Piercing the heart of a giant
In March 1916, just a few weeks before the Easter Rising, the police raided Liberty Hall. In response, the Irish Citizen Army was mobilised across Dublin.
James O’Shea remembered how “all jobs stopped (with) men running out of foundries, fitting shops, forges and building jobs. Carters left horses in the street and ran for their rifles and equipment…it was a glorious sight to see men in all conditions of clothes, some with whips hanging to their belts, others in smocks all full of grease, mud, coal or cement…”
Though no further confrontation ensued on the day, the mobilisation illustrated how the Citizen Army drew its membership from among Dublin’s working class, especially members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.
A few weeks later, more than 250 members of the ICA would take part in the Rising. Early in Easter Week the ICA’s Starry Plough flag was hoisted over the Imperial Hotel in O’Connell Street. As the hotel was owned by William Martin Murphy this act carried special meaning as a reminder that the roots of the Citizen Army lay in the Lockout.
The ICA was formed in the winter of 1913 in response to police violence against workers. Initially trained by former British officer Captain Jack White, it numbered over 1,000 men by early 1914, armed only with sticks and hurleys. Nevertheless, it succeeded in ensuring the police attacks on strikers became rarer as the Lockout wore on.
In the aftermath of the workers’ defeat, however, the numbers involved declined. Now led by James Larkin, the ICA was a smaller, though a more professionalised and uniformed militia.
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It adopted a constitution which stated that “the first and last principle of the Irish Citizen Army is the avowal that the ownership of Ireland moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland” and that “the ICA shall stand for the absolute unity of Irish nationhood and shall support the rights and liberties of the democracies of all nations.” It also asserted that “the Citizen Army shall be open to all who accept the principle of equal rights and opportunities for the Irish people”.
Unlike the much larger Irish Volunteers, the ICA allowed women to become active within it, with ConstanceMarkievicz the most high-profile female recruit. But other women, including Dr. Kathleen Lynn, Helena Molony and Nellie Gifford were also active, along with young workers such as Rose Hackett.
The majority of the members were ITGWU activists, though a few, such as Michael Mallin and WP Partridge, had been in other unions.
The diversity of the city’s working class was also reflected, with a significant number of Protestant ICA members, including Fred Norgrove, Seamus McGowan and Sean O’Casey.
The Formation of the Irish Citizen Army 1913-16
The Irish Citizen Army was founded in at the height of the Dublin Lockout of 1913 to protect strikers from the police…
In August 1914, war broke out in Europe and large numbers of Dublin’s workers (including some ICA members) were called up by the British Army. Larkin soon departed for America and James Connolly succeeded him not only as head of the ITGWU but also of the ICA.
Connolly was outraged that the European socialist movement had not done more to stop the war and determined that the ICA would fight any attempts to deepen Ireland’s involvement. He lamented that “we are helpless! What then becomes of all our protests of fraternisation; all our threats of general strikes… were they all as sound and fury, signifying nothing?”
But Connolly also suggested that “Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist (are) shriveled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.”
Under Connolly, the ICA becamea proficient military force. A key decision was appointing Mallin, a former British soldier, (one of several in the ICA) as Chief of Staff. Training as well as arms procurement was stepped up during 1915. There were also weekly route marches, public parades and concerts.
James O’Shea recalled that “we… had something that was worth more than anything else before or since — a peculiar comradeship with no limits. It meant you stood by your mates against all comers, friend or foe.
We were like a big family when you got the swing of it. Home or nothing else mattered. I stress this as I have felt it and sensed it amongst the ICA in this period. It made for a carelessness in danger and a happy-golucky, devil-may-care comradeship that I had never experienced before.” Uniformed ICA members took part in drill competitions with the Irish Volunteers and formed part of the guard of honour at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in August 1915.
The ICA was also mobilised during two strikes on Dublin docks during that year. Despite complaints from the employers, the Citizen Army paraded with arms on the quayside and Connolly asserted that “They should always remember the way in which they were followed and buffeted by the police… two years ago, but such a thing was impossible today. The rise of the Citizen Army had made that a thing the authorities would not try on.”
In fact, Connolly may have hoped that the dock strikes would spark off a wider working class revolt. He was now stressing that an armed rebellion was necessary at all costs. Despite the numerical weakness of his forces, he hoped that “a pin in the hands of a child (could) pierce the heart of a giant.”
During late 1915, Connolly met ICA members individually and asked them were they prepared to fight on their own or co-operate with the Irish Volunteers, if necessary. In early 1916, Connolly, convinced that the Irish Republican Brotherhood were serious about a rising, entered into an alliance with them.
In the run up to Easter Week, an ICA member recounted how Liberty Hall “resembled a military barracks in everything but name” as Citizen Army men “some in dark green uniform, some in their ordinary working clothes, some in their Sunday best” took over the building.
On the first floor “improvised hand grenades were being manufactured. Cartridges were being altered, to fit rifles and guns for which they were never meant. Bayonets, of an old French type, were being heated over a blow-lamp and bent or reshaped to fit an old German Mauser rifle… [it was] common to see… [a] man sitting over the fire; brewing a can of tea on one side of it, while melting a pot of lead on the other side; two or three men at a bench making repairs to a rifle, while at the same time, two or three others were stretched on the bare floor, snoring, fast asleep.”
Despite their relatively small number, the ICA played a leading role in the Rising. ICA members fought at the GPO, City Hall and the College of Surgeons and at least 14 of its contingent died as a result of the rebellion.
James Connolly commanded the Republican forces in the GPO and both he and Michael Mallin were executed in the Rising’s aftermath. (Countess Markievicz narrowly escaped the firing squad).
Nearly 100 members of the ICA were interned in the Rising’s aftermath. The Citizen Army’s place in history was assured by Easter Week but their birthplace was the Lockout, the ITGWU and the Dublin working class.
This article was written by Dr Brian Hanley and first appeared in SIPTU’s Liberty newspaper commemorating the centenary of the 1916 rising.
The full paper can be read here.