Connolly's strategy and 1916

The Easter rising was not simply a nationalist insurrection, argues Philip Ferguson. It marked the success of the militant labour forces in taking the lead in the Irish national movement

James Connolly and his revolutionary circle saw the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 as making rebellion in Ireland not only possible, but an imperative necessity. "I will not miss this chance," Connolly declared when war broke out. In September he asked: "Would it not be better for all capable of bearing arms to resolve to fight and if need be to die for freedom here at home rather than be slaughtered for the benefit of kings and capitalists abroad?"

Connolly was also no doubt aware of the problems which beset the British administration in Ireland at the opening of the war. Indeed, the Irish Times argued just before war broke out that the state of Ireland was "desperately critical". Its "administration is helpless and discredited".

As James D Young, who is hostile to the Connolly perspective, notes, "From the outbreak of the First World War, Countess Markievicz and James Connolly were waiting their opportunity to initiate a nationalist-cum-socialist revolt. When the opportunity came in April 1916, they did not hesitate to confront the might of British imperialism." Far from being goaded into the Easter rising, "Countess Markievicz and James Connolly had decided upon the efficacy of a nationalist uprising in August 1914."

It should be noted that this was James Larkin's perspective as well. Along with calling on workers to fight for Ireland alone, he declared: "England's need is Ireland's opportunity", that "the guns must be got, and at once" and that Ireland "had now the finest chance she had for centuries". Larkin also organised anti-war protests and told a rally of 7,000 in Dublin that the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, the militant union led by Connolly and himself, was prepared to help land weapons in Ireland. Dublin Trades Council, following the killings on the evening of the Howth gun-running on July 26 1914, adopted a motion from ITGWU leader O'Brien which included the view that "the only effective manner of dealing with this latest action of the government is for the people to meet force with force".

Most importantly, from the viewpoint of revolutionary socialists such as Larkin, Connolly and Markievicz, the war and John Redmond's Irish Parliamentary Party's role in supporting it, while acquiescing in the shelving of home rule, provided militant labour with the opportunity to push past the bourgeois nationalists and unite all the progressive forces behind the radical working class movement. The forces led by Connolly (and earlier by Larkin also) sought to detach the republicans from the bourgeois nationalist Redmondites within the Irish Volunteers and then the left republicans from the timid elements around Irish Volunteers' leader (and university professor) Eoin MacNeill.

When Redmond pledged the Volunteers to Britain at Woodenbridge in September 1914, Larkin described him as "the Irish Judas" and suggested he should be strung up.10  The following month, Larkin headed one of his editorials, "Redmond eats his own vomit".11  The Irish Independent Labour Party launched an 'Appeal to the Irish working class', asking them to remember they belonged to the same class as the workers of the rest of Europe and urging a revolutionary defeatist position on the basis that a British defeat would assist the struggle for Irish freedom.

As actress Maire nic Shublaigh - an early activist in the radical republican women's group, Inghinidhe na hEireann - noted in her autobiography, the suspension of home rule "raised a storm of protest" and Redmond's decision to back Britain despite this ensured "the young men were outraged".12  In effect, the IPP sell-out opened the way for the initiative on the national question to pass to the militant labour and republican groupings. Connolly was determined not to let the opportunity pass.

In May, Connolly had written: "We believe there are no real nationalists in Ireland outside of the Irish labour movement. All others merely reject one part or another of the British conquest - the labour movement alone rejects it in its entirety and sets itself to the reconquest of Ireland ..."13  Barely two months into the war he declared "a fight to the finish" with the Redmondites, noting: "For some of us the finish may be on the scaffold, for some in the prison cell, for others more fortunate upon the battlefields of an Ireland in arms for a real republican liberty."14 

He was, however, optimistic, writing to Larkin six days later, on October 9: "We are at present in a very critical stage for the whole of Ireland as well as for the labour movement. One result of this is that we have an opportunity of taking the lead of the real nationalist movement ..."15  This was the heart of Connolly's strategy up to the rising, a strategy in which his closest co-workers were Markievicz and Michael Mallin, fellow members of the army council of the Irish Citizen Army - the workers' militia which arose out of the great Dublin lockout of 1913-14.

Although sharing the view that Connolly moved away from socialism to nationalism, Young notes the "nationalist-cum-socialist" nature of the rebellion envisaged by Connolly and Markievicz. In fact, Connolly from the beginning perceived the rebellion as having a wider significance than simply an attempt at national liberation for one oppressed people (as important as that was). Through an insurrection, "Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord," he wrote as war was declared on the continent.16 


Connolly began, relates O'Brien, his ITGWU colleague, to seek out allies "with the view to combined action in preparation for an insurrection."17  The logical place to find them was in a section of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, since, as Strauss has noted, that group's "left wing approached the position of the militant labour movement".18  Thus it was not just anybody at hand whom Connolly sought out for an alliance.

Strauss's point about the convergence of the politics of the IRB's left, exemplified by Pearse, Clarke and the other Easter proclamation signatories, with the labour radicals is especially important and largely ignored by critics of Connolly. The alliance between Connolly and the republicans is usually seen as being a convergence around nationalist separatism, or Connolly's subordination to it. Yet this overlooks the large degree of convergence on issues of domestic Irish politics.

Both the republicans and Connolly regarded the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which wielded immense power in the Irish Parliamentary Party, as an excrescence in Irish political life.19  Both regarded the bourgeois nationalist IPP itself as, if anything, worse than the British government since the party was the enemy within - the main organisation in nationalist Ireland, without which British rule could not have been maintained on any stable basis. Again, Connolly and the republicans agreed that fundamental changes in the social and economic structure were necessary and could only be carried out in an independent country.

Even before the Dublin labour dispute the IRB's paper, Irish Freedom, had run articles making clear that they sided with the plebeian masses. One article, headed "The economic basis of a revolutionary movement" by 'Northman', maintained that labour and republicanism "rest upon the same foundation: they are but different manifestations of the same principle and would form a natural and mutually helpful alliance".20 

The class sympathies of the republicans were also evident during the 1913-14 labour struggle, with all the future republican signatories of the 1916 proclamation siding with the workers. During the dispute, for instance, Irish Freedom, in a front-page article, described the police as "Irish Cossacks" and, following the clashes in O'Connell Street, accused them of "the killing of two citizens of Dublin and the wounding of about 600". Of the workers, the paper said: "If they claim the right to conduct a strike against their employers, no reasonable man can object." If the police and military were used to suppress them, the workers "must act after consideration and deep thought. But they cannot punish the police brutes with empty hands against batons, or stones against bullets. We have often advised the people of Ireland to arm themselves, and we shall press upon them the wisdom of this course ..."21 

In a column in the same issue, Pearse, backing the workers, likened the Dublin employers to Marie-Antoinette and her alleged 'Let them eat cake' comment about the starving poor: "Poor Marie-Antoinette did not quite grasp the situation in France," Pearse noted. "In the end the situation grasped her and hurried her to the guillotine." Another proclamation signatory, Eamonn Ceannt, had even lectured on several occasions for Connolly's Socialist Party.22 

The extent of this convergence between the Connolly militant labour current and the republican militants is clearly apparent in Pearse's final and most developed political tract, The sovereign people, in which he builds upon the ideas of Lalor, the most socially revolutionary of all the republican figures of the 1800s and a hero of Connolly's, and at last deals with "the material basis of freedom". In this work Pearse makes clear his view that "no private right to property holds good against the public right of the nation" and that the nation must "exercise its public right so as to secure strictly equal rights and liberties to every man and woman within the nation".23 

Pearse's view of equal rights in relation to women extends to participation in the government itself. He remarks: "In order that the people may be able to choose as a legislation and as a government men and women really and truly representative of themselves" they would be wise to adopt "the widest possible franchise - give a vote to every adult man and woman of sound mind. To restrict the franchise in any respect is to prepare the way for some future usurpation of the rights of the sovereign people."24  Pearse had only been a republican for several years at the time, was only in his mid-30s and was evolving rapidly politically.

All of this undermines Austen Morgan's claim that the people with whom Connolly united in 1916 were "a group of five, later six, petty-bourgeois cultural nationalists, most of whom had only recently embraced physical force, a conspiracy with the pretensions of a national bourgeoisie".25  Far from having "the pretensions of a national bourgeoisie", Pearse, Clarke, MacDiarmada, Ceannt and Plunkett wanted to destroy the power of the national bourgeoisie - whose party was the IPP - and gave their lives, like Connolly, as much to that as to the ridding of Ireland of British rule.26 

All through the period up to the rising, Connolly never lost an opportunity to impress upon the republican militants his view that the working class was the driving force for national liberation and that anyone proposing to win Ireland's freedom could not succeed unless they recognised this. He never lost sight of where his group stood - "we belong to the working class of Ireland, and strive to express the working class point of view"27  - while pressing his point that the Irish Citizen Army was "the only body that, without reservation, unhesitatingly announces its loyalty to the republican principle of national freedom of which the Fenians stood."28 

One of Connolly's and Markievicz's first steps to build an alliance with the republican militants following the outbreak of war was a meeting on September 8 in the library of the Gaelic League in Parnell Square. It was attended by all seven future Easter proclamation signatories, veteran republican John MacBride, O'Brien and several others. Connolly advocated that they begin preparations for an insurrection and suggested the setting up of two subcommittees to assist this: one to make contact with Germany for military support and one to organise open propaganda and recruit to the secret movement.29 

A possible fruit of the September 8 meeting was a decision made by the IRB. According to Leon O Broin, some time between September and November 1914 the IRB decided to stage an insurrection before the war was over.30  This would suggest that the IRB decision would have been made after the meeting at which Connolly proposed this course, pointing up the key role played by him in initiating the insurrection.

The open organisation agreed on at the September 8 meeting, meanwhile, was established as the Irish Neutrality League, including Markievicz and Connolly, O'Brien and Foran from the labour movement, the pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, republican figures Sean T O'Kelly, Sean Milroy and JJ Scollan, and Sinn Féin's Arthur Griffith.31  It was primarily a group of leaders without a general membership and, although it organised meetings and produced leaflets for a couple of months, British military restrictions made it impossible for the League to continue.32 

However, it may have been that Connolly had decided the time was right to move on to a more militant flouting of the authorities. It is clear that Markievicz and Connolly were already thinking along such lines before the INL was even launched. For instance, plans were laid for Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers members to seize the Mansion House on the night of September 24 and hold it for 24 hours in order to prevent Asquith and Redmond from holding their advertised recruiting meeting in the building the following day.

Although the plan had to be abandoned due to the strength of British forces, the militants won a victory elsewhere that day. The IV's original executive repudiated Redmond's nominees as, four days earlier, Redmond had promised the Volunteers' support to Britain during the war. The expulsion of the Redmond group led to a split in which the IPP took the vast bulk of the membership, reducing the organisation to maybe 12,000 members. Connolly was delighted.

On October 10 he declared the "fight against Redmondism and Devlinism is a fight to save the soul of the Irish nation" and exhorted the Irish Volunteers to throw everything into the struggle against Britain's war effort and the IPP's betrayal, and to adopt "the daring appeal of the revolutionist".33  Two weeks later he declared that if Britain tried to introduce conscription in Ireland through the Militia Ballot Act or any other measure, the ITGWU and ICA "have our answer ready". Resistance "must of necessity take the form of insurrectionary warfare "¦ barricades in the streets, guerrilla warfare in the country".34 

The split with the Redmondites35 , so desired by Connolly, had not left the revolutionaries in control, however. Leaders such as MacNeill and the ubiquitous Hobson were far from sharing the views of the militant republicans and socialists. Connolly continued to try to drive a wedge into the Volunteers, to detach the militants from MacNeill and Hobson and pull them towards his militant socialist/labour current.


In May 1915 the republican militants took a further step forward, setting up a military committee, comprising Ceannt, Pearse and Plunkett, with the latter reputedly being the military expert; Clarke and MacDiarmada joined later in the year, Connolly in January 1916 and MacDonagh later again.36  During this period Clarke was IRB supreme council secretary, MacDonagh treasurer and Denis McCullough president.

Mid-1915 also saw a new initiative of the Connolly forces. An anti-conscription committee was formed, with Markievicz and Connolly occupying central roles. In August Connolly claimed: "We saved the lives of thousands, held together thousands of homes, and amid all the welter and turmoil of a gigantic and unparalleled national betrayal we presented to the world the spectacle of the organised Irish working class standing steadfastly by the highest ideals of freedom, so that the flag of labour became one with the standard of national liberty."37 

In October Dublin Trades Council, at the initiative of Transport Union delegates, passed a resolution calling upon workers to join the ICA and IVs as the best way of preventing the introduction of conscription. Discussions also took place between the trades council and Volunteers in relation to a campaign against economic conscription. "Connolly insisted that if the organised workers were to pledge their support for a certain policy, the Irish Volunteers should also be pledged to back that policy with military support should that be necessary," recalls O'Brien, but MacNeill would not agree.38 

During this period recruitment in Ireland fell off noticeably. Between August 1914 and August 1915, Britain succeeded in recruiting 80,000 from Ireland. Over the following 12 months this declined to a mere 12,000. Most recruits came from Ulster. The lowest rates were in Connaught and Munster (the south and west), where the land struggle had been strongest. Only 10.7% of the relevant age group from Ireland served in the British Army, compared to 24.2% in England and Wales and 26.9% in Scotland.39 

Connolly and Markievicz also upped the ante, with the Citizen Army increasingly appearing on the streets with weapons. In July they even led it in a mock attack on Dublin Castle. Meanwhile every hesitation by the IV leadership was met with fiery denunciation, as when they gave in to a British order that one of their chief organisers, captain Robert Monteith (who also had a reputation as a labour sympathiser), leave Dublin.40 

Connolly also made clear that ICA collaboration with the Volunteers was conditional, stating: "However it may be for others, for us of the Citizen Army there is but one ideal - an Ireland ruled, and owned, by Irish men and women ... The Citizen Army will only cooperate in a forward movement. The moment that forward movement ceases, it reserves for itself the right to step out of the alignment, and advance by itself if needs be, in an effort to plant the banner of freedom one reach further towards its goal."41 

This message was not directed at MacNeill, as Connolly had no illusions about an alliance there, but at the republican militants. His strategy was to continue to pull - and, where necessary, push - them forward until their alliance with MacNeill was no longer sustainable and broke up. At that point, Connolly would have been able to draw them to his own group, in effect uniting around the militant labour forces all the most radical republican elements.

Indeed, Connolly lost no opportunity to drive a wedge between the revolutionary republicans and the timid elements around MacNeill. For instance, on November 4 1915 Pearse gave a public talk reviewing the different political tendencies at the time of the rather farcical attempt at rebellion in 1848. Connolly described it as a "brilliant lecture"42  and effectively used Pearse's arguments against MacNeill - and, by extension, against the republican militants clinging to their alliance with MacNeill. As Pearse had in the lecture, Connolly drew the conclusion from 1848 that "The British government would not wait until the plans of the revolutionists were ready. It has not held Ireland down for 700 years by any such foolish waiting. It struck in its own time, and its blow paralysed the people."43 

In a blow at both MacNeill and the IRB, Connolly went on to criticise those who talked of "premature insurrection" and provoking the government, arguing: "Revolutionists who shrink from giving blow for blow until the great day has arrived, and they have every shoe-string in its place, and every man has got his gun, and the enemy has kindly consented to postpone action in order not to needlessly hurry the revolutionists nor disarrange their plans - such revolutionists only exist in two places: the comic opera stage, and the stage of Irish national politics. We prefer the comic opera brand. It at least serves its purpose."44 

It might be further noted that at the same time Connolly was drawing in the most militant and politically advanced elements of the women's movement. While a number of former Inghinidhe na hEireann activists had already been integrated into the ICA, and IWFL member Kathleen Lynn had been made medical officer, holding the rank of lieutenant, in December 1915 Connolly took on a number of radical suffragists to do ITGWU organising work.45 

The other aspect of Connolly's and Markievicz's strategy was to continue to challenge the authorities and push the limits of what they could get away with. It seems to me that there were three main elements to this. Firstly, they were preparing their followers for the insurrection through a process of toughening them up. Insurrection is not a business for the faint-hearted, and Connolly and Markievicz wanted a reliable and hardened force. In early 1916, for instance, Connolly summoned each member of the ICA individually into his office and asked them if they were prepared to fight in a rebellion, and alongside the Volunteers.46 

Secondly, they were showing ordinary Irish people, who had long been taught to think of themselves as inferior and powerless, that the authorities were not omnipotent, that they could be challenged and that they only maintained their power as long as people acquiesced in their own oppression. This attitude was summed up in the motto Connolly took from Desmoulins, a French revolutionary of the 18th century: "The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us arise!"

Thirdly, the ICA's activities made the British think twice about what they did, since any repressive actions they planned would be met with force. These three elements were closely related to each other. For instance, whenever armed ICA members prevented the British from taking some action, it would raise the self-confidence of the workers' militia and have a positive effect on public opinion. O'Brien commented, for example, that the ICA "attends all our labour meetings and you would be surprised at the changed attitude of the police in consequence".47 

While the Volunteers' leadership usually capitulated when challenged by the authorities, as in the Monteith case, the ICA evinced another spirit. For example, following a police raid on Markievicz's house, remarks O'Brien, "the police came to the countess and wanted her to register as an alien! Being married to a Russian the countess is technically a Russian subject but she told the police, more forcibly than politely, that 'she was an Irishwoman and before she would register as an alien she would see the police in hell'."48  On another occasion in early 1916, when police called at her house to check she would not break an order banning her from speaking at a meeting in Tralee, she warned them to keep away from her home - no-one there liked them and, besides, they made "grand big targets".49 

Connolly, who faced constant difficulties producing a newspaper, finally moved a printing press into Liberty Hall and placed an armed guard on it. Markievicz, who did guard duty as one of her first soldierly works, relates: "Our instructions were, if raided, to fight to the last cartridge."50  This might have been some shoot-out, given that she "had an army rifle, a 'Peter' and a small Browning. My comrade also was well supplied."51  On another occasion, March 24 1916, when the British attempted to remove copies of The Gael, they faced an armed Markievicz, apparently fingering her automatic, while Connolly pulled out a revolver, saying, "Drop them or I'll drop you."52 

This spirit had, in fact, been manifest following the suppression of the Irish Worker on December 4 1914. Connolly managed, however, to bring out a two-page leaflet headed Irish Work, in which he argued that repression was growing, and, the tamer people were, the more emboldened the authorities would be. He declared to the authorities: "Our cards are all on the table! If you leave us at liberty, we will kill your recruiting, save our poor boys from your slaughter-house, and blast your hopes of empire. If you strike at, imprison or kill us, out of our prisons or graves we will still evoke a spirit that will thwart you, and mayhap, raise a force that will destroy you. We defy you! Do your worst!"53 

It seems to me that Connolly was continually trying to limit the ability of the British to implement their initiatives, until he could reach the point at which Ireland would be ungovernable by anything like ordinary means. In such a situation conditions would be ripe for an insurrection.


The Easter rising, I would conclude, was not simply a nationalist or even radical nationalist insurrection. It marked the success of the militant labour forces in "taking the lead of the real nationalist movement".54  Unforeseen circumstances, including the capture of the Aud and MacNeill's countermanding orders, ensured that the rebellion was far more limited in scope than the revolutionaries had intended.

O'Brien recounts, for instance, that the plan was to hold a continuous line forming a loop through the centre of the city, but the necessary numbers ended up not being available due to MacNeill's and Hobson's actions.55  Markievicz's and Lee's articles provide convincing arguments that the leaders hoped for a better outcome and, had their preparations proceeded as planned, a far more significant fight may well have been possible and the leaders may have been able even to escape.

The rising did, however, show the political weakness of the republican militants as aspiring revolutionaries. Their secret, conspiratorial politics locked them up inside the IRB and, in the Volunteers, in a crippling alliance with MacNeill. Other options were open to them. For instance, fighting openly for the leadership of the Volunteers at the time MacNeill capitulated to Redmond may have put them in a much stronger position in the long term. Even if, as is likely, they had ended up with only a small fraction of the Volunteer membership, it could not possibly have been less than the small force of maybe 2,000 they were left to lead out on Easter Monday following MacNeill's countermanding order.

If they had have broken with MacNeill in mid-1914, they could have even united their forces with the ICA, which would have given a major boost to the overall revolutionary movement. The failure of the republican militants to transcend revolutionary nationalism and develop a class-based revolutionary perspective left them, like the IWFL feminists, unable to achieve their progressive goals. In the case of the republicans, the failure was paid for with their lives.

In the case of militant labour, the rising represented its achievement of the leadership role for which Connolly, Markievicz (and Larkin before his departure to the US in October 1914) had organised. In fact, one of the most interesting features of the period up to World War I and the rising was the way in which labour was the dominant force in anti-establishment politics. When partition was mooted, it was not the IRB or Sinn Féin which mobilised opposition on the street, but the ITUCLP. It was also organised labour which was represented in local government throughout the country, not Sinn Féin and the IRB. Even in Dublin it was labour and not the anti-parliamentary nationalists who formed the main opposition to the Irish Parliamentary Party/United Irish League machine which ran the city.

The main voice of labour, the Irish Worker, had 10 to 15 times the circulation of the SF paper and of Irish Freedom, the revolutionary paper backed by the IRB. The labour movement could mobilise thousands on the national question, provided security for suffrage marches and meetings, and took up other political questions, while the IRB and Sinn Féin could mobilise almost no-one under their own banners. In addition, the best of the republicans, such as those grouped around Irish Freedom, were being drawn to the side of labour and increasingly becoming influenced by socialist ideas.

An alternative perspective for Irish labour has been posited by a number of present-day leftwing social and labour historians, including Morgan, Young and Keogh. Yet, had the ITUCLP been blessed with their presence as party strategists and stuck to bread-and-butter issues, as they suggest, it is likely the party would have been annihilated. No party which aspired to lead the working class could avoid taking a stand on the number one political issue of that period in Ireland: independence.

Taking a stand on the national question, women's rights and other political and social questions was essential if the working class was going to take the lead in society as a whole. It is because they did this that the radical labour forces prior to 1916 were able to reach the early stages of challenging the IPP as the dominant party of the Irish people and the unionists for the allegiance of that section of the working class still attached to the union with Britain.

Subsequently, labour fell back and was replaced by Sinn Féin, because the post-1916 labour leaders, like the revisionist critics of Connolly, lacked any revolutionary perspective and were basically what Connolly had once described as "gas and water socialists". In the vacuum that opened up, the mantle of national liberation, which Connolly had united with the cause of labour, passed to the reorganised republican forces. These had a much more socially conservative leadership than in the period of Pearse and Clarke, but were prepared to fight Britain for independence.

The result of the destruction of the Connolly perspective within the labour movement was, ultimately, the settlement of 1921. For the masses of Irish people, that settlement, which included partition, brought about exactly the "carnival of reaction" on both sides of the border which Connolly had foreseen.

The failure of the revolutionary left to integrate the national and class questions at each decisive point since 1916, meanwhile, has ensured its isolation during periods of mass struggle. Today, there is a profound need to recover the Connolly perspective in the context of an overall partyist project if there is to be any serious advance in the struggle for Irish national liberation and socialism.56