Easter 1916: A left-wing rising?

On the ninetieth anniversary of the Easter rising, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh questioned some of the political assumptions made about it (Issue 26, November 2006).

No beauty was born at Easter 2006, terrible or otherwise. The hullabaloo over whether and how to commemorate the 1916 rising blew over far quicker than it blew up. The military parade down O’Connell Street was an example of what capitalist states are always at: establishing and underlining their legitimacy in the eyes of their subjects. The procession of tanks, missile launchers and the rest should have proven to all and sundry that here was an army that does indeed follow in the footsteps of those who fought in Easter week—against the rebels.

Only three months later, ‘Sommefest’ made a joke into a mockery. Here was no remembrance of thousands of working people driven by a lethal cocktail of poverty and lies to kill and be killed in the name of empires, but a celebration of sacrifice for a noble cause. So those who fought against the British empire were right… and those who fought for the British empire were right as well! Like a patronising principal on school sports day, official Ireland tells us that, when it comes to 1916, everyone’s a winner.

As for the sworn enemies of official Ireland, the prevailing view on the left is that the men and women of Easter week would not be happy with the society we have today, that the Ireland they were fighting for bears little resemblance to the Ireland we live in. Supporters of the Rossport Five can be heard saying that those who proclaimed that Ireland belonged to her people would be against Shell’s dangerous exploitation of our natural resources. Anti-war activists say that those who fought for Irish sovereignty would not allow the US to use Shannon airport to bomb Iraq and Afghanistan. And no teachers’ conference would be complete without a re­sounding claim that the children of the nation are being cherished most unequally in crowded prefab classrooms.

According to this argument, the rising was in favour of social and economic equality, and to some extent against capitalism—certainly against key aspects of capitalist society. James Connolly’s prominence in the rising has led some to go further. In their pioneering James Connolly and the United States Carl Reeve and Ann Barton Reeve claim that the Easter proclamation “contained Connolly’s socialist approach”. Roger Faligot’s fine James Connolly et le mouvement révolutionnaire irlandais—ignored because the Irish left will only speak the Queen’s English—characterises the proclamation as “implicitement socialiste”. “Although the Proclamation did not mention socialism by name,” writes Ruth Dudley Edwards in James Connolly (one of the decent books she wrote before going off the rails), “it contained a declaration of the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland which could be construed as socialist if subsequent interpreters of it so wished.”

The initial problem here is an overestimation of Connolly’s role in the rising. Those of us who come at 1916 from the left inevitably see it through the prism of Connolly’s actions, but that perspective needs to be corrected if we are to understand it properly. Tom Clarke, Seán Mac Diarmada and the offensivist faction of the Irish Republican Brotherhood were actively working for an insurrection as soon as the world war broke out in 1914. They brought in others, like Pádraig Pearse, as they went along. Connolly was also anxious for an uprising during the war, but his efforts only ran parallel to the IRB’s at best, and most of the time had no connection whatsoever with them. His writings in the latter half of 1915 reveal his desperate belief that a blow must be struck against Britain, but also that he was well out of the loop in terms of who in the Irish Volunteers was and wasn’t of a similar mind.

Only in late January 1916, three months beforehand, was Connolly brought in to the preparation of the rising. This could only mean that his contribution would mean carrying out plans that were already drawn up for the most part, rather than drawing up plans himself. This much is clear even if we look at the military side of things.

Connolly’s writings on the subject return repeatedly to the concept of barricading narrow streets so as to ambush enemy forces at close quarters. The ideal part of Dublin for this kind of fighting—as can still be seen today—is west of Stephen’s Green and out into the Liberties. It was a working-class district, home to many Citizen Army members and a source of support for them. The only rebel outpost here in Easter week—Jacob’s factory on Aungier Street—was wisely avoided by the British, and the streets surrounding it proved so dangerous to them later in the war of independence that they were nicknamed ‘the Dardanelles’.

In 1916, however, the Citizen Army were on the other side of the College of Surgeons, trenching and holding Stephen’s Green. It is assumed that the intention, if the Volunteers had fully mobilised, was to take over buildings overlooking it like the Shelbourne Hotel, but even in that case, a wide open space like the Green was more of a nuisance to defend than a military asset to attack from. Although Connolly was in charge of military operations during Easter week, he was working to a plan drawn up by Joseph Plunkett before he joined the insurrectionists. This plan leant heavily away from Connolly’s conceptions and towards the concept of holding prominent landmarks more with an eye to propaganda than military value. Connolly accepted it, but in early 1916, the fact that there was a credible plan for a rising at all was enough for him. Things like the widespread loopholing of buildings and construction of barricades show his influence on the fighting, but he was implementing a general strategy not of his own making.

But what of his influence on the politics of the rising? Again, the political direction was more or less decided upon before Connolly came on board. In the months up until then, the heart of the difference between himself and his opponents is not the political programme of an insurrection against British rule, but whether to have an insurrection in the first place. His argument is not that he wants a left-wing rising while others want a right-wing rising, but that he is determined to have a rising while others are hedging their bets about it. What convinced Connolly to throw in his lot with the IRB insurrectionists in January 1916 was an understanding that they were as serious as he was about rising up against the British empire —not a political agreement with them on social issues.

Is the Easter proclamation not a radical document, though? Two phrases from it stand out in this context. Firstly, “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”, and secondly, “The Republic guarantees civil and relig­ious 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 all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally”.

Firstly, saying that Ireland belongs to the Irish is not the same as making its resources the common property of the people collectively. It means that the Irish people have the right to run their own country, to elect a national government accountable to themselves without outside interference, just like any other country. The rising intended to abolish British rule in Ireland, not private property. As to the second phrase, the world is full of governments, provisional and otherwise, that guarantee equal rights and opportunities and even establish equality authorities to enforce them. But this becomes an equal right to inequality unless the economic foundations of privilege and poverty are removed. Governments that promise to do their best for everyone (and is there any government that doesn’t?) cannot actually deliver without breaking with an economic system based on the many working to enrich the few, and nothing like such a break is envisaged in the 1916 proclamation.

But even to read this last section of the proclamation as a reference to class divisions is mistaken. This phrase is immediately preceded by “The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman”, and goes on to pro­claim that the nation’s children will be cherished equally “oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past”. This paragraph is not directed to the poor, and certainly not to children, but to northern Protestants. Cleverly turning the old Orange slogan of “civil and religious liberty” against unionism, the proclamation promises to treat Protestants just as well as Catholics. The pledge is not to end social or economic division, but religious, sectarian division.

Could a more left-wing interpretation of the proclamation not be made, however, especially if Connolly was responsible for parts of it? Not necessarily, given that Connolly had decided to make do for the time being with an uprising for national liberation only, rather than one that would bring liberation for the working class also. But anyway, there is no actual evidence that Connolly wrote any of the proclamation. In fact, he is the one signatory we can be sure didn’t write it. Christopher Brady, the man in charge of printing it, had printed The Workers’ Republic, and so was very familiar with Connolly’s handwriting. In his statement to the Bureau of Military History, he says that when Thomas McDonagh gave him the manu­script of the proclamation, he didn’t recognise the handwriting, but “It certainly was not Connolly’s as I was familiar with his scrawl”.

His handing over the manuscript lends weight to the opinion that it was McDonagh who drafted the proclamation. Traditionally it has been ascribed to Pearse, and he probably had a big part in putting it together. It would be surprising if Connolly didn’t contribute something to it, but the same could be said of any of the signatories. As writers, most of them (including Connolly) had featured in the pages of The Irish Review between 1911 and 1914, all of them in favour of national independence and sympathetic to the struggles of the working class. Nothing in the proclamation is so left-wing that any one of them couldn’t have written it.

Pádraig Pearse, to take the most prominent example, had publicly taken positions well to the left of what the proclamation declared. The Christmas before, in ‘Peace and the Gael’, he had condemned “the exploitation of the English masses by cruel plutocrats”, hoping that “the war kindles in the slow breasts of English toilers a wrath like the wrath of the French in 1789”—a hope Connolly had more or less given up on. Only a month before the rising, Pearse’s remarks in The Sovereign People on the ownership of Ireland’s resources are far clearer than the proclamation: “the nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all the men and women of the nation but to all the natural possessions of the nation, the nation’s soil and all its resources, all wealth and all wealth-producing resources within the nation”, and this sovereignty was “absolute”. Ireland could well decide to abolish private property of land or means of transport. “A nation may go further and determine that all sources of wealth whatsoever are the property of the nation, that each individual shall give his service for the nation’s good, and shall be adequately provided for by the nation, and that all surplus wealth shall go to the national treasury to be expended on national purposes, rather than be accumulated by private persons.” This isn’t full-blooded socialism, but the generalities of the Easter proclam­ation pale beside it.

The 1916 proclamation is not Connolly’s proclamation. It isn’t even Pearse’s proclamation: if it was, a lot more of it would have been in Irish than the bare “Poblacht na hÉireann” signature tune at the top. It was a proclamation agreed upon by seven people coming from quite different standpoints. As anyone who ever wrote a campaign leaflet knows, this inevitably means compromise, con­sensus, saying things in a roundabout way or leaving them unsaid. What the seven had agreed upon was an uprising in favour of replacing British rule with an independent Irish republic. That fairly big proposition was the one essential they were all for, and the proclamation puts that into words.

Of course, Connolly’s politics for over twenty years had gone a long way beyond that objective. Samuel Levenson is one of his least political biographers, but perhaps because of that, he did turn up some valuable insights. “It does not even promise the ten-hour day, old-age pensions, or the end of child labour”, he writes of the proclamation in James Connolly: A Biography. “The municipal socialism advocated by the Fabians was radical in comparison to these vague words about the ‘ownership of Ireland’.” The specific measures Levenson mentions were all but achieved by then anyway, and his eclectic conclusion that the proclamation “gives colour to the argument that Connolly renounced socialism” is a mistaken infer­ence from the mistaken assumption that the proclamation represents Connolly’s point of view. But there is some substance to his argument.

The rising Robert Emmet organised in Dublin in 1803 also had its proclamation, but its opening paragraphs nationalised church property and declared all transfer of property null and void for the time being. Connolly praised this in Labour in Irish History as proof “that Emmet believed that the ‘national will’ was superior to property rights and could abolish them at will; and also that he realised that the producing classes could not be expected to rally to the revolution unless given to understand that it meant their freedom from social as well as political bondage”. This exaggerates Emmet’s left-wing credentials, but does give point to the fact that the 1916 proclamation left every bit of property in Ireland untouched, giving the non-owning, producing classes very little to understand.

But whatever about the evidence of the proclamation and the rising itself, there is a general feeling that those who rose in 1916 were generally progressive people, tending to the left. The men and women of Easter week would oppose the war in Iraq, surely? Well, Connolly would have, definitely. It’s probably a safe bet that the other signatories would too—although at least some of them would have first asked if Ireland could get any benefit from supporting it. After all, Pearse and Plunkett openly discussed in the GPO the possibility of inviting a member of the German royal family to be crown prince of an independent Ireland—a deviation, to say the least, from the republicanism of the proclamation. Taking the rebels as a whole, though, it is clear that some of them would gladly support terrible things. In the civil war and after, some of them were personally responsible as army officers or government ministers for cruel, repressive and barbaric acts that compete with the horrors of Guantánamo Bay.

None of this means that the Easter rising or its proclamation should be dismissed as worthless, only that the rising should be seen as it actually was. It was an insurrection fought to put an end to British imperialism in Ireland. And as such, it should be a source of immense pride and a cause for celebration for Irish socialists. Hundreds of men and women fought bravely, many giving their lives, to replace an unjust and undemocratic system with one intended to fulfil the basic conditions of political democracy. It was a blow struck against a brutal world war, against the vicious plan to partition Ireland, and one of the earliest nails in the coffin of the British empire. For the fighters of the Citizen Army, it was hoped to be a jumping-off point towards something better, a republic run by their own class.

Revolt against national oppression is something socialists should welcome and encourage without hesitation. People in Palestine or Chechnya or the Basque country struggling to win their own peoples the right to run their own country deserve our full support. We can and should offer criticisms of the way they may choose to do it, but we can’t and shouldn’t refuse to stand with them. And it is only right that those striking for national freedom today should draw inspiration from Easter 1916 as they themselves declare the sovereign and indefeasible right to the unfettered control of their destinies.

As well as being a classic affirmation of the right to national self-determination, the Easter proclamation does have other aspects to celebrate. Its anti-sectarianism is absolute and unqualified, refusing to slip into a Catholic mould of Irish nationalism, even by implic­ation. It insists that sectarian tensions have been stoked by imperialism, a useful corrective to the current insulting consensus that abusing Catholics is only a natural expression of Protestant identity.

And the proclamation would deserve a place in any anthology charting the progress of women in Ireland towards liberation. At a time when the mother of parliaments was solemnly debating whether women could be trusted with the vote, and what age and property restrictions should be placed on it, the rebels of 1916 cut through it all with the commitment that Ireland’s independent government would be “elected by the suffrages of all her men and women”. This is all the more remarkable for being the only clear and definite policy commitment in the proclamation.

So is it a problem that various campaigns quote Easter 1916 more or less inaccurately in support of their cause? No and yes. Whatever about the context of the proclamation, cherishing children equally is a basic prerequisite of a truly civilised society, and the fact that capitalism fails to do so is a strong argument against it. When a racist referendum was unleashed two years ago, quoting those words from the proclamation helped a lot of people see the injustice that was afoot. If it helps to fight against child poverty or education­al inequality, it would be churlish to carp at it. It’s certainly less harmful than the tourist guides telling foreigners that the wear and tear on the GPO pillars is really bullet holes from 1916.

Where it can get problematic is when people try to recruit the rising as a basis for socialist argument. The proclamation just cannot bear such an interpretation, and leaning on such a weak reed makes dangerous presumptions of ignorance on the part of those we are talking to. Trying to mine socialism out of the seam of republicanism hasn’t worked, and not for the want of trying. Socialism has to draw upon all struggles against oppression, but it has to recognise what they are and what they aren’t, and to organise on its own terms for a wider and deeper struggle. Looking for socialism in the Easter rising will leave us empty-handed both ways, with neither socialism or a proper understanding of the rising itself. We should celebrate Easter 1916 by trying to go beyond it, working for a revolution that will achieve its noble objectives and far more besides.