The Easter Rising, 1916

An account of the famous Easter Rising, fifty years old this month, from a member of the World Socialist Party of Ireland

On Easter Monday fifty years ago, a group of men stood on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin.

Their leader, Patrick Pearse, read out the proclamation of the Establishment of an Irish Republic. This was one of a series of incidents which startled Dubliners on that Easter Monday morning, when columns of uniformed and armed men took control of several buildings in the city. The rebellion was being carried out by members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army.

After getting over the initial surprise, the British Military Authorities counter-attacked, and Dublin became the scene of bitter fighting. The Rebels resisted all attempts to dislodge them from their positions until a gunboat sailed up the river Liffey and opened concentrated shell fire on the G.P.O. By Friday night the Post Office building was on fire and untenable. On Saturday, Pearse surrendered.

Courts martial were immediately set up to try the rebel leaders. All those who had taken a leading role in the rebellion were sentenced to death by shooting. On 3rd May, the first three were executed, among them Patrick Pearse. The executions continued at regular intervals until protests from English newspapers such as the Manchester Guardian and such persons as George Bernard Shaw, persuaded the authorities to call a halt. In all fifteen of the leaders were shot; the remainder had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. Among these who were executed was the labour leader and self-styled “socialist,” James Connolly.

Connolly was born in County Monaghan* and, while still very young, was taken by his parents to live in Glasgow, where he grew up. In Scotland, as a young man, he joined the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party. Returning to Ireland, Connolly founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896. He applied himself in an effort to bring about a wedding, so to speak, between Irish Nationalism and his “Socialism.” At the International Socialist Conference of 1900, he claimed separate voting rights for Ireland and a seating at the Conference distinct from the British delegates. Later, he went to America where he took active part in the Industrial Unionist Movement with Daniel De Leon. In the meantime, in Ireland Arthur Griffith—the owner of a Nationalist journal, The United Irishman founded a movement called Sinn Fein. Griffith advocated Irish men and women buying only Irish manufactured goods. He claimed that this would create a demand which, in turn, would create a supply; this would grow into an Irish economy and then the Irish Nationalist members of Parliament would withdraw from the British Parliament and form their own National Parliament in Dublin.

At this time also there was a revival of interest in the Gaelic language and in Ireland’s past history among the young “intellectuals” of Dublin. Prominent was the young school teacher Patrick Pearse.

In the year 1910, Connolly returned to Ireland where he joined with James Larkin in the building of a militant Trade Union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. This Union catered chiefly for the unskilled worker. Conditions of employment and the wages of these workers were very bad.

The Transport Union began a series of lightning strikes in an effort to force better conditions from the employers, who in turn began to organise resistance to the Union’s tactics. In 1913, the Chairman of the Federation of Employers, William Martin Murphy, owner of the Dublin tramways and the daily newspaper, the Irish Independent, launched an attack in his newspaper on some workers then on strike. The Union replied with a boycott on the Independent. Murphy began organising the employers against the Union. He led the way by dismissing union members from employment in the tramways, and had the workers of Jacob’s biscuit factory locked out. When union members tried to prevent strike breakers from working the police joined in the fray. Two workers were clubbed to death by them during a public meeting in Dublin.

The full significance of the class-struggle became very apparent and, in Dublin, the voices raised against the strikers made some very strange bed-fellows. The Dublin Castle authorities with their police and “Orange Order” magistrates were joined by the Nationalist employers and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in condemning the “anarchy” of Larkin and Connolly. Griffith, founder of Sinn Fein and one of Ireland’s leading “liberators” (at a later day), demanded that the authorities make use of the military and “drive them back to work at the point of the bayonet.” Great hardship was suffered by the families of those on strike or locked out. An appeal for aid was made by Larkin to trade unionists in Britain. In response a food ship was chartered by the British Trade Union Council and stocked at cost price by the Co-operative Wholesale Society. Workers in Britain offered homes to the hungry children of the Dublin workers. The first party of about three hundred children were on their way to a ship at the North Wall Docks, when they were turned back by a hymn-singing mob led by priests. These good Christians were not concerned about the hunger of these children, but about the state of their “souls” in the homes of the “godless” English workers. After lasting for about six months the strike and lock-out wore themselves out to an inconclusive ending.

The more extreme wing of the Irish Nationalists openly sympathised with the workers in their struggle. This created a loose alliance between this wing and Larkin and Connolly. As a result of the struggle the labour leaders decided that the workers should be organised as an army to protect themselves in future struggle. This gave rise to the formation of the Irish Citizen Army. To collect funds Larkin went to America, leaving Connolly in sole charge in Dublin.

The majority of the Irish people living outside Dublin were hardly aware of the labour troubles in the city. They were mainly concerned with the long awaited Home Rule Bill. This had been promised to the Irish Nationalist Party leader John Redmond by the British government for his support at Westminster. The passing of the Bill had been delayed by the organised resistance to it by, the leaders of the Orange Order in Ulster. These Unionists were led by a Dublin born barrister named Edward Carson. A covenant pledging resistance to Home Rule was signed by over half a million people in the North of Ireland. Also, a volunteer force of eighty thousand men, called the Ulster Volunteers, was raised and armed. When Carson threatened a march from Belfast to Cork the British Government grew alarmed; they issued orders for the British army at Curragh Camp to prepare for military duty in Ulster. This started a mutiny in which fifty-seven high ranking army officers tendered their resignations rather than fight against their “brothers” in Ulster. (A rate significant difference in attitude to that which they showed towards the workers of Dublin when they were fighting for better conditions). At this time John Redmond formed another volunteer force called the National Volunteers to Defend Home Rule. Then started a period of gun-running into Ireland as the rival factions began to prepare for civil war. At this time the Citizen Army started arming and drilling.

Before the strife could commence, a new and major event took place; World War I broke out. The Home Rule Bill was postponed and Redmond called for volunteers for the British Army “to fight for the freedom of small nations”. This caused a split in the ranks of the National Volunteers. A small section insisted that “England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity”. This section was led by a group called the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was a secret society dating from the days of the Fenian movement. The majority of the Volunteers stayed loyal to Redmond but the other section formed a rival force known as the Irish Volunteers. Connolly, speaking for the Citizen Army, said “The war of nation against nation in the interests of royal freebooters and cosmopolitan thieves, stands as a thing accursed.” He also declared, “We serve neither King nor Kaiser—but Ireland.”

As the war in Europe dragged on, Connolly’s paper The Worker’s Republic began to grow more and more insurrectionary. In the meantime leaders of the Irish Volunteers laid their plans for an armed rising at the earliest opportunity.

In 1915 the body of an old Fenian leader, O’Donavan-Rossa, who had died in America, was brought to Ireland for burial. The extreme Nationalists staged a huge funeral through the streets of Dublin and a long oration was given by Patrick Pearse in which he stated, that “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

To establish a German connection, Sir Roger Casement sailed for Germany. Connolly had by this time developed the idea that the masses in Europe would get tired of the endless slaughter of the World War and would rise in a popular revolution. He reached the conclusion that a revolt in Ireland would spark this off. Shortly before Easter Week 1916 a German ship carrying twenty thousand rifles left Hamburg for Ireland. At the same time, Casement left Germany in a submarine, also bound for Ireland. He landed on a lonely stretch of the Kerry coast and was arrested almost immediately. The rebels failed to make contact with the arms ship and after waiting about for three days the German ship was discovered by British naval destroyers and was scuttled by its crew to avoid capture.

Meanwhile Pearse and his fellow officers of the Irish Volunteers had taken Connolly into their confidence and told him that they were going to launch a rising on the Easter Sunday. They planned to do this under cover of a joint week-end route march and military exercises in conjunction with the Citizen Army. When they informed the nominal head of the Volunteers, Professor Eoin McNeill, of their intentions they gave him the shock of his life. The Professor decided that the Rising would fail and in order to prevent it taking place he sent orders to the Volunteers all over Ireland cancelling the week-end manoeuvres. This had the effect of preventing all Volunteers except those immediately under the command of Pearse and his followers taking part in the Rising. Connolly, who was whole-heartedly in favour, brought the Citizen Army fully into the Rising.

After the Rising, on May 13th, Connolly, who had had one of his legs amputated through wounds received in the fighting, was sat in a chair and shot by a firing squad.

The executions of the rebels was applauded in the House of Commons in London by John Redmond and other members of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Murphy, the employer’s leader, had called in the Irish Independent for the execution of Connolly.

To-day, fifty years after, all the Irish political parties, the Roman Catholic Hierarchy, employers and so on, are commemorating the event. They are staging a Nation-wide Three Ring Circus.

The plain facts about modern, “free” and Republican Ireland are—fifty thousand unemployed, several thousand more living under the spectre of unemployment; thousands of old age pensioners trying to live on £2 a week; over one million people who have had to emigrate to England to find work. Perhaps the crowning event for 1966 was the Free Trade Agreement which the Irish Government signed a short time ago with the “Ould enemy,” England!

Connolly claimed to be a Socialist and it is claimed by his present-day followers that he died in an effort to create a Socialist Republic in Ireland. But from his life we can see that he was not a Socialist, just another social reformer. He believed that once Ireland had achieved political freedom from England, social justice would follow. What the Easter Rising did lead to was the establishment of a new capitalist state and the emergence of a new native ruling class, holding sway over the lives of the Irish working-class.

The Irish Republican leaders blamed the dreadful social conditions in Ireland on British rule when in fact these conditions are part and parcel of the Capitalist system of society all over the world. To end them, calls not for a National revolution, but rather for the organising of the working- class all over the world, to replace Capitalism with Socialism.

Timothy O’Sullivan

* Connolly was in fact born in the Cowgate district of Edinburgh, Scotland, but the confusion may have arisen in the article because –  according to Connolly’s Wiki page – “. . .  [Connolly] gave his place of birth as County Monaghan in the 1901 and 1911 censuses.”

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