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Speech at a Reception to Mark the 102nd Anniversary of the Irish Citizen Army

Áras an Uachtaráin, 22nd March 2016

A Cháirde go léir,

You are all most welcome to Áras an Uachtaráin for this very special afternoon of history, music and literature. It was Sabina who suggested this special occasion and I am grateful to her, as I am sure you are, that we have this opportunity to recall and honour, among friends, the distinctive contribution of the Irish Citizen Army to Ireland’s freedom.

As all of you here are well aware, amidst the various formations which took part in the Easter Rising of 1916, the Irish Citizen Army stands out from all others as an organisation with a markedly egalitarian outlook – a workers’ army whose members were committed not just to national independence, but to the social and economic transformation of Ireland. The Republic of which those men and women dreamt was one that would enable the full participation of all its citizens, as well as a more equal redistribution of the fruits of labour among them. In that sense, the Citizen Army was part of a global movement for democracy in its fullest sense.

It is important to recall, of course, that the Irish Citizen Army is sourced in an event which stands in its own right as one of huge political significance in the history of Ireland – the Great Lockout of 1913 and the response to it organised by the leader of the new Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), Jim Larkin. As Pádraig Yeates put it in the introduction to his seminal book Lockout. Dublin 1913:

“The lockout is the nearest thing Ireland has ever had to a socialist revolution, and it therefore provides a glimpse of an alternative Ireland that people strove for before competing nationalisms imposed their own social straightjackets, ones that proved immensely durable as well as restrictive.[1]”

As a workers’ militia created to defend the strikers against the attacks of the police and the strike-breakers during what was an extremely violent confrontation with capitalism, the Citizen Army springs from the experience of the working people of Dublin:  it was from the tenements and the ranks of the excluded that so many of its members came, and the transformation of the dreadful social conditions endured in those tenements was part of what they sought to achieve. 

While an attempted Lockout had been defeated in Wexford, in 1912, the Dublin Lockout of 1913 exacted a heavy price. Although it may have been a defeat in the short term, the principle objective of the employers, which was to destroy a general union, to forbid union membership – to defeat “Larkinism”, as they put it – was not successful.

The revolutionary ambition of the Citizen Army became much more explicit in its second phase, from March 1914 onwards, when the force was entirely reorganised, following a damaging charge on a rally of the unemployed by the metropolitan police. This reorganisation – of which we are celebrating today, 22nd of March, the 102nd anniversary – was brought about at a large meeting in Liberty Hall, during which an Army Council was elected and a Constitution adopted. Sabina’s readings will give some of the atmosphere of the day.

Drafted by Seán O’Casey, the Citizen Army’s Constitution asserted, in article 1, that:

“The ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland.”

This article indicates how aware its authors were of the political thought and the turmoil of a world stirring in its democratic demands.  It is important to note how this first article subsequently made its way into the 1916 Proclamation and – despite the hostility of the IRB – into the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, thus making of the Constitution of the Irish Citizen Army one of the founding documents of our state. Very importantly, these words also reflect the coming together of Patrick Pearse’s and James Connolly’s language in the wake of the Lockout of 1913. 

The Citizen Army changed thoroughly, therefore, from the loosely organised group equipped with sticks and bats it had been before March 1914, to the armed and well-trained, though smaller, force that would take part in the Rising of 1916 under the command of James Connolly.

Indeed, after Larkin's departure for America, in October 1914, the Irish Citizen Army passed under the direction of James Connolly. It was he, together with Michael Mallin, who turned the Citizen Army into a highly motivated and disciplined military force. Tellingly, as a result the Irish Citizen Army did much better in mobilising its troops than the Volunteers after Eoin MacNeill's countermanding order. Indeed, it is doubtful if the Rising would have gone ahead without the Citizen Army's 250 men and women combatants [i.e. almost a third of the troops who became available on Easter Monday].  

Over the months following the reorganisation of the force, such figures as Seán O'Casey and the pacifist, feminist and labour sympathiser Francis Sheehy Skeffington left the Irish Citizen Army. The former outlined his reasons for resigning from his office as Secretary of the Military Council of the Irish Citizen Army in his Story of the Irish Citizen Army[2], published in 1919.

Before we hear Sabina reading from this account by O'Casey of the history of the Irish Citizen Army, I think that it is important that we reflect briefly on the difference between Sean Ó Cathasaigh – as he then signed himself as Secretary of the Irish Citizen Army – and James Connolly, over the issue of a possible, or realistic, rapprochement between the workers’ force and nationalist forces heavily influenced by the IRB. 

One can understand Sean O’Casey’s view. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, one of the voices of nationalism abroad, had after all supported William Martin Murphy during the Lockout. Then too, a native land-grabbing element had recently emerged in rural Ireland in the form of a politically ambitious grazier class. The language revival had been traded for economic advantage and prospects for personal advancement rather than any utopian notions of cultural replacement or revival. Irish nationalism had a faint content of egalitarianism. It was also strongly individualistic in its US influences. However, in Connolly’s view, the question was – should the moment be lost?

O'Casey's quarrel initially came to a head over the matter of Constance Markievicz's dual membership of both the Volunteers and the Citizen Army. This "serving of two masters" Seán O'Casey saw, as William Irwin Thompson puts it in his The Imagination of an Insurrection, "as absurd as being a capitalist and a communist at the same time.”[3] O'Casey's demand that the Countess resign from one of these organisations was not supported by the majority of the others in the Irish Citizen Army and its Army Council, including Larkin.   The Countess, after all, had manned the soup-kitchens during the lockout, and it was a friend of hers, Captain Jack White, who had started the Citizen Army with fifty pounds of his own money.  

Captain White had been patient too in his response to Jim Larkin’s occasional differences with him, based on class suspicion. However, O’Casey’s handling of his motion at the General Meeting of the late summer 1914 was so confrontational that it drew a response from Larkin himself, who might have been assumed to be sympathetic to his views. O’Casey having lost the vote, the pressure for an apology from him was too much to take – he resigned.

O'Casey's retrospective view, as stated in his Story of the Irish Citizen Army, was that “Connolly had stepped from the narrow byway of Irish Socialism onto the broad and crowded highway of Irish Nationalism”.  This too must be treated critically. The suggestion that, when WWI broke out, James Connolly scrapped his faith in socialism to embrace pure nationalism is contradicted by Connolly's writing and journalism both before and after 1914. James Connolly was deeply concerned with the context of turmoil in Europe and the world, whose revolutionary potential was, in his view, being squandered in defence of imperialist adventurism. In Connolly’s estimation, a blow against Empire was a clearing of the ground for future socialist struggle. Desmond Ryan was therefore correct, I think, in calling Connolly's commitment to socialism "the most vital and consistent thing about him."[4] 

We should also recall that such devoted socialists and trade unionists as William Partridge and P.T. Daly stayed with the Citizen Army until 1916. As for O'Casey's declaration, also in his Story of the Irish Citizen Army, that “in Sheehy-Skeffington, and not in Connolly, fell the first martyr to Irish Socialism” – such a statement must be put in perspective. As Manus O'Riordan has argued in his pamphlet James Connolly Re-Assessed, while Francis Sheehy Skeffington could not in conscience take up arms himself, there was no essential political difference in purpose between him and Connolly.

Francis Sheehy Skeffington’s speech from the dock, during his June 1915 trial for anti-recruiting activities, strongly echoed Connolly's views in hoping that the War might result in the break-up of the British Empire.  Then too, James Connolly’s choice of Francis Sheehy Skeffington as his literary executor also confirms their mutual accord in ideological terms.[5]

It is important, therefore, not to rush to judgment on what James Connolly's motivations were for orchestrating a joint action with the Volunteers. One can understand how, in despair at the collapse of his and other socialists' internationalist hopes after the outbreak of the War, appalled by the breakdown of the international proletariat into nationalities who were slaughtering one another on the Western Front and in the Middle East, James Connolly resolved to seize the opportunity of the war to strike a blow again the British Empire. James Connolly was familiar, too, with a deeper literature on the changing balance between nationalism and socialism as the struggle against imperialism developed.

Those of the Irish Volunteers who were under the control of the IRB had been made aware of James Connolly’s conclusion that the time to strike against empire had come, and that the opportunity had to be seized. Conscious of Connolly’s inclination for action, they decided to induct him into the IRB.

The rapprochement between Connolly and Pearse should not, however, obscure the fundamental ideological difference that existed, and continued to exist even after the 1914 split between Redmonites and separatist Volunteers, between the men and women of the Irish Citizen Army and mainstream nationalists. 

We should never lose sight of the fact that the members and leaders of the Irish Citizen Army, who drew their inspiration from the contemporary upsurge in labour movements internationally, asserted the rights of workers over the fields and factories in which they laboured, while the owners of those fields and factories, some of whom were nationalists, staunchly opposed, together with Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy and Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin, any radical ideas of redistribution.

Indeed, the ranks of mainstream nationalists, and particularly those of the Irish Parliamentary Party, comprised a significant number of industrialists and graziers who were happy to secure the advantages of a political independence within the Empire but who would resist economic, social, or as both O’Casey and Synge would learn, cultural, innovation.

Thus, while the 1916 Proclamation had promulgated “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland", the men and women who were “out” in 1916 had very different understandings as to who exactly should own Ireland in the new Republic they were calling forth.

This profound divergence would be further revealed during the drafting of the 1922 Constitution of the Free State, when the suggested inclusion of Pearse’s words on equality were dismissed as “Bolshevist” by the British authorities to whom it was submitted.  The words were dropped.  In 1922, when Labour threatened to withdraw its 19 members unless the Dáil was called into session, the response from IRB members of the War Council was that a military victory in the Civil War would give notice, as Eoin O’Duffy put it in a letter to Michael Collins, to “the Labour element and the Red Flaggers … at the back of all the moves to make peace” as to how any future Bolshevism would be dealt with.

But let us go back to March 1914: for those who formed or joined the Irish Citizen Army, it was clear that the future Republic would not be about replacing an alien landlord class with a native one, or one form of conservative nationalism with another one. Their ambition was to transform the social, economic and cultural, as well as political, hierarchies of the Ireland of the turn of the 20th century.

The ideological difference between the Irish Citizen Army and mainstream nationalists comes across very strongly in the earlier writings of James Connolly, who was deeply wary of the ambitions of those whom he identified as "gombeenmen", who had already manifested themselves among the grazier class and who were eyeing the possibility of a new independent state for further opportunities. Those were people who, in Connolly’s view, wanted nothing more than a transfer in their favour of the administration of Ireland. As Connolly had put in his 1897 pamphlet entitled Erin's Hope: 

“Their political influence, they derived from their readiness at all times to do lip service to the cause of Irish nationality, which in their phraseology meant simply the transfer of the seat of government from London to Dublin, and the consequent transfer to their own or their relatives’ pockets of some portion of the legislative fees and lawyers pickings.”

In a further article, entitled “The coming generation”, published in The Workers' Republic on 15th July 1900, James Connolly had outlined the difference between the nature of his struggle for Ireland and the basis on which the patriotic feelings of many mainstream nationalists were grounded. Connolly's thorough, indeed emotional, concern for the welfare of Ireland's poorer people surfaces in the words of the much quoted passage:

“Ireland without her people is nothing to me, and the man who is bubbling over with love and enthusiasm for ‘Ireland’, and can yet pass unmoved through our streets and witness all the wrong and the suffering, the shame and the degradation wrought upon the people of Ireland, aye, wrought by Irishmen upon Irishmen and women, without burning to end it, is, in my opinion, a fraud and a liar in his heart, no matter how he loves that combination of chemical elements which he is pleased to call ‘Ireland’.”

While nationalism and religion could have been invoked against an absentee landlord class, neither could be invoked against a native predator. I believe, too, that Irish historiography has insufficiently addressed the differences that were deepening between an increasingly impoverished urban working class and a rural Ireland from which so many of the marginalised had migrated.

James Connolly’s own upbringing in poverty stricken Edinburgh made him sensitive to the plight of the children of Dublin's tenements, where, within a half day’s journey from the Empire’s centre in London, some of the worse conditions in the world prevailed. Connolly ended this same article I have just quoted with a poem that includes the lines:

“Think of the children who swarm and die

In loathsome dens where despair is king,

Like blackened buds of a frosty spring

That wither sunless, remote they lie

From the love that nurtures each quickening sense ...”

Thus the experience of the most vulnerable was the living pulse at the heart of the transformative social vision heralded by the Irish Citizen Army. It was certainly the motivation for those who joined after having experienced the brutality of the Great Lockout, its deprivations and confrontations, but it was also so for those from a wealthier background who, like Constance Markievicz or Dr. Kathleen Lynn, had gained a profound understanding of what life was like in the slums of Dublin through their participation in the Lockout's soup-kitchens.

Their membership in the Citizen Army shows how the ethical appeal of egalitarianism, an awareness of the consequences of imperialism, with its notions of the inherent superiority of those who held power – that consciousness was not confined to one class or the direct experience of poverty. 

Most worthy of note is the place the Irish Citizen Army carved out for women, both among its ranks and in its vision for the Ireland of the future. Indeed, Francis Sheehy Skeffington and James Connolly alike saw women’s emancipation as being essential for any genuine social progress. If I may, again, quote from James Connolly’s own work in The Re-Conquest of Ireland :  He stated: -

“Of what use… can be the re-establishment of any form of Irish State if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood. As we have shown, the whole spirit and practice of modern Ireland, as it expresses itself through its pastors and masters, bear socially and politically, hardly upon women …

None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter. In its march towards freedom, the working class of Ireland must cheer on the efforts of those women who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetters of the ages, have arisen to strike them off, and cheer all the louder if in its hatred of thraldom and passion for freedom the women’s army forges ahead of the militant army of Labour. (1915)”

Ag déanamh beart do réir a briathar, practicing as he had written, James Connolly, Helena Molony recalled, “gave out revolvers to our girls”[6] during the Rising, whereas Eamon de Valera, for example, refused to allow women into Boland’s Mills. The Irish Citizen Army's chief medical officer, Dr Kathleen Lynn, was of course also second in command at City Hall, while Constance Markievicz and Margaret Skinnider, members of the Irish Citizen Army, played an important combatant role at St. Stephen’s Green.

None of this makes of Irish Citizen Army members, or of James Connolly, irresponsible, blood-thirsty revolutionaries, as some contemporary commentators might like to portray them. On 22nd January 1916, after he had agreed that the Citizen Army should join an armed insurrection together with the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers, James Connolly published an editorial which is at once both a call to arms and an embodiment of his constructive thought.

Entitled "What is Our Programme?", this text proves that Connolly issued the call for a Rising as a Socialist, as a theorist and practitioner who never lost sight of his vision for an inclusive and peaceful new society that could be created in a post imperialist setting. Yes, it would require further struggle, but the conditions would have changed. After the famous lines "The time for Ireland’s battle is NOW, the place for Ireland’s battle is HERE", but as Connolly went on to write: -

“But the moment peace is once admitted by the British Government as being a subject ripe for discussion, that moment our policy will be for peace and in direct opposition to all talk or preparation for armed revolution. We will be no party to leading out Irish patriots to meet the might of an England at peace. The moment peace is in the air we shall strictly confine ourselves, and lend all our influence to the work of turning the thought of Labour in Ireland to the work of peaceful reconstruction.”

That too was Labour’s initiative, in its attempts, several years later, to end a desperately destructive Civil War. But some of the forces in that war were pressing for a military resolution, as showed by the O’Duffy letter to Michael Collins I have quoted earlier, a message from a senior IRB figure, so that workers should know that any future confrontation would be met with force.

One hundred years on, Ireland is at peace. Often fragile, this peace is a real achievement and a source of hope, supported by an overwhelming majority on this island. A century after the Rising, Irish and British people enjoy constructive and trusting relations within a common European Union.

I am delighted that we will have the opportunity, this afternoon, to admire the uncrowned green harp flag of the Citizen Army which one Royal Inniskilling Fusilier found in the rubble of Liberty Hall on Wednesday, 26th April 1916. The decision of the Inniskillings Museum at Enniskillen Castle, Co. Fermanagh, to loan this flag to SIPTU, an appropriate successor as an amalgamation of the ITGWU and the FWUI as a contribution to the 1916 commemorations – is, I believe, a generous gesture, a clear manifestation of the mutual respect, friendship, and the new hospitality to different versions of history that can now prevail between the citizens of these islands.

We are, in Ireland today, at a critical juncture. The work of social and economic reconstruction is only starting, in the aftermath of what was an unprecedented property and credit bubble followed by a catastrophic financial collapse. The recent decades have seen a weakening of the role of the State, as well as an exponential growth in what is unaccountable to democratic voice.  We are losing social cohesion and riding a wave of populism.  We do need again to hear an appeal to solidarity, emancipatory ideas and transformative policies.

The vision of a society held by James Connolly and the Citizen Army at the turn of the twentieth century was a noble and practical programme. It is a vision that can still sustain us.

Let us, then, seize these centenary commemorations of the 1916 Rising as an opportunity to rekindle the ethical promise heralded by the women and men of the Irish Citizen Army. Let us take on the struggle for equality and social justice, and make, once again, of the experience of the most vulnerable among us the lifeblood of our political thought.


[1] Pádraig Yeates. 2000. Lockout. Dublin 1913. Gill & Macmillan, p.x.

[2] P. O’Cathasaigh [Sean O’Casey]. Dublin and London, 1919.

[3] William Irwin Thompson. 1967. The Imagination of an Insurrection. Dublin, Easter 1916. Barnes & Noble, p.198.

[4] James Connolly (Dublin 1924)

[5] According to Manus O'Riordan, as he awaited the firing squad, the wounded Connolly expressed the wish that Francis Sheehy Skeffington be named his literary executor, only to discover that he had already been murdered by the British Army.

[6] “Even before the Russian Army had women soldiers”, Molony proudly declared, “the Citizen Army had them.”