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British labour and the Easter Rising

THE RECENT commemorations marking the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising set me thinking about the response of the British labour movement to this significant landmark in the efforts of the colonised peoples of the British Empire to secure their freedom and independence.

James Connolly

I think that it is fair to say that, with notable exceptions along the way, the British labour movement's understanding of, and sympathy for, those Irishmen and women whose objective has been to 'break the connection' with Britain, and who dedicated themselves to ensuring that Ireland is able to take its place in the community of nations as a sovereign, independent and united country, has been, at best, faltering and partial.

At worst, an inadequate understanding of the role of British imperialism in Ireland, and a poor or confused theoretical understanding of the national question, particularly in so far as this relates to 800 years of colonial domination in England's oldest colony, has all too often combined to produce a range of negative responses, stretching from incomprehension to open hostility.

The reasons for this are rooted in the legacy of British imperialism within Britain itself and the dead hand of political reformism, which have long been factors in the British labour movement. While the former has resulted in the development of a tendency towards national chauvinism in key sections of the working class, the latter works to deprive of the tools of analysis needed to view the Irish question in as an anti-imperialist struggle.

A one-foot-high pile of official and semi-official histories of the British Labour and trade union movement from my own bookshelves in Sheffield reveals precious few references to Ireland, Connolly or the Rising.

Where mentioned at all, it is usually in relation to the 1913 Dublin lockout or the growth of syndicalism. Only one, GDH Cole's A History of the Labour Party from 1914, specifically mentions the Rising. In a chapter dealing with the Labour Party and opposition to the inter-imperialist war, which had broken out in 1914, Cole notes, without further explanation:

"Hard upon the Clyde deportations followed the Easter Rebellion in Ireland, which cost James Connolly, Sheehy Skeffington and other socialists their lives..."

This virtual absence of the Rising is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that the Labour Party leader Arthur Henderson, though not a member of the inner war cabinet, was a government minister and a member of the British cabinet at the time and therefore directly implicated in the decisions to the bombard Dublin during the Rising and to execute Connolly and the other leaders in the rebellion's aftermath.

As Brian O'Neill in his book Easter Week, published in 1936, notes:

"...it was difficult for it (the labour movement in Britain), therefore, to protest against either, and it made no protest."

However, as O'Neill suggests, the Rising, effectively one of the first major strikes for freedom from within the British Empire in the 20th century, was subject to a variety of responses and interpretations on the left.

Liberty Hall-ICA

Most of these were either overtly critical or uncomprehending of how, in their eyes, a socialist like Connolly could abandon his past beliefs and throw in his lot with a bunch of reactionary nationalists to take part in an irresponsible and flawed military adventure that was always doomed to failure.

In Ireland Her Own: an outline history of the Irish, the English Marxist historian T A Jackson echoes O'Neill's analysis and explains that while the English labour movement was sympathetic to the Irish demand for Home Rule, at the time of the Rising, its "orothodox upper strata" was "co-operating cordially in the prosecution of the war".

At odds with the anti-war left in Britain, both pacifist and revolutionary, Jackson concludes that It was hardly surprising that the very same labour leaders who rejected the rebels' anti-imperialist strike for Irish freedom found little difficulty in accepting the pro-war Redmondite view of the rebellion as being "totally unrepresentative of the main body of Irish opinion".

It also goes a long way to explaining why the only reference to the events of Easter Week and its aftermath to be found in the report presented to the Labour Party Conference in January 1917 is to the "calamitous outbreak in Ireland", which had made the outlook "blacker than ever".

It's not clear which 'outlook' the report refers to, though it is reasonably safe to assume that the one in question had little or no connection with the prospects for an end to British colonial involvement and the establishment of a united and sovereign Irish republic.

Sharp criticism of the Irish rebellion also came from some nominally on the left of the movement, like the ILP, which, while opposing the imperialist war on pacificist grounds, insisted on equating and condemning the 'militarism' of both the insurgents and the imperialists.

"We do not approve of the Sinn Fein rebellion," announced the ILP's Socialist Review in Septemebr 1916. "We do not approve of armed rebellion or any other form of militarism and war".

Leading ILP anti-war figures such as Ramsey MacDonald, at that time well to the left of the Labour Party leadership, were among those 'on the left' to vigourously condemn the rebellion.

Even so, opinion within the ILP was far from uniform. One of the ILP's leading figures, Shapurji Saklatvala, who became both a communist and Britain's first black MP, was a champion of anti-colonial struggles around the world. Unlike others in the ILP, Saklatvala was sympathetic towards the rebellion and, as his daughter Sehri confirms in a biography of her father, "an ardent upholder of the right of the Irish to freedom and independence".

Saklatvala was to retain his interest, sympathy and support for Irish Freedom throughout his political life, working closely with another leading ILP figure and life-long friend of Irish freedom, Fenner Brockway, in organisations such as the League Against Imperialism.

In 1925, according to the London Times of 21 April, Saklatvala visited Ireland along with fellow communist Robert Stewart for the purpose of "promoting the interests of a Workers' Republic".

According to the paper:

"Both speakers declared that they were advocating the principles of the late James Connolly. The revolutionary method, said Mr Saklatvala, was the only course that could befriend the labouring classes."

Another ILP figure sympathetic to the Irish rebels was a young miner and trade union activist Arthur Horner, who was to become leader of the miners union and a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. On hearing of the rebellion, Horner evaded conscription and travelled to Dublin to join Connolly's Irish Citizen Army. Imprisoned by the British authorities on his return, Horner was to serve six months hard labour in Wormwood Scrubs prison for his act of solidarity with the rebels. However, in Scotland, the editor of the left-wing journal Forward declared it 'a mystery' as to how a socialist such as Connolly could have got mixed up with a nationalist rising. Clearly unfamiliar with Connolly's writings on nationalism and socialism, especially within the context of Britain's colonial domination of Ireland, Forward's editorial proclaimed that "a man must be either a nationalist or an internationalist'.

The Plebs, the journal of the movement for independent working-class education in Britain took a similar view:

"The tragedy of the revolt from a socialist point of view is that that 'romantic nationalism' was largely the inspiration of it; and that Connolly - the industrial unionist, the sane writer and thinker - should have been goaded by circumstances into sharing it".

Connolly's old mentor John Leslie also misunderstood the Irish labour leader's actions and compounded matters by helping to perpetrate the erroneous 'blood sacrifice' myth to which neo-unionist 'revisionist' historians have clung in their desperate efforts to separate the events of Easter 1916 from their social and political context.

"Knowing the man, I say it is possible that, despairing of effective assistance from that quarter (the British labour movement)... he determined at all costs to identify or to indissolubly link the cause of Irish labour with the most extreme Irish nationalism, and to seal the bond of union with his blood if necessary", wrote Leslie in Justice less than a week after Connolly's execution.

The blood-sacrifice myth was to be comprehensively dispelled by the labour historian, political activist and Connolly biographer C. Desmond Greaves in a lecture delivered on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising and subsequently published by Fulcrum Press as 1916 As History: the myth of the blood sacrifice.

Research conducted since Greaves' death has further confirmed the military integrity of the rebels' plans for the uprising and challenged another favoured neo-unionist myth concerning the level of public support for the insurgents, especially in the poorer districts of Dublin.

While it is true that Connolly became openly frustrated with the leaders of the British labour movement, and despaired of ever receiving the kind of solidarity for Ireland's struggle to free itself from the yoke of British colonial domination that he had once hoped would be forthcoming, the split in the Second International over socialists' attitude to the imperialist war almost made this inevitable.

At the outbreak of the inter-imperialist war of 1914-18,only the Irish, Russian and Serbian sections fulfilled their commitment to oppose their own national governments in the event of war.

It was surely a recognition of this that led Connolly himself to predict, rightly, that his actions in joining the revolt would be widely misunderstood by the labour movement in Britain.

Yet, despite the criticism and bewilderment at Connolly's participation minimal, particularly given the circumstances and the challenge to British imperial rule that the rebellion signalled.

It is difficult not to conclude other than the deeply reformist, pro-war Labour and trade union leadership went to considerable lengths to ignore the rebellion, so far as that was possible, rather than place themselves in the invidious position of having to justify their actions to a working class which, while not necessarily understanding Connolly's participation in the Rising, felt nothing but revulsion for the British government's response, in which their leaders were thoroughly implicated.

Even in the changed atmosphere brought about by the reaction against the brutality of Britain's response, the end of the war with Germany, and the general election of 1918, which saw Sinn Fein take 73 out of 105 Irish seats, the labour hierarchy still didn't feel confident enough to allow the issue to be discussed openly.

In his book Easter Week, Brian O'Neill notes that the British TUC, which met in Birmingham in September 1919, prevented fraternal delegates from Ireland attending in order to prevent discussion of the rebellion and its aftermath.

It is a pattern that was to be repeated often over the next eight decades, until what is now generally referred to as the Irish peace process and the IRA ceasefire of 1994 helped create the conditions for a more open debate within the British labour movement.

But where were the voices of the revolutionary and anti-imperialist left within the British labour movement?

The fact is that some of the most militant and politically advanced labour leaders in Britain, including Scottish communists John MacLean and Willie Gallagher, were in prison at the time of the Rising. Both were serving prison sentences, having been convicted of sedition as a result of the militant anti-war and labour agitation on the Clyde, which, according to Morton and Tate in The British Labour Movement, had become "a seething cauldron of unrest and clashing ideas".

Other militant labour and anti-war activists, especially in Scotland, were subject to deportation by the authorities as they struggled to quell the growing labour unrest and anti-war sentiment.

The claim by some historians, including some on the left, that MacLean's support for Connolly and the Rising is in some way 'revisionist' by virtue of having been made 'retrospectively', is surely unfair given MacLean's three-year imprisonment, much of which was spent in solitary confinement.

It is obvious from comments made after his release that MacLean saw the Rising as the opening salvo in the struggle against British imperialism and, critically, essential to the success of British labour.

Writing in the summer of 1920, during the war of independence, MacLean was openly critical of those on the left who failed to recognise the anti-imperialist character of Ireland's freedom struggle:

"The Irish situation... is the most revolutionary that has ever arisen in British history," wrote MacLean "but unfortunately lads who fancy themselves the only revolutionaries are too stupid or too obsessed with some little crotchet to see the tight corner the Irish are placing Britain in. The Irish Sinn Feiners, who make no profession to socialism or communism and who are at best non-socialists, are doing more to help Russia and the revolution than all we professed Marxians in Britain," concluded MacLean.

His support is also evident in an election address made in November 1922 in which he stated:

"When Jim Connolly saw how things were going in Edinburgh he resolved on the Easter Rebellion in Dublin, the beginning of Ireland's new fight for freedom..."

Although imprisoned for a shorter period, MacLean's BSP comrade Willie Gallagher, a leader of the Clyde Workers' Committee was in a similar position and therefore it is not particularly remarkable that any comments in support of Connoly and the Rising were made some years after the events. Under the circumstances, any endorsement, or otherwise, of the Easter Rising by either could only have been made 'retrospectively'.

However, it is disappointing, given Gallagher's known "friendly association" with both the labour and nationalist side of the Irish movement that Gallagher and his support for the Irish freedom struggle has nothing to say about the Rising in his account of the period, Revolt on the Clyde.

However, in his account of the years following the end of the 1914-18 war, published as The Rolling of the Thunder, Gallagher recalls that "Collins and the other nationalists had looked to the shop steward movement on the Clyde as allies in their struggle for independence.

The reference appears in a section of the book dealing with the treaty negotiations between the British and Irish in 1922. Gallagher had been sent to Ireland at the end of November by the then recently formed British Communist Party to warn that the agreement about to be reached between the Irish negotiators led by Michael Collins and the British government was a sell out and would include the partition of Ireland.

Unfortunately, Gallaghers warnings and suggestion that the Irish delegation to the London treaty talks should be arrested as soon as they set foot on Irish soil were dismissed because he was a communist.

In relation to McLean, it has also been argued, tendentiously in my opinion, that his use of an ultra-pacifist defece at his trial for sedition in 1915 points to a later 'conversion' to support for the armed rebellion in Ireland. There is no clear evidence to suggest that when MacLean, speaking in court in his own defence, refers to his opposition "to the present military system" and to a conscientious objection to settling "national disputes" by military means, that his comments are a reflection of his thoughts on anti-imperialist struggles in the colonies. His remarks are obviously made in relation to the imperialist war then raging - and, importantly and understandably, at securing an acquittal, which on that occasion he did.

David Howell in his study of MacLean, Connolly and Wheatley, A Lost Left, argues that while MacLean's support for the Easter Rising was inevitably 'retrospective', he was nevertheless enthusiastic about the establishment of the first Dail and appeared to believe that, despite the absence of the representatives of Irish labour, that Connolly's long-term goal of establishing an Irish socialist republic was possible.

According to Howell, MacLean's optimism was at least partly due to a recognition by MacLean of the working-class roots of the independence movement.

There is further evidence to suggest that the views of Connolly's critics within the labour movement were not as widely accepted as is sometimes portrayed.

Sean O'Casey's polemical history of the Irish Citizen Army, published in 1919, expresses strong criticism of Connolly for acting contrary to his own socialist teachings and for having thrown in his lot with the militant nationalists. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to refer to "the earnest sympathy expressed towards the Irish people by many of the leaders of thought among the English people, subsequent to the sad events of Easter week."

Although he only gives one example, it is an important one as far as the question of British labour movement support for the Rising and the struggle for Irish freedom is concerned.

At an event in 1917 in support of the Russian Revolution, O'Casey records that the left-wing Labour leader George Lansbury reminded those assembled that: "We English people here have to clear our own doorstep". Referring to a meeting a few years earlier at which he had spoken on the same platform as Connolly, Lansbury goes on to echo Lenin' largely positive, and thoroughly anti-imperialist, assessment of the Rising:

"...he and his dead colleagues of a year ago were just too soon, that is all; and friends, we British people have got to clear the Irish question up, because until we do it, it is not for us to celebrate other people's triumphs over reaction."

O'Casey also refers to the "many English labour papers" which had quoted Connolly and published his songs. For O'Caset, this provided conclusive proof that, " ...the mind of the English working class has undergone a revolutionary change, and that 'the unbought section of the English labour movement'... is seriously anxious to stretch forth the hand of true comradeship towards their Irish fellow workers."

Support for Connolly and the Rising is also to be found in the suffragette journal edited by Sylvia Pankhurst, The Women's Dreadnought. Pankhurst, a militant socialist and suffraggette was a friend and admirer of Connolly's. She shared a number of platforms with the Irish labour leader in both Britain and Ireland, speaking on issues ranging from socialism to the campaign for women's suffrage and the Dublin lockout.

At the outbreak of the Rising, Pankhurst despatched a young Cork-born suffragette, Patruica Lynch, to Ireland to report on the event. Her eyewitness accounts, which were sympathetic to the rebels and exposed British brutality, appeared in the Dreadnought and were eventually published as Rebel Ireland and circulated widely in Britain and Europe. Patricia Lynch went on to become one of Ireland's most popular children's authors.

It is obvious from even the limited examples cited above, that while the participation of Connolly and the forces of militant Irish labour in the 1916 Rising was undoubtedly met by a mixture of confusion, opposition and incomprehension by the British labour movement, especially from within the labour hierarchy and ultra-pacifist elements further to the left, the picture is nowhere near as unequivocal as some have suggested.

It is also clear, that among the most militant and staunchly anti-imperialist sections of the movement, those who would have been closest to Connolly politically, sympathy and support was strongest, although for objective reasons, including British government attempts to suppress militant labour and anti-war agitation, it was, in a number of notable cases, some years before this support was publicly recorded.

The Rising was followed just two years later by the victory of Sinn Fein in the 1918 general election and the Irish War of Independence, resulting from Britain's refused to acknowledge the democratic vote for freedom and separation from Britain. Partition, and civil war were soon to follow, with the former unleashing, as Connolly so accurately predicted, a "carnival of reaction north and south of the border". What is needed now is a thorough re-examination and re-appraisal of British labour's response to the Easter Rising - and to the whole question of the relationship between British labour and Ireland's freedom struggle throughout the 20th century in order to help us, finally, in the words of George Lansbury "clear our own doorstep"

The above paper is a slightly revised version of the one delivered by David Granville at the Ripples of Freedom conference in Dublin on 13 May 2006. An edited version also appears in the print June/July 2006 edition of the Irish Democrat

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This document was last modified by Mick Carty on 2006-07-04 22:16:44.
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