Tag Archives: 1913 Lockout

Whatever you say, say nothing – Lockout 2013

There are dates in every nation’s calendar that demand remembrance. When those dates fall on the centenary of a significant event then that demand for remembrance is greatly magnified. A remembrance ceremony marking the centenary of a significant event then becomes an event in itself and enters the collective memory. There is one opportunity on the centenary of a significant event to get it right, or to get it wrong, to honour the participants in that original event, or to dishonour their deeds and by implication the participants themselves, either by distorting the narrative, the manner of its representation, or by grievous omission.

It is the last of these, omission, that was particularly startling in what was billed as the National Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout on the 31st of August 2013, the centenary of Bloody Sunday on which date the Dublin Metropolitan Police attacked and battered protesting strikers in the main street of Dublin, injuring between 400 and 600 and killing two men, James Nolan and John Byrne.

The National Commemoration was attended by the President, Michael D. Higgins. The President arrived, listened to and watched various performances, laid a wreath at the Larkin statue, led a minute’s silence in memory of those who died and those who suffered during the Lockout, took refreshments in the GPO with other dignitaries, returned to his seat to enjoy other performances, and then departed. Nothing strange about what the President did, but it is what he didn’t do that is strange. The President didn’t speak to the people on the subject of the Lockout during the course of the National Commemoration.

President Higgins has not shown himself in the past to be afraid to address issues that may be contentious. He is a skilled and adept public speaker, well aware of the limitations that his office places on him in terms of straying into the party political arena or on matters of government policy. He has spoken on the Lockout previously. There is no doubt that he has a deep interest in the historical event itself and its use in evaluating the present and projecting into the future. Sharing his analysis and his ideas with the public is, perhaps, what he does best. He is not known to be reticent about using the public platform to stimulate discussion – the opposite is, thankfully, the case, and the public seem to approve of that aspect of his presidency.

And so, the question is why? Why did the President, whose words are listened to and valued by and who enjoys the trust and respect of a significant majority of the people, do the unexpected and remain silent on the subject of the 1913 Lockout on such an auspicious occasion as the National Commemoration of the centenary of that event when the reasonable expectation was, as usual, that he would speak to those present and, via the media, to the nation?

Perhaps there is a simple answer. The President may have been unable to deliver a speech through being indisposed in some relevant way. He may, as one observer suggested, have not wished to take from the community element of performances, but that seems unlikely since there were also professional actors and musical performers taking part at other times in the programme. Perhaps there are other simple answers to the question, but they don’t come to mind easily.

Also present at the commemorations were Fine Gael Minister Jimmy Deenihan, Labour Party leader and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and his party colleagues Pat Rabbitte and Ruairi Quinn, the latter under increasing fire for his extraordinary and arbitrary decision to remove history as a compulsory subject in secondary schools, without any public discussion. Could a less simple answer be related to their presence? Could it be that their involvement in the neo-liberal austerity agenda which must have formed part of any serious speech on the subject of the 1913 Lockout and the conditions today of workers, the unemployed, the emigrated, the sick, the homeless and the dispossessed, the under-educated and under-resourced children, and the poor in general, might have consequently led to public embarrassment, and perhaps spontaneous protest against their unrelenting support for failed, deeply damaging government policies?

It is unusual to find four government ministers at an event such as this and to note the absence of even one attempt to take the microphone and to speak on the historical event and the main personalities involved, even if that, as sometimes happens, is no more than empty rhetoric and oily words. Extraordinary, really.

There too were the principal organisers of the event, leading members of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and affiliated trade unions. A proper analysis of the Lockout and its relevance to today’s issues, the importance and role of trade unions, and their performance over the intervening century particularly since the inception of Social Partnership in 1987 – the sort of issues that the President could normally be expected to touch on – might have proven uncomfortable too.

Any honest critique of the effects of the social partnership model could hardly avoid addressing in some way issues such as the fall-off in density of union membership in the workforce from 54% in 1987 – the start of social partnership – to 20% in 2007 – the end of the ‘boom’, and the fall-off in membership among young workers, part-timers and the lower skills with a higher concentration today of members in the professional and technical grades – mirroring the change in demographics among Labour Party voters. Trade unions, like the Labour Party, have lost much of their traditional base, to the detriment of vulnerable workers in the case of the unions, and the disenfranchisement of the working class in the case of Labour.

There are those who would also criticise the social partnership model for the political dangers that it can impose. One notorious and similar previous model is that contrived by Benito Mussolini around 1930, which brought trade unions and corporate interests together to work with government – as one of the pillars of Italian Fascism.

It may seem extreme to mention fascism in the context of the Irish trade unions, and that linkage is not the intention, rather the dangers of social partnership in which the driving force may be a government of questionable ethics. While Bertie Ahern enjoyed much popularity particularly during the property bubble, the spectacle of him being applauded to the stage at the ICTU Biennial Conference in Bundoran in 2007 (when there were many indicators that the economy was tanking), where he delivered his infamous remark that he did not know how people who moaned about the economy did not ‘commit suicide’. He was then applauded back down from the stage and out of the conference centre. Some could think that that was a ‘Berlusconi moment’. It was certainly unfortunate.

James Connolly would have ‘got’ that moment, just as he would have ‘got’ social partnership. What did he write in the Irish Worker, two months into the Lockout? “It is war, war to the end, against all the unholy crew who, with the cant of democracy on their lying lips, are forever crucifying the Christ of labour between the two thieves of Land and Capital”.

It is no longer ‘war, war’ between the two rightfully antagonistic forces of labour and capital, but ‘jaw,jaw’, or at least since the disintegration of social partnership, no sign of a return to ‘war, war’ – the strategy that many living in straitened conditions might prefer the trade unions to opt for, and who have often vocally expressed their wish for that change. Where, for instance, is the ‘war, war’ on Zero Hours Contracts, criticised by Minister of State Alex White of the Labour Party thus – “We have a new “precariat” in some sectors of the labour force, with people working on zero-hours contracts, short-term contracts, or for free on unpaid internships. These trends can undermine rights earned by past workers, and the relevant statutory protections may require strengthening, or at least review. Zero-hours contracts shape a life of uncertainty for people where their ability to budget for the future or manage a stable family life is particularly difficult.”?

Again, we might have expected that a dynamic trade union leadership might have nominated their best and most inspiring speaker to seize on the opportunities that the centenary of the Lockout offered to advance the cause of labour. But no, an opportunity rejected, it seems. Why?

‘Tis passing strange’ too, as the man himself might put it, how James Connolly got ne’er a proper mention at the National Commemoration other than in the rendition of the Ballad of James Larkin sung by Jimmy Kelly. Hardly likely that the President would have made that omission, had he spoken, which omission is of itself an insult to Connolly whose role in the Lockout was immense. It is, of course, correct to highlight James Larkin’s enormous role in the Lockout, but extremely churlish to downplay Connolly’s powers and sacrifices in that endeavour. It was not a one-man show. That churlishness brings to mind the Irish Labour Party’s inability or unwillingness to properly celebrate the role that Connolly played in founding that party on its centenary in 2012, or to champion his eloquent and visionary social philosophy which is the envy of others around the world other than in brief references that had a distinctly weasely feel to them.

Like that other National Commemoration forced on a recalcitrant State, the annual 1916 commemoration, this one too seemed smothered by the dead hand of State, or of other agencies or a combination of both, and  starved of the oxygen of honest appraisal and discussion. Perhaps that was the plan, perhaps not.

One lesson learned by those who understand the importance of these centenaries to the nation and to the future is that the state has shown itself to be unable or unwilling to trust the public to own its own great history. By its inept and insulting control of the National Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout, including the barricading of the citizens, the employment of a private security company of bad repute – G4S – to interfere with public access at the event, the searching even of women’s handbags and men’s eye-glass cases, the state has shown itself to be unfit for the job of commemorating the 1916 revolution. In 1966, a far larger event than this one was, not a barricade was to be seen, the police presence was discreet, citizens were free to approach the President of Ireland, Eamon de Valera, if they wished, or any other attendee among the ‘elite’. What has changed, other than obsessive control-freakery?

And so the Fine Gael minister and three Labour ministers remained stoically silent on the day. The trade union leadership offered a bland statement via Sallyann Kinihan. So be it. Perhaps it was the safer option.

But can we have an answer, simple or complex, to this question? Why did the President not speak at the National Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout?

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A Most Seditious Lot: The Feminist Press 1896-1916

The concluding article in this three-part series looks at the feminist movement and the feminist press and their role in the lead-up to the 1916 revolution.

The Irish Feminist Movement 1896-1916

It is easy to imagine that the subordinate status of women in post-independence Ireland was just an extension of the past, the result of a slower development of feminist thought and activism in Ireland than in, for example, Europe or the USA, but nothing could be further from the truth. That mistaken belief arises from a defective and twisted official historical narrative influenced in no small part by the ‘special position’ accorded to the ultra-conservative Catholic Church, post-independence. In fact, the feminist movement in Ireland between the late 19th century and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 was among the most advanced in the world at that time. While some Irish feminists were simply looking for the extension to women of the franchise – the right to vote, many feminists were looking for more profound change than that, including the right to equal status with men, better access to education, better health provision for women and children, an end to discriminatory laws and practices as they affected women, alleviation of poverty and disease, etc.

During that period, many women sought out causes and campaigns to become active in. Right from the start, women had become involved in organisations that were open to them, for example in the Gaelic League and the Literary Societies, and many engaged in writing for, and producing too, a wide range of newspapers and other publications. Often it was women who provided the energy to put ideas into action and put organisations into place, organisations which would later be of pivotal importance for the separatist and labour causes. They campaigned against recruitment during the Boer War and the First World War, and against visits by members of the British royal family.

It was arising out of just such a visit that a number of women gathered on Easter Sunday 1900 in the rooms of the Celtic Literary Society, and formed an ad hoc committee, later to be known as the ‘Patriotic Children’s Treat Committee, with Maud Gonne as the unanimous choice for president. The committee was formed to provide a treat for children who had stayed away from an official function during the visit of Queen Victoria some weeks earlier. By the 30th of June, 25,000 children had registered for inclusion, and the event was held in Clonturk Park on the Sunday following the Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown. In The Workers’ Republic, James Connolly had this to say – “Last week we witnessed in Dublin the first political parade of the coming generation. Between twenty-five and thirty thousand children turned out and walked in processional order through the streets of the city, to show the world that British Imperialism had cast no glamour over their young minds. And that in the person of Her Britannic Majesty they recognised only a woman – no better than the mothers who bore them, if as good. It was a great sight to see the little rebels taking possession of the city – a sight more promising for the future of the country than any we can remember”.

When the committee had completed this work, they realised that they had skills and talents which should be further utilised. A National Women’s Committee was formed which led, at the beginning of October, to the inaugural meeting of Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland). The Inghinidhe had as their aims: to re-establish the independence of Ireland; to actively promote the study of Irish language, literature, music, history and art; to discourage interest in English popular culture; to support Irish industry. Besides pursuing their aims, and in the process influencing the way Irish people thought of themselves, the Inghinidhe also gave many women the opportunity to find and use their talents in public speaking, and as organisers, leaders, teachers and journalists. They provided free classes in Irish, history and music to children over the age of nine. Historian Margaret Ward quotes a friend of Maud Gonne’s, who taught history in such a class, describing a typical scene – “In a room perched at the head of a rickety staircase and overlooking a narrow street, I have about eighty denizens of untamed Dublin: newsboys, children who have played in street alleys all their lives, young patriot girls and boys who can scarcely write their own names. Outside there is a continuous din of street cries and rumbling carts. It is almost impossible to shout against it if the windows are open, and more impossible to speak in the smother of dust if the windows are shut. Everyone is standing, closely packed – no room for chairs!”.

In 1902, the Inghinidhe voted to join Cumann na nGhaedheal. In 1907 the Dungannon Clubs unified with Cumann na nGhaedheal as the Sinn Fein League; a year later, after merging with the National Council, the group became Sinn Fein. From its beginning, women were voted onto the executive of Sinn Féin and although Sinn Féin was promoting a conservative social policy, members of the Inghinidhe pursued their own. Helena Molony, for instance, adopted an increasingly socialist stance, and as time passed she moved over into the Connolly camp and later into the Irish Citizen Army. She devoted much of her energy to the women’s labour movement and to the Irish Women Worker’s Union (IWWU), which was affiliated to the ITGWU having been started by Jim Larkin’s sister, Delia. Helena Molony took over as leader of the IWWU in 1915.

Cat and Mouse Act poster IWFLThere was also in Ireland a strong women’s franchise movement, with the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) the most militant of a large number of groups throughout the country. It was founded by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Margaret Cousins in 1908 and was pledged to: non-party independent action; vigorous agitation; organisation of women; education of public opinion. Although most of the members were nationalists, women of all political persuasions were welcomed. Within a short time 800 members were on the register. The League organised militant action on a regular basis, both in Ireland and in England, and members of the League were regularly imprisoned. They adopted the tactic of the hunger strike, which the authorities countered first through forcible feeding, and also through early release and re-arrest, or the ‘cat and mouse’ tactic.

The other main women’s organisation which requires mention is Cumann na mBan, formed in April 1914, and affiliated to the Irish Volunteers. Each branch of the Cumann was under the military orders of a corresponding Volunteer branch, and this led to acrimony between the IWFL and the Cumann. The IWFL maintained that the women’s franchise issue should not be subjugated to the separatist cause, whereas the Cumann believed that the franchise would be won through independence which must be the priority.  Unlike the Irish Citizen Army, the members of Cumann na mBan were not trained as soldiers, but were there to support the men of the Irish Volunteer army. The members, many of whom were or had been members of the IWFL accepted that, but the split must have damaged both organisations. It was a pity that in the last years before the revolution of Easter 1916, women, who had done so much to bring together various strands within the separatist and labour movements should have found themselves in conflict with one another. But in its own way, it illustrates other difficulties which would lie ahead.

Stephen Browne SJ, who provided an index of Irish print media in 1937 wrote – ‘It is interesting and may be profitable to trace through the course of Irish history those various currents of tradition and thought whose confluence (without commingling) makes the Ireland of to-day. One can distinguish many such currents – religious, political, social, cultural. Some of them may, at certain periods of our history, be hard to trace: they seem to lose themselves in the sands, yet may still be flowing beneath the surface, to well up at future time. Sometimes two or more currents seem to merge and blend, but again it is only in appearance. Sooner or later they reappear as separate streams…Some have their sources far back in Irish history; others take their rise from some movement, some upheaval, perhaps, at some definite and not far distant period of the past. Some again have their perennial well-springs in human nature itself.’

The Feminist Press

Shan Van Vocht 1897The Shan Van Vocht

The Shan Van Vocht was founded in Belfast in January 1896 by two poets, Alice Milligan, who also wrote under the name Iris Olkyrn, and Anna Johnson  who wrote using the pen name Ethna Carberry. Alice Milligan was the daughter of a Protestant clergyman, while Anna Johnson was a Catholic. The paper pulled together in its articles many aspects of life in Ireland – cultural, social, political and historical – and its approach was from within the cultural/nationalist/separatist camp, drawing inspiration from the same political well that James Connolly drew on, including Wolfe Tone, James Fintan Lalor and John Mitchel. It provided a platform for writers such as Connolly, although in his case the editors disassociated themselves from his socialism, and for Douglas Hyde and Arthur Griffith. It also provided a valuable outlet for women writers, and it publicised women’s groups and their campaigns and views.

It championed the work of the literary societies, the Gaelic League, and the Amnesty Association for prisoners in British jails. One of its primary functions was to re-awaken interest in Irish patriots – especially, in readiness for the centenary, the patriots of 1798. It promoted the tending of the graves of patriots, regularly publishing articles such as, in its first issue on page 14,  ‘The Neglected Shrines and Sepulchres of Ireland’s Illustrious Dead’.

The Shan Van Vocht was a good read at 20 pages per issue, containing plenty of well-written material, and costing two pence. A typical issue contained the following: ‘The Captain’s Daughter’ (serial); ‘The Lonely One’ (poem); ‘The Rise and Fall of the Fenian Movement of ‘67’ part iv’; ‘Manus O’Mallaghan and the Fairies‘; ‘On Inisheer’ (poem); ‘Willie Kane of the “Northern Star”: How He Escaped the Scaffold’; ‘Irishmen in the Transvaal’; ‘The Burial-Place of the Sheares’; ‘Our National Language’; ‘James Clarence Mangan’; ‘Reviews – The life of Owen Roe O’Neill, The Life and Writings of Fintan Lalor’; ‘Our Notebook’ (Diary and Announcements); ‘The Moonlighters Hound’ (poem); ‘For the Old Land’ (review of the work being done to advance the nationalist cause).

In an editorial ‘Why Must We Strive For Freedom’ on the 7th August 1896, the paper set out what was required of the Irish – ‘…the freedom of Ireland can never be granted as a boon; it must be worked for, prayed for, longed for, night and day unceasingly, and in the end be nobly won by the courage and self reliance and strong arms of her sons from north and south, and east and west, aye, and from the far world’s end, banded together to achieve that aim in steadfast trust and brotherly unity’.

And in February 1897, we get a preview of the policy of Sinn Fein – ‘If we do not set and keep the ball of patriotism rolling ourselves, it is impossible for our nearest and dearest exiles to achieve anything for us. The work is ours and ours alone. To ourselves belong the initiation, control, and direction of whatever movement we consider best adopted to attain our ends’.

While the paper was successful, the editor, in a number of articles, complained of the lack of support that it was getting from the nationalist papers in Dublin. Dr. Mark Ryan of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in London convinced Alice Milligan and Anna Johnson that it was an opportune time to hand on the project to others. He arranged for Arthur Griffith to return from South Africa to take over as editor. From then on the paper was known as the United Irishman.

The Shan Van Vocht had helped to foster interest again in the separatist cause. It had provided Connolly with one of his first opportunities, since coming to Ireland, to present his case to other than a labour audience. It had also linked up with Maud Gonne in Paris and her paper L’Irlande Libre and exchanged material for publication. It had helped to establish an understanding of the work of various cultural and political groups and to encourage participation in them. The two women had done their work well, in the process inspiring other women who would take the work forward.

Bean na hEireann frontpage

Bean na hEireann (The Woman of Ireland)

The idea of producing a monthly journal as the organ of Inghinidhe na hEireann came from Helena Molony, the organisation’s secretary. At a meeting attended by Constance Markievicz and Sydney Gifford, the decision was taken to produce what they advertised as the first Irish women’s paper. Published between 1908 and 1911, Bean na hEireann (The Woman of Ireland) stood for the ‘freedom for Our Nation and the complete removal of all disabilities to our sex’.  It would describe itself in a later issue as ‘the first and only Nationalist Woman’s paper’. Maud Gonne was the publisher, and Helena Molony was editor. She, having drawn closer to the labour position, had difficulties with Cumann na nGhaedheal with which the Inghinidhe was linked, and this had given her the impetus to propose the launching of Bean na hEireann. She is quoted by historian Margaret Ward on this issue – ‘The United Irishman, starting as a physical force, separatist journal, had gradually changed its policy to one of reactionary social and dual-kingdom ideas…We wanted a paper to counter-act this. We wanted it to be a women’s paper, advocating militancy, separatism and feminism‘.

The Bean included short stories and poems, usually with a nationalist flavour, articles on aspects of patriotism or history, a cookery column, a children’s page, fashion notes, Irish language features, and a gardening feature ‘Woman with a Garden’ by Constance Markievicz (writing as ‘Maca’) which included tips on the extermination of slugs, but with a comparison drawn to British soldiers. The paper also carried ‘Labour Notes’ by ‘A Worker’ (Helena Molony) and increasingly carried contributions on women, their working conditions and their need to be equally organised and represented by the Labour movement. Some members of the Inghinidhe, including Helena Molony and Constance Markievicz, drew ever closer to involvement with James Connolly and the Labour movement and ultimately with active service in the 1916 revolution with the Irish Citizen Army.

There was no doubting the militant tone of the Bean. In response to an article on ‘The Police and the Nation’, a correspondent replied – ‘The article on street-fighting in Bean na hEireann a couple of months ago struck the right note…I would go further and say that in every town and parish in Ireland in which there is some national spirit left, the art of fighting the police should be assiduously cultivated and perfected’.

The Bean took the line that women’s emancipation would come with national independence, a nationalist-feminist line very similar to what that of Cumann na mBan members would be. This led to difficulties with suffragettes such as Mary McSwiney and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, difficulties which got an airing in a lively debate over a period of time in the pages of the Bean. The paper was able to sustain its own argument, but its life was drawing to a close in any event. Maud Gonne’s prolonged absence in France threw too much onto Helena Molony’s shoulders and she had other work to do elsewhere, particularly in the women’s labour movement. The paper issued its last edition in February 1911. By then, the I.R.B. had launched their new militant separatist paper Irish Freedom thus ensuring that their message would continue to counter the moderate line taken by Arthur Griffith’s publications.

The Irish Citizen mastheadThe Irish Citizen

Following the demise of Bean na hEireann in 1911, leaving a gap in the market for a feminist newspaper, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Margaret Cousins launched the feminist newspaper The Irish Citizen which carried the motto – ‘For Men and Women Equally The Rights of Citizenship; For Men and Women Equally The Duties of Citizenship’.

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was among the first Irish female university graduates, achieving a BA in Languages in 1899 and later an MA in Modern Languages in 1902. A year earlier she had founded the Women Graduates’ Association, and in 1903 married Frances Skeffington, a university registrar and a journalist with socialist and pacifist views. They each adopted the other’s surname as a mark of equality. She was a contributor of articles on education and feminism to both Bean na hEireann and The Nation, and was also a founding member of the Irish Women Workers’ Union and a close associate of James Connolly. During the 1913 Lockout she worked in the soup-kitchens in Liberty Hall.

The labour movement provided a meeting place for radical women before, during and after the Lockout in which Hanna, Constance Markevicz, Helena Molony, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen and Dr Kathleen Lynn played prominent roles and all became close to Connolly who was himself a committed feminist. The Irish Citizen described him as “the soundest and most thoroughgoing feminist among all the Irish labour men”, a comment that is hardly surprising given his work for women workers and his writings on the subject of women’s rights, for instance; “None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter. In its march towards freedom, the working class of Ireland must cheer on the efforts of those women who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetters of the ages, have arisen to strike them off.” The close relationship between the Irish Women’s Franchise League which Hanna co-founded, and the labour movement, is summed up in the League’s Annual Report for 1913 in which is said ‘The working classes particularly have shown themselves friendly, and have rallied to our support whenever called upon’. It was mainly the labour movement that provided protection for the feminists at public meetings when they came under attack from mobs.

The Irish Citizen promoted more than the vote for women in campaigning for equal citizenship – a concept that was later firmly embedded in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Hanna, and the Irish Women’s Franchise League that she co-founded, supported militant feminist activity, although she was opposed to militarism. An advocate of window smashing as a form of protest, she pointed out that men who disapproved of this tactic “only applaud the stone-thrower as long as the missile is flung for them and not at them”. Hanna was herself imprisoned for five days in 1912 for breaking windows at the War Office after women were excluded from the franchise in the Home Rule Bill. She was later jailed  after attempting to push a leaflet on the British conservative leader Bonar Law but was released after five days, having gone on hunger strike.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

What is clear from an examination of the feminist movement and the various publications associated with it is that Irish women were from the late 19th century increasingly involved in the move towards revolution as authors, publishers, educators, activists, agitators, thinkers, prisoners, hunger-strikers, allies and, ultimately, as revolutionary soldiers.  What is also clear from this series of articles is that the three strands that came together in that revolution – advanced-nationalist, advanced-feminist and organised labour – had one prominent common denominator, James Connolly. It is difficult to imagine the revolution taking place without his capacity to straddle those three movements and draw them to a common cause, the creation of an independent republic of equal citizens with guarantees of religious and civil liberties, equal opportunities, and sovereign ownership by the citizens of the national territory and its resources.

Connolly had laid out that project of drawing the various radical strands together in 1897; “we will, as the true revolutionist should ever do, have called into action on our side the entire sum of all the forces and factors of social and political discontent”. The evidence of history is that the support of radical feminist women was absolutely crucial to the success of his project, and he certainly repaid their trust by making explicit the feminist content of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The feminist women, in turn, repaid the trust he displayed in them in being the most ardent defenders of that Irish Republic long after many of the men had fallen away and joined the brutal counter-revolution which began with the signing of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. It was, of course, the triumph of that counter-revolution over progressive forces that determined the fate of Irish women, that effectively silenced or exiled them, and that cast them into the role of second-class citizens in what purported to be a republic, for most of the 90 years since independence. But they rose again, and the work continues! It is worth re-reading that quote from Stephen Browne SJ again –

‘It is interesting and may be profitable to trace through the course of Irish history those various currents of tradition and thought whose confluence (without commingling) makes the Ireland of to-day. One can distinguish many such currents – religious, political, social, cultural. Some of them may, at certain periods of our history, be hard to trace: they seem to lose themselves in the sands, yet may still be flowing beneath the surface, to well up at future time. Sometimes two or more currents seem to merge and blend, but again it is only in appearance. Sooner or later they reappear as separate streams…Some have their sources far back in Irish history; others take their rise from some movement, some upheaval, perhaps, at some definite and not far distant period of the past. Some again have their perennial well-springs in human nature itself.’


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.


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