Ireland, 1916: Something To Commemorate?

Ireland, 1916: Something To Commemorate?


 1916-ireland    [1]

 “Our target must be the achievement of the ideals set out in the Proclamation of 1916 – the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland…”

Seamus Costello, ‘Oration at Bodenstown, 1966’[2]

 8 and 9 May, 1916, in the military hospital in Dublin Castle, Lillie Connolly visited her wounded husband, James. On learning that he was about to be executed,  she was distraught and cried

‘your beautiful life, Jim, your beautiful life’,

to which Connolly replied

‘Wasn’t it a full life, Lillie, and isn’t it a good end?’[3]

No one denies that the dramatic convulsion of Easter Week, 1916 was a defining moment in Irish history, possibly more for the Left, despite our relative invisibility, than the rest, seeing that it may well be a mystery that it happened at all in a country with an ingrained depth of conservatism nurtured equally by church, by colonial brutality, and by those closer to home whose ties to the status quo dispensed privilege and material gain and made conformism to whatever master called the tune part of the natural order of things.

So 1916 as well as being the spark that ignited a chain of events still unfolding in this small State, still manages to hang in there as a moment that the army of the dispossessed can lay claim to with our need for a map that could lead us out of the maze of this apparently endless era of oppression. This era that guarantees so many remain excluded from being the subjects of history instead of objects: objects of exploitation, of patronage and the ‘violence’ that is the reality of those excluded.  This includes ‘the poor,’ (including the ‘working class’ whose alienated labour amounts to the 21st century’s version of servitude), the mass of humanity now it would seem (the 99%), those Marx raged would be subjects despite all and bring to history a qualitative change that would launch the beginning of a real human history.

That said, does that mean we must join the ranks of this ‘respectable’ mob launching fireworks this Easter with about as much integrity as the rest of the gombeen men and women and shopkeepers piling up on the back of the bandwagon?

If there is something worth commemorating out of this painful defining moment we need to try a bit harder to uncover what it is: in our pursuit both of meaning and integrity (meaningful integrity?) in a country whose governance, since that Easter Proclamation, has shamed us all as well as denying any notion of principle, of values, of anything other than ‘business as usual’ for the minority that has benefited by our so-called independence and not, sadly, our liberation.

Meaning the current celebration probably only means more hot air for the masses, while business as usual goes on in the back rooms and back pockets for the class of shopkeepers that puts a price on everything, whether it is our ‘independence’, a hospital bed for an elderly person, or a human life…[4]

It is in this potentially critical context of a revolutionary moment in history, that James Connolly comes to mind and Connolly’s participation in the fireworks of Easter Week that cost him his life and arguably the Irish working class movement a leadership with the experience and integrity that could have prevented some of the shame, middle-class corruption and sheer cowardice of what became and remains the leadership of the Irish labour movement.

seamans5  [5]

But I am sure there will be others at this time to sing the praises of our first Marxist revolutionary. Enough to remember the last visit he had with his shocked and grieving wife Lillie, and daughter Nora the night before the British strapped him to a chair in order to shoot him dead.

Nora  Connolly O Brien tells the story and there is a lot to be learnt, in these times of contagious respectability, from the telling. The simple and sad ending of which Nora has told us her father said gently: ‘Don’t be too disappointed, Nora. We shall rise again’. [6] & [7]

Nora herself would be well worthy of commemorating, this revolutionary child of the revolutionary father. However, in relation to the current situation facing those committed to our ongoing ‘revolution’, and not least the possible rise of Sinn Féin as the main opposition in the upcoming Dáil,  there is someone much closer to our current struggles I would suggest and one facing the oblivion of history, only a bit sooner than some because of the complexity of the Irish situation at the time, (as well as the often murderous immaturity of the Left here, yes, indeed,)…someone, who it could be worth ‘salvaging’ from the scrapyard of history if only to teach us the meaning of integrity in the face of danger –  the danger Walter Benjamin pointed out in a different situation of crisis – being that of “becoming a tool of the ruling classes“:

costello [8]

Séamus Costello,

…republican socialist in the tradition of James Connolly, his short-lived political party the ISRP, and the Irish Citizen Army; but more importantly a revolutionary, who, maybe similar to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, did not live long enough, following his assassination in another of our small left wing ‘civil-wars’, to see his integrity compromised and at whose graveside Nora said significantly:

Of all the politicians and political people with whom I have had conversations… and who called themselves followers of Connolly, he was the only one who truly understood what James Connolly meant when he spoke of his vision of the freedom of the Irish people.

If 1916 means anything to those of us who aspire and struggle for radical social change it has to be because in an environment with so little integrity the moments that appear and the individuals that are fortunate to embody them become like a light in the proverbial darkness. And, with no map through this neo-liberal capitalist maze at the moment, it is truly dark.

What does “integrity” mean in this context:

Walter Benjamin writes in his last work before fleeing the Nazis into the dark night of suicide:

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize

it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a

memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical

materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly

appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger.

The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its

receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a

tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made

anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to

overpower it. The Messiah “comes not only as the redeemer, he

comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have

the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly

convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if

he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.[9]

Costello’s Wikipedia page is about 1 page long. Full stop. His mention in the few mainstream books where he gets a mention is usually on the border between the fearsome violence the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) became known for (both internally and externally) and the world of both marginal and violent criminality.  Yet despite all the murder we have witnessed in the founding and maintenance of this state, Costello still remains the only leader of a registered political party to have been assassinated here. That itself would only warrant a few hundred words, but that the position he found himself in between 1972 (the conflict over the ending of the armed struggle against British imperialism within the Official Republican Movement) and 1979 may well, in Benjamin’s terms, have been similar to that of James Connolly facing the contradictions of a historical situation that demanded not just integrity and courage but the incredible danger of holding fast to a vision of what was necessary in the best of all possible worlds – guided by a commitment to revolutionary integrity.

In Benjamin’s words, the ability “to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.

And what many believed possible here, in the early 1970’s, with the war in the North escalating, was the radical possibility of a revolutionary moment. With British (supported by the conservative Irish-26-county state) oppression at its military and counter insurgency height, Costello, like Connolly faced with the dilemma of 1916, had to have seized the moment at great risk. He did this by choosing the path between both the Official and Provisional republican movements. From Benjamin’s point of view, (this danger of conformity, of letting the moment slip by), the fact that Costello ‘failed’ is not as important as an integrity that saw the revolutionary moment as a real potential that had to be grasped, again, “as it flashed up at a moment of danger“.

Thus Connolly, leading the men and women of the Irish Citizen Army into the GPO knew the chances for military victory had to be slim… Likewise at various points in the short period between 1956 and the murderous climate both North and South of Ireland in the late 1970’s, Seamus Costello, from within the republican tradition, consistently attempted to develop a strategy, a praxis, shaped and defined by the example of James Connolly at each crucial point as the situation and our history, now in crisis, unfolded. Arguably irrespective of the pragmatic chances for success but with a fundamental commitment to the potential of the revolutionary moment.

By 1972 this had already embraced the radical move of Sinn Féin and the IRA to the Left following the ‘failed’ military campaign of 1956 and subsequent internment, engagement in the social struggles of the dispossessed of Co. Wicklow and beyond as part of the need to develop a mass movement whose outspoken goal (like Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto of 1848) was the overthrow of the system north and south, the development of the IRA as a military force willing eventually to respond to both states, and the equally radical and contentious transformation of the existing republican principle of parliamentary abstention into a guerrilla  tactic to mobilise people and forces in the direction of the 32 county socialist worker’s republic. All within a context that Connolly himself had made clear, the need for a consistent revolutionary analysis that linked the national question to the class question.

To continue to steer a steady course in an environment where the Provisional Republican Movement of the time avoided the class question while the Official Republican Movement struggled to escape the contradictions of both the National question and the need for armed struggle, Costello along with a group of mostly young activists, whose teeth were cut on the war declared against the Civil Rights Movement in 1967/68, and following his expulsion from the leadership of both Official Sinn Féin and the official IRA, founded the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and later that same day, December 5th, 1974, the Irish National Liberation Army at the Spa Hotel in Lucan, Co. Dublin.

From where we are today it may not be easy to visualise, in the changed circumstances of 2016, what use the Irish ‘working class’ would have for either now. But at that point of the Irish struggle for liberation, what both gave presence to was a consistent principled stand in keeping with Connolly’s determination to keep the national and the class question inextricably linked. In other words, this integrity which guaranteed it could not become a tool of the ruling class: nor conform to anything other than the revolutionary potential of a moment of danger, and with it, the task of protecting our, mostly disrespectable, dead from the enemy.

Séamus Costello was assassinated in Dublin in 1979, at the age of 38, by the Official IRA, apparently in retaliation for the shooting dead by the young Gerard Steenson of Billy McMillan of the Official IRA leadership in Belfast. Shortly afterwards the IRSP suffered a number of other significant losses which some have argued resulted from a commitment of both States to remove this new subversive threat, one way or the other, and which probably signed its death warrant as a revolutionary initiative. But despite the complete oblivion that Costello has fallen into, and now following the recent election and the realignment of forces it may well have thrown up here, his relevance to the Left should be more than that of a curiosity, in particular to those who must effect change if we are to have any social future at all…

Costello’s last initiative also was the Broad Front, an idea once looked on as naive if not ludicrous (just like nationalising or now, socialising, the banks was once looked upon as ultra leftist madness) which may well provide a lesson, in this era of parliamentary conflict, that the Left must learn quickly if we are to present a coherent political alternative to the mass of the Irish people and seize this particular ‘moment of danger’ and the opportunity it offers us.[10]

Maybe it is the time now, with the parties of the Right reduced to 57 per cent of the Irish electorate’s support[11] yet with the Left still so fragmented, to reflect on the example of Costello to articulate and shape a broad platform to address the needs of those dispossessed, embracing the theory that our place in history is as subjects and what is needed now is the clarity and the courage to assert that goal: socialism, radical equality, an end to exploitation, participatory democracy – or barbarism.[12]

James Connolly wrote a song once

Some men, faint-hearted, ever seek
Our programme to retouch,
And will insist, whene’er they speak
That we demand too much.
’Tis passing strange, yet I declare
Such statements give me mirth,
For our demands most moderate are,
We only want the earth. [13]

To those who own nothing, ‘the men and women of no property’ and who now dutifully request everything,  Subcomandante Marcos has said:

For everyone, everything. For us, nothing” (Para todos todo, para nosotros nada).[14]

…the revolutionary struggle used to be capable of giving voice to this position…Then during the course of the 20th century, ‘success’, and not failure, turned our revolution into more dead words in a corpse’s mouth and another tool with which to oppress the mass of humankind. Conformism at its worst. Human liberation thrown on the garbage heap. Dreams exiled to the world of children and madmen and women.

Now that we here in Ireland may well be close to another opportunity of ‘being summoned to the barricades’ once again, maybe the ghost of Séamus Costello should be called upon as an example of the integrity that is needed to define this particular moment of danger and seize it from an enemy who wishes the status quo to continue with business as usual and to exile our demands into ‘the best of all possible worlds’, this circus of ‘electing our rulers’ every four or five years.

There has to be something wrong with our collective ability to learn (from each other), something badly wrong or undeveloped with our ‘working class’ writers and historians here that a figure with the intensity and the commitment of Samus Costello has fallen so quickly into oblivion and not a single biography has been produced that could provide learning and direction in this turbulent period of our unfolding struggles.[15] Something we could use, an experience that would help us collectively to articulate the needs not of the minority of those privileged with wealth and power but of the needs of the mass of humanity as we strive towards a future worth bringing into being…

Now, at this time of memory, of commemoration, “Your poor life, Jim” and “we will rise again” are like whispers on the wind, whispers from the dead who believed that there was a future and that it was worth struggling for, living for, dying for, believing in; whispers that now reach us with our collars turned up at these endless bus-stops where now that we live in a perpetual winter where nothing seems to change and the future is always just a replay of the past, over and over, so the bus never turns up, nor do we even expect it to, any longer, even as we wait and wait and wait…

The integrity of this man, who never courted nor humoured a mainstream journalist or politician in his life and whose reputation for disrespectable and often illegal acts, this guerrilla activity he spoke about, from declaring war on the British military machine to funding the operations of the revolutionary party, could serve as a guide for those currently assuming the leadership of this class:

The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

(The Communist Manifesto, Chapter IV)

Whether the moment will be seized or not, whether there are any real trees left in this plastic forest, whether there is anything more than hot air and an addiction to pomposity and power in these ‘new’  representatives entering the (parliamentary) stage to represent our class, to represent this army of the dispossessed we always were and continue to become in this so-called ‘new’ world order of the Oligarchy, of the Corporation: we must now wait and see. But the example of Séamus Costello, should serve as an urgent example of the need: “…to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.”

In the meantime we have great need for a contemporary ‘Isaac Deutscher’ to come out of the woodwork, to develop the tool of words into another weapon (the pen being as mighty as the sword!) and to retrieve this life and learning of revolutionary integrity from both the oblivion and the noise of respectability,  and to help:

articulate the past… to seize hold of a

memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.

 aware that:

The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a

tool of the ruling classes.

So that:

 Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if

he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

Now that our war is “over”, these must be our demands, and before all our ‘heroes’ have been domesticated and become manageable.

Integrity. Revolutionary commitment. And a belief in the future of revolutionary democracy.

A world fit for human beings.

A history where we will recognise ourselves as subjects not objects.

A life we will look back on and tell our children and our grandchildren: wasn’t it a full life!

In 1966, speaking at Bodenstown, Séamus Costello said:

“We republicans must not be content to criticise those who misgovern both parts of our country. If we are to regard ourselves as true followers of Tone, we must provide the Irish people with an alternative. It must be a realistic and practical alternative. Our target must be the achievement of the ideals set out in the Proclamation of 1916 – the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all our citizens.

This in effect means that we must aim for the ownership of our resources by the people, so that these resources will be developed in the best interests of the people as a whole”[16]

 And because, in an era of relentless privatisation, this remains relevant to the many people still waiting on a bed in our hospitals, our homeless people, all our unemployed, both young and old, our children enduring (not living) in consistent (and inconsistent) poverty, our low paid workers, and on and on and on…

And because without the integrity to seize each moment of danger, the integrity to avoid the respectability of conformism, all may well be lost…

…ALL THAT NOW…now at Easter time 2016…along with the heroic lives (and death) of James and Lillie Connolly and their children,  including the firebrand Nora: of Séamus and Maoiliosa Costello and their children, now that is something worth commemorating at this time, preferably without the shamrock and the green beer, and the ‘well-meaning’ hypocrisy, if possible…


séamas carraher

easter 2016


[1] By IGTWU [Public domain or Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons



[4] See Gene Kerrigan: “..The [government] video and its sponsors clearly saw the commemoration as little more than a commercial opportunity for the hotel and pub trade. The video gave the impression that we were staging a history-free call to the diaspora to attend another Gathering on the auld sod and spend lots more cash, please, and keep the recovery going.”

[5] By David Granville – [1] and English-language Wikipedia, Public Domain,


[7] Another account of this last meeting: “ At 12 o’clock on Thursday night, 11th May, 1916, we saw him for the last time and as I kissed Daddy, he held me close to him and said, “I’m proud of you Nora girl.”


[9] Theses on the Concept of History (vi), Walter Benjamin, page 264,  in Illuminations, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1968


[11] Gene Kerrigan:

[12] Rosa Luxemburg: “Friedrich Engels once said: ‘Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.’ …Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. …”  The Junius Pamphlet, 1915.

Ian Angus argues this comment of Engels should be more correctly attributed to Karl Kautsky:

” The words came from Karl Kautsky, but Rosa Luxemburg gave them wings.”



[15] A series of short essays on Costello was published in 1979 by The Seamus Costello Memorial Committee, which can be read online at:


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