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Ireland and the Russian Revolution



The popular reaction to the Russian Revolution in Ireland was initially generally favourable. Many people regarded it as sharing the aspirations of the Irish people to freedom. Even the newspapers, which were mostly opposed to republicanism and socialism, took a while to become hostile.

In March 1917, shortly after the taking of power by the Duma, the Evening Herald declared that it was “… pretty certain that the German autocracy will make an attempt to shake Russia’s confidence in the men who have overthrown Russian autocracy.” By October of that year, when it had become clear that the revolution was a much greater threat to the social order than removing the Czar and the aristocracy, the Herald was providing space for critics of the Bolsheviks.

One of these was the President of the Meath synod, the Reverend Dr. Keane who declared: “In the drama of the Russian Revolution we have seen the exposure of the vices inherent in autocracy succeeded by the exposure of those inherent in democracy.” Keane had an ulterior object which was to attack Sinn Féin who he clearly regarded as embodying the same contagion. He said that it had been “humiliating” that Ireland had escaped its “obligations” in the war, and that “Ourselves Alone” thinking was both selfish and impractical. What was required was moral regeneration not revolution.

The leadership of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress was greatly enthused by the revolution. They hoped to bring the Irish demand for self determination to the Third Zimmerwald conference of anti war socialist parties held in Stockholm in September 1917. The Irish delegates, William O’Brien, Cathal O’Shannon and D.R Campbell were refused passports. They did however get to meet Maxim Litvinov, the Bolsheviks plenipotentiary, in London and he assured them of the Bolsheviks support for Irish representation.

At the Berne conference the Irish delegation had to omit support for the Republic in order to secure British support for Irish self-determination. Likewise Irish support for the Bolsheviks was regarded as a quid pro quo for their backing of Ireland’s claim to independence.

Unionists and the Irish Party were particularly keen to stress the alleged connection between Sinn Féin and Bolshevism. For the former, it was a convenient means to discourage Protestant workers from any dalliance with socialism, and for the Redmondites it was part of their desperate bid to stave off the challenge of Sinn Féin. In the East Cavan bye-election campaign the Irish Party MP for Tipperary East, Thomas Condon declared that “Neither revolution nor Bolshevism would be accepted in Cavan. For the future there should be no parlaying with Sinn Féin. It should be fought and beaten in every part of Ireland.”

Unfortunately for the beleaguered Home Rulers their optimism on the back of bye-election victories by William Redmond in Waterford and Patrick Donnelly in South Armagh were dashed when Arthur Griffith took the East Cavan seat with almost 60% of the vote. Some within the Irish Party had at first been supportive of the Russians. John Dillon, the party leader following the death of John Redmond, had telegraphed his welcome for a “magnificent uprising of the people.”

As the threat of the new politics in Ireland took shape, however, he changed his attitude and in December 1917 he declared that Russia was proof that establishing a republic did not guarantee liberty, and was now a “seething mass of anarchy.” His point of course was that if Ireland was to become a republic then it too would succumb to “perfect pandemonium.” Dillon lost his seat in East Mayo in the December 1918 general election to Eamon de Valera.

Dublin socialists and trade unionists held a mass meeting at the Mansion house on February 4, 1918 to celebrate the first anniversary of the first, democratic, Russian revolution. Some estimates put the crowd as great as 10,000. Red flags festooned the halls, and the Red Flag was sung with gusto. The overflow meeting was chaired by William O’Brien who described the revolution as having created “the most complete political and economic freedom that the world had yet seen.”

Cathal O’Shannon declared that Dublin was “at one with the Bolsheviks,” and that the Russian example was the only one that would be acceptable to the people of Ireland: “Political freedom would not suffice for this country, and that what they wanted was a social revolution.” While the event was organised by the Socialist Party, there was a sizeable republican presence; among whom were Kathleen Lynn who said that the same accusation of anti-clericalism that was hurled at the Bolsheviks was also levelled at Sinn Féin. Markievicz spoke at the second anniversary meeting in the Trades Hall on Capel Street where she called for the establishment of a Workers Republic.

Despite the reports of mass starvation and repression the leadership of the Irish labour movement, with the support of some republicans, continued to celebrate the alleged achievements of the revolution. On January 21 1919, the same day as the Dáil met for the first time, William O’Brien presided over a meeting of Dublin labour activists in the Trades Hall which passed a resolution calling on British workers to refuse to assist in the handling of munitions and troops for intervention in Russia. That became a popular cause in Britain, but was not extended to the transport of Britain’s war apparatus to Ireland.

Outside of the socialist left and its republican sympathisers attitudes towards the Bolsheviks were now becoming hostile. The Irish Independent claimed that Bolshevism was inimical to private property and to Christianity and was being spread by Liberty Hall through The Watchword of Labour.

One anonymous Jesuit claimed that Bolshevism espoused the creation of a “community of women,” and was not afraid to attack James Connolly whose execution had made him by and large immune from public censure. According to the priest: “Adherents of the socialism which James Connolly and his friends laboured to introduce to Ireland… are excommunicate.”

The Watchword of Labour continued through 1919 to uphold the Russian revolution and to celebrate its temporary spread to Hungary under Bela Kun and in southern Germany. It also published pieces supporting the pro Bolshevik parties and factions in Europe that were aligning themselves with the moves to create a new communist international. The Socialist Party of Ireland seemed to be on the far left of the European socialist movement and at the November 1919 celebration of the Bolshevik coup, O’Shannon had spoken of the need for a military as well as an industrial organisation to bring about the Irish revolution.

In June 1920, the Socialist Party elected two delegates to the second Congress of the Third International in Moscow. and in welcoming the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain said that no differences of principle separated the SPI from the Communist International. At its annual Congress in August 1920 the Irish Labour and Trade Union Congress debated the issue of affiliation.

They decided against affiliating with the “reformist” Second International but the “Bolsheviks” among the Socialist Party leadership funked the issue of affiliating to the Communist International. O’Shannon claimed that as the ILP&TUC were not communist, that he as a communist would not favour affiliation. Johnston declared that the position of the Irish Labour Party and TUC was “in advance” of the Third international.

There then ensued a rather unseemly internal dispute with the rival SPI factions both ignoring the decision of Congress and both attempting to use their influence to persuade Moscow to recognise them. The O’Brien/O’Shannon group claimed that the Socialist Party was an active participant in the war in Ireland and that some of its members had been killed. However, the Comintern decided to recognise the tiny group around Roddy Connolly, mostly no doubt because he was James Connolly’s son, and that faction became the Communist Party of Ireland.

The O’Brien/O’Shannon faction was expelled on the grounds that they were reformist. Connolly and the ultra left group had grossly exaggerated their influence within the trade unions and the republican movement and said they would establish a nucleus within the IRA which they would “exploit for revolutionary socialism.” The lure of Russian money was not an inconsiderable temptation. McCartan claims that Eamon McAlpine Roddy Connolly received £300 from the Russians which “they spent in London.”

The popular press continued to air mixed views of what was going on in the mysterious land to the east. A review of  E.H Wilcox’s book Russia’s Ruin, blamed the revolution on the excesses of the autocracy and the plight of the former serfs, which the reviewer J. O’ F compared to the situation of the Irish peasantry in the 19th century. He drew the conclusion from the book that the Bolsheviks intentions were still unclear.

Wilcox, however, was no friend of the Bolsheviks and referred to Lenin’s opulent lifestyle. When IRA Volunteers led by Seán Treacy and Dan Breen killed two RIC constables at Solohedbeg on January 19, 1919, the same day that Dáil Éireann convened for the first time, some were quick to make a sinister connection between events in Ireland and the Bolshevik menace, referring darkly to “the devil’s work done in Tipperary.”

As it began to suppress religious believers, enemies of Bolshevism had the backing of the Vatican which had declared it to be the “worst enemy of all religion,” and one which must be overthrown in the interests of civilization. British propaganda tried to taint its Irish enemies with the Russian malaise and claimed that the Bolsheviks had sent 250,000,000 roubles to Sinn Féin.

In fact it was the Bolsheviks who borrowed money from the republicans. When the contacts became public, Kathleen Hughes in the Sinn Féin Washington office stated that there is “nothing in common between the political system of Bolshevism – if it is as represented in the Press of America and which means the domination of the proletariat – and the Sinn Féin republican system which has fused all classes in an amity that is not known either in America or Russia.” That annoyed Pat McCartan’s Soviet contact Ludwig Martens who was assured by McCartan that Hughes had no authority to issue the statement and that “only a sense of brotherhood” could prevail between the Irish and the Russians.

The Dáil in private session on June 29, 1920, approved a motion to despatch a diplomatic mission to the Soviet Republic “with a view to diplomatic relations.” Negotiations with the Soviets were conducted by the American mission. McCartan stressed the Soviet insistence on publicising any deals made with other states and that they would not accept a secret agreement. McCartan insisted that if he went to Moscow that he must have plenary powers to conclude anything that was agreed. He would also ask for 50,000 rifles. McCartan was hugely excited about the prospects for an anti imperialist League of Nations that would give the Republic considerable diplomatic and economic clout.

The Irish ultra left which was attempting to ingratiate itself with both the republicans and the Soviets, tried to interpose themselves as mediators between Dublin and Moscow. After one of their trips to meet Soviet officials, Eamon McAlpine and Roddy Connolly, who in 1921 were part of the founding leadership of the Communist Party of Ireland, attempted to convince the Dáil authorities that they were the Soviet accredited agents in Ireland. The Dáil was naturally dismissive of this, and stated that they would only deal with the Soviets through its own personnel, and not through any group claiming to be the Irish representatives of the Third International.

While the Irish contacts with the Soviets ultimately led to nothing, and were cut across by the Truce and Treaty, and probably more importantly by the new turn in Soviet diplomatic strategy which led them to optimise trade and diplomatic agreements with the “imperialists,” they are testament to the imagination and ingenuity of the Irish mission to the United States.

Not only did de Valera succeed in making Ireland a major issue in American politics, way beyond the Irish American diaspora, but McCartan had used New York as the base for an even more ambitious project. And while the approach to the Soviet Union and plans for an alternative League of Nations embracing the Soviet Union and British colonies may seem in retrospect illusory, it was taken seriously enough by the British to become a factor in the exchanges that led to the Truce.

The decision by the IRB to reach out to the Russians was made in 1918 before the Kerensky government had been overthrown by the Bolsheviks. The idea was initially discussed with Kevin O’Shiel and Mario Esposito, son of the composer Michele. McCartan was then authorised by the Supreme Council to contact the Russians in London. He met Gavrunaskey but plans to travel to Russia were cut across by Woodrow Wilson’s ’14 point’ speech which shifted the republican diplomatic emphasis to the United States where  the mission came into contact with the Bolsheviks.

In New York McCartan became friendly with the Bolshevik representative Ludwig Martens. Unknown to the Dáil, Pat McCartan negotiated a $20,000 loan to the Soviets, ratified by Harry Boland. The security for the loan was allegedly part of the Russian crown jewels, but which it was claimed later were actually fake. They ended up in the custody of the Boland family after Harry’s death, and were handed back in 1949 when the Soviets repaid the loan.

They even managed to become part of the controversy surrounding the 1948 general election when Pat McCartan, who was a Clann na Poblachta candidate and subject to something of a red smear campaign, told the story of the jewels. McCartan had negotiated a draft treaty with the Soviets which embodied a common antipathy to imperialism and exploitation, mutual trade agreements and provision for the Irish Republic to represent religious groups in the Soviet Union.

By the time McCartan arrived in Russia, through Reval now Tallinn, in February 1921, the mésalliance had no longer the same urgency as it might have had previously for the Bolsheviks. They had been forced to re-introduce private enterprise in order to avoid mass starvation and economic collapse and were engaged in attempts to form trade and diplomatic relations with the “imperialists.” Dáil Éireann was already in the early stages of negotiating a similar compromise with the British.

McCartan met Nuroteva in Moscow and quickly realised that the Bolsheviks had lost interest in the Irish connection and indeed seemed quite aware of contacts between the Irish revolutionaries and London. McCartan’s objectives for the mission appeared accordingly to have been lowered. While he had previously referred to requesting 50,000 rifles, now he would be content with “moral support.”

He told Nuroteva  and Chicherin that Soviet recognition of the Irish Republic would greatly enhance Irish support for the Soviets. When confronted with the claim that the Irish were dependent on American money and that they were hostile to communism, McCartan said that Irish people were sympathetic to the Russian revolution because the English were trying to overthrow it. “I might, if I wished, pretend that we were Communists at heart but I would only be deceiving him if I did.”

His talks with Chicherin convinced him that Connolly and McAlpine had greatly exaggerated the importance of the socialists in Ireland. He also said that he had heard that Moscow’s opinion of Connolly was that he was “too lazy to be a Communist.” McCartan had stayed in the Comintern’s Lux Hotel but had refused to be photographed with other foreign guests as he did not wish to be identified ideologically with the Bolsheviks.  Whatever hope McCartan’s mission had of success was probably destroyed by the arrest of Nuroteva on suspicion of being a British agent.  Nuroteva had apparently told McCartan that there was a possibility of arms, but Chicherin assured him that that was out of the question.

When McCartan reported to the Dáil on his Russian mission he made it clear that the Soviets were not going to come to any arrangement with the Dáil until they had concluded the trade agreement with London. He assured the Dáil that the Soviets did not intend to allow the trade agreement to interfere with their recognition of the Republic, but that “The Russian Foreign Office had got the impression that Ireland would compromise, and that this affected their readiness to recognise.” By the time McCartan’s report was debated in the Dáil the Truce had been declared and the ground set for that compromise.

An official document British published in June, as preparations for a truce were being embedded, quoted a supposed Dáil memo from de Valera to the Cabinet recommending the efforts to secure a treaty with the Soviets as it would help possibly to win over northern unionists, presumably on economic grounds. It also referred to the clause regarding the Republic’s role in protecting religious groups as assisting in winning Church support. De Valera declared himself in favour of such a mission which ought to include O’Brien or Johnston or some “strong labour men” as well as someone like Diarmuid Fawsett who understood industrial conditions.

Although the details of the McCartan draft treaty were accurate, the British paper was denounced as a forgery. It is substantiated by McCartan’s own later recollections of his contacts with the Soviets. By that stage of course, when McCartan published his book With de Valera in America in 1932, any suggestion of contact with the Bolsheviks was anathema. The Irish Independent at the time ridiculed the claims and pointed out that the British themselves had concluded a trade agreement with the Soviet that SIS, the forerunner of MI6, had an agent within Litvinov’s office who had supplied details of Soviet aid via their trade delegation to Sinn Féin “germ cells,” were soon discredited as fraudulent. 

A similar channel was used to transmit the so-called “Zinoviev Letter” of 1924 that sought to destroy the British Labour Party’s electoral campaign. The irony is that Comintern was in contact with Dáil Éireann, Irish communists, and in influencing British Communist policy towards the Labour Party, but such evidence was discredited by the intelligence services over-egging the pudding.

The British claimed that McCartan had asked the Soviets to supply the IRA with 50,000 rifles, which would have been impossible for the Soviets to have fulfilled given their own military situation at the time. The request for arms was rejected by the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Georgi Chicherin. In any event the Soviets were not desirous of upsetting the British at a time when they were attempting to break out of international isolation and economic collapse. The conclusion of the trade deal with the British was of far more consequence to the Soviets than any dalliance with a revolutionary movement which was not even socialist and which they did not altogether trust not to agree to a settlement far short of their objectives.

McCartan’s response to the British allegations of contacts between Dublin and Moscow is dated June 18, 1921, just as the final preparations were being laid for the declaration of a truce. It was sent to a Soviet representative in New York, Weinstein, and was mostly an attempt to assuage Soviet suspicions about the intentions of the Irish republicans. The Soviet main concern was that media hysteria about contacts between themselves and the Irish would endanger the March 1921 trade agreement and ultimately diplomatic recognition by Britain.

McCartan’s view was that “The whole thing was published partly or I should say – I think – largely to prejudice our case and partly to have a fling at Russia…. The documents show that we are thinking and acting as a sovereign nation and hence will be useful in helping to kill or refute the charges of anxiety to compromise on the basis of Dominion Home Rule.”  He told Weinstein that the documents would boost Soviet bargaining power with the British as “England will respect you more if she fears you have a club up your sleeve.

While assiduous in pursuing contacts with the Bolsheviks, McCartan was by no means sympathetic to either its philosophic motivations, nor the consequences of socialism: “Nobody in authority in Russia pretends to think that such a thing as liberty exists there…. The idea of whether or not the present regime represents the will of the people is openly laughed at … Though it is claimed that the present government is a dictatorship of the proletariat it is nothing of the kind. It is a dictatorship of the Communist Party which represents less than one per cent of the population of Russia.” It took another 40 years for many on the left to arrive at the same conclusion.

The unionist case regarding the nefarious nexus between Sinn Féin and the Bolsheviks was expounded at book length by Richard Dawson in his 1920 work Red Terror and Green. Dawson clearly had access to British intelligence files which were the subject of an official white paper in 1921. The basis of his argument was that McCartan and Chicherin had agreed a pact based on mutual support, which is close enough to the actual draft treaty they had agreed.[29] Dawson described the republican movement as divided between left and right, but that the extremists were winning the political battle to move them towards a more revolutionary position. He also alleged  that Irish republicans were synchronising their military campaign with industrial unrest in Britain.

On July 7, 1920 a delegation of southern unionists led by Winifred Ashley, of Classie Castle, Sligo, organised a meeting in Westminster to advise MPs of the connection between international Bolshevism and the Irish unrest. On May 11, 1921, just before the British released their document detailing the negotiations between representatives of the Republic and the Soviets, southern unionists circulated a report entitled The Conspiracy against the Empire: Ireland and the Revolution at Westminster. Among their more bizarre claims was that the meeting of the Russian social democrats in London in 1903, which led to the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks,  had coincided with the founding of the Irish National Council by Arthur Griffith and others.

Diehards among the unionists and Tories, and the British intelligence services, were attempting one last desperate throw of the dice to scupper and agreement with the Bolsheviks or with the Irish republicans, one that was to all intents and purposes agreed by early June 1921.

The trade treaty was agreed in March 1921 although the British did not recognise the Soviet Union as a legitimate state until February 1924. An interesting take on British recognition of the Soviet Union was provided by J.J O’Kelly in the Catholic Bulletin who feared the consequences which a Bolshevist government in Britain would have for Ireland.

The Soviet Union fades then from the official business of the Dáil. In April 1922, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the Dáil approved a donation of £1,000 to the Save the Children Committee for famine relief in the Soviet Union, and particularly the Ukraine. That was the mission led by Dr. Nansen which in desperation had been approved by the All Russian Congress of Soviets in December 1921.

Trade contacts continued following the Treaty and Diarmuid Fawsett of the Free State Department of Industry and Commerce and Tom Johnston of the Labour Party met with Krassin in London, in a meeting arranged by William Coates of the Communist Party of Great Britain, but nothing came of it due to a Soviet request for extended credit. Fawsett had proposed the barter of agricultural produce from Ireland for machinery and raw materials like timber, but nothing much came of it.

While all of that was in train, the author of a 1920 Catholic Truth Society pamphlet which was favourable to Connolly, gave his opinion on the Bolshevik revolution. In Studies in 1921, Fr. Lambert McKenna described the Soviet Union as an oligarchy. While he gave the Bolsheviks credit for establishing some sort of order and dignity for people, and the cultural projects as evincing at least “some nobility of ideal,” he noted more worrying trends. They had introduced Taylorism as the preferred mode of industrial management instead of workers control, and were hostile to Christianity. Ultimately he believed that they would succumb to the allures of power and become no different to any other ruling elite.

By that stage large sections of the democratic European left were beginning to see the contradictions inherent in the Bolshevik construction of a totalitarian state. A report by an Irish delegation to the Soviet Union admitted that they had witnessed “terrible evidence of underfeeding and suffering,” but attributed that to foreign attacks and the “internal conspiracy by foreign agents.” But seemingly, that was all excused on the basis that “the glaring inequalities of fortune as seen in the capitalist countries existed no longer.” Griffith meanwhile denied that there was any Bolshevist element in Ireland and that the Dáil courts of arbitration were dealing with labour and agrarian issues to the satisfaction of all parties.

With the fading of the revolution in Ireland amid the confusion and ultimate bloodshed over the Treaty, illusions in the great Russian Revolution experienced a similar decline. In a piece for Studies in 1924, Fr. Louis Gallagher, who had been with the Papal famine relief mission in 1922, described the appalling conditions he had witnessed. The famines, brought about greatly by communist incompetence and terror, had led to cannibalism and the spectre of gangs of roaming hunters and farmers of other humans not unlike Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novel The Road.

As the split over the Treaty developed towards an inevitable conflict, some on the Free State side were happy to pick up on the unionist and Tory tainting of the anti-Treaty republicans with the tar of Bolshevism.  In an April 1922 article entitled ‘Mutineers and Bolsheviks, eyes on Russia,’ Ernest Blythe who was Minister for Local Government described three factions of the anti-Treaty forces; those loyal to de Valera, doctrinaire republicans who had no interest in de Valera’s ‘Document No. 2,’ and then those who were determined to use the renewed unrest to bring about a Soviet Republic, including those who were not even socialists, but who were inspired by “the Russian spectacle of a small and determined minority imposing its will by force on the great mass of the people.”

There were some desultory contacts between the Soviet mission in Britain and the anti-Treaty republicans. These were conducted through the Communist Party of Great Britain, two of whose members J.T Murphy and Arthur McManus were sent by the Comintern representative Borodin to meet with the IRA in August 1922. The Comintern, through Roddy Connolly, later attempted to persuade the IRA to call a ceasefire and enter the Free State Parliament but that was rejected.

Free State polemics focused on the assertion that the central republican raison d’etre, shared by the Bolsheviks, was that force was the only legitimating ideology. Some saw the same motivations behind the Italian fascists, who John Lea described as a mixture of militarists, ex-soldiers and “idle, violent young men prepared to do anything rather than work honestly for a living.” He regarded Struzo’s Parti Populare as the last hope for preserving democracy and order in Italy. Struzo, who was a priest, is regarded as one of the founders of Italian Christian Democracy and was forced into exile by the fascists in 1924. Following Mussolini’s coup, James O’Grady took a similarly dim view of fascism as the manifestation of “disappointed intellectuals” and other dislocated social factions.

Of course the point was that the Free State saw itself as dealing with similar elements in Ireland. It seems odd to our eyes, but in the early 1920s many revolutionaries and opponents of the old order looked equally favourably on both Bolshevism and fascism. Some leading republicans were certainly in that category, and while imprisoned during the Civil War, Ernie O’Malley had requested that he be sent a photograph of Mussolini to hang in his cell.

Later contacts between Dublin and Moscow led to a modest trade and the Russian Oil Products company briefly had an office in Dublin. Whatever sympathy there had been for the Bolshevik revolution was by the late 1920s confined to the left of the IRA and the tiny communists groups.




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