IRISH HISTORY … AND HERDS OF ELEPHANTS

Diarmuid Breatnach

Politics is about the present and the future, obviously … but it is also about the past.

Different political interests interpret and/or represent the past in different ways, emphasising or understating different events or aspects or even ignoring or suppressing them entirely. There is choice exercised in whom (and even what particular pronouncement) to quote and upon what other material to rely. And by “political interests” I mean not only groups, formal (such as political parties) or informal, but also individuals. Each individual is political in some way, having opinions about some aspects of questions that are political or at least partly-political. For example, one often hears individuals say today that they have no interest in politics, yet express strong opinions of one kind or another about the right to gay and lesbian marriage, the influence of the Catholic Church, and how the country is being run by Governments

So when an individual writes a history book, there are going to be political interpretations, although not all writers admit to their political position, their prejudices or leanings, in advance or even in the course of their writing. One historian who does so is Padraig Yeates, author of a number of historical books: Lockout Dublin 1913 (a work unlikely to be ever equalled on the subject of the title), A City In Wartime — 1914-1919, A City in Turmoil 1919-1921and his latest, A City in Civil War – Dublin 1921-’24. The latter was launched on Tuesday of this week, 12th May and therefore much too early for people for who did not receive an earlier copy to review it. So it is not on the book that I am commenting here but rather on the speeches during the launch, which were laden with overtly political references to the past and to the present. If a review is what you wanted, this would be an appropriate moment to stop reading and exit – and no hard feelings.

The launch had originally been intended to take place at the new address at 17 D’Olier Street, D2, of Books Upstairs. However the interest indicated in attending was so great that Padraig Yeates, realising that the venue was going to be too small, went searching for a larger one. Having regard to how short a time he then had to find one and with his SIPTU connections, Liberty Hall would have been an obvious choice. Whether he had earlier been asked to speak at the launch I do not know but, having approached Jack O’Connor personally to obtain the use of Liberty Hall, in the latter’s role of President of SIPTU, the owners of that much-underused theatre building, it was inevitable too that O’Connor would be asked to speak and act as the MC for the event.

O’Connor’s introduction was perhaps of medium length as these things go. He talked about the author’s work in trade unions, as a journalist and as an author of books about history. O’Connor’s speech however contained much political comment. Speaking of the period of the Civil War (1919-1923), he said it had “formed what we have become as a people”. That is a statement which is of dubious accuracy or, at very least, is open to a number of conflicting interpretations. The Civil War, in which the colonialism-compromising Irish capitalist class defeated the anti-colonial elements of the nationalist or republican movement, formed what the State has become – not the people. The distinction between State and People is an essential one in our history and no less so in Ireland today.

Talking about the State that had been created in 1921 (and not mentioning once the creation of the other statelet, the Six Counties) and referring to the fact that alone among European nations, our population had not risen during most of the 20th Century and remained lower than it had been up to nearly the mid-Nineteenth, a state of affairs due to constant emigration, O’Connor laid the blame on the 26-County State and in passing, on the capitalist class which it served. He was undoubtedly correct in blaming the State for its failure to create an economic and social environment which would stop or slow down the rate of emigration – but he did not explain why it was in the interests of the capitalists ruling the state to do so. Nor did he refer to the cause of the original drastic reduction in Ireland’s population and the start of a tradition of emigration – the Great Hunger 1845-’49.

The Great Hunger memorial on Dublin's Custom House Quay. The Great Hunger and its immediate aftermath initiated mass Irish emigration.
The Great Hunger memorial on Dublin’s Custom House Quay. The Great Hunger and its immediate aftermath initiated mass Irish emigration.

Even allowing for the fact that O’Connor wished to focus on the responsibility of the 26-County State, the Great Hunger was surely worthy of some mention in the context of Irish population decline.  Just a little eastward along the docks from Liberty Hall is the memorial to that start of mass Irish emigration. It was the colonial oppression of the Irish people which had created the conditions in which the organism Phytophthora infestans could create such devastation, such that in much less than a decade, Ireland lost between 20% and 25% of its population, due to death by starvation and attendant disease and due also to emigration (not forgetting that many people emigrating died prematurely too, on the journey, upon reaching their destination and subsequently). Phytophthora devastated potato crops in the USA in 1843 and spread throughout Europe thereafter, without however causing such a human disaster as it did in Ireland. In Mitchell’s famous words: “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” And that is what makes that period of population decline uncomfortable for some historical commentators.

Indeed, O’Connor did not mention British colonialism once, nor Partition, nor imperialism. And nor did either of the other two speakers, nor the author. I remarked on this to an Irish Republican present, to which he responded with a rhetorical question: “Did you expect them to?” Well, yes, perhaps naively, I did. While not expecting an Irish Republican analysis from Padraig Yeates and perhaps not either from anyone he would consider appropriate to speak at the launch of one of his books, dammit, we are talking about history. The presence of Norman/English/British Colonialism for 800 years prior to the creation of the Irish Free State, and its influence on that state’s creation and on subsequent events in Ireland, is worthy of at least a mention in launching a book about the Civil War. Not to mention its continuing occupation of one-fifth of the nation’s territory.

Colonialism and Imperialism and, in particular, the Irish experience of the British variant, were not so much ‘the elephant in the room at the launch as a veritable herd of pachyderms. They overshadowed us at the launch and crowded around us, we could hear them breathing and smell their urine and excreta – but no-one mentioned them. The date of the launch was the anniversary of the execution of James Connolly 99 years ago, a man whom the Labour Party claims as its founder (correctly historically, if not politically), a former General Secretary of the ITGWU, forerunner of SIPTU and the HQ building of which, Liberty Hall, was a forerunner too of the very building in which the launch was taking place. His name and the anniversary was referred to once, though not by O’Connor, without a mention of Sean Mac Diarmada, executed in the same place on the same day. And most significantly of all, no mention of who had Connolly shot and under which authority.

That circumspection, that avoidance, meant that a leader of Dublin capitalists, William Martin Murphy, could not be mentioned with regard to Connolly’s death either i.e. his post-Rising editorial in the Irish Independent calling for the execution of the insurgents’ leaders. But of course he did get a mention, or at least the class alliance he led in 1913 did, in a bid to smash the ITGWU, then under the leadership of Larkin and Connolly. This struggle, according to O’Connor and, it must be said also to Padraig Yeates, was the real defining struggle of the early years of the 20th Century, not the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence nor yet the Irish Civil War. It was in 1913 that “the wrong side won”.

One-eyed as that historical vision must be, we have to question whether it is even partially correct. The Lockout was a great defeat for the ITGWU and for the leading elements in the Irish workers’ movement. But the Lockout did not break the trade union and, in fact, it later began to grow in membership and in branches. Other trade unions also survived and some expanded. So in what manner was 1913 decisive in ensuring that “the wrong side won” in later years? The Irish trade union movement was still able to organise a general strike against conscription in April 1918 and the class to organise a wave of occupations of workplaces in April 1919. 

True, the Irish working class had lost one of its foremost theoreticians and propagandists by then, in the person of James Connolly. And who was it who had him shot? Not Murphy (though he’d have had no hesitation in doing so) nor the rest of the Irish capitalist class. In fact, worried about the longer-term outcome, the political representatives of the Irish nationalist capitalist class for so long, the Irish Parliamentary Party, right at the outset and throughout, desperately called for the executions to halt. General Maxwell, with the support of British Prime Minister Asquith, ordered and confirmed the executions of Connolly and Mallin of the Irish Citizen Army and British Army personnel pulled the triggers; in essence it was British colonialism that executed them, along with the other fourteen.

For the leaders of the Labour Party and of some of the trade unions, and for some authors, Padraig Yeates among them, the participation of Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army in the Rising was an aberration. For these social democrats, the struggle should have been against the Irish capitalist class only (and preferably by an unarmed working class). It is an inconvenient fact that Ireland was under colonial occupation of a state that had strangled much of the nation’s economic potential (and therefore of the growth of the working class) in support of the interests of the British capitalist class. It is an inconvenient fact that the Irish capitalist class had been divided into Unionist and Nationalist sections, the former being descendants of planter landowners and entrepreneurs whose interests were completely bound up in Union with Britain. It is an inconvenient fact that the British and the Unionists had suppressed the last truly independent expression of the Irish bourgeoisie, the United Irishmen and, in order to do so effectively, had created and enhanced sectarian divisions among the urban and rural working and middle classes. It is also an inconvenient fact that the British cultivated a client “nationalist” capitalist class in Ireland and that the police and military forces used to back up Murphy’s coalition in 1913 were under British colonial control.

To my mind, a good comprehensive analysis of the decline in prominence of the Irish working class on the political stage from its high point in early 1913 and even in 1916, has yet to be written. One can see a number of factors that must have played a part and the killing of Connolly was one. But something else happened between 1913 and 1916 which had a negative impact on the working class, not just in Ireland but throughout the World. In July 1914, WW1 started and in rising against British colonialism in Ireland, Connolly also intended to strike a blow against this slaughter. As the Lockout struggle drew to its close at the end of 1913 and early 1914, many union members had been replaced in their jobs and many would find it hard to regain employment, due to their support for the workers and their resistance to the campaign to break the ITGWU. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that many joined the British Army or went to work in war industries in Britain. Although the Irish capitalist class supported the British in that War (up to most of 1917 at any rate) it was imperialism which had begun the war and British Imperialism which recruited Irish workers into its armed forces and industries.

Reaching back in history but to different parts of Europe, Padraig Yeates, in his short and often amusing launch speech, cracked that “for years many people thought Karl Kautsky’s first name was ‘Renegade’ ” — a reference to the title of one of Lenin’s pamphlets: The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Yeates apparently admires Kautsky and quoted him on Ireland. But Kautsky advocated no uprisings against imperialism or colonialism in the belief that “super-imperialism” (also called “Hyper Imperialism”) would regulate itself peacefully, letting socialists get on with the task of evolving socialism. Two World Wars since then and current developments have negated Kautsky’s theory but more to the point, to advocate his theory as a guiding principle at the time he did was a major ideological threat to proletarian revolution and to the evolving anti-colonial struggles of the world and therefore he was a renegade to any variant of genuine socialism and socialist struggle.

This is relevant in analysing the position of the trade union leaders and the Irish Labour Party today. They are social democrats and their central thesis is that it is possible to reform capitalism, by pressure on and by involvement in the State. They deny what Lenin and others across the revolutionary socialist spectrum declare, that the state serves the ruling class and cannot be coopted or taken over but for socialism to succeed, must be overthrown.

It is the social-democratic analysis that underpinned decades of the trade union leaders’ social partnership with the employers and the State, decades that left them totally unprepared, even if they had been willing, to declare even one day’s general strike against the successive attacks on their members, the rest of the Irish working class and indeed the lower middle class too since 2011. Indeed Padraig Yeates, speaking at a discussion on trade unions at the Anarchist Bookfair a year or two ago, conceded that social partnership had “gone too far”. Can Jack or any other collaborationist trade union leader blame that on the transitory defeat of the 1913 Lockout? They may try to but it is clear to most people that the blame does not lie there.

Two other speakers addressed the audience at the launch, Katherine O’Donnell and Caitriona Crowe. Catriona Crowe is Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland and, among other responsibilities, is Manager of the Irish Census Online Project, an Editor of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Vice-President of the Irish Labour History Society. She is also Chairperson of the SAOL Project, a rehabilitation initiative for women with addiction problems, based in the North Inner City. It was her, I think, who made the only mention of “Blueshirts” and her also that mentioned the anniversary of James Connolly. Although her speech was overlong in my opinion for a book launch in which she had already been preceded by two longish speeches, strangely I can remember very little of what she had to say.

Katherine O’Donnell’s contribution however made a considerable impression upon me. She declared herself early in the speech to be lesbian and a campaigner for gay and lesbian rights and is Director of the Women’s Studies Centre at the School of Social Justice at UCD. O’Donnell began by praising Padraig Yeates’ work, of which she declared herself “a fan”. In a speech which at times had me (and sometimes others too) laughing out loud, she discussed the contrast in the fields of historical representation between some historians and those who construct historical stories through the use of imagination as well as data; she denounced the social conservatism of the state, including the parameters of the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage, the legal status of marriage in general and the climate of fear of prosecution engendered by the shameful capitulation of RTE to the Iona Institute on the accusation of “homophobia” (she did not mention them specifically but everyone knew to what she was referring).

After the launch speeches -- (L-R) Padraig Yeates, Katherine O'Donnell, Caitriona Crowe.
After the launch speeches — (L-R) Padraig Yeates, Katherine O’Donnell, Caitriona Crowe.

Jack O’Connor, between speeches, made a reference to a giant banner hanging off Liberty Hall which had the word “NO” displayed prominently, saying that they had received congratulatory calls from people who thought it was against same-sex marriage. The banner was however against privatisation of bus services. The current banner on Liberty Hall says “YES” to the proposal in the forthcoming referendum and he said that now busmen were calling them up complaining …. to laughter, O’Connor commented that “it’s hard to the right thing, sometimes”. Presumably what he meant was that it is hard to know what the right thing to do is, or perhaps to please everybody. 

It is indeed hard to please everybody but I’d have to say that it is not hard to know that the purpose of and ‘the right thing to do’ for a trade union, is to fight effectively and with commitment for its members and for the working class in general. And that is precisely the responsibility which has been abrogated by Jack

In the background to this photograph of a Reclaim the Streets demonstration in 2002 is Liberty Hall, draped in a hug "Vote Labour" banner. SIPTU has maintained that position through a number of coalition governments in which Labour has participated and that have attacked the living standards and rights of workers.
In the background to this photograph of a Reclaim the Streets demonstration in 2002 is Liberty Hall, draped in a hug “Vote Labour” banner. SIPTU has maintained that position through a number of coalition governments in which Labour has participated and that have attacked the living standards and rights of workers.

O’Connor personally, along with other leaders of most of the trade unions, including the biggest ones for many years, SIPTU and IMPACT. And also by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. That is why Jack O’Connor gets booed now if he ever dares stand on a public platform related to trade union struggle, a treatment received also by David Beggs before he retired from the Presidency of ICTU.

Back in 2011, another giant banner hung from Liberty Hall – that time it urged us to VOTE LABOUR, as did leaders of other trade unions. Stretching magnanimity, we might give the trade union leaders the benefit of the doubt and say they had forgotten that the Labour Party had only ever been in Government in coalition, most often with the right-wing Blueshirt Fine Gael party and that its most recent spell sharing power had given us one of the most repressive governments in the history of the State. Let us imagine for a moment that these social-democratic union leaders had forgotten all that. But, after February 2011, as Labour and Fine Gael went into coalition and both reneged on their election promises, as the Coalition government began to attack the working class and the lower middle class, what is their excuse then? When did they denounce the Labour Party to their members, publicly disaffiliating from the party? No, never, and the fact that those disgusting connections continue was underlined by the presence at the book launch of a Labour Party junior Government Minister and the late arrival of none other than Joan Burton, Minister for Social Constriction …. er, sorry, Protection.

Plaques in Glasnevin's Republican Plot recording the names of 77 of the 81 Irish Volunteers officially executed by the Free State between November 1922 and May 1923. Their police and military killed about another 150 without judicial procedure.
Plaques in Glasnevin’s Republican Plot recording the names of 77 of the 81 Irish Volunteers officially executed by the Free State between November 1922 and May 1923. Their police and military killed about another 150 without judicial procedure.

Considering that the book being launched was about the Civil War, it is really extraordinary that no speaker mentioned the repression by the Free State during and after that war. I am certain that Padraig Yeates has not glossed over that, he is much too honest and too good a historian to do so. But that only one speaker at the launch (Catriona Crowe) should mention the sinister Oriel House and none the at least 25 murders its occupants organised, nor the 125 other murders by Irish Free State soldiers and police, nor the 81 state executions between November 1922 and January 1923, sets one wondering at just how much self-hypnosis sections of our political and academic classes are capable.

Elephants, elephants everywhere

but not one can be seen!

End.