Anti-imperialist Insurrection

easter_rising_finalScotland and the Easter Rising, is a new collection by Luath Press edited by Kirsty Lusk and Willy Maley. It brings together writers and journalists to reflect on the part played by Scotland in the events of 1916. The Easter Rising is a defining moment in Irish history, but it also matters for Scotland, for the Irish in Scotland, and for Irish-Scottish relations. Edinburgh-born James Connolly was one of the leaders of the Rising, and a signatory to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916. The collection launches at Celtic Connections in association with Aye Write! and includes contributions from Allan Armstrong, Ian Bell, Alan Bissett, Ray Burnett, Peter Geoghegan, Helen Clark, Alison O’Malley-Younger, Irvine Welsh, Maria-Daniella Dick, Billy Kay and many more. Here we start a series of extracts, this by Stuart Christie.

I have no idea how many anarchists, Scottish or otherwise, were involved in the anti-imperialist insurrection in and around Dublin on Easter Monday 1916; what I do know, however, is that a substantial number of the workers’ militia known as the Irish Citizens Army (ICA) were inspired by the syndicalist, Industrial Unionist and libertarian socialist ideas promulgated by labour union leaders James Connolly and James Larkin. These socialist republicans may have shared the barricades with the Volunteers of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) that day, but they did not share their ideology. They were fighting a class war for national liberation, not for a sectarian, middle class nationalism. As Connolly warned the ICA just before the rising: “if we should win hold on to your rifles because the Volunteers may have a different goal. Remember, we’re out not only for political liberty but for economic liberty as well”. There was no ‘may’ about it.

My family link with the Irish War of Independence/Civil War may sound like the germ of a Ken Loach pitch for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”: two cousins from rural 19th century Ireland, both devout Catholics — who may never have met — thrown by events and circumstances into an armed social and political conflict in which a terrible irony was born.

John Ring, my maternal grampa, was, technically, English. Born in Salford in 1878, his parents had recently arrived as immigrants in an attempt to escape the poverty and misery of rural life in their hometown of Abbeyleix, Queen’s County (now Laoise), Ireland.


Grampa, a dyed-in-the-wool Anglophile, made up for his nationalist relatives by swearing unswerving loyalty to the British Crown during what was, possibly, its most expansionist imperialist phase. I remember Mum telling me that the only time she saw him cry was on hearing the news of the death of King George VI. In 1892, aged 14 (falsifying his age), he signed up, in Dumfries, with the 3rd Reserve Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. He went on to fight in the north-east of India around the Khyber Pass, and in South Africa, and received the Queen’s Medal with clasp and King’s Medal and clasp for his part in the South Africa Campaign, 1900-1902. Discharged in January 1913, he had served twenty-one years, having completed his military service as Colour Sergeant.

When the World War broke out he was recalled to Maryhill Barracks, Glasgow, as a reservist to join the 5th Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry (HLI), in which he served as Regimental Sergeant Major for a further nine years, training troops for ‘The Big Picnic’ and other imperialist military disasters such as Gallipoli, Loos, Mesopotamia (Baghdad), the invasion of Russia at Archangel, and Ireland— a campaign he never mentioned.

It has often played on my mind that the men he trained included Churchill’s Auxilliaries and ‘Special Constables’ of the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force, the hated and hateful ‘Black and Tans’.

One of Grampa’s cousin’s, however, Michael Joseph ‘Joe’ Ring — perhaps the most famous of the Rings — was from the other end of the spectrum. Born in Galway in 1891, Joe’s parents settled in Westport, Co. Mayo, in the late 1890s, and when the Irish Republican Botherhood formed the ‘Volunteers’ in Westport in 1915 — in response to Carson’s Unionist militia Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) — Joe was among the first to join. Aged 23, he was appointed Commander of the Volunteers in Westport, and took part in the Easter Rising of the following year, having formed his own guerrilla flying column, the first of its kind in the conflict (see photo above).

On 9 May 1916, when the Easter rebellion was finally put down in the West of Ireland, Joe was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act and interned in Frognoch POW camp in South Wales along with Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and 1,800 others. Released under the general amnesty of Christmas 1916, Joe returned to Westport where he set about re-organising the local Volunteers and radicalising and training the youth movement, Fianna Eirann, their prospective recruits in the coming War of Independence.

The opening shots of the war in the west of Ireland were fired on the night of 29 March 1919 with the murder of John C. Milling, the Westport Residential Magistrate who had tried and sentenced Joe the previous March to 6 months’ jail in Sligo for ‘unlawful assembly and drilling’. Martial law was declared in Westport and the military drafted in while the RIC detained the principal suspects, including Joe, but despite intense investigation and brutal interrogation, no one was ever charged with the killing.

With the formation of the West Mayo Brigade of the IRA in September 1920, under Tom Derrig, Joe Ring was appointed OC of the Westport district battalion area. A few months later, in November 1920, the arrival in the area of the ‘Black and Tans’ — the hated British paramilitary police units recruited from prisoners and ex-servicemen, many of them Scots and possibly trained by my Grampa who, according to my aunt, served in Ireland at the time —ratcheted up local tensions considerably.

It didn’t take long until the local military authorities identified Joe as an Active Service Unit (ASU) leader. Edward O’Malley, in his book Memories of a Mayoman, refers to an incident in which Joe read out the following dispatch:

‘The Crown Forces at Westport Quay have a life-size photograph of you. If captured, you will be shot, and your body dragged through the streets of Westport. This information comes direct from Military headquarters’.

Joe’s notoriety increased following a number of gunfights with the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and ambushes of ‘Black and Tan’/RIC military convoys, the most important being an engagement at Carrowkennedy on 2 June 1921. In reprisal, his house in Drumindoo outside Westport was burnt to the ground and a £2,000 reward posted for information leading to his capture.

Following the truce of July 1921 he was asked to assist in setting up the Irish Civic Guard, the Gardai, in which he held, from their inception in February 1922, the nominal rank of Chief Superintendent.

In May 1922, after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the formation of the Irish Provisional Government, Joe Ring was involved in putting down what became known as the Kildare Mutiny, a confrontation between the new Gardai’s old Royal Irish Constabulary officers — those who had collaborated with Michael Collins, the IRA’s Chief of Staff — and the new recruits of old republicans.

By this time the civil war between the supporters and opponents of the Irish Free State as a British Commonwealth Dominion was in full swing; Joe Ring was appointed a Brigadier-General in the Irish (Free State) National Army. Tasked with putting down the ‘Irregular’ (anti-Treaty republicans) rebellion in Connaught, he was given a cross-channel ferry, the Minerva fitted out as a troop carrier, and given command of a sea-borne landing in Clew Bay to capture the towns of Rosmoney and Westport, the headquarters of the Irregular forces in the province, while Major-General Mac Eoin attacked from the landward side. Both towns were taken without loss of life and 103 Free State troops interned on Rosmoney Island were released.

Seven weeks later Brigadier Joe Ring was dead, killed on 14 September 1922 in an ambush by anti-Treaty Irregulars at Tubbercurry, on the outskirts of Bonnyconlan, Ballina, a skirmish that became known as ‘The Battle of the Ox Mountains’. It was less than a month after the death of Michael Collins, also the victim of an Irregular ambush. When the news of Joe’s death broke in Westport on market day, all the shops and businesses in the town were immediately closed, while the blinds and curtains of private homes were drawn in a mark of popular respect.

The well-known Kerry author, Padraig O Siochfhradha, wrote the following appreciation of Joe’s contribution to the Irish war of Independence in the Mayo News the week after his funeral, which ended: —

‘The marching tread of his fighting column will never again re-echo in the night through his native hills, and the red grouse squat in the purple heather undisturbed. Woods and stream and western sea are hushed in sorrow. A chivalrous heart is stilled, a brave and generous soul gone. Mayo, you dare not claim a braver soul than Ring.’

By May 1923, nine months after Joe Ring’s death, the Civil War in Ireland was over, leaving the nationalist ‘Free Staters’ — representing the industrial, commercial and landed interests of the 26 counties and British capitalism —victorious. They quickly moved to neutralise their class enemies and crush the growing unrest and dissent among agricultural workers and small-holders in the rural districts and the strike actions and factory occupations by workers’ movements, strike committees and pickets in the towns and cities. By the Spring and Summer of 1923, as Labour historian Emmet O’Conner observed, the Free State was routinely deploying thousands of its paramilitary Special Infantry Corps — former IRA and IRB Volunteers — in “response to factory seizures” and the “disruption of essential services”.

Despite the heroic attempts by Connolly, Larkin and their comrades of the ICA on Easter Monday 1916 to break the alliances between the financial circles of Ireland and the British Empire and establish a genuinely worker-friendly democratic socialist Republic, by 1923 the links between those countries’ ruling elites remained unbroken and the hopes and dreams of the men and women who sacrificed their lives for a new Ireland had been hopelessly corrupted, and their ideals abused and manipulated out of all realistic shape. It is difficult to accept that some complicity for that unfortunate outcome, albeit in a minor way, lies with my family.
Stuart Christie (born 10 July 1946), a Glaswegian anarchist writer and publisher probably best known for being arrested in 1964 as an 18-year-old carrying explosives to assassinate the Spanish dictator General Franco. In 1971 he was arrested, tried and acquitted of membership of the ‘Angry Brigade’. Founder of various publishing imprints, the latest being ChristieBooks, he has written on anarchism, the Spanish Revolution and the anarchist resistance to Franco, including a three-volume memoir: ‘My Granny Made Me An Anarchist’, ‘General Franco Made Me A Terrorist’, and ‘Edward Heath Made Me Angry’. He is also the author of ‘¡Pistoleros! The Chronicles of Farquhar McHarg’, a (lightly fictionalised) trilogy on the Spanish anarchist movement after the war of 1914-1918.

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  1. Roderick MacLeod says:

    A footnote to the “hated and hateful ‘Black and Tans’” who, as here, have long been synonymous with infamy in Ireland, probably deservedly so. My own grand-uncle served in the `Tans and his recollections were more nuanced. He was a native Gaelic speaker, as were most of those in his comrades – former Cameron Highlanders from the Catholic Hebrides, and claimed that they were made welcome by the locals where he was posted with whom they were able to converse up to a point in Gaelic and worship side-by side.
    Retaliatory acts of brutality were committed by both sides in the conflict, no doubt, but I wonder how much of the planned and gratuitous violence which is normally blamed on the `Tans was actually down to the the Royal Irish Constabulary and their auxially force who operated in parallel, subsequently joined by the “B-Specials” who exclusively comprised Ulster Protestants. My grand-uncle’s platoon were even shot at by B-Specials over some disagreement, though I can no longer recall why.

  2. ConallBoyle says:

    btw Frongoch is in North, not South, Wales (near Tryweryn Dam which sparked so much Welsh nationalistic fervour).

  3. Jim Bennett says:

    Great article, I look forward to reading the full book.

  4. Redguantlet says:

    If Willy Maley is involved, I want to read it. Wily, this is in honour of yer auld man:

    “BANNERS OF SPAIN, La Pasionaria:
    “It is very difficult to say a few words in farewell to the heroes of the International Brigades, because of what they are and what they represent. A feeling of sorrow, an infinite grief catches our throat – sorrow for those who are going away, for the soldiers of the highest ideal of human redemption, exiles from their countries, persecuted by the tyrants of all peoples – grief for those who will stay here forever mingled with the Spanish soil, in the very depth of our heart, hallowed by our feeling of eternal gratitude.
    From all peoples, from all races, you came to us like brothers, like sons of immortal Spain; and in the hardest days of the war, when the capital of the Spanish Republic was threatened, it was you, gallant comrades of the International Brigades, who helped save the city with your fighting enthusiasm, your heroism and your spirit of sacrifice. – And Jarama and Guadalajara, Brunete and Belchite, Levante and the Ebro, in immortal verses sing of the courage, the sacrifice, the daring, th discipline of the men of the International Brigades.
    For the first time in the history of the peoples’ struggles, there was the spectacle, breath­taking in its grandeur, of the formation of International Brigades to help save a threatened country’s freedom and independence – the freedom and independence of our Spanish land.
    Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, Republicans – men of different colors, differing ideology, antagonistic religions — yet all profoundly loving liberty and justice, they came and offered themselves to us unconditionally.
    They gave us everything — their youth or their maturity; their science or their experience; their blood and their lives; their hopes and aspirations — and they asked us for nothing. But yes, it must be said, they did want a post in battle, they aspired to the honor of dying for us.
    Banners of Spain! Salute these many heroes! Be lowered to honor so many martyrs!
    Mothers! Women! When the years pass by and the wounds of war are stanched; when the memory of the sad and bloody days dissipates in a present of liberty, of peace and of well­being; when the rancors have died out and pride in a free country is felt equally by all Spaniards, speak to your hildren. Tell them of these men of the International Brigades.
    Recount for them how, coming over seas and mountains, crossing frontiers bristling with bayonets, sought by raving dogs thirsting to tear their flesh, these men reached our country as crusaders for freedom, to fight and die for Spain’s liberty and independence threatened by German and Italian fascism. They gave up everything — their loves, their countries, home and fortune, fathers, mothers, wives, brothers, sisters and children — and they came and said to us: “We are here. Your cause, Spain’s cause, is ours. It is the cause of all advanced and progressive mankind.”
    Today many are departing. Thousands remain, shrouded in Spanish earth, profoundly remembered by all Spaniards. Comrades of the International Brigades: Political reasons, reasons of state, the welfare of that very cause for which you offered your blood with boundless generosity, are sending you back, some to your own countries and others to forced exile. You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality in the face of the vile and accommodating spirit of those who interpret democratic principles with their eyes on hoards of wealth or corporate shares which they want to safeguard from all risk.
    We shall not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace is in flower, entwined with the victory laurels of the Republic of Spain — return!
    Return to our side for here you will find a homeland — those who have no country or friends, who must live deprived of friendship — all, all will have the affection and gratitude of the Spanish people who today and tomorrow will shout with enthusiasm —
    Long live the heroes of the International Brigades!

  5. Alan Munro says:

    Amazing story. Religion has coloured our relationship with war-torn Ireland. As an anology with the spanish civil war, Scotland had a non intervention policy, like the european powers in 1936, but it was heavily involved on the ground, on both sides. And continues to do so from 1916 to the present day.

  6. David Allan says:

    I look forward to purchasing this book marking the centenary of those events in 1916 , I have visited Kilmainham Prison in Dublin the site of James Connolly’s execution I have also been moved by the words of “La Pasionaria” the International Brigade memorial on the clydeside walkway. ” better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees ”

    These were times when men and women acted upon their deeply held convictions ! sadly there are fewer people of that character prepared to make such sacrifices today.

  7. Alf Baird says:

    “the links between those countries’ ruling elites remained unbroken ”

    Scotland looks as if it will be no different. With a unionist-elite still running most of the 200+ public and semi-public institutions in Scotland as well as much of corporate Scotland, even in the event of independence a unionist elite remains in control.

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