Who’s afraid of 1916?

Admiration of James Connolly should be tempered by criticism, writes Anne McShane

The commemoration of the Easter Rising takes place this year in a period of political instability. In the aftermath of the general election, as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil scrabble around to pull together a government, the question of who will take power is still very uncertain. Though both the main parties on a charm offensive in an attempt to lure independent TDs and small parties, neither is likely to be able to form a ‘narrow’ administration when the Dáil reconvenes on March 10. Hence the talk of a ‘grand coalition’.

It is important for the establishment that there is some kind of government in office by Easter. A lot of planning has gone into the centenary events - in particular to make sure that they pass off without stirring up any old animosities. A great deal of pomp and circumstance is on the cards. On Easter Sunday the 1916 Proclamation will be read by a member of the armed forces outside the General Post Office, which served as a headquarters for the rebels. There will be a military parade, a 21-gun salute and a state reception at Dublin Castle. The official website stipulates that

the commemoration will be measured and reflective … informed by a full acknowledgement of the complexity of historical events and their legacy, of the multiple readings of history, and of the multiple identities and traditions which are part of the Irish historical experience.1

The commemoration is about “remembering, reconciling, presenting, imagining and celebrating”. It forms part of the “Decade of Commemorations”, which includes “many anniversaries relating to World War I, including the Gallipoli landings, the Somme offensive and the battle of Messines Ridge”.2

It may seem contradictory that the Irish state has organised to mark World War I battles on an equal footing with 1916, which above all was a rebellion against that war. It shows just how far the southern state is determined to go to decontextualise and neutralise the fundamental premise of the rising - and the actions of those who used the war as an opportunity to stage an armed revolt against British imperialism. But the Irish establishment does not let a trivial thing like historical accuracy stand in its way. Its strategy is to reshape the past so as to consolidate its rule today. It is a whitewash which allows Ireland’s political elite to confidently claim to be the legitimate heirs of James Connolly, Padraig Pearse and the other leaders.

Of course, none of this is news. Since the inception of the Irish state it has sought to drape itself in the banner of 1916, venerating the executed leaders of the rising while sweeping aside their revolutionism. The aim has always been to cultivate a sense of ‘small nation’ pride - a nationalism which is no threat to the British state and its continued presence in Northern Ireland.

But this has not always been easy. The Irish Free State, which came into being under the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, has been torn by conflict over the division of Ireland. The re-emergence of a struggle in Northern Ireland in 1969 made any commemoration of 1916 too risky. The annual government-organised parades were stopped in the 1970s and events at the GPO banned. Any celebration could be seen as siding with the armed struggle against British imperialism in the north. It was a very dangerous time to express any support for republican ideas - the Offences against the State Act 1939 had made it a crime to advocate force as a method of achieving political ends. Over the decades thousands were harassed, imprisoned and silenced under this legislation. The Irish state managed to create an atmosphere of intimidation, where it was impossible to express support for republicanism - or to even question the legitimacy of the status quo. Such were our lives in the holy Catholic 26 counties.

Not until the Good Friday agreement had formally deactivated the IRA’s armed struggle did the government feel secure enough to identify more openly with 1916. Fianna Fáil reintroduced parades along O’Connell Street, ending at the GPO. This year there will be an enormous number of official events nationally, with an underpinning strategy of the creation of a benign cultural pride in the past.

James Connolly

But while it is easy to point to the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the governing classes, it is often difficult to raise any criticism of the rising within the left, and in particular of the role played by James Connolly.

I am certainly not exempting myself from the ranks of those who feel an intense loyalty to Connolly. He was an inspiring individual, a trenchant and passionate critic of British imperialism and its cohorts within the Protestant ascendancy. As Belfast organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, and alongside James Larkin, he fought tirelessly against employers during the 1913 Dublin lockout. The terrible living conditions of the Irish working class moved him to savage both Protestant and Catholic employers and the London government in the pages of Workers Republic.3

Connolly was perhaps the most famous of the 1916 rebels. He was a working class leader, a fierce opponent of British imperialism, and a member of the Second International until its ignominious collapse in 1914. He is perhaps best known for his role in connecting the struggle for national liberation with the necessity for socialism. A famous quote of his is: “If you remove the English flag tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin castle, unless you set about the organisation of the socialist republic your efforts will be in vain”. However, despite his identification with the working class, there were problems with his programme on a number of levels. It is necessary for revolutionaries today to seriously consider these questions.

Writing in 1916, Lenin viewed the Easter Rising as part of the “epoch of crisis for the west-European nations, and for imperialism as a whole”. He condemned those who dismissed it as a putsch and argued that it was an integral part of the historic mass struggle for national self-determination in Ireland. The struggle of small nations like Ireland for independence needed to be supported by revolutionaries. But that was not the end of the matter. Lenin argued: “it is the misfortune of the Irish that they rose prematurely, before the European revolt of the proletariat has had time to mature”.4 In such circumstances it was easy for the British state to crush the rising.

It has been wrongly claimed by some on the left that Connolly had the same approach to World War I as Lenin, and that the Easter Rising was an example of Lenin’s tactic of revolutionary defeatism in practice. This was, for instance, the view expounded and popularised by Charles Desmond Greaves (1913-88), a prominent member of the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain. Connolly was presented as being completely in step with Lenin over the necessity to turn the imperialist war into a civil war.

Liam O’Ruairc takes on this argument and points to the fact that it is completely undermined by Connolly’s own writings. He contends that Connolly:

clearly believed that the war was a result of the crisis of a decaying British capitalism and imperialism, as opposed to a general crisis of world capitalism and imperialism. It was the war of “the pirate nation” and “savage Cossacks” against the progressive German ‘state socialism’.


O’Ruairc further says:

There is no doubt that from September 1914 Connolly not only desired a German victory over Britain, but also praised Germany as a modern, progressive state, containing the “best educated working class in the world, the greatest number of labour papers, the greatest number of parliamentary and local representatives elected on a working class platform, the greatest number of socialist voters - all of this was an infallible index to the high level of intelligence of the German working class, as well as their strong and political and industrial position.”5

He helpfully provides a list of Connolly’s articles from Workers Republic, so that his analysis can be verified.

From my reading of Connolly’s articles of 1915 and 1916, I consider that there can be no doubt but that Connolly saw the German state as progressive compared with the British empire. He claimed that the “German empire” allowed autonomy for its component parts, while its British counterpart relied only on suppression. And, while “we do not wish to be ruled by either empire … we certainly believe that the first named contains in germ more of the possibilities of freedom and civilisation than the latter”.6

In the same article he also maintains that “the instinct of the slave to take sides with whoever is the enemy of his own particular slave-driver is a healthy instinct, and makes for freedom”. Connolly was not only so driven by his hatred of British imperialism that he wanted to back its enemy: he also had illusions in the efficiency and justice of the Prussian state.

Nationalism and socialism

Connolly often used the terms ‘working class’, ‘nation’ and ‘people’ as if they were interchangeable. In his article, ‘What is a free nation?’, from Workers Republic February 1916, he said this:

The future requires the possession by Ireland of all the national rights now denied to her. Only in such possession can the workers of Ireland see stability and security for the fruits of their toil and organisation.

And the working class had to be prepared to die for national independence - a “destiny not of our fashioning has chosen this generation as the one called upon for the supreme act of self-sacrifice - to die if need be that our race might live in freedom”.7

Announcing the Irish Citizen Army’s decision to take part in the 1916 rebellion, Connolly famously declared:

The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland; the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be the sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil. Labour seeks to make the free Irish nation the guardian of the interests of the people of Ireland, and to secure that end would vest in that free Irish nation all property rights as against the claims of the individual, with the end in view that the individual may be enriched by the nation, and not by the spoiling of his fellows.8

To me this is confusing things. and consequently highly problematic. Connolly was urging the working class to put all its efforts into winning national independence. Indeed he had a thoroughly romantic view of Ireland’s past. In the pamphlet The reconquest of Ireland, Connolly painted a bucolic picture of the country prior to colonial conquest. It was:

a country in which the people of the island were owners of the land upon which they lived, masters of their own lives and liberties, freely electing their rulers, and shaping their castes and conventions to permit of the closest approximation to their ideals of justice as between man and man.

It was:

a society in which all were knit together as in a family, in which all were members having their definite place, and in which the highest could not infringe upon the rights of the lowest - those rights being as firmly fixed and assured as the powers of the highest, and fixed and assured by the same legal code and social convention.9

Connolly’s programme was for “labour” (the working class) to reverse the conquest and ‘reconquer’ Ireland - returning it to the Irish people. His idea of a future Ireland was based on a combination of state control and smallholdings. A separate and independent economy.

Connolly’s decision to unite his Irish Citizens Army with the nationalist Irish Volunteers must certainly have been driven forward by this vision. This view, along with frustration and despair at the defeat of the lockout, the continued repression and the threat of conscription looming, seems to have pushed him to act. The decision to take on the British empire with 1,200 volunteers and less than 200 ICA members was certainly audacious, but it was doomed. The rising began on Easter Monday, April 14, and was forced to surrender on April 29. All the leaders were rounded up and 15 of them were then publicly and cruelly executed. In this way the British empire sent out a message to any of its colonies tempted to follow in Ireland’s footsteps.

In his final statement - made to his daughter, Nora, before his death - Connolly declared:

The British government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland. The presence, in any one generation of Irishmen, of even a respectable minority, ready to die to affirm that truth, makes that government forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.10

Having completed this statement, he was taken out before a firing squad and shot while tied to a chair. The injuries he sustained during the rising meant he could not stand.

For me his final words are the most compelling, as they point to his deep commitment to Irish self-determination. That is beyond question - but it is the rest of his legacy that comrades need to address too.



1 . www.ireland.ie/about.

2 . www.decadeofcentenaries.com/about.

3 . www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1915/05/lckoutsq.htm.

4 . www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/jul/x01.htm.

5  . https://theirishrevolution.wordpress.com/2015/12/03/james-connolly-germany-and-the-first-world-war-was-connolly-a-proto-lenin.

6 . www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1916/03/germbrit.htm.

7 . www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1916/02/whtfrnat.htm.

8 . www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1916/04/irshflag.htm.

9 . www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1915/rcoi/chap01.htm.

10 . www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1916/05/laststat.htm.