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13 April 2006 Edition

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1916 - 2006: The labour movement, the Irish Citizen Army and the Rising

BY Justin Moran

Under the Starry Plough

"An armed organisation of the Irish working class is a phenomenon in Ireland. Hitherto the workers of Ireland have fought as parts of the armies led by their masters, never as a member of any army officered, trained and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future."

James Connolly, Workers' Republic, 30 October 1915

From the beginning of the 1913 Lockout, as the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITWGU) led by James Larkin and James Connolly faced the Dublin Employer's Federation under William Martin Murphy, strikers were the target of indiscriminate baton attacks at the hands of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the RIC. Small, impoverished tenement homes were raided, their meagre possessions smashed and stolen.

Union activists were killed in baton charges or murdered by scabs, while the forces of the state did all they could to buttress the position of the employers. In such a climate, the need was clear for what has often been referred to as the first 'red guard', an organised and armed group of militant trade unionists, the Irish Citizen Army (ICA). Formed initially as a defence force for striking workers, under the leadership of James Connolly following the Lockout, it became something more.

It became a revolutionary army, founded on the idea that "the first and last principle of the Irish Citizen Army is the avowal that the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland." And it was in the ICA that the men and women of Irish labour would take their place in the ranks of the army of an Irish Republic that would be declared on Easter Monday, 1916.

Understandably, the focus of the contribution of the labour movement has been on the Irish Citizen Army, but it is worth mentioning that some socialists and trade union leaders involved in the Rising fought in the Irish Volunteers.

Richard O'Carroll, the head of the Labour group on Dublin City Council would fight and die at Easter as a Volunteer. Seán McLoughlin who took over from James Connolly as Commandant-General was the son of an ITGWU activist and later prominent in British and Irish communist circles but began Easter Week as a Lieutenant in D Company of the Irish Volunteers.

But it was the 200 men and women of the Irish Citizen Army who fell in to the sound of William Oman's bugle at 11.45am on Easter Monday morning that formed the bulk of labour's contribution to Easter Week. The majority of them would fight under Commandant Michael Mallin at the St Stephen's Green command. A second group, under Captain Seán Connolly, numbering about 25 and including eight or nine women, was despatched to the City Hall while the remainder of the ICA Volunteers joined the GPO garrison.

Eleven members of the ICA were killed in action during Easter Week with the two senior surviving officers, James Connolly and Michael Mallin executed. Seán Connolly was the first republican casualty of the week, shot in the first stages of the assault on Dublin Castle. Constance Markievicz, who had served as Mallin's second-in-command, had been sentenced to death but had her sentence commuted to life in prison.

As well as Markievicz, the ICA was conspicuous by the prominent role women played during Easter Week. Dr Kathleen Lynn, the Chief Medical Officer, was promoted to Captain and commanded the City Hall garrison. She was the only woman to command a republican garrison. Helena Maloney also of the ICA who would go on to be the first woman president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, after the death of Captain Seán Connolly.

Margaret Skinnider, who served as a sniper, was injured on the Wednesday of Easter Week and Winifred Carney served as aide to James Connolly, remaining with him to the bitter end. Unlike the Irish Volunteers, the women members of the ICA routinely carried weapons and were treated on an equal footing with their male comrades.

On Wednesday, the Starry Plough, the flag of the Citizen Army, was raised on the Imperial Hotel owned by William Martin Murphy, opposite the GPO. The implacable foe of Irish workers from three years previously was no doubt hardly amused and following the end of the Rising his Irish Independent newspaper never ceased to demand the execution of the republican leaders, and Connolly in particular.

Famously, right before his execution, Connolly remarked, "The socialists will never understand why I am here." In this he was right as internationally, there was little sympathy from European socialists. The Glasgow Forward claimed that, "A man must either be a nationalist or an internationalist" showing a complete incomprehension of Connolly's discovery that one could be both, and indeed must be when one's country is occupied.

Socialist Review, the journal of the British Labour Party also made its position clear, "In no degree do we approve of rebellion at all." This position was also backed by the British Trade Union Congress. Almost alone among socialist thinkers of the time, Lenin backed the Rising, referring to Ireland as one of Europe's oppressed nations and saying, "A blow delivered against the British imperialist bourgeois rule by a rebellion in Ireland is of a hundred times greater political significance than a blow of equal weight in Asia or Africa."

The response of the Irish labour movement was mixed. In America, Larkin was clearly disappointed at not having been able to take part. "Though fate denied some of us the opportunity of striking a blow for human freedom," he said, "we live in hope that we, too, will be given the opportunity."

In Ireland, the military swooped on the ITGWU, seizing documents and arresting and deporting leading union officials like PT Daly. Union leaders like Thomas Jonhson disassociated themselves from the Rising and at the Irish Trade Union Congress in August a minute's silence was held for all Irishmen killed in the Rising and the European conflict.

While the Irish Citizen Army was the armed wing of the labour movement, it is clear that the Trade Union Congress refused to endorse their actions in Easter Week. But perhaps something of their militancy rubbed off on Irish workers. The All-Ireland Labour Committee held a national strike in 1918 to finally bring an end to conscription, making the Irish labour movement the first, and arguably the only, to carry out a general strike against the war.

During the Tan War, in May of 1920, the ITGWU declared a strike against the British military occupation with railwaymen and dockers refusing to handle war munitions or carry British army troops. By August of that year 1,500 men had been dismissed during this strike campaign though it was to continue until the end of the year.

Regrettably, it was to be the last occasion on which the Irish Trade Union Movement was to stand for national liberation and to fight for the republic based on the 1916 Proclamation. In remembering, as they now choose to do so, that James Connolly and the ICA fought and died in Easter Week, it would be well if they began to remember why.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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