Sylvia Pankhurst and the Irish revolution

Published in Decade of Centenaries, Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2016), Volume 24

THE LITTLE-KNOWN STORY OF HER ENGAGEMENT WITH IRELAND

By Geoffrey Bell

The story really begins on 1 November 1913, when Sylvia Pankhurst spoke at a meeting in London’s Albert Hall in support of the workers in the Dublin Lockout, which was, Pankhurst was later to write, ‘a poignant incident in our common struggle for a fairer and more humane society’. Her sister Christabel did not see things that way and it was Sylvia’s participation in this 10,000-strong rally that led to her expulsion from the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union (WSPU). For Christabel, Sylvia’s identification with labour had tarnished the independence of the organisation, although there must also be a suspicion that Christabel’s support for Edward Carson and his Ulster rebels against Irish Home Rule was also a factor. At any rate, as James Connolly was also on the platform of the Albert Hall rally, Sylvia was well acquainted with both him and his politics by Easter 1916. This, perhaps, was one reason why she showed a better understanding of the Rising than most on the British left. Thus, while the Labour Party and even the more left-wing Independent Labour Party rushed to condemn the Rising, the immediate comment of Woman’s Dreadnought, edited by Sylvia, adopted a different tone. An editorial written by her began: ‘Justice can make but one reply to the Irish rebellion and that is the demand that Ireland should be allowed to govern itself’. She put the Rising in the context of the limitations of the promised Home Rule, but especially the precedent that ‘Everyone knows it was the Carsonites who first armed’. She continued: ‘The Irish rebels find today almost every man’s hand against them, yet reckless though they may have been, their desperate venture was undoubtedly animated by high ideals’, an example of which she gave as their promise of universal suffrage in the new Ireland. She concluded: ‘We understand why rebellion breaks out in Ireland and we share the sorrow of those who are weeping today for the rebels whom the government has shot’.

Suffragette Miss Pankhurst addressing the crowd in Trafalgar Square, London, during a rally.

Suffragette Miss Pankhurst addressing the crowd in Trafalgar Square, London, during a rally.

‘Scenes from the Irish Rebellion’

The following issue of Woman’s Dreadnought contained an eye-witness account of the aftermath of the Rising written by Patricia Lynch, later to become arguably Ireland’s greatest writer of children’s fiction but then living in London and a comrade of Sylvia’s. Her article, ‘Scenes from the Irish Rebellion’, was a moving and outstanding mix of factual reporting and revolutionary journalism. Most of those interviewed by Lynch were women, although they also included British soldiers. The reporter had her own observations:

‘I have seen the military search suspected houses. I have seen gangs of prisoners—mostly boys and grey-bearded men—marched into Dublin Castle, wet, weary, haggard, but their eyes shining and their heads erect. I have seen the natural outburst of feeling give way to caution as the fear of spies and informers grows, and I have listened to many reasons why the rebellion should have taken place at all . . . Poets and dreamers alone cannot make a rebellion. There must be popular unrest behind even the smallest revolt.’

Over the next five and a half years, Woman’s Dreadnought and its successor Workers’ Dreadnought often returned to reporting and interpreting the evolving Irish revolution. Pankhurst’s readership could never be quite sure of what she was going to come up with. A front-page lead story in August 1916 was a poem saluting the memory of Easter’s 1916 pacifist martyr, Francis Sheehy Skeffington. Two weeks later there was an article by Sir Francis Vane, a Dubliner and a British army commander against the Rising, who testified that ‘after poor Skeffington had been shot by an officer under my command . . . I ventured to call on his widow’ to express his ‘personal horror at the deed’.

Worried about the Irish revolution’s moderation

As the Irish revolution unfurled, Pankhurst sought to understand it. At times she was worried about what she considered to be its moderation. Thus, three years on from the Rising, after observing a session of Dáil Éireann, she compared it to events in Russia and wrote how ‘we were wearied indeed by speeches and longed for the Soviets which assemble, not for speech-making, but for constructive work’. At other times Pankhurst’s newspaper was ready to reassure its readers that the Irish national struggle was becoming or being overtaken by the class war. Even the rather limited manifestation of class-consciousness of a demonstration in Dublin on May Day in 1919 produced this interpretation in Workers’ Dreadnought:

‘For the people of Ireland it spells a great step forward. It spells the awakening of the people to the fact that political freedom is not the be-all of freedom; that to be truly free economic freedom must be linked with political freedom. With the awakening of a revolutionary spirit (caused by the insurrection of 1916) has come an intensive growth of revolutionary thought . . . Since the overthrow of the Czar the Irish people have watched . . . the acts of the liberated Russians, and the system they have set up in place of the old tyranny. And they have found it good.’

The writer here was Nora Connolly, and it is interesting that James’s daughter and Workers’ Dreadnought should have chosen to identify with each other. On another occasion Nora wrote that the ‘doctrines’ of her father were ‘all over the country regarded as embodying the true spirit of freedom’. Even when she was not writing, Workers’ Dreadnought could express similar optimism. There was the message in January 1920 that ‘Irish workers . . . are readier to engage in the class struggle than in that for national independence’, and one in November 1920 that, ‘with their industries being destroyed by English capitalists, and with their lives always in danger from the military . . . Irish men and women are compelled to become Communists in word and deed’.

Labour politician Keir Hardie speaking in Trafalgar Square at a Women's Suffrage demonstration. Just behind is the founder of the Women's Social and Political Union, Emmeline Pankhurst

Labour politician Keir Hardie speaking in Trafalgar Square at a Women’s Suffrage demonstration. Just behind is the founder of the
Women’s Social and Political Union, Emmeline Pankhurst

Response to sectarianism

This, however, was printed just six months after Workers’ Dreadnought had complained that ‘The Irish middle classes . . . are the mainstay of Sinn Féin’, and only a month after Pankhurst had lectured that ‘Ireland should learn from East London to settle her religious differences by walking over them to unity against foreign imperialism’. East London was where Pankhurst was based. But there are examples of a more developed interpretation of the sectarianism evident in the north of Ireland in these years. On one occasion Workers’ Dreadnought maintained that ‘Downing Street, Dublin Castle and Carsonism’ were attempting to ‘invoke religious hatred, as a last resort, to maintain Imperial Capitalism in Ireland’, and on another the newspaper said that ‘Carson and his lieutenants are making use of the religious weapon to smash trade unionism in Belfast’.
If in all of this there are suggestions of inconsistency of analysis and difficulties in comprehension, there was nevertheless a willingness to engage with and a seeking to understand what was happening in Ireland, which was not characteristic of most of the British left in these years. Pankhurst and her comrades also showed a commitment to action. At the second congress of the Third (Communist) International, which met in July 1920, one of the Bolshevik leaders, Radek, proclaimed:

‘The International will not judge the British comrades by the art-icles that they write in The Call [another British socialist paper] and the Workers’ Dreadnought, but by the number of comrades who are thrown into gaol for agitating in the colonial countries. We would point out to the British comrades that it is their duty to help the Irish movement with all their strength, that it is their duty to agitate among the British troops.’

To which Pankhurst could reply with the example of Harold Burgess, the business manager of Dreadnought, who in May 1920 was jailed for six months after trying to persuade a British soldier to smuggle either left-wing pamphlets or machine-guns to Ireland, depending on whose version of these events is believed. At any rate, Burgess was one of the very few British socialists to be imprisoned for solidarity with the Irish revolution.
After her visit to the second congress of the Third International, Pankhurst’s newspaper reflected the argument that Radek and Lenin were adopting on the Irish revolution and how British socialists should react to it. For the Soviet leaders it was the Irish struggle against the British Empire that was important, rather than the level of socialist consciousness exhibited by the leaders of that struggle. Accordingly, Pankhurst wrote a couple of weeks after she returned from Russia: ‘As Communists we stand for the self-determination of peoples and for the breaking up of empires. In so far as the Irish Sinn Féiners weaken the power of the British capitalist government, we recognise that they are doing our work.’

Treaty ‘a sad, humiliating compromise’

As to whether or not the Anglo-Irish Treaty completed that work, Workers’ Dreadnought showed initial confusion but eventually decided that it was ‘a sad, humiliating compromise of the stand for a completely independent Irish Republic’, and if it was ratified it would only be because the Irish were ‘faced with a stronger power which threatens a war of extermination’. She also looked forward to forthcoming labour struggles, however, and asked, ‘Shall we see a general strike in Ireland? Shall we see an Irish Commune?’ Such revolutionary optimism is typical of Pankhurst. ‘You are,’ George Bernard Shaw wrote to her, ‘an idiot genius . . . the most . . . deadly, wilful little rapscallion-condottiera that ever imposed itself on the infra-red end of the revolutionary spectrum.’ Lenin wrote a pamph-let in which he accused her of the ‘infantile disorder’ of ‘ultra-leftism’ over her opposition to communists affiliating to the British Labour Party, a dispute that led to a parting of the ways between her and the Third International.

Nevertheless, on Ireland she should also be given her long-overdue recognition. In her book The home front, written in 1932, she devoted a chapter to the Easter Rising, praising Connolly’s participation in it and mourning the murder of Francis Sheehy Skeffington. But before that, in 1931, Hannah Sheehy Skeffington wrote to her, saying: ‘I know of no English rebel who understands the Irish situation and the international one so well. The comments and sympathy of English comrades drive me mad at times, as they show such a blind spot where we are concerned, in fact our friends are the worst. Your paper, Dreadnought, was always fine.’

George Bernard Shaw at an anti-vivisection protest in Trafalgar Square, c. 1910. In a letter to Pankhurst he wrote: ‘You are an idiot genius … the most … deadly, wilful little rapscallion-condottiera that ever imposed itself on the infra-red end of the revolutionary spectrum’.

George Bernard Shaw at an anti-vivisection protest in Trafalgar Square, c. 1910. In a letter to Pankhurst he wrote:
‘You are an idiot genius … the most … deadly, wilful little rapscallion-condottiera that ever imposed itself on the infra-red end of the
revolutionary spectrum’.

Geoffrey Bell’s Hesitant comrades—the Irish labour revolution and the British labour movement has just been published by Pluto Press.

Further reading

S. Pankhurst, The home front (London, 1932).
B. Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst, sexual politics and political activism (London, 1996).

Read More: A rebel against rebels

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