1916 book cover

Allen’s 1916 shows that the Easter Rising was no pointless sacrifice, but an essential revolutionary trigger to Irish independence, argues Sean Ledwith


Kieran Allen, 1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition (Pluto 2016), vi, 222pp.

The hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising has proved to be a double-edged sword for the ruling class of Southern Ireland. On the one hand, they claim political lineage from the thousand or so rebels who marched out on a bank-holiday Monday morning to seize control of key locations in Dublin. The seismic blow struck by a small group against the world’s most powerful empire makes a handy foundation myth for an elite seeking to legitimate its status. All the pomp and ceremony the Irish capitalist state could muster was on display at the recent official commemoration.

However, there is an obvious anomaly involved in the celebration of a militant anti-imperialist uprising being led by a political class that has recently displayed abject capitulation before the forces of international capital. Similarly, the prominent role of organised labour in the events of 1916 stands in stark contrast to the punitive policies inflicted on the Irish working class by the same politicians saluting the tricolour. The contradictions of both the uprising and its anniversary are fully explored in Kieran Allen’s incisive study. A clear perspective on the links between the politics of the Easter Rising and modern Irish resistance to austerity makes this the best of the batch of recent books released to commemorate 1916. Allen is alert to both the danger the anniversary poses for the elite and the opportunity it provides for the left:

‘The Irish state is using its full resources to project its image of the rebellion through programmes in universities, schools, museums and art galleries. It does so somewhat reluctantly and with some trepidation, fearful that if it does not act, other forces will step into the breach’ (p.186).

The book is a compelling guide to the numerous historical debates surrounding the Rising but also acts as a stimulating analysis of the strategic challenges that face the radical left in Ireland today.

Allen opens his study with an analysis of the historical background to 1916 and how events in the preceding decades of Irish history made a revolutionary crisis inevitable. The shadow of the Great Famine of the 1840s fell across the political landscape of the second half of the nineteenth century and understandably hardened Irish attitudes to the necessity of a break from the rest of the UK. Allen excoriates those among contemporary historians who downplay the impact of the catastrophe and who have sought to excuse the actions of British politicians that presided over one million deaths in a country of eight million:

‘The British elite’s approach to the Famine was conditioned both by their racism and their free market fundamentalism. The Famine coincided with the rise of the Whigs who were committed to market forces and free trade and who opposed any ban on the export of food, a measure that could have saved many lives’ (p.6).

The following decade saw the emergence of the Fenian political tradition that would come to dominate the most militant strand of Irish resistance in the period leading up to the Rising.

Fenians and their rivals

Allen pays tribute to the bravery and dedication of a movement that could organise up to a thousand volunteers across the country in covert preparation for an assault on the entrenched power of British rule. However, he notes there was a political flaw in the strategy of Fenianism that would condemn the movement to ultimate failure and, unfortunately, adversely affect the thinking of later generations of republican activists:

‘Revolution was not seen as a social upheaval but was reduced to a purely military operation. It was divorced from wider developments in society and sprung only from the fact of British domination’ (p. 9).

Irish nationalism in the years leading up to the Rising and beyond would be hampered by the notion that severing the constitutional connection with Britain should take priority over any considerations of domestic social and economic justice.

The main political rival to Fenianism in the nationalist movement at the turn of the twentieth century was the Home Rule project advocated by John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party. In the pre-Rising era, the goal of devolved power being granted to Ireland within the framework of the UK was regarded by Redmond and his party as the most realisable option for nationalist politics. Critics of the rebels of 1916 have frequently alluded to ‘Redmondism’ as a preferable form of strategy that might have delivered independence in the fullness of time if it had been allowed to proceed.

Allen punctures this myth and explains how constitutional nationalism was already dead in the water by World War One. The most reactionary elements within the British state had cultivated the forces of Unionism in the North of Ireland to serve as a road block to the prospect of even the mildest form of separation. One of the most remarkable features of the era was how the British establishment explicitly flirted with violence and the defiance of the law in its determination to scupper Redmond’s pursuit of peaceful change. Four years before the Rising, Tory leader, Andrew Bonar Law, addressed a mass rally of anti-Home Rule militiamen with the kind of inflammatory rhetoric usually associated with those seeking to overturn, rather than preserve, the status quo. His stark warning that ‘there are stronger things than parliamentary majorities’ was an unintentional vindication of the Marxist view of the class nature of the capitalist state (quoted on p.23).

In the face of the intractable opposition of Bonar Law and his class, Allen drily remarks that there was no way constitutional nationalism could have delivered Home Rule: ‘Redmond’s compromises showed that the Irish Parliamentary Party had more faith in the democratic pretensions of the British state than the Tories had (p.24). This was made even more apparent in 1914, when scores of British officers stationed near Dublin let it be known they would not enforce government instructions to disarm the Ulster Volunteers who had been egged on by Bonar Law. The Curragh Mutiny is conveniently forgotten by those who suffer from the delusion that the British army is a non-political institution (p.24).

Defending the Rising

The anti-democratic core of the British ruling class, combined with the outbreak of a global imperialist conflict, provides the historical justification for the 1916 Rising, argues the author. This context refutes the views of those historians who have dismissed it as pre-emptive and retrograde. One of the most common conceptions of the event for many decades was that it was enacted as a futile ‘blood sacrifice’ by its leaders who walked out on the first day with no aspirations of success. Allen constructs a cogent case for defending the military rationale of the rebels.

The original plan of the uprising was for eleven thousand Irish Volunteers to participate. Only a badly-timed case of cold feet by the senior commander hours before the scheduled attack prevented this occurring. An additional twenty thousand rifles, and a million rounds of ammunition from Germany, would have been at the disposal of the rebels had they not been intercepted by the British navy days before Easter Monday. Despite these two blows, the leadership of the Rising managed to catch British intelligence completely off guard, in a city that was swarming with spies and informers. Allen contends that sober analysis of the strategic thinking of the rebels indicates their plan was actually a sound one, and that its failure was due to a combination of bad luck and the willingness of the British to bombard one of their own cities in a ruthless pursuit of victory:

‘The story of the Rising has been told many times but this brief account indicates the absurdity of dismissing it as a blood sacrifice. Quite simply, if the main purpose was to play out a redemption drama, there would have been little point in the detailed military planning that preceded it (p.34).

Apart from the blood sacrifice myth, the other criticism levelled at the Rising’s most prominent left-wing figure, James Connolly, is that he abdicated faith in working-class self-emancipation by investing time and energy with the Irish Republican Brotherhood in a militarised conspiracy. This is a viewpoint that emerged on the left soon after the Rising’s defeat, and has persisted ever since.

The author persuasively argues that Connolly’s participation can be justified with reference to Trotsky’s seminal theory of permanent revolution. This would be triumphantly vindicated in the October Revolution the following year but Allen believes Connolly had arrived at a similar perspective independently. His famous exhortation to Irish workers to ‘hold on to your rifles’ in the event of a successful uprising was premised on the conviction that a bourgeois revolution – in this case, achieving Irish independence – would rapidly escalate into a proletarian revolution against the native capitalist class. Like Trotsky, Connolly had also perceived the importance of the international dimension of revolutions created by the combined and uneven development of the emerging global economy. Allen claims that:

‘far from deserting socialism, Connolly remained true to its legacy by seeking to deliver a revolutionary blow in Ireland. A revolt in Ireland, he thought, would be hundred times more effective than elsewhere because Ireland lay at the heart of the British Empire’ (p.58).

The ultimate riposte to the view that the Rising was a failure is the fact that it triggered a five-year struggle with the British occupation that concluded with 26 counties achieving independence.

Class struggle in the Irish Revolution

The tragedy that national freedom came at the cost of national unity is explained by Allen as the joint consequence of the British elite’s resolution to retain Ulster as their bulwark in Ireland, and a failure on the part of the republican movement to align military struggle with a focus on social and economic campaigning. The so-called War of Independence and the Irish Civil War of the early 1920s are better understood, he argues, as phases of an Irish Revolution in which the country’s urban and rural workers successfully drove out the British, only to see their gains subverted by a native ruling class that arose to replace the foreign one. This underlines the hollowness behind the official commemorations in Dublin this year. Allen notes ‘the current Irish state is not a product of the Rising – it owes its existence to the counter-revolution of 1923’ (p.108).

The period between the Rising and the end of the Civil War witnessed levels of class struggle and political consciousness that stand comparison with the contemporary revolutionary wave in mainland Europe, sparked by the Russian Revolution. Most remarkable is the near-forgotten story of the Limerick Soviet of 1919, in which 15 000 employees in that city consciously chose to copy the example of their Russian counterparts and establish workers’ control in defiance of British martial law. The author recounts how the ruling Strike Committee took over the key functions of the state for several months:

‘They ordered the rationing of hotel meals and granted permits – enforced by pickets – for shops to sell bread, milk and potatoes. A subcommittee organised food supplies from the rest of Ireland and from unions in Britain. They enforced a ban on cars appearing in the streets without permission of the strike committee’ (p.70).

The promise of such developments was not to be fulfilled as the dominant strain of republicanism reverted to the prioritising of military affairs, as practised by their Fenian forerunners. Connolly’s execution by the British robbed the Irish left of the key figure who could have forged an organisational link between military and economic struggle. In his absence, the following decades saw Ireland ossify into two rival political entities that mirrored each other in their political backwardness – the ideal outcome of the Irish Revolution as far as the British ruling class was concerned:

‘What emerged were two conservative sectarian states that reinforced each other. The more the special position of the Catholic Church was enshrined in the law and practice in the South, the more Protestant workers were wedded to their Unionist leaders’ (p.129).

Since the late 1960s, that seemingly rock-solid stagnation on both sides of the border has started to crack and crumble. This has been a frequently bloody and uneven process, of course, witnessing the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the re-activation of military republicanism in the form of the Provisional IRA, and the decades of violence involving the British army and Orange sectarian killers. Allen, however, sees hope in the current state of Irish politics. Both states on the island have been hit hard by the global recession that struck in 2008.

The South, in particular, has seen the emergence of a vibrant movement of mass resistance to the government’s attempt to impose austerity. The Right 2 Water campaign that took off in 2014 in opposition to surcharges on water consumption has seen scales of mobilisation and activism not seen since the 1920s. Sinn Fein has been the principal beneficiary of this radicalisation, as evidenced in its strong performance in this year’s Irish general election.

Allen argues, however, that the party has inherited the flawed political strategy practised by the Fenians, the IRB and the IRA in previous generations. Attempts to construct a cross-class alliance and to downplay social and economic issues at the expense of ‘the national question’ will always end in political disillusionment. The far-left partnership of People Before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance offer a better chance of fulfilling the complete emancipation promised by 1916, as their joint perspective is based on a synergy of street protest and electoral campaigning.

Allen highlights how the Irish left today must mark the anniversary on its own terms, not those of the Dublin elite:

‘The coincidence of the rise of rebellion in modern Ireland with the commemoration of the 1916 Rising creates favourable conditions for ensuring that this framework has a distinct anti-capitalist hue’ (p.187).

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters