Tag Archives: Liberty Hall

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.’

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A Most Seditious Lot: The Labour Press 1898-1916

Living today in an Ireland in which we do not have any significant alternative to a hegemonic right-wing press and broadcast media, it is difficult to imagine a time when there was a vibrant antidote to counteract the conservative propaganda of the national newspapers. But over a period from 1898 to 1916 and spanning a range of movements including advanced-nationalist, feminist, cooperative and socialist, their newspapers, journals, pamphlets and newsletters planted progressive ideas in the minds of their readers and often explicitly primed and prepared them for revolutionary action. It is worth understanding how this was achieved by looking at the content of these publications. In this article the Labour press will be examined, with the other movements to be examined in later articles.

Writing in 1937, Stephen Browne SJ said ‘…the history of the Irish Labour Press may be said to begin with the first appearance in 1898 of Connolly’s Workers Republic. Indeed, though the workers’ cause had been advocated in the past by such leaders as Fintan Lalor and Michael Davitt, the labour movement proper begins with James Connolly, who may fairly be described as the first Irish labour leader pure and simple.’ Browne was correct in that final point, but also in linking Connolly back through Michael Davitt to James Fintan Lalor, as Connolly himself frequently acknowledged. Browne might have completed the list of influences – from Lalor and his contemporaries, Thomas Davis and the Young Irelanders, back again to the anti-sectarian United Irishmen of the 1790s. That list of influences explains the three main strands to Connolly’s ideology – nationalism, republicanism and socialism, to which he consciously added advanced-feminism. And it was his core socialist republicanism that defined his nationalist outlook, lifting it away from the inward-looking Catholic nationalism of many of his contemporaries and allowing him to develop and express his progressive internationalism. All of this he brought to the pages of his newspapers, his pamphlets and his public speaking, in the process educating and informing his audience.

But throughout his career it was always primarily the interests of his class – the working-class – that occupied his thoughts. Those who criticised his move (as they mistakenly saw it) towards militant separatism and the company of nationalists between 1914 and 1916 as a profound and regrettable change ignore his long-standing linkage of the unhappy plight of the working class in Ireland with British colonialism, and of workers internationally with the rapacious greed of capitalist imperialism. His appreciation of James Fintan Lalor’s position on the subject – that social questions and the national issue should be regarded as complimentary – is revealed in his writings from 1896 on, and shows that his later actions in forming a revolutionary coalition were inevitable. Prior to establishing his newspaper The Workers Republic in 1898, Connolly’s political stance was published in the pages of advanced-nationalist papers. From the earliest days he had established contact with militant nationalists, especially through his work on the preparations for the centenary of the United Irishmen’s 1798 revolution.

The first issue of The Workers Republic appeared on the 13th of August 1898, just two days before the massive gathering for the dedication of the foundation stone of the proposed Wolfe Tone monument. On page two, writing under one of his pen-names, Spailpín, Connolly tells his readers – ‘We are Republican because we are Socialists, and therefore enemies to all privileges; and because we would have the Irish people complete masters of their own destinies, nationally and internationally, fully competent to work out their own salvation.’

Page one included a trenchant criticism of Irishmen for fighting in the four corners of the world ‘under any flag, in anybody’s quarrel, in any cause except their own’. Page three carried an article on the long hours and low pay of the men who worked for the Dublin Tram Company – it would be 18 years before the owner of that company, William Martin Murphy, would get in his final retaliation in by leading the charge for Connolly’s execution. On page five, there is an attack on ‘Home Rule Journalists and Patriots’. In an article on page 6, signed Saoirse, Connolly advises Dublin Castle of the socialists’ intention to get rid of the capitalist system. There are several articles and references to Wolfe Tone throughout the paper, including on landlordism and revolution. The last of the eight pages is made up of a statement of the objects and aims of the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP), and a series of advertisements for the party’s open air meetings ‘Every Sunday Evening, 7.30. Foster Place.’, for an appeal for funds for the ISRP, for Connolly’s seminal pamphlet ‘Erin’s Hope: the End and the Means’, and only one commercial advertisement – for ‘A Good Reliable Bicycle for the Cheapest Possible Price’ at M. J. Lord.

On page one of the following week’s issue, Connolly reports on a speech made by Lord Mayor Tallon at the ‘98 Commemoration banquet – ‘Poor Wolfe Tone. Lived, fought, and suffered for Ireland in order that a purse-proud, inflated wind-bag should exploit your memory to his own aggrandisement’. The story continues on page six – ‘I am told it passed over as well as such things usually do. A number of speeches were delivered by gentlemen who did not mean what they said. As far as I can learn they all got safely home. There is nothing more to relate concerning the dinner unless to remark that there were no working men there. It was a middle-class dinner, in a middle-class restaurant, for middle-class people’. Connolly was not inclined to take prisoners when reporting on the words or actions of the rich and powerful, and it is not hard to imagine the delight with which reports like this must have been received among the working-class readers. This was part of the style of the newspaper, the mixing of serious content with caustic and highly humorous and very subversive comment.

On September 3rd the paper carried a translated reprint from L’Irlande Libre titled Socialism and Irish Nationalism which ends with a clear enunciation of Connolly’s position on both the failings of the concept of bourgeois revolution, and the necessity of forging alliances with willing partners to create a sustainable revolution. The ending is also prophetic. “Having learned from history that all bourgeois movements end in compromise, that the bourgeois revolutionists of today become the conservatives of tomorrow, the Irish Socialists refuse to deny or to lose their identity with those who only half understand the problem of liberty. They seek only the alliance and the friendship of those hearts who, loving liberty for its own sake, are not afraid to follow its banner when it is uplifted by the hands of the working class who have most need of it. Their friends are those who would not hesitate to follow that standard of liberty, to consecrate their lives in its service even should it lead to the terrible arbitration of the sword.”

Two weeks later The Workers Republic carried the first installment of Labour in Irish History under another Connolly pen-name ‘Setanta’. The finished book would eventually to be published 12 years later, in 1910, on Connolly’s return from the USA. The paper was starting to receive more advertising now. On page eight a firm called Daly & Co. of Blackburn advertised two products, Daly’s Chimney Cleaner, and Daly’s Pile Salve – hopefully not with interchangeable lids! The following issue carried the first article in the paper by Maud Gonne which was on ‘Irishmen and the British Army’.

In October, the paper ceased production until its reappearance the following May. Finance was always a problem, and the paper several times went into hibernation if there was an election to be fought. In August 1899, the paper issued a four page ‘Wolfe Tone Supplement: the Social-Revolutionary’, which included ‘Industrial Progress and Revolution’ by Arthur O’Connor, ‘The Self-Catechism of a Rebel’ by John Mitchel and an article on ‘Fenianism and Continental Revolution’. In September, the paper announced a move to new larger premises at 138 Upper Abbey Street, ‘To include a shop, a clubroom, a large lecture hall, and two separate rooms for the printing outfit which now includes two printing presses’. Two weeks later the paper advertised the fact that lectures were now being held in the Workers Hall every Sunday, admission free.

From January 1901 the style of the paper changed. It was now more dense and carried reprints of previously published articles, as well as current reports. It was not as easy or as enjoyable a read. It reverted back to the original size and form in July 1902. A month later it carried the announcement of ‘Our American Mission’, that being Connolly’s planned trip to America to raise funds by way of a lecture tour. The funds he raised and sent back were dissipated by the time of his return. Connolly, with a family to feed, and no funds to keep the party or the presses going, went back to America where he remained until 1910.

When he eventually returned it was to more fertile territory than he had left due to James Larkin’s efforts over the preceding four years to organise workers into a trade union. With the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) in place, there was now a relatively solid base from which to work. In June 1911 The Irish Worker newspaper appeared, edited by Larkin with Connolly’s active participation, and it enjoyed very substantial sales from the start. In June 1911 its circulation was 26,000. By September it had reached a staggering 95,000 copies. Its circulation fluctuated but remained healthy. It was an important weapon in the hands of the labour movement before and during the lock-out of 1913, and crucial in the formation and instruction of the Irish Citizen Army. When Larkin left Ireland to raise funds in the USA in 1914 he left Connolly effectively in control of the ITGWU, and commanding the Irish Citizen Army

In 1915, the Irish Worker was suppressed by the government, and to fill the vacuum, Connolly re-launched The Workers Republic. His newspaper would play an important role in providing coverage of the Army’s activities, training articles etc., and also as a link with the activities of the Irish Volunteers. The first issue, on the 29 May 1915, carries the message, ‘The Army and Reserves will parade on Sunday at Liberty Hall to take part in the May Day procession to the Park. All ranks are called out for the muster. By Order.’. On page 8 the paper carried accounts of military happenings so as ‘to enlighten and instruct our members in the work they are banded together to perform’. In ‘Notes on the Front’, page one, July 3rd 1915, there is a review of “From a Hermitage”, a pamphlet by P. H. Pearse, including this comment ‘We find ourselves in agreement with most of the things he says…and are surprised to find him so wisely sympathetic on the struggles of the workers with which we are most closely identified.’

A week later, under the heading ‘Ourselves and Our “Allies”’, the paper offered ‘heartiest congratulations to the Larkfield Team of the Irish Volunteers who won the tournament at St. Enda’s Fete last Sunday’. The paper was by now providing extensive coverage of the Citizen Army, with training notes on a wide variety of military topics from issue to issue. A series of articles during 1915 drew on revolutionary tactics used in, for instance; Revolution in Belgium (12th June), Revolution in Paris 1830 (July 3rd), while an article on June 19th dealt with the story of the Alamo, which the revolutionary HQ – the GPO and surrounding streets – would emulate less than a year later.

The issue of 15 April 1916, nine days before the revolution would start, carried a poem by C. de. Markievicz :

‘The Call’
‘Do you hear the call in the whispering wind?
The call to our race today,
The call for self-sacrifice, courage and faith
The call that brooks no delay.’

On the same page is an announcement of  a ‘Solemn Hoisting of the Irish Flag at Liberty Hall on Sunday April 16′.

The last issue of the Workers Republic of the 22 April, two days before the Revolution, carried an image of a harp above and below the poem “Eire” by Maeve Cavanagh. The authorities in Dublin Castle would have been reassured, however, by the first lines of the cover article ‘Notes on the Front’‘As this is our Easter edition, and we do not feel like disturbing the harmony of this season of festivity…’. But this last issue of The Workers Republic also carried an editorial titled ‘Labour and Ireland’ in which Connolly described the hoisting of the new flag of the republic over Liberty Hall – “So closely had the crowds been packed that many thousands had been unable to see the ceremony on the square, but the eyes of all were now riveted upon the flag pole awaiting the re-appearance of the Colour Bearer. All Beresford Square was packed, Butt Bridge and Tara Street were as a sea of upturned faces. All the North Side of the Quays up to O’Connell Street was thronged, and O’Connell Bridge itself was impassable owing to the vast multitude of eager, sympathetic onlookers… At last the young Colour Bearer, radiant with excitement and glowing with colour in face and form, mounted beside the parapet of the roof, and with a quick graceful movement of her hand unloosed the lanyard, and

THE FLAG OF IRELAND

fluttered out upon the breeze.

Those who witnessed that scene will never forget it. Over the Square, across Butt Bridge, in all the adjoining streets, along the quays, amid the dense mass upon O’Connell Bridge, Westmoreland Street and D’Olier Street corners, everywhere the people burst out in one joyous delirious shout of welcome and triumph, hats and handkerchiefs fiercely waved, tears of emotion coursed freely down the cheeks of strong rough men, and women became hysterical with excitement… As the first burst of cheering subsided Commandant Connolly gave the command, “Battalion, Present Arms”, the bugles sounded the General Salute, and the concourse was caught up in a delirium of joy and passion.

In a few short words at the close Commandant Connolly pledged his hearers to give their lives if necessary to keep the Irish Flag Flying, and the ever memorable scene was ended.”

Two days later, Connolly would oversee the unfurling of that flag of the Irish Republic over the GPO as the revolution began.  Nineteen days later he was dead, a battle-wounded prisoner, already dying from gangrene, murdered by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol, and with his death the authentic voice of labour in Ireland was silenced.

We do not need armed revolution in Ireland today, but we certainly need a revolution in thought and spirit, a revolution that, as always, begins in the imagination. But where can we find that organ of the mass media that will present to the people of Ireland alternative ideas to consider, propose better solutions to problems and issues of national importance, show us the lessons of the past that can guide us towards more informed judgements and help us make better decisions? The answer is bleak. In the Ireland of the 21st century that organ of the mass media does not exist. But it cannot be beyond the means of today’s free citizens to create a modern version of The Workers’ Republic, Irish Freedom or The Irish Citizen, online. Here is a start – the masthead of the penultimate edition of James Connolly’s The Workers’ Republic.

The banner of The Workers' Republic of 15th April 1916


Interfering, Meddling People: Labour agitators and 1916

In 1891, in “The Soul of Man under Socialism”, Oscar Wilde had this to say – ‘What is said by great employers of labour against agitators is unquestionably true. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary.’ 

Between 1896 and 1916 two very effective agitators combined to ‘sow the seeds of discontent’ among the working class, not just in Dublin, but in urban areas throughout the country, and abroad. The first, James Connolly, arrived in Dublin in 1896 and, very shortly after, founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party. The other, Jim Larkin, arrived from Liverpool in 1907 as organiser for the National Union of Dock Labour, and the following year founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Both were the sons of Irish emigrants from the immediate post-famine period. Each of them had his own view as to how the working class could raise themselves up, both were strong willed, yet they were able to combine at critical moments when the opportunity presented itself to improve the position of the working-class. They were by no means the first agitators in the land. But they were undoubtedly among the most effective, and carried out their work during a critically important period in terms of potential for change.

On Connolly’s arrival in 1896, he immediately threw himself into the task of establishing his tiny party, relying on public open-air meetings, usually in Beresford Place, by pamphleteering, and later through the pages of his own newspaper The Workers Republic, and in various advanced-nationalist organs of the press. He involved himself in the preparations for the centenary commemorations of the 1798 Rising shortly after his arrival with the establishment of the ‘Rank and File ‘98 Club. He also involved himself in opposition to the Boer War, using the campaign to illustrate the nature of colonialism allied to capitalism. These activities brought him into contact with many of the leading political personalities of the day, but more importantly established his credentials with the social class whose cause he championed. While this did not bring electoral success for his party, it was to pay off later.

In 1903, disillusioned with the ineffectiveness of the ISRP and what he saw as the poor prospects of establishing a viable socialist base in Ireland, Connolly left for America where he continued his agitation on behalf of workers and eventually found employment organising on behalf of the International Workers of the World. He further established himself as a socialist intellectual of international stature during this seven-year exile. While Connolly was away, he still contributed to the debates of the day in Ireland through the medium of the press, and during this time continued to develop his political, social and economic arguments, culminating in the publication, following his return to Ireland, of his most important work – Labour in Irish History – in 1910.

By the time Connolly returned to Ireland, Jim Larkin had also established his position as a labour leader of considerable stature. The formation of the ITGWU had created a union which was free from cross-channel control. It developed a set of tools by which workers could pressurise the employers into negotiating better terms; lightening strikes, sympathetic strikes, ‘flying pickets’ and so on. In all this it helped to radicalise the working class and to create a sense of solidarity among them, which is not to deny that, given the economic conditions of the day, there was not a ready supply of ‘blacklegs’ or ‘scabs’ available to the employers in the attempt to break the effectiveness of the union. But this was a militant union, and its members were not afraid to stand their ground. With the union growing in strength, Connolly and Larkin also took a prominent role in the foundation of the Irish Labour Party in 1912.

Workers flocked to join the ITGWU. Between 1910, when Connolly and Larkin joined forces, and 1912, union membership grew from 4,000 to 10,000. Irish employers who had up to then dictated terms of employment with impunity recognised the threat to their power and profits and began to organise against trade unionism. In this, they had the backing of the Catholic church, all of the leading newspapers, and the British administration in Ireland, in other words, the political class. The conflict between the union and the employers increased, with conditions imposed on workers that they not join or that they renounce existing membership of the ITGWU. When tram workers employed by William Martin Murphy’s Dublin United Tramway Company walked off the job on the 26th of August 1913, during the highly popular Dublin Horse Show, 400 Dublin employers retaliated by locking out over 20,000 men and women workers, and so the Dublin lock-out began.

The lock-out, which was led on the employer’s side by William Martin Murphy, who besides being a wealthy industrialist was owner of the influential Irish Independent newspaper, saw acts of extreme brutality inflicted by the police on civilians. This resulted in the formation of the Irish Citizen Army by Larkin, Connolly and others, an idea brought back by Connolly from his time as an organiser with the IWW in the US where a Citizens’ Army was a necessary protection for striking workers who were regularly targeted for extreme violence, including murder, by gangs of thugs hired by employers. First conceived to provide protection to strikers, the Irish Citizens Army developed quickly into an armed and well drilled force, albeit small in numbers.

Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the ITGWU, became the centre of activity for the striking workers and their families. As the Employers Federation tightened its grip on the city, blocking food supplies and other essentials of life from entering the city, soup kitchens were set up in Liberty Hall with Countess Markievicz, Helena Moloney and other radical women organising the distribution of limited amounts of food to the destitute workers’ families. Dr Kathleen Lynn set up first aid facilities in Liberty Hall to treat workers injured in action on the picket-line and also to alleviate sicknesses brought on through starvation, especially affecting children. Over the course of the lock-out a union official died in police custody following torture, two workers were killed on the streets by police, and another, a woman, was shot dead by a strike-breaker. Hundreds of strikers were injured, mainly in police baton charges. Lives were lost too in tenements in the poorest parts of Dublin as women and children in particular succumbed to starvation, disease and cold during that winter.

The lock-out petered to an inconclusive ending after seven months, with workers drifting back to work out of necessity and many Dublin businesses fatally wounded by the actions of their owners and forced to close. The ITGWU had though established the right of workers to organise in trade unions and the principle of workers’ solidarity as paramount in the struggle against oppression and exploitation. Liberty Hall had been established as an important centre of resistance and as an excellent training ground for another battle that would soon be fought. The workers involved in the lock-out had garnered support from a wide variety of sources – feminists, advanced nationalists, artists and intellectuals, and republicans. The Irish Citizen Army had been established as a military force with James Connolly in a pivotal position, and a group of men and women in leadership roles who would be of crucial importance later.

Connolly assumed command of the Citizen Army in 1914 following Larkin’s departure for America to raise funds, where he would remain until 1923 having spent a number of years in prison for criminal anarchy. Connolly was a multi-tasker. Apart from the Irish Citizen Army he was acting General Secretary of the ITGWU. He was a newspaper publisher and journalist, first under the banner of The Irish Worker and when that paper was suppressed reviving his own paper, The Workers Republic, in which he wrote most of the copy. He was a leader of the anti-conscription campaign in the lead-up and during the First World War. He was forging alliances with various elements working to create a revolution. He was developing a strategy and tactics for urban guerilla warfare that drew on research into other revolutionary events, and that would substantially form the basis for the military campaign during Easter Week 1916 and would serve as a model to be used during the War of Independence and in other revolutions in other parts of the world.

In January 1916, after a period in which Connolly had baited the Volunteer leadership on their timidity in not seizing the opportunity of British involvement in a major war to strike for Irish freedom, he disappeared for three days. His own people in Liberty Hall believed he had either been kidnapped by the Volunteers or lifted by the police and was being held in Dublin Castle. He was in fact mainly in Eamon Ceannt’s house with the leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). While some speculate that this period was spent in attempting to dissuade Connolly from taking premature action with the Citizen Army, as he had indicated he would, it is more likely that the discussions focussed on what sort of republic would be the endgame of any revolutionary action. What we can safely assume, knowing Connolly’s character and his strong convictions, is that he emerged from this series of discussions fully committed to the alliance of the IRB, Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, with a date for action determined, and with the template for the new Irish Republic nailed down.

What republic did Connolly want? The Workers’ Republic. What did the Proclamation lay out as the model of republic? A socialist republic – with the potential for the citizens of a free Ireland to take that to the next level, the Workers’ Republic. Would Connolly have settled for less? No! Did the other leaders with whom he had spent three days walk away from the discussions? No! All seven signed their names to it, knowing that they would likely die for that action.

If a revolution can have a head office, then Liberty Hall was that – for socialists and republicans alike. When the flag of the Irish Republic was raised in Dublin for the first time it was over Liberty Hall, a week before it was raised over the GPO on the 24th of April 1916. It was in Liberty Hall that the Proclamation was printed, and it was from Liberty Hall that all orders went out immediately prior to the revolution, and from Liberty Hall that the GPO garrison marched to light the fire of revolution. The central importance of Liberty Hall to the Irish revolution – from the experience of the 1913 lock-out, to the pressure applied by Connolly and the Citizen Army for revolution, to the planning and the execution of the revolution, must be recognised. The fruit of all of that was to be the socialist Irish Republic, but it was the rotten fruit of counter-revolution that would ultimately be served up to the Irish people in 1922, a fruit that they are still forced to eat today.

An oft-repeated criticism of Connolly, principally by those who claim to be ‘pure’ socialists, is that he in some way let the socialist side down in 1916 by aligning himself and his army with nationalists. The lie is given to that in the text of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic for which the leadership and rank-and-file of the revolutionary force in 1916 were prepared to lay down their lives to achieve – a socialist republic. Paragraph four of the Proclamation could have been written by no-one other than James Connolly, and that is the key paragraph. And if he did align himself with nationalists, they were nationalists who were republican in their ideology. And what is a republican? According to Connolly himself, to be a republican is to be a socialist and to be a socialist is to be a republican. But perhaps not a ‘pure’ enough socialist for some, the measure of whose opinion should be their own achievements, or lack thereof.

Perhaps these egotistical ‘pure’ socialists would point to a single instance of a ‘pure’ revolution in history. They cannot, for none exist. Connolly himself had written in ‘Erin’s Hope’ as far back as 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. By the use of the revolutionary ballot we will have made the very air of Ireland as laden with ‘treason’, as fully charged with the spirit of revolt, as it is to-day with the cant of compromise and the mortal sin of flunkeyism; and thus we will have laid a substantial groundwork for more effective action in the future…”.

“But he showed himself to be a nationalist”, the internationalists cry. The fools! Connolly, an internationalist to the core, pointed out that you cannot be one, the inter-nationalist, without being the other, the nationalist. Nationalism is neither an automatically good or bad thing. If the Nation – the collective of citizens – operates to a set of benign, progressive and non-insular ideas and values then it is obviously a good thing, and the values in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic have these good attributes. Connolly wished the Irish Republic would act as a ‘beacon of hope‘ to the oppressed people of the world, in other words that it would provide an example for them to emulate as they wished. What did Connolly have to say in Erin’s Hope 19 years before the revolution? “The interests of Labour all the world over are identical, it is true, but it is also true that each country had better work out its own salvation on the lines most congenial to its own people.” The ‘pure’ socialists on the other hand, adopt the position of the imperialist in seeking to impose a universal solution regardless of local cultural norms and nuances – another form of tyranny.

It is a pity that sectarian elements on the left would not study Connolly’s words and try to understand what the true revolutionist needs to do. And given that the parliamentary Irish Labour Party has aligned itself with the forces of the right it is even more of a pity that the rank-and-file members of the Irish Labour Party, in the centenary year of the party founded by Connolly and Larkin, would not familiarise themselves with those same words and understand where their rightful place should be – firmly on the left, not in the middle, and certainly not on the right.

What was it that Oscar Wilde wrote?

What is said by great employers of labour against agitators is unquestionably true. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary.’

True one hundred years ago, just as true today. Agitators are absolutely necessary!


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