The following is the editorial in the Belfast Newsletter on 4th May 1916, entitled ‘Reflections on the Rebellion’. It gives an insight into the immediate response to the Easter Rising. What stands out is the obsession with particular aspects of the Easter Rising. This can be seen in the criticism of the British governments administration in Ireland and what the Newsletter portrays as its weakness, or maybe more accurately, lack of ruthlessness when dealing with Ireland. This also seems to include an obsession with Larkin and the left wing aspects of the Rising, which combined with Irish republicanism, the Newsletter descries as “No more poisonous growth in the body politic of a country could be imagined than this combination of Syndicalism and Revolution.“
Reflections on the Rebellion
Yesterday morning three of the rebel leaders who had signed the proclamation of the Irish Republic were shot, haying been duly tried by field general court-martial and sentenced to death. The men who have thus fitly paid the penalty of their crimes were P. H. Pearse, T. MacDonagh, and T. J. Clarke. Three others whose names are not given were sentenced to three years’ penal servitude. If this trio were among the signatories to the rebel proclamation; there will be a very general opinion, in Ireland at any rate, that they have been too leniently dealt with. We presume that James Connolly, who shared with Pearse the leadership of the rising, being seriously wounded, has not yet been brought to trial in consequence of his physical condition. We have no desire to seek a ruthless vengeance on the rank and file of the Sinn Fein rebels. Speaking of them in the mass, we regard them as the product, in a very large measure, of the slack, feeble government which has cursed our country ever since Mr. Augustine Birrell became head of the Irish Administration. It has been said that every country gets the government it deserves. That is not true of Ireland. What Ireland has deserved, what its needs have required, has been steady, strong, even-handed, resolute rule. Every one of these essentials, have been denied the country from the day Mr Birrell first entered Dublin Castle to the day he left it, for good we are glad to say. For the Prime Minister, in the House of Commons yesterday, announced his resignation.
The Sinn Fein movement was admittedly a seditious movement. Its leaders never concealed its principles and its aims; they blazoned this to the world. Its appeal to Irishmen was based on revolution; it scorned constitutional methods; it preached not only disloyalty, but bitter hatred and hostility to Great Britain; it stood for the establishment by force of an Irish Republic. That was all included in the Sinn Fein programme.
Before the advent of James Larkin to Dublin four years ago. Larkin preached anarchical Socialism that is, Syndicalism. Ireland, on the whole, is not good ground for the propagation of Syndicalism. But in Dublin, owing to what Mr. Birrell would doubtless term the tolerance of his Administration, Larkin found in the Sinn Fein movement an instrument ready to his hand. In the seedbed of disloyalty and revolution which the Sinn Fein leaders had spread unchecked throughout Dublin and district, Larkinism struck root and grew like a weed in a super-cultivated soil. From Dublin it spread and nourished wherever Sinn Fein had gathered two or three Nationalists together.
No more poisonous growth in the body politic of a country could be imagined than this combination of Syndicalism and Revolution. Mark how the Irish Government under the rule of Mr. Birrell dealt with it. In 1913 Larkin paralysed and held up by pure organised terrorism the whole of the commercial life of Dublin and for many miles round the capital. He even attempted to impose it upon Belfast through the railways and the shipping. He carried it across the Channel to Liverpool; even as far as Birmingham he created grave Syndicalist trouble in the transit service of the country. How did Mr. Birrell deal with this viper? He and Lord Aberdeen actually bent the Irish Administration to him.
We say it deliberately, the sorrowful state of Dublin to-day is but the inevitable outcome of the continuance of the policy of truckling to treason and revolution which the Irish Government, under Mr Birrell and Lord Aberdeen, pursued in the days of James Larkin’s ascendancy in the Irish capital. When the war broke out one might have thought that even Mr. Birrell would have been shaken out of his foolish tolerance of open treason-mongering by the stern necessities of the nation. Not a bit of it. The truth is he had gone so far in dalliance with it that political expediency now forbade him coming to grips with it, lest it should turn and rend him. It was the fear of this that kept Ireland from being included in the Registration Act; it was the same fear that excluded Ireland from the Military Service Act. Mr. Birrell and Mr. John Redmond found themselves under a common necessity imposed by the very strength of the Revolutionary movement, which the former by his feeble rule had nurtured, of continuing thus to truckle to it. And all the time for the past twelve months at least the Chief Secretary must have known that it was ripening to rebellion, for it was common knowledge that it was even eating into the vitals of the Government service.
Just think of the revelation about the General Post Office made to an American journalist by one of the women clerks; of armed rebels being in the building from daybreak on Easter Monday, and of munitions and money having been stored in the basements and vaults for weeks before in preparation for the rebellion. Openly and flagrantly, for a year at least, the propaganda against recruiting for the Army and recruiting for the rebellion was allowed to go on on the platform and in the revolutionary press, to all intents without check, and that, of course, only gave it increased strength. The very heart of Dublin, which is now a desolation, was actually allowed to be used for a training ground for mimic revolution operations.
As we look back through the smoke of that desolation to all this course of administrative ineptitude, what impresses us most is not its feebleness and its folly, though they are rank, but its cowardice. There is no other word that fitly describes Mr. Augustine Birrell’s Chief Secretaryship.
3 thoughts on “Truckling to Treason: Belfast Newsletter reflects on the Rebellion, 4th May 1916”
It’s remarkable how often James Larkin’s name is mentioned in contemporaneous accounts of the Easter Rising, especially in unionist and British sources. I’ve seen his name referenced in numerous letters, diaries and newspaper reports. Yet in reality he played almost no role in the insurrection or the 1916-21 Revolution, beyond some association with Clan na Gael in the US. His status as unionism’s left-wing bogeyman overshadowed his actual achievements following the 1913 Lockout. I suppose it indicates the level of political ignorance among UK officials and the pro-UK press in Dublin that they were still focused on “Larkinism” as late as 1918.
Yeah, I think that emphasis is revealing about the underlying methodology. My take on that would be that, taking the Newsletter as a proxy for unionist opinion, that unionism had to find an alternative to explaining the Easter Rising as an assertion of the right to self-determination. If it didn’t, it would have to confront unionism’s repeated obstruction of the constitutional route to self-determination (of sorts), in the sense that the pseudo-democratic mechanisms of the United Kingdom’s parliament were used to have Home Rule Bills passed by elected representatives then suppressed by an unelected body. Unionism would then have to (effectively) critique itself. So instead, it tries to promote a narrative around Larkin since (presumably) it feels that it can use the socialist angle as emotional framing so that doesn’t have to confront the flaws in its own position. If you substitute, eg, unionism’s attempts to find a self-serving reading of legacy issues and make it the focus of an election campaign, as opposed to focusing on the impact of Brexit or the likes of RHI, there is something timeless about that Newsletter editorial from May 1916.