Tomas Mac Giolla argues that Easter Week 1916 still has great relevance today (first published in the March/April 1991 edition of Making Sense, marking the 75th anniversary of the Rising)
No member of the Workers’ Party should have any hang-ups about commemorating men like Connolly and Pearse and the historic events which took place in Dublin in Easter Week 1916. We have built our own party with our own policies, our own dreams and visions of the future. We are a party with our feet firmly planted in the present and our eyes fixed on a future which we have clearly mapped out. But the modern structures which we have so painfully erected are built on the very solid foundations set down for us in the past by men like Tone and Connolly.
We do not necessarily agree with everything these men said, or everything they did, any more than we agree today with everything we ourselves said or did in the past. But we can understand the context in which those things were said and done and we realise that all of them were part of our historical and political development. It was the events of our past and the struggles of our past that made us the people and the party we are today. Tone and Connolly and Pearse helped to shape our destiny just as Billy McMillen or Joe McCann or Malachy McGurran did in more recent times.
It is quite ridiculous and childish to attempt to ignore 1916, to forget about it, to pretend it never happened or worse still to pretend it had no significance. (If people have hang-ups about 1916 because the provos claim to be the successors of Connolly and Pearse then that’s even more ludicrous and childish – there’s no more connection between them than there is between the Red Army Faction and the Red Army.) I believe it had great significance for all the people on this island and still has today. It was a revolution of ideas which has made us all think in completely different terms from the pre-1916 perspective on politics, economics, and society. Our political parties have been formed with the objectives of either supporting and promoting these ideas or of bitterly opposing them or in the case of Fianna Fáil, of speaking in support of them but acting in a totally contrary fashion.
History for the vast majority of people is what they are taught in school. What they are taught in school is what the State and the church wants them to think. I was taught that Easter Week 1916 was a Poets’ Rebellion of idealists, a blood sacrifice inspired by the crucifixion of Christ, futile but brave and heroic. All I was told of Connolly was that he was shot in his chair and someone wrote a beautiful poem about it. Everything I subsequently read about it proved to me what a huge sham and lie this was, an insult to everyone who participated and in particular to the Dublin working class.
The commemorative events for the 50th anniversary in 1966, the newspaper articles, the many books written and in particular the week-long television programme, all of these restored James Connolly to his rightful position as the dominant figure of 1916. It was finally clear to all that this was a workers’ rather than a poets’ rebellion. Of course there were poets and idealists who fought and died in the streets of Dublin just as there were poets and idealists who fought and died in Flanders or the Somme as Francis Ledwidge and Thomas Kettle did, and many of them had the same ideals, as is evident from Tom Kettle’s lines
Died not for flag nor King nor Empire
but for a dream born in a herdsman’s shed
and for the secret scripture of the poor.
But the hard organised core of fighting men and women was provided by the realists of the Dublin workers in the Irish Citizen Army led by James Connolly. They were fighting for a dream born in bitter hungry struggle in the 1913 lock out, the longest and greatest battle between workers and bosses seen in any country and which had a profound effect on trade union and working class organisation throughout Europe and America.
There was an inevitability and a stark logic to Connolly’s determination to lead an insurrection in 1916 which is evident from even the most perfunctory study of his words and the events of the four or five years before. Three events will suffice to demonstrate what I mean.
Sir Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteers and open rebellion had a dramatic effect throughout Ireland, and not least on Connolly who said ‘For forty years the Home Rule Party had been preaching peace and had got very little for their pains. On the other hand Sir Edward Carson had preached force for a few short months and had got all he demanded.’
Secondly, the long and bitter struggle in 1913 with Jim Larkin, ending in defeat and in particular the brutal batoning of workers in O’Connell Street and the murder of three workers, James Nolan, John Byrne and Alice Brady during the lock out had convinced Connolly that a workers’ revolt was inevitable.
The final straw was the declaration of war in August 1914. This had the most traumatic effect on Connolly, the international socialist, who really believed in the ‘brotherhood of man’ and saw the war as ‘the working class of Europe slaughtering each other for the benefit of Kings and financiers’. He correctly thundered against socialists in Europe who had protested against war but then went to the front to slay their brothers. He called on them to rise up saying
”The signal for war ought also to have been the signal for rebellion; when the bugles sounded the first note for actual war, their notes should have been taken as the tocsin for social revolution.”
From then on it was inevitable and logical that Connolly would practice what he preached and attempt a social revolution in Dublin. He was fighting for socialism, for independence, for neutrality and against war.