Notes on the Front
Workers’ Republic, 25 December 1915.
Republished in James Connolly: Lost Writings, (ed. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh), Pluto Press 1997.
The notes, which are © 1997 Pluto Press, have not been included.
HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Watch and Wait, boys, watch and wait,
Let it be your motto, ever,
Foolish zeal, unguarded hate,
Often baulks a brave endeavour.
God ordains, boys, God ordains
That we pine a little longer,
Ere we burst the galling chains,
Ere we crush the brutal wronger.
Did ever you read and ponder over these lines of Gavan Duffy? They were written at a time in Irish history wonderfully similar to the present. At a time of unrest and longing for struggle, tempered by preachings of caution.
It was in the days of the Young Irelanders. Eloquent voices had been preaching of the glories of the sword and eulogising the rights of nations to take back their own with armed hand; sweet singers had been wedding the hope of Irish patriots to deathless verse in heroic measures; the hearts of the young men of the Irish race were swelling with the passions of hatred for oppression and ambition for freedom, and the Great Famine was lashing the most stolid into willingness to try any adventure that held out hope of food for the perishing millions.
Ireland seemed, even to the most cautious and calculating foreign observer, to be on the point of great endeavours.
Instead of the great adventure Ireland witnessed the most sordid, squalid, meanest fiasco in all her history. Fintan Lalor, in one of those biting sentences of his which seem to crystallise a whole volume of history, says:
The soul of this country seems to sink where that of another would soar.
To tell how that fiasco took its place in Irish history instead of a Great Adventure like unto that of Tone and Emmet, would be to give point and corroboration to the above analysis of the character of the soul of Ireland.
It is a hard tale to tell, and a harder one to understand, unless your own soul is attuned in harmony with the passions of the actors in that great squalid tragedy of our history.
As your soul is attuned in sympathy to one side or the other, so one side or the other is comprehensible to you – and the other an unsolved and insoluble problem.
As in all revolutionary movements there came a point when all agreed that force would have to settle the differences between Ireland and the British Empire. But immediately there arose a cleavage between the revolutionists who desired to strike, and the tacticians who counselled greater preparedness and the desirability of “putting the Government plainly in the wrong”.
It was the clash between the outlook of revolutionists, and the outlook of politicians manoeuvring for a political advantage, and yet both sides were earnestly revolutionary.
You can grasp that fact if you study carefully the verse at the beginning of these notes. There is not a sentiment in them that at first glance would not be endorsed by every true nationalist, and yet practically every true nationalist deplores the fact that the counsel there given was taken by the Irish people at the time.
As a counsel of caution they ring true. As a historical fact it was such counsel that permitted John Mitchel to be carried off safely in chains, and stuck a dagger to the heart of the Irish insurrection of 1848.
The literature of the ’48 Insurrection was beautiful; the story of the Insurrection itself reads like the book of a badly written burlesque.
Another poem of a similar character to that quoted above written at the same time and for the same purpose, viz: to restrain the revolutionary spirit of the people, is we think one of the finest revolutionary songs in the English language.
It breathes revolutionary feeling and democratic spirit in every line, yet the sum total of its effects at the time was to tighten the hold of the enemy upon this country, and to hold the people in leash until the opportune moment was passed.
Yet its author, M.J. Barry, with peculiar logic declared afterwards that as the Irish people had failed to make even a decent fight in 1848 he considered the cause of Ireland hopeless, and would thereafter accept the English connection with all its consequences.
The song in question is by its own merits worthy of a place in any nationalist or Labour Concert programme, but we do not remember hearing it sung at any such in Ireland, although it is a favourite in revolutionary circles elsewhere. Here it is:
BIDE YOUR TIME
BIDE YOUR TIME, the morn is breaking,
Bright with Freedom’s blessed ray –
Millions, from their trance awaking,
Soon shall stand in firm array.
Man shall fetter man no longer,
Liberty shall march sublime;
Every moment makes you stronger,
Firm, unshrinking, BIDE YOUR TIME.
BIDE YOUR TIME – one false step taken
Perils all you yet have done;
Undismayed, erect, unshaken –
Watch and wait, and all is won.
’Tis not by a rash endeavour
Men or states to greatness climb –
Would you win your rights forever
Calm and thoughtful, BIDE YOUR TIME.
BIDE YOUR TIME – your worst transgression
Were to strike, and strike in vain;
He, whose arm would smite oppression,
Must not need to smite again!
Danger makes the brave man steady –
Rashness is the coward’s crime –
Be for Freedom’s battle ready,
When it comes – but, BIDE YOUR TIME.
You will perhaps wonder at our statement that a certain section of the revolutionists of 1848 resolved not to strike, unless and until they saw an opportunity of ‘putting England in the wrong’. The idea that this left it to the Government to choose the time, the place, and the circumstances for the fight doubtless did occur to them but was not allowed to alter their purpose. They grandly declared that they would not be driven before their time.
Eventually the Government, having leisurely made all its preparations – and preparations made by a government with untold millions at its disposal can always outmatch a thousand to one the preparations made illegally by a few thousand poverty stricken men and women – having made all its preparations the Government issued orders for the arrest of the Young Ireland leaders. They took to the country, and issued the call for insurrection. Smith O’Brien was the chief, and in the course of his peregrinations he arrived at the village of Killenaule. Here it was reported that a body of Dragoons were approaching with a warrant for his apprehension. Instantly the people prepared to fight. They barricaded one end of the village and as the dragoons rode in at the other end the people raised barricades behind them. The soldiers were trapped, and Stephens was about to fire upon the officer in command, when Smith O’Brien ordered him to lower his rifle. Then upon being assured by the English officer that he had no warrant for Smith O’Brien’s arrest that gentleman ordered the people to clear a passage for the soldiers who thereupon rode safely away.
You see it would not put the government in the wrong to fire upon the army unless the army fired first, and government outraged their own constitution.
Now do you understand what we have meant when we said that Irish rebels had a constitutional frame of mind – wanted to conduct revolutions according to constitutional procedure?
They wanted to establish it as a fact in history that they were driven into rebellion against their wills. And regarded it as a disgraceful thing that they should be accused of eagerly seeking revolution, and as longing for a chance to begin the fight for freedom.
We do not know if there are any such to-day amongst us. If there are they are a danger. Ireland needs no legal excuses for revolution. The presence of English government in this country, be that government bad or good, is at all times provocation and outrage enough. It is not native, it rests upon no sanction but force, and it holds the interests of a foreign empire to be superior to the well-being of the Irish people.
But once again the old clash of opinions arises. Is the time here, or is it not? Who knows? Perhaps the writer of these Notes on the Front is wrong.
Perhaps the writer of the following poem is right. At any rate, like its predecessors that we have already quoted, it is beatifully written, and worthy of a place. Read:
THE WATCHING HOUR
A steel grey dawn is in the sky,
Above the watchers on each hill;
And you who live and you who die
Shall preach a race unconquered still.
Tho’ lingering wait may often tire,
And idle critic’s words may gall;
Keep watch upon the signal fire,
Whose burning blaze is Ireland’s call.
A soldier knows how to obey,
To ’wait the word with arms girth;
Nor lag behind nor chide delay;
Disciplined strength gives Freedom birth.
And you whose ardent souls now chide
The hand that holds you from the fray,
Remember that a nation’s pride
A nation’s life hangs on the day.
Then watch beneath the steel grey sky,
Beside the watchers on each hill,
Till you who live and you who die,
May prove a race unconquered still.
So we have given the other side a look in this time. This being the blessed Christmas season we do this in order to show our kindly Christmas feelings to our erring brothers. We have been given to understand that some of them do not appreciate our suggestions at their proper value, and even a few, a very few, are a little irritated, and say that we are not playing the game fair.
Well, all we can say is that our allegiance is not to the game, nor to the players of the game, but to Ireland and the cause of Freedom. To some people the Game has become more important than the Cause, and they as the players of the Game more important than either. It is not a new frame of mind in Ireland, witness the incident of Smith O’Brien who made the question of “Insurrection or no Insurrection” turn upon whether an officer had or had not a warrant for his arrest, but there are few who share it. And these few can safely be ignored.
The needs of our time call for a frank recognition of the fact that our Slogan must be
All for the Cause
The Cause over All.
Shall we see another year and Ireland patiently bearing her Chains?
To all slaves in Revolt we wish A Merry Christmas!
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Last updated on 15.8.2003