CM, Béal Feirste
Remembering soldiers in November is usually seen as a fairly Brit preoccupation, for obvious reasons. However, as Irish socialists we have our own army to remember in November: The Irish Citizen Army (ICA). Whilst the exact date of its inception is hard to pinpoint, as calls for a workers’ army had been heard as early as October 1913, it was on the 23rd of November when the ICA made their public debut.
The Citizen Army was formed in the midst of the Dublin Lockout with the express purpose of defending the working class from brutal attacks at the hands of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). Although picketing was a protected right under the 1906 Trades Disputes Act, this did not stop the police from carrying out baton charges against strikers. The worst excesses came on the 31st of August, 1913, when the police charged crowds of strikers and people returning from church, with no care for who they targeted. Two died and hundreds were injured, thus resulting in Ireland’s first “Bloody Sunday”. Against this backdrop of violence, the Irish Citizen Army was formed. For the remainder of the Lockout, their activities were primarily that of protecting workers. Irish Volunteer, Joseph O’Connor, remarked: “I saw some shocking brutalities done on the people by the Police Force during that time. I saw the people being batoned and beaten, and I saw the start of the Citizen Army to protect them”.
Whilst the ICA are most known for their actions in the Lockout and in the Rising, the ICA continued the fight. Despite setbacks, and loss of members, the ICA continued to defend workers. Knowing, as all socialists do, that the bourgeois state and its lackeys exist to defend bourgeois interests, the ICA continued to assert the interests of their class, knowing that it was down to workers themselves. They continued to protect protesting workers and trade unionists from harassment, with James O’Shea recalling at one protest “Wherever there was a squad of police that night there was a squad of the Citizen Army facing them”. During a later dockers’ strike, scabs were brought in and police harassed any striker who picketed, however the presence of a squad of the Citizen Army with fixed bayonets – at James Connolly’s request – soon changed that. The strike was settled the day after with “a considerable increase in wages to the dockers concerned”. Certainly, as Mao said “Without a people’s army, the people have nothing”. However, the Citizen Army was not a purely military force. Its leadership understood the variety of problems of the time. Just as we in the CYM seek to establish a red counter-culture, so too did the ICA seek to provide an alternative. The Citizen Army was not simply workers armed with guns, but also armed with culture. Weekly concerts were hosted in Liberty Hall by its members and supporters in order to provide an alternative to drinking. Connolly’s plays were performed alongside Irish dancing and Irish singing. Indeed, Seán Connolly of the ICA, often known for being the first rebel to die in 1916, was quite the actor by all accounts. Thus, just as the Citizen Army provided relief from the peeler’s baton, it also provided an alternative to wasted nights spent in a bar.
Ultimately, as with any commemoration, we must remember who these people were. Its members were committed to achieving “an Ireland ruled, and owned, by Irish men and women, sovereign and independent from the centre to the sea, and flying its own flag outward over all the oceans”. Just as it was committed to the ownership of Ireland by both men and women, so too did the Citizen Army consist of men and women. Unlike other groups in Ireland at the time, the Citizen Army was not segregated on the lines of gender, but instead, as Helena Molony said, “Connolly… was more than anxious to welcome women into the ranks on equal terms with men”. But what sort of people they were? Ultimately, they were committed. Weeks before the Rising, Connolly privately asked the members of the ICA whether they would be willing to fight, assuring them that if any individual was not prepared to do so, there would be no hard feelings. Nora, Connolly’s daughter, recalled Connolly asking for a final time when the ICA was assembled at Liberty Hall, reiterating the question and asking that anyone not willing to step out of formation. None did so. “Boys, I never doubted you”, was his response. Closer to the Rising, Connolly mobilised the ICA on the 24th of March, in the aftermath of police harassment, with suspicions that Liberty Hall would soon be raided, men left their work, even if they had only started their shift, and answered the call. Indeed, Connolly wrote of “the spectacle of working men with grimy faces and dirty working clothes rushing excitedly through the streets with rifle in hand and bandolier across shoulders”. Not even threats from their bosses could dissuade them from answering Connolly’s call. Even after the Rising, when locked inside Knutsford Prison, not far from Manchester, with their future still uncertain, members of the ICA continued to display their dedication. Anyone familiar with the story of 1916 will know that the rebels took the opportunity in prison to discuss military tactics, but so too did the trade unionists of the ICA take the time to agitate and lecture amongst their less class-conscious comrades of the Irish Volunteers. But beyond their dedication and commitment to the cause of labour and the cause of Ireland, is the remarkable dedication to each other as comrades. Frank Robbins recalled that when the news of the surrender had finally reached the ICA of the St. Stephen’s Green Garrison, they scorned the thought of making a run for it, declaring: “No! We have worked together, we have fought together and, if necessary, we will die together!”
Therefore, 107 years after the creation of the ICA, and 104 years after the events of 1916, what can we learn from their legacy? Well for one they confirm what all communists know that workers can only rely upon themselves and that the bourgeois state, regardless of what laws it has in place, is never the true friend of the working class. But more than that, they provide an example worthy of emulation. Their efforts to combat destructive drinking culture and forge a working-class counter-culture are still as relevant for socialists of today. Their deep commitment to the revolutionary cause regardless of the circumstances facing them, and their commitment to their comrades, is something that we as communists should seek to emulate and aspire to. Thus, 107 years on, let us not simply remember the ICA, but learn from them and their example so that one day We Will Rise Again.
In Memory Of:
Seán Connolly, K.I.A, 24th April, 1916
Charles Darcy, K.I.A, 24th April, 1916
John O’Reilly, K.I.A, 24th April, 1916
Louis Byrne, K.I.A, 24th April, 1916
John Adams, K.I.A, 25th April, 1916
Philip Clarke, K.I.A, 25th April, 1916
James Corcoran, K.I.A, 25th April, 1916
Edward Cosgrave, K.I.A, 25th April, 1916
James Fox, K.I.A, 25th April, 1916
George Geoghehan, K.I.A, 26th April, 1916
Thomas O’Reilly, K.I.A, 27th April, 1916
Frederick Ryan, K.I.A, 27th April, 1916
Arthur Wicks, K.I.A, 28th April, 1916
Michael Mallinn, Executed, 8th May, 1916
James Connolly, Executed, 12th May, 1916