But blood for blood without remorse, I've ta'en at Oulart Hollow And placed my true love's clay-cold corpse Where I full soon will follow; And round her grave I wander drear, Noon, night and morning early, With breaking heart whene'er I hear The wind that shakes the barley Robert Dwyer Joyce (1836–1883)
Publisher’s Note: This is the speech the author, Gary MacLennan, did not get to deliver about Irish rebellion against British rule in Dublin 1916.
And it is nearly 40 years since Gary was involved in another uprising with thousands of others (pictured). Unlike the Easter rebellion, there were no deaths and none were executed.
But, like the British, the Queensland government under Bjelke-Petersen representing big business and social conservatives retained power creating casualties of a different sort.
On 12 October 1977, at the first march in Brisbane city after Bjelke-Petersen’s ban on street marches, I remember Gary reading Trotsky’s testament in the failing light in King George Square which was surrounded by police, some lurking in the shadows.
As the rally swelled to 2,000 people and police numbers grew to 700 uniformed and 100 plain clothes police, Gary came to the microphone and read out what Trotsky wrote from Mexico not long before he was assassinated:
“Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.”
I wondered at the time who Natasha was, I am still not sure, Trotsky’s wife name was Natalia Sedova. Nevertheless, soon after Gary made this speech people sitting on the steps of King George Square were attacked by police and 32 people were arrested. Five women were arrested and strip searched in jail which was later denied by police.
One of the first arrested was Peter Annear who was the Australian Union of Students (AUS) representative at the University of Qld Union. Peter was arrested on the steps, a strange twist, because his organisation – the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – was opposed to confronting the ban on marches.
In all, there were 3,000 arrests in the valley of death (Albert Street) before the ban was lifted. The SWP split on the question of defying the ban. Gary found himself on the right side of politics by adopting the maxim “If you don’t fight you lose” and marched with the rest of us. Other comrades like Meeghan M. from the SWP did the same.
As as a result the SWP expelled Gary, Meeghan and other marchers, thus consigning itself to a slow decline in numbers and influence on the Left and in the movement.
Meanwhile the International Socialists (ISO) grew by challenging the government, only to find itself in a similar predicament during the SEQEB dispute. Some in the ISO decided the strike was lost, while others wished to fight on leading to yet another split. Despite division, street marchers eventually overcame the government but did the changes warrant the losses?
So it is no surprise to find Gary’s analysis of the Irish rebellion is well worth the read.
The facts of the Easter rebellion are well known.
- It began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916
- Some 1,350 people were killed or injured during the six day insurrection while 3,430 men and 79 women were also arrested by the British.
- 15 of the rebel leaders, including Pádraig Pearse and James Connolly, were executed by firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol.
What I will concentrate on is the significance of the Uprising for us today. I would like to begin by asking the hypothetical question “What if the Uprising had been a success?”
I will leave to one side the political and military conditions for that success. I will instead consider what kind of Ireland would have emerged from a successful revolution, we have the words of the Proclamation to guide us here and the writings of some of the leaders of the Revolution. The Ireland they wish to bring into being was an Ireland of independence, equality and peace.
The Independence movement
Independence for the leaders of the uprising meant of course independence from Britain and a withdrawal of the Irish from the British Empire. Now the question is would independence have been in the interests of the Irish people? I have no doubt at all that the answer is “yes”. Here I cite the evidence from the Irish Famine of 1845-49. The British historian, Robert Kee, wrote “No event in Irish History has had a more emotional effect on Irish national feeling that the Great Famine of 1845-49” (Kee, 1982, p.77). For Kee the emphasis was on the word “emotional”. It reappears at crucial moments in his narrative and the Irish are always being emotional. I would like to illustrate the monstrous nature of Kee’s approach by asking you to compare “No event in Irish History has had a more emotional effect on Irish national feeling that the Great Famine of 1845-49” with “No event in Jewish History has had a more emotional effect on Jewish national feeling that the Holocaust”. The second sentence would be labelled ‘racist’ and in certain countries prosecution would follow. But it is ok to be racist about the emotional Irish. I would suggest that the Irish reaction to the Famine was not only emotional, it was also based on a rational recognition that the British do not have the best interests of the Irish at heart and that Independence is in the rational interests of the Irish people. Certainly that was the attitude of Pearse, Connolly and the others, and it led them to rebel against British rule.
So if the Rebellion of 1916 Ireland would have been independent.
The Labour question
I would also like to address the labour question. One of the most divisive issues in Ireland’s history is the relationship between the national question and the labour question. The suggestion is that Irish nationalism is not in the interests of Irish workers. Certainly the history of the Republic of Ireland would suggest that there is something to that argument. But of course Irish nationalism need not have evolved into the clerical nationalism that Eamon De Valera favoured. If the rebellion had been successful and if Connolly had lived then the independence movement would not have been separated from the movement for a socialist Ireland. Connolly knew that he could stand to one side while Irish independence was being fought for. It was the “Labour must wait” tactic which dominated the War of Independence and enshrined the brand of Irish capitalism that was to bring a world of social misery to the Irish people.
The women’s question
It is at last being acknowledged that the Easter Rebellion of 1916 had strong roots in the feminist and suffragettes’ movements leading up to WW1. Feminist historians have pointed out that the role of women in the rebellion has been airbrushed from history. They cite the example that the note of surrender was carried by a woman, Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, through streets heavy with sniper fire. Her comrades were fearful that she would be shot down, but she survived. In Neil Jordan’s film on Michael Collins her role is assigned to a man.
The facts are that the uprising was the very first of its kind to offer an equal role to women. All of the leaders, with the exception of De Valera, believed that women should take part in the fighting. There were between 650 and 1700 women in Cumann na Mban, the women’s para military organization, in 1916. By 1921 that number had risen to 21,000.
As fate would have it, De Valera was the only leader to survive and he wasted very little time in imposing his vision on the women of Ireland. Though women got the vote in 1922, they could not work if married from 1932. And in 1937 De Valera and the Catholic Church proclaimed that the place of women was in the home. It has taken decades of heroic struggle by Irish feminists to reverse the damage done by De Valera and the Catholic Church.
But we are here today to remember and also to think of what could and should have been and so we recall the role of eight of the women who took part in the uprising. The following details are lifted from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/03/16/opinion/eight-women-of-irelands-1916-easter-rising.html.
The Countess Markievicz (1868 -1927)
Pride of place goes to Countess Markiewicz feminist and socialist and a true revolutionary. Born into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, “Countess Markievicz was the only woman sentenced to death for her role in the Rising. Her sentence was later commuted to life in prison because of her gender and she was ultimately released in an amnesty in 1917.
In 1918 she was the first woman elected to the British Parliament, but refused to take her seat; instead she became the only woman to hold a cabinet position, as Minister of Labor, in the first Irish Assembly. The countess died, virtually penniless, in 1927.
Kathleen Lynn (1874 – 1955)
Kathleen Lynn, a doctor, gave medical training to recruits to the Irish Citizen Army, a paramilitary organization, and allowed her home to be used as a munitions store. She served as the Chief Medical Officer during the Rising, famously describing herself as “a Red Cross doctor and a belligerent” when arrested
Winifred Carney (1887- 1943)
Armed with a typewriter and a Webley revolver, Ms. Carney was aide-de-camp to James Connolly, a socialist leader, in the rebellion’s headquarters in the General Post Office.
When Connolly was wounded in action (he would later be carried to his execution on a stretcher), Ms. Carney ignored orders to evacuate and stayed with him until after the surrender.
Margaret Skinnider (1892 – 1971)
Scottish schoolteacher Margaret Skinnider quit her job in the spring of 1916 to take part in the rebellion. (On an earlier trip to Ireland, in 1915, she reportedly smuggled detonators under her hat.)
During the Rising Ms. Skinnider, a member of a shooting club in Scotland, served as a sniper — in the same garrison as the Countess Markievicz — and was shot three times. When she recovered she returned to work as a teacher and campaigner for women’s rights. She is buried in Dublin next to Countess Markievicz.
Kathleen Clarke (1878 – 1972)
As the wife of Thomas Clarke — a signatory to the Proclamation of an Irish Republic, which promulgated Ireland’s independence from Britain — Kathleen Clarke was one of the few women privy to the secret plans for the Rising.
Rosie Hackett (1892 – 1976)
Born into a working class Dublin family, Rosie Hackett co-founded the Irish Women Workers Union to combat the deplorable conditions endured by the female employees of Jacob’s Biscuit Factory. She was part of the group that produced the first print of the Proclamation of an Irish Republic
Mary Josephine (Min) Mulcahy (1884 – 1977)
Mary Mulcahy, a courier during the Rising, was the girlfriend of one of its architects, Sean MacDiarmada. She was with him in his cell in Kilmainham Jail before his execution. She later married another republican soldier, Richard Mulcahy, and the couple named one of their sons Sean.”
The pacifist question
I have left to the last the pacifist question. In a celebrated letter the Irish pacifist Sheehy Skeffington challenged one of the rebellion’s leaders over the role of the rebellion in the militarization of the Irish independence movement. Skeffington was murdered by the British during the rebellion and he was a man worthy of the highest respect.
But his charge that the rebellion led to the militarization of the independence struggle anticipates the charge that the Irish uprising of 1916 led to the activities of the Provisional IRA in the north of Ireland from 1969 to 1996. Similarly, my old professor of history, JC Beckett at Queen’s university, stated that the United Irishmen had introduced the gun into Irish politics.
When I last looked the British Army had rifles, rockets, mortars, tanks, artillery, airplanes, ships, nuclear weapons, submarines and drones. So it is nonsense to say that the republican movement introduced the gun into Irish politics. What they did was to challenge the monopoly of the British Army over the gun. In effect they said, “You shoot at us and we will shoot back at you”.
So it is a nonsense to criticise the rebels of 1916 without criticising the murderous British Army.
But what of Sheehy Skeffington’s argument that we all need to renounce violence. That is true pacifist position and one which I respect deeply. But I have nothing but contempt for those who become pacifists between the wars or who use the rhetoric of pacifism to criticise those who take up arms to defend their home and families.
Finally I would like to conclude with two moments. Connolly is being carried out on a stretcher by his men and his aide de camp. Every time the glean of a sniper’s rifle is spotted one of he stretcher bearers steps between shields Connolly with his body.
The second moment is the conclusion of Yeats’ 1916 poem. Yeats was a reactionary, and he could only read the rebellion through the lens of romanticism. Nevertheless, he understood the courage that it took to rise up in Easter 1916 a courage that he himself lacked. He wrote:
We know their dream; enough To know they dreamed and are dead; And what if excess of love Bewildered them till they died? I write it out in a verse - MacDonagh and MacBride And Connolly and Pearse Now and in time to be, Wherever green is worn, Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.