Insurrection in Irish History

By C. Desmond Greaves, 1986

[This was one of seven Terence MacSwiney Memorial lectures that were given in 1986 under the auspices of the Greater London Council, whose leader at the time was Ken Livingstone and the chair of whose Irish Panel was John McDonnell.  The other lecturers in the series were Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Father Des Wilson, Margaret Ward, Nollaig Ó Gadhra, Sean MacBride and Liam De Paor.  The series was published as “Terence MacSwiney Memorial Lectures 1986”, a 130-page booklet, with a foreword by Máire MacSwiney Brugha and an introduction by Frank Dolan of the “Irish Post” weekly newspaper.]

The scope of this subject will be determined by one’s definition of insurrection. I understand the word in its common or ordinary meaning of an organised, armed rising aimed at overthrowing an existing government and replacing it with another. It is a question of power, and if the new government retains power, then it comes to be regarded as legitimate.

On any other principle there is not a legitimate government in the world. Mrs Thatcher governs thanks to the fact that the English chopped off King Charles’s head. Mr Mitterand rules thanks to the fact that the Allies defeated Hitler. President Reagan can send back his thanks to the Boston Tea Party. And Mr Gorbachev’s revolution is as legitimising as any of the others.

It has been said that there are only two forces in any country, the army and the mob. Revolution is imminent when the “mob” lose its fear and attempts to overpower the army. That is how the Shah of Iran lost his throne. We can see something similar developing in South Africa, where the young blacks are saying “they haven’t enough ammunition to shoot all of us.” And of course, if the “mob” is organised that is another important factor. The lengths governments will go to prevent the organisation of the masses are visible in many countries.

Law is of course secondary to power. People are supposed to obey the law because it is the law. In fact it is only the law because enough people obey it. The mystique with which it is customarily surrounded is aimed at encouraging that obedience. I hasten to add that I recommend you all to obey the law for a good reason. It is liable to be the worse for you if you do not.

I hope with these few remarks I may have swept some humbug out of the way, and now I make the point, obvious from what I have said already, that insurrection is not peculiar to Ireland. Indeed I would not even say that the Irish are exceptionally addicted to it. 

Insurrections do not come out of the blue. Like a lightening flash and its accompanying thunder clap they are climacterics within a larger process for which one uses the word revolution. This can be understood in the general sense of the totality of social changes necessitated by historical development, or in the narrower sense of political upheaval with these changes in view. The two most important insurrections in Irish history were those of 1798 and 1916, and I propose to give some detail regarding the first and to show how, once this had failed, the other was inevitable.

Obviously a precondition of revolution is a widespread sense of grievance. For its success three elements are essential. The rulers must face a crisis which limits their capacity to rule as they have ruled before. There must be wide refusal on the part of the aggrieved to continue to tolerate their grievances. And there must be an element of organisation among the masses.

The supreme grievance in 18th century Ireland was the dominance of the landlord class. This was buttressed by a legal system at the centre of which was the penal code designed for the suppression of the Catholics, the majority of the population and for the most part humble tillers of the soil. These were not only deprived of the vote and the right to stand for election to Parliament. During the period when the Penal Laws were most rigorously enforced it was held that a Catholic had no legal existence, that is to say he could not take legal action to redress any wrong committed against him. One provision was that a Catholic might not own a horse worth more than £5, and the story is told of the Protestant landowner who offered a Catholic neighbour £5 for a mare worth considerably more. The owner secured a few minutes respite by some pretext and used the time to go out and shoot the animal dead. 

There were however grievances that affected Protestants. In relation to the Presbyterians, or Dissenters, mostly settled in Ulster, there were religious disabilities. In the three main cities, Dublin, Belfast and Cork, there were mercantile restraints, summarised in the Navigation Acts designed to give British merchants a monopoly of trade. Thus exports from Dublin could not go direct to the American colonies but had to be trans-shipped through a British port.

At this point I will refer to the three preconditions for successful resistance on the part of the Irish. First it was necessary to secure unity of action among sections whose grievances were not identical. This demanded a degree of unity between Catholics and Protestants. Second it was desirable to have a favourable orientation towards those governments that were opposed to landlordism, in this period the United States and France. And third there should be friendly relations with progressive forces in Britain, in this period the English and Scottish radicals. This last factor increased in importance with the subsequent growth of the Labour movement. British policy was of course to frustrate such developments.

We all know the saying “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. The first opportunity of the period we are discussing came as a result of the American Revolution. Here was the first attempt to set up a modern state on the basis of democracy. When in 1778 the government apprehended possible landings by French or American forces, they were compelled to ask the citizens of Belfast to arrange their own defence. The result was the establishment of companies of Volunteers which were formed first in Belfast and then throughout Ireland.

The result was a bloodless revolution which was not however fully completed, and indeed could hardly have been consolidated without an English defeat in the subsequent war with France. The English Parliament was in no position to refuse the Irish demand of Free Trade and legislative independence and raised no objection to the relaxation of the penal laws. The ten years following the Dungannon Convention of 1782 were marked by unusual commercial prosperity. It was during this period that the Dublin Custom House was built and it is said to have claimed the services of “every carpenter in Ireland”.

At the same time, the Dublin Parliament was a landlord Parliament with a “patriot” opposition led by Henry Grattan. It was one thing to enjoy the prosperity brought by free trade. It was another to place the landlord ascendancy in jeopardy. This would have been the result of giving Catholics the vote and the right to sit in Parliament. This issue was debated at the Volunteer Convention of 1783. The Belfast delegation demanded votes for Catholics. Volunteers with landlord connections outvoted them. But there were other reforms required and it was decided to petition Parliament and remain in session pending a reply. The Convention got no reply. This was the point where insurrection was indicated. The Volunteers could have overpowered the Parliament and taken control. But they had pulled back on votes for Catholics and having given up their political plank, they had no basis for military action.

That’s the story of the insurrection that didn’t take place. The landlords who had come face- to-face with political realities toyed with revolution no more, and it was from the Catholic and Dissenting merchant classes that the next initiatives came. This was influenced by the French revolution of 1789. Under the influence of the French revolution Theobald Wolfe Tone and a few friends founded the Society of United Irishmen. As the name implies it was directed at the issue that had sunk the previous movement.

The United Irishmen were in advance of the Volunteers to precisely the degree that the French was in advance of the American revolution. Their aim was to break the connection with England, which required the subversion of the landlord Parliament in Dublin. Their means was a reform of the franchise, namely votes for Catholics. And if the landlords objected, so much the worse for them. It is extremely important to appreciate that the stronghold of the United Irishmen was the city of Belfast, whose leading newspaper, the Northern Star, used to publish the proceedings of the Paris Directory. But in this period the United Irishmen did not contemplate insurrection. Their main success came in 1793 when Tone, after a period of hard work as secretary of the Catholic Committee, led a delegation to London which achieved the Catholic Relief Act. This gave Catholics the vote, though with property qualifications, but denied them the right to sit in Parliament, to enter the higher grades of the law, civil service and armed forces. 

It is an interesting historical fact that when the English Chartists drew up their programme with Daniel O’Connell, who gave them their name, they adopted almost word for word the democratic demands of the United Irishmen. Their best-known leader, Fergus O’Connor, was the nephew of the United Irishman Arthur O’Connor.

In the same year of 1793 the counter-revolution began. England declared war on France. In 1794 the United Irishmen were declared an illegal organisation. In 1795 they were reorganised “on a rebellious basis”, that is to say that they now sought an opportunity for an insurrection. Wolfe Tone retreated to the United States, then went to France to solicit French military aid. The landlord Parliament in Dublin, now completely on the side of counter-revolution, passed three Acts, one of which made conventions illegal; a second made the manufacture or import of arms illegal, and a third embodied a counter-revolutionary militia. It was in 1795 that what has been called the world’s first Fascist organisation, the Orange Order, was founded. There followed the “dragooning of Ulster”. The Republican movement in Belfast was broken up by military action. The Northern Star was put out of business, but Arthur O’Connor founded the Irish Press, which continued for a time in Dublin. The work begun in Belfast was extended throughout Ireland. The result was a series of minor civil wars in which the authorities tried to frustrate the preparations that were being made for armed insurrection, and to provoke localised actions that could be suppressed and used as a pretext for further suppression.

At length Tone was successful in persuading the French to use their “army of England” in Ireland. The ideal time would have been 1797 when the English navy was paralysed by mutinies and England itself was no land of happy contentment. In the days of sailing ships the direction of the wind was all important. When the French wanted to tackle the English fleet, it must blow from the west. When they came into Bantry Bay, it blew consistently from the east. It is perhaps worth mentioning that at the end of the 18th century the winters were much colder than they are today and long periods of frost, snow and east winds were quite common.

There was much discussion among the United Irishmen. Should they wait for the French to try again, or should they start at once. In the end counsels of action won. But just before the day the entire Leinster Directory was arrested except the delegates from Wexford. The Wexford insurrection gave rise to some of the most famous Irish songs, whose classical form gives them the peculiar power possessed by the music of the French Revolution. There were also risings in Co. Down and Co. Armagh. All were put down with ruthless ferocity and the Irish Parliament, which less than twenty years previously had been saying “Free trade – or else” voted itself out of existence. The Act of Union came into force on January 1st, 1801.

Emmet’s rising of 1803 was a heroic effort at a replay of 1798. And there were other attempts during the course of the nineteenth century, in 1848, 1849 and 1867. None of them were favoured with political conditions, national and international, that gave them great prospects. The Union, so to speak, froze Irish society in its eighteenth-century form while bringing nineteenth-century forces to play on it.

The period of the Union falls naturally into four stages. The legislative union dates from 1801, but the fiscal union was only completed in 1823. In the early years of the century Irish food was in demand while Irish industries remained to some degree protected. Between 1823 and the great clearances that began with the so-called famine of 1845-47 Irish industry was decimated and the economy of the country made totally dependent on landlord-dominated agriculture. The second quarter of the century saw the decay of the towns. The third saw the decimation of the countryside, against a slowly gathering resistance. By the end of the seventies the landlords had been so far weakened that a final assault on their position became possible. And the initiating agency for this was the Land league founded by Michael Davitt. The result was a series of Land Acts which first broke the landlords’ monopoly, then restricted their freedom of action, and finally handed the land over to the tenants on the basis of state-backed mortgages. In general the more prosperous tenants received the land first and became employers of labour. The smallest men became the labour force. And the intermediate tenants emigrated.

The prosperity infused into the countryside by the gradual abolition of landlordism slowly extended to the towns. Throughout the last quarter of the century they recovered their population, though the population of the country as a whole fell. The loss of population meant more for those left behind. This they used partly in consumption, partly in investment. Alongside the old craft industries, large infrastructure industries grew up particularly in the ports, Dublin especially.

At the turn of the century therefore a new Ireland had emerged from the old. The new infrastructure industries, docks, railways, shipping, gas-works, tramways, required massive labour forces which were organising in trade unions. Alongside the tenants agitating for land, and even by 1911 only half the land had been transferred, were agricultural labourers, especially in the south and east, who are not yet in trade unions but were moving towards preliminary forms of organisation. Following the eclipse of the landlords a new system of local government had brought the merchant classes into their own. And the thin trickle of cultural development had become a rapidly increasing flood. The Irish literary revival was part of the general national insurgence arising from the success of the struggle against the landlords.

The country was beginning to recover its self-confidence. As in the days of the Volunteers the first movements were constitutional not insurrectionary.  The Parliamentary Party under John Redmond bestrode the political scene. Even the founder of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith, would have been content with a return to 1782, to a dual monarchy. It was the blocking of the constitutional process, and the acceptance of that blocking by the constitutional party, that made insurrection inevitable.

It would take too long to describe the processes which converted the Republican Belfast of 1792 into the Orange Belfast of 1912. It was no spontaneous process and I always compare it in my own mind with the tremendous propaganda campaign for Nazism financed by Thyssen and Krupp in pre-World War 2 Germany. It is no accident that the only British political party that is working with the Orange extremists is the National Front. The historical fact is that the Orangemen armed against the Liberal Party’s Home Rule Bill and the Liberals climbed down.

The international crisis provided by the American and French revolutions was reproduced in the crisis of the First World War. A section of the working class led by Connolly, together with some of the best educated of the lower middle class, typified by Pearse, MacDonagh and indeed Terence MacSwiney, for he was ready to go out but for the countermand of the order to strike, seized the centre of Dublin on April 24th 1916 and held it for a week. There were lesser risings in Galway, Wexford, Co. Dublin and Monaghan. The barbarity of the British authorities who executed sixteen men, imprisoned hundreds and interned thousands, filled the Irish people with indignation.

There was the grievance of involvement in another country’s war. But this brought many a household its first steady income for years. The basic economic grievances I referred to did not come into play until after 1916. Land division was halted by the war. But it was not till close to the end of the war that pressure built up. Price rises and shortages did not lead to an upsurge of militant trade unionism until 1917. Then it was accompanied by an upsurge of Republican organisation. That the sacrifice of the men of 1916 vastly stimulated the national movement is not to be doubted. But some have argued that their insurrection was premature: if they had waited until the great wage battles began; until England, desperately short of manpower, galvanised the country into protest when she attempted to impose conscription; until 1917 when the series of continental revolutions began; or until the mutinies in the French and British armies frightened the life out of Lloyd George.

The simple answer to this is, “how could they know?” In 1916 the British War Cabinet was considering a compromise peace with Germany. The insurrectionaries feared above all that the war would end before they had struck a blow.