In 1914, the Irish Citizen Army, a militia founded to defend striking workers, settled on a design for its flag: a farm plough made in the shape of the constellation Ursa Major, the plough of the heavens. It became known as the “starry plough.”
The distinctive banner was a source of pride for the Citizen Army’s soldiers, with socialist revolutionary James Connolly developing a mythos about its meaning. “A free Ireland would control its destiny from the plough to the stars,” he explained.
After days of fighting, Connolly was seriously wounded, a bullet shattering his shin. Surveying the landscape from the headquarters in the General Post Office the next morning, Irish Volunteer member Joe Mooney noted, “Friday dawned on a desolate site opposite us. All that remained of Clery’s and the Imperial Hotel was the front wall of the building on the top of which to Connolly’s great delight the flag of the Citizen Army still floated proudly.”
Two days later, the Easter Rising ended in defeat.
But despite the suppression of the uprising, and the subsequent execution of Connolly, the revolutionary fervor did not subside. The next half decade saw a mass movement against conscription, a war of independence, the establishment of an Irish parliament, and a wave of worker militancy that produced more than one hundred soviets across the island.
The protagonists behind these struggles sought not merely a break with British rule but a fundamentally different social order. Feminists fought for women’s emancipation, socialists for a workers’ state, and anti-imperialists for an Ireland that allied itself with emergent nations in Egypt and India.
It is perhaps in this international context that events in Ireland are most placed. When Friedrich Engels wrote that “the lever [against English capitalism] must be applied in Ireland,” he was speaking to the outsized role Ireland was to play in the decline of an empire. As Britain’s first colony, Ireland was more intimately connected to its colonizer’s politics than any other. The war waged by Irish revolutionaries against Britain inspired similar uprisings throughout the twentieth century. “A strong man may deal lusty blows with his fists against a host of surrounding foes and conquer,” Connolly wrote, “but will succumb if a child sticks a pin in his heart.”
The decades that followed Ireland’s revolutionary period, however, were not kind to the Left. A counterrevolution, led by elites, produced two reactionary states on a partitioned island. Doggedly repressed by the Catholic Church, poorly served by a supine Labour Party, and riven by conflict over the persisting national question, socialism faded.
This Ireland produced little for its working class. It condemned huge numbers to poverty, built a carceral state to lock up those who threatened the conservative order, divided workers by sectarianism, and forced huge numbers to seek a better life through emigration.
But today, after the boom of the Celtic Tiger and the bust of the economic crash, class politics are firmly back on the agenda.
Ireland is suffering profound crises in housing and health care, growing deprivation, and rampant low wages. Meanwhile, the richest three hundred individuals have doubled their wealth since 2010, and major multinational corporations use the island as a tax haven. Responding to this new reality, hundreds of thousands have mobilized against austerity in the largest social movement since independence.
In the electoral sphere, the two traditional parties of Irish capitalism, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are floundering. As recently as the 1980s, the pair received a combined 85 percent of the vote; in February’s election, they failed to win even 50 percent. Their partner in imposing austerity, the Labour Party, suffered an even greater meltdown — it captured less than 7 percent.
The crisis of the political establishment has been a boon to a newly emboldened left — Sinn Féin, a republican party that is now the largest opposition party in the South; the Trotskyist Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit, which managed to win six seats in parliament; a range of left-leaning independents and smaller parties, often backed by trade unions; and a larger number of working-class people exploring political alternatives than at any point in recent memory.
In short, as Ireland celebrates the centenary of 1916, the political and economic conditions on the island offer possibilities for socialist politics not seen in one hundred years. And so, with those prospects in mind, we recall Connolly’s words: “our readers are, we hope, rebels in heart, and hence may rebel even at our own picture of the future. If that is so let us remind them that opportunities are for those who seize them.”