‘A blow delivered against the British imperialist bourgeoisie in Ireland has a hundred times more political significance than a blow of equal weight would have in Asia and Africa. . . The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which facilitate the entry into the area of the real power against imperialism, namely the socialist proletariat. . . The misfortune of the Irish is that they rose prematurely, when the European revolt of the proletariat had not yet matured.’
All rebellion is infectious, and that is why Lenin praised the Easter Rising in Dublin. But in 1916 the conditions for a spread of the infection were far less favourable than they were to become two years later. In 1916 ‘Pearse read the Proclamation of the Republic, pale and cold of face, to an indifferent crowd and “a few thin perfunctory cheers”’ (Desmond Ryan). Because of Eoin MacNeill’s Countermanding Order the Irish Volunteers did not rise as a body; only a few hundred men came out at the orders of Pearse and Connolly and fought for a
Suppose they had waited. . . .
In April, 1918, the British Government moved to impose conscription on Ireland. In Parliament the Irish Nationalist Party—moderate, constitutional and hitherto in support of the war effort—opposed this measure, described as ‘a declaration of war against Ireland’, and on its being carried, left the House of Commons ‘to organize resistance in Ireland’. A one-day general strike took place on 23rd April. If the Easter Rising of 1916 had not already taken place, and if Clarke, Pearse, Connolly and the other leaders had been alive and watching for their opportunity, they would surely have taken it at this time—a vastly better opportunity than they had at Easter 1916 when the only provocation they could muster was the famous ‘Castle document’, a paper listing various aggressive measures allegedly intended by the British authorities, and almost certainly concocted by the rebels themselves. In 1918 the provocation was real and serious, and the country united against it. It is reasonable to assume that in these conditions the revolutionary leaders could have brought about insurrection, not of a few hundred men in Dublin, but of several thousand throughout most of the country. The consequences of such an event, in the condition of 1918, would certainly have been far more serious than in 1916, and might conceivably have significantly diverted the course of world history.
First of all, Britain would have had to send troops in considerable numbers to Ireland. An Irish rebellion with mass support—which the 1916 Rising lacked, and which one in 1918 would probably have had—would have turned to a guerrilla and the effort to suppress a guerrilla always ties up disproportionately large numbers of troops. General Macready had forty battalions in Ireland in 1920; in 1918 forty battalions could not easily be spared. Whatever the number of troops that could be made available, however, the British Government would have had to adopt the same methods of terrorism as they did at the time of the Black and Tans; indeed the fewer the troops available for suppressing a rebellion, the greater the need for terrorism becomes.
If the British Government had had to use terrorist methods in Ireland in the spring and summer of 1918, it is overwhelmingly probable that there would have been mutinies and desertions among the Irish troops on the Western Front. These troops, by reason of their situation, would have had little sympathy with the original ‘anti-conscription’ movement, but the application of terror, affecting their own towns and villages, would have speedily altered their mood—in much the same way as the execution of the 1916 leaders did change the mood of the Irish people.