The Irish Easter Rising

The History of the Class Struggle in the oldest colony on the planet

Humberto Rodrigues

This article is an updated and improved version of a 2011 article on class struggle in Ireland. It was taken from the original version of the Communist League blog:  IRISH REPUBLICAN PRISONERS: For recognition of the status of political prisoners and for freedom for Irish republican prisoners from the clutches of British imperialism!, From Bolshevik #5.

2024 marks 108 years since the Easter Rising and 43 years since the hunger strike of Irish political prisoners, two of the most important conflicts in the Irish national liberation struggle. That last event, the 1981 hunger strike, was led by Bobby Sands and was one of the most heroic events in world history.

Ireland was for centuries the oldest of the colonies, it was stunted from the 12th century until today in its development by the invasion of England, which made the neighbouring island its first colony, subjugated “through the most abominable reign of terror and the most reprehensible corruption” (Letter from Marx to Kugelmann, 29/11/1869).

The struggle of these people has always been passionately followed by socialists since Marx and Engels, who uncompromisingly defended Irish national liberation and the Fenian political prisoners (an Irish revolutionary guerrilla organization). For Marx, the liberation of Ireland was “The” preliminary condition of the socialist revolution in England, the main capitalist nation of his time.

 “It is therefore the task of the International, everywhere, to bring to the fore the conflict between England and Ireland, by openly siding with Ireland. And it is the task of the Central Committee in London to awaken the consciousness of the English workers to the fact that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiments, but the first condition of their own social emancipation.”

 Letter from Marx to S. Meyer and A. Vogt, London, 04/09/1870, emphasis in the original.

 It is from this struggle that Marx deduced that “a people that subjugates another, forges its own chains.

From the fusion of the workers’ struggle for Irish national liberation with Marxism, a brave workers’ leader called James Connolly was born, who warned his brothers about the inability of the Irish bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie to lead the country’s emancipation from colonialism. In one of his earliest writings, a pamphlet entitled Erin’s Hope – the End and the Means (1897), he concluded that the Irish working class was “the only sure basis on which a free nation can be built.” 

Thirteen years later, in his main work Labour in Irish History (1910) he states that the middle and propertied classes “have a thousand economic ties in the form of investments that link them to English capitalism […] Only the Irish working-class remains the incorruptible heir of the struggle for freedom in Ireland.”

It is impossible not to notice that, in an embryonic form, Connolly had ideas similar to those that were fully developed by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky at the same time, and which came to be known as the theory of permanent revolution. Despite being embryonic, these ideas were visionary for the future of the class struggle in their country. He said: “If they withdraw the British army tomorrow and raise the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless they organize a socialist republic, all their efforts will have been in vain and England will still govern them through the landowners. , capitalists and commercial institutions”.

 At the end of 1911, Connolly, in the leadership of the General Transport Union (ITGWU), the country’s main union, faced off politically and militarily against the employer lockouts and the police controlled by the British army. In this dispute, workers formed a defence organization, a “Irish Citizen Army”, to protect themselves from the police and armed strikebreakers. This “Irish Citizen Army” was a precursor of what would become the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, a guerrilla organization founded in 1919, as a military arm of Sinn Fein (Ourselves Alone), the bourgeois republican nationalist political party.

Proclamation of the Irish Republic

The Irish revolutionary was prophetic in fearing the harm of a division of the island for the future of the struggle for its liberation. He had predicted that the partition that would take place between Ireland and Northern Ireland a few years after its execution by British troops “would mean a carnival of reaction in North and South, set back the Irish labour movement, and paralyze all progressive movements for as long as it lasted.”

Regarding this, Connolly is increasingly correct not only about his country, where the “divide and rule” rule was valid as a prototype at the beginning of the 20th century, but also about all other counter-revolutionary secessions of colonies, manipulated by imperialism (Korea, Vietnam, Sudan… with Libya now being the hot topic). However, in 1916, the carnage of World War I and a series of defeats and betrayals confused the Irish revolutionary, who came to put aside a series of conceptions he had defended throughout his life, to lead a premature uprising without the essential independent political and organizational action of the working class in the form of a revolutionary party. The betrayal of the insurrection led by Connolly by bourgeois nationalism cost him his life. The military uprising known as the “Easter Rising” was cruelly crushed. Connolly was seriously injured and arrested. Soon afterwards, he was court-martialled at the army hospital and transferred to a prison where, upon arrival, he was shot by occupation troops.

 After the massacre of the “Easter Rising”, in the revolutionary wave opened by the Russian revolution of 1917 and the German revolution (massacred in 1919), Irish Republican fighters returned to fight bravely, causing a civil war that ended in 1921 with a relative retreat for British colonialism. Representatives of the Irish bourgeoisie established a Treaty with England that recognized the “Irish Free State” on the condition that the “Free State” remained part of the British Commonwealth, that members of the Irish parliament swore loyalty to the English King George V and that six of the 32 Irish counties, with a Protestant majority located in the north, remained under British occupation and under the control of the Irish Unionists, defenders of unity with England. The IRA was then divided between the defenders of the Treaty, or treatyists, led by Michael Collins, today represented by the Fine Gael party, and the anti-treatyists, led by Éamon de Valera, who years later broke with Sinn Fein and the IRA and founded Fianna Fail. There is a film that romanticizes these events called “Michel Collins, the price of freedom” (1996), and justifies Collins’ betrayal. Filmmaker Ken Loach in “Winds of Freedom” (2006) portrayed this period better, more truthfully.

Throughout the 20th century, republican nationalists capitulated to several peace agreements or were crushed several times and new fighters raised the anti-colonialist flag again, reorganising dissent from the IRA to fight by all means against the separation imposed on the country by the agreements between imperialism and the corrupt Irish bourgeoisie.

 In 1939, the Marxist magazine “The New International”, published by the Trotskyists of the Communist League of America, noted:

“Bombs are exploding again in Ireland and England. Under the very nose of the Home Office in London, beneath the monument to English kings in Belfast, beneath the walls of the prisons where thousands of Irish patriots served their sentences, and beneath the customs offices along the Ulster border, loud and sudden explosions mark the 23rd anniversary of Easter Week. And these explosions are not merely celebratory. They serve to remind the world of the struggle for national independence of a people who have fought tirelessly for seven hundred years against the most powerful and merciless oppressor of all colonial peoples: the ruling class of the British Empire. (…) Understanding that without the combined forces of the Irish working class and English workers and the revolutionary forces in the colonies, national independence cannot be completely won, we cannot simply dismiss the current bombings as futile or reactionary. They are not merely isolated acts of violence committed by dismayed and frustrated individuals. They are, on the contrary, carefully planned and conducted according to a plan organized and drawn up by revolutionaries who, themselves, admit that the bombs are only the first step in the renewal of the struggle. These men know and are planning the necessary steps to unite the opposition forces. The bombs are serving to draw attention to the Army of Occupation now in Ireland and the return of the repression that preceded the last war. Revolutionaries everywhere must mobilize to support the movement to wrest freedom and independence from ‘Europe’s greatest landlord’ and thus, by striking a blow to the heart of the world’s greatest imperialist power, unleash the forces of revolution in all colonial countries before war engulfs humanity in a struggle to destroy itself for the profits and power of capitalism” .

New International #4, 04/1939
Television mini-series called Rebellion that narrates the Irish Easter Rising from the point of view of three women who have different life stories, motivations and participation within the rebellion.

In 1972, British occupation troops fired on a peaceful demonstration in Derry, Northern Ireland, killing fourteen people, seven of whom were minors. All the victims were unarmed and five of them were shot in the back. The protesters were protesting the Northern Ireland statelet government’s policy of summarily arresting people suspected of terrorist acts. This policy was directed against the IRA. After “Bloody Sunday”, the IRA gained a huge number of young volunteers, giving the guerrilla group even greater strength. In 1973, Marian Price, who had just qualified as a nurse, was recruited by the IRA. She and nine other militants were arrested, accused of planting bombs in London in order to blow up the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court), Hillgate House (a government building) and the Whitehall army recruitment centre. Two hundred people were injured, one man died of a heart attack and his death was attributed to the bombings. Marian Price was sentenced to life in prison.

 In 1981, several IRA militants imprisoned by Britain, led by Bobby Sands, an IRA leader, went on hunger strike to demand that the Crown recognise their status as political prisoners. After 66 days, the inflexibility of the Britain government led to their death. But the strike demoralised the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, founder together with the Yankee Ronald Reagan of the anti-worker offensive called neoliberalism. Thatcher increased the presence of British troops in the six counties of Northern Ireland and attempted to criminalise Irish Republicanism in the eyes of public opinion, suppressing any difference between the treatment meted out in prisons to the IRA and ordinary prisoners.

In response, Irish Republican inmates launched a hunger strike. Their demands: not to wear prison uniforms; not perform forced labour; freedom of association and organization of cultural and educational activities; right to one letter, one visit and one package per week; and that the days of protest were not deducted when calculating the sentence served. Refusing to be treated as criminals, they simultaneously defended their personal dignity and the legitimacy of the struggle for the liberation of their country.

Sands, the first of the strikers to refuse food and the first to die after 66 days, led a tenacious political struggle that was portrayed in the film “Hunger” (2008). Even in prison, his companions inside and outside prisons managed to elect him to the British Parliament as a representative of Northern Ireland. The objective was, obviously, not the parliamentary mandate, but to prove the support of the Irish population and the political recognition of the Republican prisoners and their struggle. It was only after this that British legislation began to prohibit prisoners from running for office. From then on, the Northern Irish population elected, every year, in elections held by imperialism, candidates who refused to swear loyalty to the Queen in support of the struggle for independence.

Poster for the film Hunger

The second setback imposed by the hunger strike lies in the very way in which it was organised. Against the intransigence of their enemies, they were, in an intelligent way, even more intransigent, converting an announced defeat into a political victory, turning time, an extremely unfavourable element in a hunger strike, into a political weapon for the strikers. They established intervals of days between them for the beginning of the refusal to eat, in order to increase the political weariness of the British government with the extension of the durability of the strike movement as a whole. This is how a movement that could last at most two months (the maximum limit that someone can fast without dying of hunger) if everyone started the strike at the same time, dragged on for a long seven months. The international impact of each prisoner death from starvation was repeated ten times over, claiming the lives of Bobby Sands (died at age 27), Francis Hughes (25), Ray McCreesh (24), Patsy O’Hara (23), Joe McDonnell (29), Martin Hurson (24), Kevin Lynch (25), Kieran Doherty (25), Thomas McIlwee (23) and Mickey Devine (27). The strike began on March 1st and only ended on October 3rd, 1981, when, under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, the families of the strikers broke their commitment to disallow tube feeding when they fell into a coma, making it impossible to continue.

The Irish musicians of the trio the Wolfe Tones, exponents of the so-called Irish rebel music, banned from playing in England, made a song for the Irish heroes “Joe McDonnell Live” (  . In a performance by the Tones in 2008, when the names of the ten martyrs are mentioned and their images displayed during the song, one can see, through the audience’s reactions, the place they occupy in the hearts of the Irish people. In 1982, during the Falklands War, the Wolfe Tones composed another song in support of Argentina in the war.

At the cost of 10 deaths, the strikers achieved two victories: a moral one, by making the British, even without officially granting them the status of political prisoners, ease the prison repression a few months after the end of the movement; and a political victory, by frustrating plans to criminalise the struggle for Irish national liberation in the eyes of the world, which was truly a great feat, taking into account that in her eleven years of government, Thatcher crushed everyone who crossed her path, from the Argentine military dictatorship (in the Falklands war) to the English trade union movement. Convicted until the end of his days, Bobby Sands stated: “They have nothing in their imperial arsenal that can break the spirit of an Irishman who does not want to be broken.”

Inside Kilmainham, the jail where the leaders of the rebellion were imprisoned and executed. Today the space has been converted into a museum in the city of Dublin.

In 1998, Sinn Féin signed the Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), to dismantle the guerrillas. The agreement, articulated by Great Britain, Ireland and the USA, put an end to the armed conflict in the North, establishing power sharing in Northern Ireland between the Unionists and Sinn Fein. The main objective was to guarantee bilateral relations between Northern Ireland and Ireland, through the good development of investments and trade. This agreement is an expression of the strengthening of imperialism, after the capitalist restoration in the USSR, over that national liberation struggle. The most industrialized part of the island has become an important base for the financial parasitism of multinationals seeking to enter the European Union. As a consequence, Ireland was the first country in the European Union to officially enter into recession in the 2008 crisis. The austerity policy is violently employed by the government with the complicity of Sinn Fein through a brutal cut in public spending and the increase in the reserve army of the unemployed, forcing a fall in wages in the North, the South and also in Great Britain. This growth in misery affected Catholic and Protestant workers equally, but the English and Irish imperialist bourgeoisies stimulate inter-worker sectarian tensions through paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force, to divide the proletariat and manipulate their class dissatisfaction against their own brothers. In this package, the repression against Irish Republican political prisoners increases, mainly among activists who disagreed with the capitulation of the IRA, such as Marian Price, a dissident who became leader of the 32 Counties Sovereignty Movement (32CSM).

Like Sands, Price and other prisoners went on a hunger strike to be transferred from English prisons to a prison in Northern Ireland. But they were force-fed for 200 days as she recounts:

“Four male prison officers tie me tightly to a chair. You clench your teeth to try to keep your mouth closed, but they push a metal spring device around your jaw to open it. They force a wooden tong with a hole in the middle into your mouth. Then, they insert a big rubber tube and you can’t move and through this tube they punch you with everything they put in a blender: orange juice, soup, or cartons of cream if they want to top up the calories. They take jugs of this liquidized porridge and pour it into a funnel attached to the tube. Force-feeding takes 15 minutes, but it seems like it will never end. You have no control over anything. You are terrified that the food will go the wrong way and choke you, you cannot speak or move. You are afraid that you will suffocate to death.” .

The Guardian, 03/13/2003

Price was in the 1990s one of the main voices opposing Sinn Féin’s “peace strategy”, the GFA, as she said: “It certainly wasn’t this sort of thing that I came to prison for.” see more sense for the national liberation struggle today, Marian Price argues: “as long as the British presence in Ireland remains, there will always be justification, republicanism will never go out. My principles and ideals will never be crushed. I did not make the choices I did for individuals within the republican movement or Sinn Fein. The fact that they sold out in no way detracts from my cause” (ibid).

Republican political prisoners have been attacked in a cowardly and savage manner in their own cells by prison guards, with the aim of breaking their political resistance through systematic physical violence. As highlighted in the Bulletin of the Irish Political Prisoners Support Group (IRPSG, facsimile on page 29 of the newspaper O Bolshevique #5), one of the attacks suffered by political prisoner Harry Fitzsimmons:

 “…in Maghaberry prison on 29/05/2011, Harry’s cell was invaded by riot police, without there having previously been any confrontation or exchange of words, just brutality. His glasses were broken with such force that glass entered his eyes. He has multiple lacerations on his face. The uniformed bandits held him down, while others punched, kicked and tore his clothes.”

According to Gerry Downing, leader of the British Socialist Fight and Secretary of the IRPSG, “there are Irish prisoners of war today fighting as they were in 1981. Resistance is inevitable. Republican ‘dissenters’ denounce that British imperialism continues to divide the Irish people by force and that is why they continue the fight for the expulsion of the crown forces. The fight for recognition of the status of political prisoners, which was abandoned 13 years ago with the signing of the GFA, is intensifying inside prisons, in the same way that the 10 on hunger strike died 30 years ago. The GFA made it difficult to unify Ireland. At the Sinn Féin Conference on the 30th anniversary of the hunger strike on 18/06/2011 in London, we demanded that participants in this meeting take seriously their responsibilities towards today’s prisoners by fighting for their political prisoner status and that the Sinn Féin breaks with the policy of economic austerity on the working class and the poor.” This austerity policy, where Irish workers are forced to pay for the imperialist crisis, expresses how England continues to govern Ireland, now through Sinn Féin.

In June 2012, Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland fraternized with Queen Elizabeth. McGuinness’ symbolic gesture did not surprise the fighters for the Irish national cause nor the workers of that country, which has suffered for years from the perverse austerity plans imposed by the coalition government made up of the political wing of the IRA in the service of its majesty and imperialism. Meanwhile, as part of this colonialist policy, the best Irish republican fighters, known as POWs (prisoners of war), as well as thousands of other martyrs in the struggle for Irish self-determination against British imperialism, endure brutal oppression in the prisons of the British Crown, as the Communist League denounced at . Here , we reproduce an article by Charlie Walsh, from the editorial board of Socialist Fight, British member of the Liaison Committee for the Fourth International. Socialist Fight comrades also drive the Irish Republican Prisoner Support Group (IRPSG).

THE GAMBLER AND THE SCOUNDREL: Demonstrating that the foci of anti-imperialist resistance remain, Ronan O’Gara, rugby player for the Irish national Rugby Union team refuses to shake Betty Windsor’s hand claiming Ireland’s right to self-determination during the team’s reception as Grand Slam rugby winner in 2009. In the photo below, Martin McGuinness has the pleasure of shaking the same blood-stained hand, symbolizing their abandonment of the anti-imperialist struggle.

The socialist revolution in England continues to depend on the resolution of the Irish question and, as Connolly concluded, the resolution of the Irish question remains in the hands of the Irish proletariat, which in turn will only emancipate itself when it arms itself with the program of permanent revolution, fights for Irish unity and together with their British and European brothers build their own revolutionary, socialist and internationalist party, for a federation of European socialist republics to bury the old capitalist world.