Tag Archives: socialism

Forge unity to create Irish Republic – a moral duty

In a recent video interview, Liam Sutcliffe, veteran republican activist with the IRA and Saor Éire, and one of those responsible for removing the blight of Nelson’s Column from outside the GPO in 1966, was asked how he felt about the split between the Provisionals and the Officials. His answer was that “I thought the whole thing was wrong…I’d never take part in any split again in my life…the thing about it was there were great men on both sides…in the long run we never got an extra blade of grass, and all the deaths, all the hunger strikers…we’re still twenty-six and six”.

The lack of unity, the tendency to split, the failure to forge suitable alliances, the absence of clear purpose and strategy, the failure to do the nuts and bolts work, the concentration on ending partition by driving the English out of Ireland as if that on its own was the means to some end worth having, has meant that we are still twenty-six and six, two failed statelets, instead of the 32 county Irish Republic that republicans claim to be committed to achieving.

It is not as if Irish republicans have not had enough time to correct these tendencies, to produce a tangible explanation of the sort of republic they had in mind, and to communicate these ideas in an effective way to all of the people on both sides of the border. It is now almost 98 years since the Irish Republic was proclaimed, 95 years since the National Programme was agreed, and 92 years since the start of the counter-revolution following the signing and ratification of the Treaty.

But it is not just Irish republicans who are at fault. Irish socialists have demonstrated the same propensity for a lack of unity, a tendency to split, a failure to forge suitable alliances, an absence of clear purpose and strategy, and a failure to do the nuts and bolts work to create the sort of society they claim to be in favour of. Presumably the political framework of that society would be, at least until some better model might be found sometime in the future, a republic.

What should bind republicans and socialists are James Connolly, Liam Mellows and other socialist republican thinkers and activists who shared the common vision of the Workers’ Republic. In fact, as Connolly put it – to be a republican is to be a socialist, and to be a socialist is to be a republican. When Connolly signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic he did so as a socialist republican, and in that document, with his ideological fingerprints all over it, he left the ways and means of achieving the Workers’ Republic to us, republicans and socialists. Thus far we have failed to live up to the task.

In 1897, Connolly published an important piece, ‘Érin’s Hope’, a taste of his writings yet to come. In that, Connolly addressed the issue that some misguided people on the left have found fault with him on, making the spurious charge that he abandoned socialism for nationalism – a risible charge. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin later agreed with Connolly’s position, stating that in history there had never been one example of a ‘pure’ revolution. Discussing the requirements for successful revolution Connolly wrote “we will have based our revolutionary movement upon a correct appreciation of the needs of the hour, as well as upon the vital principles of economic justice and uncompromising nationality; 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”.

In 1916, the ‘forces and factors’ were present: republicans, socialists, feminists, militant-separatists, advanced nationalists, cultural nationalists and so on. They united in common cause, and representatives of each of these tendencies share a common plot in Glasnevin Cemetery – the Republican Plot.

Those “forces and factors of social and political discontent” have never been absent during the 92 years of hegemonic right-wing counter-revolution since the signing of the Treaty. They are present today in abundance – various republican parties and groups, socialist parties and groups, social, economic and political grassroots movements, feminists, human rights and peace activists, environmentalists, resources and sovereignty activists, and so on. It is possible to craft a unity of purpose among many or even most of these strands of discontent and dissidence provided a common platform based on a vision of justice, freedom, equality and sovereignty can be agreed. The Irish Republic is the ideal starting point for that.

Today, there is no call for any to sacrifice their lives for the Irish Republic. Instead there is a need to sacrifice: personal pride and ego; rigid political dogma; antagonism based on real or imagined hurt or on misunderstanding or misapprehension; the desire to continue an armed struggle that can achieve nothing of use at this time.

The fight to end partition needs to move south of the border, and needs to move from the physical to the intellectual. It requires the ending of counter-revolutionary misgovernment of the twenty-six and the creation of an ideal model of citizen-driven government to trump colonial government in the six. Who could seriously suggest to the Unionist/Loyalist minority on the island that they should be part of the banana-non-republic of the south? Certainly not any republican or socialist in their right minds. But putting in place a proper republic, with all of the necessary guarantees and all of the obvious advantages in plain view, is the most efficacious strategy for withering partition and uniting the people of the 32 counties. Scottish Independence, if it can be achieved, will help in that.

Achieving a rapid transformation in the twenty-six will require clear communication to the public of both the existence of a workable strategy to put in place a proper republic and of the benefits that would flow to the great majority from such a republic. That requirement entails working around and in confrontation with existing main-stream media using creative communications strategies. That does not present a problem, but is just an important issue to be dealt with.

History has given us a significant centenary in two years time to use to our advantage in moving public opinion towards the development of a proper republic of equals. We can take advantage of that over the two short years leading up to it, or, as has been the case with other opportunities over the past 92 years, we can squander it. It is to our advantage that even among those who have not read the Proclamation yet, or who have forgotten its wording, or who have not had its promises and implications explained to them, there is still a strong emotional bond with it on the part of many citizens.

Taking advantage of the Centenary of the 1916 Revolution requires us to lay out precisely what sort of republic we have in mind. The principles of that republic are contained in the Proclamation and in the National Programme that was created from that template. If we are to demonstrate our serious intent, our openness and our honesty, these principles need to be expanded in a new, comprehensive Peoples’ Constitution of the Irish Republic.

Writing a new constitution is not rocket science, nor should it be a task entrusted to some ‘elite’ group. There are various constitutions already in place elsewhere in the world to be used as examples, but none more suitable as a model or in its content than the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, initiated by Hugo Chavez but drawn up with the input of the people at every stage. Irish republicans and socialists would do well to read that great socialist-republican constitution from the source of the New Enlightenment – Latin America.

In 14 years of dedicated work underpinned by a vision of a better life for all, Chavez and his people transformed the lives of the poor, the oppressed, the abused, the marginalised of Venezuelan society in a way that was unimaginable at the beginning of the revolution. By contrast, in 92 years since quasi-independence, Irish republicans and Irish socialists have failed to lift the poor, the oppressed, the abused and the marginalised of Irish society out of their collective miserable grind – on both sides of the border. That failure is inexcusable. That failure cannot persist.

The first stage in dispelling that failure requires a concerted effort to drive from power the reactionaries who have between them held power in the twenty-six since 1922. Making that effort was never just an option – it was a moral duty, and it is still, today, a moral duty. It demands the putting aside of childish one-upmanship, the spurious notion that ‘my ideas are better than your ideas and my ideas must prevail’, opting instead for the creation of an agreed, shared, broad-left platform designed to complete the revolution for the benefit of all of the people of this island, equally.

Let us take our lead from James Connolly. Let us call “into action on our side the entire sum of all the forces and factors of social and political discontent”. Let us start that work now.

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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!


Revolution and counter-revolution in Ireland

We are pretty poor in Ireland at properly describing the state we are in, both physically and psychologically.  We live in a political state that we describe as a ‘republic’ even though it patently fails to meet the test for a republic and is, instead, something else, but we won’t name it for what it really is. And we live in a state of being, a psychological condition strangely common across disparate groups that each claim to draw inspiration from widely differing sources, whether christian or non-christian religious faiths, various right-wing or left-wing political faiths, those of no religious or political affiliation and so on. Despite those different influences, so deeply important to many individuals, we act – or fail to act – as if we are all of the same mind.

First to the political state we are in, the so-called ‘republic’.  A reasonable person might imagine that our definition of ‘the republic’ should derive from the foundational document of the independent Irish State, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Paragraph four of the Proclamation lays out very clearly the relationship between the republic and its citizens and the rights and freedoms that the citizens would enjoy.

‘The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation, and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.’

The document is revolutionary in its proposal to bring about profound change to the existing order under British rule. It fueled the War of Independence, and its terms were ratified by the people through the elections of 1918, and in the Declaration of Independence issued by the first Dáil in 1919. It is the template for our Irish Republic. But something went wrong. Instead of being our guiding light, the Proclamation was hung, face to the wall, in the darkest corner the state could find.

The Civil War which followed ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922 which was forced through by the British under threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ has had a hugely distortive effect on Irish political life ever since. The victors in that Civil War, the pro-Treaty Free State government, was made up of businessmen, professionals and middle-class conservatives. The anti-Treaty side contained the bulk of those radicals and socialists who had survived the Revolution in 1916, and who had prosecuted the War of Independence against the British to establish the Irish Republic. Most of the women who had taken an active part in the 1916 revolution and the War of Independence were on the anti-Treaty side.

Seventy-seven captured anti-Treaty ‘Irregulars’ were executed by the Free State government in 1922-23, some on the flimsiest of charges, and some by summary execution without trial. Republican heroes including Erskine Childers, Liam Lynch, Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows (acknowledged as a socialist intellectual of the same calibre as James Connolly) were executed by Free State firing squads both as a reprisal for acts done by others over whom they had no control, being in prison, and as a way of permanently removing an oppositional cadre of high-quality and deeply committed leaders. The mindset of those government ministers who set this brutal and unlawful campaign of terror in place would later reveal itself as proto-fascist with the amalgamation of their party Cumann na nGaedhael with the fascist Army Comrades Association, better known as the Blueshirts, to form the Fine Gael party that leads the current government.

A principal icon of that party, William T Cosgrave, who was the first prime minister of the Free State, encapsulated that mindset in this quote from a letter he wrote to Austin Stack in 1921 – “People reared in workhouses, as you are aware, are no great acquisition to the community and they have no ideas whatsoever of civic responsibilities. As a rule their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers. Consequently, it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate.” That contempt for the poor and marginalised, victims of class politics and consequent economic and cultural deprivation, is still evident in Fine Gael attitudes to this day. It represents the polar opposite of the Republic laid out in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

Many of those on the anti-Treaty side who survived the Civil War were driven into exile, or forced underground, such was the atmosphere generated by the Civil War. As Carol Coulter, writing in 1990, put it: ‘The many other elements which were undoubtedly present in Irish nationalism – not just at the level of ideology, but expressed in living people – ranging from socialism and feminism to religious scepticism and various forms of mysticism, were defeated and their adherents marginalised or forced to keep their dissident views to themselves.’

Eamon de Valera, who was the political leader of the anti-Treaty forces, and who created the Fianna Fail party in 1926 ostensibly as ‘The Republican Party’, would consistently show himself from then on, as he had in 1916, to be nothing more than a catholic nationalist and certainly not a republican. He had been the only 1916 commandant to escape execution, and the only one to have refused to have women as part of  the garrison he led (at Boland’s Mills). That decision he later regretted solely on the grounds that some of his men had to cook! In his political life over many years as Taoiseach and later president, de Valera demonstrated no desire whatever to elevate the Proclamation from obscurity by creating the very Irish Republic that he had sworn in 1916 to put into place.

Having ‘won’ the Civil War, the Free State government set about dismantling the revolution and creating what can only be described as the counter-revolution – the very danger that James Connolly had warned against on many occasions leading up to the 1916 revolution.

The perpetuation of the highly-centralised state administrative system closed off access to power from the broad mass of ordinary people. The professional classes, property owners, capitalist industrialists and bankers still had that access, and the influence that went with it. So too had the Roman Catholic Hierarchy.

As a result of partition, and the consequent separation from the largely-Protestant North East, the Catholic Church held a powerful position in the Free State and began to assert its moral authority more explicitly. Within eight years, what can be described as Catholic legislation had found its way onto the statute books, with discriminatory laws on illegitimacy, divorce, contraception and censorship.

The Film Censorship Act (1923) was passed very shortly after the transfer of power to the Free State government. At this stage the Irish economy was in tatters. The nation had just endured a deeply divisive civil war. Child mortality rates were frighteningly high by European standards. Large numbers of people existed in the most squalid conditions both in the cities and rural areas. And yet the censorship of film was deemed important enough to be placed high on the list of legislation.

‘The highly authoritarian, anti-intellectual strain of Irish Catholic morality was incorporated in the Censorship of Films Act (1923) and the Censorship of Publications Act (1929). These acts were rigorously enforced up to the 1960s by a Censorship Board which was vigilantly supervised by Catholic lay organisations such as the Knights of Columbanus’.   (Tom Inglis: ‘Moral Monopoly’)

The censorship of books and magazines was undertaken on the grounds of ‘public decency’ or ‘obscenity’, but played a major role in suppressing the availability of information to women on matters that apply particularly to them, such as contraception and abortion. Frank O’Connor summed up the situation in 1962 in a debate in Trinity College Dublin: ‘What really counts is the attitude of mind, the determination to get at sex by hook or by crook. Sex is bad, books encourage sex, babies deter it, so keep the books out and give them lots of babies, and we shall have the nearest thing the puritan can hope for to a world without beauty and romance’.

While radicals, dissidents, the poor and the consumers of literature and the arts lost heavily because of the dominant counter-revolutionary ideology of the Free State, there can be no doubt that it was women who bore the brunt of a patriarchal assault on their civil liberties and their sense of self-worth. As soon as the Treaty had been ratified the war on women began. The Catholic Church had created a process of social control and social engineering in the nineteenth century based around the mother as the link to the individual, and one of the principal ways in which the Church exercised control over the mother was by exercising control over their sex.

‘In Ireland, it was the knowledge and control that priests and nuns had over sex which helped maintain their power and control over women. Women especially were made to feel ashamed of their bodies. They were interrogated about their sexual feelings, desires and activities in the confessional. Outside the confessional there was a deafening silence. Sex became the most abhorrent sin.’ ( Tom Inglis ‘Moral Monopoly’)

But the State was now playing its part through the legislative process. Women were increasingly excluded from the public sphere, and were by law precluded from exercising artificial means of control over their own reproductive organs. Single women who made the ‘mistake’ of becoming pregnant were vilified or exiled. Many ended up in the now infamous Magdalene Laundries run by the religious orders, along with many other girls and young women who were considered by the clergy, police or their families to be ‘at risk’. Very many of these unfortunates spent their entire adult lives in these awful places.

In the same way that ‘at risk’ girls, or ‘fallen’ women, could  likely end up in the Magdalene Laundries or similar institutions, children who were ‘deviant’ through an involvement in petty crime, poor school attendance, or lack of parents – in other words, orphans – were certain to find themselves in the euphemistically titled ‘Industrial Schools’ run by the Christian Brothers, or an equivalent institution for girls. The State washed its hands of responsibility for these, the most vulnerable in society.

The consequences of that policy are now  coming to light in proven cases of physical, psychological and sexual abuse on a horrifying scale. These children were not cherished equally to the children of the middle class and the bourgeoisie, but those who abused them, and those who facilitated the abusers in the Catholic Church, the Irish civil service and police, the medical and legal professions and politicians have, by and large, remained untouched by the law.

The 1937 Constitution was another retrograde step foisted on women. Women were now mentioned only as ‘mothers’ and their assigned space was to be the home. The constitution envisaged that women would not, through economic necessity, neglect their primary duties to their husband and their children by working outside the home. Of course many families could not rely on the father’s capacity to provide a living wage, so that for many in Ireland this was just another pious platitude.

‘The position of women in the Irish constitution is value laden. I think it really comes from the central position that the Catholic Church occupies in the Irish Free State and the perception of women in catholic cultural and political life, and this very often happens in a country that has undergone a revolution followed by a civil war, that the strong currents regulating the life of the country go towards a desire for conservative behaviour and conservative images of women’. (Historian Margaret McCurtain).

Women had played a major part in the republican and trade union movements. They had been actively involved in the Land League, Gaelic League, Celtic Revival, the Howth Gun-Running, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War. They had been amongst the most committed to the cause of Irish freedom, and had been formally included in the Proclamation. But in the new Ireland, they were to be mothers, menial workers or minders.

In the significant areas of health and education the degree of control which the Church had achieved in the nineteenth century under British rule was  augmented under the Free State regime. Control of health through hospitals and clinics with a strictly catholic ethos, is another way, outside the confessional, of exercising control over the body.

When the then Minister for Health, Dr. Noel Browne, attempted to bring in the Mother and Child scheme in 1951, which was to do with nothing more than the provision of health care for pregnant women and post-natal care for mothers and children, the response from the Hierarchy took the form of a letter to the Taoiseach – ‘To claim such powers for the public authority, without qualification, is entirely and directly contrary to Catholic teaching on the rights of the family, the rights of the church in education, the rights of the medical profession and of voluntary institutions’

The Minister was forced to resign, and the Mother and Child scheme fell.

In the area of education, the State likewise abrogated its responsibilities to the Church. The Church was, just as it had been under British rule, delighted to – indeed insistent that it should – fill that vacuum. Under Catholic Church control, equality of educational opportunities was not to apply to all of the children of the Nation, just all of the children of the bourgeoisie.

‘It suited this class down to the ground to entrust the education of the youth, and the formulation of social policy, to the Catholic Church. The outlook which it put forward in the 1930s with its corporate view of society, sought to deny class divisions, to preach satisfaction with the economic status quo, and to keep women and youth subordinated to husbands and fathers.’ (Carol Coulter)

Irish education is based on the notion of conformity, and conformity is a vital element in a hegemonic system. According to UCD historian David Fitzpatrick, Catholic nationalism was promoted by the Christian Brothers through ‘the most systematic exploitation of history’ and that their Irish History Reader of 1905 claimed that ‘a nation’s school books wield a great power’, and further: ‘Teachers should reinforce the text-book’s message by dwelling “with pride, and in glowing words on Ireland’s glorious past, her great men and their great deeds”, until pupils were persuaded “that Ireland looks to them, when grown to a man’s estate, to act the part of true men in furthering the sacred cause of nationhood’.

Fitzpatrick further points out that while the writings of Protestants such as John Mitchel and Thomas Davis were popular at the time, the Christian Brothers publication ‘Our Boys” entreated that pupils who were establishing libraries in Christian Brothers’ schools should ‘..be sure, though, that everything you get is recommended by a good Catholic Irishman’.

One important agent of influence in the state was outside direct and overt control by the Catholic church. But since the church directly influenced almost all of those who owned or worked in the media it could rest assured that its views would fall on friendly ears and be delivered through TV, radio and the printed press to the mass of Irish people. Since the vast majority of Irish politicians and state employees such as civil servants and the army and police were loyal, and sometimes fanatical, members of that church, it was in the interest of the state and its employees that those Catholic Church views on almost all important social issues were reported, and reported favourably. After all, maintaining the status quo was in all of their interests – although not in the interest of the mass of people.

Writer and cultural philosopher Desmond Fennell summed it up well in 1993: ‘When an ideological sect has a monopoly of the national media, it tends inevitably, without need of conscious decision, to prevent or minimise public discussion of those ideas it does not want discussed.’ Thus, in the interest of maintaining the status quo, discussion of republican, socialist, feminist, secular and other dissenting views – in other words, progressive ideas – was to be curtailed, or better still prevented, lest those ideas lead to a change in the social order.

The media audience was thus culturally conditioned into belonging to a community, the values of which did not evolve organically over time and through informed and free consent, but were a consequence of inputs under the control of the political class, i.e. the bourgeoisie which combined willingly with the Catholic hierarchy, to create, to use Fennell’s term, an ideological sect.

It is only in the past 20 years or so that the ruling ideological sect has begun to be challenged, and mainly through the work of a small number of ethical journalists, the persistence of a few leftist political groups and individuals, and the work of a few members of the legal profession. Their targets have been, in the main, the political and civil institutions of the state, and the Catholic church.

As far back as 1994, Fintan O’Toole wrote that: ‘In Ireland, virtually every branch of the political system has had its inadequacies exposed. Neither the systems of thought nor the systems of government can simply be patched and mended. They need to be reimagined, redrawn and reconstructed.’

In recent years there has been a steady trickle of information emerging about the relationship between the political and the commercial worlds, triggering a series of interesting but essentially ineffective public inquiries. Ineffective, since prison does not seem to be an option for patently corrupt politicians or businessmen or professional facilitators of corrupt practices.

Neither do the jail gates swing open to receive ecclesiastical prisoners – the bishops and other high-ranking priests and members of the institutional Catholic church – those who destroyed or hid evidence of the most egregious abuse of children, who deliberately lied about crimes they knew to have been perpetrated. In this non-republic there is one set of laws, rigorously applied, for the poor and marginalised and vulnerable, and there is a very different set of rules for the professional class, the Catholic hierarchy and its collaborators, politicians, and the business community.

And so to the Irish State, and what it really is. It is patently obvious that it cannot be described, from its foundation to the present day, as a republic. A republic is the property of its citizens, according to Cicero, and post-Enlightenment republics generally aspire to that idea.

The Irish State has been owned from 1922 to the present day by Desmond Fennell’s ‘ideological sect’, or to put it another way, the priests and the political class of which they form part.

The best description of the Irish State is that it was first a counter-revolutionary theocratic state controlled in its essence by an ultra-conservative religious sect, and that it has, with the diminution in power of the Irish Catholic Church over the past 30 years, become a counter-revolutionary plutarchy – a combination of plutocracy (government by a wealthy class) and oligarchy (government by a dominant class or clique) – a plutarchy determined at all costs to stifle the beautiful vision of the Proclamation.

And what of the people of Ireland, or at least of the 26-county Irish State, and their seeming inability, in general, to act politically and socially in different ways depending on their particular ‘faiths’ whether religious or political, to rationally debate different ideas, to come to different conclusions, make different choices, act with some evidence of individual autonomy and reason?

How is it that a majority of people in this state consistently act against their own economic or social interests in electing a set of political parties to govern, knowing from experience that the inevitable outcome will be the pampering of the wealthy at the expense of the lower middle and working classes and the poor, and the formulation of social policy so as to achieve as little progressive movement as necessary, thus securing the existing social order?

How is  it that in the face of outrageous and generally un-prosecuted crimes committed against women and children, and the corruption of political institutions by politicians, professionals and business interests, the people give out and then, inevitably, give in?

How is it that the mass of ordinary people, workers and their families, with all of the evidence around them of a contempt for the contribution they make to the companies they work for, and to the State itself, give in to a campaign of vilification of the trade union movement – the very institution that gave them the 40 hour working week, annual leave, legal and regulatory protections, a seat at the negotiating table, a minimum wage, extra pay for unsocial hours and redundancy compensation?

The answer to these questions lies in understanding that classic ‘civil war to counter-revolution’ scenario described earlier by Margaret McCurtain, and adding to it the deliberate creation off a hegemonic state by creating a ‘spiral of silence’ in which all dissident views are regarded as deviant and dangerous and contrary to ‘public good’ and even the ‘natural order’.

The evidence is all there in full view. It is time for us to understand it and to react rationally in our own interest and in the interest of the common good. It is time for us to start naming things for what they really were and are.  It is time for us to stop using ambiguity in language as it applies to public life and to the nation, to stop talking from behind our hands, to stand up and speak out, to stop giving out and then giving in. It is time for us to tear back the Proclamation from the dead hands of that ugly ‘ideological sect’ and to put it into action for the benefit of all citizens – to re-create the Republic.

It is time for us to grow up.


Listen To The Dead

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

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

Countess Markievicz grave, Republican Plot, Glasnevin

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

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

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

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

1916 Leaders' Grave Arbour Hill

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

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

Proclamation Arbour Hill


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