Socialist Worker

Rebels against British tyranny

by Helen Shooter
Issue No. 1730

The television drama Rebel Heart by Irish writer Ronan Bennett has provoked an outburst from Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and right wing papers like the Daily Telegraph.

Trimble even asked the BBC to ban the drama, claiming it presented a ‘hopelessly one-sided’ view of the history of Ireland.

The history Trimble defends is one of centuries of brutal rule by Britain.

The Tories demanded an official celebration of that history last week to mark the two hundredth anniversary of Ireland being incorporated into the British state.

Ronan Bennett’s excellent series is the true story of Irish resistance to the British state and is a must for anyone who wants to gain an insight into the history of Ireland.

The series begins with the Easter Rising in 1916, when around 1,000 rebels took over the centre of Dublin on Easter Monday in a challenge to British occupation of Ireland.

At the time of the rising the whole of Ireland was under British control.

‘I’m here to fight for a republic because I want to be free,’ says Ernie Coyne, the young hero of Rebel Heart.

The rebels held out for a week before heavily armed British troops regained control.

The authorities sought revenge by arresting 3,500 people, and sentenced 90 to death.

One of those executed was the socialist agitator James Connolly.

Rebel Heart shows how the British strapped him to a chair to shoot him because he was too weak to stand after having his wounded foot amputated.

The rebels spoke for many who hated British rule.

Ireland was Britain’s oldest colony. After it was fully conquered in the 17th century the new English rulers sent in Protestant colonists to impose their will on the native Catholic population.

This Protestant minority denied Catholics the right to own land or vote.

Britain prevented the economic development of much of Ireland. The country’s wealth was sucked straight into Britain.

During the potato famine in the 1840s more than one million Irish people died while Britain continued to take grain from the country.

Britain ran Ireland on the basis of divide and rule, as it would go on to do throughout its empire.

Protestant landowners set up the Orange Order in 1795 to crush growing resistance, such as that of the United Irishmen.

The United Irishmen was Ireland’s first Republican organisation, and it was led by Protestant radicals.

The Orange Order aimed to be ‘a barrier to revolution and an obstacle to compromise’.

The British government encouraged and armed the Orange Order. It was revived every time there was a challenge to British rule.

In the 1880s sections of the British ruling class deliberately encouraged sectarianism in response to demands for home rule. They were terrified that even limited home rule in Ireland would encourage other colonies to demand independence.

Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston Churchill, argued to ‘play the Orange card’ to mobilise a Protestant movement to beat home rule.

The British ruling class could not extinguish the desire for Irish independence. The 1916 Easter Rising captured this spirit.

The proclamation of independence read out on the steps of the General Post Office during the revolt declared ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’.

Even though Britain crushed the rising, it heralded a movement that would force Britain into a humiliating retreat from most of Ireland.

The militant Republican organisation Sinn Fein swept the board in a general election held at the end of the First World War.

It won 73 of the 105 seats, thrashing both the pro-British Unionists and the more moderate Nationalists.

Anger against Britain had been fuelled by the repression following the Easter Rising and the British government’s attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland.

Defiantly, Sinn Fein set up its own popular parliament.

But Britain was prepared to use all its might to counter this democratically elected parliament.

One local newspaper, Freeman’s Journal, described Dublin in June 1919 as ‘jammed with tanks, armoured cars, guns, motor lorries and thousands of troops’.

Ireland accounted for half of the entire cost of the army across the British Empire.

The Republicans began a guerilla war against British troops.

The British government responded with brutal force. It created the Black and Tan murder gangs, which carried out vicious attacks on Catholic families, mainly in the south of Ireland.

Rebel Heart shows Britain’s brutality in a scene based on a real event that happened in the north of Ireland.

Armed police break into the Belfast home of Ernie Coyne’s girlfriend.

The police line up all the male members of the family and shoot them. Only Ernie and a young brother escape with their lives.

The whole of Ireland was seized with a spirit of rebellion.

There was also a massive increase in working class struggle, including a general strike against military repression in Limerick in February 1919. Agricultural labourers in the south west of Ireland began occupying land.

BY 1921 the British ruling class was forced to accept that it could not hold on to the whole of Ireland.

But it wanted to hang on to the profitable industries in the Protestant stronghold in the north east, which was then a thriving and profitable industrial area.

The British ruling class began imposing the division of Ireland from April 1921. It partitioned off the six counties of the north, creating an inbuilt Protestant majority.

Northern Ireland was founded on repression and systematic discrimination against Catholics. Its first prime minister described it as ‘a Protestant state for Protestant people’.

Some of the leading fighters against the British state, such as Michael Collins, agreed to partition, arguing that independent rule in the south was better than nothing at all.

This led to a bitter split and civil war in the Republican movement in the south. After a year it ended in a victory for those who accepted partition.

Rebel Heart hints at debates that took place inside the movement against British rule.

One character from James Connolly’s Citizen’s Army asks during the Easter Rising, ‘What makes you think an Irish boss is any better than a British one?’

Connolly was a socialist agitator who argued that the battle for a free Ireland could not be separated from the battle for the fundamental transformation of society.

‘Hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we’re fighting may stop before our goal is reached,’ he told supporters during the 1916 Easter Rising.

‘We are out for economic as well as political liberty.’

Connolly argued that the partition of Ireland would lead to a ‘carnival of reaction North and South’ which would enshrine divisions along religious lines.

Tragically, Connolly’s dire prediction has been seen in practice since 1921.

Protestant rulers in the North like David Trimble defend a state that continues discrimination against Catholics, and offers bad housing and low pay to Protestant workers.

In the South, Irish politicians and bosses have grown fat on corruption and an economic boom while bowing before the Catholic church over issues like banning the right to an abortion.

Rebel Heart celebrates the spirit of resistance that governments and bosses across all of Ireland still fear.

Rebel Heart is on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1.


Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Reviews
Sat 13 Jan 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1730
Share this article


Tags



Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.