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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

III – Labour leaders desert the national struggle

Already in 1916, three short months after the execution of Connolly and while numerous trade union members were still held in English prisons for real or imagined involvement in the Easter Rising, the Irish Trade Union Congress, meeting in Sligo, failed to declare its unequivocal support for the national struggle.

“No voice was raised to avow Connolly's program of revolutionary opposition to the war” which set worker against worker; in Europe; “there was no condemnation of military rule, no demand for the release of the prisoners”.17 Sooner than offend their Unionist, pro-British members in the northeast, the labour leaders chose to renounce “the place Connolly purchased for the organised labour movement in the leadership of the independence struggle”.18

Later, in the months leading to the vital elections of November 1918 which – in the words of the heavily censored Sinn Fein manifesto – would set Ireland on course “to deny the right and oppose the will of the British or any other foreign government to legislate for Ireland”, Sinn Fein made many approaches to Labour and proposed an electoral agreement.

The IRB suggested that “where Sinn Fein and Labour both have claims to put forward a candidate, these claims shall be amicably settled”.19 Sinn Fein declared it was prepared to concede to Labour candidates in some constituencies in return for a Labour Party pledge on the issue of separatism. 20

For the whole of September and October 1918 Labour leaders vacillated, more fearful of the consequences to the Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress should they express themselves unequivocally in favour of the independence struggle than of the consequences to the revolution should they fail to do so.

In the end, they chose to renounce by default their role in the imminent upheaval – a role so recently gained, and at so high a cost – and took no further official part in the independence struggle. The crucial 1918 elections saw Sinn Fein win a decisive victory over repression and censorship.

Though the Labour movement co-operated readily with Sinn Fein and Dail Eireann when the inevitable hostilities with England did break out in 1919, they “entered the compact as a vassal rather than a co-partner”.21

The rank and file of the trade union and labour movement, however, were made of sterner stuff, and as military repression subsequently intensified they gave the Irish Transport and General Workers Union the fibre that led the British to consider it a revolutionary organisation to be destroyed, like Sinn Fein, at all costs.

“Its officials and organisers”, reported the union newspaper, itself many times suppressed by the British military authorities, “have been arrested and deported to England without charge or trial, or prospect of either. Its branch meetings up and down the country have been broken up at the point of the bayonet. Its offices have been searched and raided, and its headquarters ... raided and searched again and again”.22

The Limerick general strike of April 1919, called in response to a British proclamation of the city as a military area – where every movement without British permits was prohibited – set the pattern for the revolutionary fever that swept the country in those years. A strike committee controlled the city for almost two weeks, and administered and policed it.

Assisted by the IRA, the local Trades Council ensured that food supplies were maintained. They acted firmly against profiteering, and issued notes of exchange which served as a temporary currency. By the end of the month, the Limerick “Soviet” had made its point, and the British military authorities withdrew their proclamation.

The Irish Trade Union Congress met in August of the same year, and delegates agreed unanimously to send greetings to the workers of Soviet Russia. They condemned the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. The new Soviet Government officially recognised Dail Eireann. The following year, the Dail authorised a diplomatic mission to the new government of Russia, fanning to full flame the fury of British propaganda portraying Dail Eireann and Sinn Fein as a Bolshevist menace. But as both Dail Eireann and Sinn Fein fell under the growing influence of the conservative forces in the independence movement, their revolutionary fervour was successfully stifled, and no diplomatic mission was ever sent.

Outside the Dail and the leadership of Sinn Fein, the revolution still conserved its momentum, however. Dublin’s Mount joy Prison was crowded with political prisoners who had been neither charged nor tried, and 100 of these decided on a hunger strike. A Labour Party manifesto declared that these men who are suspected of loving Ireland and hating her oppressors are our fellow workers and comrades.23 A general strike was called demanding the release of all political prisoners. Outside the pro-British stronghold of Belfast, it brought the country to a complete halt.

To ensure the total closure of all businesses, some of whose owners understandably might not have shared the objectives of the strike, “Red Guards” were formed and workers’ councils were set up in many towns and factories, heralding a movement which would see, in the course of 1920 and 1921, the seizure of factories and the formation of soviets in various parts of the country where the red flag would fly alongside the new flag of the republic.

In the early days of the independence struggle Dail Eireann seemed a real force for social change to the landless men of the west, the rural proletariat of the south and the urban proletariat of the towns. At first, Sinn Fein organisations tried to satisfy the land hunger that was endemic both in the impoverished western counties and in the richer lands of Tipperary and Westmeath.

They helped clear cattle from the grazing lands of the large estates. They “divided them into conacre24, leased out allotments at a fixed price for tillage, collected the rents and paid these to the owner ... Frequently the men marching to break the soil, with spades and loys [a long narrow spade commonly used for cutting peat] on their shoulders, or leading horses and ploughs, were escorted by crowds carrying tricolour banners and by fife and drum bands”.25 Not infrequently, too, red flags accompanied these demonstrations, and a wave of land seizures swept the country, particularly in the west.26

In the south and east, and especially in Waterford, where farms were larger and the economy was based on the labour of a landless rural proletariat, farmers tried to shift the burden of a post-war slump in agricultural credit and prices onto their workers by cutting wages. They sacked suspected union organisers.

Agricultural labourers responded to these attacks with a barrage of strikes, which intensified throughout the years of the independence struggle and the civil war which followed. On one side, farmers proposed the formation of a militia to suppress strikes. This, they said, would serve as “a national bulwark against Labour, Socialism and Bolshevism”. On the other, resistance hardened, and even domestic servants formed a “Women’s Battalion” and refused to work for strikebound farmers.27 In the early stages of this long-drawn-out struggle, IRA units agreed, after talks with strike pickets, not to intervene on the side of the employers.

The conservatives in the Dail government were horrified by all this. From the beginning, Griffith “strained every nerve to prevent Sinn Fein getting involved in the social conflict, and he used his great prestige for its repression”.28 On his insistence, the Dail was constrained to condemn social strife. In June 1920 it declared that “the present time when the Irish people are locked in a life and death struggle with their traditional enemy is ill-chosen for the stirring up of strife among our fellow countrymen”.29 Subsequently, IRA units were called on to protect landlord and rancher interests from what the Dail described as social anarchy.30

Peadar O'Donnell describes how volunteers were sick at heart at the work they found themselves doing on such occasions. Later, in jail in 1922 and 1923, they would curse their use by the Dail “to patrol estate walls, enforce decrees for rent, arrest and even order out of the country leaders of local land agitations”.31

Leaders and others who feared that the revolution was going too far took heart from this new policy. To them, firm government was infinitely preferable to just government, tainted as the latter was by socialism and bolshevism. These views found ready and incessant expression, too, in the press and the pulpit, neither of which ever eased up on their insistence that hostilities should cease and normality be restored. Both constantly condemned lawlessness and violence by Irish revolutionaries – while they maintained a discrete and deferential silence about the daily terrorism exercised by the British military.

The IRA was denounced repeatedly by the Irish hierarchy. The Bishop of Cork described the rebels as murderers, and warned them of excommunication. For their part, the IRA contemplated hanging him, and condemned the bishops as reactionaries, “afraid that their powers”, too, “would disappear in the maelstrom”.32

Next Section: IV – Calls for Peace
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  1. Greaves, C.D. (1982) The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union: The Fonnative Years 1909-1923. Dublin, Gill and Macmillan. p.174.
  2. 0’Donnell, Peadar. (1963) There will be Another Day. Dublin. The Dolmen Press. p.14.
  3. Cited in Greaves’ Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution, p.146.
  4. See Mitchell, A. (1974) Labour in Irish Politics 1890- 1930: the Irish labour movement in an age of revolution. Irish University Press. pp. 98, 129.
  5. Mitchell. loc.cit. p.143.
  6. Greaves. C.D. Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, pp. 251, 263.
  7. Mitchell. loc.cit. p.119.
  8. An Irish land tenure system based on the leasing of small subdivisions of larger farms for a single season.
  9. Macardle, D. (1938) The Irish Republic. London. Left Book Club edition. pp.251, 252.
  10. Greaves’ Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, p.275.
  11. O'Connor. loc.cit. p.43.
  12. Strauss, E. (1951) Irish Nationalism and British Democracy. London. Methuen. p.264.
  13. Mitchell. loc.cit. p.137.
  14. Gilmore, G. (1976) The Failure of republicanism, in Liberty Hall, 29 May, 1976. The Ripening of Time. (5) pp.30, But see also Meenan, J (1970) The Irish Economy since 1922. Liverpool University Press, p.30.
  15. O'Donnell, P. loc.cit. pp. 19,20.
  16. Younger, C. (1968) Ireland's Civil War. London, Muller. p.98.

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