Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter and the Irish

Most Christians observe Easter today. (Some follow the Orthodox calendar and will mark it later.) For Roman Catholics it’s the most important event on their spiritual calendar. That’s certainly true for the Catholic majority in Ireland.

But for all faiths and nonbelievers on the Emerald Isle Easter is also always associated, whether celebrated or cursed, with a secular event–the Easter Rising of 1916. The long simmering resistance to centuries of English oppression boiled over in response to rumors of imminent conscription of Irish to fight England’s war in Europe.

Many working class leaders of the day understood the struggle they launched combined three objectives: keep Ireland out of the carnage of the First World War; independence from British rule; and establishment of a workers republic.

On our weekend news page we posted a photo showing a mobilization of the Irish Citizen Army outside Liberty Hall beneath a banner reading, “We Serve Neither King Nor Kaiser But Ireland.” Initially formed as a worker militia in response to brutal police attacks that killed and injured many trade unionists during the during the Lockout of 1913 in Dublin, the ICA was made up of trade unionists and socialists led by the remarkable James Connolly. They fought the British in 1916 in collaboration with other nationalists who were not so committed to their socialist goals.

After the rebels occupied key government buildings in Dublin, the British quickly reinforced their garrison and even sent Royal Navy warships to bombard coastal targets. There was intense fighting for about a week before the English prevailed. The British forces sustained 116 dead, 368 wounded and 9 missing. The Irish suffered 318 dead and 2,217 wounded. 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested. The top leaders of the Rising, including Connolly, were summarily executed.

Eventually the British, in stages, granted 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties independence. To this day they maintain rule in the other six. While all politicians in the 26 counties tip their hats to the Rising, and even Connolly, they have prided themselves in recent years for integrating the Irish economy–dubbed the Celtic Tiger–in to globalization. Like their counterparts in the USA, most Irish unions have been dedicated to “social partnership” agreements with the bosses. American corporations have been an important part of their “economic miracle.”

In occupied Ireland the traditional republicans of Sinn Féin have now embraced “power sharing” with the parties of anti-Catholic bigots loyal to the English crown–and multinational corporations. Instead of the workers republic Sinn Féin today speaks of an “Ireland of equals”–not unlike Britain’s “new” Labor Party’s repudiation of their long standing commitment to socialism.

Today the Celtic Tiger has been mortally wounded by financial collapse and waves of plant closures. The Irish republic is on the verge of bankruptcy. The crisis has spread in to the occupied six counties as well.

But the memory of class struggle has never been completely extinguished among Irish workers. While U.S. labor leaders cling to partnership on our sinking ship, we’ve seen an upsurge of plant occupations in Ireland, such as Waterford Crystal and Ford’s Visteon plant in occupied Belfast.

Just as American workers must rescue the real heritage of Debs from those who have sought to turn him in to a harmless icon, the Irish workers will find guidance from the views of Connolly the living fighter, not the ceremonial martyr.

That’s my Easter homily.