When the Easter Rising broke out in Ireland 100 years ago – led by the secret revolutionary group the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the smaller, socialist-led Irish Citizen Army (ICA) – it followed in a long tradition of Irish rebellions against British rule.
But while Britain’s genocidal occupation of its neighbor that stole fertile land and exploited the native population provided more than enough excuses to rebel, its timing and urgency was driven by events on continental Europe.
There, unprecedented slaughter was taking place as rival imperialist powers sacrificed millions of working class lives in a bid for control of territory and markets.
Ireland’s colonial rulers were a major belligerent and the British Empire was on a growing recruiting drive to convince young, often-impoverished Irish men to join the carnage. There were fears Britain was on the verge of imposing conscription on its colonial possession.
The 1916 Rising, when rebel forces seized Dublin’s General Post Office and held out for a week against British forces, is usually understood in a purely Irish context.
In Ireland, the rising – largely organised in secret – took the population by surprise. Initially, the general attitude was hostile or indifferent. But Britain’s repression, executing 15 leaders and jailing thousands of others, generated outrage.
By 1919, majority support for the cause of Irish freedom led republican party Sinn Fein to sweep elections to Westminster. Refusing to take their seats, Sinn Fein MPs declared independence, starting the War of Independence.
The war ended in 1921 with a controversial compromise that partitioned the country, leaving Britain with control of six counties in the north. This outrage led to the horrors of the Troubles in the last decades of the 20th century – and Ireland’s full independence and unity is an issue that remains unresolved.
But it is impossible to understand the rising – especially its urgent and arguably rushed timing – outside the carnage in Europe.
This can be heard in one of the most famous Irish rebel songs about the rising, “The Foggy Dew,” whose lines insist “Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky/Than at Sulva or Sud el-Bar” – scenes of mass killings during World War I.
The ICA’s revolutionary socialist leader James Connolly – the veteran of labor and socialist movements in Scotland, Ireland and the United States – commanded the rebel forces in Dublin.
Executed along with the six other signatories to the rebels’ famous Proclamation of Independence, it was Connolly who most clearly viewed the rising as a needed blow against World War I.
Connolly had always viewed Ireland’s freedom fight as bound up with the struggle for socialism, famously insisting in 1897: “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you … through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers.”
Connolly’s response to the war that broke out on August 1914 was similar (though less clear-sighted) to that of Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin. The tasks of socialists was to turn the bloody imperialist war into a revolutionary one.
In the March 1915 International Socialist Review Connolly wrote: “The signal of war ought to have been a signal of rebellion … for social revolution … Such a civil war would not have entailed such a loss of socialist life as this international war has entailed.”
In an article in the Irish Worker arguing for an Irish rising against British rule, Connolly said: “Starting thus, Ireland may yet set 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 warlord.”
C. Desmond Greaves, in his 1961 “The Life and Times of James Connolly,” describes Connolly's attitudes to the war while he was in Belfast in its early stages.
Connolly's attempts to campaign against the war were criticised by other members of the Independent Labour Party Belfast branch, who wanted him to focus on “bread and butter issues.”
Connolly responded: “They seem to have a curious idea of what constitutes working-class propaganda. They don't seem to think I ought to express an opinion on the greatest crisis that has faced the working class in our generation.”
Greaves wrote that when Connolly, sitting in his Belfast office, was brought news of the outbreak of the war, he “sat for a long time silent, head in hands. Finally, he announced emphatically that a blow for Irish independence must be struck.”
Connolly was not alone in thinking the war meant the time had come for a new rebellion against British rule. The IRB, which operated secretly within the broader nationalist Irish Volunteers group, had concluded World War I was and a clear chance for a fresh Irish rising and had begun working to this end.
However the IRB, in keeping with traditions of conspiratorial organisation within Irish republicanism, was organising in secret. Connolly, on the other hand, was publicly agitating for a rebellion.
In response, the IRB leaders brought Connolly on board with their plans - and with him the ICA, a workers’ militia formed to protest trade unionists against police and bosses violence in the 1913 Great Lock-Out.
Even when the rising seemed doomed, Connolly and other leaders insisted in carrying it through to the bitter end. A failed rising was better than silence in the face of the horrors engulfing “civilised” Europe.
Today, with Ireland’s people crushed by austerity imposed by Britain in the north and the European institutions in the south, it is equally impossible to understand the struggles of Ireland’s working people in a purely national context.
As Greece’s Syriza found out, the struggle against austerity cannot be resolved in one country alone. The horrors of war and climate change, driven by the same out-of-control capitalist system responsible for the horror of World War I, require international solutions.
This is how all local or national rebellions and struggles must be understood – as individual fronts in a global struggle of the world’s oppressed.
That is the true spirit of James Connolly, the most radical and far-sighted of the heroes who rose in Ireland 100 years ago and gave their lives not just for a better Ireland, but a better world.
Stuart Munckton is international editor of Australia's Green Left Weekly.