This year will see the Scottish people settle their fate, at least for a short while, in a referendum that asks simply ‘Should Scotland be an Independent Country?’ Divided opinions there are, of course, my own family is quite typical of that, but it’s unlikely to turn into a military operation as happened the last time the United Kingdom faced a secession challenge from within. 98 years ago, the Irish capital, Dublin, found itself at the centre of an armed uprising: known to history as the Easter Rising. It’s a key moment in Irish history, the revolutionary moment that awoke the non-parliamentary, non-talk-our-way-to-freedom, route to self-government and independence. It’s perhaps the key moment in Irish history – that’ll certainly be the impression given over the next couple of years as we move towards the centenary. But what were the reactions to the Easter Rising elsewhere in the United Kingdom? It’s easy to imagine that they were immediately hostile: rebels, rebellions, traitors. Such words, of course, were used, but there’s nuance to the debate too, particularly in that other rebellious part of the union – South Wales – which enjoyed a reputation every bit as independently-minded as that of the Emerald Isle. Indeed, if revolution were ever to break out on the British mainland, it was South Wales, not Scotland, nor ‘the North’ that would be up for the fight and have good reason to do so.
The news of the rising was reported in the Welsh press on 26 April 1916. The information, at first, was perfunctory, often repeating state telegrams. Here’s the Cambrian Daily Leader, part of the Welsh liberal press, for instance:
Press Bureau, Tuesday, 8.10 p.m.—The following announcement has been received from the Chief Secretary for Ireland: — At noon yesterday serious disturbances broke out in Dublin. A large body of men identified with the Sinn Feiners, mostly armed, occupied St. Stephen’s Green, and took possession forcibly of the Post Office, where they cut the telegraphic and telephonic wires. Houses were also occupied in St. Stephen’s Green, Sackville Street, Abbey Street, and along the quays. In the course of the day soldiers arrived from the Curragh, and the situation is now well in hand. So far as is known here, three military officers, four or five soldiers, two loyal Volunteers, and two policemen have been killed, and four or five military officers, seven or eight soldiers, and six loyal Volunteers wounded. No exact information has been received of the casualties on the side of the Sinn Feiners. Reports received from Cork, Limerick, Ennis, Tralee, and both Ridings of Tipperary show that no disturbances of any I kind have occurred in these localities.
It’s a report repeated across the country.
As levels of information grew, the press began taking sides on the issue, just as they had done over the Irish Home Rule Bill passed by parliament just before the outbreak of the war. Here’s the Cambrian once more, describing the leaders of the rising:
The self-styled a commander-in-chief of the rebel forces in Ireland is James Connolly, the notorious Syndicalist leader, who was the principal lieutenant of the equally notorious Jim Larkin. The latter is understood to be in the United States at present. Ever since Larkin descended on Dublin in 1908 to foment a dock strike, Connolly has been his right-hand man. He helped to make the Irish Transport Workers’ Union a closely knit and formidable organisation, and was largely responsible for the Syndicalist, revolutionary, and anarchical form which the movement assumed.
Notorious? Syndicalist? Revolutionary? Anarchist? Strong words there from a ‘liberal’ newspaper. The South Wales Weekly Post, part of the same tradition, seized upon a telegram sent by the Victoria committee of the United Irishmen League deploring ‘the meaningless rebellion in Dublin’. The Conservative press, led by the Western Mail, were no less virulent in their attacks on the Rising, either.
There was a new voice in Wales, however, and lest the history be written solely from the point of view of self-righteous horror and the ‘damn the fools’ attitudes of those who saw the Easter Rising (and, indeed Irish independence) as a traitorous mistake, it’s worth turning our attention to it. Here’s Llais Llafur – Labour Voice – writing from their offices in Ystalyfera near Swansea on 29 April 1916:
The real criminal behind the disagreeable incidents in Dublin is not Casement, but Carson. It was he who set the fashion in raising armed forces, and bringing “rebellion” into the arena of immediate possibilities. The arming of the Ulster volunteers set the Irish volunteers marching and drilling, and they in their turn were allowed by Larkin’s volunteers and the Sinn Feiners. […] It is absurd of the “Times,” and the “Daily Mail” to shriek about the treason of Casement when they were actively abetting and encouraging his prototype, Carson, a couple of years ago. Doubtless with their denunciation of the Government for its laxity, there is a secret thrill of pleasurable anticipation that the Dublin riot will discredit the cause of Home Rule. We venture to think that it is the dabblers in revolution in Ulster whom the country will ultimately hold responsible.
A few weeks later, as the executions of the leaders were underway, the paper offered this analysis of the situation:
Whatever feelings of grief and horror the Irish rebellion has evoked should not prevent an examination of the causes that led to the outbreak. The rebel forces were a combination of Sinn Fein and revolutionary Labour. […]
Linked with the peasants led by these unwholesome neuropaths were the organised Labour forces of Dublin, of whom Larkin was the titular leader, but James Connolly, the real leader. A self-educated man, with a very modest gift of oratory, but a distinct genius for organising, he spent some years in the United States, where he imbibed the anti-Parliamentarian idea and the policy of physical force which are the main features of the propaganda of the Industrial Workers of the world. The strike in Dublin having failed, when run on orthodox lines, and baked by the whole strength and influence of the trade unionists of Great Britain, Connolly found a fertile seed plot for his ideas in the discontented and downtrodden workers of Dublin. […]
The lessons are plain for the governing classes to read. When they, and their spokesmen, and their newspaper toy with revolution they are playing with fire. Labour can be beaten to its knees as the Dublin transport workers were by Murphy a few years ago, but the triumph is short-lived. Deny elementary justice and fundamental human rights to men when they ask for it by peaceable constitutional means, they will seek it in other ways. […]
Connolly and Casement and the Countess Markiewicz and Pierce have their share of responsibility for the bloodshed and the deaths in Dublin, and they ought to be held strictly to account. But who, is responsible for the Dublin slum dwellers, of whose poverty and misery they are in part the expression? British misgovernment and Irish capitalism. The revolutionaries are stained with the blood of a few thousand people; but their crime is venal compared with the crime that has condemned thousands and thousands of men and women and children, for generations, to dwell in the most appalling dens of poverty and misery that exist in any city in Europe. The Sinn Feiners killed bodies; but our governing classes have murdered souls. When the war is over let us right Irish wrongs.
It’s not quite the analysis expected of a British newspaper in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, is it? Llais was one of a number of socialist newspapers that had emerged in South Wales in the 15 years, or so, before the outbreak of the Great War. Along with the Merthyr Pioneer, the short-lived South Wales Labour Pioneer, the equally-short-lived South Wales Labour Times, the Rhondda Socialist, and the Swansea and District Workers’ Journal, Llais provided a socialist perspective on world events, reflecting perfectly T.E. Nicholas’ poetic vision:
Mae’r byd yn fwy na Chymru
’Rwy’n gwybod hynny’n awr,
Ond diolch fod hen Gymru fach
Yn rhan o fyd mor fawr.
The world is more than Wales,
I know that now,
But thanks that little old Wales,
Is part of such a big world.
To understand the Easter Rising, as historians have shown ever since, then, it is important to know, at the very least, the entire history of late-Edwardian Ireland: the Easter Rising followed on directly from the Carsonite near-insurrection and from the Dublin Lockout of 1913, and these followed the Belfast dock strike of 1907 and the Cork Lockout of 1909. That story was the one told by socialists, not liberals or conservatives who complained merely of traitors and anarchists. As I’ve shown elsewhere, the Dublin Lockout has a Welsh story to it, too, not least because the South Wales Miners’ Federation set about raising large sums of money to send across to help the starving workers of the Irish capital. Not least, either, because the men of the Lady Windsor Lodge in Ynysybwl called for a general strike in solidarity with the Dublin workers. And so, looking back on the Easter Rising from the point of view of Wales, it’s hard not to see a moment of change – and change on both sides of the Irish Sea. In Ireland it kick-started the turn towards genuine independence; in Wales it revealed the passing of liberalism as a means of expressing thought independent of the Conservatives. Socialists – with their ingrained internationalism – better understood the impact of the Easter Rising and its causes. We still live with the consequences.