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(en) Ireland, Working Class Resistance #7 - 1916 -1922 Ireland's 'Unfinished' Revolution?

From Organise* Ireland <organiseireland@yahoo.ie>
Date Sat, 18 Sep 2004 14:28:55 +0200 (CEST)

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The Easter Rising and the republic it declared were
militarily defeated by the British authorities in
1916. This defeat was followed in the 1918 election,
by the electoral rise of Sinn Fein, an election which
saw the first woman MP (Countess Markievicz) returned
to Westminster. General strikes took place against
conscription in 1918, to demand the release of hunger
strikers in 1920 and in opposition to militarism in
1921. Workers ‘Soviets’ were declared in parts of
Ireland, the ‘war of independence’ was fought and the
Irish Free State formed in 1922. While these events
were largely confined to the south and west of Ireland
the north-east also saw the outbreak of sectarian
conflict and the creation in 1920-21 of the Northern
Ireland state. Undoubtedly a period of flux, of
struggle, increased radicalism and competing
interests, opinions as to whether or not a revolution
occurred, and how this revolution is defined, are
largely connected with the political outlook of
particular historians and more generally with
political ‘traditions’ or ‘communities’ in Ireland.

Peter Hart, in his contribution to ‘The Irish
Revolution, 1913-1923’1, points out the problems of
definition and dating of the period:

What do we call the events of 1916 – 1923? Or should
it be 1912-22 or 1917-21? 2

While others have failed to define revolution or
avoided the use of the term in favour of such
descriptions as ‘war of independence’, ‘struggle for
independence’, or ‘rebellion’3 J. M. Regan begins his
study of the Irish counter-revolution with the
following definition of revolution:

revolution a forcible overthrow of government or a
social order, in favour of a new system.4

This definition includes, as does David Fitzpatrick in
‘The two Irelands 1912-1939’, the creation of the
state of Northern Ireland in 1920-21 as a second or
dual Irish revolution. The success of Ulster Unionist
resistance to Home Rule, against the creation of a
unitary Irish state, and the establishment of the
north-eastern Home Rule state of Northern Ireland is
usually portrayed as a counter-revolution. It is a
counter-revolution which is, curiously although not
uniquely, placed chronologically prior to the
revolution itself (the Spanish revolution and civil
war was preceded by the Francoist rebellion of July
1936), beginning as it does in the 1912 Unionist
mobilisation against the prospect of Home Rule.

The determined opposition to the third Home Rule Bill
by Ulster Unionism involved massive mobilisation,
opposition to the British government of the day, the
laying of plans for a provisional government to keep
Ulster or a portion of it outside of any Dublin
administered Home Rule Ireland, and the formation of
an armed militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force in
January 1913. Fitzpatrick asserts that Ireland
“experienced revolution in several senses”5 from, as
he dates it, 1912 to 1922. For Fitzpatrick:

The means by which the two revolutionary elites
secured local power ranged from violence and the
threat of violence to collective protest, propaganda,
parliamentary and diplomatic struggle, and
negotiation. The Ulster Unionists relied primarily on
parliamentary agitation backed by the menace of armed
resistance; the republicans shunned parliament but
used propaganda even more effectively than armed
force. Thus the creation of the two Irish states,
though not achieved by purely revolutionary methods,
entailed a revolutionary shift in power-holding.6

Revolutionary methods, and in large part their
identification of the Irish revolution/revolutions,
used by both Regan and Fitzpatrick rely on a
definition of revolution in which the use or threat of
violence is paramount. Further Fitzpatrick asserts

The alterations in Irish political organisation were
sufficiently lasting and profound to merit the term

This is based on the transformation of Ireland’s
constitutional status, the extension of the political
influence of the churches and the securing of power by
two local ‘revolutionary elites’.8

Consensus on the process that led to the formation of
Northern Ireland as one of revolution is remote,
particularly as Unionism, in stressing that it has and
continues to act in defence of the Union against
republican and Irish national revolution, casts itself
in a conservative role. This may not sit comfortably
with historic events or the ongoing propensity of
Unionists and Loyalists to clash with the government
of the United Kingdom and yet if this was not a
revolution then the definition used to portray the
formation of the Irish Free State as a revolution is
itself undermined.

1916 is remembered in the history and commemoration of
the dual blood sacrifices of Ulster Unionism and Irish
‘revolutionary’ nationalism. One lays claim to an
assertion of Britishness in the sacrifice of the 36th
Ulster Division at the Battle of the Somme and the
other to the redemption in blood of the Irish nation.
In rhetoric indistinguishable from that of Irish
nationalist revolutionary Patrick Pearse, James
Connolly was to write in ‘The Workers’ Republic’, less
than three months before the Rising:

But deep in the heart of Ireland has sunk the sense of
the degradation wrought upon its people – our lost
brothers and sisters – so deep and humiliating that no
agency less potent than the red tide of war on Irish
soil will ever be able to enable the Irish race to
recover its self-respect, or establish its national
dignity in the face of a world horrified and
scandalised by what must seem our national apostasy.
Without the slightest trace of irreverence but in all
due humility and awe we recognise that of us as of
mankind before Calvary it may truly be said:
Without the Shedding of Blood there is no Redemption.9

While labour, or a section of the labour movement,
became identified with the cause of Irish nationalism,
with Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army’s role in the
Rising the relationship between Sinn Fein and the
southern Irish labour movement was a one-way process
not a partnership. Michael Laffan, while not
questioning the occurrence of a revolution, points out
that events:

…did not change the relationship between one class of
Irishmen and another. Its impact was nationalist and
political, not social and economic.10

The central issue for Sinn Fein and the IRA was the
maintenance of nationalist unity. While some seemed to
believe that all Ireland’s problems would disappear
with independence Sinn Fein’s economic policies were
based on a nationalist vision of self reliant
capitalism. As labour took the decision to stand aside
in the 1918 and 1921 general elections to allow Sinn
Fein a clear run:

Sinn Fein accepted labour’s support as its due and
offered nothing but platitudes in return.11

The ‘Soviets’ declared in parts of Ireland were not
attempts at socialist revolution or workers control
but pay disputes backed by occupation rather than
strike action, all were handed back to their owners on
conclusion of the disputes. Likewise the three
‘national’ strikes that occurred were in support of
Irish nationalism more than in pursuit of working
class demands and as such they could not extend to the

Despite the waving of red flags and indulgence in wild
rhetoric there was little sign of revolutionary views,
let alone Bolshevism, in the Irish labour movement.12

Women were to become more politically active and enter
the political arena as never before. While images of
Countess Markievicz in Citizen Army uniform, revolver
in hand, is among the most powerful images of the
period, signifying a dramatically changed role for
women in political struggle, the role of women in the
Rising, during the war of independence and with the
outcome of the revolution was contradictory and to
prove transient. Despite the growing role of women
organisations like Cumann na mBan were to have a
supportive role in relation to male political and
military activity. Moreover the revolution and civil
war was followed by a concerted effort by successive
Free State governments to push women out of politics:

Those in the male leadership who had proven unwilling
to allow equal participation during the War of
Independence were, once in government, vociferous
advocates, of measures designed to return women to the
private sphere.13

By 1932 and with De Valera in power the position of
women was further undermined while his 1937
constitution “defined women’s contribution to the
state solely in terms of hearth and home”14. Margaret
Ward concludes that:

Despite the valiant efforts of women to claim agency
for themselves, the public world and mainstream
nationalism were as heavily gendered as they had been
prior to the First World War.15

Irish republicans aimed at far reaching change in the
development of Irish culture. Building on the Gaelic
cultural revival of the nineteenth century,
republicans did aim at fundamental change in the lives
of Ireland’s inhabitants:

their vision was linguistic and cultural rather than
social and economic: citizens of the new Ireland would
speak Irish not English.16

Irish nationhood was powerfully reinforced in the use
of Irish titles and names in all areas of government
and the state, even in those cases where the previous
British system or department had been taken over
largely unchanged, Irish ownership was stamped on it
symbolically. As late as 1938 the mission to create an
Irish Ireland was given precedence over ending
partition by De Valera, speaking in Cork, following
the transfer of the treaty ports from Britain to
Ireland, on 11th July of that year he told a ‘victory
ceilidhe’ that:

without the restoration of the Irish language, ‘what
has happened today at Spike Island and Cobh will be
very incomplete indeed, even if it is followed by our
getting back in a very short time the whole of this
country for the Irish people’.17

The process that led to the formation of the Irish
Free State in 1922, from the Easter Rising and the
events which followed, can, in terms of the Irish
polity attained, be said to have been a revolution.
However this view of revolution is not unproblematic
even by the standards of revolutionary nationalism

The development of Sinn Fein ideology, based on the
notion of inalienable national territory, rose in
opposition to the growing likelihood of the Irish
Parliamentary Party’s acceptance of a partitionist
settlement. In this respect the ‘revolution’ was to do
no better than constitutional nationalism.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 treaty fell
short of the aspirations of a sovereign Irish republic
with its national territory intact. For Sinn Fein the
use of armed violence provided leverage in support of
the electoral mandate gained in 1917 and 1918. Unlike
the Irish Parliamentary Party, Sinn Fein could not
influence the British government in the halls of
Westminster due to its abstentionist policy. In the
absence of such political wrangling something else was
needed to bring the British government to the
negotiating table with Sinn Fein. The use of armed
struggle as the leverage which brought the British
government to the negotiating table did not secure the
republic or even the compromise of external
association forwarded by De Valera. The fact that the
IRA could not hope to militarily defeat the British
government effectively undermined the position of the
Dail’s negotiators.

The construction of an Irish nationalist
historiography as one long process of opposition to
foreign domination culminating in the establishment of
the Free State became the point of reference for
anti-treaty republicans and later northern
nationalists who found themselves contained within the
territory of the Northern Irish state. A history of
unfinished revolution developed; in Northern Ireland
from 1969 onwards republicans were to reassert that
any progress first required the ending of British rule
in Ireland and completion of the ‘historically
justified’ mission of Irish nationalism. Here again
the message is, by varying degrees, that labour must
wait. Mirroring the sentiment that ‘labour must wait’
Progressive Unionist Party spokespeople such as Billy
Hutchinson have also claimed that ‘normal’ left-right
politics can only follow resolution of the
constitutional question. Of course in this instance
the mirror image is the prerequisite securing of
Northern Irelands constitutional attachment to the
United Kingdom. The attitude of Irish nationalism to
the unionist, or self-identifying British population,
is to demand coercion from Westminster and involves a
rather naïve belief that on ‘British’ withdrawal that
they will realise their ‘Irishness’.

The definition of revolution proffered by Regan and
applied by Fitzpartrick is devoid of reference to
social and economic transformation in Irish society, a
serious omission in any definition of the term. If it
is enough to claim that the change of those holding
power, accompanied by force or the threat of force,
defines revolution, then Ireland had a revolution,
perhaps even two revolutions, between 1916 and 1922.
If however our definition of revolution demands a more
radical departure, wide ranging changes in social and
economic relations, a transformation in the everyday
lives of working class people, then, despite the
mythology and tradition of contemporary and modern
Irish nationalists, republicans and socialist
republicans, and the uniting of more radical elements
behind the goal of Irish national sovereignty, Ireland
did not have a revolution at all.



1. P. Hart in J. Augusteijin (ed), pp. 17 – 33.
2. P. Hart in J. Augusteijin (ed), p. 17.
3. C. Townshend in J. Augusteijin (ed), pp. 1 – 16.
4. J. Regan p. xii.
5. D. Fitzpatrick p. 4.
6. D. Fitzpatrick p. 4.
7. D. Fitzpatrick p. 4.
8. D. Fitzpatrick p. 3.
9. J. Connolly in Aindrias O Cathasaigh (ed), p.197.
10. M. Laffan in P. J. Corish (ed), p. 203.
11. M. Laffan in P. J. Corish (ed), p. 212.
12. M. Laffan in P. J. Corish (ed), p. 202.
13. M. Ward in J. Augusteijin (ed), p. 182.
14. M. Ward in J. Augusteijin (ed), p. 183.
15. M. Ward in J. Augusteijin (ed), p. 183.
16. M. Laffan in P. J. Corish (ed), p. 203.
17. R. Fisk p.12.


D. Fitzpatrick, The two Irelands 1912-1939 (Oxford,

P. Hart, ‘Definition: Defining the Irish revolution’,
in J. Augusteijin (ed), The Irish revolution 1913-1923
(Hampshire & New York, 2002)

M. Laffan, ‘Labour must wait’, in P. J. Corish (ed),
Radicals, Rebels and establishments (1985), pp.

A. O Cathasaigh, James Connolly the lost writings
(London, 1997)

J. M. Regan, The Irish counter-revolution 1921-1936
(Dublin, 2001).

C. Townshend, ‘Historiography: Telling the Irish
Revolution’, in J. Augusteijin (ed), The Irish
revolution 1913-1923 (Hampshire & New York, 2002).

M. Ward, ‘Gender: gendering the Irish revolution’, in
J. Augusteijin (ed), The Irish revolution 1913-1923
(Hampshire & New York, 2002).


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Also, in this issue:

# Water Tax –Don’t Pay
# Propping Up the House of Cards
# 1916-22 –Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution
# PIRA ceasefire 10 years on
# Grassroots Gathering in Belfast
# Peace Activists Bound Over
# Saga of the Corrib Gas Field
* Organise! is an Irish anarchist group

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