The 1916 Easter Rising remembered

Irish revolutionary nationalists rose up against British rule a hundred years ago, in an event of world-historic significance.

Proletarian writers

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Leaders of the 1916 uprising. Left to right: Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Seán MacDiarmada, Thomas Clarke, James Connolly, Eamonn Ceannt and Patrick Pearse

Proletarian writers

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This Easter Sunday, 27 March, around a quarter of a million people (out of an all-Ireland population of some 6.5 million) lined the streets of Dublin to watch a military parade by the Irish armed forces marking the centenary of the Easter Rising.

Reporting the event, the Financial Times described it as “the most ostentatious display of Irish nationalism for half a century”. (Huge crowds turn out to mark centenary of Ireland’s Easter Rising by Vincent Boland, 27 March 2016)

Up until the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, the Easter Rising was the most powerful assault launched by the working class and its allies against the inter-imperialist bloodletting of World War I.

Beginning on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, the vastly outgunned revolutionaries resisted the might of the British empire for six days, during which much of central Dublin was destroyed and nearly 500 people were killed, before surrendering to avoid further loss of life.

In the repression that followed, 16 people were executed, including all seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, whose reading by Pádraic Pearse had signalled the start of the rising. Fourteen were executed in the stone cutter’s yard of Dublin’s Kilmainham jail, the last being the working-class leader James Connolly, who had to be strapped to a chair as the wounds he had sustained in the fighting prevented him from standing. Additionally, Thomas Kent was executed in Cork and Sir Roger Casement was hanged in London.

Although the rising was defeated in an immediate sense, it paved the way for the war of independence of 1919-21, and is thus considered as the pivotal event in the creation of an independent Irish state. However, the significance of the rising goes far beyond the purely national, in that it presaged above all the rise of the modern national-liberation movements that proved to be such a defining characteristic of the twentieth century. Because of this, the Easter Rising has lost none of its significance today.

The key political factor that made the rising possible was the coming together in an anti-imperialist united front of the revolutionary nationalists of the Irish Volunteers led by Pearse and the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) led by Connolly.

Founded to defend striking workers in the 1913-14 Dublin Lockout, the ICA was the world’s first red army – the first independent armed forces of the working class.

Although the Irish Volunteers predominated numerically among the forces of the rising, the political leadership was provided by the ICA. This was given concrete form in the fact that James Connolly was appointed as the military commander of the rising, even though he only joined the military committee, tasked with preparing it, as its sixth member in January 1916.

This working-class political leadership was also reflected in the revolutionary-democratic character of the above-mentioned proclamation of the Republic , which stated: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible …

“The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

This placing of the interests of the working class and the popular masses at the centre of the struggle for national freedom, uniting all the patriotic classes and strata behind the leadership of the most advanced class, was the strategy that led to the victories of the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions among others, and has inspired liberation movements and revolutionaries from Latin America to southern Africa.

It was this internationalist vision that was consciously invoked by Sinn Féin president Comrade Gerry Adams TD in his 27 March speech to the Belfast commemoration of the Rising, when he drew direct comparison between the Irish Proclamation and the Freedom Charter of the ANC-led liberation movement in South Africa, stating:

“For our part, the 1916 proclamation remains the mission statement for Irish republicans today. It is a freedom charter for all the people of this island which guarantees religious and civil liberty and promotes equal rights and opportunities for all citizens. The proclamation is also a declaration of social and economic intent for a rights-based society in which the people are sovereign.”

The ICA’s working-class political leadership was also shown in the role played by women such as Constance Markievicz in the leadership of the rising. Although born into an Anglo-Irish landlord family, and married to a Polish aristocrat whom she met whilst a student in London, Markievicz was an indomitable revolutionary – a comrade-in-arms of Connolly, who was fiercely loyal not only to the cause of national liberation but also to the emancipation of the working class.

As a member of the ICA, she designed its uniform and composed its anthem. During the rising, she fought heroically in St Stephen’s Green.

At her court martial on 4 May 1916, Markievicz pleaded not guilty to “taking part in an armed rebellion … for the purpose of assisting the enemy”, but proudly pleaded guilty to having attempted “to cause disaffection among the civil population of His Majesty”, and she told the court: “I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.”

She was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life in prison on “account of the prisoner’s sex”. It was widely reported that she told the court: “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.”

Markievicz was elected to the first dáil (Irish parliament) while incarcerated in London’s Holloway prison. She served as minister for labour from April 1919-January 1922, when she quit government in protest at the Anglo-Irish treaty that partitioned Ireland. It underlines the extent of the counter-revolution that followed that Ireland had to wait until 1979 for its second woman cabinet minister.

In his 27 March Belfast speech, Gerry Adams described this counter-revolution as follows: “By executing the signatories and other leaders the British removed the revolutionary leadership and the most advanced and progressive thinkers and activists.

“They paved the way for the counter-revolution that was to follow the revolutionary period and the establishment of two mean-spirited, narrow-minded states.

“In the civil war, the forces of conservatism – the church hierarchy, the media and big business – all supported the Free State regime and opposed those who held out for the Republic proclaimed in Easter week 1916. The people of the north were abandoned.

“The Free State was harsh on the poor, on women and on republicans or radicals of any kind.

“Our native language was devalued and subverted. Most, if not all, of our renowned writers were banned. Censorship was rife.

“A false morality was imposed on our people. The scandals we witnessed recently emerged from this post-colonial condition.”

How this impacted on women was also addressed by Irish president Michael D Higgins in a speech given on 8 March, International Women’s Day, this year, to commemorate the role of women in the rising.

“As you know, in the Ireland of the late 1920s, and throughout the 1930s, legislation was enacted that limited female employment in the civil service and industry, restricted access to contraceptives, and sought to control the lives of women in many different ways.

“Women, who during the war of independence had been judges in dáil courts, were not, as men were, automatically called for jury service; they could not collect their children’s allowance; they could not get a barring order against a violent partner; they were institutionalised when considered ‘deviant’ and their children taken from them.

“All those limitations … to some degree, were found in other western countries at the time.”

The world historic significance of the Easter rising was brilliantly summarised by VI Lenin in the final chapter of his 1916 article, The discussion on self-determination summed up. Lenin wrote:

“To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution.

“So one army lines up in one place and says, ‘We are for socialism’, and another, somewhere else and says, ‘We are for imperialism’, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a ‘putsch’.

“Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is …

“The struggle of the oppressed nations in Europe, a struggle capable of going all the way to insurrection and street fighting, capable of breaking down the iron discipline of the army and martial law, will ‘sharpen the revolutionary crisis in Europe’ to an infinitely greater degree than a much more developed rebellion in a remote colony. A blow delivered against the power of the English imperialist bourgeoisie by a rebellion in Ireland is a hundred times more significant politically than a blow of equal force delivered in Asia or in Africa …

“The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene …

“It is the misfortune of the Irish that they rose prematurely, before the European revolt of the proletariat had had time to mature. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various sources of rebellion can immediately merge of their own accord, without reverses and defeats.

“On the other hand, the very fact that revolts do break out at different times, in different places, and are of different kinds, guarantees wide scope and depth to the general movement; but it is only in premature, individual, sporadic and therefore unsuccessful, revolutionary movements that the masses gain experience, acquire knowledge, gather strength, and get to know their real leaders, the socialist proletarians, and in this way prepare for the general onslaught.”

Just as the actions of Bhagat Singh and his comrades would electrify the Indian masses some 15 years later, so the actions of Connolly, Pearce et al electrified the masses of Ireland, mobilising them for the struggle for independence and turning the tide decisively against British rule and its apologists.

However, as with the history of the first world war, which is presently being rewritten under our noses, the present-day official historiography of the Easter Rising is chock full of lies and misrepresentations. Judging by the programmes produced for BBC radio, the attempt by today’s bourgeois historians seems to be to create the impression that the rising was nothing more than the crazed action of a few ‘hardliners’, whose unjustified violence led to the unnecessary suffering of Dublin civilians.

According to this narrative, the people of Ireland were quite happy under the light hand of a relaxed and civilising British rule and had only to wait until the war finished to be granted home rule status within the UK. The fact that the rising, and the independence war that followed it, led to the forced eviction of the British rule from much of Ireland’s soil leads respectable commentators on both sides of the Irish Sea to bemoan the fact that celebrating the rising reminds everyone that an independent Ireland was born out of violence. (See ‘Could you not just wait?’ The Easter Rising 1916, BBC Radio 4, 18 March 2016)

Of course, the violence of mass famines, of depopulation through starvation and emigration, and of the mass evictions of impoverished Irish peasants, among many other violent acts perpetrated against the Irish people over centuries is not mentioned. Nor is it explained why violence to remove a colonial occupation force should be so much more dreadful than the violence of a hostile army of occupation on the streets, or than the impoverishment of an entire country in order to enrich its colonial masters.

Both British and Irish workers have much to learn from studying the true history and learning the lessons of the Irish liberation struggle, not least of which is the lesson that freedom is never granted; it has to be taken!

Long live the memory of Easter 1916 and of the heroes of the Irish liberation struggle!