Nonviolence in Irish History This pamphlet appeared in April 1978 as a double issue of DAWN magazine (Nos. 38-39) and had a print run of 2,000 copies. The second printing, of 2,500 copies, was done in August 1979. It is now out of print but can be photocopied for the cost of copying and postage; enquire to INNATE.
It is carried here in its original text (but without illustrations) except for the following additions/corrections; 1) this new introduction 2) corrections for typographical errors and one or two errors of fact, and 3) omission of outdated information, e.g. addresses of organisations and biographical notes on contributors.
While there would have been the option of updating some of the material, particularly the “Peace groups since the ‘thirties” piece, it was felt more desirable to leave it basically as it stood. The story of the Peace People to 1987 appeared in a Dawn Train pamphlet, “The Peace People Experience” which is available on this website and also available as a printed pamphlet from INNATE.
DAWN, ‘an Irish Journal of Nonviolence’ was a monthly magazine produced from 1974-1985 covering ‘nonviolent action, civil liberties, and movements for change’; it also produced the occasional publication DAWN TRAIN. DAWN was an associate publication of the War Resisters International among other international connections. INNATE is, in effect, a successor organisation to DAWN.
Nonviolence in Irish History - Dawn Analysis 3
Daniel O’Connell and Nonviolence 6
Philosophical Background 6
Campaign for Catholic Emancipation 1823-28 8
References and further reading 10
Quaker Non-Violence In Irish History 11
1798 Uprising 11
Famine Relief 11
Soup Kitchens 12
Other Relief 13
Twentieth Century 14
Civil War 14
Congenial Puritanism 15
Money Morality 16
The First Boycott 18
Michael Davitt and the Land League 19
Land Nationalisation 20
Boycott Instead of Outrage 20
The ‘Other’ Irish in America 22
1. Abolitionist Movement 22
2. The Radical Temperance Movement 23
Newspapers and the Land League 24
4. Internationalism and Politics 24
5. The New Imperialism 25
6. The Communards 25
7. Conclusion 28
Non-violent political action and Irish politics in the early Twentieth Century 29
Libertarian Socialism 29
1913 Lockout 30
Sheehy-Skeffington's Activism 30
After 1916 31
Failure Of Ideals 31
Peace Groups Since The 1930’s 33
The 'Thirties And World War Two 33
Voices in The Wilderness: After the War 35
The ’Sixties 36
Footnotes/ References 43
Nonviolence in Irish History - Dawn Analysis
“Nonviolence in Irish History” – a somewhat pretentious title in that it is not a comprehensive survey of the topic – but there we are. First of all, this is not intended as a ‘good news with no bad news allowed’ publication. That would be ridiculous, when it is so obvious what role violence has played – and continues to play – in our country. But we would like to point to some aspects of nonviolent activity which we consider worthy of attention
'Nonviolence' can of course mean different things. It can mean simply that which is not violent, without any commitment in the long term to continuing to use nonviolent means or to pacifism. By 'nonviolence' we would mean a commitment to the positive use of nonviolent means, that means and ends are one. Some people would distinguish between the former kind as 'non-violence’ with a hyphen, and the latter as 'nonviolence’
But as well as looking at past nonviolent actions, we believe that we should also look at past violent actions. It is often said within nonviolent circles that 'nonviolence' is seen to have failed after being employed in a particular struggle for a couple of months, while 'violence' may have been tried for centuries without anyone saying 'violence has failed’. This may be somewhat simplistic, but it is certainly true of Ireland.
The mythologies of the past still live with us, whether it be of the loyalist paramilitary organisation of 1912 or the republican rising of 1916. The loyalists of 1912 were prepared to fight the Crown if that proved necessary; though reactionary in the political and militaristic sense they were fighting to defend what they saw as their way of life, 'the British way of life’ or, more precisely, 'the Ulster Protestant way of life’. In the case of 1916, a small group were prepared to make a symbolic gesture, believing that the destiny of Ireland was in their hands, that history would vindicate them. Those who participated in 1916 must be seen in the context of their times, and of the Great War which was supposedly fought over defending small nations. The idea of blood sacrifice was common throughout Europe, even if the slaughter of the Great War was to make it somewhat more difficult to justify than before. The rebels of 1916 were making a gesture without having a worked out social and political plan.
The major political parties in the Republic still pay lip service to 1916, though much muted since the troubles began in the North. It is possible to speculate that the leaders of 1916 would have categorically repudiated the campaign of bombing and shooting by the Provos in the North today. Certainly the majority of those who were involved either in 1916 or the War of Independence do reject the Provos. In 1916 the symbolic sacrifice was mainly of themselves; Pearse and Connolly called off the rising when the civilian population was threatened. Even if the Provos began as a defensive reaction, in the North today it is principally the bystanders who are threatened.
But the problem is that if it is possible to claim not to need a democratic base, through such concepts as 'the vindication 'of history’ and 'the destiny of Ireland’ (or indeed ‘defence of the Ulster/British way of life’ among loyalist groups), a group like the Provos has a perfect reason for bombing and shooting. Casualties of such a war become not the casualties of the individual gunman or military group but rather casualties of history. It is this anti-democratic thinking which we reject most forcefully. And until such, an ideology which gives rise to such phrases like 'the vindication of history’ is erased from our culture there will continue to be groups who will utilise it in such' a way as will actually increase hatred, bitterness and military conflict.
While 1916 is an example of elitist action, we must be fair in pointing out that it is not just republican militarists who are elitist; it applies to loyalists, and it applies to nonviolent groups (the latter particularly in terms of size and class). Nevertheless, nonviolent groups have a commitment to persuading people rather than forcing a result through the barrel of a gun
In the 'national struggle’, violent and non-violent means have usually gone hand in hand. Sometimes people have been tactically non-violent, waiting for the opportunity to use violence. At other times there have been those who wanted to use constitutional means, or non-violent means (the two are not synonymous), and others were prepared to go further and use violence (e.g. the Young Irelanders, though O’Connell himself was somewhat ambivalent in relation to at least using the threat of violence). Often the non-violent aspect of the struggle has been ignored, though it was Ireland which gave the English language the term 'boycott’. (Admittedly, the Boycott case and the Land League are quite well docu-mented). Take for example the building up of an alternative administration during the War of Independence – the parallel institutions to the British, the first Dail, and the local councils switching their allegiance – these are classic anti-imperialist but non-violent tactics, in our case going hand in hand with a military campaign, followed by a civil war of a limited nature. It must be pointed out, however, that the Sinn Fein courts at that time took over the conservative property laws in opposition to workers’ attempts at control; here the alternative institutions were used in a counter-revolutionary fashion
We believe in nonviolence in Ireland. That is not to judge those around the world who have decided that violence is the only way; it does not necessarily imply moralising about violence. But in trying to build a new Ireland we believe that means and ends are one, that violence cannot but further alienate our 'enemies’ or those who conceive of themselves as our enemies. The violence of recent years has once more driven the people of the North further apart. This again is not to ignore institutional violence, the violence of discrimination, the dole queue or maleployment. But because the overt physical violence has caused so much anguish and driven people further apart they are not in a position to unite to fight the institutional violence (though that does not assume such would automatically happen if there was an absence of overt physical violence).
We must not assume that the North before 1968, or the Republic today, are non-violent. The social ills in the Republic are worse than in the North: unemployment is as bad, housing worse, welfare payments lower, and there is no greater feeling of involvement in society or control of their lives by the vast majority of the population. 'Peace’ is often a meaningless catch word, but for those who believe in nonviolence it must include the potential for personal fulfilment on the part of the vast majority of the population. Of course this is an idealistic definition of 'peace’, but the word needs to be reclaimed from those whose definition amounts to 'no change’.
The state of those groups who openly profess nonviolence in Ireland is disappointing. It is ironic that the movement which brought 'peace’ and 'nonviolence’ so much into the public eye should also have alienated so many people. (This was partly the fault of the Peace People themselves and partly public over-reaction both in favour and against them, magnified by the media). As Ray Davey of Corrymeela quotes, “It is better to light a candle than to curse. the darkness”; but we should in no way be content. On a wider sphere in the North, the radical alternatives which were being discussed in recent years – such as community policing, or even independence for the North – seem to have disappeared into the safety-net of direct rule from Westminster. And that safety net seems to cause complacency and unwillingness to risk. Perhaps the situation has never been so desperate or drastic that people were prepared to risk everything. And in the South the way of life is conservative, and there is a fairly narrow 'moral community’. Neither South nor North is there any viable and strong left wing party, a most remarkable absence.
The failure of many of the nonviolent groups in Ireland has been because their social composition has been narrow and they have perceived their task as a narrow one. Too many groups by doing what they expected themselves to do (protesting against physical violence or propounding pacifist views) have failed to get around to things that really matter. Other groups, still, have tried to do everything, and resultantly have done nothing – often where there were already other non-violent groups working on the same issues. Until the 'peace movement in Ireland is prepared to ally itself with the non-sectarian left and with social change movements in general (as in some continental countries) it can make very limited progress.
Of course there are certain things, in terms of the propagation of nonviolence as an idea and a viable option, and training for nonviolent action, that we must continue. But we must not be afraid to strike out, if we wish to avoid being considered irrelevant. In another way it is possible that we may have to be relegated to the periphery in order to strike out; at times the best contribution believers in nonviolence can make is through being involved in other, not specifically nonviolent, groups. Sometimes it is not banner waving but behind the scenes foot slogging that counts.
Allying with the non-sectarian left and with other social change movements will lose the peace groups some current supporters. There are those who conceive of ‘peace’ as non-political, and these people could only with great difficulty accept such a change. DAWN is committed to the belief that nonviolence involves radical or revolutionary social change. We believe that this pamphlet shows that Irish nonviolence has been radical. Certainly there is a case for moving slowly and trying to take people with us, but there is no case for not moving at all. There comes a time when we have to stand up and show ourselves. Perhaps it is only when we do stand up that we will be taken seriously, that we will be seen as a viable alternative to the possibilities of 'violent change' or 'no change'. Because at the moment we deceive ourselves if we think that we are taken seriously by very many more than ourselves.
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The contents of this pamphlet cover a fair spread from the 17th century onwards and speak for themselves: O'Connell, the Quakers, Davitt, Sheehy Skeffington. It is worth commenting on one article, however, Séamas Cain’s on the 'other' Irish in America; by including this we are by definition broadening 'Irish history' to include the experience of the Irish outside of Ireland. The final article on peace groups is more introspective than the others and its attention is focussed on overtly nonviolent groups.
A final word about this pamphlet. In no way is it a 'finished product’; perhaps we could call it 'Dawn Nonviolent Historical Studies No. 1'. What is given here is just a few views by a few people on a few aspects of nonviolence in recent Irish history. Much of the material has been covered before, but without the specifically nonviolent perspective. We would welcome comments, suggestions and replies or articles on other aspects of our history for future publications of the same kind, and we would also welcome financial contributions towards publishing the same.
The Dawn Group