The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Ireland:
January 1922, Independence Won

Jan 3, 2022

Translated from Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group active in France.

One hundred years ago, on December 6, 1921, the British government granted independence to Ireland, to take effect on January 7, 1922.

From the 12th century, the English gained a foothold in Ireland, but it was not until the 16th century, under the reign of Henry VIII and the Protestant Reformation, that they began to colonize the island. Like all colonization, that of Ireland was accompanied by plundering, deportations, and massacres. The peasants were driven from their lands to the profit of English nobles who, absentees for the most part, did not seek to develop the lands, but were satisfied to rent out expensive plots too small to feed a family.

Expelled from their land, deprived of all rights, and driven into misery, the Irish could not fail to revolt, and were each time savagely repressed. After their defeat by the armies of Cromwell in 1641, Ireland lost more than half of its population, at the same time as the installation of English colonists was favored. The Irish could only sell their production to English merchants, whose profits, repatriated to England, were used to develop its industrialization. And during the Great Famine of 1845–1851, when at least a million Irish starved to death from potato blight, and as many emigrated to the United States or England, England continued to import wheat from Ireland.

In the 19th century, the question of Irish independence came to the fore, along with that of the establishment of a republic. The more moderate within the Irish bourgeoisie demanded Home Rule, a certain autonomy which could offer them a small space to manage the internal affairs of Ireland. But, for the population, it was obvious that independence could only be obtained by opposing the violence of the masses to that of the oppressors. Parties and militias were created, including the Fenians of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, supporters of guerilla methods, which had rural support.

On the working-class side, the strikes that took place in the workplaces, led by Jim Larkin and the Marxist James Connolly, were also linked to the national question: the bosses, the police officers, and the judges that the workers faced were all English. But Connolly’s program did not stop at independence alone and placed itself on a decidedly socialist and internationalist basis. During these struggles was founded in 1913 a workers’ self-defense militia which he led, the Citizen Army, hailed by Lenin as the first communist army in Europe. But apart from the cities of Dublin, Cork, and Limerick to the south, most of Ireland remained agricultural. Only the northeastern part of the country, populated from the 16th century by Presbyterian settlers, had experienced industrial development, in Belfast in particular, through shipyards and textile industries. Most of the Irish working class were not in the territory, but in London or New York!

While Britain was embroiled in the First World War, opponents of colonization sparked an insurgency in Dublin on Easter Monday, 1916. It was crushed and the repression was fierce. Fifteen leaders, including James Connolly, were executed. The nascent labor movement was beheaded, and several thousand participants were imprisoned or deported to camps in Britain.

The Irish population, who had not taken part in the 1916 uprising, began to mobilize against the occupier in the years that followed, with women entering the struggle and taking up the torch from the imprisoned men. In early 1918, the English government extended military conscription to Ireland, which it had not dared to do until then, fearing to arm men who could turn against it. The response was not long in coming: huge demonstrations, hunger strikes and clashes with the British police, the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary), followed one another.

In 1919, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), led by Michael Collins, had 100,000 volunteers, 20,000 of whom were women. A guerrilla war began against the British police, to such an extent that by the end of 1920, 700 RIC barracks had to be evacuated. As the insurgents had the support of the population, it was difficult to distinguish the combatants from the inhabitants. Winston Churchill, Minister of War, then created a special body, the Black and Tans, recruited among the veterans of the First World War, to whom all attacks were allowed: assassinations, including of children, rape, torture, house fires. Entire streets were set on fire to empty them of their inhabitants, especially in central Cork.

Indiscriminate violence was not enough to bend the insurgents, however, and the British government eventually had to grant independence to most of Ireland, with the six industrialized counties in the northeast remaining within the United Kingdom.

After eight centuries of colonization, an independent Irish state had just been created. But, run by the bourgeoisie and under the weight of an ultra-reactionary clergy, this state had nothing to do with the democratic and egalitarian ideal for which Connolly and the Easter rebels fought in 1916.

While engaging in the fight, James Connolly had moreover formulated this fear: "If, tomorrow, you drive out the English army and hoist the green flag on the castle of Dublin, your efforts will prove in vain if you do not build the socialist republic. England will continue to dominate you. It will rule you through its capitalists, its owners, its financiers, all the commercial and individual institutions that it has established in this country. [...] To consider nationalism without socialism [...] would be to recognize publicly that our oppressors have managed to inoculate us with their perverted conceptions of justice and morality, that we have finally decided to assume these conceptions as our own and would no longer need a foreign army to impose them."