The 1916 Easter Rising And The Emancipation Of Racially Subaltern Groups

Liam Ó Ruairc looks at the resistance to racism in the context of the Easter Rising. Liam Ó Ruairc is the former co-editor of The Blanket.

One topic which has been absent in the centenary commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising is the issue of race and the fight against racism.

Incidentally, late this March an Irish woman whose mother was Irish but her father Nigerian and who grew up singing rebel songs pointed that the racism she experienced when growing up was not part of the dreams of the 1916 revolutionaries. "I’m Irish but I’m not white. Why is that still a problem as we celebrate the Easter Rising?" she asked. (Emma Dabiri, I’m Irish but I’m not white. Why is that still a problem as we celebrate the Easter Rising? , The Guardian 29 March 2016). The fact that the 1916 rising influenced movements working for the emancipation of subordinate racial groups has not been stressed during the commemorations. 

How did the 1916 Rising relate to the global fight against racism and the rights of racially subaltern groups? Some of the insurgents globally stood out in this struggle, Roger Casement in particular. Kwame Nkrumah, the President of Ghana, the first independent country in Africa, expressed the debt owed to Casement by all "those who have fought for African freedom". W.E. Du Bois wrote in 1916 an obituary of Casement saying that the Irish should be forgiven for their murderous attacks on African Americans during the Draft Riots as a mark of respect for all that Casement had done fighting oppression in the Congo. In 1919 Marcus Garvey invoked Casement’s name as he prompted revolt on the New York waterfront. Most remarkably by 1916 Roger Casement stated that : "I had come to look upon myself as an African." (Brief to Counsel, 8 June 1916). The extraordinary fact that in 1916 Casement had looked upon himself as an African and not just some Irishman clearly shows that he identified with the subaltern globally, not just locally in Ireland and that his project transcended racial boundaries. 

Connolly opposed anti-Semitism and sought to organise Jewish workers. (see Manus O'Riordan, "Connolly Socialism, and the Jewish Worker," Saothar, 13, 1988, 120-130) In the Workers Republic of 24 September 1898, James Connolly made clear his sympathy with Zionism, with "the political ideal of that section of the Jewish race who are at present advocating the establishment of an Israelitish nation in Palestine." That said, on a number of occasions his newspaper The Irish Worker carried anti-Semitic material probably coming from supporters of Larkin, for example a particularly obnoxious cartoon, 'Gentlemen of the Jewry,' appeared on the front page of the paper on 26 August 1911, and an article in the paper on 8 August 1914 accused "the Jewish financial ring that circumnavigates the globe" of causing the Great War. But this was definitely the exception rather than the rule. Connolly's election manifestos were translated into Yiddish and other languages of workers who had been forced to move to Ireland.

What is often forgotten is that at the time of the Easter Rising, people of African and Asian origin were living in Ireland and Dublin. There were 3,606 persons of Indian birth living in Ireland at the time of the 1911 census, a third of those in Dublin. Interestingly Dublin's first Indian restaurant opened in 1908, predating the opening of London's first Indian restaurant by three years. (Conor Mulvagh (2016), Irish Days, Indian Memories: V.V. Giri and Indian Law Students at University College Dublin, 1913-16, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, pp.26-27)

There have been claims that Indians had undergone training along with the Irish Volunteers in Dublin, but more interestingly, V.V. Giri at the time an Indian student in Ireland who would later become the fourth President of India (1969-74) later wrote that:

I remember vividly meeting Connolly on several occasions as I was regularly invited to their Citizen Army meetings...More than any of the leaders of the uprising it was Connolly who inspired me. I resolved that as soon as I returned to India I would give a graphic account of these struggles to inspire our own people...With the fervour inspired by the revolutionaries still fresh in my mind, I determined to return to India and take an active part in the political movement to secure the independence of my country. (Ibid, pp.79-80, 85)

The story of how the 1916 Easter Rising affected people of Indian or African origin living in Ireland at the time still remains largely to be told.

The 1916 Easter Rising also influenced movements working for the emancipation of subordinate racial groups elsewhere in the world. If Frederick Douglass and W.E. Du Bois were already very much interested in the Irish struggle, the 1916 rising provided the major ideological mainspring for Marcus Garvey’s radical political transformation. The Easter Rising had more impact on the Universal Negro Improvement Association than the struggles against imperialism in India, China and Egypt. (see : "Negro Sinn Féiners and Black Fenians : 'Heroic Ireland' and the Black Nationalist Imagination", in : Bruce Nelson (2012), Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race, NJ : Princeton University Press, 181-211).

In 1919, the Military Intelligence Division of the U.S. Justice Department reported that:

all the Colored speakers in Harlem are using the Irish question in their discussions”; another government agency warned that “all these negro associations are joining hands with the Irish Sinn Feiners” and with “Hindu, Egyptians, Japanese and Mexicans. (ibid, 184)
In 1920, black communist Claude McKay wrote a significant article entitled 'How Black sees Green and Red'. In it he stated: “Some English Communists have remarked to me that they have no real sympathy for the Irish and Indian movement because it is nationalistic”. Especially in relation to Ireland McKay complained, “English revolutionists, anarchists, socialists and communists” seemed to assume that “they must back the red flag against the green”. McKay was determined to uphold “the red flag”, but not “against the green”. “I believe that for a subject people at least, Nationalism is the open door to Communism” we concluded in January 1920. “I suffer with the Irish. I think I understand the Irish. My belonging to a subject race entitles me to some understanding of them.” (ibid, 181, 204)

There is an interesting parallel here with Roger Casement. To Alice Stopford Green he wrote that King Leopold's exploitation of the Congo was "a tyranny beyond conception save only, perhaps, to an Irish mind alive to the horrors once daily enacted in this land." To William Cadbury he said: "It was only because I was an Irishman that I could understand fully, I think, the whole scheme of wrongdoing at work in the Congo." 

A recent academic article focused on the impact of the Bolshevik revolution and Irish national liberation struggles on the black radical tradition in the US. Between 1919 and 1922, the African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption published a monthly journal, The Crusader, which articulated its powerfully vision of black liberation through its trumpeting of the Russian revolution and the Irish anti-colonial struggle. Support for the Irish cause and the symbolism of the Easter Rising were trumpeted as part of an international revolutionary anti-colonial call. This is what The Crusader had to say in 1919 about the 1916 Rising:

The Irish fight for liberty is the greatest Epic of Modern History. It is a struggle that should have the sympathy and active support of every lover of liberty – of every member of an oppressed group. The Negro in particular should be interested in the Irish struggle, for while it is patent that Ireland can never escape from the menace of ‘the overshadowing empire’ so long as England is able to maintain her grip on the riches and manpower of India and Africa it is also clear that those suffering together under the heel of British imperialism must learn to CO-ORDINATE THEIR EFFORTS before they can HOPE TO BE FREE." (Cathy Bergin (2016), ‘Unrest among the Negroes’: the African Blood Brotherhood and the politics of resistance, Race & Class, 57:3, 51-53).

Those are inspiring words! The connection between Irish republicanism and the struggle of racially subaltern groups goes back as far as the United Irishmen. Luke Gibbons has described how the United Irishmen's belief in universal emancipation expressed itself in support for subaltern racial groups. He mentions the interesting fact that in 1789, the Iroquois Amerindian nation nominated as honorary chief Lord Edward Fitzgerald, future leader of the 1798 rebellion. The contribution of the 1916 Easter Rising to the struggles for the emancipation of racially subaltern groups continued down the years. Simon Prince has shown how activists in the six counties in the 1960s used Black Power to build transnational networks of revolt and to inspire local political struggles, as much as the British authorities used the information that they collected from around the world on Black Power as a lens through which to view subversives and as a resource for making strategy. The start of the Troubles Prince concluded was interpreted by actors on both sides of the barricades as a forerunner of the class and race conflicts to come in the West, not as the latest small, local war in Britain's retreat from empire. (Simon Prince (2015) ‘Do What the Afro-Americans Are Doing: Black Power and the Start of the Northern Ireland Troubles,' Journal of Contemporary History, 50:3, 516-535).


  1. My Godson, a cheeky wee loveable shite, is half African, the other half, like his Uncle, being Irish, he heads off to football in london in his GAA jersey, madly proud of the Ulster heritage.
    We could do well too to remember that, during an gorta mor, the people of India, subject to mass starvation themselves, due to brit occupation policy, sent us two boat loads of rice, in the 1840's we would have had some bother knowing what to do with it but, it was the thought and kindness which mattered.
    Of course their kind actions did us no good as the brit chief administrator, Trevylan, sold the product on, like our own grain/spud's for his own benefit, ye just can't like the brit's

  2. James Connolly would have supported lord Balfour Desmond Ryan Connolly would have supported the treaty Liam mellows deserved to be executed because the free state secret service had evidence that was a communist and he uses a book about Connolly to inform us of this a communist frank robins states in his book he was more a Collins man than a Liam mellows man

  3. Love him and cherish the lad 'menace'.
    And please don't burden him with painful memories of the distant past.
    Encourage him to stand proud, to embrace whatever aspects of his cultural heritage he chooses and to also respect difference.

    After almost twenty years of a sojourn outside of Her Majesty's jurisdiction I had the privilege to visit London several times in the last few years. It truly is a cultural melting pot and a testimony as to how so many varied peoples with lots of conflicting historical narratives can live together in a degree of harmony.
    Whilst travelling on the tube and despite my own trepidations I was heartened to see such diversity as women in hijab and burqa travel unperturbed as were several young Jews wearing their Yarmulke.

    Forgiving is for getting!

  4. Menace,

    While I appreciate the sensitivity around the subject, casting stigma on a people for the actions of their ancestors nearly 200 years ago is a tad unfair in my opinion.

  5. HenryJoY, I do, along with them all, all cheeky wee shites, the worst being mine own, I thank God daily they do not have the horrors of brit special branch, here or there, detaining, threatening, battering them as they travel around seeking out the auld youthful pleasures denied to so many of us here, or travelling abroad in our youth.
    Steve, the problem really is, nothing has yet changed for the Irish in the eyes of the brits, we still have people arrested or, as above, detained, on spurious grounds, released on bail then re-arrested a few hours later with naff excuses from authorities for doing so, the simple fact is, were it still the 1980's, certain solicitors here would have been gunned down in front of their children for daring to do their job.
    Furthermore, the same race, the english, have been so good at forgiveness, like with forgetting about the bombing of coventry and london, or the boston tea party.

  6. Menace,

    Are you referring to the North or in England?

  7. Steve,, Irish people are being arrested here, in Ireland, but by the brits, and, after the news report earlier, expect the same in britain with any old Paddy liable to stop and search, the more things change the more they've stayed the same.

  8. Menace

    we all come into this world with a survival template that almost forces us to adopt the culture we're born into. The long development period of humans necessitates this. We come preprogrammed to fit into the society we're born into. If we were born into a different society or culture we'd be different people. The survival software runs in the background and we unconsciously are socialised into the beliefs, attitudes and prejudices of those around us.

    If we're lucky enough to learn and find the courage to think for ourselves we mature; we emotionally grow up and start to live consciously. We examine those values and beliefs to which we previously and unconsciously were bound. This is the journey that wise men and women make.

    Unfortunately there exists also a universal pathology which holds humans in a longing to surrender themselves to another individual, deity or group. They become bound to ideas that damage. They cling to groups and ideas that melt individual boundaries. Anything to avoid becoming an individual thinker and actor ... anything to avoid growing up and standing on one's feet!

  9. Henry Joy,

    which basically means had we been born in the Shankill, we would have joined the UVF and would be discussing the 1912 Societies proposal of Two Nations Two Votes. But we should not let that put us off as god is on our side because he hates the same things we do.

    The temptation to despair in the face of it all can be a stone around out necks.

  10. AM

    some of us have come to realise we have to do our own growing ... no matter how tall our grandfathers!