By Kieran Allen

Pluto Press. 222pages. £12.99. ISBN 978-0-7453-3632-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It’s obvious to us all that 1916 is a significant date in Irish history. But it’s interesting to look at how it is taught and remembered in the Irish Republic. Was it simply an attempt to mount an insurrection that would drive the British out of Ireland? And did the words of some of its leaders regarding the necessity for a “blood sacrifice,” even if the rising failed, set the pattern for what became later understandings of overall intentions? Or was there more to it than that? Did all the participants in the fighting in Dublin have nothing more than a Nationalist agenda in mind? Kieran Allen claims that the history books have largely eliminated wider aims from their accounts of the personalities and events they describe, and he cites James Connolly as someone who looked beyond the establishment of Irish independence. Connolly can’t be ignored by historians, it’s true, but what he stood for can be played down. His involvement in the fighting, and subsequent execution by the British, are too important to be left out of the story of the Easter Rising, but his socialist involvements can be treated as footnotes to the main text. Connolly’s words to his followers indicate what he had in mind: “In the event of victory hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.” 

It’s Allen’s contention that many interpretations of Irish history have claimed that it has always been an essentially conservative country. He refers to politicians who say that the Easter Rising was a great mistake and he quotes John Bruton as saying, “If the 1916 leaders had had more patience a lot of destruction could have been avoided, and I believe we would still have achieved the independence we enjoy today.” Bruton admired the work of John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who had campaigned for Home Rule for Ireland.

Home Rule, of course, had been vehemently opposed by Ulster Protestants who were afraid that it would lead to them being a minority and treated accordingly. There were suggestions of insurrection if Home Rule was introduced, guns were smuggled into Belfast and other Northern locations, British Army officers stationed at the Curragh refused to move against the Ulster Volunteer Force, and  threatened to resign their commissions as a gesture of support for the Protestants. Only the outbreak of the Great War intervened to draw attention away from the question of Home Rule, and thousands of volunteers, both Catholic and Protestant, queued up to join the British Army.

Prior to 1914 there had been a period of intense class war, particularly in Dublin where Jim Larkin of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union had been a major figure in the 1913 strike and lockout that paralysed the city. James Connolly had also been involved with the formation of the Irish Citizens Army, described by Allen as a “workers’ militia,” and which was intended to protect striking trades unionists against attacks by the police. Connolly led 152 of them into the forces (approximately 1,300 of them, according to Allen) which launched the insurrection on Easter Monday, 24th April, 1916.

I’m summarising much of what Allen has to say about the historical background to the Rising. His account is detailed in terms of the personalities and groups involved. What I want to get to is what happened after the insurrection was defeated and its leaders tried by court martial and executed. It has often been said that, when the prisoners were marched through the streets of Dublin they were jeered and spat at by the general populace. That’s certainly the impression I had formed from what I’ve read over the years. But then, what I’ve read has mostly been written from a British perspective. Allen accepts that two groups probably were likely to have looked askance at what the rebels had done. Well-to-do people who saw their stake in society closely related to the British Empire no doubt had little love for the insurrectionists. And the wives of soldiers fighting with the British Army, and who benefited from allowances paid by the British Government, were also unsympathetic. But Allen refers to reports by a Canadian journalist in Dublin who stated that in the poorer districts of the city there was “a vast amount of sympathy with the rebels.” And “the local working-class population in Grand Canal Street and Hogan Place gave the Volunteers who surrendered an ovation.”

Once the Great War ended in 1918 a campaign began to oust the British from Ireland. This involved some savagery on both sides, with the notorious Black and Tans and Auxiliaries being particularly active in forms of intimidation and reprisals. By 1921 a Peace Treaty was agreed between the British Government and representatives of the Irish Republican Army and the Irish Government that had been set up in Dublin. Full independence was not a part of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and this led to divisions between pro and anti-Treaty forces, and a bloody Civil War. The pro-Treaty side eventually triumphed, probably inevitably as they had support, including some military aid, from the British Government. The war against the British, and the Civil War in Ireland, are fascinating subjects in themselves, and Allen deals with them in a brisk, though necessarily limited way. It’s his main purpose to show how the defeat of the anti-Treaty party effectively reduced any attempts to combine the struggle for independence with aims to construct a socialist society. And as the Treaty had made partition a part of the conditions of acceptance by the Irish delegation it also made any chance of co-operation between workers in both North and South unlikely. Workers in the North remained tied and loyal to the British Empire.

When the Civil War came to a conclusion the Irish Free State, as it was initially called, tended to settle into a situation where two essentially right-wing parties dominated in the political sphere, and the Catholic Church assumed a particularly repressive role. Allen describes the Archbishop of Dublin as being anti-Protestant, anti-semitic, and anti-socialist. Catholicism was a form of social control. Things were no better in the North where the Orange Order and the Protestant Church combined to discipline the population. And in both North and South people were refused jobs on the basis of their religious affiliations. Sectarianism was a fact of life. And it weakened the effectiveness of the unions.

It’s obvious that Kieran Allen’s sympathies lead him to identify with someone like James Connolly. A socialist with syndicalist leanings, Connolly clearly thought that an emphasis on pure nationalism would not improve the situation of most working people. Connolly had spent time in the United States, where he had joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an organisation that promoted the idea of one big union. This would, in theory, enable workers to take over control of the means of production. When the decision to go ahead with the Easter Rising was taken, Connolly had joined in almost reluctantly. Allen says that “his desire for revolution was not matched by a capacity to bring it about.” And he was frustrated by the failure of the Second International to call for total opposition to war in 1914. He was not alone, of course, in being dismayed by the way in which workers in various countries joined in the clamour for war and, in many cases, enthusiastically joined up.

It’s the liking for Connolly’s syndicalist views that colours Allen’s extension of his account as he moves through the 1940s and 1950s and into the events of the 1960s and 1970s as Civil Rights marches, the killings in Londonderry by paratroopers, and much more, led into the long campaign by the IRA. And then the Peace Process with the decommissioning of arms by the IRA and the involvement in the Northern Ireland Government by one-time leaders of the Provisionals. The main interest of the IRA had been the armed struggle to force Britain out of Ireland and unite the country. But in the end they had to accept that they could not defeat the British Army militarily, and that a united Ireland could never be achieved without the consent of the majority of people in the North.

When the banking crisis hit the Republic after what had appeared to be a period of boom and expansion it created near-panic. Allen’s narrative of what happened makes for grim reading. And, as he so succinctly puts it: “The severity of the Irish crash was a reflection of the state’s subservience to finance capital – and its response was simply to continue that subservience.” Perhaps even more so than in the United Kingdom, the effects of the austerities imposed on the general population, and in particular the poor, pensioners, the sick, etc., will linger for many years: “Future pensioners will be condemned to poverty because the funds set aside for them have been squandered.”

Can some form of alternative to the established form of government, in which all parties are essentially conservative, be constructed? Allen points to countries such as Greece and Spain where new populist parties have arisen in response to austerities and other factors that were a result of the banking crisis. He offers a useful analysis of the lack of protest in the Republic, with different commentators coming up with a variety of explanations for it. Was it because Catholicism had led to deference to authority among older people, and consumerism had inclined the young to consider it “uncool” to participate in demonstrations and similar activities? Allen points to the weakness of the Left and its incapacity to provide leadership in a crisis. That, and the fact that the boom had lulled many workers into thinking they could survive individually, rather than collectively, meant that “when the crash happened, Irish workers were singularly unprepared. They had no language or networks of struggle to start resistance.”

Allen charts the development of some examples of protest, in particular the demonstrations and boycotts arising from objections to increases in water bills. And he sees in them a realisation that people are coming together to make their voices heard. For him, it’s a sign that what he calls “The Connolly Way” can be resurrected. And he says that a “significant minority are looking at the possibility of revolutionary change.” Connolly didn’t hold to the notion that the interests of capital and labour were one and the same, and said “every member of the investing classes is interested to the extent of his investments, present or prospective, in the subjection of Labour all over the world. That is the internationality of Capital and Capitalism.” And it may be worth adding at this point some words from the preamble to the constitution of the IWW: ”The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things in life.”

There will, of course, be many who disagree with those words, and they will even include numerous workers who consider that they have a firm stake in a capitalist society. I doubt that the banking crisis and the austerities it brought had an effect likely to disillusion a lot of people who have a job, or a good pension, own a house, and a car, and see themselves as reasonably comfortable. They will still continue to consider themselves as beneficiaries of a system they believe can continue to deliver the goods. And they will prefer to hang on to what they have rather than take a chance with upsetting the applecart.

Likewise, there will be those who will understandably question Allen’s advocacy of mass action by a working class that may no longer exist. I’m not sure what the situation in the Republic is in terms of union membership. If it’s as it is in the United Kingdom then it has declined and is now largely found in non-industrial circles such as local government, the NHS, teachers, etc.  And many people are now employed in service industries which are often difficult to organise. Similarly, there will be those who ask if single-issue concerns such as the water protests Allen looks at can provide a true basis for long-term effective action? People join in such protests and drift away when they’re done. Can the momentum of single-issue protests be sustained beyond their immediate circumstances?

I’m not agreeing with those who would doubt Allen’s enthusiastic advocacy of Connolly’s Way or his support for the water protests and similar matters. I’m just pointing out where I can see objections being made. His book offers not only a useful guide to its subject, and in doing so, an alternative to standard accounts of events since 1916. It also comes up with some meaningful and provocative ideas about what can be done to work towards a more equitable and fair society.