Scotland 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.