World War I reshaped Ireland’s political landscape, setting the stage for both the 1916 Rising and the independence struggle that followed.
Led by the Irish Parliamentary Party, before 1914 the constitutional path to Home Rule dominated Irish politics. But the war would change all that — disillusionment with Britain’s campaign, along with the legitimation of armed uprising it created, was crucial to the emergence of a radical independence movement.
But the war was also harmful for the Irish and European left. It led to a climate of confusion and desperation for many socialists, exemplified by Ireland’s leading Marxist James Connolly.
Horrified at the failure of the Second International to prevent the war, he resolved to use it as an opportunity to strike a blow against capitalism and imperialism.
Yet in his desire to free Ireland from British rule, Connolly came to see imperial Germany as not only an ally, but as a force for progress.
In this way the 1916 Rising must be seen as part of the war raging in Europe, as well as in opposition to it.
The Loyal Opposition
Before conflict broke out in July 1914, Ireland had been on the brink of civil war over the question of Home Rule. A bill introduced two years prior by British prime minister H. H. Asquith proposing an Irish parliament was met with fierce resistance in Ulster, where one hundred thousand enlisted in the Ulster Volunteer militia to oppose its introduction.
Irish nationalists responded by establishing the Irish Volunteers in 1913, which soon grew to almost 150,000 members.
Yet when conflict broke out in Europe, nationalist and unionist leaders alike pledged support for the British war effort, the former hoping to win support for Home Rule, the latter hoping to prevent it.
After Home Rule leader John Redmond endorsed the war effort, the Irish Volunteer movement split, with most backing Redmond. The public initially shared this sentiment — Dublin even saw a spate of attacks on its small German community by pro-war mobs.
While Unionists simply reiterated their loyalty to the Empire, Home Ruler John Redmond and his supporters made much of the barbaric nature of “Prussian militarism,” particularly in “Catholic Belgium,” calling on nationalists to set aside anti-British hostility to combat the menace.
Francis Ledwidge — a labor activist and member of the Irish Volunteers — agreed, justifying his decision to join 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.”
Others had economic motivations. Thousands of reservists were called up in 1914, including many members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), recently defeated in the 1913 Dublin Lockout.
By 1915, two thousand ITGWU men would be in British uniform, causing the Irish Worker to lament how “some of our best comrades are leaving . . . to fight for the glory of England.”
But they weren’t going to honor the Crown — service in the British army had always been a source of employment for Ireland’s poorest workers. For the unskilled it meant a pay raise, a chance to learn a trade, and a separation allowance for their wives and families.
Many never returned home — up to 250,000 Irishmen served in the British forces during the war and at least 40,000 of them were killed; the costliest conflict in modern Irish history.
The Mood Changes
Not surprisingly, the pro-war mood proved short-lived. Within a year, the War Office noted that in Ireland “recruiting is slow and almost entirely confined to the towns.”
By then many Irish nationalists were regretting the Home Rulers’ promise to support the war. As a satirical 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.
Britain also clamped down on political activism during the fighting; wartime censorship and repressive legislation under the Defence of the Realm Act created resentment in nationalist Ireland as dozens of radical newspapers were banned and campaigners faced arrest, imprisonment, or deportation.
In this climate, the radical separatist movement — the main alternative to Home Rule and unionism — grew and formed the basis of an increasingly vibrant antiwar movement.
Composed of republicans, socialists, and others who desired complete independence from Britain, the movement brought together activists from a range of organizations.
As Sinn Féin leader Arthur Griffith stated when the war broke out, “Ireland is not at war with Germany. She has no quarrel with any continental power.”
This created new importance for the ten thousand Irish Volunteers who had refused to support the war, stating in a manifesto that “Ireland cannot, with honour or safety, take part in foreign quarrels otherwise than through the free action of a National Government of her own.”
The “new” Irish Volunteer Force they created included both revolutionaries and people like Eoin MacNeill, who believed in armed struggle only as a last resort.
As Gaelic scholar Pádraig Pearse — a member of the Irish Volunteer executive — noted, “war has brought about a crisis which may contain, as yet hidden within it, the moment for which the generations have been waiting.”
Pearse was also a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), Ireland’s main revolutionary organization with several thousand members active in a variety of political and cultural organizations.
Worker organizations became increasingly antiwar, as well. The Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party argued that “the working class will, as usual, supply the victims that the crowned heads may stalk in all their panoply of state.”
For their part, the ITGWU’s leaders — Jim Larkin and James Connolly — denounced the war at rallies in Dublin, with Connolly declaring “conscription or no conscription they will never get me or mine.”
After Larkin left for the United States that autumn, Connolly became general secretary of the Transport Union and head of the Irish Citizen Army, the militia created to defend workers during the 1913 Lockout.
Connolly also played a key role forming the Irish Neutrality League in October 1914. That month the Irish Worker’s masthead carried the slogan “We serve neither King nor Kaiser” and a banner asserting the same was hung from Liberty Hall.
Of the Neutrality League’s initial meeting Connolly remarked that the attendance included “labour men [and] men who could by no stretch of the imagination be called labour men . . . Home Rulers and Republicans, socialists and Sinn Féiners.”
What had brought them together was they believed that “the interests of Ireland were more dear to them than the interests of the British Empire.”
Among those in attendance were Major John MacBride, a veteran of the Irish Brigade who had fought alongside the Boers in South Africa, Constance Markievicz, who was a member of the Irish Volunteers’ women’s auxiliary brigade and the Citizen Army, and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a feminist and pacifist.
It was significant too that both Connolly and Griffith played prominent roles at the rally. Griffith had been a virulent critic of the ITGWU and striking workers during the Lockout, yet Connolly did not see this as a barrier to them cooperating in the antiwar effort.
Disenchantment grew as the war developed. Bloodbaths such as the one at Gallipoli showed many that the British establishment took the lives of Irish soldiers for granted.
Novelist Katherine Tynan, once a 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.”
In September 1915, Dublin Corporation passed a motion opposing conscription. The next month, a by-election in Dublin Harbour, a largely working-class constituency, was won by nationalist Alfie Byrne, the one candidate who made clear his opposition to conscription.
Even the Catholic hierarchy became more critical of the war. When Irishmen intending to emigrate to America were detained in Liverpool later that year, on the basis that they should be in the army, Bishop O’Dwyer of Limerick complained that “their crime is that they are not ready to die for England. Why should they?” O’Dwyer’s speech was published by republicans and widely distributed.
Gallant Allies in Europe
Agitation against the war was only one facet of republican activity. Separatists were also plotting an armed uprising, hoping to strike a blow against a weakened British imperialism.
Connolly justified the plan by referring to the 1907 statement by the Second International declaring
should war break out . . . it is the workers’ duty to intervene in order to bring it promptly to an end (and) make use of the economic and political crisis created by the war to stir up the deepest strata of the people and precipitate the fall of capitalist domination.
Connolly took the proclamation seriously and was closer to its spirit in 1916 than most other European socialists.
In September 1914, Connolly, Griffith, and several senior IRB leaders met and agreed that an insurrection should take place, establishing a military council to arrange support for the rising from the German government.
Former British civil servant Roger Casement and IRB member Joseph Plunkett visited Germany and presented a plan aimed at securing assistance.
Their “Ireland Report” envisaged a German force of twelve thousand men landing in the west of Ireland and being met by a full mobilization of Irish Volunteers.
The Germans would supply modern equipment, enabling the rebels to overcome the British garrison. In return for their support, an independent Irish state would promise military bases and other concessions to Germany.
The Germans were unconvinced by the IRB strategy but they agreed to supply some arms, and separatists made it clear that they regarded the Germans as allies and that if their forces landed “they will come as friends . . . to put an end to English rule in Ireland.”
The belief that German aid had been secured was key to convincing many skeptics that the revolt could be successful, and during the Rising itself many maintained their spirits by believing the widespread rumors that German forces had landed with weapons.
Indeed, the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic’s reference to “gallant allies in Europe” was written with the hope that the Central Powers would win the war and that the new Europe that followed would include an independent Ireland.
For Connolly, accommodation to an alliance with Germany — which required overlooking the actions of German imperialism — was shaped by his anger at the international left’s failure to resolutely oppose the war.
We are helpless! What then becomes of all our protests of fraternization; all our threats of general strikes; Were they all as sound and fury, signifying nothing?
Seeing not only Home Rulers but also ITGWU members and even Citizens Army volunteers join up to fight for Britain was devastating for Connolly.
In his frustration he concluded that only an insurrection could make a difference. Perhaps, he suggested, revolt in Ireland could spark off rebellion elsewhere.
Even if only a minority were involved, “a pin in the hands of a child (could) pierce the heart of a giant.”
The Enemy of Our Enemy
Connolly increasingly expressed his desire to strike such a blow in messianic terms, arguing that,
[so] deep in the heart of Ireland has sunk the sense of degradation . . . that no agency less potent than the red tide of war on Irish soil will ever be able to enable the Irish race to recover its self-respect . . . .
He regarded as rank hypocrisy imperial powers such as Britain and France holding millions in subjugation while claiming to fight for the “rights of small nations.”
Moreover, Belgium, with its brutal colonial record in Africa, and antisemitic Tsarist Russia were no better allies than Britain as far as Connolly was concerned.
The hypocrisy of Britain and France deserved his criticism, but Connolly’s position on Germany placed him closer to the pro-war SPD right in that country than socialists like Rosa Luxemburg.
He went as far as to assert that Germany was “the most enlightened nation in Europe, the nation whose democracy is most feared by the cunning capitalist rulers of the world.”
He called Germans a “civilized people who respond to every progressive influence . . . whereas the Russian empire stretches away into the depths of Asia and relies upon an army largely recruited from amongst many thousands of barbarians.”
In December 1915, the Workers Republic (Connolly’s successor to the banned Irish Worker) republished an interview with Kaiser Wilhelm in which it was claimed that the kaiser described socialists as “splendid fellows” and concluded that “there is no doubt that [Wilhelm] understands the aims of the radical left in parliament far better and has more sympathies for them than the world knows.”
In the following March, Connolly argued that the German empire was “a homogenous empire of self-governing peoples” which offered “more possibilities of freedom and civilization” than its British counterpart.
He stressed that the Irish did not “want to be ruled by either empire,” but his horror at the bloodshed in Europe and despair at the lack of resistance to it softened his line on a German imperial state whose own people would rise up against it in 1918.
Connolly was Ireland’s foremost Marxist and the preeminent theorist of the revolutionary period. His involvement in the 1916 Rising that claimed his life, as his colleague Peadar O’Donnell put it, “purchased a place for the organised labour movement in the leadership of the independence struggle.”
However, in the process Connolly lost sight of important tensions between socialism and nationalism, positions that would continue to be unclear for the Irish left in the decades to come.