‘The War for the Land in Ireland, Introduction’ by Peadar O’Donnell from The War for the Land in Ireland by Brian O’Neill . International Publishers, New York. 1933.

A historic essay from I.R.A. veteran Peadar O’Donnell, among the most important socialist republicans of his generation, written a year before he would spearhead the founding of the left-wing Republican Congress. This introduction for a work on the struggle for land in Ireland by Brian O’Neill, in 1933 editor of the Irish Workers Voice, has O’Donnell scan the movement for Irish freedom from the Fenians on, condemning the politics of ‘labor must wait.’ Great stuff.

‘The War for the Land in Ireland, Introduction’ by Peadar O’Donnell from The War for the Land in Ireland by Brian O’Neill . International Publishers, New York. 1933.

HERE is a book quarried out of material that is of vital importance to separatist movements in Ireland to-day, and especially to the Irish rural masses. At long last the wealth of experiences concealed in the records of the fight for land in Ireland is being called on to yield up its story and its lesson. And, it is not without significance that this task is undertaken by Brian O’Neill, a member of the youthful Communist movement in Ireland.

Dangerous writing in our country seems always to have been done by that section of the national revolutionary forces which Brian O’Neill represents. One recalls Connolly’s statement that all the really dangerous revolutionaries in Ireland advocated their principles as part of the creed of the democracy of the world. If the presentation of the various Irish struggles is going to come to-day from the pen of the revolutionary working class factor in the anti-imperialist alignment, then we are on the fringe of a new phase in Irish politics. The Connolly tradition is coming in again, and the fight to mobilise the urban and rural masses on its basis is on. This book will be widely read in rural Ireland. In many minds it will do two things. It will say things that small farmer folk have long been fumbling to express for themselves, and it will reveal where exactly the Connolly tradition touches their lives. This book will raise sparks; it may even start a fire.

Connolly has been almost driven from among the national fathers, whose teachings are to be studied. We are back again at the stage when a middle-class leadership is busy uniting all the people of Ireland to overthrow the common enemy, England. Anything in the nature of class warfare is to be suppressed because it would weaken the national forces. The solution of Ireland’s political aim is to be sought in this unity. Our economic needs will be met by a network of tiny private industries and a mosaic of small farms. In small farmer areas this sort of talk is hard pushed to raise any illusions. It has to be supported by relief works and excited promises to absorb the youth into industries that are to be created somewhere, somehow. The leaders of political parties appeal as a last resort to the patriotism of the rural masses to put up with hardships as a necessary part of the sacrifice in the fight against England.

It is obviously necessary to suppress Connolly’s teachings if a middle-class leadership is to hold a backing in these circumstances. This suppression is done quite cleverly. His name is not dropped, but only such of his writings as can, by careful selection, be used to attract the toiling masses to seek the freedom of Ireland through a “united struggle” are invoked. He is never presented as the leader of the Irish working class, who saw that the final battleground for Irish freedom must be the revolutionary struggle of the Irish workers against Irish capitalism. If his Socialism is ever mentioned, it is to admit a fault which the manner of his death redeemed!

The blame for this desertion of Connolly must rest in great measure on the leadership of the Trades Union movement. They allowed themselves to be pushed completely out of the leadership of the national struggle that was rebuilt after 1916 and failed entirely to keep closely associated with the Irish Citizen Army. Thus the revolutionary working class in Dublin was surrendered to a middle-class leadership, which flung the slogan abroad, “Labour must wait.” Later, when the Irish middle class was making its bargain with British imperialism, the Labour leadership carried its betrayal a step farther and helped the organisation of the usurping Treatyite Government.

In all this the workers of Belfast and the industrial North-East generally played a very unfortunate role. Here, where the great weight of the Irish proletarian population is concentrated, the owning class were able not merely to hold these workers apart from the national struggle, but actually to make them available for imperial reaction. This collapse of the working class of the North-East was a tragedy for the whole working-class movement and for the national struggle; it was a calamity for the British workers, too. British Trades Unions are far from guiltless, for it is undoubtedly true that in their struggle to hold and recruit members they yielded to the reactionary ideas, and even capitalised them where there was competition with an Irish Union.

In my opinion, the relation between the social rights of the toilers and the fight for national independence has been more persistendy maintained by the small farmer population, even than by the industrial workers in the South. So completely did the Labour movement yield to the slogan, “Labour must wait,” that there was no need to put through, or even to make a pretence of putting through, any serious scheme of social benefits On the other hand, in the midst of the ’Tan War, a department had to be created to hold out a promise for the distribution of ranches, and right in the midst of all the turmoil of 1923 the usurping Government had to rush through a Land Bill, making a similar promise.

1934 portrait of O’Donnell by Harry Kernoff.

During the fever of the Tan days it took all the influence of the Republican Government and the use of Republican forces to hold the land struggle in check. It was at this period that the middle-class leadership exerted itself frantically to keep the movement “clean.” Even ranchers themselves helped in this work. I can recall an instance where a land monopolist complained to a local company Captain that his fences were being broken. He assured the I.R.A. officer that while he differed politically from the Volunteers, he had the greatest respect for their bravery and their unselfish struggle for their ideals. “But there are always people on the fringe of a movement,” he said, “who are out for their own personal gain and such people, if not checked, would disgrace the movement. There was this matter of his fences. Greedy small farmers and men that had never owned a spadeful of land were taking advantage of the brave fight of the Volunteers to further their own interests. If this was not stopped promptly the whole movement would be degraded.” And the local officer just escaped allowing himself to be used to round up the offenders at the bidding of the imperialist monopolist. From such sources grow the teachings of “classless nationalism.”

But in many areas Volunteers were actually used to control the rural masses who would identify the national struggle with their own struggle for free land. And this, in face of the fact that these were the people who exhausted their substance to support “Flying Columns” and to harbour “wanted men.” To-day, these same folk see that their sacrifices were ignored, whilst any trader who lost even a pot of jam could claim compensation and have his claim allowed. They see themselves as far from free access to the ranches as ever. They even see families being rescued from patches of soil between rocks—to be dumped down in holdings of bleached grasses over quaking bog. Good land can only be acquired at such a price that the burden of it, passed on to the rescued Gael, would crash him quickly, so he goes to the unburdened bog, where his own weight will sink him. It is in these circumstances that the rural masses are beginning to voice their discontent against leaderships that will not tolerate any attempt to “degrade the nationalist movement into a sordid struggle for land.”

Any republican congress in Ireland to-day brings this question of the place of land struggles in national movements sharply into view. Erroneous deductions from the experiences of the Fenians are allowed to influence these assemblies. The fight for free land is to be held apart altogether from the national struggle. Mitchel might never have recorded the agrarian struggles as part of Ireland’s fight for freedom. Lalor might never have taught that the agrarian struggle was the hinge for the whole national revolution. “The towns may fight for repeal,” Lalor wrote, “ but not a grey coat will shoulder a musket for it,” even Lalor failing to see the working class, shut in behind the middle-class leadership in the towns, as the allies of the rural masses.

Brian O’Neill does some of his best work in tracing the relationship of the Fenian movement to the land struggles. Karl Marx saw in the Fenian conspiracy the small farmers mainly organising to maintain grip of their holdings. Agrarian societies were absorbed into the Fenians, and they must have carried their ideals with them, for we find evidence of their stubborn insistence on the association of the agrarian and the national struggles. We find, too, that the Fenian leaders were as set against that association as was the republican leadership from 1918 onwards. The splendid John O’Leary spoke of “the ignorant and intractable Ribbonmen.” Davitt states that the powerful pull of the Fenian leadership drawing agrarian societies away from land struggles to concentrate on training as purely military bodies secured for Irish landlords twenty years of peace. Fenian literature reveals that in its aims and ideals the demand for the smashing of landlordism and land monopoly was preserved, but the records of the period of Fenian preparation for the rising show an increasing number of evictions. The Fenians failed to see that the writing-in of the aims and ideals did not compensate for the desertion of the day-to-day struggle. And their bravery when they did rise could not compensate for the mass backing which they had sacrificed by forcing their organisations to separate themselves from rural struggles.

The Land War in Ireland, which followed the defeat of the Fenians, was brought to a halt in the disgraceful Treaty of Kilmainham. Its story now reveals the splendid, wonderful resources of courage and endurance in the small farmer masses. It is annoying reading for those who took an active part in the ’Tan War in Ireland. It rouses a rage against the leadership, which shut out this wealth of revolutionary feeling and thought from the national fight. Had the rural masses been released in the midst of the ’Tan struggle; had ranches been handed over and landlordism smashed, the basis mobilised to force the Treaty of ’22 would have been, instead, an impregnable fortress for the defence of the Republic.

O’Donnell on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, 1966.

But the Land War does more than demonstrate the resources of the countryside for revolutionary struggle. It reveals the inability of small farmers to form a national leadership. Such a movement is sure to be invaded by middle-class influences, for the small farmer dearly loves to have men of property on his platforms. And the only lesson he has yet learned to draw from the successive betrayals is to start on a new hunt for honest men. In the absence of a strongly organised party of the working class to provide a revolutionary leadership for the urban and rural masses, rural struggles can never achieve their objective. The alliance of workers and working farmers behind such a leadership has never come into view in Ireland so backed and urged that it became a fixed factor in the struggles of both. It is, I think, true that Irish workers could depend on a better response to a call to the countryside in any great working-class crisis than peasant struggles would be likely to receive from the towns.

Brian O’Neill’s book being released within a working-class organisation may force its way deeper into the working class than one otherwise sponsored. It is to be hoped so. It would be a good work to popularise this book in the trades unions. It would be a great work to popularise this book in small farmer areas.

I confess I am somewhat jealous of Brian O’Neill. I envy him the excitement of having worked on the material assembled here. I should love to have written this book.

Peadar O’Donnell.

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