Politics is about the present and the future, obviously … but it is also about the past.
Different political interests interpret and/or represent the past in different ways, emphasising or understating different events or aspects or even ignoring or suppressing them entirely. There is choice exercised in whom (and even what particular pronouncement) to quote and upon what other material to rely. And by “political interests” I mean not only groups, formal (such as political parties) or informal, but also individuals. Each individual is political in some way, having opinions about some aspects of questions that are political or at least partly-political. For example, one often hears individuals say today that they have no interest in politics, yet express strong opinions of one kind or another about the right to gay and lesbian marriage, the influence of the Catholic Church, and how the country is being run by Governments.
So when an individual writes a history book, there are going to be political interpretations, although not all writers admit to their political position, their prejudices or leanings, in advance or even in the course of their writing. One historian who does so is Padraig Yeates, author of a number of historical books: Lockout – Dublin 1913 (a work unlikely to be ever equalled on the subject of the title), A City In Wartime — 1914-1919, A City in Turmoil – 1919-1921and his latest, A City in Civil War – Dublin 1921-’24. The latter was launched on Tuesday of this week, 12th May and therefore much too early for people for who did not receive an earlier copy to review it. So it is not on the book that I am commenting here but rather on the speeches during the launch, which were laden with overtly political references to the past and to the present. If a review is what you wanted, this would be an appropriate moment to stop reading and exit – and no hard feelings.
The launch had originally been intended to take place at the new address at 17 D’Olier Street, D2, of Books Upstairs. However the interest indicated in attending was so great that Padraig Yeates, realising that the venue was going to be too small, went searching for a larger one. Having regard to how short a time he then had to find one and with his SIPTU connections, Liberty Hall would have been an obvious choice. Whether he had earlier been asked to speak at the launch I do not know but, having approached Jack O’Connor personally to obtain the use of Liberty Hall, in the latter’s role of President of SIPTU, the owners of that much-underused theatre building, it was inevitable too that O’Connor would be asked to speak and act as the MC for the event.
O’Connor’s introduction was perhaps of medium length as these things go. He talked about the author’s work in trade unions, as a journalist and as an author of books about history. O’Connor’s speech however contained much political comment. Speaking of the period of the Civil War (1919-1923), he said it had “formed what we have become as a people”. That is a statement which is of dubious accuracy or, at very least, is open to a number of conflicting interpretations. The Civil War, in which the colonialism-compromising Irish capitalist class defeated the anti-colonial elements of the nationalist or republican movement, formed what the State has become – not the people. The distinction between State and People is an essential one in our history and no less so in Ireland today.
Talking about the State that had been created in 1921 (and not mentioning once the creation of the other statelet, the Six Counties) and referring to the fact that alone among European nations, our population had not risen during most of the 20th Century and remained lower than it had been up to nearly the mid-Nineteenth, a state of affairs due to constant emigration, O’Connor laid the blame on the 26-County State and in passing, on the capitalist class which it served. He was undoubtedly correct in blaming the State for its failure to create an economic and social environment which would stop or slow down the rate of emigration – but he did not explain why it was in the interests of the capitalists ruling the state to do so. Nor did he refer to the cause of the original drastic reduction in Ireland’s population and the start of a tradition of emigration – the Great Hunger 1845-’49.
Even allowing for the fact that O’Connor wished to focus on the responsibility of the 26-County State, the Great Hunger was surely worthy of some mention in the context of Irish population decline. Just a little eastward along the docks from Liberty Hall is the memorial to that start of mass Irish emigration. It was the colonial oppression of the Irish people which had created the conditions in which the organism Phytophthora infestans could create such devastation, such that in much less than a decade, Ireland lost between 20% and 25% of its population, due to death by starvation and attendant disease and due also to emigration (not forgetting that many people emigrating died prematurely too, on the journey, upon reaching their destination and subsequently). Phytophthora devastated potato crops in the USA in 1843 and spread throughout Europe thereafter, without however causing such a human disaster as it did in Ireland. In Mitchell’s famous words: “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” And that is what makes that period of population decline uncomfortable for some historical commentators.
Indeed, O’Connor did not mention British colonialism once, nor Partition, nor imperialism. And nor did either of the other two speakers, nor the author. I remarked on this to an Irish Republican present, to which he responded with a rhetorical question: “Did you expect them to?” Well, yes, perhaps naively, I did. While not expecting an Irish Republican analysis from Padraig Yeates and perhaps not either from anyone he would consider appropriate to speak at the launch of one of his books, dammit, we are talking about history. The presence of Norman/English/British Colonialism for 800 years prior to the creation of the Irish Free State, and its influence on that state’s creation and on subsequent events in Ireland, is worthy of at least a mention in launching a book about the Civil War. Not to mention its continuing occupation of one-fifth of the nation’s territory.
Colonialism and Imperialism and, in particular, the Irish experience of the British variant, were not so much ‘the elephant in the room‘ at the launch as a veritable herd of pachyderms. They overshadowed us at the launch and crowded around us, we could hear them breathing and smell their urine and excreta – but no-one mentioned them. The date of the launch was the anniversary of the execution of James Connolly 99 years ago, a man whom the Labour Party claims as its founder (correctly historically, if not politically), a former General Secretary of the ITGWU, forerunner of SIPTU and the HQ building of which, Liberty Hall, was a forerunner too of the very building in which the launch was taking place. His name and the anniversary was referred to once, though not by O’Connor, without a mention of Sean Mac Diarmada, executed in the same place on the same day. And most significantly of all, no mention of who had Connolly shot and under which authority.
That circumspection, that avoidance, meant that a leader of Dublin capitalists, William Martin Murphy, could not be mentioned with regard to Connolly’s death either — i.e. his post-Rising editorial in the Irish Independent calling for the execution of the insurgents’ leaders. But of course he did get a mention, or at least the class alliance he led in 1913 did, in a bid to smash the ITGWU, then under the leadership of Larkin and Connolly. This struggle, according to O’Connor and, it must be said also to Padraig Yeates, was the real defining struggle of the early years of the 20th Century, not the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence nor yet the Irish Civil War. It was in 1913 that “the wrong side won”.
One-eyed as that historical vision must be, we have to question whether it is even partially correct. The Lockout was a great defeat for the ITGWU and for the leading elements in the Irish workers’ movement. But the Lockout did not break the trade union and, in fact, it later began to grow in membership and in branches. Other trade unions also survived and some expanded. So in what manner was 1913 decisive in ensuring that “the wrong side won” in later years? The Irish trade union movement was still able to organise a general strike against conscription in April 1918 and the class to organise a wave of occupations of workplaces in April 1919.
True, the Irish working class had lost one of its foremost theoreticians and propagandists by then, in the person of James Connolly. And who was it who had him shot? Not Murphy (though he’d have had no hesitation in doing so) nor the rest of the Irish capitalist class. In fact, worried about the longer-term outcome, the political representatives of the Irish ‘nationalist‘ capitalist class for so long, the Irish Parliamentary Party, right at the outset and throughout, desperately called for the executions to halt. General Maxwell, with the support of British Prime Minister Asquith, ordered and confirmed the executions of Connolly and Mallin of the Irish Citizen Army and British Army personnel pulled the triggers; in essence it was British colonialism that executed them, along with the other fourteen.
For the leaders of the Labour Party and of some of the trade unions, and for some authors, Padraig Yeates among them, the participation of Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army in the Rising was an aberration. For these social democrats, the struggle should have been against the Irish capitalist class only (and preferably by an unarmed working class). It is an inconvenient fact that Ireland was under colonial occupation of a state that had strangled much of the nation’s economic potential (and therefore of the growth of the working class) in support of the interests of the British capitalist class. It is an inconvenient fact that the Irish capitalist class had been divided into Unionist and Nationalist sections, the former being descendants of planter landowners and entrepreneurs whose interests were completely bound up in Union with Britain. It is an inconvenient fact that the British and the Unionists had suppressed the last truly independent expression of the Irish bourgeoisie, the United Irishmen and, in order to do so effectively, had created and enhanced sectarian divisions among the urban and rural working and middle classes. It is also an inconvenient fact that the British cultivated a client “nationalist” capitalist class in Ireland and that the police and military forces used to back up Murphy’s coalition in 1913 were under British colonial control.
To my mind, a good comprehensive analysis of the decline in prominence of the Irish working class on the political stage from its high point in early 1913 and even in 1916, has yet to be written. One can see a number of factors that must have played a part and the killing of Connolly was one. But something else happened between 1913 and 1916 which had a negative impact on the working class, not just in Ireland but throughout the World. In July 1914, WW1 started and in rising against British colonialism in Ireland, Connolly also intended to strike a blow against this slaughter. As the Lockout struggle drew to its close at the end of 1913 and early 1914, many union members had been replaced in their jobs and many would find it hard to regain employment, due to their support for the workers and their resistance to the campaign to break the ITGWU. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that many joined the British Army or went to work in war industries in Britain. Although the Irish capitalist class supported the British in that War (up to most of 1917 at any rate) it was imperialism which had begun the war and British Imperialism which recruited Irish workers into its armed forces and industries.
Reaching back in history but to different parts of Europe, Padraig Yeates, in his short and often amusing launch speech, cracked that “for years many people thought Karl Kautsky’s first name was ‘Renegade’ ” — a reference to the title of one of Lenin’s pamphlets: The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Yeates apparently admires Kautsky and quoted him on Ireland. But Kautsky advocated no uprisings against imperialism or colonialism in the belief that “super-imperialism” (also called “Hyper Imperialism”) would regulate itself peacefully, letting socialists get on with the task of evolving socialism. Two World Wars since then and current developments have negated Kautsky’s theory but more to the point, to advocate his theory as a guiding principle at the time he did was a major ideological threat to proletarian revolution and to the evolving anti-colonial struggles of the world and therefore he was a renegade to any variant of genuine socialism and socialist struggle.
This is relevant in analysing the position of the trade union leaders and the Irish Labour Party today. They are social democrats and their central thesis is that it is possible to reform capitalism, by pressure on and by involvement in the State. They deny what Lenin and others across the revolutionary socialist spectrum declare, that the state serves the ruling class and cannot be coopted or taken over but for socialism to succeed, must be overthrown.
It is the social-democratic analysis that underpinned decades of the trade union leaders’ social partnership with the employers and the State, decades that left them totally unprepared, even if they had been willing, to declare even one day’s general strike against the successive attacks on their members, the rest of the Irish working class and indeed the lower middle class too since 2011. Indeed Padraig Yeates, speaking at a discussion on trade unions at the Anarchist Bookfair a year or two ago, conceded that social partnership had “gone too far”. Can Jack or any other collaborationist trade union leader blame that on the transitory defeat of the 1913 Lockout? They may try to but it is clear to most people that the blame does not lie there.
Two other speakers addressed the audience at the launch, Katherine O’Donnell and Caitriona Crowe. Catriona Crowe is Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland and, among other responsibilities, is Manager of the Irish Census Online Project, an Editor of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Vice-President of the Irish Labour History Society. She is also Chairperson of the SAOL Project, a rehabilitation initiative for women with addiction problems, based in the North Inner City. It was her, I think, who made the only mention of “Blueshirts” and her also that mentioned the anniversary of James Connolly. Although her speech was overlong in my opinion for a book launch in which she had already been preceded by two longish speeches, strangely I can remember very little of what she had to say.
Katherine O’Donnell’s contribution however made a considerable impression upon me. She declared herself early in the speech to be lesbian and a campaigner for gay and lesbian rights and is Director of the Women’s Studies Centre at the School of Social Justice at UCD. O’Donnell began by praising Padraig Yeates’ work, of which she declared herself “a fan”. In a speech which at times had me (and sometimes others too) laughing out loud, she discussed the contrast in the fields of historical representation between some historians and those who construct historical stories through the use of imagination as well as data; she denounced the social conservatism of the state, including the parameters of the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage, the legal status of marriage in general and the climate of fear of prosecution engendered by the shameful capitulation of RTE to the Iona Institute on the accusation of “homophobia” (she did not mention them specifically but everyone knew to what she was referring).
Jack O’Connor, between speeches, made a reference to a giant banner hanging off Liberty Hall which had the word “NO” displayed prominently, saying that they had received congratulatory calls from people who thought it was against same-sex marriage. The banner was however against privatisation of bus services. The current banner on Liberty Hall says “YES” to the proposal in the forthcoming referendum and he said that now busmen were calling them up complaining …. to laughter, O’Connor commented that “it’s hard to the right thing, sometimes”. Presumably what he meant was that it is hard to know what the right thing to do is, or perhaps to please everybody.
It is indeed hard to please everybody but I’d have to say that it is not hard to know that the purpose of and ‘the right thing to do’ for a trade union, is to fight effectively and with commitment for its members and for the working class in general. And that is precisely the responsibility which has been abrogated by Jack
O’Connor personally, along with other leaders of most of the trade unions, including the biggest ones for many years, SIPTU and IMPACT. And also by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. That is why Jack O’Connor gets booed now if he ever dares stand on a public platform related to trade union struggle, a treatment received also by David Beggs before he retired from the Presidency of ICTU.
Back in 2011, another giant banner hung from Liberty Hall – that time it urged us to VOTE LABOUR, as did leaders of other trade unions. Stretching magnanimity, we might give the trade union leaders the benefit of the doubt and say they had forgotten that the Labour Party had only ever been in Government in coalition, most often with the right-wing Blueshirt Fine Gael party and that its most recent spell sharing power had given us one of the most repressive governments in the history of the State. Let us imagine for a moment that these social-democratic union leaders had forgotten all that. But, after February 2011, as Labour and Fine Gael went into coalition and both reneged on their election promises, as the Coalition government began to attack the working class and the lower middle class, what is their excuse then? When did they denounce the Labour Party to their members, publicly disaffiliating from the party? No, never, and the fact that those disgusting connections continue was underlined by the presence at the book launch of a Labour Party junior Government Minister and the late arrival of none other than Joan Burton, Minister for Social Constriction …. er, sorry, Protection.
Considering that the book being launched was about the Civil War, it is really extraordinary that no speaker mentioned the repression by the Free State during and after that war. I am certain that Padraig Yeates has not glossed over that, he is much too honest and too good a historian to do so. But that only one speaker at the launch (Catriona Crowe) should mention the sinister Oriel House and none the at least 25 murders its occupants organised, nor the 125 other murders by Irish Free State soldiers and police, nor the 81 state executions between November 1922 and January 1923, sets one wondering at just how much self-hypnosis sections of our political and academic classes are capable.
Elephants, elephants everywhere
but not one can be seen!
From their homes stolen lives.
Injustice never new.
Not one crime done nor crime seen.
A sentence served undue.
Witness blind and judge astray.
Trial a kangaroo.
You want a reason to believe?
My friend, I’ll give you two.
Two sons of Craigavon Ireland,
Our voices now are due.
The cry should shout until it cracks
For justice to the two.
It happens time and time again,
Shadows of me and you.
Where once stood four and then the six,
The mirror shows the two.
Together we can make this right.
As one we’ll see it through.
You want a reason to believe?
My friend, I’ll give you two.
The poem is about the incarceration of the “Craigavon Two”, Brendan McConville and John Paul Wooton. On the 30th of March 2012 both men were convicted and given life sentences. They were accused of the fatal shooting of Constable Steven Carroll in Craigavon on the 9th of March 2010. The evidence was a hotch-potch of questionable material including an “eyewitness” who only came forward a year later after both Republicans had been in jail for a considerable time, a man whose evidence was contested by that of his wife and of his own father.
The case against them was so riddled with inconsistencies and suspect material, alongside new evidence of police interference with witnesses for the Defence, that there were high hopes of both men being cleared and freed when the appeal concluded in October last year. However, to the shock of many, including a number of Independent TDs (members of the Dáíl, the Irish parliament) and the late Gerry Conlon, their appeal was denied.
The campaign is on-going and supported by a number of organisations and individuals. It was in support of the Two that Gerry Conlon, formerly of the Guildford Four (and a subject of the film In the Name of the Father), made his last public statement days before he died.
Their campaign website http://justiceforthecraigavontwo.com/we-are-innocent/
“Where once stood four and then the six” in the second-to-last stanza is a reference to the Guildford Four and to the Birmingham Six, ten people (all Irish save one) who in 1974 were wrongly convicted of bombings in Britain and were finally cleared only fifteen and sixteen years later. Also wrongly convicted were the Maguire Seven (which included Giuseppe Conlon, Gerry’s father, and teenagers) and Judith Ward (a woman who was mentally ill at the time).
(This is reprinted with minimal editing from a section of a much longer piece of mine published in English and in Spanish a year ago https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/how-can-a-people-defeat-a-stronger-invader-or-occupying-power-2/)
The War of Independence 1919-1921 and retreat from stated objectives
Three years later (after the 1916 Rising), the nationalist revolutionaries returned to the armed struggle, this time without a workers’ militia or an effective socialist leadership as allies, and began a political struggle which was combined a little later with a rural guerilla war which soon spread into some urban areas (particularly the cities of Dublin and Cork). The political struggle mobilised thousands and also resulted in the majority of those elected in Ireland during the General Election (in the United Kingdom, of which Ireland was part) being of their party.
The struggle in Ireland and the British response to it was generating much interest and critical comment around the world and even in political and intellectual and artistic circles within Britain itself. In addition, many nationalist and socialist revolutionaries around the world were drawing inspiration from that fierce anti-colonial struggle so near to England, within the United Kingdom itself.
The dismantling by the nationalist forces, by threats and by armed action, of much of the control network of the colonial police force, which consequently dismantled much of their counter-insurgency intelligence service, led the British to set up two new special armed police forces to counter the Irish insurgency. Both these forces gained a very bad reputation not only among the nationalists but also among many British loyalists. The special paramilitary police forces resorted more and more to torture, murder and arson but nevertheless, in some areas of Ireland such as Dublin, Kerry and Cork, they had to be reinforced by British soldiers as they were largely not able to deal effectively with the insurgents, who were growing more resolute, experienced and confident with each passing week.
However, two-and-a-half years after the beginning of the guerrilla war, a majority of the Irish political leadership of the nationalist revolutionary movement settled for the partition of their country with Irish independence for one part of it within the British Commonwealth.
Much discussion has taken part around the events that led to this development. We are told that British Prime Minister Lloyd George blackmailed the negotiating delegation with threats of “immediate and terrible war” if they did not agree to the terms. The delegation were forced to answer without being allowed to consult their comrades at home. Some say that the President of the nationalist political party, De Valera, sent an allegedly inexperienced politically Michael Collins to the negotiations, knowing that he would end up accepting a bad deal from which De Valera could then distance himself. Michael Collins, in charge of supplying the guerrillas with arms, stated afterwards that he had only a few rounds of ammunition left to supply each fighter and that the IRA, the guerrilla army, could not fight the war Lloyd George threatened. He also said that the deal would be a stepping stone towards the full independence of a united Ireland in the near future. None of those reasons appear convincing to me.
How could the leadership of a movement at the height of their successes cave in like that? Of course, the British were threatening a worse war, but they had made threats before and the Irish had met them without fear. If the IRA were truly in a difficult situation with regard to ammunition (and I’m not sure that there is any evidence for that apart from Collins’ own statement), that would be a valid reason for a reduction in their military operations, not for accepting a deal far short of what they had fought for. The IRA was, after all, a volunteer guerrilla army, much of it of a part-time nature. It could be withdrawn from offensive operations and most of the fighters could melt back into the population or, if necessary, go “on the run”.
If the military supply situation of the Irish nationalists was indeed dire in the face of the superior arms and military experience of Britain, was that the only factor to be taken into account? An army needs more than arms and experience in order to wage war – there are other factors which affect its ability and effectiveness.
The precariousness of the British situation
In 1919, at the end of the War, the British, although on the victorious side, were in a precarious position. During the war itself there had been a serious mutiny in the army (during which NCOs and officers had been killed by privates) and as the soldiers were demobbed into civilian life and into their old social conditions there was widespread dissatisfaction. Industrial strikes had been forbidden during the War (although some had taken place nonetheless) and a virtual strike movement was now under way.
In 1918 and again in 1919, police went on strike in Britain. Also during 1919, the railway workers went on strike and so did others in a wave that had been building up since the previous year. In 1918 strikes had already cost 6 million working days. This increased to nearly 35 million in 1919, with a daily average of 100,000 workers on strike. Glasgow in 1921 saw a strike with a picket of 60,000 and pitched battles with the police. The local unit of the British Army was detained in barracks by its officers and units from further away were sent in with machine guns, a howitzer and tanks.
James Wolfe in his work Mutiny in United States and British Armed forces in the Twentieth Century(http://www.mellenpress.com/mellenpress.cfm?bookid=8271&pc=9) includes the following chapter headings:
4.2 The Army Mutinies of January/February 1919
4.3 The Val de Lievre Mutiny
4.4 Three Royal Air Force Mutinies January 1919
4.5 Mutiny in the Royal Marines – Russia,
February to June 1919
4.6 Naval Mutinies of 1919
4.7 Demobilization Riots 1918/1919
4.8 The Kinmel Park Camp Riots 1919
4.9 No “Land Fit For Heroes” – the Ex-servicemen’s Riot in Luton
4 4.10 Ongoing Unrest – Mid-1919 to Year’s End
The British Government feared their police force would be insufficient against the British workers and was concerned about the reliability of their army if used in this way. There had already been demonstrations, riots and mutinies in the armed forces about delays in demobilisation (and also in being used against the Russian Bolshevik Revolution).
Elsewhere in the British Empire things were unstable too. The Arabs were outraged at Britain’s reneging on their promise to give them their freedom in exchange for fighting the Turks and rebellions were breaking out which would continue over the next few years. The British were also facing unrest in Palestine as they began to settle Jewish immigrants who were buying up Arab land there. An uprising took place in Mesopotamia (Iraq) against the British in 1918 and again in 1919. The Third Afghan War took place in 1919; Ghandi and his followers began their campaign of civil disobedience in 1920 while in 1921 the Malabar region of India rose up in armed revolt against British rule. Secret communiques (but now accessible) between such as Winston Churchill, Lloyd George and the Chief of Staff of the British armed forces reveal concerns about the reliability of their soldiers in the future against insurrections and industrial action in Britain and even whether, as servicemen demanded demobilisation, they would have enough soldiers left for the tasks facing them throughout the Empire.
The Irish nationalist revolutionaries in 1921were in a very strong position to continue their struggle until they had won independence and quite possibly even to be the catalyst for socialist revolution in Britain and the death of the British Empire. But they backed down and gave the Empire the breathing space it needed to deal with the various hotspots of rebellion elsewhere and to prepare for the showdown with British militant trade unionists that came with the General Strike of 1926. Instead, the Treatyites turned their guns on their erstwhile comrades in the vicious Civil War that broke out in 1922. The new state executed IRA prisoners (often without recourse to a trial) and repression continued even after it had defeated the IRA in the Civil War.
If the revolutionary Irish nationalist leaders were not aware of all the problems confronting the British Empire, they were certainly aware of many of them. The 1920 hunger strike and death of McSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, had caught international attention and Indian nationalists had made contact with the McSwiney family. The presence of large Irish working class communities in Britain, from London to GlaSgow, provided ample opportunity for keeping abreast of industrial disputes, even if the Irish nationalists did not care to open links with British militant trade unionists. Sylvia Pankhurst, member of the famous English suffragette family and a revolutionary communist, had letters published in The Irish Worker, newspaper of the IT&GWU. The presence of large numbers of Irish still in the British Army was another source of ready information.
The revolutionary Irish nationalist leaders were mostly of petite bourgeois background and had no programme of the expropriation of the large landowners and industrialists. They did not seek to represent the interests of the Irish workers—indeed at times sections of them demonstrated a hostility to workers, preventing landless Irish rural poor seizing large estates and to divide them among themselves. Historically the petite bourgeoisie has shown itself incapable of sustaining a revolution in its own class interests and in Ireland it was inevitable that the Irish nationalists would come to follow the interests of the Irish national bourgeoisie. The Irish socialists were too few and weak to offer another pole of attraction to the petite bourgeoisie. The Irish national bourgeoisie had not been a revolutionary class since their defeat in 1798 and were not to be so now. Originally, along with the Catholic Church with which they shared many interests in common, they had declined to support the revolutionary nationalists but decided to join with them when they saw an opportunity to improve their position and also what appeared to be an imminent defeat of the British.
In the face of the evident possibilities it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the section of revolutionary Irish nationalists who opted for the deal offered by Lloyd George did so because they preferred it to the alternatives. They preferred to settle for a slice rather than fight for the whole cake. And the Irish bourgeoisie would do well out of the deal, even if the majority of the population did not. The words of James Connolly that the working class were “the incorruptible heirs” of Ireland’s fight had a corollary – that the Irish bourgeoisie would always compromise the struggle. It is also possible that the alternative the nationalists feared was not so much “immediate and terrible war” but rather a possible Irish social revolution in which they would lose their privileges.
Another serious challenge to the Empire from Irish nationalist revolutionaries would not take place until nearly fifty years later, and it would be largely confined to the colony of the Six Counties.
end selected extract
The month of January is the start of the year, according to the calendar most of us use but, for the Celts and some other peoples, it was the last month of winter, which had begun in November, after the feast of Samhain.
I am notified of many birthdays in January from among my Facebook friends. That would seem to indicate a higher rate of conception at the end of March/ early April and onwards but a quick search on the internet did not supply me comparative figures. However, in our climate, new food begins to be available inland in January as salmon arrive to spawn and with sheep lactating from February. Onwards from there, plants begin to grow again and birds lay eggs, animals give birth and so on. The pregnant mother needs a ready supply of food to sustain a viable pregnancy.
Though January may be a month of births, from what I see of history it is also a month of deaths … early, unnatural deaths …. of executions, in fact. These particular executions to which I refer took place in Ireland and in the United States of America and they were carried out by the respective states of those countries.
Executions by the Irish Free State
This week saw the anniversary of five such executions, on the 15th January 1923 — executions by the Free State of IRA Volunteers. Four of these were in Roscrea and the fifth was in Carlow: Vol.F. Burke; Vol.Patrick Russell; Vol.Martin Shea; Vol.Patrick MacNamara; Vol.James Lillis.
They were not the first executions by the Free State: eight had been executed the previous November and thirteen in December. The killing for the new year of 1923 had begun with five in Dublin on the 8th January and another three in Dundalk.
Nor were those executed on the 15th January to be the last for that month: on the 20th another eleven stood against a wall to be shot by soldiers of the Irish state; on the 22nd, another three; on the 25th, two more; and another four on the 26th before the month’s toll of 34 had been reached. As we progress through the year, each month will contain the anniversary of an executed volunteer and in all but one, multiple executions.
Apart from those who died while fighting, seventy-seven Volunteers and two other supporters of the struggle were officially executed by the Irish Free State between November 1922 and 29th December 1923. In addition there were many (106-155) murdered without being acknowledged by Free State forces — shot (sometimes after torture) and their bodies dumped in streets, on mountains, in quarries .…1
These deeds and others led to the composition of a number of songs, among the best of which are in my opinion Martyrs of ’22 (sung to the air of The Foggy Dew) and Take It Down from the Mast. The latter was written in 1923 by James Ryan, containing two verses about the Six Counties which one doesn’t normally hear sung. Dominic Behan in the 1950s added a verse of his own about the four executions by the State in reprisal for the assassination of TD Sean Hales, when the State deliberately shot one Volunteer from each province, each of whom had been in custody when the assassination took place: Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett, Joseph McKelvey, Dominic Behan recorded the latter in the 1950s: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-b2EL8Jytao
This was the bloody baptism of the new state, a neo-colony state of twenty-six counties on a partitioned island, with six counties remaining a British colony.
MARTYRS OF ’22
When they heard the call of a cause laid low,
They sprang to their guns again;
And the pride of all was the first to fall —
The glory of our fighting men.
In the days to come when with pipe and drum,
You’ll follow in the ways they knew,
When their praise you’ll sing, let the echoes ring
To the memory of Cathal Brugha.
Brave Liam Lynch on the mountainside
Felll a victim to the foe
And Danny Lacey for Ireland died
in the Glen of Aherlow
Neil Boyle and Quinn from the North came down
To stand with the faithful and true
And we’ll sing their praise in the freedom days
‘Mong the heroes of ’22.
Some fell in the proud red rush of war
And some by the treacherous blow,
Like the martyrs four in Dublin Town,
And their comrades at Dromboe:
And a hundred more in barrack squares
and by lonely roadsides too:
Without fear they died and we speak with pride
of the martyrs of ’22.
Executions of “Molly Maguires”
Wednesday, 14th January, was the anniversary of the executions of James McDonnell and Charles Sharp at Mauch Chunk jail, Pennsylvania. Both had been accused of being “Molly Maguires”, a resistance group of workers, mostly miners, in the Pennsylvania region. Today, the 16th, is the anniversary of the execution of another “Molly”, Martin Bergin; 20 were executed over two years. And many more had been murdered in their homes or ambushed — many others had been beaten; these activities were carried out by “vigilantes” hired by the coal-mine owners and by Iron & Coal Guards, also employed by them.
The exact origin of the name Molly Maguires is uncertain but they were among a number of agrarian resistance organizations of previous years in Ireland; according to accounts, they gathered at night wearing women’s smocks over their clothes to attack landlords and their agents. Since these smocks tended to be white in colour, Whiteboys or Buachaillí Bána was another name for them.
Somewhat Ironically, the state of Pennsylvania was itself named after a man with connections to Ireland: William Penn’s father, the original William, had commanded a ship in the Royal Navy during the suppression of the Irish uprising in 1641, for which he had been given estates in Ireland by Cromwell.
His son, William went to live on the Irish estates for a while and was suppressing Irish resistance there in 1666. Not lot long afterwards he became a Quaker in Cork.
In 1681 the younger Penn’s efforts to combine a number of Quaker settlements in what is now the eastern United States were successful when he was granted a charter by King Charles II to develop the colony. The governance principles he outlined there are credited with influencing the later Constitution of the United States. Charles II added the name “Penn” to William’s chosen name of “Sylvania” for the colony, in honour of the senior Penn’s naval service (he had by then become an Admiral).
Less than two hundred years later, Pennsylvania was one of the United States of America and the anthracite coal discovered there was being mined by US capitalists. The mine owners squeezed their workers as hard as they could and regularly replaced them with workers who were emigrating in mass to the United States in the mid-19th Century.
According to James D. Horan and Howard Swiggett, who wrote The Pinkerton Story sympathetically about the detective agency, about 22,000 coal miners worked in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, at this time and 5,500 of these (a quarter) were children between the ages of seven and sixteen years. According to Richard M. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais in Labor’s Untold Story, the children earned between one and three dollars a week separating slate from the coal. Miners who were to injured or too old to work at the coal face were put to picking out slate at the “breakers”, crushing machines for breaking the coal into manageable sizes. In that way, many of the elderly miners finished their mining days as they had begun in their youth. The life of the miners was a “bitter, terrible struggle” (Horan and Swiggett).
Workers who were illiterate and immigrants without English were unable to read safety notices, such as they were. In addition immigrants faced discrimination and Irish Catholics, who began to arrive in large numbers in the United States after the Great Hunger of 1845-1849 faced particular discrimination although (or because) most spoke English (as a second language to Irish, in many cases). The mine-owners often employed Englishmen and Welsh as supervisors and police which also led to divisions along ethnic lines.
As well as wages being low and working conditions terrible, with deaths and serious injuries at work in their hundreds every year, the mine-owners cut corners by failing to ensure good pit props and refused to install safety features such as ventilating or pumping systems or emergency exits. Boyer and Morais quote statistics of 566 miners killed and 1,655 seriously injured over a seven-year period (Labor, the Untold Story).
In 1869 a fire at the Avondale Mine in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, cost the lives of 110 miners. There had been no emergency exit for the men’s escape. It is a measure of the influence of the mine and iron capitalists that the jury at the inquest into the deaths did not apportion blame to the mine-owner, although it did add a rider recommending the instalation of emergency exits in all mines.
Earlier at the scene, as the bodies were being recovered from the mine, a man had mounted a wagon to address the thousands of miners who had arrived from surrounding communities: “Men, if you must die with your boots on, die for your families, your homes, your country, but do not longer consent to die, like rats in a trap, for those who have no more interest in you than in the pick you dig with.”
The speaker was John Siney, a leader of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, a trade union that had been organizing among the miners for some time; his words were a call to unionize and thousands did so there and then and over the following days.
Trade union organisers in the USA throughout the 19th Century (and later) were routinely subject to harassment, threats and often much worse and the workers at times responded in kind. Shooting and stabbing incidents were far from unknown, with fifty unexplained murders in Schuykill County between 1863 and 1867. The mine-owners had the Coal and Iron Police force and were known to hire additional “vigilantes” to intimidate and punish trade union organisers. They also hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to gather intelligence on union organisers and on the Molly Maguires.
The employers watched concerned as the WBA trade union grew to 30,000 strong with around 85% membership among the coal miners of the area, including nearly all the Irish. The “Great Panic” of 1873 changed the situation. A stock crash due to over-expansion was followed by a decrease in the money supply and staggering levels of unemployment followed. As is often the case, the capitalists maintained their life-styles while claiming inability to pay living wages to their workers. As is often the case too, they used the opportunity of high unemployment to force worse wages and conditions upon the workers.
One of those capitalists owned two-thirds of the mines in the southeastern Pennsylvania area; he was Franklin B. Gowen, owner of the Reading & Philadelphia Railroad and of the Reading & Philadelphia Coal & Iron Company. Gowen was determined to break the WBA and formed his own union of employers, the Anthracite Board of Trade; in December 1874 they announced a 20% cut in wages for their workers. On 1st January 1875 the WBA brought their members out on strike.
The history of the coal mines of Pennsylvania and their terrible conditions and mortality in the 19th Century, the extreme exploitation of the mine-owners’ systems and their use of prejudiced and corrupt courts, media and vigilantes to have their way, is a long one. The history of the workers’ resistance is also a long one and the “Molly Maguires” were a part of it. Their own history is also dogged by controversy, with some even doubting the existence of the Mollies, claiming that the secret society was an invention of the employers to create panic and to associate the unionized workers with violence in the minds of the public. The brief notes following are part of a narrative accepted by some historians but not by others.
In order to defend themselves, the miners developed two types of organisation which, in many areas where the workers were Irish, existed side by side. One was the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, a trade union the methods of which were those of industrial action, demonstrations and attempts to use the legal system in order to improve working conditions and gain better remuneration for the workers. The leaders of the WBA condemned violence used by workers as well, of course, as denouncing the employers’ violence.
The other was the Molly Maguires, a secret oath-bound society which organized under the cover of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The AOH in turn was a self-help or fraternal organization for Catholics of Irish origin, mostly in the Irish diaspora, particularly in the USA, where early Catholic Irish migrants had encountered much hostility and discrimination from the WASP establishment and from “nativist” groups. In keeping with the history of their namesakes, the Molly Maguires of the USA were prepared to use violence in response to the violence of their employers.
In March1875, Edward Coyle, a leading member of the union and of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, was murdered, as was another member of the AOH; a miners’ meeting was attacked and a mine-owner fired into a group of miners (Boyer and Morais).
Reprisals by the Mollies followed as attacks on their members and the miners in general escalated. These attacks were carried out by State police, the Coal and Iron Police of the mine-owners and in particular by the “Vigilantes”, also hired by the mine-owners.
The information supplied by the Pinkerton Agents in their daily reports, although often only initial speculations from surveillance, were used to target individuals who were then often murdered2. One of the Pinkerton agents, James McParlan3 from Co. Armagh, who had penetrated the Mollies under cover of the alias “James McKenna”, was reportedly furious that his reports were being used to target people for the “Vigilantes”, including people he considered innocent. His job as he saw it was to gather information which would stand up in court to convict the leading Mollies, sentence them to death and break the organisation. Although his employer tried to pacify him in fact Alan Pinkerton himself had urged the mine-owners to employ “vigilantes”.
The mine-owners pursued a dual strategy of violence against Mollies and other leaders and members of the WBA, while also preparing legal charges against trade union officials and collecting evidence to have the Mollies tried for murder. The courts collaborated, as did the mass media. Much of the clergy were not found wanting either and denounced the union leaders to their congregations.
The state militia and the Coal and Iron Police patrolled the district, maintaining an intimidatory presence during the strike. On May 12th John Siney, a leader of the WBA was arrested at a demonstration against the importation of strike-breakers. Siney had opposed the strike and advocated seeking arbitration. Another 27 union officials were arrested on conspiracy charges. Judge Owes’ words while sentencing two of them are indicative of the side on which the legal system was, at least in Pennsylvania in 1875:
“I find you, Joyce, to be President of the Union and you, Maloney, to be Secretary and therefore I sentence you to one year’s imprisonment.”
Stories appeared in the media of strikes as far away as Jersey City in Illinois and in the Ohio mine-fields, all allegedly inspired by the Mollies. Much of the anti-union propaganda in the media was directly provided by Gowen who planted stories therein of murder and arson by the secret society.
With the workers starving and deaths among children and the infirm, surrounded by armed representatives of the employers and the state militia (also friendly to the employers), their leaders arrested, the union nearly collapsed and the strike was broken, miners going back to work on a 20% cut in their wages. The strike had lasted six months but the Mollies fought on and McPartland noted increased support for them, including among union members who had earlier declined to support their methods.
When the Mollies were brought to trial in a number of different court cases of irregular conduct, Gowen had himself appointed as Chief Prosecutor by the State. One of the accused, Kerrigan, turned state’s evidence and his and McPartland’s evidence helped send 10 Molly Maguires to their deaths: Michael Doyle, Edward Kelly, Alex Campbell, McGeehan, Carroll, Duffy, James Boyle, James Roarity, Tom Munley, McAllister.
In that area and in many other major industrial areas across the United States throughout the rest of that century and well into the next, employers continued to use spies and “vigilantes”, company police, local law enforcement agencies, state militia, labour-hostile press, fixed juries and biased judges to break workers’ defence organisations, often martyring their leaders and supporters.
A number of books have been published about the Molly Maguires and their story of has been dramatised in the film of the name (1970), starring Sean Connery as Jack Kehoe and Richard Harris as McPartland. The Mollies have also been celebrated in a number of songs, among which the lyrics of the Dubliner’s version is probably the worst and those of The Sons of Molly Maguire are the best I have heard (see Youtube recording link below end of article).
In June 2013 the East Wall History Group organized a talk on the Mollies by US Irish author John Kearns at the Sean O’Casey Centre in Dublin’s North Wall area (video of the talk and audio of a radio interview with the author are accessible from this link:http://eastwallforall.ie/?p=1505).
In 1979, on a petition by one of John “Black Jack” Kehoe’s descendants and after an official investigation, Governor of Pennsylvania Milton Shapp posthumously pardoned Kehoe, who had proclaimed his innocence until his death (as had Alex Campbell). Shapp praised Kehoe and the others executed as “martyrs to labor” and heroes in a struggle for fair treatment for workers and the building of their trade union.
The Sons of Molly Maguire:
1 I gratefully acknowledge the listing of that wonderful voluntary and non-party organisation, the Irish National Graves Association, which has done such important work to document and honour those who have fallen in the struggle for freedom of the people of our land http://www.nga.ie/Civil%20War-77_Executions.php
2 In what one may see as a strange coincidence, among the Mollie victims of Vigilante violence were cousins of Pat O’Donnell, with whom he had stayed for some time. Pat O’Donnell shot dead Carey in 1883 because he had turned state evidence against the Invincibles (see https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/pat-odonnell-patriot-or-murderer/).
3 Also sometimes referred to as “McParlan”. In addition some researchers have expressed the opinion that there in fact two McParlands, brothers, working for Pinkerton against the Molly Maguires.
“Shut up, you idiot! The day’s not over yet!”
Meanwhile, not far away ….
THE WREN-BOY TRADITION IN IRELAND
In England it is called “Boxing Day” but in Ireland the 26th of December is “St. Stephen’s Day”. Despite the Christian designation it has long been the occasion in Ireland for customs much closer to paganism.
It was common for a group of boys (usually) to gather and hunt down a wren. The wren can fly but tends to do so in short bursts from bush to bush and so can be hunted down by determined boys. The bird might be killed or kept alive, tied to a staff or in a miniature bower constructed for the occasion.
The Wren Boys would then parade it from house to house while they themselves appeared dressed in costume and/or with painted faces. In some areas they might only carry staff or wands decorated with colourful ribbons and metallic paper while they might in other areas dress in elaborate costumes, some of them made of straw (Straw Boys) and these were sometimes also known as Mummers although a distinction should be drawn between these two groups. The Mummers in particular would have involved acting repertoires with traditional character roles and costumes, music and dance routines while the simpler Wren Boys might each just contribute a short dance, piece of music or song. In all cases traditional phrases were used upon arrival, the Mummers having the largest repertoire for in fact they were producing a kind of mini-play.
The origins of the customs are the subject of debate but a number of Irish folk tales surround the wren. The bird is said in one story to have betrayed the Gaels to the Vikings, leading to the defeat of the former. There is a Traveller tradition that accuses the wren of betraying Jesus Christ to soldiers while another tradition has the bird supplying the nails (its claws) for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Yet another tradition has the wren as King of the Birds, having used its cunning in a competition to determine who would be the avian King, hiding itself under the Eagle’s wind and flying out above the exhausted bird when it seemed to have won, having left all others behind and could fly no higher.
By the 1960s the Wren Boy custom was beginning to die out even in areas where it had held fast but it slowly began to be revived by some enthusiasts. Nowadays fake wrens are used. Christmas Day in Ireland was traditionally a day to go to religious service and to spend at home with family or to go visiting neighbours. It was not a day of presents or of lights or Christmas Trees, customs brought in by the English colonizers in particular from Prince Albert, the British Queen Victoria’s royal consort, who was German. St. Stephen’s Day may have celebrated the Winter Solstice (the wren being a bird that on occasion sings even in winter) but moved to a Christian feast day; in any case it produced colour and excitement at a time which did not have the religious and commercial Christmas season to which, in decades, we have become accustomed.
The lovely song The Boys of Barr na Sráide from a poem by Sigerson Clifford takes as its binding thread the boys in his childhood with whom Sigurson went “hunting the wren”. It is sung here by Muhammed Al-Hussaini (currently resident in London and part of the singing circle of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí na hÉireann, meeting in the Camden Irish Centre). There are recordings of others performing this song well but the unusual origin of this one as well as its quality persuaded me to choose this one. In addition, I had the pleasure of participating in a singing circle with this lovely and modest singer in London in October this year (see The London Visit on the blog), who greeted me in Irish. Muhammed also plays the violin on this, accompanied by Mark Patterson on mandolin and Paul Sims on guitar.
Diarmuid Breatnach, Feabhra 2014.
When the civil rights movement began in 1968 in the Six Counties, the general attitude in Britain, on the street and even in much of the media, was supportive of the campaigners. This was reinforced by the majority of the Irish community there, an estimated average of 10% of the population of most British main cities. The Irish were the largest ethnic minority in Britain and the longest-established, constantly renewed by high emigration since the Great Hunger of 1845-1849 (although seasonal and other migration had been a pattern long before that).
In the Six Counties, the sectarian police force were unable to vanquish the resistance and “liberated areas” emerged. The British imperialist ruling class could no longer tolerate this state of affairs and sent in its Army to “restore order” and also to “clear the no-go areas”. As the Provisional IRA (mostly), later also the INLA, entered the struggle against the British Army in the Six Counties, the mood in Britain began to shift somewhat. After all, a British soldier dead meant a British family mourning, whilst the same did not apply at all with an RUC or B-Special killed (however they might think of themselves as “British”). But still the Irish community in Britain held the line in solidarity with the support of large sections of the British Left (many of whom happened to be Irish or of Irish descent as well). Regular demonstrations were held, as well as pickets and public meetings. People wrote leaflets and letters. Solidarity delegations were sent. MPs were lobbied to ask questions in the House of Commons, which some did.
The introduction of Internment without trial in the Six Counties in 1971 was strongly protested, as was the Ballymurphy Massacre by the Paras that same year. The Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972 led to protests in many areas of Britain, including solidarity strikes on building sites and a huge demonstration in London — as the head of the wide packed march passed Trafalgar Square on its way to Downing Street, the end of it was still leaving Hyde Park Corner, where it had begun some time earlier, about 3 kilometres away. When the lines of police in Whitheall stopped those leading the march from presenting thirteen “coffins” to No.10 Downing Street, the residence of the Prime Minister, some of the “coffins” were thrown at the police and a riot began. Nor was it the only riot — an earlier march had tried to break through the heavy police cordon in front of Northern Ireland House at Green Park, a couple of mounted police had been knocked off their horses and the demonstration had ended with protesters being chased through Green Park by police on foot and in vehicles.
Protests even made it into the House of Commons as in 1970 when an Irishman called Roche threw a tear gas cannister in among MPs to make them aware of the tons of CS gas being pumped into the Bogside and other areas by the RUC (later by the British Army too), while in 1972, after Bloody Sunday, then People’s Democracy MP Bernadette Devlin (now McAlliskey and no longer an MP) walked up to the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, and slapped him in the face.
The IRA bombing campaign in Britain in particular impacted negatively to some extent on sympathy for the Irish struggle but solidarity from the Irish community, along with large elements in the British Left was still strong, despite some potentially lethal explosions such as postal pillar box bombs and the Post Office Tower bombing in 1971, which luckily did not cause any injuries. All that was to change in 1974.
The Birmingham Pub Bombing
In October and November 1974, the Guildford and Woolwich Pub Bombings killed six soldiers and two civilians whilst a further sixty-five people were injured (mostly in the Guildford explosion, where five of the dead had been). The pubs had been in regular use by personnel of the British Army but were also used by a number of civilians.
In between those two bombings, another two bombs exploded in completely civilian bars in Birmingham, killing 21 and injuring 182. It stunned the Irish community and the friendly British Left. The media of course went to town with “Bastards!” being used as a headline for the first time by a British tabloid, over a photograph of the atrocity. At first no-one claimed the Birmingham bombing and then it was denied by the IRA, who up to then had a very reliable record with regard to taking ownership of events (which could not be said of the Royal Ulster Constabulary or of the British Army). Some kind of “black operation” was the suspicion of many. As we know now and as some in the IRA admitted quite some time later, it had been an IRA bomb and the person whose responsibility it had been to telephone the warning, in a time long before mobile phones, had found a number of out-of-order public telephone kiosks and the warning had been too late.
Up to then, the Midlands IRA unit or units had been exploding bombs at targets without injury to civilians when one of their volunteers, James McDade, was killed in a premature explosion while planting a bomb at a telephone exchange in Coventry. His remains were prepared for return to Ireland and burial in his native Belfast. McDade had been well known in the Birmingham Irish community and through much of the Midlands as a talented GAA (Gaelic sports) player and was popular as a singer with a tenor voice. Eddie Caughey, of the Birmingham branch of Provisional Sinn Féin (later the party closed down all branches outside Ireland), was among others accompanying the coffin on McDade’s last journey. Another group of people set off from Britain to attend the funeral, including five Irishmen from the Six Counties resident in Birmingham, catching a train to connect with the ferry at Heysham.
Coincidentally, the Birmingham group arrived for the Heysham ferry the same evening as the Birmingham bombs exploded, although they were unaware of this. The five men were taken from the ferry at Heysham by police and interrogated, later beaten up by the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad and threatened with guns and dogs, four of them forced to confess to things they had not done; they were then were charged with multiple murder along with another Irishman from the Six Counties who had seen them off at the New Street Birmingham train station. They six men were taken to Winson Green prison where they received another savage beating from screws so that when they turned up in court all were bruised and battered. One screw witness many years later was reported to have said that he had not participated and found the brutality sickening (he may have been the inspiration for the scene in the H-Blocks 2008 film “Hunger” directed by McQueen, where a screw hides away from the other screws in riot gear as they go in to beat the “blanket men”).
The six Birmingham Irish were found guilty in a travesty of a trial and became “the Birmingham Six”. Another three, at least one of whom was an IRA volunteer and probably the organiser of the bombings, were convicted on charges relating to explosives and received nine years’ jail.
Subsequent appeals and prosecutions by the Birmingham Six of officers for assault etc. were all dismissed or ruled out of order by the state judicial system. Individuals in the Irish community, such as Sr. Sarah Clarke, began to campaign for them. In 1976, Fr.s Raymond Murray and Denis Faul in the Six Counties published their booklet The Birmingham Framework: Six innocent men framed for the Birmingham Bombings. In 1981 the newly-formed Irish in Britain Representation Group became the first wide Irish community organisation in Britain to take up their case and made representations on behalf of the Six, including to the Irish Embassy in London (“The Birmingham who?” asked the Ambassador at the time, according to some IBRG who participated in the delegation).
In 1985 after repeated lobbying by the Birmingham Six Campaign, the IBRG and individuals, World In Action (Granada, ITV) made the first programme throwing doubt on the guilt of the Six. A year later, Chris Mullins (a researcher for the World in Action programme and later an MP and a Government Minister) published his book declaring their innocence. Campaigning continued in Britain and in Ireland.
But it was not until 1991, SIXTEEN YEARS after their unjust conviction, that they were finally released, their convictions quashed. The lives of many of them were ruined — marriages had broken up, livelihoods were gone, some never recovered from the trauma. It was not until ANOTHER TEN YEARS before they were awarded financial compensation.
Not one judge, one police officer or one prison officer was ever convicted of assault or perversion of the cause of justice. The British forensic scientist whose “evidence” and “expertise” were used to sway the jury to convict the Birmingham Six, Frank Skuse, suffered a blow to his professional reputation but that was all.
The impression is often given that the Birmingham Six jury was blinded by expert forensic evidence and/or that it could not be known then that the evidence was wrong. But it is also often forgotten that Skuse’s “evidence” contained contradictions suggesting interference and that his forensic conclusions were contested at the trial by those of another forensic practitioner, Dr Hugh Kenneth Black FRIC, the former HM Chief Inspector of Explosives, Home Office. The judge chose to believe Skuse and to sway the jury in that direction. Part of the judgement of the Court of Appeal that freed them in 1991 was that “Dr. Skuse’s conclusion was wrong, and demonstrably wrong, judged even by the state of forensic science in 1974.”
The Guildford and Woolwich Pub Bombings
In 1977, the “Balcolme Street” IRA unit (so named because of the address where they were trapped and besieged before capture) informed the authorities through their trial lawyers that they were responsible for the Guildford and Woolwich bombings. This was an unprecedented step for the IRA but their claim was denied by the State. The Home Office accepted in a memorandum at some point later that the Guildford Four were “probably not terrorists” but thought there was not enough to justify their release. Eventually falsified police notes were found by an investigating police detective and they were used as a reason to throw doubt on the whole case against the Four and they walked free in 1989. They had spent fifteen years in British jails and the father of one, Gerry Conlon, had died in prison.
The Maguire Seven had to wait another two years before their convictions were quashed in 1991, so that they spent 17 years in British jails. The court accepted that members of the London Metropolitan Police beat some of them into confessing to the crimes as well as withholding information that would have cleared them (this last was also a feature of the Guildford Four case).
In 2005, Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, apologised to the surviving ten and to relatives of all the eleven for their “ordeal and injustice”. The British media, which had played a key role in creating the public atmosphere in which huge injustices could be and were done, never apologised nor even reviewed their procedures and guidelines and in fact even after their release, one British tabloid had to pay out libel compensation for suggesting that some of the framed prisoners were guilty but had got off on some kind of technicality. And again, not one forensic expert, not one Judge or state Minister was ever charged; some detectives were eventually charged with perjury but were never tried, nor were they ever charged with assault — not to mention torture.
The Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act 1974
Back at the time when those bombings occurred, a legal measure of huge importance was being planned: at the end of November 1974, the Prevention of Terrorism Act was rushed through British Parliament. The PTA superseded the regulations requiring the police to charge a suspect within 48 hours and to bring them before a judge as early as possible or to release them on bail. The PTA legislation permitted holding of “suspects” for 5 days without charge and without access to lawyers, visitors or their own doctor; it also permitted stopping and questioning and searching without need to establish a reason and house raids and searches. Later this power was extended to seven days.
Finally, it permitted exclusion from Britain and deportation to the Six Counties (even though that was classed as part of the United Kingdom and therefore constituted internal exile), without any need to charge or show evidence of wrongdoing. One victim of such banning for a number of years was Brendan McGill, Provisional Sinn Féin organiser in Britain at the time (but who joined Republican Sinn Féin in 1986; deceased in 2011); he was banned from Britain despite having been a resident for 21 years and had his home, family and a shop in London.
It was clear to observers that the Act had been already in preparation; the shocking Birmingham explosion a few weeks earlier provided the right atmosphere for its introduction. Eddie Caughey, the Birmingham-based Irish Republican who had accompanied the remains of IRA volunteer James Mc Dade to Belfast, became the first person to be detained and questioned under the PTA but that was to happen to thousands in the decades to follow, nearly every one of them Irish. According to the West Midlands PTA Research & Welfare Association (set up by Midlands activists of the IBRG), 7,192 people were detained under the PTA between 1974 and 1992. Only 629 of these (8.7%) were subsequently charged with any offence and most of those were totally unrelated to any “terrorist” acts. Even when charges came under the Act they were only such charges as being a member of a proscribed organisation, assisting a proscribed organisation etc; one such conviction was of a young man for having pro-IRA posters and a badge in his possession.
Again according to the West Midlands organisation, 86,000 people each year between 1987 and 1990 were ‘examined’ for more than an hour at British ports and airports under the PTA. The watchdog organisation admits that these are only recorded stops and also did not include anyone stopped at a port or airport for less than an hour.
It only happened to me once: travelling alone from London home to Dublin on holiday with my daughter of seven years, I was taken aside by Special Branch at Heathrow and questioned as to my London address, occupation, destination in Ireland, length of stay and purpose in travelling to Dublin. The questioning was not heavy and probably lasted less than ten or fifteen minutes and, unlike many others, I was not made to miss my plane. But it was really frightening to know that I could be taken in for up to seven days and the overarching apprehension was about what would happen to my daughter. Those days it was not unusual for people, as did I, to make arrangements if they were not going to be met upon arrival, to telephone a friend or family each side, so that in the absence of such, enquiries could be initiated with the police.
“PTA Telephone Trees” were established and those who volunteered for service on them might receive a phone call in the early hours of the morning to say that this or that person had been arrested, or was missing, and to begin making phone calls to other people on the “tree” and/or to a named police station. The purpose of the calls was not only to gather possible information (the police often denied the presence of someone known to be in their cells) but also to make the police aware that their detainees had friends outside who were making enquiries.
It was a testament perhaps to the level of fear engendered that although Irish solidarity pickets were taking place in various places, including of course London, it was not until the early 1990s that a picket was first placed on Paddington Green Police station, the usual destination of people detained under the PTA in London. “The Lubyanka of the Irish Community”, with its sixteen windowless underground cells, too hot in summer and too cold in winter, with a 7-day incommunicado detention period, was frightening enough but had developed a terror mystique.
It was a Kilburn-based British Left group (but with high Irish membership and which had been expelled from the Troops Out Movement) which placed the first pickets on Paddington Green and some time later the Saoirse campaign and the Wolfe Tone Society (Provisional SF support group in London) did so too. These symbolic acts helped to somewhat erode the terror of the place but the overall atmosphere had been dispelled by the mobilisations in solidarity with the Hunger Strikers a decade earlier.
Spokespersons of the Irish community and some others repeatedly warned the British Left, social-democratic and liberal sections of society that if they allowed the PTA to be used temporarily against the Irish community, it would become permanent; and if they allowed it against the Irish community it would be used against others later. In 1991, an article published by conservative British newspaper The Telegraph complained that the police were using “anti-terror” legislation against people who were clearly political protesters; the article cited 1,000 anti-war demonstrators including an 11-year-old child at Aldermaston and 600 protesters at a Labour Party Conference, including an 84-year-old man, all of whom had been questioned under “anti-terror” legislation (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3620110/The-police-must-end-their-abuse-of-anti-terror-legislation.html?fb). Since then, Muslim communities have also complained about the way in which “anti-terror” is used against them, in violation of their civil and human rights.
Repressive legislation labelled “anti-terror” in Britain since the 1970s began with the PTA and detention for five days, then for seven; subsequent legislation authorised it for 14 days; an attempt was made to extend it to three months on police recommendation but failed in Parliament; however the Terrorism Act 2006 authorises 28 days detention without charge.
Not “miscarriages of justice” but exercise in mass intimidation
The convictions and jailing of innocent Irish people were not “miscarriages of justice” but rather an exercise in the mass intimidation and coercion of the Irish community in Britain by the British state. The jailing of six innocent men for murder in 1975, who would have been hung were the death sentence for murder still on the statutes, was part of a campaign of terror against the Irish community in Britain which included the Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act in 1974 and the convictions of Judith Ward (1974), the Maguire Seven (1975) and Guildford Four (1975).
As remarked earlier, the Irish community in Britain was the largest and longest-established ethnic minority in Britain; it was and had long been a source of solidarity to the struggle in Ireland. It had also contributed significantly to the British Left and the struggle for socialism in the past: Bronterre O’Brien and Feargus O’Connor were renowned leaders of the Chartists in the 1840s and 1850s, The Red Flag was written by Jim Connell in 1889, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was written by Robert Tressell (real name Noonan) in 1914, the Irish were to the fore in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 and so on.
The British police had a long hostile relationship with the Irish diaspora, both because of the social position and conditions of the majority of the Irish community but also due to the Irish diaspora’s support for the struggle “back home”. Scotland Yard set up “The Irish Special Branch” to gather intelligence on pro-Fenian activity in the Irish communities in the cities in British cities during the later 19th Century — it was later renamed simply “the Special Branch”, as they are (politely) known today in Britain, the Six Counties and in the Twenty-Six.
Irish communities could be insular in some places and Irish “ghettos” existed: among “The Rookeries” in London (several areas around the city centre) and Wapping, “Little Ireland” in Manchester and so on. But the community also had a high impact on the British working class, particularly in England and in Scotland but also in Wales (the SW Miners’ Federation originally featured Connolly’s image on their banner, alongside those of Lenin and Kier Hardie). The Irish community were ideally placed to call for solidarity for the anti-imperialist struggle in the Six Counties and to counter British media disinformation and censorship. In most places, Irish worked alongside British workers, married among them, followed sports teams and also played sports with them. In many places they also lived in the same streets or housing blocks.
The British ruling class realised the potential of the Irish diaspora in Britain even if the Provisionals seemed not to. When ordinary repression — surveillance, questioning, agents provocateurs, spies and informers, arrests and occasional police charges into demonstrations, along with a hostile media campaign — did not work, something stronger was needed. Very repressive legislation, a high level of arrests, thousands of detentions and jailing of 18 (there were a few other cases too) innocent people in four different high-visibility trials might work instead. Especially if allied to some atrocity with which most Irish people could not agree, so that they felt morally undermined too. For a while, with the combination of the Birmingham Pub Bombing, the framing for murder of innocents and the Prevention of Terrorism, largely this approach did work, with most of the Left running for cover and most of the Irish community keeping their heads down.
Many, many people in the Irish community in Britain knew for certain that the Maguire Seven, Guildford Four and Judith Ward were not IRA and could not be: the Guildford Four were living in a squat, taking drugs and engaging in petty crime and Judith Ward had been mentally ill and had accosted police to claim responsibility for a bombing. The Maguire Seven were a family including two minors, a family friend and a relative, Giuseppe, who had travelled over from the Six Counties to support his son Gerry of the Guildford Four. The feeling that the Birmingham Six were innocent too quickly gained momentum. But for the British authorities, it was actually GOOD that the Irish community knew they were innocent because, if innocent people can go to jail for murder, everyone is vulnerable and the only possible way to safety would be to keep one’s head down and one’s mouth shut.
This was the period in which the Troops Out Movement (TOM), initially founded to bring Irish solidarity into the broad British society, the Left and trade unions, largely abandoned that task and began instead to concentrate on the Irish community. In that pool were now swimming Irish Republican political activists, the IBRG, TOM, some British Left and, in some places the Connolly Association.
It was the Hunger Strikes of 1981 that broke the stranglehold of repression and fear on the Irish community and brought them out on to the streets again, in solidarity with prisoners and trying to save the Hunger Strikers’ lives. And after a columnist in The Irish Post noted that Bobby Sands had died during the AGM of the Federation of Irish Societies in Britain and not one word from the top table had marked his passing, not even in condolences to Sands’ family, it also led to the founding of the Irish in Britain Representation Group, a broad organisation campaigning on a wide range of issues, from anti-Irish racism in the media to framed Irish prisoners, from a fair share of resources from local authorities to self-determination for the Irish people in Ireland.
Irish solidarity work enjoyed a resurgence for the next decade and longer but external influences began to affect the work and divisions arose as the long road to the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland began to pull and push against different elements in the solidarity movement in Britain. But that’s another story.