Geoffrey Bell, author of Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement, reflects on the relevance of the Easter Rising and its aftermath to the contemporary British left.
This year, the Irish Embassy in the UK is supporting over seventy events in Britain marking the centenary of the period of the Easter Rising, which it hails as the foundation of the modern Irish state. Meanwhile, a documentary on the Rising, made by Irish television, has been sold to 120 broadcasters in the USA, several in Europe and the BBC. And a recent edition of the Irish Times listed a dozen books on 1916 which have recently been released in Ireland, including everything from the academic to a Children’s picture book.
For the uninitiated, the Easter Rising of 1916 was when a group of men and women led by the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Citizen Army declared the formation of the Irish Republic and vowed to defend that foundation by military means, if necessary. They were breaking from then British rule in the whole of Ireland, irrevocably and without conditions. They had no popular mandate for this and were easily crushed by the British Army. Their leaders were executed and their sympathisers arrested and interned without trial.
All of this can only make socialists, Marxists, anarchists, feminists and all us malcontents a little bit suspicious of the Easter Rising commemoration: if it ended so badly and yet has become so respectable and commercial should we really join in? And what has it got to do with us anyway?
I write all this with a hint of irony. My own book, Hesitant Comrades, which explores the reaction of the British labour movement to the Easter Rising and its aftermath, has just been published by Pluto, and in a sense it seeks to answer precisely these sorts of questions.
As the title of my book suggests, the early twentieth century British left had a rather mixed response to Ireland’s revolutionary movement. Indeed, James Connolly, a prominent Marxist and leader of the East Rising, predicted that socialists outside of Ireland would not understand his participation. The left social democratic Scottish newspaper Forward, for which Connolly had written, described the Rising as ‘badness, madness or both’. And that was not an unrepresentative reaction.
It is well to put such criticism into context. Most important is the Great War, which had begun two years earlier: the Labour Party and trade union leaderships and conferences supported British participation in that war, as indeed did the most significant Marxist party in Britain, the British Socialist Party (but, tellingly, only until Easter 1916). The Easter Rising was seen by British war-supporters as a stab in the back to an otherwise united ‘nation’ fighting the evils of German militarism. Meanwhile, those who opposed the war also tended to oppose the Irish revolt on the same grounds – pacifism.
British opposition to the Easter Rising was not universal, of course, and it is perhaps telling who the exceptions proved to be. One such contrary example was the renowned suffragette and socialist Sylvia Pankhurst and her newspaper the Woman’s Dreadnought. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Rising, Pankhurst argued that, ‘justice can make but one reply to the Irish Rebellion and that is the demand that Ireland should be allowed to govern itself.’ And though she went on to describe the Rising as ’reckless’, she added that ‘their desperate venture was undoubtedly animated by high ideals’. In concluding her article, she made clear her sympathies: ‘We understand why rebellion breaks out in Ireland and we share the sorrow of those who are weeping today for the Rebels whom the Government has shot.’
The following edition of Woman’s Dreadnought dug deeper. This was through an eye-witness account by a comrade of Pankhurst, Patricia Lynch, a young Irishwoman then living in England. Her long article, Scenes from the Irish Rebellion, was a marvellous piece of revolutionary reportage, based on Lynch’s own visits to Dublin and her interviews with other eye-witnesses, mainly working class women.
‘I saw that in Ireland the attitude towards the rebels taken by many, even of those who condemn the rising, is one of esteem, admiration and love … I have seen the military search suspected houses, I have seen gangs of prisoners – mere boys and grey-bearded men – marched into Dublin Castle, wet, weary, haggard, but their eyes shining and their heads erect. I have seen the natural outbursts of feeling give way as fears of informers and spies grow.’
Though she recognised the context of the Great War, her interviews with people in Ireland let her to a different conclusion to those in the British Labour Party and trade unions:
‘When we have wholesale imprisonments and shooting, the payments of spies and informers, then the verdict of even those who support the English Government and the European War will be that remark which I have frequently heard in ruined O’Connell Street – ‘The Germans could not do worse’ … In the restaurant where I had my lunch a waitress, pale faced, haggard eyed, told me that her sweetheart was a prisoner: she feared he would be shot. ‘They don’t shoot German prisoners, although they call them Huns and baby-killers: they only shoot our brave Irish boys.’
Against the criticism, contemporary and ever since, that the leaders of 1916 were an unrepresentative minority making a foolhardy attempt at an inopportune moment, Lynch argued:
‘Poets and dreamers do not make revolution. There must be popular unrest behind even the smallest revolt. In Dublin it is impossible for men and women of the working class to live like human beings. The conditions under which they live are more deadly than the trenches; out of every six children born, one dies. Can we wonder that high spirited men and women, seeing their wrongs so ignored, have allied their discontent to that of political reformers? Give labour a chance and there will be an end to armed rebellion.’
The stance taken by those like Pankhurst and Lynch was both politically principled and moral – they saw that the only justifiable immediate response to any genuine emancipatory movement, however slim its chances of success, must be support and understanding. Moreover, as Lenin wrote of the Rising in response to those who questioned its revolutionary credentials, ‘those who expect to see a pure revolution will never see one.’
As my book shows, Lenin’s comment would become ever more prescient in the developments that followed the Easter Rising. From 1916 to 1921, the majority of the British left, from the Labour Party to the Communist Party of Great Britain, struggled with the so-called ‘Irish Question’. And as with the Great War, debates about Ireland were often viewed through the lens of larger, more abstract principles – nationalism and socialism, pacifism and violence, the British Empire and national liberation, parliamentarism and direct action.
To examine the response of the British labour movement to the Irish Revolution is, therefore, to explore the dividing lines on issues that animated the British left throughout the 20th Century and up to the present day. And this is what I hope readers will take away from my book, Hesitant Comrades – because when the question is posed ‘what has the Easter Rising and what followed got to do with us?’, the correct answer is invariably, ‘rather a lot’.
Geoffrey Bell was born in Belfast and has written extensively about Ireland and British attitudes to ‘The Troubles’, past and recent, for print, television and exhibitions. These include Protestants of Ulster (Pluto), and Pack Up the Troubles (Channel Four).
Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement is available now from Pluto Press.