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Land, Labour & the Irish Revolution: 1913-23

[Part 2 of a 3-part series]

"The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but anger and revolt amongst the workmen against pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other".

David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister, 1919.

The Irish revolution is traditionally associated with the War of Independence between 1919-21 and the subsequent Civil War between 1922-23. In both instances, it is viewed through the prism of the military struggle between the IRA and the British army, and subsequently between the armed forces of the Free State led by Michael Collins and William Cosgrave on the one hand, and the anti-Treaty forces of the IRA under the political leadership of Eamonn DeValera on the other. In very few cases are the Irish masses seen as the decisive protagonists.

The historiography around the 1916 Easter uprising is framed by a similar narrative.

As this article will demonstrate, however, the essential dynamics of the Irish revolution – including the counter-revolution which codified partition on both sides of the border – can only be understood through a Marxist analysis which charts the rise of Irish capitalism and the pivotal role of the working class in both town and country.

The 1916 Easter Rebellion is probably one of the best known and widely celebrated episodes in Ireland’s centuries-old struggle for freedom and social emancipation. At the same time, it is also the least understood and most misrepresented in terms of its historical significance. Whilst its principal intellectual leader and ardent organiser, James Connolly, is rightly acknowledged as one of the great heroes of Irish republicanism, his abiding legacy as an advocate of social revolution is mostly ignored or romanticised beyond recognition.

In part, this is due to Connolly himself who in practice, when it came to the Easter Rising, separated the national question from his own undying belief in socialism as the only guarantor of genuine emancipation.

The social revolution which Connolly stood for, was not only based on the ideas of Marx and Engels, it was aso firmly rooted in the material reality of Ireland’s historical development

Whilst capitalism in Ireland, especially in the 26 counties, lagged far behind its European counterparts, the 20th century still witnessed the emergence of an Irish working class that was to become a decisive factor in the Irish revolutionary movement. Connolly’s work as a union organiser, in tandem with the indomitable figure of James Larkin, was testimony to this rarely acknowledged fact.


Conquest and capitalism

The British colonial plantation of Ireland, and its governance in the interests of the propertied classes of both islands, was an absolute catastrophe for Ireland. As Connolly would say, it resulted in “the social and political servitude of the Irish masses”. This in turn produced one of the earliest crimes against humanity, expressed in the Irish famine of 1845-49, when a million lives were lost and a further 2 million were driven from their country to seek refuge from poverty and hunger.

It took a century and a half before Westminster grudgingly acknowledged its responsibility for this, albeit without ever criticising the property relationships which underpinned it.

This horrific crime was one aspect of British colonial policy which accentuated Ireland’s economic backwardness and dependency. With agricultural production and land ownership tailored to the needs of the burgeoning British capitalist market, Ireland's misery nurtured much of the Empire's fortunes.

Apart from the northeast, Ireland’s industrial development was thoroughly disadvantaged by the Act of Union. With the elimination of trade barriers, British capitalism gained over whelming superiority and many Irish firms were simply wiped out.

The emerging Irish bourgeoisie was weak and feeble but it did exist, albeit as a tributary to its British masters.

Besides the small-scale iron, engineering, chemical and textile industries, there was a growing urban and agricultural proletariat assembled around transport, docks, dairy produce and the drinks and food industries. This process was far more advanced in the north, particularly in shipbuilding, engineering and linen production with a largely - although not exclusively - Protestant proletariat already numbering in the tens of thousands.

The emergence of an Irish, Catholic proletariat was evident in the teeming slums of Dublin. Plagued with levels of poverty and disease unparalleled on the British mainland, Dubliin was home to an army of largely unskilled workers, paid a pittance for their labour and forced to work up to 17 hours a day to feed their children and pay the rents on their overcrowded and unsanitary homes.

These conditions were not only chronicled by Connolly, they also lent themselves to a tempestuous rise of the militant Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) which Connolly was instrumental in building.

In the space of just two years, between 1911 and 1913, membership of the ITGWU rose from 4,000 to 10,000. It was not just the numerical growth which alarmed the bosses. This was a movement overwhelmingly comprised of unskilled labourers, working people who literally had nothing to lose. It was led in Dublin by James Larkin whose revolutionary syndicalist outlook thrived on an uncompromising and militant working class perspective, with mass meetings and sympathetic strike action at its core.

A major landmark in the growth of this militant working class movement was the 1911 strike by 3000 women at the Jacobs biscuit factory in Dublin. The women came out in solidarity with male workers fighting for a decent wage and both won pay rises. The women went on to play an important part in the 1913 lockout when mangagement at Jacobs tried to force three women to remove their union badges.

When Jacobs used procured materials from firms using scab labour, those women who had become members of the ITGWU went out on strike and remained so throughout the winter. By the end of the strike, 1,100 women had lost their jobs and the dispute took on a wider significance when their cause was taken up by dockworkers who refused to handle Jacob's goods.

Lockout and general strike

The local capitalist class were intransigent in their determination to protect their power and privileges against such a rebellious and disorderly force Thus it was, that they banded together, under the leadership of William Martin Murphy, to draw a line in the sand against membership of the ITGWU within their workforce. The class war between labour and Ireland’s incipient capitalist class was about to unfold on a broad scale. It was this which would raise the curtain to reveal the contending social forces in the approaching revolution.

When the tram drivers and conductors began their work stoppage in support of Larkin’s call for a general strike, Murphy and many other Dublin employers proceeded to sack hundreds of workers suspected of being ITGWU members. This was the prelude to what is known as the 1913 Dublin general strike when Irish capital locked out its workers and employed blackleg labour in their place. It was a bitter dispute lasting nearly six months in which the bosses summoned the power of the Church and media to sermonise against the terrible evils of trade unionism.

The workers quite naturally were more concerned with feeding their bodies than saving their souls, and so it was that Irish capital used the more conventional methods of police boots and batons to drive the message home. In one such incident, the Dublin Metropolitan Police carried out a baton charge against a mass meeting on Sackville Street, resulting in the deaths of two workers with some 300 more receiving a salutary lesson in Catholic social mores.

Where the Bishops' sermons failed the cops' batons prevailed and, after being beaten, bloodied and starved by the bosses, the lockout succeeded. The leadership of the British TUC refused Larkin’s plea for solidarity strike action on the British mainland and, by March 1914, most workers went back to work and signed pledges not to join the ITGWU.

Trailing behind the outbreak of war, this defeat marked the beginning of a period of relative class peace. Nevertheless, it was a watershed moment in the development of Irish labour. It demonstrated that the Irish proletariat had entered onto the historical stage as an organised force, as a class in itself and for itself.

Murphy, it should be remembered, considered himself an Irish patriot and was a constitutional nationalist who opposed partition. Although he set himself against Sinn Fein’s outright separatism, he remained an influential partisan of a united capitalist Ireland, albeit as an advocate of fiscal autonomy within the British dominion as a means of nurturing Ireland’s fledgling capitalist economy.

From land theft to land war

At a time when Irish agriculture was still dominated by feudal social relations, the English conquest of Ireland ,and the introduction of a new land tenure system, led to far greater exploitation. Proportionately, bearing in mind the size of the country and its population, the conquest represented by far the greatest land grab in history.

In a matter of decades, the English ruling class confiscated in excess of three million acres of land during the 17th century, an act of plunder resulting in genocide, replicated only by the plunder of 90 million acres of Native American tribal homelands in the USA.

The conquest of Ireland was no less devastating. Alongside a raft of anti-Catholic legislation and blanket discrimination, the Irish peasantry and their chieftains were effectively dispossessed and the quasi-capitalist system of English landlordism superimposed. The land-tenure system meant that tenants generally were not given leases. Instead, they became tenants at will who could be evicted at any time and for any reason. Additionally, they received no compensation for improvements made on the land during their tenancy and received no protection from rent increases or eviction. As one observer put it, the position occupied by Catholic Irish tenants was worse than "the heaviest yoke of feudal servitude”.

The vast tracts of land belonging to English landlords were used overwhelmingly as a source of easy profits to the extent that, between1850 and 1870, landlords extracted £340 million in rent - far exceeding tax receipts for the same period - of which only 4–5% was reinvested. To maximise these profits, large tracts of land that were previously tilled by small farmers were rented out for cattle grazing.

It was not hyperbole when Connolly attributed this to “the great House of Thieves in Westminster

These conditions gave rise in 1879 to the first land war, involving mass rallies, occupations, rent strikes and boycotts. It was this social movement that fueled the nationalist cause and eventually compelled the British state to restructure its domination and exploitation of the island.

The first phase of this process involved a series of land reforms culminating in the Wyndham Land (Purchasing) Act of 1903. Accompanied by generous purchase prices and compensation, this led to the gradual transfer of land to Catholic farmers. The result was the gradual extinction of the dominant Anglo-Irish aristocracy and the emergence of a socially differentiated Irish farming population. Whereas in 1870 only 3% of Irish farmers owned their land, by 1908, this jumped to nearly 50%. By the early 1920s, the figure was at 70%.

The First World War accelerated this process which, for a limited period of time, took the steam out of the nationalist movement. The bulk of Irish agricultural produce was always destined for the British market and, with some of the sea lanes closing down due to the war, Irish produce triumphed over its international competitors.

Demand for food supplies during the war became greater and Irish farmers received much higher prices. For those farmers with some measure of capital investment in new livestock and equipment, this was an unexpected boom.

Nevertheless, contrary to many narratives of the period, this did not bring an end to the agrarian revolt. The changing social landscape endowed it with a different class character that posed new challenges for the Irish liberation struggle.

Labour and the 1916 Rebellion

“....the dependence of the working class upon the owners of capitalist property, and the desire of these capitalists and landowners to keep the vast mass of the people so subject and dependent, is the great and abiding cause of all our modern social and political evils – of nearly all modern crime, mental degradation, religious strife, and political tyranny

So said James Connolly in outlining the aims and methods of the Socialist Party of Ireland in early 1911. But where did the Easter Rising, led by Connolly, fit into this perspective?

The Rising has rightly gone down in history for the boldness and determination of the insurgents to strike a blow for Irish freedom. In the persons of Padraig Pearse and James Connolly, Ireland found its greatest patriots.

In the Citizens Army, forged from the defence of the Irish labour against the cops and blacklegs used during the 1913 lockout, were to be found the most gallant, but far too few, troops required to take on the might of the British Empire.

Connolly believed that, despite the defeat inflicted by the lockout, the ITGWU still retained some power. He pointed to a series of negotiated wage increases, benefiting dockers and other labourers working on cross-channel and deep sea boats in particular. These were decent increases but they were secured without strike action and during war time when the employers and the British state feared trade disruption. In reality, the union was in a state of decline, having lost 5,000 of the 10,000 membership that existed before the lockout.

Despite Connolly’s clear view that the cause of Irish freedom depended on the power of labour, there was no labour insurgency prior to or during the Easter rebellion. In both town and countryside, the war had produced a temporary boom and an accompanying passivity by the labour movement. In addition, tens of thousands of Catholic Irish workers sought relief from their dire situation by means of the income guaranteed from enlisting in the British army.

Not a single strike of any note took place prior to or during the rebellion.

So, what convinced Connolly not only to take part but also to lead the rebellion?

There were two factors. The first was the war itself, which Connolly believed weakened British imperialism and its ability to respond to an uprising. The second was the long running nationalist agitation leading to the passage of the Home Rule Bill. The Loyalist opposition to this in the form of the Ulster Volunteers, produced its counterpart with the formation of the Irish volunteers, a mass force of armed civilians pledged to Home Rule.

By mid-1914, the Irish volunteers numbered some 200,000 men but soon after split into two forces; one led by the Irish Parliamentary Party who supported the British war effort, and the other with links to the Irish Republican Brotherhood who were opposed to it and dedicated to an independent republic. The latter, with Padraig Pearce as its director of military operations, numbered around 13,000, with roughly 6,000 of them having access to arms.

Just one month before the Rising, Connolly felt that conditions were ripening for the revolt. Commenting on the St Patrick Day celebrations of 1916, he observed:

“This 17th of March will be forever memorable for that reason. The magnificent parades of Volunteers under arms, the overflowing meetings, the joyous abandon of the Irish gatherings of all descriptions, and above all the exultant rebel note everywhere manifest, all, all were signs that the cause of freedom is again in the ascendant in Ireland.”

In practice, the numbers involved in the Easter revolt amounted to little more than 1,500 insurgents, of whom just 200 belonged to the Citizens’ Army. This was due in large measure to the betrayal by Eoin MacNeill, the Irish Volunteers Chief of Staff, who countermanded the orders for the insurgency and publicly disavowed it in the press. However, even if the Rising could have counted upon the full contingent of volunteers - not to mention a ready supply of guns and ammunition - this was a far cry from the labour insurgency which Connolly had always insisted should be at the heart of the national liberation struggle.

From all accounts, no attempt was made - either prior to or during the Rising - to appeal to the working class to join ranks with the insurgents. One of the clearest examples of this was with the Jacobs biscuit factory which was occupied during the rising, not by the Jacobs workers but by around 100 members of the 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers under Thomas MacDonagh, a school headmaster and member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).

The factory workers who had struck in 1911 played no part and were not asked to do so.

The most obvious course of action would have been to call for a general strike and/or some sort of mass rally to support the occupation of the Dublin GPO. Unfortunately, the secretive nature of the Rising - part of an age-old tradition of Fenian organisation - precluded this.

The full extent of this disastrous strategy was revealed by Connolly himself in his public address concerning the forthcoming congress of the Irish TUC scheduled for later that year in Sligo. The address was published just one week prior to the Rising, but contained no mention whatsoever of the impending action. Speaking of the war and the terrible social conditions faced by labour, his only advice was to suggest that the congress proceed as planned in August.

The proclamation of the new republic, read by Pearce from the steps of the GPO, was a revolutionary document. Its content was profoundly democratic and deeply national, asserting Irish sovereignty and “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland”.

In proclaiming equal rights for all its citizens, it also argued for women’s suffrage which was still denied on the British mainland. It was an anti-imperialist rallying cry for the whole nation but made no specific appeal to the interests of the working class.

Whilst it “summon(ed) all her children to her flag” it issued no call to action and promised only that it would form a provisional revolutionary government pending “the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women.”

The war had still to run its course. The armies of the contending powers were yet to buckle and conditions were only just maturing for the coming revolution in Russia. The labour movement in Ireland, at that particular conjuncture, was simply not ready to lead Ireland’s national revolution. In such circumstances, the defeat of the uprising was inevitable.

For the House of Thieves at Westminster it was a relatively simple matter of dispatching an extra 16,000 troops fully equipped with machine guns and artillery. Alongside them on the river Liffey appeared the patrol boat Helga whose long-range guns proceeded to shell its first target, Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the ITGWU.

The outcome was almost inevitable, but few had anticipated the sheer brutality of British reprisals. Between them, the Army and the Royal Irish Constabulary arrested 3,430 men and 79 women. Court martials quickly followed, issuing dozens of death sentences. Sixteen rebels, including all seven signatories of the Proclamation, were taken out and shot between May 3 and 12. Hundreds more were either interned in Frongoch in Wales or sentenced to penal servitude.

Moreover, in the figure of James Connolly, the labour movement had lost its most capable advocate, an avowed Marxist and champion of Irish unity and independence. It was a fatal loss, all the more so given the subsequent resurgence in labour struggles in the midst of the democratic revolution initiated by the establishment of Dail Eireann and the 1918 declaration of independence.

Connolly had not prepared for that. He had failed to build either a revolutionary working class party or a class struggle current in the unions, capable of taking its place at the head of the forthcoming revolution and establishing the workers’ republic which he had so brilliantly argued for.

The tragedy was that this is exactly what was on the agenda from 1918 to 1923.

Impact of the Russian Revolution

The worker-peasant revolution in Russia succeeded precisely because such a party had been forged for that eventuality. The success of the revolution shook the world and reverberated across Europe, gaining a foothold on the mainland too, most notably in neighbouring Scotland with John MacLean at the helm of Red Clydeside and arguing for a Scottish workers’ republic.

In Ireland it was the voice of Constance Markievicz, a participant in the Easter Rising and future Minister of Labour in the rebel parliament, who declared from her prison cell:

"Freedom has dawned in the East; the light that was lit by the Russian democracy has illuminated Central Europe, [and] is flowing Westward. Nations are being reborn, peoples are coming into their own and Ireland's day is coming.”

The truth of this forthcoming awakening in Ireland manifested itself in the astonishing outbreak of three general strikes between 1918 and 1920. Prior to that, in February 1918, an estimated 10,000 people packed into the Mansion House in Dublin to ‘hail with delight the advent of the Russian Bolshevik revolution’. Amongst the speakers were Constance Markievicz, Tom Johnston of the Labour Party, a representative of the Soviet government and William O’Brien, one of the leaders of the 1913 Dublin general strike.

After approving a motion in support of the Soviet Republic, the meeting ended with a rousing rendition of the Red Flag as thousands spilled out onto the streets in a spontaneous demonstration.

A few weeks later The Irish Times sought to alert the nation to the imminent danger of Bolshevism:

They [the Bolsheviks] have invaded Ireland, and if the democracies do not keep their heads, they may extend to other countries in Europe. The infection of Ireland by the anarchy of Bolshevism is one of those phenomena which, though almost incredible to reason and experience, are made intelligible by the accidents of fortune or human folly.”

Events themselves would rapidly demonstrate that this was no false alarm. As the war dragged on, a tidal wave of workers’ struggles swept through Europe, including in mainland Britain where tanks and guns would be deployed against strikers and mutineering soldiers and sailors.

The landslide victory of Sinn Fein in the December 1918 election, on a separatist platform, together with the General Strike against conscription which preceded it in April of that same year, were just the opening salvos of a revolutionary upsurge that cascaded across Ireland in the following 5 years.

1918 General Strike

The first great example of this than the 1918 general strike against the threat of conscription.

With Russia now out of the war, the German offensive of March 1918 stretched British resources which were already thin on the ground. Recruitment in Ireland had fallen to around 80 men per week, and this prompted the introduction of compulsory conscription in Ireland. On 10 April, Lloyd George introduced the Military Service Bill to increase the age limit in Britain to 51, and to impose conscription in Ireland.

In response, the Irish trades unions organised a special delegate conference in the Mansion House on April 20th to call a general strike for the following Tuesday, April 23rd. Commenting on the meeting in the Voice of Labour, its editor Cathal O’Shannon said it was, ‘The greatest and most important conference of representatives of Labour ever held in Ireland’.

Everywhere apart from Unionist-dominated Belfast, the country lurched to a halt. Transport and even the munitions factories set up for the war ceased work for the day. Cumann na mBan, the republican women’s movement also called a day of protest, in which they urged women not to take the jobs of men conscripted for the army. Although the legislation was passed by Westminster, it was never enacted.

The general strike was not against the war as such. Rather, it demonstrated the growing nationalist sentiment and opposition to British rule over the island. It was the first truly popular 20th century protest against British imperialism and, although it formed part of a pan-nationalist movement involving the Catholic clergy and the incipient Irish bourgeoise, it was a protest led by the working class. In practice, the labour movement was now staking its claim as Ireland’s noblest champion.

When the war came to an end in November, British imperialism was the acclaimed victor. However, it had been wounded both politically and economically. At the political level, there could be no excuse for delaying enactment of Home Rule any further, and whatever political capital Westminster might have enjoyed amongst the nationalist population had severely dwindled, especially following the bloody retribution it inflicted in the aftermath of the Easter rising.

Sinn Fein’s landslide victory in the 1918 elections was not due solely to popular revulsion against the brutality of 1916. It reflected the growing social crisis of capitalism and the accompanying political turmoil unleashed by the Russian revolution. At its inaugural meeting on 21 January 1919 the rebel Dáil Éireann adopted the Democratic Programme of the 1916 rebellion.

Whilst the first shots in the ensuing war of independence were fired on that same day, the early months were marked by further surge in working class action. It began in Limerick where the British authorities had declared martial law in response to an attempt to free the political prisoner, Robert Byrne. Byrne was a telegraph operator and a member of the Irish volunteers who was sacked from his job for union activities and was sentenced by a British Army court martial to twelve months imprisonment with hard labour for possession of a revolver.

Byrne was killed in the rescue attempt and, after thousands of workers participated in his funeral procession, martial law was declared, with passage in and out of the city requiring special permits. At a meeting on Sunday 13 April, the Limerick Trades and Labour Council called a general strike in Limerick to protest at martial law.

Strike action had already begun at the Cleeves creamery plant where 3,000 workers walked out. In all, some 15,000 workers joined the general strike and began to emulate the Russian soviets by forming strike committees that controlled most transport, production and business activities in the city.

In addition to taking over the local printing company to publicise its work, the Limerick soviet also issued its own currency and regulated prices of household essentials.

It was the first of many such soviets that would spread across the country in the years to come. In the meantime, the Limerick general strike was followed in quick succession by a one-day national general strike called for May 1st. Although the leadership of both the Irish TUC and the ITGWU had generally given Sinn Fein a blank cheque to determine a political strategy for independence, they were under enormous pressure from the rank and file to respond in a way that the IRA’s guerrilla campaign was incapable of achieving, i.e., bringing the economic and state institutions of British imperial rule to a halt. Sinn Fein itself expected the unions to play such a role, albeit as a subordinate force in the liberation movement.

The May Day general strike in 1919 was just such an occasion. However, even as a token protest action, it enjoyed massive support and succeeded in bringing the economy to its knees. A combination of factors, including wartime inflation, had swelled the ranks of the unions, in particular the ITGWU.

So, it was not just a stay-at-home action. Apart from the pickets which enforced the strike, mass rallies and demonstrations took place in many parts of the country. These regional actions caused such concern that the Irish Independent newspaper at the time was forced to comment that:

the displays of the Red Flag by the demonstrators…and the singing of the song associated with that flag show evidence, unfortunately, that the ideas of the continental Socialists are beginning to penetrate into Ireland….that these doctrines should gain a footing in Catholic Ireland is much to be deplored.”

Even in the heartland of Unionist Ireland, the workers were revolting. They were not part of the general strike, but the engineering workers in Belfast went out on strike for four weeks demanding a 44-hour working week. However, despite their obvious common class interests with their sisters and brothers in the rest of Ireland, the Unionist caste system held sway. As the former republican-turned-historian, Padraig Yeates explained:

“But in Belfast it was a very orderly and disciplined dispute. The strike committee ran the city in conjunction with the lord mayor, and the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) appointed 300 special constables nominated by the strike committee to help maintain law and order and avoid battles with the police."

Even so, there was no escaping the fact that the Irish working class was on the move and that the entire edifice of British imperial domination of the island was being rattled at its core. With the rebel parliament in Dublin staking a claim to complete independence, Westminster’s carrot of Home Rule had now given way to its traditional stick of imperial dominion, for which the loyalist reaction in the North provided substantially extra leverage.

1920: General Strike and dual power

To quell the growing insurgency and guerrilla warfare conducted by the IRA, the authorities began a campaign of repression and ‘reprisal’. The Black and Tans, paramilitaries recruited by Churchill to fill the thinning ranks of the police, began a sadistic rampage across Ireland. There were 4,000 military raids in February alone. Sweeping arrests had resulted in over a hundred men being imprisoned in Mountjoy prison without any charge or legal process being directed against them.

This only added fuel to the fire and ignited scenes comparable to the great French revolution of 1789. However, history had moved forward and, on this occasion, the multi-class bloc known in France as the “Third Estate” was threatening to dissolve and crystalise into distinct social classes. As in Russia, the bourgeois democratic revolution in Ireland was growing over into socialist revolution.

The Mountjoy prisoners were not all from Sinn Fein or the IRA. Of the hundred or so political prisoners, there were many trades union militants and socialists as well as Republicans. One of these was the revolutionary socialist Jack Hedley, who had been arrested in Belfast. A Manchester Guardian reporter who interviewed him at the time, described him as follows:

A young man, normally engaged as a trade union organiser and he may be taken as a type of the small but rapidly-growing band of idealists to whom the name of James Connolly is constant inspiration… he is as keen that the Irish nation should become a workers’ republic as that it should be a republic at all.”

Hedley was one of the 36 prisoners who initiated the Mountjoy hunger strike. It began on 5 April and rapidly escalated to include over 90 prisoners a few days later. Inside the prison, the authorities did their utmost to isolate and suppress the protest but the prisoners struck back by breaking down the side walls of their cells in order to communicate with each other.

The harsh treatment of the prisoners and their willingness to struggle provoked a popular reaction, reminiscent of the storming of the Bastille prison in France. Having defeated Westminster’s conscription efforts, it was not long before the Irish masses mobilised in solidarity with the Mountjoy prisoners.

The first attempt to storm the prison began on 10 April, when crowds surrounded the jail. An unsuccessful attempt to set fire to a tank took place and the same night the crowds tested the gates to the jail, which withstood their efforts to push against them.

The following evening, Dublin’s dockers – who were in the middle of their own radical action, a refusal to export food to avert a possible famine – were joined by postal workers and others at the jail in a further attempt to break down its walls and free the prisoners. British soldiers fixed bayonets and fired shots over their heads but the crowds did not move back.

The Dublin District Historical Record described the scene:

“Rapidly constructed obstacles were soon trodden down by the leading ranks … being pressed from behind; even tanks were no obstacle. The troops thus found themselves in the unenviable position of either being overwhelmed or having to open fire on a somewhat passive, but advancing crowd of men and women.”

British defence of the prison was reinforced with more tanks, armoured cars, barbed wire barriers and low flying aircraft but this did not deter the mass mobilisation. On April 12, 20,000 people surrounded the prison once again, drawing in sizeable numbers from the women’s organisation Cumann na mBan


This set the scene for Ireland’s third general strike. In the midst of what was to become the first national liberation struggle on Western Europe’s shores, an indefinite general strike to release the prisoners was called for April 13.

In Dublin, rail workers at Broadstone and Inchicore downed tools and marched on Mountjoy. Work stopped in every part of the city. For the next three days, large parts of Ireland experienced scenes comparable to the Russian revolution. Workers’ councils took over running many towns, flying pickets kept businesses closed. Factories, offices, schools and shops were shut, marts and fairs were dispersed. Stocks of food and coal were seized, with their distribution overseen by workers. Workers’ councils appointed police forces and issued permits.

Reflecting on events in Ireland, the Manchester Guardian observed that:

“in most places the police abdicated and the maintenance of order was taken over by the local Workers’ Councils… In fact, it is no exaggeration to trace a flavour of proletarian dictatorship about some aspects of the strike.

The “flavour” of this is well illustrated in a description of the workers council in Kilmallock, East Limerick:

A visit to the local Town Hall – commandeered for the purpose of issuing permits – and one was struck by the absolute recognition of the soviet system – in deed if not in name. At one table sat a school teacher dispensing bread permits, at another a trade union official controlling the flour supply – at a third a railwayman controlling coal, at a fourth a creamery clerk distributing butter tickets… all working smoothly”

As if to confirm the Guardian’s worst fears, the following message was sent from Galway:

“Well, the Workers’ Council is formed in Galway, and it’s here to stay. God speed the day when such Councils shall be established all over Erin and the world, control the natural resources of the country, the means of production and distribution, run them as the worker knows how to run them, for the good and welfare of the whole community and not for the profits of a few bloated parasites.!”

The general strike lasted just three days before the British authorities buckled completely. After futile attempts to resolve the issue by offering political prisoner status or parole deals, all of the hunger strikers were released. This was unprecedented, literally nothing like it had happened before anywhere in Europe. It was a revolutionary general strike that underlined the vision of Connolly when he stated that “only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.”

The Munitions Strike

Labour’s crucial role in this national revolution did not stop there.

The following month on 25 May, Dublin dock workers refused to handle supplies bound for the Crown forces. Two days later they were joined by the rail workers who refused to transport armed troops. This was to be the start of the 'Munitions of War Strike' lasting through to December when all rail workers, barring those in the six counties, refused to operate trains carrying munitions of war or armed military personnel.

An example of the effectiveness of this came from Dingle where the Kerryman newspaper of 8 June reported what happened to armed British soldiers travelling from Dingle to Tralee:

“When the time came for starting the driver, fireman and guard left the train refusing to take charge of it unless the military left. After a delay of 35 minutes the military party bowed to the inevitable, left the train and returned to their camp. The affair caused a good deal of excitement.”

By November 1920, hundreds of miles of track had been closed, over 15,000 rail workers had been sacked and the British administration was threatening to close the entire railway system. The unions brought the strike to an end in December but there was no denying its effectiveness. The British army commander in Ireland, General Neville Macready, called it ‘a serious set-back to military actions’ while the Chief Secretary Sir Hamar Greenwood admitted that it put the Irish administration in a ‘humiliating and discreditable position’.

Whilst all these actions demonstrated the undeniable capacity of labour to stand at the helm of the national struggle, the Irish working class in town and country was pressing its claims to the wealth of the nation as well.

Class struggle within the Republic

This had begun with wave of wage strikes and dramatic increase in the number of Irish TUC affiliates, more than doubling from below 110,000 in 1914 to 230,000 in 1920. At the core of this was the revival of the ITGWU whose membership had risen more than threefold since its heyday prior to the lockout. Most significantly, around forty per cent of the new members were working in agriculture.

From 1918 to 1921, what was known as the wages movement translated into 782 industrial strikes – as against 307 in the years 1914-1918 –, most of them being successful.

As the war of independence neared its conclusion and Irish capitalism prepared to make its peace with the British empire, a new wave or worker occupation and land struggles spread across the country. Between April 1921 and April 1923, miners, harbour workers, coach builders, foundry workers, gas workers, quarry workers, rail workers, sawmill and creamery workers, occupied their workplaces in several towns throughout the south.

An outstanding example of this was the action of the Cork harbour workers in August, 1921. In the name of national unity against the British, the workers there had been convinced not to press their wage demands. With the end of the war, they struck and succeeded in stopping the passage of several steamers in and out of the port. When the port authority refused their demands, 150 strikers marched on their offices, occupied the building, hoisted the red flag and took control over all harbour operations.

Commenting on the significance of this at the time, the Irish Times published the following observation:

Short-lived as was this outbreak of Irish Bolshevism, it was highly ominous. To-day Irish Labour is permeated with a spirit of revolt against all the principles and conventions of ordered society. The country's lawless state in recent months is partly responsible for this sinister development, and the wild teachings of the Russian Revolution have fallen on willing ears. It is small consolation for thoughtful Irishmen that the first experiments in practical Communism - like this affair at Cork and like the seizure of Messrs. Cleeve's premises at Bruree - have collapsed in a few days or hours. Their real significance lies in the temper and aspirations which they reveal.”

The reference to “Messrs Cleeves premises” at Bruree concerned yet another example of workers seizing control of their industry and fashioning it for their own purposes. In this instance, the bakery and mills in Bruree (County Limerick) were occupied with the workers raising a banner reading Bruree Soviet Workers Mill. In their pursuit of a living wage, the workers continued to produce food at lower prices, double the sales and increase their wages.

The Bruree occupation itself had followed on the heels of the “Knocklong soviet” of 1920 where workers had also struck against the Cleeves creamery empire and succeeded in reducing the working week, winning a substantial wage rise and dismissing the manager.

An overview of this process is revealed by the following data: between 1917 and 1923, in the industrial sector alone, there were 1199 strikes – including 28 involving over 1,000 workers each. Days lost due to strikes and lockouts in 1922 were 794,642, rising to 1,208,734 in 1923.

Included within this were the wave of more than 100 self-managed soviets which sprang up in 1920 and rolled over into 1922. In the latter stages of the revolution, most of these were takeovers of the creameries who had benefitted from the land reform and that had made handsome profits during the war.

By the beginning of 1922, the Irish economy had entered into recession and the employers embarked on an offensive to cut wages and increase hours. The new wave of occupations were in response to this but no less radical in their methods of struggle


Further examples of this were the worker occupations of the town council chambers in Waterford and Tipperary. In the latter instance, the Roscrea road workers accompanied this with the formation of a provisional council of a workers’ republic which proceeded to award a minimum wage of 42 shillings a week for all workers.

By this stage the Treaty with Britain had been ratified. The anti-treaty forces had occupied the Four Courts of Dublin and Westminster was piling on the pressure to extinguish the last flames of revolt. However, it was not just in the towns and cities where Collins’ counter-revolution had faced severe challenges. With the exception of the newly established 6-county statelet, the whole of rural Ireland had been ablaze in a fresh wave agrarian revolt, the likes of which had not been witnessed since the first Land War of the 19th century.

The difference in this case was a crucial one: the social landscape of rural Ireland was now marked by distinct class interests within the Irish farming industry.

Revolution and counter-revolution in the countryside

Although Westminster’s land acts had effectively put an end to the Anglo aristocracy’s chokehold on Irish farming, it did so in a highly uneven and distorted manner which left tens of thousands of landless tenants, farm labourers and a significant portion of smallholders without a means of earning their living on the land.

Under the pre-1921 Land Acts over 316,000 tenants purchased their holdings, amounting to 15 million acres. Not only did this leave over 5 million acres still to be distributed, but the existing 15 million was still divided quite unevenly. The 1916 figures for the size of land holdings provide a crucial insight into this. The total number of holdings was 572,045, of which 480,883 were under 50 acres, 89,137 were between 50 to 500 acres, and 2,025 over 500 acres.

Famine-era clearances were still in evidence and so-called untenanted land - land let out for eleven months’ grazing - was monopolised by a wealthy set of ranchers or graziers. According to Kevin O’Sheil, the commisioner appointed by Dail Eireann to oversee agrarian reform, these ‘astonishingly large areas of untenanted land’ consisted of the ‘primest and best fattening land’ as well as rough grazing that had formerly been in communal use. Meanwhile, most of the population was found on some of ‘the poorest and least productive land’ on holdings that were ‘wholly inadequate from any economic criterion’.

Hence, by 1920 the thrust of the agrarian revolt focussed on enlarging these smaller farms, or creating new ones, at the expense not only of landlords, but of richer strata of farmers. Inevitably, this exposed even further the class antagonisms within the nationalist movement.

With the pace of redistribution slowing down during and immediately after the war, land hunger stoked the fires of an agrarian insurgency.This was further fueled by the sense that the process of land re-distribution was an inherent part of the process of de-colonisation: the ranches were seen as a facet of economic dependence on Britain, as the product of famine-era clearances, and ultimately of Cromwellian land confiscations. It came as no surprise, therefore, that many landless men and small farmers saw themselves as righting historic injustices inflicted by British imperialism.

There were three main trends in the agrarian insurgency. The first was based on strike action for better wages and conditions, led mostly by farm labourers belonging to the ITGWU. The second was land seizures carried out by smaller farmers and labourers. Last, and by no means least, were the cattle drives which involved physically driving cattle herds from the lands used for grazing by the big ranchers or sheep farmers

The scope of this latter tactic is evidenced by a report in April 1920 by one Galway newspaper that claimed that 30,000 acres had been cleared of live-stock — an area equivalent to nearly 50 square miles — and that this involved the driving of 20,000 cattle and as many sheep.

The initial stance of Sinn Fein on the land question seemed to be unequivocally in favour of hastening the pace and scope of land redistribution. A Sinn Féin pamphlet published in late 1917 asked:

‘why have not the ranches, which are all evicted lands, been distributed among evicted tenants, holders of uneconomic farms, labourers, farmers’ sons and other landless people…’

The pamphlet then called on ‘young landless people’ to ‘clear cattle off every ranch, and keep them cleared until distributed’.

In that same year, Eamonn DeValera himself summoned “every Sinn Fein club divide the land evenly”.

By 1919, the rebel government had established a National Land Bank to accelerate the process of land purchasing through loans for the tenants anxious to purchase their own farms. The following year saw the establishment of the Land Settlement Commission and land courts designed to impose a more regulated redistribution of grazing land.

This coincided with a shift to the right by Sinn Fein, in which it began to lean upon the new class of rich farmers. The leadership of the republican movement, on both a county level and on a national level, wanted the situation brought under control and the agrarian movement suppressed.

The situation in the West of Ireland in early 1920 was summed up by Kevin O’Shiel who observed that,

“the fever [of agrarian agitation] swept with the fury of a prairie fire over Connaught and portions of the other provinces, sparing neither great ranch nor medium farm”

By June, the rural insurgency had spread into 16 counties, and by the end of the year a total of 1,114 agrarian “outrages” were recorded, a four-fold increase since 1918 and the highest number since the peak of the Land War in 1882.

An example of these types of “outrages” was included in a newspaper article which reported that a two-hundred strong contingent, mostly comprising of tenants of the Ross estate in Galway, had paraded on horse-back in military formation through the district of Oughterard, stopping at the residences of large graziers who held lands on the estate, and then at the landlord’s house where they forcefully negotiated redistribution.

In response to this agrarian turmoil, a 1920 Dáil report argued that:

“This was a grave menace to the Republic. The mind of the people was being diverted from the struggle for freedom by a class war, and there was every likelihood that this class war might be carried into the ranks of the republican army itself which was drawn in the main from the agricultural population and was largely officered by farmer’s sons.”

It was this which underpinned the institutionalisation of the Republican land courts. The courts had initially arisen during the course of the war of independence and were staffed by local IRA members to arbitrate disputed land claims. Whilst some court rulings favoured redistribution, they were increasingly directed at ending land occupations.

Where the squatters refused, they were forcibly moved off by units of the IRA with some of them being sent to undeclared Republican jails. Of this activity, Hugh Martin of the London Daily News said: “even the unionists are astonished and pleased by it”. One such wrote to the Irish Times:

The Sinn Fein courts are steadily extending their jurisdiction and disposing justice even handed between man and man, Catholic and Protestant, farmer and shopkeeper, grazier and cattle driver, landlord and tenant"

An example of this “even handed justice” was an incident at the Fountain Hill lands in Ballinrobe (County Mayo) in May 1920. Local labourers made a claim for the redistribution of a120-acre grazing estate for use as tillage farming. When the land court ruled in favour of the cattle grazers, the labourers declared that this was “worse than the British” and defied the court by remaining in occupation of the land. O’Shiel’s response was to request the assistance of IRA Chief of Staff, Cathal Brugha, who sent an IRA unit to arrest the labourers and imprison them on an island in Lough Corrib.

Cathal Brugha was a legendary figure in the IRA who eventually sided with the anti-Treaty forces. However, before enjoying his celebrated status in the pantheon of Republican folklore, he was instrumental in engineering opposition to the rural agitation. As early as 1917 he wrote a letter to Father Bourke in Galway regarding the forthcoming Sinn Fein convention:

I understand you have been named as one of the delegates to represent Galway at the Sinn Fein convention. I hope there will be no doubt of you coming up. It is most essential that you should be present, as the closer the connection between the clergy of the right kind and this movement, the better for both and for the country as a whole. It is especially important this connection should be established and maintained in the west; as doubtless you are aware that in other movements attempts have been made there to introduce some of the most objectionable methods of the land campaign. The people who are responsible for this are the type who are always glad to make use of any movement to accomplish their own ends. Now it is to be hoped that none of this class has come into Sinn Fein yet, but we must not take it for granted.”

Brugha’s contempt for the rural poor and their “objectionable methods” reflected the class outlook of the Sinn Fein leadership as a whole. It was this which drove them towards an historic compromise with British imperialism, including forging important ties in a mutual quest to crush organised labour on both islands.

Rich farmers on the offensive

The heightened class and agrarian conflict in rural Ireland, was further fuelled by the 1922 slump in agricultural prices. This was a disaster for small farmers with tens of thousands once again experiencing famine-type conditions. Some 100,000 tenants were seeking to buy out or otherwise seize their landords’ holdings and many of them had been on rent strike since late 1921.Meanwhile exporting farmers, hit by the recession, sought to bring down wages of their labourers which triggered a flurry of strikes that peaked in spring 1922 and the summer of 1923.

By the spring of 1919, the Irish Farmers Union (IFU) and the ITGWU were already at loggerheads over wages and conditions for agricultural workers, most notably in Meath and Kildare. Wealthier farmers were now getting organised to counteract the agrarian insurgency. By 1920 the IFU claimed 60,000 members. It was no coincidence that local branches of the IFU were developing in parishes where the ITGWU existed.

Convinced that a prosperous Irish capitalism depended on agricultural exports rather than a programme of industrialisation, the government believed that the best way of reducing farmers’ costs was through reducing farm labourers’ wages. In October 1921, it abolished the Agricultural Wages Board and with it went the statutory minimum wage.

The IFU won a significant victory against farm labourers in Waterford which established a benchmark for the future. The dispute led to substantial reductions of agricultural workers’ wages across the country with the County Dublin Farmers’ Association standing out for a reduction in wages from 43s. to 32s. per week. As a whole, farm labourers’ wages fell by more than twenty per cent during the period 1922 to 1932, coinciding with a marked decline in membership of the ITGWU from a peak of 100,000 in 1922 to 51,000 in 1925, mainly due to the loss of agricultural workers.

The white guards of capitalism

Instrumental to the success of the counter-revolution in the countryside, was the formation of the Special Infantry Corps (SIC). This was a unit of the Free State’s National Army, founded in January 1923. It was commanded by Patrick Dalton, a veteran of the Easter Rising and its 4000 “constables” were officered other IRA veterans of the war of independence.

The SIC was the brainchild of two members of the Free State cabinet: Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Home Affairs and Patrick Hogan, Minister for Agriculture.

Hogan nailed his colours to the mast when he warned of ‘anarchy’ and the dangers of ‘a new Land War’ led by people, ‘with a vested interest in chaos’. He argued that the Army needed to take on such tasks as land clearing, debt collection, strike breaking and evictions, and recommended troops be used, ‘who are unknown in the locality’.

Pointing to the breakdown of law and order, especially in Galway, Roscommon, Cork, Kerry and Limerick, O’Higgins told his cabinet colleagues:

It is not a war properly so-called’, but, ‘organised sabotage and disintegration of the social fabric.....The Army must act as armed police as well as military’ in order to ‘vindicate the idea of law and ordered government’.

Its primary responsibility was not hunting down or fighting the anti-Treaty IRA, but enforcing the law and arresting land squatters, strikers and other social protesters. In fact, the SIC was expressly ordered not to arrest ‘Irregulars’ but to leave that job to the regular Army.

In total the SIC recorded 371 arrests from January to September 1923. Of these the majority, 173, were for agrarian offences, with 128 accused of ‘miscellaneous’ crimes and only 8 for 'political' offences.

The SIC was a creature born from a government committed to capitalism, wedded now in an alliance with the rich farmers represented by the IFU. The SIC worked hand-in-glove with the local vigilante groups established by the IFU. Known popularly throughout the Waterford countryside as White Guards, these groups robbed, raided and burned the cottages and homes of strikers and union activists.

It was no coincidence that the SIC’s biggest and most violent deployment - involving 600 shock troops - came in Kilmacthomas in Waterford where 1,500 agricultural workers were locked out for refusing to take a pay cut and accept longer working hours. The dispute lasted from May to November 1923 during which martial war was declared, a curfew imposed and over 60 workers were arrested.

Assault on postal workers

The postal strike in September 1922 was the first major industrial dispute coinciding with the Civil War. As such, it was also the first example of a direct government attack on both the rights and living standards of the Irish working class .The strike was provoked by the government’s decision to impose pay cuts across the civil service and to deny postal workers the right to strike.

The Post Office was the largest employer in the state with a workforce of 13,500 in 1922. According to the Union, the cuts would reduce wages to ‘starvation levels’ In September 1922 the interdepartmental committee on the Irish cost of living found that it was 90 per cent higher than in August 1914. At the same time, the government decided to raise cabinet ministers’ salaries from £700 to £1,700 a year.

This triggered the start of the strike involving some 12,000 postal workers. The government immediately took steps to outlaw the strike and to mobilise the police and army against it.

Kevin O’Higgins, Minister of Justice, justified this latter cour of action on the grounds that the anti-Treaty IRA would take advantage of the disruption. It was O’Higgins who subsequently signed the execution warrants for 77 political prisoners.

The Irish Postmaster General, JJ Walsh, viewed the strike as a symptom of the general chaos then enveloping the country and subsequently recalled that ‘at this critical juncture to smash such a well-organised strike was a salutary lesson to the general indiscipline which had then seemed to run riot through the land’.

Walsh was also a participant in the rising and was one of the prisoners in Mountjoy prison for whom the Post Office Workers Union struck in 1920. He would later become closely associated with the Irish Nazi organisation. Ailtirí na hAiséirghe (Architects of the Resurrection). At the outset of the dispute, he had appealed to his British counterpart for assistance in recruiting scab labour to break the strike.

On 12 September the Minister for Defence, at Walsh’s request, issued instructions to the army to prevent the congregation of persons ‘at such points’ that might facilitate ‘the possible rushing of any building by men operating under the shelter of a crowd’. Soldiers were deployed in the immediate vicinity of the central sorting office on Dublin’s Amiens Street. Walsh also obtained military intervention in Limerick, Kilkenny and Wexford and requested intervention in respect of local pickets,

Government intimidation of striking workers was pronounced from the outset. Shots were discharged over the heads of those on picket duty; pickets were arrested and detained without charge; drivers were forced to carry mail at gun-point; an armoured car was repeatedly driven at pickets; strikers were told by various soldiers that their orders were ‘shoot-to-kill’, even though no evidence exists that this was official policy. The union headquarters were also raided by the military and those inside forced to vacate.

The ITUC failed to face up to the issues at the heart of the postal dispute and to mobilise other workers affected by it. Congress effectively abandoned the postal unions and their members. After almost three weeks of military and police harassment and intimidation settlement terms were agreed and the dispute ended on 29 September. The government forced through the pay cuts and the only concession won by the unions was that the cuts would be spread over three months – an offer made before the strike but rejected. The legal rights of civil servants to withhold their labour were subsequently curtailed by provisions within the Treasonable and Seditious Offences Act, 1925.

End of the Soviets

As the counter-revolution took root so too did the offensive against the soviets which had arisen in 1922.

On 12 May 1922 the Cleeves bosses declared a lockout of 3,000 workers. In response, the soviets seized production centres in Bruff, Athlacca, Bruree, Tankardstown, Dromin and Ballingaddy near Kilmallock in County Limerick, several sites in Tipperary Town, Galtymore, Bansha, Colnme, and Carrick-on-Suir in County Tipperary, , as well as Mallow in County Cork.

The Irish Farmers Union led a campaign to cut off the soviets supply of milk, and resolved to "forbid our members to supply under the Red Flag, which is the flag of Anarchy and revolution"

When Free State forces entered any town that had a soviet, they would arrest the leaders and take down any symbols signalling defiance such as Red Flags. However, the soviets also came into conflict with anti-Treaty forces. The Tipperary soviet, for example, was involved in a shoot out with the anti-treaty side. The gasworks soviet in Tipperary which had been in existence for 3 months, was virtually destroyed by the retreating anti-treaty forces.

As the Irish Independent of May 11, 1922, commented:

It is gratifying to observe that, whatever be their differences on other matters, both sections of the IRA are at one in taking measures to end the cattle driving and the seizures of property which have become such frequent occurrences in many part of the country.”

The farmers’ union boycott of supplies took a heavy toll and, without a wider political structure or organisation to unify them, or a fighting force to defend themselves, the soviets were eventually crushed.

By the end of 1923, the carnival of reaction which James Connolly had predicted would occur following partition, had made its mark. Ireland was divided, the working class defeated and British imperialism continued to rule both directly and indirectly.

Important lessons

This outcome was not predetermined. However, it did reveal the underlying dynamics of the revolution from which three crucial lessons can be learned:

  • Firstly, the objective conditions for a successful revolution existed. This was not conditioned by the guerrilla warfare of the IRA, but by the mobilisation of the masses of urban and rural poor.

  • Secondly, caught in a vice between British imperialism on the one hand and an insurgent labour movement on the other, the embryonic Irish bourgeoise opted for the former.

  • Thirdly, although the Irish labour movement demonstrated its capacity to champion the national revolution, it was severely hampered by a leadership that subordinated its class interests to those of the Republican bourgeoisie.

It is this latter aspect that merits particular attention. Once Connolly had been executed and Larkin was imprisoned in the USA, the leadership of the unions and the infant Labour Party effectively stood aside from the central arena of the political struggle for independence. This was made crystal clear by Labour's decision not to contest the 1918 elections and its subsequent abstention on all the issues surrounding the Treaty and partition.

Even the final fling of the labour leadership - the 1922 General Strike against militarism - was intended to curry favour with one section of the Republican bourgeoisie, represented by the Free State, as against the other represented by DeValera.

All the evidence shows that, had labour built its own revolutionary party, the outcome would have been startlingly different.


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