Sean O'Casey: Political Activist and Writer
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 18:23

Sean O'Casey: Political Activist and Writer

Published in Theatre

Jenny Farrell reviews Sean O’Casey: Political Activist and Writer by Paul O’Brien 

Anybody who has come across the work of independent scholar and critic Paul O’Brien knows that his interest lies in the radical tradition of literature and history. He came to my attention with his book Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland (2002). Now, O’Brien has published an impressive volume on Sean O’Casey.

He is perhaps the first Irish author to look comprehensively at the dramatist in political and historical terms, firmly setting the plays into this context from a left-wing perspective. An extensive bibliography reveals the formidable amount of specialist reading that informs this study.

It is accessibly written and sheds light on details of working-class Dublin and international history. An interest in one of Ireland’s great playwrights, a keenness in discovering more about his plays and times is all that is needed to enjoy the book.

While the study is an important one for O’Casey scholars to be aware of, it is refreshingly equally directed at readers beyond academia. O’Brien’s book is not a biography, nor is the book, as its author puts it, “an exclusive critical or literary analysis of his work, but an exploration of the interplay between the political and historical context of O’Casey’s life and its representation in his drama and prose and the way O’Casey negotiated the interplay between politics and aesthetics.”

O’Brien’s interest in Irish labour history is evident in his informative account of late 19th and early 20th century Dublin working-class life and events, following O’Casey’s development and the context from which his plays arose. Into this fall the writer’s involvement with the Irish language and nationalist movement.

National liberation and the class struggle

O’Casey joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1905 and was later instrumental in the establishment of the Irish Citizen Army, which he left before the 1916 Rising. As O’Brien points out, O’Casey’s defining experience had been the Great Lockout of 1913, and much space is rightly devoted to his trade union activism and to Jim Larkin, the organiser of the 1913 Great Lockout.

Less space is spared for the fellow leader of the lockout, the Marxist James Connolly, with whom O’Casey broke. O’Brien sheds some light on this disagreement, focusing on O’Casey’s position which prioritised the class struggle, above the struggle for national liberation, which required an alliance with the class enemy.

Here, it could have been useful to outline Connolly’s stance of an anti-imperialist alliance in a little more detail for balance. Where O’Casey shows part of the truth as he sees it, the reader would benefit from understanding the full picture from a left-wing point of view.

This breach was significant in terms of the position O’Casey took in relation to the Easter Rising and subsequently, informing his three early Dublin plays, which each examine momentous events concerned with the struggle for Irish independence. It might have been helpful for readers not especially conversant with the specific details of the rising, if O’Brien had made clearer that O’Casey did not accurately reflect the degree of working-class involvement in 1916.

A significant proportion of the forces of both the Irish Citizens Army and the Volunteers were working-class people, who identified with and fought for the vision of the Easter Proclamation of a Democratic Republic: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.”

The development of working-class drama

O’Brien’s extensive reading and knowledge of drama and the arts is reflected throughout the book and kindles reader interest in the development of working-class drama. This information is very welcome and enriching in a book about O’Casey, an aspect that is rarely included in O’Casey criticism, and essential to illuminating the context from which grew the first working-class dramatist of international standing, writing in English.

The chapter entitled The New Drama provides much detail and a sense of the times which produced this drama as well as the importance attached to cultural expression and playwriting by the revolutionary working class.

The author’s refreshingly wide awareness of European theatre is evident in his presentation of O’Casey in the context of the left-wing European playwrights of the 1920s and ’30s — Brecht, and Toller, but also Denis Johnston in Britain and the wave of expressionism that characterised the era.

O’Brien is similarly well versed in the history of the Abbey and O’Casey’s struggle for his plays to be performed there, his relationship with Yeats and Augusta Gregory as well as his final resignation and departure for England when The Silver Tassie was rejected.

While O’Brien devotes most space to discussions of the Dublin tragedies, he is aware of O’Casey’s later plays and brings them into the study, setting each in its time, introducing and discussing them in terms of the writer’s outlook. This is significant: O’Casey’s canon beyond the Dublin trilogy is little known in Ireland and the Anglophone world and his fantastic mature plays have rarely if ever been performed here.

The situation was different in the socialist countries, where O’Casey was a standard part of the repertoire and known mainly for his later work. In the GDR, O’Casey was one of the most frequently staged Western dramatists.

O’Brien creates an interest in these later plays and presents their artistic as well as political merit. O’Casey himself, writing at almost 80 years old, affirmed: “I am still a republican, a communist and, in a way, a member of the Gaelic League.”

O’Brien relates that O’Casey had been approached by the Irish Workers League to support the future general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, Michael O’Riordan, in the May 1951 elections. Although O’Casey replied saying his endorsement would damage O’Riordan’s chances, and that he would instead donate towards the fund, his affirmation of O’Riordan in the same letter was used in the election leaflet.

Robert Lowery states: “His ardent enthusiasm and lifelong adulation for the USSR, which he considered one of the world’s greatest human experiments in creating a society of a new type, deserves primacy in evaluating his socialist legacy.”

O’Brien states his purpose is to concentrate “on a political reading of O’Casey on his terms,” and he does this for large sections of the book. He departs from this approach when discussing the dramatist’s position as a lifelong supporter of the communist movement and the Soviet Union, where his own position takes precedence over O’Casey’s.

When this context arises, O’Casey is associated exclusively with the term Stalinism and any differences with the CPGB are highlighted and praised. Sean O’Casey: Political Activist and Writer is an interesting, informative and enjoyable read and a valuable addition to the canon of O’Casey commentary. Although it is a book of academic criticism, it surpasses the narrow reach of the genre and deserves a wide readership.

Strumpet City, by James Plunkett
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 18:23

Strumpet City, by James Plunkett

Published in Fiction

The Dublin lockout of 1913 was one of the greatest industrial disputes in Irish history. The conflict between some 20,000 workers and 300 employers lasted from 26 August 1913 to 18 January 1914. Its core demand was the right to organise.

Dublin’s tenements were among the most squalid in Europe. People lived crammed together, infant mortality was enormous, tuberculosis was rampant. Unskilled workers competed daily for poorly paid jobs and were at the mercy of employers.

James Larkin, Liverpool dockworker, was sent to Belfast in 1907 as a trade unionist with the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL), where he organised a dock and transport workers’ strike. Considered militant and controversial by the union leadership, Larkin was transferred to Dublin, where he set about organising the unskilled labourers. This led to his suspension from the British NUDL in 1908, who feared an all-out industrial dispute with the powerful Dublin employers.

Larkin left the NUDL and founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), which for the first time represented the unskilled as well as skilled workforce. Employers who suspected their workers of wanting to organise could blacklist them, thereby destroying any chance of future employment. The ITGWU spread to other cities in Ireland with growing success in industrial action, and between 1911 and 1913 its membership increased to 10,000.

Alongside Larkin, the Marxist James Connolly was instrumental in the rise of an organised labour movement in Ireland, focusing his attention also on socialist liberation from the British colonial yoke. In 1896, Connolly founded the Marxist-oriented Irish Socialist Republican Party and Ireland’s first regular socialist newspaper, The Workers Republic. In 1911, Connolly became organiser of the ITGWU in Belfast, and in 1912 he co-founded the Irish Labour Party with Larkin.

When the mass lockout in Dublin threatened, Larkin sent for Connolly, who was in Belfast at the time, to help him organise large meetings of the ITGWU. When the lockout began, Connolly led the dispute along with Larkin. As well as writing articles about the lockout for various workers’ newspapers, he addressed mass gatherings in Dublin. After both were arrested following one such event, Connolly was released following his hunger strike, and later led the strike during Larkin’s three week imprisonment. He also organised the support campaign for the Dublin workers in Britain.

Among their opponents was William Martin Murphy, big businessman and most prominent representative of the Irish bourgeoisie, who declared: “Either Larkin rules Dublin or we do”. Murphy understood the threat posed by the new trade unionism developed by Larkin and Connolly and did everything in his power to end their influence.

In August 1913, Murphy sacked hundreds of workers he suspected of ITGWU membership and gave the workers an ultimatum between union membership and their jobs. Members of 37 unions refused to sign the document. And so began the lockout in Dublin. All efforts by British unions to negotiate a settlement were sabotaged by the employers. A police raid on 31 August 1913 left two dead and hundreds injured. It was largely at Connolly’s instigation that the Irish Citizen Army was formed to protect the striking workers and continued to play an important role in 1916.

Connolly and Larkin appealed unsuccessfully in England for solidarity strikes by the British working class, as the only way to bring about a victory for the Irish workers. Without this support from the British workers, Dublin had to admit defeat after five months of heroic struggle. Most of the workers, many on the verge of starvation, returned to their jobs and pledged not to join the ITGWU. Larkin left for the US in 1914 and Connolly was executed in 1916 as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Many workers who were irrevocably blacklisted joined the British Army and became cannon fodder in the First World War.

The years from 1907 to 1914 are the subject of James Plunkett's book Strumpet City. The novel traces the life of the working class in Dublin at that time, and brings this historical moment vividly and impressively to life.

Strumpet City

Set in the period before Irish independence, the collective hero of the novel is the Irish working class as it enters a new phase of its class struggle. The bourgeoisie at that time was also directly dependent on Britain, before the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. Both the bourgeoisie and the clergy, who are represented in a variety of characters, take different positions on this independence, although this was in their interest.

William Martin Murphy “owner of Independent Newspapers, a large drapery business and a hotel, controlling director of the Dublin Tramway Company and several other large-scale ventures, had refused a knighthood at the opening of the exhibition.” Regardless, they broadly agree that they are in a class struggle against the workers and are themselves profiting from their misery.

Following the outcome of the War of Independence, this class, now in power, would confront the working class in a civil war. When it came to defeating the working class, the national question was of secondary importance to the bourgeoisie.

One important representative of the bourgeoisie in this novel is Mr Bradshaw, who owns some of the tenements and treats tenants and employees mercilessly. The police and the clergy support him in this.

Although there are some elements within the bourgeoisie who understand the absolute misery of the working class, they do not openly side with the workers, or question property relations. These characters include, above all, alongside the Protestant company director Yearling, Mrs. Bradshaw, who, plagued by a guilty conscience, is unable to stand up to her husband. Her compassion for the poor is very limited. The clergy hand out alms, unless the poor are in revolt:

“The children are hungry,’ Yearling said.

‘They are hungry because they are on strike,’ Bradshaw insisted.

‘The children are not on strike,’ Yearling challenged.

‘Their fathers are,’ Bradshaw said.

Yearling in turn looked enquiringly at Father O’Connor.

‘What has religion to say to that?’ he asked. He was smiling and conversational in manner, but his eyes were cold. Father O’Connor became uncomfortable.

‘We must all have compassion for those who are hungry,’ he said at last, ‘but this is not by any means a simple matter. It is the duty of the parents to feed their children. If through misfortune they are unable to do so, then it is our obligation in charity to help them. But in the present instance their hunger is not due to misfortune. It is the result of a deliberate decision not to work. If we help them we are doing at least two things that are unjust; we are encouraging them to defy their employers and we are prolonging a most distressing situation.

Yearling and the Reverend Giffley, can only endure the conflict between their compassion for the workers’ misery and their social position through excessive alcohol consumption.

On the side of the working class are Bob and Mary Fitzpatrick, Bernard Mulhall, the Hennessys, the Farrells, and Rashers Tierney, who vividly and authentically embody a comprehensive panorama of different stages of consciousness, ages and circumstances. During the months of lockout, a new class solidarity develops among them. Their determined resistance against the employers brings them unimaginable destitution.

In the novel, the history and aftermath of the events are presented from the point of view of representatives of these different social classes. Although no individual ‘heroes’ dominate, the characters are treated in a differentiated and sensitive manner. Each individual character reveals their class affiliation in their individual circumstances and viewpoints. The majority of workers arrive at a class standpoint through the strike. Pat Bannister expresses a broader socialist point of view. James Connolly, however, is mentioned only once in the whole novel, in passing by Bannister:

‘The expropriators are to be expropriated. Did you ever listen to that Connolly chap?’

‘Who’s he?’

‘Come to think of it,’ Pat said, ‘I haven’t seen him around this past couple of years. He wanted votes for women. That’s something should interest you.’

‘What would I do with a vote?’ Lily asked.

‘Vote for the socialists. I’m a radical socialist. I believe we should hold everything in common, even our women.'

It is even suggested here, incorrectly, that Connolly was not in Ireland at the time of the lockout (“not seen in the last two years”). His Marxism is also reduced to the rather stereotypical notion that “we should hold everything in common, even our women”.

The lumpenproletariat includes Rashers Tierney, street musician and beggar, who occasionally finds work as an unskilled labourer. The Hennessys represent those who, concerned for their children, cannot withstand the pressure. But the majority of the the dispossessed demonstrate a humanity and solidarity diametrically opposed to the values of the bourgeoisie.

When the ITGWU accepts the offer of solidarity from English workers to send Dublin children to England for the duration of the strike, the conflict in the clergy between Giffley and O'Connor comes to a head. O'Connor wants to stop this action at all costs, while Giffley sides with the workers’ families, understanding fully the relief this would bring. In 1913, this very plan was indeed prevented by the Catholic Church on the pretext that Catholic children in Britain would be exposed to Protestant or atheist influences.

Plunkett creates crowd scenes in which readers experience the mood among the Dublin workers. An example of this is the scene in which the workers, led by Larkin, shut down Dublin Port in protest against the more than 160 strikebreakers brought in by a steamer from Liverpool:

A rowing boat was moving downriver, manned by four oarsmen. Standing in the centre and waving to the men on shore was Larkin. The boat drew level with the police cordon, passed it and went on towards the unloading docks. A detachment of police left the main body and moved down the quayside, keeping pace with it.


But Larkin’s intention came suddenly to Fitz. He gripped Mulhall’s arm tightly and shouted:

‘He won’t land. He’ll speak to them from the boat.’

A hush fell on the crowd and they heard, after what seemed an age, the distant but still recognisable tones. What he was saying was lost, but the effect soon became clear. The nearest crane arm completed its semicircle and remained still. So did the next. Then, at intervals that grew shorter as the word spread from gang to gang, crane after crane became immobilised. They watched in silence as the paralysis spread. Yard by yard and ship by ship, the port was closing down. The cordon of police opened to form a narrow laneway, and through this the first contingent of striking dockers filed to join “the demonstrators. Their arrival started a movement in the crowd which spread through it rapidly.


The cheering had grown wilder and the movement, reaching the rear, stopped for a moment and then began to surge forward. The front lines moved nearer to the police, hesitated, then surged forward once again. The police, deciding the moment of initiative, drew their batons and charged.

Here, the Dublin proletariat is depicted at a crucial moment, where their leader Larkin emerges. The power of the class is beautifully captured in the image of the stationary cranes and the boat bringing Larkin. Plunkett shows the masses in a moment of strength and confidence. This awareness and determination, despite all the setbacks, despite hunger and hardship, permeates the whole novel.

Readers get to know the Fitzpatrick family best of all. Bob was promoted to foreman through the influence of Mrs Bradschaw at his workplace. Yet, like Mary, he remains unwavering in his solidarity with the strikers. He says to Mary:

“You’ve never asked why I wouldn’t leave the union,’ he said.

She surprised him by saying: ‘It’s because of Bernard Mulhall. I didn’t have to ask.’

Her voice was gentle and sympathetic and he knew she was thinking not of the accident only but of what the Mulhalls were left to face.

‘Mulhall was a tower of strength,’ he said.

He would never betray Mulhall’s trust. But it was not altogether that. There were Pat and Joe and the men who worked with them. There were Farrell and the dockers and thousands of others throughout the city, some long resigned to perpetual squalor as to the Will of God, others rebelling with recurring desperation whenever there was a leader to lead them. Never before had they stood so solidly together. He said to Mary:

‘The men in the despatch department of the Tram Company were dismissed simply for belonging to Larkin’s union. There was no other reason. The tram men had to support them. Then this form was issued to everyone all over the city. The rest of us had to take our stand with the tram men.’

‘I thought you wouldn’t be asked to sign it?’ she said.

“I wasn’t,’ he admitted, ‘but I couldn’t stay in when the others were locked out. I couldn’t do that.’

‘I know you couldn’t,’ she said.

Because Plunkett is unequivocally on the side of the working class in this novel, it is surprising that the conscious trade unionists at the centre of the plot have no connection with the Marxist Connolly, his political as well as his trade union work. Connolly is almost entirely left out. And although Larkin and some of the working-class characters are clearly socialists, there is also no mention of the Irish Socialist Republican Party founded by Connolly. The focus is on unionised struggle without a theory that encompasses and goes beyond it. The only mention of Connolly by Pat Bannister betrays a passing acquaintance.

In this way, the novel obscures the fact that there were also political struggles for national independence and socialist liberation going on at that time. Thus, apart from the old housekeeper Miss Gilchrist, there are no other nationalist voices among the workers. Plunkett’s workers show no obvious interest in national self-determination. And so the lockout appears to be purely a trade union struggle at the expense of its role in the development of Irish revolutionary consciousness.

Also, while the founding of the Irish Citizen Army is mentioned, its further development and important role in the Easter Rising that followed only three years later is unclear. For Connolly and his comrades, however, it was plain that there could be no social liberation without national liberation and no national liberation without social liberation:

The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be the sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil.

Nevertheless, the book bears eloquent and inspiring witness to the strength of the Irish proletariat in one of their first great class struggles. It reveals to readers a class consciousness that still had to prove itself in the political liberation struggles that were then imminent, in the Easter Rising, in the War of Independence as well as in the Civil War, and which is still crucial today. Even in the present day, many Irish people, especially workers and trade unionists, count Strumpet City among the most important and best books in Irish literature.

To conclude, I’d like to present a poem by Francis Devine, taken from the anthology The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, Culture Matters, 2021.

The Steamship Hare

For Pádraig Yeates

by Francis Devine

Since first light
we were there,
cramped close against the Manchester
Shed at the South Wall,
a clawing dampness
enveloping the quays,
all eyes sifting the fog,
watching the bar for the first
sign of a heralded deliverance.

The cold slow bore –
worms in a stair skirting –
mother's thin shawleen
insufficient to lag the bones,
the fevered excitement of daybreak
waning, belief in Jim
challenged by rumour, begrudgery
and the citing of false gods.

Then at a quarter to one,
a Port & Docks Board man
high on a steam shovel, glass to eye,
spotted the streaming bunting,
the flutter of the National Transport
Workers' Federation flag,
the steamship Hare butting
into Liffey mouth, entering history,
bearing Larkin deep
inside our souls.

There was no disorder
but disciplined attendance,
a silent respect for Brothers
Seddon and Gosling –
important, bowler-hatted Englishmen
from the Trades Union Congress -
a patient vigil rewarded
by ticketed parcels containing
ten pounds of potatoes
and a further ten pounds of bread,
butter, sugar and tea, jam and fish –
all in boxes and bags with the letters
‘CWS’ printed boldly on the side.
Our mother shared out our ration
with other unfortunates in the building,
something that seemed
unquestionably natural.
There were biscuits for the childer
which we sat on a plate
and would not eat
lest we had nothing
left to admire.

Jim had delivered us from hunger,
now we had to press forward to seize
the Promised Land,
knowing that our army
could henceforth march
on heart and belly.
A half century on,
I saw an old, wizeny man
stood outside the GPO on May Day
with the other dribble-drabble few,
cheering Paddy Donegan and Seán Dunne,
a gold, Shilling
Co-operative Society medal
swinging on his grease-shine lapel.
When he told me he got this
for crewing the Hare,
I instantly saw his image
in those digital photographs
thousands unconsciously took
on that dank, drear day
in September Nineteen and Thirteen
as evidence that Hope
did once actually walk
amongst us.

A Terrible Beauty: The Cultural Impact of the 1916 Easter Rising
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 18:23

A Terrible Beauty: The Cultural Impact of the 1916 Easter Rising

Published in Cultural Commentary

Paul Foley presents a history and analysis of the cultural impact of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

As commemorations for the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising continue throughout Ireland, there have been many discussions on the impact of the rebellion on the political landscape in both Britain and the Irish Republic. Although the initial response to the armed uprising from the civilian population was one of indifference, it quickly turned to anger and hostility towards the volunteers. Once Britain subjected the rebellion’s leadership to secret trials and began executing them, this hostility was then re-directed towards the oppressor.

The direct political fallout from the Rising was the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. This in turn led to a vicious civil war. In 1949 the Irish Republic was finally declared, although the island remains divided and the consequences of the English conquest remain. Over the following 100 years since the small army of volunteers entered the City’s General Post Office (GPO), the doomed rebellion has entered folklore as a heroic and romantic episode in the country’s turbulent history.

There are many reasons for this. Clearly there is the genuine heroism of a smaller oppressed nation taking on the might of a huge empire. Certainly the cruel response by the British in executing 16 of the Rebel leaders ensured they would be considered martyrs to a just cause. But the romance comes from the background of the seven men who formed the provisional government. These were not professional insurgents or experienced political activists. They were idealists, poets and visionaries. Although their initial brand of Irish Nationalism may have been different, by 1916 their views and outlook for a New Ireland began to coalesce.

CM easter 1916 Proclamation

Of the seven signatories to the Proclamation read out by Padraig Pearse on Easter Monday 1916, four were accomplished writers and poets. 

Thomas MacDonagh was a renowned poet and, along with Joseph Plunkett, edited the literary periodical ‘The Irish Review’. MacDonagh embraced the burgeoning renaissance in Irish literature, culture and language. He joined the Gaelic League but became radicalised by the industrial troubles of the early 20th century and subsequently joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). One of his last poems ’Wishes for my Son, Born on Saint Cecilia’s Day” was dedicated to his young son. The poem sets out his hopes for the young boy and for his future and that of his beloved Ireland:

But for you, so small and young,
Born on Saint Cecilia's Day,
I in more harmonious song
Now for nearer joys should pray-
Simpler joys: the natural growth
Of your childhood and your youth,
Courage, innocence, and truth:
These for you, so small and young,
In your hand and heart and tongue.

However MacDonagh was more than a poet. He wrote an award- winning musical cantata with the Italian composer Benedetto Palmieri based on the biblical story of the Israeli exodus from Egypt. He also wrote a number of plays. His best known was ’When the Dawn Is Come’ based on a rebellion against a tyrannical oppressor led by a seven strong army council. Although written before the Easter Rising had even been planned, the play had uncanny parallels with the later events.

The play was premiered at Ireland’s National Theatre, The Abbey, but MacDonagh became frustrated at the conservative nature of the theatre and its insistence at staging what he described as the ‘stereotypical portrayal of Irish themes’. His response was to establish a new avant garde theatre. ‘The Irish Theatre’, as it was called, produced plays from contemporary Irish playwrights as well as the works of European writers. His theatre was the first to stage Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ in Ireland. He also introduced Irish audiences to Ibsen with a production of ‘An Enemy of the People’.

During the industrial turmoil of 1913 MacDonagh supported the workers’ struggle and helped found Ireland’s first teaching union, the ASTI. The eloquence of his writing is captured in the final letter to his wife before being shot by British troops:

I am ready to die and I thank God that I am to die in so holy a cause. My country will reward my deed richly. I counted the cost of this, and I am ready to pay it.

The generosity of his spirit was evident up to the end. While standing before the firing squad he declared:

I know this is a lousy job but you are doing your duty. I do not hold this against you.

A British officer commenting on the deaths of the Rising’s leaders said.

They all died well but MacDonagh, he died like a Prince.

MacDonagh’s close friend and fellow editor of The Irish Review, Joseph Plunkett, also served on the seven man military council. Although considered a bohemian for his unconventional lifestyle, he was a devout Catholic. Like MacDonagh he was highly regarded as one of the country’s leading poets. Most of his poetry was romantic, laced with heavy religious symbolism. As with most of the leaders of the Rising, Plunkett’s views on the Nationalist cause developed to reflect the need for an Irish state built around the social and humanitarian needs of the people. This development was in part due to his strong friendship with James Connolly.

In 'I see his Blood upon the Rose', he uses the crucifixion as a metaphor ‘for our need to go beyond the self in search for human meaning’. Despite having no military experience, Plunkett became the chief military strategist in the Rising. When asked by his son who Plunkett was, James Connolly said:

This is Joe Plunkett and he has more courage in his little finger than all the other leaders combined.

The romantic image of the Rising has often been attributed to Plunkett’s story. Suffering from TB he joined the insurrection a week after having surgery. But it was his marriage to Grace Gifford, herself an activist in the fight for independence, that caught the public imagination. Their wedding took place in the small chapel in Kilmainham Jail. He was led into the ceremony in handcuffs with a platoon of soldiers - with bayonets fixed - on guard. Grace described their honeymoon which lasted just 10 minutes:

During the interview the cell was packed with officers and a sergeant who kept a watch in his hand and closed the interview by saying, ‘Your 10 minutes is up now'.

Grace never saw her husband again. The following morning at dawn, despite his illness, he was shot. In his beautiful poem ‘To Grace’ Plunkett writes:

The joy of spring leaps from your eyes
The strength of dragons in your hair
In your soul we still surprise
The secret wisdom flowing there:
But never word shall speak or sing
Inadequate music where above
Your burning heart now spread its wings
In the wild beauty of your love.

Plunkett’s murder in Kilmainham, along with that of Connolly, were the catalyst that ignited the backlash against British rule and led to the guerrilla war between 1917 and 1921. When we think of James Connolly we immediately think of a great Marxist thinker and leader of the Irish working class. A man of immense stature, a prolific writer on Marxism and Irish Independence. His seminal works ‘Labour in Irish History’, ‘The Re-conquest of Ireland’, and ‘Erin’s Hope and the New Evangel’ remain key texts for modern Marxists.

But Connolly was also a poet, playwright and author of many ballads. Perhaps not in the same league as MacDonagh, his work was still highly regarded. His play ‘Under Which Flag’ about the 1867 Fenian Rising was performed in Liberty Hall only weeks before the Easter uprising. The lead character was taken by Sean Connolly (no relation), who sadly became the first volunteer to be killed during the capture of Dublin Castle. The play was never published but the full text is available in the Irish State archives. His most famous ballad was the rousing call to arms ‘A Rebel’s Song’:

Come workers sing a rebel song,
A song of love and hate,
Of love unto the lowly,
And of hatred to the great.
The great who trod our fathers down,
Who steal our children’s bread,
Whose hands of greed are stretched to rob
The living and the dead.

The leadership of the Rising nominated Tom Clarke as the Republic’s acting President, mainly because of his seniority and experience in direct action. However Clarke was not interested in the trappings of leadership. It was agreed that Padraig Pearse would become the interim President. Pearse’s nationalism grew from a love of the Irish language and its culture. He established a bilingual school, St Enda’s College. His poetry was well respected although it tended to paint a rather romantic picture of Ireland and was deeply influenced by his Catholicism. Although initially a supporter of Home Rule, by 1914 he was committed to the need for an armed rebellion to liberate Ireland.

In 1912 Pearse published his angry poem ‘Mise Eire’ in which he decries a people abandoning the fight for Ireland’s freedom:

I am Ireland:
I am older than the Hag of Beara.
Great my glory:
I who bore brave Cúchulainn.
Great my shame:
My own children that sold their mother.
Great my pain:
My irreconcilable enemy who harrasses me continually.
Great my sorrow:
That crowd, in whom I placed my trust, decayed.
I am Ireland:
I am lonelier than the Hag of Beara.

Recognising the failure of the Rising, Pearse declared as only a poet could:

When we are all wiped out, people will blame us for everything …… in a few years they will see the meaning of what we tried to do.

It didn't take a few years: shorty after his execution the people of Ireland began to fight back. The night before he died Pearse wrote his last poem ‘The Wayfarer’ which although a lament, showed a great calmness at his fate:

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
The beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a squirrel in a tree
Or a red ladybird on a stalk.

Although the remaining signatories of the Proclamation were not known for their artistic achievements they have, albeit indirectly, made a significant contribution to the cultural history of the Rising.

CM easter bw sig proclamation

Tom Clarke, the oldest of the leaders, was a long time political activist and organiser. His prison memoirs ‘Glimpses of an Irish Felon’s Prison Life’ was published posthumously in 1922. The book contains reflections of his 15 years spent in prison for his activities fighting for Irish independence. Clarke considered the diary as ‘mere jottings’ but its eloquence and lack of bitterness or self indulgence places it alongside the very best of prison literature, such as Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebooks.’

Shortly before his death he wrote:

I and my fellow signatories believe we have struck the first successful blow for Irish Freedom. The next blow which we have no doubt, Ireland will strike, will win through, in this belief we die happy.

Sean MacDiarmada became the commercial manager of the campaigning Gaelic newspaper ‘An Saoirseacht” (Irish Freedom). Under his management the paper became more political. In an editorial it described British rule:

Our Country is run by a set of insolent officials, to whom we are nothing but a lot of people to be exploited and kept in subjection.

In 1915 he was imprisoned for sedition when he called on Irishmen to refuse to fight for the British in the first world war. His poetic last words before being shot by a firing squad continue to resonate with revolutionaries across the world:

I die that the Irish Nation may live.

Probably the least known of the seven signatories to the Proclamation is Eamon Ceannt, a quiet intelligent man who had a great interest in Ireland’s history. He joined the IRB in 1913 and became an executive member of the ruling council. He was more a cultural nationalist than a political activist. He was an accomplished Uilleann pipe player and in 1908 played for the Pope in Rome. He wasn't known for his writing although he was an impressive public speaker. He was unhappy at Pearse’s call to surrender, feeling that the rebels should fight to the death. This reluctance is seen in a statement he issued to the Irish Independent before his death:

I leave for the guidance of other Irish Revolutionaries who may tread the path which I trod, this advice, never to treat with the enemy, never to surrender at his mercy but to fight to a finish. Ireland has shown she is a Nation.

At 2.30AM on the 8th May 1916 he wrote a last letter to his wife:

My Dearest Aine
Not wife but widow before these lines reach you. I am here without hope of this world, without fear, calmly awaiting the end…What can I say? I die a noble death for Ireland’s freedom.

The cultural relevance of the 1916 Rising began much earlier than that fateful Easter. At the turn of the 20th century there was a re-awakening of Irish nationalism. A passive acceptance of colonial rule, which had settled on the country since the middle of the 19th century, was beginning to stir. Writers started studying the ancient Gaelic culture as a means of developing a modern Irish identity. The purpose was to build a cultural identity distinct from the British colonial power and through this develop an Irishness that could liberate the country and create a new modern progressive state. Gaelic clubs sprang up all over the country. There was a renewed interest in Irish literature and folklore and how to build a new Ireland, an Ireland that could end the terrible poverty, both economic and spiritual, felt under colonisation. Rebellion against the British Crown was no longer enough.

One of the clearest voices of this ‘new renaissance’ was the playwright John Millington Synge. For him the fight was to win not only a ‘Free Nation’ but also a different type of nation. His views reflected the words of James Connolly who in 1887 said:

If you remove the English Army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.

Synge had been writing in Paris when he was advised by W.B.Yeats to return to Ireland. He did so and in the remote Aran islands immersed himself in Irish traditional culture. The result was his dramatic masterpiece ‘A Playboy of the Western World’. It premiered at the Abbey in 1907, which led to riots on the streets of Dublin. Most of the hostility was whipped up by Conservative Nationalists. The leader of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith, denounced the play as immoral. Padraig Pearse, a future leader of the 1916 Rising, said:

It is not against a Nation he blasphemes so much as against the moral order of the universe.

Pearse called for a boycott of the Abbey in response to its staging of the play. But within 2 years Synge was dead and Pearse had changed his view, describing the great playwright ‘a true patriot’ and acknowledging that “He baffled people with images which they could not understand”.

This episode highlights the speed at which Ireland was changing and the growing desire for the arts to be at the core of a free and independent country. The combination of a cultural re-awakening and a desire for a new and separate Ireland with an intellectual idealistic and visionary leadership, brewed a heady cocktail which ignited on Easter Monday, 24th April 1916, with the volunteers’ march on key installations in the country’s capital.

What is interesting is the response of the non-combative cultural elite to the Rising. W.B.Yeats, one of Ireland’s greatest poets, appeared to be conflicted. Prior to the events of Easter 1916 he was mocked the Irish Nationalists, and denounced violence as a means of achieving independence. In his poem Easter 1916, we see this conflict. His initial ambivalent feelings towards the leaders of the movement for independence is caught in the poem’s opening lines:

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words....

But later he recognises the wanton murder of the leadership had changed things, changed them utterly and the use of ‘terrible’ and ‘beauty’ in the same sentence shows his conflict at the terrible loss - yet beauty - of their sacrifice:

I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

In contrast, Ireland’s other great writer, James Joyce, remained silent. He never made any direct comment on the events of that Easter. He did, however, push to have his Dublin novel ‘A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’ published in 1916, which many believe was his contribution to the ongoing debate on the Rising’s merits. Within the book, he does appear to suggest that he disavows petty nationalism and that art is the higher calling:

I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or as art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I will allow myself to use-silence, exile, and cunning.

Sean O’Casey’s position is more complex. The great playwright was originally an integral part of the Independence movement and in particular the fight for a socialist republic. He was responsible for writing the constitution of the Irish Citizen’s Army, the armed protection established by Jim Larkin following attacks on workers during the 1913 Lock-out. However he fell out with his comrades and sat out the rebellion. Bitterness and self regard seemed to eat away at his soul, which may have clouded his judgement on the events of 1916. But it wasn't until the early 1920s when O’Casey wrote his famous trilogy of Dublin Plays that his true feelings became clear. ‘Shadow of a Gunman’ and ‘Juno and the Paycock” deal with the civil war and its aftermath while the third, ‘The Plough and the Stars’ directly addresses the Easter Rising.

‘The Plough’ was premiered 10 years after the Rising but the rancour felt by O’Casey towards his former comrades does not appear to have diminished. The Irish Marxist and Connolly biographer, C. Desmond Greaves, suggests that O’Casey’s protagonist Jack Clitheroe only joins the rebellion out of vanity and because of what people might say if he didn’t. He argues that O’Casey deliberately set out to ‘present the Rising and the motives of those who took part in a poor light’. Student protesters to the play, led by Frank Ryan, a Republican IRA organiser who later distinguished himself in the fight against fascism in Spain, objected to the implication that the men of the Citizen Army were motivated by vanity and ambition.

The other big beast of Irish Letters, Bernard Shaw, was more critical of Irish Nationalism. For him the Rebellion was foolhardy. However, he was outraged by the indiscriminate murder of the leaders and campaigned to have the executions stopped. His anger was palpable in a revised preface to ‘John Bull’s Other Island’ written in 1929:

Having thus worked up a hare-brained romantic adventure into a heroic episode in the struggle for Irish Freedom the victorious artillerists proceeded to kill their prisoners of war in a drawn-out string of executions. Those who were executed accordingly became not only national heroes, but martyrs whose blood was the seed of the present Irish Free State. Among those who escaped was its first President. Nothing more blindly savage, stupid, and terror mad could have been devised by England’s worst enemies.

This very much reflects the sentiment in Pearse’s graveside oration at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa on 1st August 1915:

But the fools, the fools - they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.

One glaring omission in much of the history of 1916 is the lack of recognition for the many women who not only contributed to the armed struggle but also the cultural life of the time. Unforgivably, many important women have been lost from the story of the birth of the Irish Republic, mainly because the achievements of women were not recorded and future historians tended to examine major events from the perspective of the men involved.

This year’s commemorations have tried to address this, with some specific events dedicated to the hundreds of women who fought for, cared for, and wrote about the tragic rebellion. Current Irish President, Michael D. Higgins, writing in SIPTU’s centenary edition of ‘Liberty’ stressed the importance to the revolution of the fight for equality and emancipation:

As such, the emancipation of women was an integral part of the social transformation called for by the leaders of the Irish Citizen Army, such as Francis Sheehy Skeffington and James Connolly. The atmosphere of equality that prevailed between men and women in the ranks of the ICA reflected the vision held by many Irish and International socialists of the time, for who women’s emancipation was a pre-condition for any just society.

Many women had become radicalised during the 1913 lock-out and become active in trade unions. Connolly declared in 1914 that the oppression of women and the oppression of the workers by “a social and political order based on private ownership of property” were inseparable, and he recognised what was the double burden on women.

Women occupied many positions of influence in the fight for independence. Helena Maloney was an activist in the socialist and trade union movement since 1903 when she joined ‘Inghinidhe na hEireann’. She became editor of its feminist paper ‘Bean na hEireann’. She was also the General Secretary of the Irish Women’s Workers’ Union (IWWU) who won 2 weeks holiday for her members. In later years she became a founding member of Friends of Soviet Russia.

The cultural heart of the country was a significant part of her life. She was an acclaimed actress who prior to the rising played opposite Sean Connolly in ‘Memory of the Dead’ a play written by Casimir Markievicz, husband of Constance. Maloney was also an active combatant in the fight for Dublin castle.

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Other leading women who campaigned for Irish independence and were active over the Easter week were Dr Kathleen Lynn who championed the cause of women’s health and welfare, and acted as Medical Officer to the rebels during the fighting. Constance Markievicz was second-in-command of the battalion that occupied the Royal College of Surgeons. Following her arrest she was sentenced to death but later this was commuted to life in prison. Markievicz became the first woman elected to Westminster following the limited suffrage won in 1918. Other women playing a leading role in 1916 were Winifred Carney, leader of the Irish Textile workers’ Union and Secretary and aide de camp to James Connolly; and Madeline Ffrench-Mullen, who was an officer in the ICA and commanded a small band of volunteers at Stephen’s Green.

As Lucy McDiarmid explains in her book ‘At Home in the Revolution’ the women’s strength and determination were extraordinary. In response to the sound of the firing squads, women prisoners began dancing the intricate 16-hand reel. This act of solidarity was not only brave and defiant, but must have been hugely unnerving to their captors.

As well as her soldier’s role, Constance Markievicz was an actor, appearing in a number of plays at the Abbey alongside Maud Gonne the activist, actress and muse of W.B.Yeats. She was hugely influenced by James Connolly, whose death greatly affected her. Dedicating a poem in his honour she wrote:

You died for your country my hero love
In the first grey dawn of Spring
On your lips was a prayer to God above
That your death will have helped to bring
Freedom and peace to the land you love love love everything.

Her sister, Eve Gore-Booth, was a respected poet and author who shared Constance’s passion for Irish Nationalism. The women differed in that Eve, a pacifist, could not support the use of violence by the rebels, no matter how just their cause. But that didn't diminish her support for the aims of the revolt nor for its leaders. Shocked by the callous murders of the leadership, she wrote her beautiful, short and poignant poem ‘Comrades’ as a tribute to the bravery of those that gave everything for their country:

The peaceful night that round me flows,
Breaks through your iron prison doors,
Free through the world your spirit goes,
Forbidden hands are clasping yours.
The wind is our confederate,
The night has left her doors ajar,
We meet beyond earth’s barred gate,
Where all the world’s wild Rebels are.

It is a disgrace that Alice Milligan’s name has almost disappeared from the annals of great Irish writers. Milligan, an Ulster protestant, threw herself into the cause of Irish independence. She was a prolific writer, contributing essays and stories to over 70 journals. She also wrote numerous plays, novels and short stories. As a poet she wrote epic poems on the theme of ancient Irish folklore. In a 1914 edition of 'The Irish Review 'Thomas Macdonagh described her as 'the greatest living Irish poet'. During the Rising she dedicated herself to fighting for prisoners’ rights including the right to be granted political status. An anthology ‘Hero Lays’ contains some of her best poetic work, including ‘Owen Who Died, A ’67 Man’ in memory of the 1867 Rising:

Right off to the coast-line of Connacht
’Twas he carried word
To the boys who were waiting upon it,
Of how Ireland was stirred.
His hand set a beacon alight
To burn on by day and by night
Sudden his coming and flight-
He has gone like a bird.

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The 1867 Rising stuttered into life with a few sporadic skirmishes across the country. Having been undermined by disorganisation and police spies, the revolt soon petered out. The interesting fact is that the Rising was launched with a Proclamation declaring an Irish Republic based on social justice and equality. 50 years later a very similar Proclamation announced the declaration of an Irish provisional government in 1916.

Since 1169 Ireland has been occupied first by the Normans then the English. In those 847 years, thousands of its people have died either in the cause of liberty or by the cruelty and neglect generated by the occupiers, resulting in mass expulsions from the land and devastating famine. The culture, language, and national identity has been through long periods of suppression but the spirit of the people has kept its rich cultural history alive.

Many historians and political commentators have discussed the merits of the Rising. Some argue that it was an unnecessary sacrifice as the political climate was moving towards Home Rule, and that eventually Ireland would have had a measure of Independence. But that is the point: the British solution was a form of devolution but falling short of total independence. It took the 1916 revolt to provide the impetus for total separation. Although today that dream is still not fully realised, there can be no doubt that the sacrifice of the volunteers in 1916 brought the Free State and Republic much closer.

As we celebrate the centenary of the momentous events 100 years ago, what is the Rising’s legacy? I suggest that the political and cultural legacies have developed in completely different ways. The revolution brought together idealists with very different views on the nature of a new Irish Nation. However, they were all agreed that it needed to be a nation built on social justice, equality and with an internationalist outlook. Cultural enrichment of the people was to be a cornerstone of any new constitution.

Unfortunately, after the civil war in 1922, the reactionary Catholic elite took control. An economically conservative Ireland under De Valera created an era of stagnation. De Valera’s staunch Catholicism allowed the Catholic Church to grab control of the country’s education system, and ensured the Church would have the final say on the moral values of the young nation. Despite this conservative and reactionary cloud hanging over the new State, the cultural development of Ireland continued to progress both internally and across the world. Notwithstanding the oppressive use of censorship by the Church and state, a rich vein of novelists, playwrights and poets continued to use their creative imagination to challenge, educate and develop a cultural pathway for today’s writers and artists.

There is an unbroken line from MacDonagh, Plunkett, Yeats and Joyce through to Brendan Behan, Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane, Eava Boland, Patrick Kavanagh, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Edna O’Brien, Paula Meehan, Jennifer Johnson, Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry. And there are hundreds more whose creative beauty was born from their forebears’ terrible struggle.

Perhaps it is fitting to leave the last word to Ireland’s great modern poet, the late Seamus Heaney. Written in 1966 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of 1916, his poem “Requiem for the Croppies” uses the 1798 revolution as a metaphor for the legacy of the heroes of 1916 on a future Ireland:

Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon,
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August…the barley grew up out of our grave.