Ireland – Disaffected Or Revolutionary
From Workers’ Republic, 13 November 1915.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
“Youth of Ireland stand prepared,
Revolution’s dread abyss
Burns beneath us all but bared ...”
So sang Clarence Mangan in the days of ’48. But he sang in vain. The music of his verse charmed the cultured intellect of the leaders, but could not break through their refined distrust of the mob, nor inspire them with a confidence in its willingness to respond to the call. And the verse of Mangan never appealed to the emotions of the mob itself.
The revolutionary position was there, the people were ready, but the leaders were lacking in dash and recklessness. As another writer has it of another body of leaders similarly situated:
“Having all their lives sung of the glories of the Revolution, when it rose up before them they ran away appalled.”
These reflections are inspired by the fact that Ireland is at present in the midst of a number of anniversaries of the great days of its patriot dead. On all hands celebrations are being or have been arranged, much oratory is on tap, many verses of more or less merit are pouring forth, and all sorts of men and women are drawing lessons and pointing morals for the edification of the Irish reading public.
It is felt that we are now in stirring times, and many people dare even to hope that we are in a revolutionary epoch. It is well then that we of the Irish working class should try and understand the position of the revolutionists of the past, that we may the better realise our position in the present.
We do not believe that this is a revolutionary epoch, no more than the days of Mitchel were revolutionary in Ireland, nor the days of Allen, Larkin and O’Brien. An epoch, to be truly revolutionary, must have a dominating number of men with the revolutionary spirit – ready to dare all, and take all risks for the sake of their ideals.
In 1848, as later, there were men who talked much of revolution, but when the spirit of the times called upon them to strike they all began to make excuses, to murmur about the danger of premature insurrection, of incomplete preparations, of the awful responsibility of giving the word for insurrection, etc., etc.
In 1848, as later, the real revolutionary sentiment was in the hearts of the people, but for the most part they who undertook to give it articulate expression were wanting in the essential ability to translate sentiment into action. They would have been good historians of a revolutionary movement, but were unable to take that leap in the dark which all men must take who plunge into insurrection. For, be it well understood, an insurrection is always doubtful, a thousand to one chance always exists in favour of the established order and against the insurgents.
Despite all seeming to the contrary we assert that Ireland is not a really revolutionary country. Ireland is a disaffected country which has long been accustomed to conduct constitutional agitations in revolutionary language, and what is worse, to conduct revolutionary movements with a due regard to law and order.
Our constitutionalists have been ready to defy the law; our revolutionists shine only in legal quirks to evade the letter of the law. The constitutional agitation of the Land League was one prolonged riot of illegality; the revolutionary movement of our own day shrinks from an openly illegal act as nervously as a coy maiden shrinks from a desired lover.
It is this paradoxical state of affairs that makes Irish politics so puzzling to the outsider. He listens to the politician appealing to the people to cling to constitutional methods, and at the same time exulting in the agrarian reforms gained by trampling law and order under foot. He hears the revolutionists telling that England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity, and then, when her greatest difficulty comes, postponing action on the opportunity in order to see if the politician cannot yet succeed by legal agitation.
In his brilliant lecture on John Mitchel in the Antient Concert Rooms, on Thursday, November 4th, our friend Mr. P.H. Pearse treated his audience to a splendid review of the tendencies of opinions and movement of currents of thought, that applied so well to our own days that many of the audience forgot that it was an analysis of ’48 to which they were listening or supposed to be listening. It is that very similarity which enables us to so clearly understand the nature of the forces that destroyed Mitchel.
The British Government would not wait until the plans of the revolutionists were ready. It has not held Ireland down for 700 years by any such foolish waiting. It struck in its own time, and its blow paralysed the people. The leaders of the people would not follow Mitchel’s lead but held the people back by talk about “premature insurrection,” and “the desire of the Government to provoke us to act before we are ready,” and such like phrases repeated glibly, with the solemnity of owls and the foolishness of idiots, until the golden moment of hot wrath was passed, and the paraders and the strutters had lost the confidence and destroyed the hopes of the nation.
In vain for Clarence Mangan to call to such a people to prepare for revolution. Revolutionists who shrink from giving blow for blow until the great day has arrived, and they have every shoe-string in its place, and every man has got his gun, and the enemy has kindly consented to postpone action in order not to needlessly hurry the revolutionists nor disarrange their plans – such revolutionists only exist in two places – the comic opera stage, and the stage of Irish national politics. We prefer the comic opera brand. It at least serves its purpose.
John Mitchel was not defeated by the British Government. He was defeated by his own associates. There are no John Mitchels left in Ireland, but of such as those who held back the hands of the people who would have rescued him there are still a goodly brood – all of them as legally seditious, as peacefully revolutionary, and as fatal to the hopes of a nation as ever were their forerunners.
O, we latter-day Irish are great orators, and great singers, and great reciters, and great at cheering heroic sentiments about revolution. But we are not revolutionists. Not by a thousand miles! Soldiers of a regular army we can be, soldiers with a well-secured base from which our provisions can come up with clock-like regularity, soldiers with our relatives and dependents securely drawing separation allowances, soldiers with an ambulance service working automatically according to railway time table, soldiers with unlimited reserves of ammunition, arms, and uniforms. For that kind of war we are ready, aye, ready.
But no revolution in history ever had any of these things. None ever will have. Hence we strictly confine ourselves to killing John Bull with our mouths.
We have opened this week with a quotation from our own Irish poet – an impassioned, soul-felt appeal to the heart of a nation whose heart was greater than the spirit of its leaders. We shall close with the words of another poet, an American, a trumpet call to his people on the occasion of a crisis in his nation’s history. It would be well if it were laid to heart in Ireland today:
Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide.
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Last updated on 8.9.2003