The founding of the Irish Citizen Army

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2013), Volume 21

by Joseph E.A. Connell Jr

Captain James Robert (‘Jack’) White, first commander of the Irish Citizen Army. (George Morrison)

Captain James Robert (‘Jack’) White, first commander of the Irish Citizen Army. (George Morrison)

The Irish Citizen Army (ICA) was born out of the struggle between the workers and the employers during the Lockout of 1913. A defence force had been mooted many times before the ICA was actually formed, and police brutality during previous strikes in Dublin, Cork and Wexford had convinced some of the necessity for such a force. James Larkin had said during the 1908 Dublin carters’ strike that he would organise a ‘workers’ army’ to defend the strikers if the employers sent in the army, as they had done in Belfast in 1907.
The offer from a military man like Captain Jack White to organise and discipline a workers’ defence force, coupled with the sheer brutality of the police during the first weekend of the Lockout in August 1913, were the factors that resulted in the formation of the ICA. The ICA was formally proposed in October 1913, giving equal rights to men and women. On 13 November, at a meeting to celebrate Larkin’s release from prison, James Connolly announced: ‘I am going to talk sedition. The next time we are out for a march I want to be accompanied by four battalions of trained men with their corporals and sergeants. Why should we not drill and train men as they are doing in Ulster?’ At a later meeting, in early 1914, Connolly announced the establishment of the ICA ‘to prevent the brutalities of armed thugs occurring in the future’.

On 22 March 1914, Larkin presided at a meeting reconstituting the ICA. Primarily Larkin, Seán O’Casey, Countess Markievicz and other militarily minded members of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union drew up the new constitution, which provided for an ‘army council’ and included explicitly nationalist aims. Captain White chaired the council. The vice-chairmen were Larkin, P.T. Daly, Countess Markievicz, William Partridge, Thomas Foran and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. The secretary was Seán O’Casey and the treasurers were Countess Markievicz and Richard Brannigan. The committee consisted of T. Blair, John Bohan, T. Burke, P. Coady, P. Fogarty, P.J. Fox, Thomas Healy, T. Kennedy, J. MacGowan, Michael Mallin, P. Morgan, F. Moss, P. O’Brien, Christopher Poole and John (Seán) Shelly. (At first the council did not include Connolly, who went back to Belfast to take care of the union’s affairs there, returning later in 1914.)

Membership of the ICA is extremely hard to calculate. Some sections did not drill with the rest of the ICA owing to their unsociable working hours. Other sections, such as the dockers, did not openly associate with the ICA, as they could be better utilised in other capacities, such as acquiring arms and monitoring non-union workers. O’Casey wrote of thousands of ICA men marching, but most of these would not have been actual members. Though their numbers were small, the equipment and training of the ICA were superior to those of most of the Irish Volunteers, because the ICA had union money behind it and, consequently, full uniforms and a full-time, well-trained professional soldier to instruct them.

Ironically, though it had been formed as a force to protect the workers, the ICA was never called into action in any major way during the Lockout, but the appearance of the ICA, to quote Jack White, ‘put manners on the police’. About 250 members participated in the Easter Rising, and the first rebel casualty was ICA captain Seán Connolly, who died on the roof of City Hall. HI

Joseph E.A. Connell is the author of Dublin in rebellion: a directory, 1913–1923 (Lilliput Press, 2006).

Further reading
R.M. Fox, History of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin, 1944).
A. Matthews, ‘Citizen Army women in the GPO in 1916’, Red Banner 28 (June 2007).
P. Ó Cathasaigh [Seán O’Casey], The story of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin and London, 1919; reissued London, 1980).
F. Robbins, Under the Starry Plough. Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin, 1977).

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