Mr O Murchus recent
article on the Republican Congress should be welcomed
as an interesting contribution to the discussion of
the development of left republicanism during the 1930s.
A recent collection of essays written by university
scholars on various aspects of Irish Republicanism
(Republicanism in Modern Ireland, edited by
Fergal McGarry (Dublin: University College Dublin
Press, 2003) ISBN 1 900621 940) contains a number
of contributions very useful for understanding of
this issue, in particular about the crucial role of
the land question in Irish politics, and how Republicans
seized or failed to exploit the agrarian issue. This
was a decisive factor which prevented the growth of
left republicanism in Ireland.
Dooley's essay in the collection ('IRA Veterans
and Land Divisions in Independent Ireland 1923-1948)
notes that the importance of the role of the land
question in the Irish revolution 1917-1923 'has often
been lost on historians of the period'. For the dominant
historiography, there is little evidence of a social
component in the Irish revolution and in its settlement,
because a series of land reforms had defused the explosiveness
of the land question. For Dooley, 'this is much too
simplistic an analysis of a very complex issue.
is, in fact, overwhelming evidence of a social component
in the revolution and just as much evidence to suggest
that the settlement of the land question from 1923
onwards was seen to be central to the restoration
of law and order in Irish society. The potential for
social upheaval had not been defused by the British
land purchase acts from 1870 to 1909. The widely held
misconception that the 1903 Wyndham Land Act effectively
solved the land question in Ireland has blinded historians
to the fact that the creation of a mass of peasant
proprietors actually led to immeasurable long-term
1922, an average of around 65 percent of all agricultural
holdings in each county in Ireland came under the
definition of 'uneconomic' as set out by the Land
Commission, that is below £10 valuation or roughly
twenty acres of 'reasonable' land. When one goes back
to 1917 and adds to these uneconomic holders the 114
000 tenant farmers who between them occupied approximately
3 million acres and who had not yet benefited from
the land purchase acts, one can see that there was
a great deal of potential upheaval in rural Ireland.'
It is thus not surprising that many of the major players
in the Tan War (Dooley quotes Liam Deasy, Ernie O
Malley, E. Childers, Tom Barry on this) and other
contemporary commentators later emphasised that it
was the lower strata of the farming class who offered
the most support to the Republican struggle.
studies of the socio-economic background of IRA members
in rural areas have found that it was the small farmers,
the landless and the labourers who offered most support
to the IRA and that the large farmers held aloof.
Peter Hart, for example noted that hostility towards
the IRA in county Cork was strongest in the North
and East where agricultural prosperity was most pronouned.
355 out of the 408 volunteers identified by historian
Joost Augusteijn were 'uneconomic holders', who lived
on farms valued £4 or less. Dooley concludes
that 'while not intending to doubt the patriotic motives
of these to join the IRA, there is the strong possibility
that many were also motivated by considerations of
improving their socio-economic situation.'
was an opportunity for Republican Socialist leadership
through the merging of land and national question.
However, the absence of Republican Socialist leadership
resulted in the potential of agrarian bolshevism
(as the Irish Times called it) being lost.
Political leadership of the struggle remained in the
hands of the national bourgeoisie, the consequence
was that the outcome of the struggle went against
the class interests of the workers and the small farmers.
As the Tan War progressed, so did rural agitation.
However, the problem for Sinn Fein was that localised
agrarianism began to detract the efforts of the IRA.
As a result of this, arbitration courts were set up
to deal with land disputes, and on occasions the IRA
was used to quell rural unrest.
truce and treaty and the parting of the ways, the
Republican IRA was predominantly supported by small
farmers. 'As the Treaty did not promise any economic
gains to the landless and the uneconomic holders,
the anti-Treaty faction of the IRA was perhaps perceived
as being more likely to provide this.' This was a
strong opportunity for Republican Socialist leadership.
And contrary to 1917-1921, a small core of Marxist
Connolly attended the third and fourth congress of
the communist international (summer 1921 and end of
1922), and this led to the formation of the CPI. Numerically
insignificant with less than two dozen members, it
attempted to orientate the IRA in a socialist direction.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, they fought with
the Republican side.
Mountjoy jail, a group including Peadar O Donnell
of the Executive of the IRA, William Carpenter of
the CPI and Liam Mellows held long discussions of
republican policy and strategy and the need for a
socially radical dimension, and the need to be broaden
from a military to a military and social struggle.
They argued that it was necessary to develop a programme
to bring the workers and small farmers to the Republican
Connolly and Michael Borodin of the Komintern (later
a famous adviser to Chinese communists) drafted a
proposal (published in the Workers' Republic
issues of 22 and 29 July and 12 August 1922) that
included nationalisation, land division, debt cancellation,
an eight hours working day, free housing and social
Mellows combined the Connolly/Borodin proposals (smuggled
in Mountjoy) with his
own tentative ideas for a Republican policy. (It was
captured an first published in the Irish Independent
21 September 1922) It is unfortunate that people like
Mellows remained isolated figures. He proposed the
only political strategy that would have made Republicans
victorious. His enemies were aware how dangerous for
them his proposals were.
December 1922, Patrick Hogan, the Free State Minister
of Agriculture, made this revealing comment:
produce chaos the Irregulars smashed up the transport
of the country even though that was unpopular. A
result which would be the same in kind though perhaps
less in degree, would be produced by the wholesale
seizure of land and it would have the advantage
of being much more popular, in fact quite in the
best tradition. The 'land for the people' is almost
as respectable an objective as the 'Republic' and
would make a much wider appeal.'
suggested that the Free state army be used to deal
with land seizures. The absence of Republican Socialist
leadership allowed the Treatyites to win the Civil
War. Dooley notes that 'From the government's point
of view, the lack of political coherency amongst agrarian
agitators was fortunate. They formed no political
party and remained largely politically impotent while
the stronger farmers and the middle classes formed
the political elite of the new state. This new elite
showed little interest in specifically rewarding those
small farmers, labourers and landless men who had
joined the IRA, some in the hope of being rewarded
the 1920s and 1930s, the land issue was seized by
the native Irish capitalist class to gather electoral
support. Fianna Fail gradually neutralised the fears
of the Irish elite, while developing a programme designed
to appeal to a constituency as broad as possible.
the growth of the land annuities conflict in the 1920s,
De Valera became convinced that a more radical approach
to land division would consolidate support for Fianna
Fail from the small farmers, labourers and clerks.
However, due to its class nature, it was impossible
for Fianna Fail to resolve the land issue in the interests
of the workers and the small farmers.
does not have to be a cynic to realise that it is
one thing for politicians to promise land for everybody
when they are out of office and quite another to
deliver upon these promises when they take office.
And so it was with Fianna Fail, as with Cumann na
nGaedheal before them... While its commitment to
land redistribution was clear in the early years
of its administration, it became increasingly aware
of the need to avoid antagonising the middling to
large farmers who had been so adversely affected
by the Economic War. Faced with conflicting demands,
Fianna Fail did not deliver to the small farmer
and labourer classes all that it had promised.'
question to be asked is why were Republicans unable
to seize the political initiative on the land question
? Another essay in the collection by Donal O Drisceoil
('The 'Irregular and Bolshie situation': Republicanism
and Communism 1921-36') offers some answers.
growing strength of de Valera's party called the
IRA's raison d'etre into question, while the leakage
of volunteers into de Valera's party increased as
it gathered momentum. O Donnell and his associates
provided the IRA with a political project that differentiated
it from Fianna Fail and fitted the radical temper
of the times.'
were the days of economic depression, increasing non
payment of annuities, unemployed workers' agitation
and industrial unrest. The likes of O Donnell and
Ryan, who were on the left of Republicanism, convinced
the IRA that it needed to complement the army by a
socialist organisation and adopt a socialist programme
to gain political initiative. Their aim was to put
class struggle at the center of the Republican political
dynamic and transform the IRA into a Connollyite Citizens
Army. (For example, O Donnell began the land agitation
in 1926. He called for the abolition of land annuities,
which would have thrown up the question of title to
land and opened up the vista of land nationalization,
whereas Fianna Fail simply advocated retention of
land annuities into Irish state coffers.)
in 1931, they created Saor Eire 'to achieve an independent
revolutionary leadership for the working class and
working farmers towards the overthrow in Ireland of
British imperialism and its ally, Irish capitalism'.
The problem was that Saor Eire existed only on paper,
it was not able to develop because it was banned after
a couple of months. Also, a joint pastoral from Catholic
bishops declared the organisation 'sinful and irreligious',
a significant blow in a country were Catholicism was
Gilmore, then an IRA volunteer, wrote:
founding of Saor Eire as a political auxiliary to
the IRA was a sterile advance of mere programme
making; but it was a stretching downwards; it had
not the strength of growth in a basis of agitational
struggle and the IRA never quite arrived at the
position of seeing itself as just the fighting force
of a popular movement.'
complicated when Fianna Fail took power. Some Republicans
believed that Fianna Fails aim was the Republic,
instead of consoliditating the power of the Irish
capitalist class. An ambiguity was that the IRA had
not made clear the qualitative difference between
the Republic it was fighting for and Fianna Fail's.
The fundamental class issues at stake were not grasped
and developed at a strategic level.
the IRA convention of March 1934, a final effort was
made by O Donnell to force the IRA into a radical
political role. They failed, withdrew and called for
the formation of the Republican Congress. The Republican
Congress met in September 1934. But divisions occurred
leading to a split which destroyed the movement. On
one hand a section wanted to adopt the slogan 'For
a Workers Republic' and argued that the Congress should
be a stepping stone towards a political party. The
others wanted to form a 'united front' pledged to
the slogan 'For a Republic'. O Donnell argued that
to adopt the 'Workers Republic' at this stage was
premature, because it would leave Fianna Fail to claim
monopoly on the realisation of 'the Republic'. While
the former said that you could not get rid of British
imperialism until you smash capitalism, the latter
argued that 'you cannot smash Capitalism until you
get rid of British Imperialism'. When a small majority
voted for the aim of the Republic and the formation
of a popular front, the rest resigned.
communists and their republican allies had decided
yet again to work within the confines of republicanism,
now dominated by an integrationist party with state
power, and to offer as Richard Dunphy has argued,
a challenge to that party's growing hegemony not at
its weakest point (class) but its strongest (nation).
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