by Philip Ferguson*
Described by Lenin as the world’s first Red Army, the Irish Citizen Army was formed by members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and other trade unionists in Dublin in August 1913. Socialist and therefore also republican, the ICA was not, however, the first working class paramilitary organisation to be formed in Ireland in the early 1900s. That honour goes to Fianna Eireann, a predominantly working class youth organisation founded by Constance, Countess Markievicz who would go on to be a key figure in the workers’ militia.
Markievicz, a militant left-wing republican, was moved to form the Fianna in August 1909 for two reasons.
One was that, while new to Irish republicanism – she had thrown herself into it just the year before – she had already decided that any serious political movement for Irish freedom would, sooner or later, have to confront Britain in arms. Her reading of Irish history had taught her that if you built a serious political movement, at some point the British state would confront you with its military force. Unless you were armed and prepared to fight, your movement would end in ignominy, confusion and demoralisation.
The other reason – and this was the immediate factor in the formation of the Fianna – was the arrival of Baden-Powell in Ireland to start an Irish wing of his boy scouts movement. Markievicz noted that his aim was to get Irish youth to support the British empire and oppose the liberation of their own country and their own class, the working class. Her and friends such as Helena Moloney went recruiting for na Fianna in working class areas of Dublin.
Having come from the aristocracy, Markievicz knew about shooting and had a great interest in things military. She wrote the Fianna handbook, taught the boys to drill and to shoot and, later, how to blow things up. The Fianna were also sent out to rough up the Boy Scouts. This ‘ruffianism’ was guided by two ideas: discouraging the work of the pro-imperialist Scouts and training working class boys to start taking on the imperialist enemy and building up their own martial capabilities in preparation for the future when, Markievicz envisaged, they would take up arms in the cause of the national, economic, social and cultural liberation of Ireland.
Two of her early Fianna recruits – Sean Heuston and Con Colbert – would subsequently be executed by British firing squad for their leading roles in the Irish Rebellion of April 1916. The Fianna’s key organiser, Liam Mellows, would be executed later by the counter-revolution in the civil war of 1922-23. Markievicz herself would go on to become a founding leader of the ICA and serve on its seven-person Army Council, take part in the 1916 rebellion as second-in-command of the combined revolutionary forces at Stephen’s Green in the heart of Dublin, narrowly escape execution and go on to be the first woman ever elected to the British parliament, albeit as an abstentionist MP, then serve as minister of labour in the underground parliament in Dublin during the war for independence and take the revolutionary side in the civil war. Her women friends who assisted the development of the Fianna, especially Margaret Skinnider and Helena Moloney, also joined the Citizen Army, fought in the Rising – Skinnider was wounded – take part in the war for independence and then take the revolutionary side in the civil war.
Thus, over four years before the formation of the Citizen Army, the idea of an armed working class had already taken an organised expression, albeit among boys and adolescent males. In Belfast a girls’ branch was also subsequently established, with prominent roles played by Nora and Ina Connolly, daughters of the Belfast ITGWU organiser, James Connolly.
James Larkin and the arrival of militant, political trade unionism
The immediate imperative for the formation of the workers army, the ICA, however, was police violence against locked out Dublin workers belonging to the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and their allies in late 1913.
The ITGWU had been founded by James Larkin as a militant syndicalist trade union in 1908. Liverpool-born Larkin had originally been the Irish organiser for the British-based National Union of Dock Labourers, but the British leadership of that union were much less radical and acted as a barrier to working class militancy in Ireland. In 1908 Larkin led dockers, carters and malt workers in Dublin to victory in important industrial struggles. During the carters’ struggle, however, he was suspended from the NUDL by the union’s president. This was the last straw for Larkin and he led 2,700 Irish NUDL members to break with the British-based union and established a militant Irish-based union, the ITGWU. The union began life with a table, a few chairs and empty bottles and a candle.
This was something very new – a union that was both Irish and syndicalist. The preface to its first rule book denounced Irish capitalists for their “soulless, sordid, money-grubbing propensities” and declared the “old system of section unions amongst unskilled workers is practically useless for modern conditions.” The union rapidly leaned towards Irish republicanism as well.
Although making only limited headway in Belfast, due to the prevalence there of politically conservative, pro-imperialist Protestant workers who saw Catholic fellow-workers as their main enemy, Larkin was able to organise very effectively in Dublin.
The conditions of Dublin workers were appalling. Much of the city’s workforce was casual and wages were the lowest in the British Isles. Working class families were crowded together in appalling tenements, with the death rate of working class children ten times that of middle class children. By 1911 the mean death rate in Dublin was worse than in Calcutta. All this after 750 years of British rule over the city.
Larkin and his fellow organisers did not separate the new union from politics; instead he urged workers to see themselves as successors to republican revolutionary figures such as Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet. The union newspaper, The Irish Worker, was edited by a young railway worker called Sean O’Casey. it encouraged workers to take an interest in everything from militant unionism to women’s right to vote to astronomy. It also became the most-read paper pushing a firm left-republican political line. Another of its features was running derogatory articles about the exploiting class – it aimed to encourage workers to have complete contempt for what they had previously been taught to believe were their ‘social betters’.
Writing in the 1920s Markievicz described her first experience of Larkin, which was at a workers’ rally in the centre of Dublin in 1910, she had cycled in to specifically to see and hear him:
“. . . listening to Larkin, I realised that I was in the presence of something that I had never come across before, some great primeval force rather than a man. A tornado, a storm-driven wave, the rush into life of spring, and the blasting breath of autumn, all seemed to emanate from the power that spoke. It seemed as if his personality caught up, assimilated, and threw back to the vast crowd that surrounded him every emotion that swayed them, every pain and joy that they had ever felt made articulate and sanctified. Only the great elemental force that is in all crowds had passed into his nature forever.”
Embodying the essential qualities the workers needed to free themselves, Larkin “forced his own self-reliance and self-respect on them; forced them to be sober and made them class conscious and conscious of their nationality.” In all this he “was one of the great forerunners of Easter Week”.
The union called for an eight-hour day, universal adult suffrage, universal pensions at age 60 and nationalisation of public transport. It set up its own band, organised plays and other entertainment, and generally provided an entire community of activities for its members. And it organised militant action against the Dublin employing class, including Catholic employers who supported the Home Rule movement.
The Great Dublin Lockout of 1913 begins
By 1913, the ITGWU had 10,000 members and had forced the Dublin employers to make a series of substantial concessions. Destroying the union – and Larkin – became a key focus of the employers, especially their leader, William Martin Murphy. Murphy was a Catholic Home Rule capitalist, the biggest and richest employer in Dublin.
The dispute began in August 1913 when William Martin Murphy, head of the employers’ federation and owner of Dublin Tramway Company and the Irish Independent newspaper, asked the dispatch staff of his newspaper to choose between their union and their jobs. On August 22 a notice was issued to the workers saying, “The directors of the Tramways Company having decided to suspend the parcel service, the employees engaged in this work were paid off last evening.” The Tramways men were sent a paper to sign, reading “Should a strike of the employees of the company be called for by Mr James Larkin or the Irish Transport Union, I promise to remain at my post and to be loyal to the company.” Murphy saw the labour problems not as a result of social and employment conditions in the city, but due to Larkin’s rabble-rousing.
On August 26, the opening day of the Dublin Horse Show, the Transport Union struck the trams. On August 28, following a rally in the centre of Dublin, Larkin and four others – two of them members of Dublin Corporation (the city council) – were arrested and charged with seditious libel and seditious conspiracy.
The labour struggle soon led to violence in the streets. As the authorities were determined to inhibit the workers’ ability to hold outdoor protests in the city centre, Larkin was determined to flout their bans. On Saturday August 30 rioting occurred in the centre of Dublin; three workers were killed and 400 people were injured. The following day, Larkin, who had been hiding out at the Markievicz home, broke a police ban and appeared in O’Connell Street at a proclaimed meeting. When he appeared on the balcony of the Imperial Hotel, police rushed in and arrested him. As he was being taken away, Markievicz began leading a cheer for him. A melee ensued, in which police and public fought up and down the street with 400 people being injured, although only 30 police were treated in hospital.
Workers’ defence and the formation of a workers’ milita
Such clashes had an effect not only on the workers, but supporters of the workers. A number of people from Captain White to George Bernard Shaw to Captain Robert Monteith had pointed to the need for some sort of workers’ defence in the face of the activities of the police. On the first night of the struggle, Larkin himself had asked a rally in the city centre why, given the Unionists’ arming in the north, the workers of Dublin should not also arm. White, appalled by the police assaults now wrote, “The Citizen Army, after teaching the police manners, could be the machine of industrial organisation in the new era”, while Larkin thought that, as well as being a defence force for workers, it “may march at the forefront of all movements for the betterment of the whole people of Ireland.” At the end of 1913 White, addressing the working class readers of The Irish Worker, noted, “Whether the first fruits of your labour is the freeing of yourselves or the freeing of your country, time will show. But ultimately Ireland cannot be free without you nor you without Ireland. Strengthen your hand then for the double task.”
The workers’ defence force took the name Irish Citizen Army and it began to turn out at workers’ demonstrations, having a salutary effect on police behaviour. The cops suddenly became much less inclined to wade into locked-out workers and their families.
As workplace after workplace was affected by the dispute, the employers moved to break the Transport Union altogether. The workers were asked to sign a pledge saying, “I hereby undertake to carry out all instructions given to me by or on behalf of my employers and, further, I agree to immediately resign my membership of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (if a member) and I further undertake that I will not join or in any way support this union.” Maud Gonne, drawing the links between workers’ rights and national freedom, wrote in the Irish Worker, “The employers of Dublin have asked their workers to sign a document which no self-supporting man would sign. They would oblige them to sign away their free will. In a free country employers of labour would never have dared to propose such a thing for they would have been treated as the criminals they are.”
In the same issue, Markievicz noted that the Green Street courthouse had seen “many a fight in the cause of freedom” and that Robert Emmet had been tried there in 1803 before he was hung, drawn and quartered. And while Murphy’s Irish Independent decried the “Red flag of Anarchy”, and the Irish Times held that industrial reform and wage rises would have to wait “until it has ceased to be possible for self-styled champions of labour to support anarchy in the streets,” the Irish Review, edited by future 1916 leader Joseph Plunkett, ran an article by Connolly explaining and defending the sympathetic strike, one of the main factors in the employers’ enmity for labour and especially for the ITGWU.
The struggle deepens
In September supportive stoppages took place in Liverpool, London and other parts of Britain. However the British trade union leadership were firmly opposed to these and on September 22, the Irish Times editorial was able to report cheerfully, “practically all of the English workers who went on strike last week in ‘sympathy’ with the disemployed of Dublin will return to work.”
This pointed up the dilemma facing the Dublin workers. They were simply not strong enough to win by themselves; solidarity strikes and refusals to handle goods bound to and from Dublin employers were essential. The British trade union leadership was prepared to provide financial support for the Dublin workers and their families, but not the action necessary to ensure a rapid resolution of the dispute. For these leaders, the Dublin struggle had an ominous side – it was not a respectable trade dispute, but one tainted with revolutionary syndicalism. While Connolly regarded it as tactically wise to avoid coming into conflict with the British leaders, Larkin simply lambasted them. As the Irish Times noted towards the end of 1913, the British trade union leaders found that Larkin was out “to smash capital – and, if necessary, to smash them.” The decision of the British TUC, at a conference held in December and attended only by delegates appointed from above, was overwhelmingly against sympathetic industrial action with the Dublin workers.
“Eating the dust of defeat and betrayal”: The end of the lock-out
The Dublin employers were emboldened and at the next meeting of the Dublin Peace Conference, the negotiating forum, refused even to consider the proposals which the British and Irish trade union representatives at the negotiations had agreed. It was really the end, although some financial support dribbled in for a few more weeks. Connolly wrote, “We asked for the isolation of the capitalists of Dublin, and for answer the leaders of the British labour movement proceeded calmly to isolate the working class of Dublin” and that as a result “we Irish workers must go down into Hell, bow our backs to the lash of the slave-driver. . . eat the dust of defeat and betrayal. Dublin is isolated.”
On February 3, 1914 the Irish Times editorialised that the struggle was over, remarking “Yesterday almost all the men on strike for whom vacancies still exist returned, or made arrangements to return immediately, to their employment.”
The British trade union leaders had, in effect, helped prolong the dispute in order to wear down the militant labour forces in Dublin. They had no desire for industrial militancy to prove successful since it would encourage workers in Britain along the same lines, thus undermining their position as negotiators between labour and capital.
The reorganisation of the workers’ militia
Although the workers were beaten industrially in the 1913-14 dispute, militant labour remained in a powerful position. The dispute had drawn around the Transport Union other radical and radicalising groups, including a section of the suffragists and a section of republicans. Markievicz set up a soup kitchen at Liberty Hall with the assistance of Inghinidhe activists and suffragists, the latter wearing their suffrage ribbons. When the Irish Women’s Franchise League petitioned against the Cat and Mouse Act in September 1913, no Transport Union members refused to sign it. Large numbers of male members of the union also began attending some of the IWFL’s public meetings. In October, 1913 for instance the Irish Times reporting on an IWFL meeting, noted “the hall being crowded, a large number of workingmen among those present.” The labour dispute in fact brought together all the progressive forces in Ireland.
After the defeat of the workers, their militia remained in place. In March 1914, a month after the end of the great lockout, the ICA was reorganised. A meeting in Liberty Hall adopted a Constitution and elected an Army Council, including Fianna Eireann founder Constance Markievicz. Echoing James Fintan Lalor, the great republican agrarian radical of the 1840s, the first clause of the new ICA Constitution stated “That the first and last principle of the ICA is the avowal that the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested as of right in the people of Ireland.”
On April 6 Markievicz and fellow Army Council member Richard Brannigan addressed the trades council and succeeded in securing its official support for the ICA. Despite its best efforts, however, the ICA was hampered by a critical lack of resources. It could not raise the kinds of funds the new more respectable nationalist/Home Rule Irish Volunteers had available. Most of its members, being labourers and similar proletarians, worked long, hard hours and had only limited time to drill. Some workers dropped out, others drifted to the Irish Volunteers, as did White. The ICA, however, was far from finished.
In August 1914 the first global imperialist war, aka World War I, broke out. The ICA and ITGWU took staunch positions opposing the imperialist war and opposing recruitment attempts in Ireland by British state. In this they were joined by the republican elements in the Irish Volunteers, especially those who had sided with the workers during the lockout.
However, the Home Rulers had already imposed their own leadership on the Volunteers. With Home Rule leader John Redmond supporting the British war effort, the Volunteers split. Redmond took the big majority, with the republicans managing to hold onto a small minority of about 12,000.
Larkin denounced Redmond, saying the Home Rule leader swallowed his own vomit and asking if there was not someone around to hang the traitor. was Larkin’s perspective as well. Along with calling on workers to fight for Ireland alone, he declared “England’s need is Ireland’s opportunity”, that “the guns must be got, and at once” and that Ireland “had now the finest chance she had for centuries.” Larkin also organised anti-war protests and told a rally of 7000 in Dublin that the ITGWU was prepared to help land weapons in Ireland.
The Dublin Trades Council, following the killings the evening of the Howth gun-running on July 26, adopted a motion from ITGWU leader O’Brien which included the view that “the only effective manner of dealing with this latest action of the Government is for the people to meet force with force.
However, Larkin himself went to the United States to raise money for the ITGWU and became stranded there, getting arrested as a subversive and being imprisoned until after the war. He was unable to get back to Ireland until the end of the civil war/counter-revolution. In Larkin’s absence, Connolly moved from Belfast to Dublin to take charge of both the union and the ICA. With Markievicz and Michael Mallin of the Silk Weavers Union as his chief lieutenants, Connolly reshaped the ICA into the vanguard of the Irish anti-imperialist struggle.
It took part with the republican Volunteers in smuggling arms into Ireland in 1914 and in becoming a fully armed workers’ militia. Bombs were made and stored in the basement of the union headquarters and Connolly began urging an ever more militant course on the openly republican majority leadership of what remained of the Volunteers. Connolly, Markievicz, Mallin and their workers’ militia began preparing for armed rebellion against British rule and against the Irish Home Rule capitalists.
The revolutionary leaders engaged in still-legal protests, forming the Irish Neutrality League to campaign against conscription, while developing the capacity of the ICA for armed action. In September 1914, the Irish Neutrality League was formed, while plans were laid for Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers members to seize the Mansion House on the night of September 24 and hold it for twenty-four hours in order to prevent Asquith and Redmond from holding their advertised recruiting meeting in the building the following day. The plan was only abandoned due to the strength of British forces.
On October 10 Connolly declared the “fight against Redmondism and Devlinism is a fight to save the soul of the Irish nation” and exhorted the Irish Volunteers to throw everything into the fight against Britain’s war effort and the IPP’s betrayal, and to adopt “the daring appeal of the Revolutionist.” Two weeks later he declared that if Britain tried to introduce conscription in Ireland through the Militia Ballot Act or any other measure, the ITGWU and ICA “have our answer ready.” Resistance “must of necessity take the form of insurrectionary warfare. . . barricades in the streets, guerrilla warfare in the country.”
Peparing the road to insurrection
As against the more faint-hearted elements of the Irish Volunteers, Connolly criticised those who talked of “premature insurrection” and provoking the government, arguing “Revolutionists who shrink from giving blow for blow until the great day has arrived, and they have every shoe-string in its place, and every man has got his gun, and the enemy has kindly consented to postpone action in order not to needlessly hurry the revolutionists nor disarrange their plans – such revolutionists only exist in two places – the comic opera stage, and the stage of Irish national politics. We prefer the comic opera brand. It at least serves its purpose.” Early in 1916, he declared, “While the war lasts and Ireland still is a subject nation we shall continue to urge her to fight for her freedom. . . the time for Ireland’s battle is NOW, the place for Ireland’s battle is HERE.”
The ICA attempted to lead by example, despite its small size – it had several hundred men and women under arms. Connolly and Markievicz also upped the ante, with the Citizen Army increasingly appearing on the streets with weapons. In July they even led it in a mock attack on Dublin Castle. Meanwhile every hesitation by the IV leadership was met with fiery denunciation, as when they gave in to a British order that one of their chief organisers Captain Robert Monteith (who also had a reputation as a labour sympathiser) leave Dublin. Connolly also made clear that ICA collaboration with the Volunteers was conditional, stating “However it may be for others, for us of the Citizen Army there is but one ideal – an Ireland ruled, and owned, by Irish men and women. . . The Citizen Army will only co-operate in a forward movement. The moment that forward movement ceases it reserves for itself the right to step out of the alignment, and advance by itself if needs be, in an effort to plant the banner of Freedom one reach further towards its goal.”
This message was not directed at MacNeill, as Connolly had no illusions about an alliance there, but at the republican militants. His strategy was to continue to pull – and, where necessary, push – them forward until their alliance with MacNeill was no longer sustainable and broke up. At that point, Connolly would have been able to draw them to his own group, in effect uniting around the militant labour forces all the most radical republican elements. It might be further noted that at the same time Connolly was drawing in the most militant and politically-advanced elements of the women’s movement. While a number of former Inghinidhe activists had already been integrated into the ICA, and IWFL member Kathleen Lynn had been made medical officer, holding the rank of lieutenant, in December 1915 Connolly took on a number of suffragists to do ITGWU organising work.
The other aspect of Connolly and Markievicz’s strategy was to continue to challenge the authorities and push the limits of what they could get away with. It seems to me that there were three main elements to this.
Firstly, they were preparing their followers for the insurrection through a process of toughening them up. Insurrection is not a business for the faint-hearted and Connolly and Markievicz wanted a reliable and hardened force. In early 1916, for instance, Connolly summoned each member of the ICA individually into his office and asked them if they were prepared to fight in a rebellion, and alongside the Volunteers.
Secondly, they were showing ordinary Irish people, who had long been taught to think of themselves as inferior and powerless, that the authorities were not omnipotent, that they could be challenged and that they only maintained their power as long as people acquiesced in their own oppression. This attitude was summed up in the motto Connolly took from Desmoulins, a French revolutionary of the eighteenth century: “The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us arise!”
Thirdly, the ICA’s activities made the British think twice about what they did since any repressive actions they planned would be met with force. These three elements were closely related to each other. For instance, whenever armed ICA members prevented the British from taking some action, it would raise the self-confidence of the workers’ militia and have a positive effect on public opinion. O’Brien has commented, for example, the ICA “attends all our Labour meetings and you would be surprised at the changed attitude of the police in consequence.”
While the Irish Volunteers’ leadership usually capitulated when challenged by the authorities, as in the Monteith case, the ICA evinced another spirit. For example, following a police raid on Markievicz’s house, remarks O’Brien, “the police came to the Countess and wanted her to register as an alien! Being married to a Russian the Countess is technically a Russian subject but she told the police, more forcibly than politely, that ‘she was an Irishwoman and before she would register as an alien she would see the police in hell’.”
On another occasion in early 1916, when police called at her house to check she would not break an order banning her from speaking at a meeting in Tralee, she warned them to keep away from her home as no-one there liked them and, besides, they made “grand big targets”.
Connolly, who faced constant difficulties producing a newspaper, finally moved a printing press into Liberty Hall and placed an armed guard on it. Markievicz, who did guard duty as one of her first soldierly works, relates, “Our instructions were, if raided, to fight to the last cartridge.” This might have been some shoot-out given that she “had an army rifle, a ‘Peter’ and a small Browning. My comrade also was well supplied.”
On another occasion, March 24, 1916, when the British attempted to remove copies of The Gael, they faced an armed Markievicz, fingering her automatic, while Connolly pulled out a revolver, saying “Drop them or I’ll drop you.”
Connolly then sent out a mobilisation order and within minutes members of the workers’ militia were leaving factories, the docks, the railways and other workplaces and heading for Liberty Hall, despite the threats of foremen and bosses.
This spirit of resistance had, in fact, been manifest following the suppression of the Irish Worker on December 4, 1914. Connolly managed to bring out a two-page leaflet headed Irish Work, in which he argued that repression was growing, and the more tame people were the more emboldened the authorities would be. He declared to the authorities, “our cards are all on the table! If you leave us at liberty we will kill your recruiting, save our poor boys from your slaughter-house, and blast your hopes of Empire. If you strike at, imprison, or kill us, out of our prisons or graves we will still evoke a spirit that will thwart you, and mayhap, raise a force that will destroy you. We defy you! Do your worst!”
The Citizen Army also prepared its arsenal. It had gained some weapons from the Howth gun-running, and it acquired further weapons by buying and stealing them off British soldiers. The ICA established an Equipment Fund and also set up an engineering section. Foundry workers would smuggle out scrap metal, while the basement of Liberty Hall was turned into a modest bomb-making factory.
Connolly was continually trying to limit the ability of the British to implement their initiatives, and pout it up to them, until he could reach the point at which Ireland would be ungovernable by anything like ordinary means. In such a situation conditions would be ripe for an insurrection. And, indeed, in 1916, Connolly, Markievicz, Mallin and the workers’ militia were the driving forces of the Easter Rising.
New Zealand in 1913 also saw a massive industrial dispute. It involved a greater percentage of the workforce than any other dispute in New Zealand history. But whereas the Dublin workers held out for six months and only returned to work because of the betrayal of the British trade union leaders, the workers in New Zealand gave up after just six weeks. Poloice violence occurred during the dispute here as well; the workers protested it fairly ineffectively, while the workers in Dublin “put manners on” the police by forming their own defence force which took on the cops physically and later helped protect suffrage meetings under atack by right-wing Catholic mobs and then drove forward an attempt at revolution.
The traditions of the NZ working class are important and should not be ignored. But the main reason for not ignoring them is to learn how differently we need to do things here. And while much of the NZ left looks to the traditions of working class and left movements in the English-speaking countries (especially Britain and the United States), we need to look a lot more at the political examples of the working class and oppressed in the countries dominated by imperialism. The traditions of rebellion in countries like Ireland, India, the Philippines, Argentina, Mexico and elsewhere. This is particularly the case today, because this is where most of the global working class live and fight. And the average level of consciousness of workers in these countries is far, far in advance of the average level of consciousness of workers anywhere in the English-speaking First World countries.
*Sections of this article come from several chapters of an old thesis of mine written in 1995. For the full thesis, go to the irish revolution and the subject thesis chapters.