Historian and author Charlie McGuire sheds some light on the important but largely forgotten role played by Sean McLoughlin in Ireland's independence struggle and the civil war which followed the signing of the Treaty with Britain
SEAN McLoughlin was an important, if largely unremembered, figure during the Irish revolution, 1916-1923. He began these years as a republican activist and ended it as a leading figure within the first Communist Party of Ireland. In between, he was also Commandant General of the army of the Irish Republic, as the events of Easter week 1916 reached a climax, an Irish Volunteer organiser during the 1917-1919 period, an IRA Commandant during the Irish Civil War and a mass orator of exceptional ability within the socialist movement in Britain.
McLoughlin was born in Dublin in June 1895. He became involved in republican politics at the age of 15, and five years later, just weeks before his twenty-first birthday, took part in the Easter rising. McLoughlin was initially part of a unit which took over the Mendicity Institute, and whose role was to prevent the movement of British troops from the adjacent Royal Barracks into the city centre.
After the fall of the Mendicity, he escaped to the GPO. There, his leadership qualities and ability to think strategically under heavy fire were so outstanding, that James Connolly had him promoted to the pinnacle of military command, after he himself sustained severe injuries on the Thursday of Easter week. McLoughlin organised the republican evacuation from the bombed-out GPO, and also devised a plan for continuing the fight. He was overruled, however, by Padraig Pearse, who decided upon surrender.
After release from prison in December 1916, McLoughlin became an organiser of the Volunteer movement in Tipperary. He was also increasingly influenced by socialist politics, joining the Socialist Party of Ireland, and embarking upon two long speaking tours in Scotland and Northern England, organised by the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) during 1920-21.
McLoughlin's meetings were often attended by thousands of workers and were usually described by local SLP branches as the best they had ever organised. Such was his impact that one ex-SLP member, interviewed in 1975, described him as the greatest public speaker he had ever witnessed.
McLoughlin was also an innovative theorist. He argued that the Irish revolutionary struggle was linked to that of the struggle for socialism in Britain, through being directed against the same ruling class. Unlike most socialists of that era, McLoughlin felt that socialism would be established in Ireland before Britain. He believed that this would detonate uprisings throughout the British Empire, which would in turn precipitate the destruction of capitalism in Britain itself. Taking an internationalist position, McLoughlin felt that the triumph of socialism in Britain would be the only way that an Irish socialist republic could be sure of long term survival. As a result of this analysis, he urged Irish and British workers to support both Irish independence, and the socialist movements in both countries.
McLoughlin returned to Ireland in July 1922, following the outbreak of civil war. Like all Irish communists, he viewed the Treaty as an obnoxious arrangement between British imperialism and Irish capitalism.
McLoughlin joined the Communist Party of Ireland, (CPI), which was led by 21-year old Roddy Connolly, the son of James. The CPI strategy was to fight alongside the IRA, against the neo-colonialist Free State administration, whilst encouraging the republicans to adopt a socialist programme, that would win the support of workers and small farmers.
In pursuit of this strategy, McLoughlin joined the IRA and commanded a flying column in Limerick, spreading socialist ideas within the republican movement in the process. In December 1922, however, McLoughlin was captured and sentenced to death by the Free Staters. The sentence was not executed and he was eventually released in October 1923, after the IRA had been crushed.
With the CPI being disbanded by Moscow in January 1924, McLoughlin decided to work with Jim Larkin, who had returned to Ireland some months previously. An acrimonious split between the two, following Larkin's disastrous leadership of a rail workers strike, however, precipitated his final departure from Irish socialist politics nine months later.
McLoughlin moved to Hartlepool and, although jailed yet again around the time of the General Strike, slowly faded from revolutionary activity. He struggled badly with ill-health in his later years and died a wholly forgotten figure in Sheffield, aged just 64, in February 1960.
The above article originally appeared in the Scottish Socialist Voice. Charlie McGuire is currently a history researcher at the University of Teeside. His book Roddy Connolly and the Struggle for Socialism in Ireland was published by Cork University Press on 4 March, 2008 (ISBN 978-1-85918-420-2)
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2001 Connolly Publications Ltd