Seán O’Casey’s ‘battle of words’ with the Volunteers

Published in Decade of Centenaries, Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2015), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 23

O,Casey approx 1910NEW

Seán O’Casey was secretary of the Irish Citizen Army and wrote ‘ICA Notes’ in The Worker and the Irish Worker. While James Connolly attacked the British, O’Casey attacked the Volunteers week after week. He continually argued that the workers of Ireland were not served by the intent of the Volunteers, that the Volunteers were in fact anti-labour and that no working person should join them or Cumann na mBan.

In May 1914, at Jim Larkin’s direction, O’Casey, as secretary of the ICA, published a challenge to the Volunteers in the Irish Worker:

‘To the Provisional Executive of the Irish National Volunteers:
Whereas the Provisional Executive of the Irish National Volunteers have claimed from public platforms and in the press the support of the Irish workers; and whereas the rank and file of the movement are almost wholly composed of members of the working class; and whereas the conviction is growing stronger in labour circles, owing to the ambiguous principles of the Volunteers’ constitution and the class bias of the Provisional Executive, and the Ladies Auxiliary Committee [Cumann na mBan], and the strong element co-operating with the movement which have been consistently antagonistic to the lawful claims of labour.
We, the members of the Council of the Irish Citizen Army, representative of organized labour, now challenge the Executive of the Irish National Volunteers to public debate in which to justify their appeal for the sympathy and support of the Irish working class. Details of the debate to be arranged by three members of the Volunteers’ Executive and three members of the Council of the Irish Citizen Army.
Signed: Seán Ó Cathasaigh
Hon. Sec. ICA’

The following reply was received from Eoin MacNeill:

‘Dear Sir,
I received your letter last night at the Volunteers’ Headquarters, and I gather from its contents that you think that there is a distinction being made by the Volunteer Executive between the noble and the obscure, the rich and the poor, and that you wish to discuss the matter in public debate. I am ignorant of the existence of such a distinction. I never heard much or little of it till I read your letter. It is impossible for me to enter into a discussion upon a matter about which I know nothing.
Sincerely yours,
EOIN MACNEILL’

O’Casey’s history of the ICA appeared biased. His personal dislike of James Connolly and Connolly’s rise to power within the movement—in effect replacing not only James Larkin but also O’Casey—was his dominant theme. He also distrusted nationalism, which Connolly fostered in the Irish labour movement.
This ideological dispute prompted O’Casey’s departure from the ICA. He attacked those who were drifting to nationalism:

‘[Connolly’s] speeches and his writings had long indicated his new trend of thought, and his actions now proclaimed trumpet-tongued that the appeal of Caitlin Ní hUllacháin—“If anyone would give me help, he must give me himself, he must give me all”—was in his ears a louder cry than the appeal of the Internationale, which years of contemplative thought had almost written in letters of fire upon his broad and noble soul. Liberty Hall was now no longer the headquarters of the Irish Labour movement, but the centre of Irish National disaffection.’

O’Casey demanded that Countess Markievicz sever her ties with the Volunteers (some say just with Cumann na mBan). When she was vindicated by a margin of one vote of the ICA Army Council, his hostility was overruled and he resigned. Following his departure, the ICA and the Volunteers started to work more closely together.

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

Further reading

E.H. Mikhail & J. O’Riordan, The sting and the twinkle: conversations with Seán O’Casey (London, 1974).
M. Ó hAodha, The O’Casey enigma (Dublin, 1998).
S. O’Casey, The story of the Irish Citizen Army, 1913–1916 (Dublin, 1919; London, 1980).

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