When we look over the course of Irish history and republicanism, widely regarded as having been created by mainly bourgeois Protestants, we see a few cases of armed struggle for Irish liberation. 1798 and after, Ireland has had defeat after defeat, sometimes (although we would rather not admit it) defeats that were utterly abysmal. However, when we look at the P.I.R.A., it is actually quite different. They engaged in a war with profound ingenuity in acquiring weapons, planning attacks, but mainly, perpetuating a war against not only the British army, but the sectarian loyalist death squads. This thread is not an attempt to justify the P.I.R.A. (I have already done that and I am satisfied that no one has given any argument to counter it), but rather, it is to analyse the failure of Irish insurrections from the United Irishmen up until the failure of Collins and Griffith at the Treaty negotiations and then offer a critic of P.I.R.A. operations. Nor is the thread an attack on the brave patriots who fought the British and its egregious and infamous army.
Firstly, the United Irishmen. The Protestant founders of Irish republicanism were not, as is often cited because of the 'men of no property' quote, socialists, land reformers and so on. They were bourgeois parliamentarians, looking out for their own interests mainly, in social and economic concerns. Although, it would be asinine to suggest they didn't actually mean Catholic, protestant and dissenter unity. But on the whole, they were in the mold of the bourgeois Revolutionaries of the French Revolution. Their success was the creation of Irish republicanism, but what of their failure?
Well, their failure was the start of a number of failed rebellions on this island. Unlike the P.I.R.A., the United Irishmen were not able to organize on an international scale as the provo's did with America, Libya and other countries. Now, of course, the means of communication and so on were quite different back then, but still. Also, the French dispatch in 1796 never arrived (although not their fault) and the one that did arrived far too late to help the rebellion of 1798.
During the rebellion, they did manage to push British troops out of Wexford and Kildare, but the lack of support from the North led to them ultimately capitulating and it ended up as a complete disaster. Most of the people killed on the Irish side were peasants fighting a bourgeois revolution. The United Irishmen did not believe that the Irish peasantry were on a level of development yet to govern themselves. A view held by many on both Irish and British circles, none more so than the great comprador, Daniel O'Connell. The historian Metscher pointed out:
The majority of the United Irishmen from Presbyterian and Catholic middle class made it quite clear that equality was political and not social equality. 'By liberty we never understood unlimited freedom, not by equality the leveling of property.' The lower classes were to be enlighten 'by the most rapid of all instructors - a good government'.
Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism, p 29
Now, it must be said that during this time, the British really were tyrannical, unlike Ireland during the 20th century. That said however, it still needs to be pointed out that the 1798 rebellion was an abject failure. Not only did the ultimate objective fail, it lead to a sectarian bloodbath with atrocities committed on both sides. It lead to the act of union and the Irish Parliament was eviscerated. The ultimate aim of 'breaking the connection with England' did not happen. Verily, the antithesis happened.
Robert Emmet's rebellion was also poorly planned and transitory. It achieved, much like the 1798, very little, other than republican martyrs. After issuing a proclamation, condemning the 'oppressors for six hundred years' of nefarious control, the 1803 rebellion was soon futile. Soon, Emmet retreated once he knew there was no support from the rest of the country outside of Dublin. Much like the 1798 rebellion, after the 1803 rebellion, the British government augmented their egregiousness and cracked down on anyone suspected of plotting an insurrection. In fairness to them, a normal reaction.
A quick word should be mentioned about the Whiteboys, a secret farming organisation. For decades, even before the United Irishmen, they conducted a campaign against the landlords of Ireland. The British government entered into law, a myriad of coercion acts, one every year after the first twenty years of the union. They were composed of those living in privation and utter poverty. An agrarian lasted for decades and had a lot of support among the peasantry. They're often left out of Irish history, but they did ring alarm bells in the British government over their acts and threats.
Possibly, the worst rebellion in Ireland would be the Young Irelander rebellion. Rebellion is probably too strong a word for what happened. The only thing that can be said about this rebellion is that the 'old I.R.A. good, P.I.R.A. bad' argument that killing innocent people was accepted back in these days was shown to be a cod, as any normal person understands. As we shall see, it was the humanity of Smith O'Brien that ultimately lead to the rebellions failure to take off.
After hoping to secure help from France, they were given a flag instead. Although the flag was a great gesture, the fact is that they ultimately failed to secure weapons abroad and domestically, mass support (a lot of that to do with the Catholic Churchs stalking of the leaders when they gave talks telling them to ignore what was being said) and the fact that the leaders were mainly, from the landlord class and conservatives.
William Smith O'Brien, Thomas Francis Megaher, John Blake Dillion and others were in Southern Ireland during this time trying to rally support for their cause. But they were mainly romantic intellectuals, who had no real military knowledge or discipline. Touring Kilkenny and Tipperary, they met hundreds of people wanting to fight, but they often had little weapons to give them. Smith O'Brein, a man of immense ability and principle, refused to rob houses of the gentry for weapons and other things needed. The 'great' hater of anything or anyone English and anti-working class champion, who wanted the workers to be attacked during the Lockout, Arthur Grittifh said of Smith, he was ' as noble and fearless but the most unfitted man in Ireland to lead an insurrection.'
A tough choice was made by Smith O'Brien in Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary. The RIC took over a house that was owned by the McCormack family, where the RIC took the children hostage. A few had suggested blowing up the house, but O'Brein could not do that as the children would have been killed. A stand off between the RIC and rebels began and O'Brein, apprehensive of people being killed, ordered his men to withdraw and make a run for it. Dillion later remarked that some of the fighters at Ballingarry were carrying pitch forks and sticks. Not really the most suitable of weaponry to be fighting the British empire, one could say.
The Times described it as 'the cabbage revolution' and it was over before it had even begun as the 1848 rebellion was crushed with hardly any vigor. Another ill equipped, unplanned and failed rebellion had entered into the pages of Irish history. What John Mitchell had constantly called for, had ended in disaster and even if he had of lead the rebellion, it is very difficult to imagine that he would have made any significant difference. The other leaders were too conservative and too timid for action. Smith O'Brien even allowed an English cavalry carrying food to pass through a peasant built barricade, despite starving people all around him during the Famine.
During the famine, the moral justification to wage war was never any more in doubt. However, it, like the 1798, 1803 rebellions had ended in complete and utter failure.
The Fenian rebellion of 1867 too ended in failure, did not get any of its aims implemented and was again, transitory. What were the Fenians? They were a movement that was encapsulated by Karl Marx, as he pointed out that they had 'socialistic' tendencies and were a 'movement of the lower orders'. They, unlike the Young Irelanders before them, managed to acquire some weapons and did, unlike the Young Irelanders, declare a provisional government, but in the end, their rebellion too, must be seen as a failure.
Their ambitions were amiable and showed an international solidarity with other oppressed people. They supported 'all struggling nationalities in the British empire and elsewhere.' They were, like the P.I.R.A., heavily infiltrated by British spies, which reduced their chances of a successful rebellion. But when the rebellion did happen, it did not even last 24 hours. What it did do was create a number of martyrs later on, such as Allen, Larkin and O'Brein and good propaganda, such as the struggle in English prisons of men such as Thomas Clarke. Ultimately, however, their rebellion was a failure.
The men of 1916 is a different story, because of events that proceeded it. There was no blood sacrifice as Desmond Greaves explained in his booklet about 1916 and the myth of blood sacrifice. However, the Rising did give way to support from the Irish population, although this is debated by some historians such as Brian Hanley, D.R.O'Connnor Lysaght and others regarding a mandate for war from 1919. Regardless, was the Rising a success?
One would have to say yes, it was. The tricolor flew on Sackville Street in Ireland's capital city and a Republic was declared. Although it did end in disaster, it galvanized many to join the I.R.A. later on, along with Maxwell's terror of course. They were also unlucky with the arms shipments from Germany being confiscated as well as MacNeill's call for all volunteers to step down and the 24 hour delay of the Rising, which drove the count to burst into a meeting and tell Connolly 'I'm going to shoot MacNiell'.
What of the Tan War? The I.R.A. engaged in a ruthless war, which was spelt out by Collins and Blythe when the two saw over an article in the Volunteers magazine called 'Ruthless Warfare' which, among other things, gave legitimacy to shoot nurses in the head for helping British soldiers. The I.R.A. at this time intimated anyone seen too cosy with the British army and RIC and which lead to a number of atrocities against local civilians, both Catholic and Protestant.
Their successes were that they got the British to the negotiating table and gave Ireland limited freedom, which was soon thrown away when the Free State and ostensible Republic made a balls of it.
Their failures were that they ended up bringing over the Black and Tans after their campaign against the RIC, and ultimately, Collins and Griffith being beguiled by the British at the Treaty negotiating table. Whatever one might argue about the Treaty, later on, with the attacks on Catholics in the North and the embarrassment of the Boundary commission, the war in hindsight changed little. James Connolly's nightmare became a reality as the English capitalist was replaced by the Irish capitalist. The slums in Dublin, the poverty, the control of the bosses and lack of labor laws all stayed. The Proclamation of 1916 was abandoned and the program for the first Dail derided almost, given it was discussed only for 25 minutes or something like that altogether, not only the Free State laughed at it, in fairness to them. Their war lasted no longer than a few years. The number of deaths in those years was almost the same as during the Troubles. Not only that, because of the war, sectarianism followed, particularly in the North at the hands of unionists, but also in the South, where the anti-Treaty I.R.A burned down a Protestant orphanage in Galway, which gave Carson a great propaganda victory.
As Conor 'Cruise' O'Brien illustrated, Ireland was not the most oppressed nation on the planet in the 20th Century. In truth, the Irish landlord and the Irish capitalist had done more oppression than the British in the early 20th century. Well, Southern Ireland that is. Where real tyranny was happening was in the 6 counties of Ireland in the North. Who were left to the B Specials and discriminated against by a sectarian state and later on, when a few Catholics were getting a bit ahead of themselves, the loyalist death squads.
We all know what happened during the Troubles and although the unionists, Irish guys on here who pretend that they're from England (you know who you are), self admitted west-brits and 26 county nationalists hate to admit or even acknowledge it, Catholics and Protestants in the North were given an awful time. Insignificant in 20th century history, mind you, but still, a moral justification for self defense was unequivocally there.
What did the provo's achieve? For a start, they defended the most vulnerable areas of the 6 counties where nationalists and Catholics lived. I.R.A.=I Ran Away began appearing on walls after the riots of the late 60's. Later on, a British report into the riots would conclude that they were started by unionists and that of the thousands of people who fled their homes, 80.2% were Catholic. This defense of Catholics was much needed, as they were mere ducks in a pond to the unionists, even before the provo's, as Gusty Spence and the boys were shooting them for saying they were Catholics in Protestants pubs. The 26 county state had failed the people of the North as even when the loyalists were blowing up the 26 county state, they did nothing at all. The P.I.R.A also stood up to the RUC who were shooting up flats, killing children and even Catholic British soldiers returning home to visit their families.
Still, despite the attacks on Civil Rights marchers, support for the provo's would be very timid until internment, Bloody Sunday, Falls road curfew and other instances led to an augmentation in I.R.A. recruits. The provo's, outnumbered and outgunned by the loyalist paramilitaries and communities altogether in fairness, now had to deal with the better trained and equipped British soldiers as well. The British army had killed a few people imposing martial law and killed 14 people during a protest (they also ignored warnings about Bloody Friday and used innocent people as victims to denigrate the I.R.A., publicly denying they got any warnings from the PPA, even though they had given them the warnings about Cavehill and Oxford Street 1 hour and 8 minutes and 33 minutes beforehand). The actions of the Brits and loyalists and the sectarian state before direct rule, led to a crying out for a organised resistance movement, and that is what they provo's were.
Unlike previous Irish rebellions, theirs was one of extreme diligence and planning. They received guns from other countries, had a plethora of training camps across Ireland, weeded out weak volunteers or those who bragged of membership when drunk putting the organisation in trouble, evaded to a great extent the British army - who had many spies in the organisation - the Dublin government and also, took the fight to Britain. Al-Qaeda could only dream of blowing up Downing Street, from a van parked in front of it. The conscientiousness of the I.R.A. saw them bring complete disruption to the English and their economy. Of course, some of their actions deserved hangings in the campaign in England, but that is beside the point. The P.I.R.A. were possible, one of the most effective guerrilla fighters of the 20th century and it would not be wrong to place them in the category of the Vietnam resistance fighters to the Americans who made the Brits look like angels.
So, their successes were a defense of Catholics and they ended up in a power sharing process (unimaginable in the 60's), which had been destroyed by the unionists previously, despite the claims of Gay Mitchell and the lackies in RTE. A war that lasted 30 years against an, albeit, ageing empire and one that conducted themselves rather well, in the context of 20th century history. Possibly, the biggest compliment came from Tony Blair when he admitted that the British army could not defeat the I.R.A. militarily. The British army and government had defeated the United Irishmen, Robert Emmet, Young Irelanders, Fenians, the men of 1916 and beguiled the 'old' I.R.A. into accepting what was offered in 1920, which perpetuated a war that the bourgeois leaders of really didn't have any clue what they were fighting for, when you sit down and analyse early 20th century Ireland. Although, it should be said, that the 'old' I.R.A. were not defeated either militarily either.
Their failures were of course, the failure of national liberation and the Good Friday Agreement as the latter has not improved socioeconomic conditions nor has it brought Irish reunification any further. In fact, it can be argued, given recent polls, that Irish reunification is as far away as ever now, although this is not only the GFA's fault, the fault ultimately, lies at the hands of the Brits who capitulated to unionist terrorism in 1912 and onward and ignored a democratic election in 1918, which should have resulted in the minimum of Home Rule, given that there was no overwhelmingly mandate for SF.
To conclude, for me, it is patently obvious that the P.I.R.A. were the best fighting republicans that this country has ever had. Their actions with Kingsmill, remembrance day, etc are disgusting and should and are condemned by all sides. However, looking at atrocities carried out by them and judging them by that is nonsensical. In the context of a fighting organisation, they really were way ahead of their heroes. There can be no doubt about it. For that, there really is only one thing that can be said to them for, in my opinion, their greatest achievement, defending nationalists and Catholics from the virulent and insane loyalist deaths squads, none more so than Óglach Bobby Sands.
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