It’s all quite surreal at times. Orwellian. It may be best to avoid the papers.
‘The Will of the People’ would be nothing more than the whim of the tyrant mob, the most blind and ruthless tyrant of all’ – Father Kane
‘All hail, then, to the mob, the incarnation of progress!’ – James Connolly
Business owners and establishment politicians are often represented as the “incarnation of progress” in modern society. The public is often portrayed as a mass or “mob”, unworthy of making decisions or of the responsibility to change history. In 1910, James Connolly eloquently and passionately conveyed how it was and is the public – ordinary people together in force and solidarity – who have made the significant changes and improvements in society throughout history.
In 1910 James Connolly wrote Labour Nationality and Religion in response to a discourse against Socialism by Father Kane in Dublin. Father Kane referred to the will of the people, essentially, as the will and rule of the ‘mob’. Connolly embraces the word mob and uses it to encapsulate the positive role it has played throughout human history.
I thought it would be interesting to share this ever-relevant discourse here, starting with Father Kane’s impression of the public, and then Connolly’s response to it.
Father Kane on socialism and the “mob”:
In Socialism there could be no healthy public opinion, no public opinion at all except that manufactured by officialdom or that artificially cultivated by the demagogues of the mob. There could be no free expression of free opinion. The press would be only the press of the officials. Printing machines, publishing firms, libraries, public halls, would be the exclusive property of the state. We do not indeed advocate utter licence for the press, but we do advocate its legitimate liberty. There would be no liberty of the press under Socialism; no liberty even of speech, for the monster machine of officialdom would grind out all opposition – for the monster machine would be labelled, ‘The Will of the People’, and ‘The Will of the People’ would be nothing more than the whim of the tyrant mob, the most blind and ruthless tyrant of all, because blindly led by blind leaders. Brave men fear no foe, and free men will brook no fetter. You will have thought, in your boyhood, with hot tears, of the deeds of heroes who fought and fell in defence of the freedom of their fatherland. That enthusiasm of your boyhood will have become toned down with maturer years in its outward expression, but mature years will have made it more strong and staunch for ever, more ready to break forth with all the energy of your life and with all the sacrifice of your death in defiance of slavery. You may have rough times to face; you may have rough paths to tread, you may have hard taskmasters to urge you toil, and hard paymasters to stint your wage; you may have hard circumstances to limit your life within a narrow field; but after all your life is your own, and your home is your own, and your wage is your own, and you are free. Freedom is your birthright. Even our dilapidated modern nations allow to a man his birthright – freedom. You would fight for your birthright, freedom, against any man, against any nation, against the world; and if you could not live for your freedom, you would die for it. You would not sell your birthright, freedom, to Satan; and I do not think that you are likely to surrender your birthright, freedom, to the Socialist. Stand back! We are free men. Stand back, Socialist! God has given us the rights of man, to our own life, to our own property, to our own freedom. We will take our chance in the struggle of life. We may have a hard time or a good time, we may be born lucky or unlucky, but we are free men. Stand back, Socialist! God has given us our birthright, freedom, and, by the grace of God, we will hold to it in life and in death.
After you have done laughing at this hysterical outburst we will proceed to calmly discuss its central propositions. To take the latter part first, it is very amusing to hear a man, to whom a comfortable living is assured, assure us that we ought to tell the Socialist that “we will take our chance in the struggle of life…
How can a person, or a class, be free when its means of life are in the grasp of another? How can the working class be free when the sole chance of existence of its individual members depends upon their ability to make a profit for others?
The argument about the freedom of the press – a strange argument from such a source – is too absurd to need serious consideration. Truly, all means of printing will be the common property of all, and if any opposition party, any new philosophy, doctrine, science, or even hair-brained scheme has enough followers to pay society for the labour of printing its publications, society will have no more right nor desire to refuse the service than a government of the present day has to refuse the use of its libraries to the political enemies who desire to use those sources of knowledge to its undoing. It will be as possible to hire a printing machine from the community as it will be to hire a hall. Under Socialism the will of the people will be supreme, all officials will be elected from below and hold their position solely during good behaviour, and as the interests of private property, which according to St. Clement are the sole origin of contention among men, will no longer exist, there will be little use of law-making machinery, and no means whereby officialdom can corrupt the people.
This will be the rule of the people at last realised. But says Father Kane, at last showing the cloven foot, “the will of the people would be nothing more than the whim of the tyrant mob, the most blind and ruthless tyrant of all, because blindly led by blind leaders”. Spoken like a good Tory and staunch friend of despotism! What is the political and social record of the mob in history as against the record of the other classes? There was a time, stretching for more than a thousand years, when the mob was without power or influence, when the entire power of the governments of the world was concentrated in the hands of the kings, the nobles and the hierarchy. That was the blackest period in human history. It was the period during which human life was not regarded as being of as much value as the lives of hares and deer; it was the period when freedom of speech was unknown, when trial by jury was suppressed, when men and women were tortured to make them confess crimes before they were found guilty, when persons obnoxious to the ruling powers were arrested and kept in prison (often for a lifetime) without trial; and it was the period during which a vindictive legal code inflicted the death penalty for more than one hundred and fifty offences – when a boy was hung for stealing an apple, a farmer for killing a hare on the roadside. It was during this undisturbed reign of the kings, the nobles, and the hierarchy that religious persecutions flourished, when Protestants killed Catholics, Catholics slaughtered Protestants, and both hunted Jews, when man “;made in God’s image” murdered his fellow-man for daring to worship God in a way different from that of the majority; it was then that governments answered their critics by the torture, when racks and thumbscrews pulled apart the limbs of men and women, when political and religious opponents of the state had their naked feet and legs placed in tin boots of boiling oil, their heads crushed between the jaws of a vice, their bodies stretched across a wheel while their bones were broken by blows of an iron bar, water forced down their throats until their stomachs distended and burst, and when little children toiled in mine and factory for twelve, fourteen and sixteen hours per day. But at last, with the development of manufacturing, came the gathering together of the mob, and consequent knowledge of its numbers and power, and with the gathering together also came the possibility of acquiring education. Then the mob started upon its upward march to power – a power only to be realised in the Socialist Republic. In the course of that upward march the mob has transformed and humanised the world. It has abolished religious persecution and imposed toleration upon the bigots of all creeds; it has established the value of human life, softened the horrors of war as a preliminary to abolishing it, compelled trial by jury, abolished the death penalty for all offences save one, and in some countries abolished it for all; and to-day it is fighting to keep the children from the factory and mine, and put them to school. The mob, “the most blind and ruthless tyrant of all”, with one sweep of its grimy, toil-worn hand, swept the stocks, the thumbscrew, the wheel, the boots of burning oil, the torturer’s vice and the stake into the oblivion of history, and they who to-day would seek to view those arguments of kings, nobles, and ecclesiastics must seek them in the lumber room of the museum.
In this civilising, humanising work the mob had at all times to meet and master the hatred and opposition of kings and nobles; and there is not in history a record of any movement for abolishing torture, preventing war, establishing popular suffrage, or shortening the hours of labour led by the hierarchy. Against all this achievement of the mob its enemies have but one instance of abuse of power – the French reign of terror – and they suppress the fact that this classic instance of mob fury lasted but eight months, whereas the cold-blooded cruelty of the ruling classes which provoked it had endured for a thousand years.
All hail, then, to the mob, the incarnation of progress!
Does it say something about our consideration of the Irish Revolution generally, that the rebels’ original writings remain obscure and are not available in any of the main Irish bookshops – you will not find them in Eason or Dubray anyway. One would find it difficult not to notice the great many books currently being made available about the 1916 period – some good, many bad, new re-tellings and recently re-published old ones – but these are mostly summaries, opinions of characters and ideologies, secondary sources, or second-hand accounts of events.
I have seen no publications of any of Patrick Pearse’s work for example – someone often described as a poet and play-write. Also conspicuous by its absence is James Connolly’s essential Labour In Irish History; its procurement is most likely to be gained only in back-alley partisan bookshops, from certain political groups, or on-line. Apart from the Revolution Papers why is there no complete re-publications of anything written by Arthur Griffith? – a person who, although he did not participate in the Rising, was a prolific political writer of that time on behalf of Sinn Féin. I have my own opinions on why all of this might be, but here I am only raising the question.
Can we understand what the rebels intended without having read what they wrote? After all, Pearse, Connolly, and Griffith were very different politically and disagreed on fundamental issues, (Griffith was quite conservative, Connolly was a socialist). These stark ideological differences are not generally acknowledged (and I fear not generally realised) in an environment where those names, often mentioned in the same breath, are synonymous with the nationalist struggle against Britain and nothing else. It seems to me, that the current environment being promoted is one which acknowledges the characters of the 1916 period, and celebrates them, but does not encourage us to understand them.
Today, a headline from The Guardian has been shared about on social media: that the ‘Richest 62 people as wealthy as half of world’s population, says Oxfam’. As one indication of how inequality has widened through the years of austerity – to the benefit of the world’s richest – almost exactly 2 years ago The Guardian wrote how the world’s 85 richest people were as wealthy as half of the world’s population. Last year it was 80 people. If wealth inequality continues at this rate, the world’s richest people will fit more comfortably in a van than in a bus.
Today is Martin Luther King Day. It is appropriate therefore, that along with this news story I take the opportunity to share some quotes by Dr. King about inequality. His expressions about charities and philanthropy are also quite relevant to the previous article I published.
“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
“Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ … When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
“Don’t mourn for me friends,
Don’t weep for me never,
For I’m going to do nothing,
Forever and ever”.
Those of you with an interest in sociology and economics (which, so far, seems to be at least some of the followers of this blog) should enjoy this excellent series of programmes by the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith: The Age of Uncertainty. Originally broadcast in 1977 and co-produced by the BBC, the series has a quality to it, and relative objectiveness (despite my disagreements with the ideological outlook of its creator) which documentaries of such topics tend to lack in this neo-liberal period.
It’s rare to come across such creatively made documentaries as this -especially nowadays – which is truly artistic in its presentation and tone. The visual effects and audio soundtrack are as tongue-in-cheek and subtle as Galbraith himself, whose language and presentation is often witty and ironic. There are 15 episodes in the series (and a book), the first episode I have linked below.
For those of you interested in modern history and politics, you may struggle to find a documentary series as good as this on the Spanish Civil War, from Granada T.V., circa 1983. I’ve included links to all six episodes below. The Spanish Civil War is now seen by some as the prelude to the Second World War, being the first major conflict against fascism. Incidentally, I recommend George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia, as an excellent first-hand account of the fighting and politics of the civil war.
Episode 1: Prelude To Tragedy
Episode 2: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and Terror
Episode 3: Battleground for Idealists
Episode 4: Franco and the Nationalists
Episode 5: Inside the Revolution
Episode 6: Victory and Defeat
With the centenary of the 1916 Rising looming, we are likely to see much more said and written on the subject. Is R.F. Foster’s Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation In Ireland 1890-1923 one of the books, from all this noise, that one should read? I would certainly suggest so.
Particularly if one is Irish, the events of 1916 and the immediate years that followed it will be known from lessons in school and omnipresent journalistic and political commentary. What does not seem to be as widely understood, however, is the social and cultural lives of the revolutionaries, the atmosphere in which they existed and how it may have influenced them in their actions and thoughts.
‘Apart from the brilliant short studies by Lyons and Tom Garvin some decades ago, and Senia Paseta’s pioneering work on Irish nationalist women, not much attempt has been made at analysing the backgrounds and mentalities of those who made the revolution’.
‘…to ‘know the dream’ of the revolutionaries, it may help to strip back the layers of martyrology and posthumous rationalization, to get back before hindsight into that encolosed, self-referencing, hectic world where people lived before 1916, and to see how a generation developed, interacted and decided to make a revolution…’
‘To get back before hindsight’ is exactly what Foster attempts to do by immersing us in the social and cultural feel of the time, rather than being merely a chronological retelling of the events. The reader is treated to a unique sense of the Ireland of that period through the experiences and mores of the revolutionary generation which experienced it; their education; the plays they attended, wrote and performed in; newspapers they published and read; their poets, their writers, their diaries, and even their interpretation of history – especially their understanding and celebration of the rebellion of 1798. The reader absorbs all of this atmosphere from 1890 until fateful 1916, and then, experiences how that idealism and culture ‘changed utterly’ through the War of Independence and the Civil-War that followed.
Foster’s prose throughout is poetic and absorbing, and generally easy to follow, a balance which can be difficult to achieve. Foster, a biographer of W.B Yeats and an expert of Irish history, uses Yeats’ Easter 1916 as a kind of loose template on which to base the theme of the book, to excellent effect, and quotes sections of the poem throughout the book as the story of the revolutionary generation unfolds. The generational approach is also an important structure upon which the narrative is based:
‘… the fact remains that during this era enough people – especially young people – changed their minds about political possibilities to bring about a revolution against the old order, which included not only government by Britain but the constitutional nationalism of the previous generation…’
‘The generation of 1916 can be seen as a self-conscious group of people, shaped by the circumstances of their time… the golden period of the revolutionary era was the decade from 1903 to 1913… the actual fighting, particularly in the latter stages of the Anglo-Irish War and the Civil War, was often undertaken by people from a somewhat different background… But the quiet revolution in the hearts and minds of young middle-class Irish people from the 1890’s onwards had given them their chance.’
Although the narrative is generally consistent, one area where this momentum is lost at times is the chapter on the Irish theatre scene, which is a little pedantic in some areas. However, it must be said that this chapter is nevertheless enlightening in its portrayal the political influence of plays and theatres in Ireland at the time, and should not be shied away from by the reader.
One of the many strengths of the book is that it is quite a politically conscious narrative. The sentiments of individuals and their political outlooks are prioritised over their actions. Thus, Foster unflinchingly showcases the ideological flaws and strengths of the personalities he has studied. The inconsistencies of Arthur Griffith, for example, with his relatively conservative approach compared to that of the radical fighters in 1916 is highlighted (Griffith was an advocate of a kind of dual monarchy system, rather than advocating purely republican or absolute independence).
‘Griffith was passionately anti-Dreyfusard, partly from an admiration of French étatisme, partly from his own weakness for conspiracy theories featuring Jews and Freemasons, and partly because he instinctively distrusted any casue taken up by well-meaning liberals. His interest in French politics also reflected his readiness to employ imaginative paralells from abroad – most famously, the example of how Hungary had achieved dual-monarchy status under the Austrian Empire, published as The Resurrection of Hungary in 1904… Griffith kept recurring to this possibility for Ireland, suggesting a link to the crown, and pouring cold water on the feasibility of physical-force, which infuriated many… radical nationalists which he fostered and sustained…
…Ireland could attain autonomy within the United Kingdom by the construction of a dual monarchy. Since this depended upon a particularly skewed and idealized version of Austro-Hungarian history… it was read in some quarters as a Swiftian parody.’
The following witty correspondence between Mabel Fitzgerald (mother of future Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald) and renowned writer George Bernard Shaw is another example of the flawed thought processes of the figures discussed in Vivid Faces. Fitzgerald – a protestant – was writing to her former employer Shaw about her wish rare her young son to speak Irish and to adopt a ‘traditional hatred of England and all her ways’:
‘…you should just hear him say “Sasanach” (Englishman), the concentrated hate in his voice is worthy of Drury Lane.’
Shaw’s clever and teasing reply was:
‘As an Ulsterwoman, you must be aware that if you bring up your son to hate anybody except a Papist, you will go to hell… You must be a wicked devil to load a child’s innocent soul with a burden of old hatreds and rancours that Ireland is sick of… You make that boy a good International Socialist – a good Catholic, in fact, in the true sense – and make him understand that the English are far more oppressed than any folk he has ever seen in Ireland by the same forces that have oppressed Ireland in the past’.
Foster unashamedly conveys how bourgeois the majority of the revolutionary leaders were, with the exception of notables like James Connolly. Foster conveys how many of the Irish bourgeois revolutionaries were, in a sense, rebelling against their own privileged and conservative backgrounds of ‘repressive tolerance’, characteristic of Edwardian Ireland.
Although Vivid Faces takes a narrow perspective on the mentality and social experiences of these privileged leaders, it does not discuss the experiences of the majority of the Irish population of the time and how they felt on the issue of nationalism; The book does not observe 1916-era culture and society from a working-class point of view. However, Foster seems to do this knowingly – he points out the bourgeois-nationalist nature of the revolution time and again, and notes the element of irony – even hypocrisy – at the fact that those who fought so long for national freedom from Britain were among the freest members of that generation, and of Ireland under British rule to that point. The revolutionary generation enjoyed more freedom within the press and the arts pre-1916 than they would under the newly established conservative Free State. The notion of slavery or freedom that bourgeois nationalists spoke of ‘would not have meant the same thing to’ Geraldine Plunkett’s ‘army of domestic servants and urban tenants’ for example.
‘But the dynamic power of nationalism trumped – as so often – a socio-economic analysis. In its pietistic aspects, it also trumped the secular, sceptical, pluralist instincts of the agnostics among the revolutionaries…’
Another strength of Foster’s book is his emphasis on the significant role that women played in shaping the revolutionary culture of the time (including the striking front cover of Muriel and Mary MacSwiney at Cathal Brugha’s funeral). The diverse egalitarian, pluralist, feminist, secular, Gaelic, republican, socialist, cultural nation of full suffrage that various women like Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Countess Markievicz, Rosamond Jacob, Maud Gonne and others advocated is well noted.
Foster’s Vivid Faces is thoroughly researched and written, as one can see by its substantial notes, bibliography, and biographical appendix; it is acutely focused by use of original structures on which to base the narrative, such as the idea of the cultural environment and experiences of the revolutionary generation, and through his use of literary references like Easter 1916. Foster arranges all of this seamlessly, and it is hard to criticise the creative use of those ideas. However, one should not expect a broad or accurate overview of the political, economic and social reasons for the outbreak of revolution generally across Ireland during this period from Vivid Faces – though the book does not promise to do this. Rather it is the story of the idealism and the tragedy of the revolution and does not judge very much the events or people beyond that.
Vivid Faces is lacking a perspective on the feelings and motives of the general population – the working class of the period – and the seismic events of the 1913 Dublin Lockout are conspicuously not discussed. Thus it gives a highly detailed and colourful snippet of the generation, but not the whole picture. This is hardly a criticism of the book though as it unapologetically chronicles the contemporary bourgeois perspective of events. One should purchase Vivid Faces expecting as much. It is educational and vastly insightful in its own way. For anyone interested in the history of the 1916 Rising, and has a knowledge of the basic events and characters – which are ubiquitously available anyway – I recommend R. F. Foster’s book as a balanced and very insightful experience, and perhaps one of the best available.