Tag Archives: revolutionaries

Know the revolutionaries to understand the revolution

I never had personal contact with my paternal grandfather, since by the time I was born he was eight years dead, but in my earliest memories as a young boy he was already becoming to me  a man of mythic stature, a heroic figure in our family, a presence. What I knew of him as I grew was gleaned from snippets of information, often just overheard, sometimes the result of answers to my expressed curiosity about this absent man. It was obvious to me even from my earliest days that he was loved and missed by my father and his siblings, and that they were always proud of him and what he had done in his life. I had no image of him either until much later when I was shown a yellowing newspaper clipping that reported on the circumstances of his death with an accompanying postage-stamp sized photo, too small and too faded to give any real sense of the man.

John Stokes - D Company 3rd Battalion - Boland's Mills Garrison

John Stokes – D Company 3rd Battalion – Boland’s Mills Garrison

That newspaper clipping confirmed what I by then knew, that my grandfather, John Stokes, had died in attempting to rescue a young woman from drowning at the Shelley Banks near Poolbeg on the southern side of Dublin Bay. Other clippings, discovered later, gave greater detail to the story – that the young woman had been cut off on a sand island when the tide started to rise, that John had gone to her assistance and that when she couldn’t swim to shore he went back for assistance but disappeared underwater having suffered cramp. The young woman, Nellie Macken of Parliament Street, was rescued by a boatman. At the inquest into his death John was commended for his bravery. He was 63 years-of-age when he died. That one act of selfless bravery, particularly at a relatively advanced age, would have been enough to establish his heroism, but there was more to him than that one act.

Born in County Wexford, in Bunclody, his people were farmers. But they were, according to family lore, also perpetually rebellious, with an involvement stretching back to the United Irish rebellion of 1798, and the short-lived Wexford Republic of that year. As a young man, John had to flee Wexford to avoid a trial at the Wexford Assizes on a charge of holding off at gunpoint a bailiff who had caught him poaching game on a squire’s land. He made his way to Dublin where he eventually met and married my grandmother, Catherine Finnegan of Slane, County Meath.

By 1913 John was employed as a ‘motorman’ – a driver – with the Dublin United Tramways Company. When he and his co-workers walked off the job because of the company’s refusal to allow them membership of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, led by James Larkin and James Connolly, that strike allowed the Employers’ Federation, led by Ireland’s leading industrialist William Martin Murphy, to declare a general lockout of unionised workers, leading to a sustained and highly organised attempt by the employers to starve the workers and their families into submission, a cynical programme that lasted over four months bringing death and sickness to the poorest of Dublin’s poor.

Although records of who was involved in and around Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the ITGWU, are virtually non-existent, it is highly likely that John and Catherine were active there. In our family, James Connolly – a central figure in the Lockout and in Liberty Hall – was revered above other leaders, as was Liam Mellows, a disciple of Connolly’s. And, right up to the time of her death in 1956, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who had worked for the welfare of the locked-out workers and their families in Liberty Hall and had been appointed by Connolly as  Chief Medical Officer to the Irish Citizen Army that Connolly led, and later as second-in-command of the City Hall garrison during the 1916 revolution, was a frequent visitor to Catherine at her home in Rathmines, as a friend.

John made the journey from striking tram-worker in 1913 to revolution in 1916 in which he fought in the Boland’s Mills garrison as a member of  D Company 3rd Battalion of the Volunteers, under the command of Eamon de Valera. On April 24th, Easter Monday, he turned up for duty with his Howth rifle and was put in charge of four Volunteers to take over the Gas Works and went from there to the Old Distillery (where the flag of the Republic was flown to divert British Army attention) until Wednesday when they were withdrawn back to Boland’s Mills. On Thursday he was ordered home by de Valera due to a back injury he had carried into the fight. Two days after the surrender he was arrested and taken to Richmond Barracks with the other revolutionaries, and then to Frongoch Prison Camp in North Wales via Wakefield Prison in England. He was released in August 1916. While in Frongoch his commanding officer was Terence MacSwiney. During the War of Independence John provided ‘assistance’ to D Company and to the Active Service Unit, and during the Civil War provided a safe house for guns and men to Anti-Treaty republicans with the active participation of my grandmother Catherine.

The Lockout exacted a high price on both John and Catherine. As a black-listed worker due to his union activity, and as a man of principle who would not work for certain employers on his own blacklist, he often found himself struggling to provide for his wife and young family. This evidently led to occasional difficulties between these two strong-willed characters, she who had children to feed and he who had principles to live up to.  On Fianna Fail’s accession to power in government in 1932 Catherine wrote to Taoiseach Eamon de Valera asking if there was any work available for John to which de Valera replied that if John came to the Dáil on a certain date there would be a job as a porter. John’s response was that he hadn’t fought in 1916 to get a job for himself and refused the offer. He continued to find what work he could, mainly around the motor trade and occasionally as a hackney driver.

There is no doubt that John and Catherine made a solid contribution to achieving independence for Ireland from British domination, but they made another lasting contribution. In being active citizens in their everyday lives they passed on a set of worthwhile values and beliefs that they held dear to their children, who passed them on to their own children, and the ripple effect goes on.

They were not unique in this, and that is the impetus behind telling their story for the first time.

On the 24th of April 1916, ‘ordinary’ men and women, estimated to number between 900 and 1200, assembled at Liberty Hall and at various outposts to create a revolution against the mightiest empire in the world at that time. But very little is known about these heroic, generous people who would take extraordinary risks to benefit future generations with little prospect of gain for themselves and a high possibility of death, injury or long-term imprisonment as a result of their actions.

These people, these revolutionaries, do not figure in history books, other than as statistics. In writing them out of the story as individual people, each with a personal story to tell of before, during and after the revolution, we consistently fail the test of understanding what the revolution was really about and how important it was for them to achieve the Irish Republic that was the objective of the revolution.

There is no doubt that it suited what was, and continues to be, the political class in this non-republic, to narrow the focus of understanding the revolution by concentrating on its leaders and on its opponents, including the failed constitutional politicians and those who faltered and fell away from the revolutionary movement at the last minute.

Far easier to present the revolution as a ‘Rising’, or an ‘Insurrection’, or a ‘Rebellion’ if the motivations and the objectives of the rank-and-file men and women do not form part of the evidence of genuine revolution. Far easier to underplay the fundamental importance to the revolution of the 1913 Lockout and trade unionism, of the centrality of socialism to the Proclamation, of the most advanced form of feminism in the world which was revealed at the barricades and in the Proclamation, if the revolution could be sold as a ‘poets’ rebellion’ or some-such nonsense. Far easier to allow the Catholic church to successfully sell the spurious notion that it was behind the ‘rebellion’ and therefore a party to the gaining of independence when the direct opposite was the case. And so, far easier to create a permanent counter-revolution the aim of which was to destroy the Irish Republic so as to preserve a privileged class, to avoid redistribution of wealth, to introduce rigid controls on society and social behaviour, to embed capitalism and its local offshoot, gombeenism, as the hegemonic ideology.

Even at this late stage, when those generations with a direct connection with the rank-and-file revolutionaries are dying off, it is still possible to salvage these stories involving the ‘ordinary’ revolutionaries and their families, but further delay in doing so cannot be entertained. A concerted effort needs to be made to reach out to the remaining families of 1916 rank-and-file revolutionaries to gather the stories and where possible photographs, so that we can better know who they were and what were their personal circumstances, why they did what was extraordinary, and how it impacted their lives thereafter.

There is work to be done, first in finding the descendants, then in gathering the stories, collating the information and analysing it, and publishing the stories and the analysis. Once again that work involves, in a very fundamental way, ordinary people. But, given its potential scale, it will also need to involve local and national organisations and societies, sociocultural historians and researchers, archivists and museums.

After almost 100 years of obscurity we need to think of ways to acknowledge and honour these ‘ordinary’ revolutionaries. Apart from publishing their stories, one other way would be to ensure that included in the commemorations on April 24th 2016, Republic Day, will be a contingent of citizens, each individual – preferably a family-member – representing an identified revolutionary of Easter Week 1916, and assembled according to the garrison that the revolutionary was part of, to take part in the march-past at the GPO in Dublin.

It is time to give these ‘ordinary’ revolutionaries mythic stature, to understand the extent of their heroism, and to make their presence felt once again as we continue the task of completing their revolution by constructing the Irish Republic that they gave so much to bring to life. We owe it to them, we owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the future generations.


1916 – A Workers’ Revolution

The eminent linguist Dwight Bollinger put forward the notion of language as a ‘loaded weapon’, but in terms of describing what the events of Easter 1916 represent it is easy to imagine the language applied then and since as an attempt to unload the weapon. Variously described as a ‘Rising’, ‘Rebellion’, or ‘Insurrection’, these terms describe an event of relatively minor proportions, similar, in a sense, to waving a fist at an opponent. They are, of course, the words that were used by the British to downplay the significance of Easter 1916, and by the established political class in Ireland, including ‘Home Rule’ nationalists.

Revolution! Now there is a word to play with, a loaded weapon of a word. According to Aristotle, revolution is an attempt to effect a complete change from one constitution to another, and as the use of the word developed it has come to represent complete, abrupt change in the social order. A reading of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic confirms its revolutionary intent. No empty fist-waving there!

The consistent application of terms such as ‘The Poets’ Rebellion’ are nothing other than an attempt to take the air out of the Revolution by portraying it as a misty-eyed effete affair, a sentimental thing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Several of the leaders did write poetry among their other activities which included radical political activism, but each of the signatories of the Proclamation signed up to revolution knowing they would die for it. And revolutions, in any case, are forged not just by the leaders but also by the rank-and-file revolutionaries who rally to the cause.

One of the few attempts to understand the make-up of the revolutionary forces is an excellent study by Stein Ugelvik Larsen and Oliver Snoddy (Pádraig Ó Snodaigh) titled “1916 – A Workingmen’s Revolution? An analysis of those who made the 1916 revolution in Ireland”. Published in Social Studies in August 1973 it is a historical-sociological approach to the theoretical study of the Revolution. A key conclusion the authors arrived at is that “Altogether the picture of the 1916 revolutionaries indicates that this was a revolution undertaken by workers in alliance with small farmers, many middle and a few upper middle-class people. From the figures it does look like a perfect picture of a socialist revolution in the way Lenin and Marx envisaged it in their writings”.

While the full study is now available on this page under “Linked Articles”, it is worth reproducing, by way of illustration, one table that the authors compiled on the range of occupational groups among the (male) leaders and rank-and-file revolutionaries – 1146 men in total.

Occupation                                                          Number
1     General labourer                                               255
2     Farmer and Class VI General                         174
3     Commercial clerk                                              115
4     On roads                                                               56
5     Plumber and house painter                              54
6     Porter, messenger                                              44
7    Grocer’s assistant                                                43
8    Carpenter, joiner                                                 40
9    Shop assistant                                                      30
10  Tailor                                                                      23
11  Machinist, machine worker                               22
12  Artists                                                                     19
13  Draper                                                                    19
14  Teachers                                                                 19
15  Fitter and turner                                                  18
16  Music, bookbinder, printer                               18
17  Cabinet maker, upholsterer                               17
18  Baker                                                                      17
19  Merchant                                                               17
20  Broker, salesman, commercial traveller        15
21  Electrician, apparatus maker                            14
22  Shoe, bookmaker, dealer                                   13
23  Blacksmith                                                            13
24  Library and scientific                                          12
25  Apprentice, assistant                                           12
26  Coachmaker, motor-car assembler                   11
27  Grocer                                                                      11
28  Hotel servant                                                         10
29  Railway                                                                    10
30  Legal profession                                                      8
31  Medical profession                                                  7
32  Seamen, boatmen                                                   6

In their study, the authors call for further research to be done to establish as complete a picture as possible of the rank-and-file revolutionaries, and one area for research certainly stands out – that of the women participants in the revolution. But looking at that table, incomplete as it is, demonstrates the nature of the revolution. It was that of a workers’ revolution, not  bourgeois ‘rising’ or ‘insurrection’.

Let us take the loaded weapon back from the propagandists who peddle their dubious wares to stifle understanding of the totality of the revolution so that their ‘status quo’ can be maintained. No more talk of ‘The Poets’ Rebellion’ or any such guff. No more linking of the commemoration of the 1916 Revolution with commemoration of the filthy war of 1914-18, with permission to wear the Easter Lily only given if it is accompanied by the Poppy.

We owe a debt of truth not only to the revolutionary leaders but also the revolutionary rank-and-file. We must raise our voices above those, particularly in politics, the media and among the capitalist class, whose only project is to preserve their own interests by setting their own agenda firmly in the public consciousness. That agenda is to stifle understanding of the true nature of the 1916 Revolution and to bury the Irish Republic itself in a lime-filled grave. That agenda will be thwarted by today’s rank-and-file citizens creating streams of thought and creativity that bring back to life the hopes, aspirations and intent, not just of the leaders but especially of the rank-and-file revolutionaries – people just like us.

The 1916 Revolution belongs to us. The Irish Republic belongs to us. We will repossess both using the strength of our collective will and the loaded weapon of language – under our terms.


Listen To The Dead

Graveyards are usually associated with sadness and loss, and Glasnevin Cemetery is no exception to this. But there is one part of Glasnevin that has the power to evoke very different emotions – the Republican Plot.

It would be difficult for any person who knows that part of the history of Ireland from around 1900 to 1922 not to be moved, not to feel a sense of awe, not to be inspired by reading the headstones and markers in one small area near the main entrance. There, gathered together side by side are revolutionaries who were not afraid to dream a beautiful vision of the future for the people of Ireland, and not afraid to take on the might of the most powerful empire in the world to achieve that vision.

Countess Markievicz grave, Republican Plot, Glasnevin

Consider these names: Countess Markievicz, Maud Gonne MacBride, Cathal Brugha, Thomas Ashe, Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins, Erskine Childers, Roger Casement, Peadar Kearney, Dick McKee, Elisabeth O’Farrell, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, Helena Molony, Kevin Barry, Harry Boland, James Larkin. There too lie James Connolly’s wife Lillie and three of their children, Nora, Ina and Roddy. And there are more.

Imagine the Dublin of that time with these people moving about the place and developing avant-garde transformational  ideas – feminism and equality, citizenship, secularism, trade unionism, socialism, republicanism and the very nature of the republic-to-be. Imagine what it must have been like to be party to their conversations and their meetings as they debated their ideas with one another and found common ground and brought more people on board, and as they started the process of moving to full-scale revolution.

Think of the number of women who were centrally involved in all of that, of the relatively young age that many of the revolutionaries were, of the number who had families depending on them, of the fact that the revolutionaries included heterosexuals, gays and lesbians among them, that they encompassed various religious persuasions and none, and were spread across the social classes from the lowest to the highest. They would fight, be prepared to die, to be free and equal citizens of the Irish Republic. All sane, rational people. Generous people.

A few miles away at Arbour Hill cemetery lie the executed leaders of the revolution. Seven of them signed their own death warrants by putting their names to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, the others through their actions in  the revolution. Their mass-grave is rarely visited. Most citizens know little of Arbour Hill or what it stands for. There is no eternal flame there, no army guard of honour, no line of school buses waiting for their young occupants to come out of the cemetery with an understanding of the sacrifice – and the prize.

1916 Leaders' Grave Arbour Hill

And what if the occupants of those graves in Arbour Hill and in Glasnevin could speak to the people of Ireland today? Would they speak of their despair at the mess we have allowed the political class to make of the country while we stood watching? Would they regret their sacrifice? Would they admonish us? No!

They would tell us that we have it in us, just as they did, to transform the future for ourselves and for generations to come. And if we asked them for a plan, a ‘road-map’, they would turn, in unison, and point to the limestone wall at the grave in Arbour Hill on which is carved the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. It is all there. The ways and the means to achieve it lie in ourselves. It is time to do it. Let’s get to work.

Proclamation Arbour Hill


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