article as cheaply as an English or other foreign capitalist, only because his foreign competitor has larger resources at his disposal, then it is the first duty of the Irish nation to accord protection to that manufacturer.” As an epilogue to the Rising we might recall the words of Patrick Pearse in The Coming Revolution: “We might make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing.”

In the Rising of 90 years ago which the political agents of Irish capitalism are commemoratong this Easter, some 50 rebels were killed while more than four times that number of civilians died. It was the latter, innocent and, as it happened, uniformly poor, who were the real blood sacrifice and their deaths presaged even worse to come. RICHARD MONTAGUE