Daithi Mac an Mhaistir’s book on the ICA is essential reading for anyone interested in Ireland’s freedom struggle, says MICK CARTY
The Irish Citizen Army: The World’s First Working-Class Army by Daithi Mac an Mhaistir (Connolly Books, €8)
APPEARING a year after the 1916 Easter Rising centenary celebrations, one would have been forgiven for thinking that this book had been delayed or that it had arrived late.
But, a couple of pages in, the importance and timeliness of the publication becomes evident. Short-term benefits have been sacrificed to do justice both to historiography and the working-class movement.
Author Daithi Mac an Mhaistir expertly deals with the existing published works on the revolutionary period, including the plethora produced to coincide with the renewed interest last year, and he identifies a key weakness in them which he addresses surgically.
That weakness is the repeated failure of historians to adequately deal with the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) and its class composition and orientation. This omission has led to distorted presentations of the class make-up of the revolutionary forces of 1916 as a whole, which in some cases relegate the influential and key role of the Dublin proletariat and the role of women.
Of course, such omissions have not always been accidental. Mac an Mhaistir notes that the Irish state broadcaster RTE’s stipulation for the 50th anniversary of 1916 was that it “should be portrayed as nationalist and not socialist” and “idealistic and emotional rather than interpretative and analytical.”
Thus the purpose of the work is to prove beyond any doubt that the ICA was an organisation both for and of the working class, characteristics that earned it the accolade of being “the world’s first working-class army.”
The opening chapter deals with the ICA as an organisation for the working class, contrasting the consistent “Marxist-influenced socialist republicanism” of the ICA with the radical nationalism and republicanism of other organisations, a necessary exercise given the failure of historians to date to accurately differentiate between them.
Mac an Mhaistir goes on to explore the social class composition of the ICA, along with the relationship between the occupational class of its membership and their status within the organisation and how it compared with it contemporary counterparts.
There’s a specific analysis of the role of women members, a groundbreaking phenomenon because the ICA was the only organisation to admit women to full membership, and this first thorough analysis of its make-up adds value to another sphere of historical study.
Mac an Mhaistir demonstrates how the ICA was not only primarily comprised of workers but officered and led by them too — a true army of the working class.
The text is accompanied by the most comprehensive membership list of the ICA now available and this appendix alone is a very significant contribution to the study of the period.
In a final chapter, an outline of why an organisation for and of the working class developed, the author explores the lives and experiences of some members of the ICA, in order to “return something of ‘agency’ to the largely forgotten rank and file of the Citizen Army” and he demonstrates how their social being determined their class consciousness.
The membership of the Citizen Army, generally speaking, was a politicised body of individuals who “made rational, class-based choices regarding the lives that they and their families experienced as members of the working class,” he writes.
He goes on to provide brief biographies containing examples of trade union involvement — in particular the 1913 lockout — and activity during Easter week 1916, the war of independence and the civil war.
The evidence the author provides backs up his assertion that the ICA occupies a unique and highly significant place in military and political history as “the world’s first working class army.”
His book is an original, fascinating and informative read and Mac an Mhaistir has done a great service to those interested in Irish history by helping restore the working-class movement to its rightful place at the forefront of Ireland’s struggle for freedom.
• The Irish Citizen Army: The World’s First Working-Class Army is availabe for €8 + p&p from Connolly Books, connollybooks.org. Mick Carty is general secretary of the Connolly Association, connollyassociation.org.uk