Ireland: The 1916 Easter Rising -- striking a blow against an insane system

The Dubliners' version of "The Foggy Dew" (featuring photos from the Easter Rising).

By Stuart Munckton

April 2, 2010 -- The Future on Fire -- Easter is here again -- the anniversay of the Irish rebellion against British rule in Easter 1916. Over Easter week, Irish rebels took control of key parts of Dublin and declared a republic. It took seven days for the British to put the rising down.

"The Foggy Dew", a much-covered Irish folk song about the uprising, details what happened and gives an indication of the issues surrounding it. There are two key lines that reveal something often sidelined about the rising. The first is: "'Twas better to die 'neath an Irish sky/Than at Suvla or Sud-el-Bar."

The second is: "'Twas Britannia bade our Wild Geese go/that small nations might be free/but their lonely graves are by Sulva's waves/or the shore of the Great North Sea."

Sulva and Sud-el-Bar are in Turkey and were the scenes of intense fighting in World War I. "Wild geese" refers to the flight path by migrating geese as they travel from Ireland to Europe -- where many young Irish men were sent by the British to die for the British empire. "That small nations might be free" is an ironic reference to the justification Britain used for its participation in the bloodshed -- all Britain wanted was to "free" Belgium from foreign rule! A justication bound to ring hollow in Ireland -- occupied by the British for 800 years.

These two lines say something fundamental about the Easter Rising often forgotten. The Easter Rising is a seminal event in Irish history. It remains a touchstone for Irish republicanism. But the rising cannot be viewed in a purely Irish context. It should not be seen as simply a rising to free Ireland of British rule and set up a republic.

Imperialist war

Of course, it was. But one very important piece of context is that the rising occured in 1916 -- in the middle of the mindless slaughter occuring in Europe in World War I. This fact is essential to understanding its significance. Ireland's colonial master, Britain, was one of the key protagonists. Britain sent millions of young men to die in a war to carve up the world between the great imperialist powers. There was a widespread recruitment campaign for the British army throughout Ireland and it was feared conscription could be introduced.

World War I was a war of competition between competing capitalists classes for access to markets and resources. For this, millions were butchered. An insane system that, to further the intersts of tiny groups of the mega-rich, would destroy so many lives in almost unimaginable barbarity.

As a British colony, Ireland was targetted for recruitment into its master's army. There were drives to get Irish men to sign up to join the bloodbath. The threat of the wholesale consripting of Irish men to fight for the British crown and British capital in a futile war was one factor driving the urgency behind the rising.

To understand the relationship between World War I and the Easter Rising, it is best to look at how it was viewed by its most radical and clear-sighted leader, James Connolly.

James Connolly

Born in 1868, Connolly was a veteran socialist revolutionary by 1916, who had been active in the workers' movement in three counrties: Scotland, Ireland and the United States. He was one of the greatest figures produced by the post-Marx, pre-1917 socialist movement. He made enormous ground in developing an understanding of the relationship between the national struggle for Irish independence and the Irish class struggle.

Connolly saw the struggle for Irish freedom from Britain as an opportunity to fight for more than simply a nominally free country -- it was as a chance to establish a socialist republic. But more than that, Connolly was an internationalist. C. Desmond Greaves explained in his 1961 The Life and Times of James Connolly that Connolly saw the horror of World War I as the most important injustice in the world.

In Belfast in the early stages of the war, Connolly's attempts to campaign against it were criticsed by other members of the Independent Labour Party (Ireland) Belfast branch, who wanted him to focus on "bread and butter issues".

Connolly responded: "They seem to have a curious idea of what constitutes a working-class propaganda. They don't seem to think I ought to express an opinion on the greatest crisis that has faced the working class in our generation."

He saw the war as a direct result of the insanty of capitalism -- and drew the conclusion it required a revolutionary response. Greaves wrote that when Connolly, sitting in his Belfast office, was brought the news in 1914 of European military mobilisations, he declared, "This means war" and "sat for a long time silent, head in hands. Finally, he announced emphatically that a blow for Irish independence must be struck".

James Connolly had drawn the same basic conclusion as the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin as to the appropriate response to the horror of World War I. Lenin famously coined the slogan "turn the imperialist war into a civil war".

Connolly wrote, Greaves said, in the March 1915 International Socialist Review: "The signal of war ought to have been a signal of rebellion ... for social revolution ... Such a civil war would not have entailed such a loss of socialist life as this international war has entailed."

Greaves shows Connolly's thoroughly internationalist reasoning for his participationin the Easter Rising by quoting an article in the Irish Worker: "Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord".

In other words, a rising in Ireland was seen by Connolly as a signal for international socialist revolutution.

For Connolly, like Lenin, it became incumbent on socialists to seek to end the madness by a revolutionary struggle to take power away from their own bloodstained ruling class. In Connolly's case, this meant, in the first place, overthrowing British rule. Liberating Ireland from British rule would be a concrete blow against British imperialism.

The Irish republic established by a rising may not, in the first instance, be socialist -- but it would greatly weaken one of the great capitalist powers, thus assisting international socialist revolution.

Connolly understood instictively the signficance of World War I. He could see that capitalism had reached a highly destructive phase. He never developed the detailed theoretical explanations for this that Lenin did.

Lenin had developed a detailed theory to explain the rise of imperialism in his book 1916 book Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. It argued that capitalism had entered a monopolistic phase, based on a convergence of industrial and financial capital in the imperialist nations. Fuelling the growth of these nation's capitalist classes required greater and greater expansion, and this drove intense competition between competing imperialist capitalist classes for markets and resources.

This competition led directly to the outbreak of World War I -- as competing imperialist powers sought to resolve the question of how to divide up the world between them on the battlefield.

Connolly would never get to read Lenin's work. But Connolly responded as a revolutionary to what he could see clearly with his own eyes.

Labour aristocracy

Lenin also explained the way that imperialist superprofits enabled the imperialist ruling classes to buy off a section of the working class -- generally the most skilled and organised. This was the labour aristocracy, and it was the crumbs from superprofits going to this sector that explained the horrible chauvinism of much of hte official labour movement.

Connolly personally experienced this with the Great Lock-Out in Dublin in 1913. A brutal struggle was provoked by the bosses' attempts to smash militant trade unionism in Ireland. The Irish trade unionists, led by Connolly and James Larkin, looked to British workers for solidarity.

Despite many rank-and-file workers being willing to respond with sympathy strikes, their Irish counterparts were betrayed by the leadership of the British trade union movement, which took a "neutral" position. This helped convince Connolly that the Irish workers could not, in the short term, rely on British workers for support.

With the British largely supporting the their government's war efforts (compared with Ireland where there was strong anti-war sentiment), Connolly decided not to wait for this to change but to organise an Irish revolt. It was necessary to strike a blow against one of the great powers waging the war. This was the time -- there could be no waiting. To be a revolutionary meant striking now.

Connolly was not alone in this thinking. Republicans in the Irish Republican Brotherhood had decided World War I was an opportunity for a fresh Irish rising and had begun working to this end.

Connolly was a leader of the Irish Citzens Army -- a workers' militia set up for self-defence against the violence of the bosses in 1913. By threatening to go it alone with the Irish Citzens Army, Connolly forced the Irish Republican Brotherhood leaders to include him in their plans.

While Connolly was carrying out popular agitation for an uprising, the middle-class republicans in the Irish Republican Brotherhood developed their plans in a conspiratorial fashion, behind the population's back. This weakened the rising and meant, when it occured, it took Dublin's population by surprise.

Despite this weakness, Connolly led the Irish Citzens Army into the rising anyway. He felt the most important thing was to rise now. A blow struck in less than perfect conditions was better than no blow at all.

The Easter Rising

In lead-up to the rising, everything went wrong. A car meant to collect weapons from a boat accidently drove over a cliff. The conservative leadership of the armed Irish Volunteers (of which the Irish Republican Brotherhood were an internal faction) discovered the Irish Republican Brotherhood's plot and called off crucial armed mobilisations. As it was due to begin, success in the rising seemed incredibly slim if not impossible.

Still, the rebels went out. Greaves gives an account of Connolly, on the morning of the rising, coming down the stairs of Liberty Hall, where the Irish Citzens Army was based, whistling happily. A comrade asked him how he thought the rising would go. Connolly gave the cheerful reply: "We are all going out to be slaughtered."

For Connolly, the blow had the be struck -- even if it meant an immediate defeat. There had to be a rising against the insanity plunging the world into darkness. The banner of revolution had to be raised.

Connolly commanded the Dublin forces in the rising. Various areas were taken, and Irish Republican Brotherhood leader Padraic Pearse read the famous proclamation of an Irish Republic on the steps of the General Post Office. Rebels during the rising, directing their military campaign.

The British responded immediately and brought in heavy weaponry. "The British huns, with their long range guns, sailed in through the foggy dew", as the song tells it.

Without broader support, the rebels could not win. They held out for a week. Connolly was shot in the ankle, but continued to command the rebels from a stretcher.

Having crushed the rebellion, the British relatiation was as awful as you would expect from a power willing to destroy so many innocent lives at Sulva and Sud El Bar. Thousands of rebels were arrested. Some 15 leaders were executed. Three weeks after the rising, it was Connolly's turn. His ankle was still shattered from the bullet and he could't stand. He was strapped to a chair to face the firing squad and killed.

The rising failed, but it was a beacon.

The event had a massive impact in Ireland, sparking afresh the struggle for freedom. The Easter Rising led directly to the Irish Revolution, which ended in a compromise with the establishment of the Free State based on 26 of Ireland's 32 counties.

Easter is still the most important time in Irish republicans' calendar.

But the rising was much more than that. The revolutionary banner had been raised internationally, a revolt had occured against one of he key beligerants in World War I.

Lenin hailed it. He explained the signhficance of an anti-colonial blow coming from within Europe itself: "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."

He argued against socialists who dismissed the rising as a "putsch", or a purely nationalist action. "To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe ... is to repudiate social revolution...

"The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements."

The following year, a spontaneous revolt overthrew the Russian tsar in February. In October, Lenin's Bolsheviks led the world's first succesful workers' revolution. The example of the seizure of power by the workers and peasants of Russia with a key aim of ending Russia's involvement in the bloodshed went a long way to ending the Great War. Other imperialist powers feared similar revolutions at home.

Lenin may have succeeded where Connolly and his allies had failed, but the example of the Easter Rising was important internationally. It was part of the same struggle.

Today, for reasons far too long to go into here, the same system still governs internationally. The Russian Revolution, left isolated, ultimately failed as well. But the struggle against the system has never stopped. Nor has it been more urgent. The system is just as insane and now the stakes are even higher than in 1916. The very survivial of life on planet Earth is being threatened by the coninuation of the profit-driven system.

We need to take the approach of Connolly and Lenin to World War I to the problem of climate change and the threat of eco-destruction. It is the overiding issue facing working people in the world today. The only question is: how can we end this system so that we may have a chance at life?

We can look to Latin America, where popular rebellions are ongoing against imperialism and capitalism. From there, a call came from Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez for a Fifth Socialist International to unite those in struggle against capitalism internationally to fight for "socialism or death".

Climate change is "the greatest crisis facing our generation". We need the spirit Connolly -- determined at whatever cost to take on the system. We need the determination to find a way to strike a blow against this system with the aim of ending it. This doesn't mean we need a failed, but heroic rising -- our aim is to win.

But to win, we need the determination, boldness and heroism that the rebels showed in Dublin in Easter 1916. When we remember this event, that is the lesson we must take with us wherever we are. It was an example not just for Ireland, but for humanity.

[Stuart Munckton is co-editor of Australian socialist newspaper Green Left Weekly and is a member of the Socialist Alliance. This article first appeared at Munckton's blog, The Future on Fire.]