Sean Byrne writes: In recent commemorations of the Civil War, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin have all accepted that atrocities were committed by both sides during that conflict. Yet none of those parties have mentioned the ruthless suppression by the new state of the struggles by workers to better their wretched conditions during the War of Independence and Civil War. It is particularly surprising that Sinn Féin has not mentioned those struggles as the party used claim to seek the establishment of a ‘thirty-two-county socialist republic’. (The word ‘socialist’ was not, however, used in Sinn Féin literature seeking funds in the USA.) The Democratic Programme of the First Dáil in 1919, ratified by Sinn Féin after their victory in the 1918 election, also set out socialist principles, but those principles were only accepted by Sinn Féin in acknowledgement of Labour’s decision not to field candidates in the 1918 election, leading to a Sinn Féin majority, and Sinn Féin had no intention of implementing them.
From the 1880s to 1916, the campaign for Home Rule had been synonymous with the struggle of farmers to gain ownership of the land they worked. But some in the republican movement were uncomfortable with that link, fearing that the land question might distract from the struggle for independence. During the War of Independence there were seizures of land by impoverished farmers, mainly in the West of Ireland. Sinn Féin courts tried to resolve those disputes and, in many cases, returned the seized land to its original owners. The republican socialist Peadar O’Donnell stated that the IRA was used to control the impoverished small farmers and labourers who identified their own struggle for land with the national struggle. O’Donnell believed that the suppression of land seizures was authorised by the Sinn Féin leadership because they had gained middle class support, which they did not wish to jeopardise for the sake of landless labourers in the West of Ireland.
If by revolution is meant the overturning of political and economic institutions, the War of Independence and Civil War led to regime change rather than revolution. This was acknowledged by Kevin O Higgins when he said that the leaders of the new Irish state were the most conservative revolutionaries in history. But, to the alarm of Sinn Féin leaders, during the period 1919 to 1923 there were outbreaks of real class struggle. In 1918, 10,000 people gathered in Dublin to acclaim the Bolshevik Revolution. The 1920 Labour Party congress ‘unanimously affirmed workers’ rights to control food production, distribution and pricing, and called for the abolition of the wages system’. Possibly inspired by this rhetoric, in 1919 agricultural labourers in Meath struck for better wages and conditions in a struggle marked by considerable violence, including driving of cattle off farms, damage to crops, disruption of auctions and the derailing of a special train carrying cattle to Belfast.
Between 1919 and 1922 there were over eighty workplace occupations as workers resisted employers’ attempts to cut wages and jobs in response to the economic recession at the end of the First World War. The first and most successful soviet was organised in the unlikely location of Monaghan Lunatic Asylum, as it was then called, in 1919. As a trade union organiser, Peadar O’Donnell led the strikers and took over as director of the hospital, where staff had been working ninety-three hours a week and were obliged to stay in the hospital between shifts. The staff were supported by the patients and a reduction in working hours and a pay increase were successfully negotiated. (The Monaghan Asylum soviet was wonderfully depicted in the opera Elsewhere written by Michael Gallen and performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1921.) A soviet organised in Limerick in 1919, in response to the city being put under martial law during the War of Independence, was largely a nationalist protest rather than an act of socialist revolution and ended when the lord mayor of Limerick and the Catholic bishop intervened.
In 1922 and 1923 there were eight strikes by farm labourers, involving over a thousand workers. The Free State government used the army to ruthlessly suppress the strikes. A company of special infantrymen was established whose first task, in June 1923, was to break up a strike by agricultural labourers in Waterford. The special infantrymen guarded property and protected strike-breakers. Martial law and a curfew were imposed in East Waterford and picketers and union officials were imprisoned. Farm labourers also struck in Kildare and the strike was put down by the special infantrymen supported by farmer vigilante groups calling themselves ‘White Guards’ in homage to the anti-Bolshevik forces in the Russian civil war.
In response to agitation by farmers on uneconomic farms and the farm labourers’ strikes, the Free State government in 1923 gave the Land Commission the power to compulsorily acquire and redistribute land. This redistribution placated the smallest farmers, who got enough land to subsist, though not enough to become commercial farmers. Historian Terence Dooley has shown that between 1923 and 1948 very few farmers received redistributed land who were not members of Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael clubs or Fianna Fáil cumainn. This naked partisanship may explain why the government has refused to release the records of the Land Commission, which ceased operations in 1987. Some farm labourers received small patches of redistributed land to supplement their starvation wages but most emigrated, fleeing exploitation.
None of the events described here are mentioned in the official timeline of the ‘decade of centenaries’. Before that decade ends, at the end of this year, the government might consider acknowledging in some way that among the new Irish state’s earliest acts were the suppression of the efforts of some of its poorest citizens to improve their lot. It is also worth remembering that in 1924 minister for industry and commerce Patrick McGilligan stated that, while Irish people ‘may have to die of starvation’, the state had no responsibility to keep them alive. As Milan Kundera wrote: ‘The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’