Paul Gillespie: 1916 was the start of a century of Ireland’s influence on British imperial history

Counterfactual speculation about the timing of the Rising puts 1916 into its proper international context as a huge stimulus of political change in Europe and the world

An image of Sackville Street (now O’Connell St) and the River Liffey at Eden Quay. Photograph: PA/PA Wire

An image of Sackville Street (now O’Connell St) and the River Liffey at Eden Quay. Photograph: PA/PA Wire

 

A blow delivered against the British imperialist bourgeoisie in Ireland is a hundred times more significant than a blow of equal weight in Africa or Asia. The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which facilitate the entry into the area of the real power against imperialism, namely the socialist proletariat. . . The misfortune of the Irish is that they rose prematurely, when the European revolt of the proletariat had not yet matured.

Lenin’s acute analysis of 1916 was penned in October of that year, rejecting accounts of the Rising as a putsch in continental socialist and mainstream papers. Lenin fundamentally disagreed, arguing that Irish nationalism enjoyed widespread popular support in its struggle against British imperial power and its strategic closeness to the centres of that power gave it an additional leverage. He went on to say “capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various springs of rebellion can of themselves merge at one effort without reverses and defeats”.

James Connolly agreed with Lenin. In his article “What is our programme?” published in January 1916 he argued that “the ‘far flung battle line’ of England is weakest at the point nearest its heart; that Ireland is in that position of tactical advantage; that a defeat of England in India, Egypt, the Balkans or Flanders would not be so dangerous to the British Empire as any conflict of armed forces in Ireland...” He anticipated a crisis over conscription in which the Irish Volunteers would have to choose to accept or resist its imposition on Ireland.

Quoting this passage from Lenin in this newspaper in 1966, Conor Cruise O’Brien took up Lenin’s argument that 1916 was premature. What if the Rising had happened two years later in 1918, when the conscription crisis actually materialised? An insurrection then would have had more widespread support, its suppression might have sparked mutinies by Irish troops on the western front with Germany, perhaps affecting French and German ones as well. In that case Lenin’s proletarian revolution in developed Europe might have been sparked in that fateful year after the Russian revolution.

Such counterfactual speculation “helps us to reconstruct the possible universe which great men strove to bring into being”, O’Brien wrote. Most important, it puts 1916 into its proper international context as a huge stimulus of political change in Europe and the world. Arguably its alternative history is wrong, as Joe Lee puts it in his influential book Ireland 1912-1985, Politics and Society [ITALS TITLE]. An equally plausible scenario would have a 1918 insurrection crushed far more ruthlessly than in 1916, perhaps leading to a German victory in the war with much more dangerous consequences for Russia itself.

That political change was not confined to socialist revolutions in the years after 1916. Compared to 1966 we are hearing more in 2016 about the Rising’s international consequences, notably on the empires which caused that war. In Ireland we tend to concentrate most on the British imperial fallout, whether in India, Egypt, Australia or South Africa, all of which feature in recent historical research.

The German, Russian Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed after that European war, even if the British one survived for another generation. The Irish Rebellion which gave rise to the Irish Free State in 1922 in due course influenced the emergence of the smaller European democracies carved out of those empires in the 1920s and 1930s, in the Balkans, Baltics and central Europe.

The honourable leadership role Ireland played in the League of Nations is highlighted in a new book by Gerard Keown, First of the New Nations. It deals especially with Poland and the emergence of Irish foreign policy norms on the role of small states as honest brokers and international good citizens. Ronan Fanning’s biography of De Valera concludes that his world stature as a great statesman is shown by his presidency of that body. The central and eastern European setting, with its problems of national minorities, nationalising states and external national homelands was obscured during the Cold War and has been gradually revealed as similar to Ireland’s by successive enlargements of the European Union since 1995 and 2004.

Ireland’s influence on British imperial history through constitutional and diplomatic expansion of dominion status in the 1920s and growth beyond it in subsequent decades is better known and equally traceable to the anti-imperial rebellion of 1916.

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