An anti-Establishment take on the 1916 Rising

1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition
by Kieran Allen
Pluto Press, £12.99

Perspectives on the Easter Rising tend to assume two forms these days. On the one hand, they depict and revere the 1916 insurrection as a foundation myth of the modern Irish state. On the other, they regard it as a bloody betrayal of constitutionalism which left the island physically and emotionally divided. Kieran Allen takes a third position. He believes that the events in the Dublin GPO and elsewhere throughout Ireland were indeed a blow for Irish freedom, the culmination of Ireland’s revolutionary tradition – but that this tradition was betrayed by the Irish themselves.

Allen, previously author of Austerity Ireland, is very much of the hard leftist tradition that is antagonistic towards nationalism, religion and capitalism. He has little sympathy for today’s Irish politicians who invoke the spirit of 1916. “The current Irish state is not a product of the Rising – it owes its existence to the counter-revolution of 1923,” he writes.

The IRA and the Republican movement’s failure to support the Labour movement in the crucial years from 1916 to 1923, focusing instead solely on military strategy, fatally compromised the revolutionary, anti-imperialist struggle against the British. “The Free State, however, offered its population one compensation for the dashed hopes of the revolutionary years – strict Catholic morality.” Allen speaks about religion as if it is imposed unwillingly from above, as though working-class individuals have no free will of their own.

There is much rhetoric here, too, about “the Establishment”, “privilege” and “elites”. But the author is no Dave O’Spart and this book has many surprises. Allen demolishes the myth that the “good old IRA fought a fair, clean fight unlike the ‘terrorists’ of the Provos” between 1918 and 1923. The old IRA shot police officers in cold blood and executed informers.

I didn’t know, either, that a soviet was established in Limerick in April 1919. We should have more books like this. For a tenured sociologist, Allen writes with a rare lucidity. And when it comes to history as blessed by politicians and the Establishment, a counter-narrative is always welcome.