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‘Look Back in Anger’ Ireland and World War One – Brian Hanley October 27, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish History, Irish Politics, The Left.

A paper presented by Brian Hanley at the John Boyle O’Reilly Autumn School
Drogheda 19 October 2014

Many thanks to BH for allowing us to reproduce the text of the paper.

Good morning. Firstly I would like to thank the organizers for inviting me to speak here. At least 40,000 Irish men and women died as a result of the First World War, almost 1,000 from this region alone. Thousands more were wounded and families and communities across the country directly and deeply affected by the conflict; it left scars that lasted for decades. That alone makes it a hugely significant event in our history. Indeed it is impossible to understand why the Easter Rising occurred and the way that the Irish revolution developed without discussing the war. I agree with historian John Borgonovo, who, in his excellent study of Cork city in this period, The Dynamics of war and revolution, argues that it was the First World War which fundamentally transformed Ireland.

As a historian I have no difficulties with researching and discussing World War One, or with its dead being remembered. I understand the very human desire of many to discover more about their ancestors experiences of the war. Furthermore I think the conflict can be researched and discussed, as a group in Belfast working on the Connaught Rangers have argued, without it being ‘a contribution to the glorification of the senseless slaughter of the First World War. ’As far back as November 1934 the left-wing Republican Congress newspaper could assert that ‘no Irishman objects to the commemoration of those who died in the Great War.’ But the important question is what type of commemoration?

This year I believe we have seen commemoration being replaced by a kind of an unquestioning nostalgia about Irish participation in the slaughter of World War One. This is partly the influence of the moves by the British establishment to recast the war as one involving defence of democracy against Prussian militarism (with the strong suggestion that this was simply another form of the Nazism that Britain fought in the Second World War). This has of course involved ignoring or downplaying the nature of the other allied powers, including Belgium’s brutal colonial record and Tzarist Russia’s tyranny. The role of Imperial Japan or the Italian empire, let alone those of Britain and France is also little discussed; but millions of colonial subjects of those empires and also of Germany and Turkey of course, found themselves at war without any consideration whatsoever of their views on the matter. A whole host of nations and peoples were bartered and exchanged as new nations were simply carved into or out of existence; by the Sykes-Picot deal in 1916 for example- look today at its legacy in the Middle East. This was an imperial conflict.

But in Ireland today commemoration of the war is seen by some, very sincerely, as a tool for reconciliation, because the war involved Irishmen from north and south and from nationalist and unionist backgrounds. There are also however, others who want to downplay or ignore Ireland’s place in the British Empire and act as if there was some mandate for ‘our’ participation in 1914-18. This is accompanied by a cynical attempt to convince us that the over 200,000 Irish people (and they were not just men) who took part in the war were completely airbrushed from history, until, as the RTE website informs us ‘this year.’ This view, which reflects a more complex reality about remembrance and forgetting, plays again on the genuine interest of people in their family history and suggests that it is being hidden from them. And finally commemoration of the war is often presented as apolitical and natural.

I would argue that the war was never forgotten in nationalist Ireland but was remembered largely as a waste of life, as a mistake, as something that Irish people should not have taken part in. And that’s the way I believe it should be remembered. Much of the contemporary commentary on the war is part of an effort to make us see it as something else. But the state that emerged here after 1921, whatever we think of the Civil War or the nature of the Pro and Anti-Treaty sides, emerged because of a rejection of Empire, inspired to a great degree by revulsion at the war, which discredited British rule in Ireland. Well before the war was over, most Irish people regretted that John Redmond had promised nationalist support for the war effort.
As a Cork song from 1915 put it:
“Full steam ahead, John Redmond said and everything is well, chum
Home Rule will come when you are dead and buried out in Belgium.”

Redmond and his party paid the price in 1918. It was not the Easter Rising that destroyed Redmondism, but the war. And that was reflected in the views of mainstream opinion in the 1920s and 1930s. Hence Kevin O’Higgins, the Free State Minister for Justice, (whose brother Michael was killed in France), would object to the construction of a memorial to the dead in Merrion Square during 1926, because as he explained such a memorial would suggest that the war was part of the new state’s heritage but ‘The State has other origins and because it has other origins, I do not wish to see it suggested, in stone or otherwise, that it has that origin.’

It is also useful to ask why Irishmen were in the British Army in the first place?
This question may seem obvious but is often overlooked in mainstream commentary. Irishmen went to war as part of the British military machine, because of decisions made in London. There was no even-partially independent Irish parliament to rubber-stamp ‘our’ participation. If there had been I think supporting the war would still have been wrong, but given that there wasn’t even that fig-leaf of democracy, all discussion of Ireland’s participation should reference this.

And yes, Irishmen had participated in Britain’s military for generations, but what did this mean? A future president of this state, Sean T. O’Kelly, put it like this to a meeting of Indian nationalists in New York during 1924 ‘we must feel under deep obligation to work for India and for Egypt until both are free…we owe a deep debt to these countries, for has it not been largely by the work of Irish brains and Irish brawn and muscle that these two ancient peoples have been beaten into subjection and have been so long oppressed…Our Indian friends, could, if they wished, tell us many heart-rending stories of the brutalities practiced upon their peoples by English regiments bearing names such as Connaught Rangers, Munster Fusiliers, Dublin Fusiliers…Egypt has the same sad stories to tell to our disgrace. Until we Irish do something practical to make amends for the wrong doing …that shame will rest with us.’ Irish participation in imperial service is not something to be proud of.

In asking how we would we commemorate those who took part, we have to ask why did they take part?
It is tempting and satisfying in some ways to charge that John Redmond was responsible for their participation and the resulting losses. But I would counsel caution and suggest that despite his own best efforts, argue against conflating John Bruton with John Redmond. Why? Because if we think that nationalist Ireland essentially supported a version of John Bruton’s politics in 1914, or we imagine that the Home Rulers were Unionists, then I don’t think we can understand how by 1918 people rejected the war and endorsed the idea of independence.

This is Redmond in 1892 addressing a rally in Waterford calling for the release of Fenian prisoners in Britain, asserting that ‘They are our kith and kin. They are men who sacrificed everything that was most dear to them in an effort to benefit Ireland. What do we care whether their effort was a wise one or not, whether a mistaken one or not?’ Throughout the 1890s Redmond regularly visited republican prisoners in England and acted as a legal advisor to them. He had himself after all, along with many of his fellow Irish Party colleagues seen the inside of jail cells. When in 1897 Tom Clarke was released from prison, he expressly singled Redmond out for thanks, saying his visits ‘meant a great deal to us…as far as I am concerned I felt the good effects of his visits for a week afterwards and sometimes for a fortnight.’ Clarke’s welcome home rally was chaired by Redmond’s brother William, himself an MP for East Clare. William had been jailed twice during the Land War and in 1902 he would be imprisoned again for attempting to prevent an eviction. During the Boer War William Redmond was Treasurer of the Irish Transvaal Committee, opposing British army recruiting in Ireland. During May 1899 John Redmond and another Home Rule MP John Dillon both provided references for Tom Clarke as he sought to secure a position as a clerk with Rathdown Poor Law Union. Praising Clarke’s ‘character and abilities’ Redmond told his potential employers that he held the Fenian in ‘feelings of the greatest respect and goodwill.’

We are more familiar with later versions of the Redmond brothers, with John Redmond arguing that Home Rule would guarantee Britain a loyal friend within the Empire and William Redmond dying in British Army uniform in Belgium during June 1917. But the movement that John Redmond led was an Irish nationalist movement, whose anthem was ‘A Nation Once Again’ and one of the contradictions of Home Rule is that many supporters of the Irish Party expected it to mean far more than it would have in practice. John Redmond’s professions of imperial loyalty were real, (though sometimes intended to impress a deeply suspicious British audience) but such loyalty was not necessarily felt by many of the party’s supporters. It might surprise some that perhaps ¼ of Home Rule MPs in the early 1900s were ex-Fenians. This was no secret because the party regularly trumpeted its radical past. Indeed it was the Home Rule party which had monopolized the annual Manchester Martyrs commemorations. They protrayed themselves as the inheritors of the Irish revolutionary tradition. As Willie Redmond asserted in 1910 under Home Rule ‘the aspirations of our race will be realised, and…the struggle of the men of ’98, of ’67, of ’48 and of Parnell will be rewarded.’ Nor did the party endorse recruiting in Ireland. As William Delaney the MP for Ossory, put it in 1905 ‘if they joined the Army they would be sent out to fight for the great British Empire, and afterwards they’d get two pewter medals and sixpence a day for five years and they’d die in the workhouse.’ Hence in 1914, unlike Tory, Unionist or Liberal MPs, very few Home Rulers had any worry about being called up as reservists.

At various stages Thomas McDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Rory O’Connor, Sean MacEoin, Patrick Little, Francis and Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington had been members of branches of the Home Rule party, while Sean MacDiarmaida was a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians until 1906. The distinctions between ‘constitutionalist’ and separatist were often blurred before 1914 and Home Rule rhetoric about ‘Cromwell’s work being nearly undone’ conjured up visions of much more than limited devolution within the Empire. This is not to ignore the deeply reactionary aspects of other parts of the Home Rule movement’s politics, such as its role during the 1913 Lockout or its leader’s opposition to Women’s suffrage, but to try and understand them in the context of their time not as part of our modern polemics.

Before Redmond said anything about the war, there were around 50,000 Irishmen already serving in the British military, and the thousands who were called up initially in the winter of 1914 were reservists, or ex-soldiers. These included at least 1,000 members of the Irish Transport Union, among them members of the Citizen Army; as the Irish Worker lamented ‘some of our best comrades are leaving the North Wall to fight for the glory of England.’ Another 1,000 former ITGWU men would be in British uniform by 1915. During 1914 around 26,000 Ulster Volunteers joined up, as did thousands of other men from Unionist backgrounds, from across Ireland. Redmond can’t be blamed for that either. The war had devastating impact on southern Protestants: a visit to any Anglican Church will show you that. About 24,000 members of the Irish Volunteers did join, most of them probably after Redmond’s Woodenbridge speech. And some nationalists did accept Redmond’s reasoning for supporting the war. The former MP Tom Kettle argued that ‘this war is without parallel…France is as right now as she was wrong in 1870. England is as right now as she was wrong in the Boer War. Russia is as right now as she was wrong on Bloody Sunday.’ Kettle enlisted the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and was killed at the Somme in September 1916. Francis Ledwidge, a founder of the Co. Meath Labour Union, and an early recruit to the Slane Irish Volunteers, initially supported Eoin MacNeill’s section of the movement. But he enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in October 1914 later explaining that ‘I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.’ He was killed at Passechendalle in July 1917. (Though not before reassessing his views on the war).

Tom Kettle had been in Belgium buying guns for the Irish Volunteers when war broke out and had witnessed the effect of the German invasion. Reports of German atrocities and pro-war propaganda were very important in recruitment, especially in 1914-15. The pro-war mood saw attacks on German shopkeepers and the arrests of foreigners accused of being spies. But analyzing the reasons why the majority of Irish recruits, most of whom were not members of the Irish or Ulster Volunteers joined up is more difficult. How many were like Tom Barry who reflected that ‘I cannot plead that I went on the advice of John Redmond or any other politician, that if we fought for the British we would secure Home Rule for Ireland, nor can I say I understood what Home Rule meant. I was not influenced by the lurid appeal to save Belgium or small nations. I knew nothing about nations, large or small. I went to war for no other reason than to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man.’

And here we can discuss class and economic factors and the impact of communal pressure, as when the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral exhorted Irish women to ‘shun those who would not volunteer for service, to visit them with severest disapproval, and when they expect a smile, just look them straight in the face and turn away.’ (This pressure probably existed more within the Protestant community.) But what was noticeable in 1914 was a change in the nature of recruitment. Ernie O’Malley, whose brother was an officer in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, noted that ‘Before the war, scapegoats, those in debt or in trouble over a girl joined the ranks: now all trades, professions and classes were found there.’ So over 3,000 Trinity students or graduates joined up and about 400 of them were killed. The 10th Commercials Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was nicknamed the ‘Toffs in the Toughs’ because it was drawn from men from business or white-collar occupations. Over 250 men were part of the Irish Rugby Football Union volunteer corps; 46 former members of the Trinity rugby club were killed, along with 24 members of Clontarf. The Catholic middle-class were not unaffected. 47 ex-pupils or staff from Dublin’s Belvedere College died in the war.

But after the initial surge of enlistment, it began to develop a familiar pattern. By 1915 the War Office was noting that Irish ‘recruiting is slow and almost entirely confined to the towns.’ Of the 169 recruits from Dublin Corporation, just nine were ‘salaried professionals’ while 113 were unskilled labourers. Even in wartime the army meant for many a pay rise, a chance to learn a trade and a separation allowance for wives and families. And class mattered in a while range of other ways.
In January 1916 Lieut Moorhead of the 10th Dublin Fusiliers (the Commercials) told a women’s recruitment meeting that ‘he’d been through the ranks himself, and he found that it was a not a very pleasant place for men of education and refinement to be huddled together with men who had probably not washed for a couple of months. He came to the conclusion that there was a large number of men who did not join because they did not care to be mixed up with the corner boys, and he got his colonel to allow him to form a company… of these better class men.’ British enlistment officers complained in August 1915 that in Ireland ‘a much larger number of recruits could be obtained from the (farming and commercial classes) if it were not for their reluctance to enter upon their training with recruits from the labouring classes. This class prejudice is probably much more pronounced in Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.’ Not much evidence of shared sacrifice there.

Nevertheless many Irish war veterans were proud of their service, proud of what they and their friends had been through together and retained a sense of comradeship long after the war was over. But they did necessarily identify with support for British policy in Ireland. Nationalist ex-servicemen in Cork for instance, formed their own organization in order to be independent of the Royal British Legion. Their demonstrations were often stewarded by the Republican Police and in 1920 they were involved in bloody rioting against the British Army after one of their members was shot dead by troops. During July 1919 2-3,000 members of the Irish Nationalist Veterans Association met in Dublin’s Mansion House calling for a boycott of the city’s victory parade. Tom Kettle’s widow, Mary, questioned why ‘soldiers were asked to march past College Green, their own House of Parliament, where their rights were bartered away, to salute Lord French, not as an Irish soldier, but as Lord Lieutenant and head of the Irish Executive, which was responsible for the rule of coercion in this country and for the betrayal of every Irish Nationalist soldier who fought and fell in the war. Did any Irish Nationalist fight for any country except the country of his birth?’ (Cries of “No, no’). If they went on the side of England it was because they thought for the first time in her history the grace of God was operating in her, and she was at last about to take the side of honour in the world’s conflict. She hoped, in honour of her husband’s memory, not a single Dublin Fusilier would march in the procession. If it had brought about an Irish settlement they would march proudly; such was not the case; but, on the contrary, they were asked to join and unite with the army of occupation.’ While Tom Kettle is often held up as emblematic of Irish nationalist sacrifice in the war, his widow’s disillusion is less widely referenced.

Some ex-soldiers went further of course. Tom Barry, Emmet Dalton and several hundred less-well known men became involved in various aspects of the IRA’s war for independence. Joseph O’Sullivan joined the Munster Fusiliers in January 1915 and lost a leg at Ypres. Reginald Dunne joined the Irish Guards in June 1916. In June 1922 O’Sullivan and Dunne shot dead Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson (himself an Irish war veteran of course) outside his home in London. Both men were captured and hanged a month later. Dunne told the court that ‘We both joined (the British Army) voluntarily for the purpose of taking human life, in order that the principles for which this country stood should be upheld and preserved. These principles, we were told, were Self-Determination and Freedom for Small Nations…We came back from France to find that Self-Determination had been given to some Nations we had never heard of, but it had been denied to Ireland.’

The experience of other veterans was different. Sergeant Patrick O’Hare from Belfast was a career soldier with 16 years service in the Connaught Rangers, including during the Great War. In July 1921 O’Hare and his family were driven from their home in Urney Street by an armed Loyalist mob. Despite being in his army uniform at the time, O’Hare was told he was going to be shot and his family were forced at gunpoint to leave their house. The likelihood is that O’Hare’s attackers also had war veterans among their ranks. Ex-servicemen were prominent in the violence in Belfast from 1920-22, as IRA members, as nationalist vigilantes, as Loyalist paramilitaries, as Special Constables, as RIC men and back in British uniform as soldiers. One of the ways in which Unionist politicians stirred up tension among workers, which exploded into violence in 1920, was to claim that Protestant ex-servicemen had lost their jobs to disloyal ‘Sinn Feiners’.

There were of course other ex-soldiers and officers of the British and Commonwealth armies in Ireland in this period; the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. Padraig O’Ruairic has written a history of Clare during the revolution and he is one of the few to try and list locally recruited Tans and Auxies. Over 60 men from Clare served with these formations, the majority of whom were Catholic ex-servicemen. There were over 1,000 recruits to these forces across Ireland and it would seem likely that most were Irish war veterans.

During the War of Independence some ex-servicemen were killed by the IRA as alleged informers and others were killed by Crown forces for various reasons; some veterans were involved in labour and land agitation and some were landowners and employers. Some remained supportive of the Home Rule party and its successors well into the 1920s, while very many probably kept their heads down and got on with their lives. The 200,000 or so war veterans were divided by politics, religion and class.

In the Civil War from 1922-23 up to 30% of the new Free State Army were ex-British soldiers, mostly war veterans. They were key to the organization of that army in the early stages of the war. The Free State Army also recruited heavily from the same towns where the British Army had drawn their soldiers. This was of course noted in Anti-Treaty propaganda, (though most of the worst atrocities against republicans were not carried out by these ex-servicemen; the core group around Michael Collins Squad did most of those). There were still ex-British soldiers on the Anti-Treaty side. Famously there was Erskine Childers but not just him, and Pro-Treaty propagandists were also quick to point out examples of Anti-Treatyites being ex-British soldiers. We know of course that the IRA man who more than likely fired the shot that killed Michael Collins, Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill, was a war veteran. But what this illustrates is that there is no apolitical or value-free way in commemorating these men. Their war service did not unite and I do not think we should try and unite them retrospectively.

Asserting that the war was forgotten also means ignoring the huge commemorations, up to 40,000 strong, that took place every year in Dublin (and some other towns) until 1939. Certainly in the 1920s the commemorations on 11 November involved thousands of ordinary ex-servicemen. But they were highly political Unionist demonstrations, bedecked in poppies and Union Jacks, and therefore always contentious. As a senior Gardaí complained in 1928 the ceremonies were ‘a regular field day for these persons…if the Irregulars adopted such tactics they would be arrested under the Treasonable Offences Act.’ In 1932 the Garda commissioner alleged that the commemorations were in fact an occasion for ‘anti-Irish and pro-British sentiments.’ (The two Gardaí concerned were David Neligan and Eoin O’Duffy).

So how to commemorate? In my view remember with rage. Identify with those who opposed the war and predicted the horror that was coming. Point out the scale and nature of anti-war protest across Europe in 1914 and look at that activity in Ireland. On the 10 August 1914 the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour party warned that
‘a European war for the aggrandisement of the capitalist class has been declared. Great Britain is involved. The working-class will, as usual, supply the victims that the crowned heads may stalk in all their panoply of state…Irish women, it is you who will suffer most by this foreign war. It is the sons you reared at your bosom that will be sent to be mangled by shot and torn by shell; it is your fathers, husbands and brothers whose corpses will pave the way to glory for an Empire that despises you; it is you and your children who will starve at home if the produce of Irish soil is sent out of this country…to the men of our class who are armed, we say keep your arms and use them if necessary. If God created the fruits of the earth He created them for you and others. Do not allow our crops to be gleamed for any other country. They are yours. Keep them at home! Keep them at home by the strength of your right arm.’

That sentiment was growing in Ireland well before 1916. As historian Keith Jeffrey suggests, there was a ‘progressive disenchantment with the war itself, and the growing feeling that the continued prosecution of England’s- or the Empire’s – war had little specific to offer Ireland.’ The impact of the carnage at Gallipoli for instance, had a deep effect in Dublin. Katherine Tynan, a Catholic Unionist and supporter of the war recounted how ‘for the first time came bitterness, for we felt that their lives had been thrown away and their heroism had gone unrecognized…Dublin was full of mourning.’ In September 1915 Dublin Corporation passed an anti-conscription motion by 31 votes to 7. It is significant that most Home Rule MPs were clear from the beginning that conscription would not be tolerated and many were far less enthusiastic recruiters than John Redmond. By 1915 the Catholic hierarchy, whose ability to monitor their flock’s feelings should not be underestimated were also far more critical of the war.

Widespread wartime censorship and repressive legislation created resentment in nationalist Ireland. But there were also other effects of government policy. Deficit spending created massive inflation and led to demands for wage rises and hence to strikes; wartime government arbitration actually encouraged the growth of trade unions (the revival of Irish Transport and General Workers Union after 1913 being part of this process). On the land rents increased and rising food prices hurt farm labourers, encouraging them to join unions and take part in strikes. Though often forgotten, popular involvement in movements like the Peoples Food Committees during 1917 did much to radicalize opinion. By the time the British government finally attempted to introduce conscription in 1918 large sections of the population were in open defiance.

In Ireland we can actually point to a concrete example of lives being saved by anti-war agitation; the anti-conscription strike of April 1918. Had conscription not been stopped, then several thousand more Irishmen would certainly have died at the front. A united campaign against conscription had been declared at the Mansion House in Dublin on April 18th, involving Sinn Féin, most of the Home Rule factions and the unions with the significant backing of the Catholic Church. Two days later 1,500 delegates at a special Labour convention backed call for general strike. The strike was organized within three days, despite press censorship and in most of the country only banks, law courts and government offices stayed open. It involved most sectors of the economy and members of British based unions along with their Irish counterparts. As even the Irish Times admitted ‘it was the voice of Labour, not the voice of religion or politics, which yesterday stopped the wheels of industry…We think that April 23rd will be chiefly remembered, not as the day when Nationalist Ireland proclaimed her spiritual and moral isolation, but as the day when Labour found itself.’ When we remember the war this is one occasion we should surely celebrate.

We can also look at how, on the 20th anniversary of the war, the left-wing Republican Congress organized their own anti-imperial commemorations. Congress argued that war commemoration should be led ‘by the betrayed and exploited, and not be a demonstration to perpetuate human slaughter.’ Under slogans such as ‘Honour the Dead by Fighting for the Living’ ‘We want war- on the slums’, ‘Freedom for this small nation’ and ‘Provision of decent homes and livelihoods for ex-servicemen and all Irish workers’, war veterans, republicans and socialists presented an alternative to both the British Legion’s commemorations and the increasingly sterile IRA disruption of them. At the first such rally in 1934, Bill Scott, a veteran of the Royal Tank Corps asserted that ‘we were fooled in 1914…we will not be fooled again’ while Frank Ryan, a veteran of the IRA’s campaigns to disrupt Poppy Day, described the event as the ‘proudest of all Armistice Days for me.’

Finally however I think we need to be prepared to critically discuss not just the politics of the war but also the politics of those who opposed it. While I disagree very strongly with John Bruton’s analysis I think that questioning interpretations of history is valid. Easter 1916 is not a religious event- it is not sacred. Neither are the politics of those involved. I think we should debate what Sinn Féin, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and James Connolly actually thought about the war. The phrase in the Proclamation about our ‘gallant allies in Europe’ was not there to fill space. It was written in the belief that the Central Powers would win the war and that their reshaping of a new Europe would include an independent Ireland. This was of course a huge hostage to fortune and would haunt Sinn Féin as it sought admittance to the post-war conference at Versailles, and when de Valera argued for recognition for the Republic in the United States. But the idea of a successful rebellion in 1916 was predicated on German aid. In 1915 Roger Casement and Joseph Mary Plunkett had presented the ‘Ireland Report’ to the Germans, arguing for a naval landing in the west of Ireland, involving at least 12,000 German troops. How seriously the Germans took the plan is open to question but the assertion that German aid was coming was crucial in convincing waverers to support an uprising in 1916. During the fighting in Dublin itself the belief that the Germans had landed and were on their way was key to keeping up morale. Most Irish separatists were anti-imperialists as far as Britain was concerned, but were less interested in imperialism elsewhere. The Citizen Army could sing ‘The Germans are winning the war me boys’ on their route marches without any real consideration of what the Germans winning the war might mean. The main concern of Irish separatists, naturally enough, was with the imperialism that they were fighting. Similarly if we can’t get beyond reducing James Connolly’s opinions on the war to the admittedly brilliant slogan ‘Neither King nor Kaiser’, then we are also doing him a disservice. Connolly’s position on the war changed fairly rapidly from despair at the collapse of European socialism, to not just support, but apologia, for Imperial Germany. There is no doubt that from September 1914 Connolly not only desired a German victory over Britain, which was a logical enough position, but also that he eulogized Germany as a modern, progressive state and ignored or played down the reactionary nature of German imperialism, including that of its empire. In this Connolly was allying himself, not with the German anti-war left, but the pro-war right of the Social Democrats. A century on we should surely be able to discuss this.


1. ar scáth a chéile - October 27, 2014

Excellent paper. Connolly’s support for Germany – the extent of which is news me – is troubling. He can’t have known about the genocide of the Herero in Namibia..surely not…say it ain’t so Joe.


2. T - October 27, 2014

A really wonderful piece which hopefully will be spread wide and perhaps published in hardcopy somewhere.

Re: Connolly there was an analysis along these lines in a recent-ish (i.e. post-2000) issue of the I.R.S.P.’s paper, wherein it is argued that Connolly held that Germany was the place closest to socialism therefore a post-war Ireland in the German orbit would also be closer to socialism.

In any case one might consider 1916 to be basically the Irish contribution to the Central Powers war effort – opposed to the Irish contribution to the Allied/British war effort. The conscription crisis is a better thing to commemorate with a positive gloss really – and should be seen in international context (e.g. alongside French army mutinies in 1917, the Wilhelmshaven revolt in 1918, etc.).


T - October 29, 2014

I don’t have a notion where the relevant article from the I.R.S.P.’s paper is, but some of the same material is contained in this book review – http://indiamond6.ulib.iupui.edu:81/LOR1203066g.html


3. Alibaba - October 27, 2014

“There is no doubt that from September 1914 Connolly not only desired a German victory over Britain, which was a logical enough position, but also that he eulogized Germany as a modern, progressive state and ignored or played down the reactionary nature of German imperialism, including that of its empire. In this Connolly was allying himself, not with the German anti-war left, but the pro-war right of the Social Democrats. A century on we should surely be able to discuss this. ”

James Connolly was unquestionably a socialist revolutionary in his outlook and heroic in his action. But any critical appreciation of Connolly’s politics should acknowlege its weaknesses too.

I suspect that the defeat of workers in the Lockout, the rise of the UVF, the outbreak of war and the shelving of Home Rule left Connolly disarmed in more ways than one. No wonder he turned his attention to engagements with conspiratorial nationalists in the IRB. No wonder he made breaks with the Marxist theory of the national question. You suggest he made a regressive break on the nature of imperialism. I doubt he ever read or digested the writings of the leading theoretican on that matter in his time, that is, Lenin. Although I am surprised to learn that he “eulogized Germany as a modern, progressive state”.

The paradox in Connolly’s views can best be seen by what he wrote in March 2015:

“I believe that the war could have been prevented by the socialists; as it was not prevented and the issues are knit, I want to see England beaten so thoroughly that the commerce of the sea will be free to all nations, the smallest equally with the greatest.” (Labour and Easter Week collection, pp. 57-58).

Connolly took the bizarre view that the defeat of Britain would usher in a new period of peaceful development in which trade unionism could open up the struggle for socialism in due course. The reactionary epoch of imperialism doesn’t figure here or a demand for the defeat of all of the competing imperialist powers in that war.


4. Gewerkschaftler - October 28, 2014

A great and informative contribution Brian. Thank you.

Especially interesting re. Connolly’s assessment of Germany – I guess he was carried along by the SPD’s and the associated Trades Unions’ disastrous decision to support an imperialist war. That was a disaster for European socialism which still echoes – for instance the present SPD’s compliance (along with the Greens, I should add) with process of the re-establishment of an interventionist German armed forces.


5. CMK - October 28, 2014

I think some of this is a bit harsh on Connolly and not really fair in the context within which he found himself. My understanding is that Connolly was invited to the Zimmerwald conference of the anti-war socialist movement in 1915 but couldn’t travel to it. That to me, if true, would show that the was closer to the Luxumbourg line than the SPD line up to 1915.

Also, Connolly’s position might be akin to the Left wing Kurdish defenders of Kobane today. They are being assisted by airstrikes from NATO against ISIS. Does that make those Kurdish defenders supporters of imperialism or blind to imperialism? In my view it doesn’t and it it very politically short-sighted to take the view that it does. Similarly, Connolly might have taken the ‘my enemy’s enemy is my ally’ view.


6. benmadigan - October 30, 2014

some of these points about the treatment of catholic ex service men are included in http://eurofree3.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/catholic-ex-servicemen-dont-count/ which expands on the treatment they received in NI right up until the 1980s-90s


7. World War I and British railway workers | Dear Kitty. Some blog - November 7, 2014

[…] ‘Look Back in Anger’ Ireland and World War One […]


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