November is coming to an end, and with it a look back, one hundred years, to a month that seemed to herald a coming storm.
Think on it. In Dublin, a workers dispute with employers had turned increasingly violent, and now took the form of a continuing and brutal lock-out, with all the signs of class war and the associated social upheaval. Riots on the streets of Dublin, and signs of discord in other places too.
The Irish Citizen Army was formed as the newest part of that struggle, putting guns in the hands of those who were tired of getting beaten by RIC batons.
In the north, the UVF continued to recruit, drill and import arms and ammunition, all for the sake of resisting legislation that many in the London legislature were in two minds about.
And a group of Irish nationalists had decided to counter them with the creation of the Irish Volunteers, with a huge turnout for their initial meeting in the Rotunda, and an aim of eventually becoming the armed force of an Ireland free from British control.
I haven’t spoken much – at all really – about any of these events on this site. Aside from not being my general area of interest or expertise, I found events in this country over the last while depressingly distracting. One hundred years on from an employee struggle for the basic right of being part of a union, one that is unambiguously seen as a righteous attempt this days, the population of Ireland turned its nose up on striking members of transport unions trying to stop an never ending hack and slash of the country’s bus and rail infrastructure.
My family is deeply involved with CIE, so I make no pretensions at having a lack of bias in this regard. I simply found it unpalatable to discuss Larkin and co, their doomed struggle, when it was clear that, even 100 years on, the power of a union is still seen as something that the Irish public will despise if it effects them in some way. Such was my annoyance at this state of affairs, that I found it impossible to write anything on the Lock-Out without becoming distractingly angry. It was enough to make me almost wish for a hardball, cross-country strike approach from the unions.
Larkin and the ITGWU failed in 1913. Their equivalents are still failing today. Long gone are the days of socialist union members turning to armed resistance, but just as the ICA came to haunt the British authorities, I wonder how much today’s transport unions, their members, families and such, will come to haunt the government of this day and age when polling comes, especially in the locals. But on that topic, I have said my piece and will write, or listen to, no more.
The Irish Volunteers is a different topic. They are a fascinating organisation of course, but most of the fascinating stuff comes later in their history, and in this centenary decade. For now, it seems apropos of me to mention that the historic essay “The North Began”, written by Eoin MacNeill and routinely seen as the catalyst for the formation of the group, is one of those much misunderstood pieces of writing in Irish history. It’s mentioned offhand in Irish school books, and so few people have actually sat down and read the thing. It might surprise them to learn that:
-MacNeill completely dismisses the reason why the UVF was formed – the opposition to Home Rule – as unimportant.
-That he claimed only one part of the UVF could be described as “Unionist” really.
-That he claimed that the membership of the UVF were “home rulers in principle and in essence”, completely underestimating the power of their stated political convictions.
-That he refused to countenance partition, ten years before he supported it.
-That he claimed that a UVF march on Cork would be welcomed by Nationalist Volunteers.
-That one day the entire Ireland would jointly celebrate the Battle of Benburb and the defence of Derry.
Or, to put it another way, MacNeill was as deluded when it came to approaching the Ulster Volunteers as any Irish nationalist, something that should not be forgotten, especially now. “The North Began” was an important document, but it showcased the horrible flaws in so much of the nationalist mindset when it came to Ulster, a mindset that played more than its fair share in the century long debacle that has frequently been southern and northern relations on this island.
That MacNeill was approached to be the nominal head of the Irish Volunteers by men, like Bulmer Hobson, who saw in its creation an opportunity for the Irish Republican Brotherhood, should also not be overlooked. MacNeill was a man whose service to “the cause” from 1913 to 1916 was one of essentially being duped by physical force republicans over and over again, from formation to splits to the Rising. It is in his service post 1916 that you find the better part of the man.
So that was November 1913, but would it have seemed as momentous a time then as it appears to be now? Probably not. The Lock-out was largely a Dublin affair and one that had settled into a slow, grudging stalemate by November, a miserable battle that would only have one winner. The UVF, the ICA and the Irish Volunteers were toy soldiers, with far from sufficient arms, training or likelihood of success.
It was events in the Balkans in November 1913 that people should have been looking at. With the right elements in place for the inevitable continental struggle, it was only a matter of time before Britain’s foreign affairs would radically change the pace of events in Ireland.