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If the Brits had won ...

Pádraig Yeates writes: It is widely accepted that there would have been no Easter Rising in 1916 but for James Connolly and the tightly disciplined ranks of the Irish Citizen Army. They provided the core around which the revolutionary conspirators of 1916 could salvage their insurrection after Eoin MacNeill almost succeeded in scuttling it with his countermanding order that led many putative rebels in the Volunteers to stay at home, or go to the races and the seaside that weekend.

Yet Connolly would not have been in Ireland, let alone head of the Citizen Army or acting general secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) but for Jim Larkin. It was only the offer of a job by the latter that enabled Connolly to make a successful return to Ireland in 1910. Ironically, when Larkin came back after his own sojourn in the United States it was to call for peace and an end to the Civil War.

It was Connolly who wrote in the Workers Republic, in February 1916, that “Without the shedding of blood there can be no redemption”, and Larkin who told a mass rally in the Theatre Royal to welcome him home in May 1923 that “There was no dishonour in peace.” Both were responding to what they saw as the necessities of the moment.

Connolly was seeking to redeem the nation’s soul in 1914 and “light the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord”. By 1923 Larkin had a very receptive audience for a different message: “People thought it was courageous to take a gun or a mine and use it, but it required more courage to speak the truth.”

The fiery Larkin, who had rescued Connolly from obscurity, would live out his life under the shadow of his lieutenant, popularised not by his writings but by British bullets.

Neither would herald in the socialist revolution and the only former rebel to arm the workers was Joe McGrath who, as minister for labour, industry and enterprise, not to mention director of intelligence in the Provisional Government, enrolled railway workers in the National Army and persuaded them to take on the anti-Treaty-IRA and, in the process, not only save the railways from destruction, but their own jobs.

The Civil War was a manifestation of the frustrated revolutionary impulse, but it was militant nationalist in content, much like similar movements in parts of central and eastern Europe, rather than socialist. It also marked the reassertion of the parish pump in local politics, which had briefly been distracted by the project of building a new state.   

For all the revolutionary posturing of the anti-Treaty leaders – women as well as men ‑ the real battle was being fought, and won, under their noses by the Catholic Church, which extended or tightened its control over practically every aspect of life in the new twenty-six-county state during the Civil War. Frank Duff epitomised the rising generation of devout middle class young men engaged in good works and Matt Talbot would be his humbler, working class equivalent.

Even British-based Protestant-dominated social organisations such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reoriented their work in the new Free State to accommodate the new dispensation. The “Cruelty Man” was not inappropriately named for he ‑ and sometimes it was a she ‑ not alone intervened to prevent cruelty in the home but, in Frank Duff’s words, would end up “simply shovelling children into Industrial Schools”. They did so because in the Free State, unlike Britain, which closed its last industrial school in 1933, there was no alternative welfare provision available.

Nor did other vulnerable groups, such as “fallen women”, face much prospect of experiencing Christian charity. At the height of the Civil War there was a debate about whether a special institution should be built to accommodate up to five hundred unmarried mothers and their children so that the Catholic Church, in the words of the Rev MH MacInerney, “would be able to catch in its net practically all the girls who now flee to proselytising homes ... or to England”. One of the reasons for not going ahead with the project was concern that provision of such institutions might encourage more promiscuity among young women.

We still have no universal health system in this state, although we still have survivors of the Magdalene laundries looking for redress before they die. Perhaps if protagonists such as Tom Barry and Winston Churchill had succeeded in their mutual ambition to reignite the Anglo-Irish War the unintended consequences might have been more revolutionary than the 1922 settlement, even if, as seems likely, the Brits had won.

2/06/2015

Pádraig Yeates, the historian of Dublin in the revolutionary era, will be in conversation with Maurice Earls, joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books, on Sunday, June 14th at 3pm at Books Upstairs, 17 D’Olier Street, Dublin 2. Tickets €5 available from Books Upstairs (01-6778566) or online.