It is 2016 and this year is the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin. It was on 24 April 1916 that a group of socialists and republicans struck a blow against the imperial power of Britain and its occupation of Ireland. In 1916 Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition historian Kieran Allen explains why there was a Rising in 1916. He says; “it was a serious military operation that struck a blow against the greatest imperial power of its time.” Britain’s involvement in the First World War was seen as an opportune time to stage a revolt which would lead to the rebels holding at least part of the country and being able to negotiate demands for Irish independence.
Central to the book is Kieran challenging the myth, perpetuated by the Irish government and many revisionist historians, that the leaders of the Rising did it as a “blood sacrifice”, rather than a serious challenge to the British state.
In 1916 Ireland was still a unified state. The Rising involved 1,300 insurgents (men and women; I will return to this later), of whom 152 were part of the Irish Citizen Army which had been set up by socialist James Connolly in 1913 to support workers in the Dublin Lockout. British intelligence had no idea about the plot and were taken aback as the rebels seized key buildings in Dublin. Outside Dublin there was fighting in North County Dublin, Wexford, Galway and Cork.
The General Post Office on O’Connell Street was the headquarters of the Rising and it is from there that Patrick Pearse, one of the charismatic leaders, read out the proclamation declaring an Irish Republic. Although the the Rising failed in its determination to kick the British out of Ireland, it did start off a chain of events which Kieran outlines in this book, leading to the partition of Ireland: the nominally independent Irish Free State, and the six counties of Northern Ireland which remained part of the UK.
Over the years though the Rising has been used by reactionary politicians and historians in Ireland to denigrate its true revolutionary tradition and instead sterilise the events as “a blood sacrifice” led by small group of rebels who laid down their lives for the soul of Ireland. Desmond Greaves, Communist historian and activist, expounded on this in his 1966 essay; “The Easter Rising as History”.
In 2016 it is hard for the pro-business and pro-British Irish government to celebrate the Easter Rising and Kieran has fun in pointing out the public relations nightmare that the Irish government have stepped into by even acknowledging the event.
But, as he points out in 1916, Ireland is no longer the conservative, church ridden state that was created in 1921. Kieran points to the growing dissent in the country as shown in the anti-water charges movement and its links with the trade union movement. The link with the Rising is the role of James Connolly, the socialist republican leader, who was shot by the British. And it is Connolly’s politics of change from social movements and the people at the bottom of society that Kieran believes that can bring hope and real revolution to Irish politics.
I do not live in Ireland, but I am part of the Irish diaspora that has campaigned over the years for a united Ireland, and it’s when Kieran looks around for a radical party to take on the mantle of 1916, I feel that his analysis fails. He admits that none of the establishment parties can do take on a radical agenda, and although he points to Sinn Fein’s agreement to austerity politics in the north, he still puts them forward as a radical party. Or at least one that “would still represent a major shock for the Irish political system.” I think the last thing people in Ireland (or any country) need is yet another political party taking power on an anti-austerity agenda and then selling them out. I am of the firm belief that, whilst it is good for historians to comment on social movements, it’s best they leave the politics to the activists.
And, although I think this is one of the more interesting books being published about the Rising, I really object to the lack of acknowledgement of women as activists: not just in the Rising itself but in contemporary politics. It is just not acceptable in C21st history, and also made worse by being written by a leftwing historian.
Missing is also any acknowledgement to the Irish who, over the centuries have been forced to leave Ireland because of their politics, but who took those republican socialist ideals to mother Britain and played a significant role in organisations as diverse as the Fenian movement, the Connolly Association and the Irish in Britain Representation Group. Luckily IBRG got radical historian Michael Herbert to write up some of this history, including the role of the Irish who travelled to Ireland to take part in the Rising see
Buy 1916 at
Find out about one of the important women of 1916 see
And for a funny take on 1916 see