Loss of James Connolly ‘incalculable’ to Irish socialism - historian

Dr Donal Ó Drisceoil says Connolly believed working class was ‘on its knees’ after Lockout

The death of James Connolly in the 1916 Easter Rising was an incalculable loss to Irish socialism as he was succeeded by a labour leadership that was cautious and failed to capitalise on the growing militancy of Irish workers, a leading historian has said.

According to Dr Donal Ó Drisceoil of the School of History at University College Cork, Connolly committed himself and the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) to the Easter Rising because he believed that the Irish working class would never revolt unless its leadership took a bold initiative.

Dr Ó Drisceoil, the author of a book on Irish republican and socialist, Peadar O Donnell, said that Connolly believed that the working class was on its knees after the failure of the 1913 Lockout and he was dismayed at the numbers of Irish workers flocking to join the British Army.

"Added to this was the collapse of the Socialist International and the potential victory of what he regarded as the most reactionary forces in Europe, Britain and Russia in the war. Connolly's participation in the Easter Rising was a desperate measure for desperate times," he said.


Dr Ó Drisceoil questioned whether Connolly would have opted for nationalist martyrdom if he had foreseen the growth of Irish labour into a powerful and potentially social revolutionary force in the five years after 1916 as well as the rise of socialism internationally including in Russia.

Some have argued that Connolly had secured “labour its place” in Irish national life by involving the Irish Citizen Army in the Easter Rising, but in reality the Irish labour movement was only tangentially involved with Connolly himself, the only senior labour figure amongst the rebel leadership, he said.

Huge growth

Connolly's involvement was not representative of the union bodies where he held leadership positions and the ICA was not representative of the ITGWU, let alone the Irish working class, whose membership included hundreds of thousands of loyalist Ulster workers.

The labour leadership initially distanced itself from the Easter Rising but by 1918, the labour movement had seen huge growth in union membership through a series of general strikes while the Labour Party also grew after playing a key role in the defeat of conscription in 1918.

“However, the labour movement failed to take a leading role and also chose to restrain rather than harness the increasing militancy of the rank and file - as evident in the 100 or so ‘soviets’ that emerged in 1919 in line with the wishes of the republican leadership,” said Dr Ó Drisceoil.

“Revolutionaries tend to be risk-takers but the watchword of Irish labour after 1916 was caution and as the fight against British imperialism heated up, the dynamic risk-taker Connolly was absent and he did not leave behind a political movement that could capitalise on proletarian radicalisation.”

It was notable that not only did no Connollyite united “workers’ republic” emerge from the Irish revolution but the two political entities were a state in the South run by conservative revolutionaries and a state in the North run by conservative and unionist counter-revolutionaries.

"The loss of the socialist and feminist Connolly was incalculable. For socialists it was that loss rather than the premature nature of the Easter Rising as it was analysed by Lenin that was arguably, as he termed it, 'the misfortune of the Irish'," said Dr Ó Drisceoil.

As part of UCC's Spring 2016 Public Lecture Series, Reconsidering the Rising, Dr Ó Drisceoil will give a lecture entitled The misfortune of the Irish? James Connolly, the 1916 Rising and the cause of labour at 6pm on Wednesday in the Geology and Geography Building on Donovan's Road

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times