Reading contemporary Irish and British newspapers from the aftermath of the Easter Rising in Dublin, I’ve been struck by how frequently comparisons were drawn between the six-day insurrection in Ireland and the events of the Paris Commune in 1871.
From 18 March until 27 May 1871, a radical and revolutionary administration took control of the city of Paris, seizing upon the disillusionment of working people with the French political system following the collapse of the Second French Empire, and rising militancy among workers in the French capital. To quote from Karl Marx’s study The Civil War in France:
“The proletarians of Paris,” said the Central Committee in its manifesto of March 18, “amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs…. They have understood that it is their imperious duty, and their absolute right, to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power.”
The workers took to the barricades, and as Robert Toms has noted, “about 900 barricades were built all over the city, including those prepared in advance, such as the useless defence lines in Western Paris and the huge, much-photographed, redoubts facing the Place de la Concorde, constructed laboriously and impressively by the Commune’s Barricades Commission.” The red flag was adopted by the ‘Communards’ over the French tricolour, and they called for the seperation of church and state, the abolition of night work in bakeries and other social, political and economic reforms.
Coverage of the Commune in Dublin newspapers in 1871 had been anything but kind. The Freeman’s Journal reported that “the women of Paris have been prominent in the streets, with a red flag, demanding arms…and conducting themselves like ugly fiendish sisters of the witches in Macbeth.” The Nation, a nationalist newspaper that had been established by the Young Irelanders, went as far as to state that the aims of the Commune “are such as are utterly repugnant to the genius of the Irish race. Religion and Patriotism, the two most holy and glorious principles known to human nature, have ever been the guiding lights of the Irish people, the motive power of all their actions.”
The Commune was ultimately violently suppressed, during what became known as the ‘Bloody Week’. While historians of the Commune have disagreed on the extent of the loss of life, some have suggested as many as twenty thousand died in the suppression of the Commune. Vladimir Lenin would later write “20,000 killed in the streets…Lessons: bourgeoisie will stop at nothing.” The suppression of the revolutionary Paris experiment was, perhaps unsurprisingly, welcomed by the sections of the Irish press who had condemned the Paris Commune as total madness.
When a meeting of what was reported to be a “section of the Dublin branch” of the Socialist International took place in a small room above a shop on the northside of Dublin later in April 1872, a contemporary newspaper report noted that the speaker was interrupted and informed that “the Internationalists had shot the archbishop and priests of Paris, and great uproar ensued.” To compound the misery of those present, it was reported that the landlord of the house “burst into the room in an excited state, and called those present a set of ruffians and blackguards. He said he had been led to let the room on the pretense that the meeting was to be for a discussion of the labour and wages question, and that he would sooner burn the house over his head than hire it for the nefarious purposes of Internationalism.”
The Paris Commune was actively commemorated by James Connolly’s fledgling Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) in Dublin in the 1890s. Connolly had personally come into contact with Leo Meillet, a veteran of the Commune, in his Edinburgh days. Meillet, as Donal Nevin has noted, was “a French refugee who had been mayor of a commune in Paris”, and he would tell an Edinburgh commemoration that “without the shedding of blood there is no social salvation.” Connolly would utilise similar rhetoric in the pages of his newspapers, telling readers of the Workers’ Republic in February 1916 that “without the shedding of blood there is no redemption”, though he pointed towards a biblical source for inspiration. Connolly occasionally invoked the memory of the Commune in his newspaper, for example in May 1899, writing that “the Commune, if it had been successful, would have inaugurated the reign of real freedom the world over – it would have meant the emancipation of the working class; therefore as it failed it serves as a mark for all the literary prostitutes who sell themselves into the service of capitalist journalism. Long live the Commune!”
Connolly was somewhat obsessed with the tactics of urban warfare and insurrection, writing a regular column on the theme in his newspaper, and lecturing members of both the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers on the subject. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of the Commune better than most. James Barry, a young Volunteer in Cork, remembered that Connolly had spoken to him and others in the southern city and that “the subject of his lecture was street fighting. He went into considerable detail in explaining the tactics to be employed in the seizure, occupation and defence of barricades in city streets.”
Yet beyond Connolly, other planners of the insurrection had also been studying urban warfare, such as Joseph Mary Plunkett and Patrick Pearse. Patrick Caldwell, a member of the Kimmage Garrison who fought in 1916 in the Sackville Street area, remembered that “when I heard the order about the barricades it recalled to my mind a lecture that had been given in Kimmage previously by P.H. Pearse on street fighting and barricades.”
In the manifesto to the citizens of Dublin issued on the Tuesday of Easter Week, the Provisional Government encouraged able-bodied citizens to assist them by building barricades. In spite of this, and all the studying of urban warfare, the best advice came from Major John MacBride in Jacob’s at the end of the rebellion. He informed the young men around him that if they should get a chance to fight again, they should not get trapped inside four walls. While barricades made sense, MacBride was right in the criticism of other aspects of the rebel tactics.
After the Rising: Media comparisons with Paris.
While Dublin was reproducing its squalid version of the Paris Commune it was natural that anxiety should be felt as to the possibility of an outbreak in those western and southern counties which have more than once led the way with mischief, agrarian or political, was afoot.
The above report, which gave this piece its title, comes from the pages of the Irish Examiner on 4 May 1916. By then, the executions of the rebel leaders were still underway, but a sort of normality had returned to Dublin. The paper, based in Cork, was grateful that the “squalid” scenes in Dublin hadn’t spread significantly to other parts of the country, though there was some fighting in Galway.
In the regional press of the west of Ireland, there was similar sentiment and comparison. The Roscommon Herald, which Joseph Lee has noted “seized every opportunity to denounce Larkin”, went as far as to state that the Proclamation aimed to establish a “socialistic republic”, before comparing the events in Dublin to those in Paris. The paper evoked the Commune again in mid-May, following the execution of Connolly, and denounced “the red week” in Dublin, and the Proclamation for being “drafted on Suffragette lines”, by giving “votes equally to men and women, and it also has a lot of other crank notions.”
It’s not surprising that the most strident condemnation of the rebels and their ambitions came from the press owned by William Martin Murphy, the tycoon businessman who was a constitutional nationalist and former MP, and who had clashed with Larkin and Connolly so ferociously three years earlier during the 1913 Lockout. His Irish Catholic denounced the insurrection by stating that “Pearse was a man of ill-balanced mind, if not actually insane, and the idea of selection him as chief magistrate of an Irish Republic is quite enough to create serious doubts as to the sanity of those who approved of it…To find anything like a parallel for what occurred it is necessary to have recourse to the bloodstained annals of the Paris Commune.”
The conservative Spectator in Britain praised what they saw as the moderate approach of the British military in surprising the rebellion, writing in late April that:
The rebels are hiding behind the women and children. The French were faced with a somewhat similar situation during the Commune, and as a result of their efforts to put down the insurrection quickly half the great buildings in Paris were reduced to ashes. It is of course conceivable that this, after all, may have to be the fate of Dublin, but it is obvious that we must do everything we can to avoid it. That being the situation, it is clearly both foolish and unpatriotic to nag at the Government for not doing more, or to distract them by recriminations over past errors.
Some in the British press placed the blame for the destruction of Dublin firmly on the shoulders of the rebels, and stated that this was a repetition of what had occurred in Paris. The Daily Sketch wrote that just as Paris “suffered more destruction at the hands of its own insurgents than from the enemy s bombardment so does Dublin today, with its blazing buildings, shattered street-barricades, and piles of wreckage, present as tragic a spectacle as if the city had indeed been shelled by an invading foe.”
To a younger generation today, the events of the Paris Commune are almost unknown, indeed even in France it is not part of the historical curriculum. That those events were the first thing brought to mind by many in the contemporary press of Ireland and Britain in 1916 is interesting in itself.