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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 31November 1993

Class Struggle and National Liberation

Counter-revolution in Ireland

by Erna Bennett


For more than a century from the ill-fated 1801 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland, which sealed the defeat of the United Irish rebellion of 1798, to the Easter Rising in 1916, Ireland was utterly dominated by what has been called the vandal insolence of rent power, exercised by an almost exclusively foreign landlord class.

Repeatedly stricken by potato failures and famine, the Irish rural poor reacted to the power of the landlord class by forming secret agrarian societies which gradually coalesced into an uninterrupted series of land wars against the foreign landlord interest, the social struggle thus also assuming the character of a national struggle.

Accompanied by crop failures and famines, the slow collapse of the feudal system proceeded. Evicted and destitute rural poor crowded the roads as beggars and vagabonds, just as had happened during feudalism’s collapse in Tudor England several centuries earlier. Whole tracts of countryside were soon covered with the ruins of peasant dwellings, many of which can be seen even today.

Industries which might have absorbed this displaced population had been destroyed by the legislative union with England. The more fortunate among these poor fled the country. Many sought work in the cities of England. Here they formed an immense pool of cheap labour, dragging down the already low wages of their English counterparts who had themselves been driven off the land by the low prices of imported Irish food.

A major famine, which the Irish still call the Great Hunger, struck in 1845 and lasted till 1849. It obliterated 20 per cent of the country's population. But famine strikes only at the poor, and the statistic that records a population loss of 20 per cent must be translated into a disaster which eliminated fully 50 per cent of the rural poor. It left a desert in its wake.

Where the poor died or fled, land holdings were concentrated in the possession of large landowners. The few poor who survived became wage-earners in the capitalist cash economy then emerging. The old generation of feudal landlords was replaced by a new generation of capitalist farmers interested only in making a high profit from the land.

Sheep and cattle displaced the rural poor. Between 1846 and 1866, almost three million people – fully half of the country's surviving population – were forced off the land by hunger and evictions. Most of these ended up in America. Here the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood (or Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, for the ambiguity has always remained) also known as the Fenian Brotherhood, was born among embittered Irish exiles, who kept contact with revolutionary movements in Europe. Marx said of them that “the Irishman, banished by sheep and ox, re-appears on the other side of the ocean as a Fenian.”

But though Fenianism was born among dispossessed Irish in America, it was isolated by time and distance from the social struggles that were still taking place in Ireland. Though most of its members were manual workers, their leaders were men of middle-class origin, more disposed to conspiracy than to revolution. They aimed at separatist but not social goals. For many decades, they diverted the enormous revolutionary energy of the Irish poor into a series of exhausting, conspiratorial adventures in search of an ill-defined national goals, but not a social revolution.

Later generations of Fenians, led by Michael Davitt, did try to bring together national and social objectives. The more radical among them called for nationalisation of the land. But once again the leadership of this new movement was entrusted to one who, though keenly aware of the enormous ' driving power of the land question, equally keenly hated the movement's semi-revolutionary character.

He was Charles Stewart Parnell, acknowledged parliamentary leader of the Iris moderates and champion of the rising bourgeoisie. He used the power of the Land League movement as a lever to further the interests of the infant Irish bourgeoisie over those of the still powerful conservative landlord class. This battle was fought out in the English parliament far from the struggles of the landless rural classes who were the backbone of his support in Ireland.

In the end, Parnell betrayed the Land League because he feared the movement’s revolutionary aims as much as the English did. While detained in Dublin’s Kilmainham Prison as the English tried to forestall a threatened national rent strike that saw Ireland tottering on the brink of revolution, Parnell promised his captors, in what has become known ironically to history as the Kilmainham Treaty, to collaborate with them in pacifying Ireland.

The fruit of this pacification was the Land Act of 1881 which, with an extremely complicated series of amendments, had the effect of transferring the burden of encumbered estates from the landlords to many of Ireland’s landless class.

It was a process assisted by extravagantly favourable compensation in the form of government land stocks. It saw feudal power yield to bourgeois power. It converted the revolutionary tenant peasantry at a stroke into petty landlords, burdened with debts as heavy as the rents they had formerly paid. It released into circulation enormous quantities of investment capital to stimulate commerce. And, like much legislation before – and since – it successfully undermined a dangerous revolutionary movement which was one of the most powerful mass movements in Irish history.

The majority of the rural population gained nothing from the Land Acts, and from a countryside that no longer had any place for them they flooded into the appalling slums of Dublin or, if more fortunate, those of Belfast, Derry or Cork.

The population of Belfast doubled in a matter of a few decades, and women and children were swallowed up by the appalling conditions of its linen mills and factories, their health shattered in a few years from miscarriages and tuberculosis.

In Dublin, industries were few and work was casual and unskilled. A third of the population lived in unspeakable conditions in tenement slums, and 80 per cent of these lived one family to a room. A third of all deaths in Dublin were due directly to the effects of poverty and overcrowding. The city's death rate was the highest in Europe. Twenty per cent of all deaths were infants less than one year old, climbing to 25 per cent in 1913.

The Land Acts and rural depopulation were the first step leading to class differentiation and class conflict in the towns. In Dublin, the Land Acts called for doubling of the government departments whose civil servants composed the bulk of the city's lower middle classes.

Capital released into circulation by the Land Acts encouraged rapid growth of trade and banking, which employed an army of bank clerks and shop assistants. A flow of investments stimulated the growth of a rail network, which made Dublin the most important trading centre in the country, its prosperity resting on the labour of many thousands of porters, carters, dockers and railwaymen. And in the decaying tenements a great reserve army of the unemployed made the city a cheap labour paradise for a merciless class of petty capitalists and traders.

Outside the shipyards and mills of Belfast and of Derry, a skilled proletariat hardly existed. While these cities also employed a huge unskilled labour force, Dublin, Limerick and Cork depended overwhelmingly on ruthlessly over-exploited, unskilled labour. In Dublin, 95,000 unskilled workers, relying on ill-paid and irregular employment, greatly outnumbered a mere 9,000 white-collar workers.

The founding of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1909 gave a sense of identity and self-respect to the great mass of casual labourers. It also stirred the bitter hostility of employers to whom it constituted a threat to the cheap labour market.

The union gained strength visibly, and soon began to assert the principle of the sympathy strike, affirming that “an offence to one is the concern of all”. “The capitalist”, said James Connolly, recently returned from the United States to become organiser of the Socialist Party of Ireland, must be “taught that when he fights a union anywhere, he must be prepared to fight all unions everywhere.”1

Throughout 1212, organised workers were met by a succession of lock-outs in Belfast, Wexford and Dundalk. The struggle reached a climax in 1913, when the capitalists and traders of Dublin formed an Employers’ Federation “to meet combination with combination”. It declared a general lock-out of workers belonging to the union. Many of the locked-out workers were injured, and some killed, in savage attacks by the police and in clashes with armed scabs – so-called “free labour”, brought in from England to keep business going.

In 1913, the Dublin working class met not only with the full force of entrenched capitalism. They also met the hostility of church and press. “Nearly every section of ‘respectable’ Dublin seemed to think more about the threat posed by the eruption than about its causes”2.

The solidarity of the English working Class was awakened, but not its trade union leaders, who saw the revolutionary mood of Dublin’s workers as a threat to their parliamentary opportunism. They sought to defend “British Trade Unionism” from the dissensions sown in its ranks by the Dublin struggle. Connolly commented bitterly, “We asked for the isolation of the capitalists of Dublin, and in answer the leaders of the British labour movement proceeded calmly to isolate the working class of Dublin”.

In these conditions the Irish Citizen Army was formed – a citizen army of locked-out men – to defend workers from the daily attacks they suffered. At the same time, some nationalist sections of the southern bourgeoisie sought to harness the same social forces by calling for the formation of a corps of Irish Volunteers they felt might counter-balance the counter-revolutionary Ulster Volunteer force created by the northeastern Unionists to defend Britain’s continued hold on Ireland.

All Europe was torn by profound labour unrest. With the outbreak of war in 1914 reformist labour leaders successfully diverted this quasi-revolutionary agitation into “patriotic” war programs. The war forestalled a civil war of European proportions. Only in Ireland, Italy, and Russia did anti-war majorities maintain control of the labour movement.3

It was clear to Connolly that resistance to imperialism in Ireland, already implicit in the demand for national independence, must call down the full fury of British repression. But resistance to the war was spreading throughout the country, uniting the converging labour and separatist movements.

It is told how Connolly heard news of war mobilisation in Europe in 1914. He “sat for a long time silent, head in hands. Finally he announced emphatically that a blow for Irish independence must now be struck. He asked to be put in touch with the Irish Republican Brotherhood”4 – “The signal for war,” he said, “ought also to be the signal for rebellion.”5

 The rebellion came with the Easter Rising of 1916. Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army units seized key points in Dublin and held them against a furious British onslaught. What was originally planned as a nation-wide rebellion was confined to the capital and a few minor skirmishes elsewhere. Within a week, Dublin was in ruins and the rebellion crushed. Its leaders were executed.

The post-war general election of 1918 gave Sinn Fein an overwhelming victory. Sinn Fein was a national movement, founded by the rabidly anti-labour Arthur Griffith. Notwithstanding its origins, it became a vehicle for all popular independentist forces. The elections took place under conditions of extreme repression and military censorship. Many Sinn Fein candidates were already in prison.

Sinn Fein’s newly elected members declared themselves the National Assembly (Dail Eireann) of the Irish Republic, which met on January 21, 1919. At its first sitting it read a Declaration of Independence, then read and adopted a Democratic Program. The following day it elected a Council of Ministers.

War between the British military occupation forces and Irish republican forces was now inevitable. The war was a bitter one, and extremely unequal, but the Irish side was supported by an almost undivided popular loyalty. The British were hard-pressed by largely unseen enemies, and their resistance was beginning to crumble when a truce was called.

This article examines how and why the Irish independence movement came to accept the British-imposed conditions that ended the Irish revolutionary struggle, and what some of its consequences were.

It is a study of the methods of counter-revolution as encountered in Ireland. What happened in Ireland in 1919-1923, however has relevance to contemporary events and to all revolutions. It therefore bears re-examination.

Next Section: I – Truce
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  1. Connolly, James (1951) The Workers’ Republic. Dublin, Three Candles Press. p.l43.
  2. Lyons, F.S.L. (1979) Culture and Anarchy in Ireland 1890-1939. Oxford, Clarendon Press. p.77.
  3. Swiss Social-Democrats, Italian Socialists, Russian Bolsheviks and Menshevik Internationalists, and the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party supported the 1907 Stuttgart anti-war resolution of the Second International. Elsewhere in Europe, left-wing opposition groups in the socialist parties were effectively isolated, many of their number suffering imprisonment and others assassination.
  4. Greaves, C.D. (1961) Life and Times of lames Connolly. London, Lawrence and Wishart. p.283.
  5. Connolly, J. (1949) Labour and Easter Week. Dublin, Three Candles Press. p.40.

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