By Daithí Mac An Mháistir

Connolly Books. 82 pages. 8 Euros. ISBN 978-0-9935785-2-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Very little has been written in detail about the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), many of whose members were involved in the 1916 events in Dublin. I suspect that, for most of those who will read this review, the standard notion of a nationalist uprising inspired by largely middle-class dreamers will be the one they’re likely to recognise. It’s an impression that has been cultivated over the years, with any sense of a socialist-inspired republicanism conveniently lost as the histories of the struggle for Irish independence have been written.

It is true that the ICA was a relatively small part of the forces that fought the British Army. The book under review suggests that they comprised around 15% of the total of the approximately 1600 men and women involved. The Irish Volunteers (IV) and Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) provided most of the people who took over the GPO and elsewhere, and the ICA members blended in with them during the fighting. It’s perhaps the small number of ICA members that has persuaded many people to downplay their contribution. 244 are said to have actually fought with the ICA, though only 164 were registered members of an organisation that had 326 who had been allocated an army number. The total membership of the organisation, if non-registered members are included, is given as 409. It also needs to be acknowledged that, as the stated aims of the ICA referred to a socialist republicanism, the post-Civil War authorities found it convenient to ignore what many rank-and-file soldiers of the ICA thought they were fighting for.

The ICA had been formed in 1913 by James Connolly and Jim Larkin as a defence force against the Dublin police who were noted for their violence towards working-class activists during the strikes and Lockout of the period. Both Connolly and Larkin had left-wing inclinations. Connolly had joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) during his years in the United States, and Larkin, who founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), was a dedicated trade unionist and syndicalist. Both believed that an armed struggle was probably inevitable if Ireland was to rid itself of British control. But they knew that they would face opposition from some of their own countrymen after independence because of their left-wing beliefs. It was Connolly who urged his followers not to give up their rifles, even if the insurrection succeeded, as they might need them to use against their political opponents in a new Ireland. When a civil war erupted following the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty with the British Government, many Citizen Army members joined the anti-Treaty forces.

Who were the men and women (they were encouraged to enlist and not just in a supporting role) who joined the ICA, and where did they come from in terms of their backgrounds? Because of the nature of its formation it seems only natural that a large proportion of them were from the Dublin working-class. And within that classification, a good number (65% is a figure quoted) were what are described as unskilled and semi-skilled. One of the virtues of this book is that it provides a great deal of useful information relating to the social composition of the ICA. And it shows that, in contrast to the IV and IRB, or the British Army, it had a solid democratic base in terms of where its officers came from. The ability to lead men was not based on one’s social origins, so an officer in the ICA might well have been a labourer when not in uniform. An analysis of 32 officers in the ICA shows that 16 of them were from the ranks of the unskilled and semi-skilled.

There were criticisms of James Connolly for making the decision to lead his men into what some thought was a doomed attempt to overthrow British rule. What should have been a general rising was badly affected when Eoin Macneill countermanded the order for operations to start. The result was that Dublin was, in a sense, isolated and the expected support from elsewhere never materialised. Within Dublin not everyone heeded the call to arms, which might explain why, if the ICA had over 400 members, only 244 (see earlier comments about how these figures were calculated) appeared to have turned out with their weapons. Connolly’s stated view that the “cause of labour” and “the cause of Ireland” were indivisible probably influenced his actions, as well as those of many of his troops. They were fighting as much for social and economic justice as for Irish independence, though they may well have thought that an Irish socialist republic would lead to the fairer society they envisaged.

It’s difficult to know how effective the ICA was as a fighting force. Obviously, if a large number of the troops had failed to report for duty (it would appear that only half of those allocated an army number at the time of the Rising actually took part in the fighting) the efficiency of the whole would have been badly affected. Also, the nature of the fighting, with units placed at strategic points and having to make their own decisions about what action to take, wouldn’t have made for co-ordinated operations. There is a suggestion that ICA volunteers were mostly better trained, and possibly better armed, than those with the IV or IRB forces. There had been attempts to set up a proper command structure within the ICA, to instruct members in military tactics, and to impose necessary standards of discipline on volunteers who might be inclined to question orders they didn’t agree with.

Was the ICA “the world’s first working-class army?” A reasonably persuasive case is made for saying that it certainly has a claim to that title, though some questions can be asked about whether or not a body of men and women around 400 strong constitutes an army? What would have happened had it grown in size and attracted more middle-class people? They often tend to take over any organisation they join. But this is all hypothetical, and we have to deal with the ICA as it existed between 1913 and 1916.

A handful of case histories cast some light on the kind of men and women who joined the ICA. Lily Kempson worked at the Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, took part in protests about child labour conditions, was imprisoned during the 1913 Lockout, and involved in the events of Easter, 1916. She later avoided arrest and fled to the United States. John Whelan joined the ITGWU in 1911, was imprisoned for “disorderly conduct” during the Lockout, was in the ICA and interned by the British when the rebels surrendered. He later took part in the War of Independence, and fought with the anti-Treaty forces during the Civil War.  Labour activism was clearly a key prelude to a commitment to the ICA. Their stories, and the others outlined in the book, give life to people too often dismissed by the “condescension of posterity,” and omitted from the history books because they didn’t leave written records of what they had done.

There is a lot to be learned from The Irish Citizen Army. Its 80 pages, which include notes, a bibliography, and an important list of ICA members showing their home address, places of employment, job descriptions, and where they were located during Easter Week, raise many provocative questions. It isn’t necessary to agree with the proposal that the ICA was the first “working-class army” to accept that it was a unique organisation and deserves to be rescued from the obscurity that official history has consigned it to.

The Irish Citizen Army is available from Connolly Books, James Connolly House, 43 East Essex Street, Dublin, DO2 XH96. www.connollybooks.org